Stepping off Tradewind Aviation’s Pilatus PC-12, sunnies on and surveying the swaying palm trees at tiny Gustaf III Airport, I already felt like a star descending their private jet.
I’d arrived at St Barths, the Caribbean island synonymous with billionaires and celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Beyoncé, Jeff Bezos, the Kardashians, Mariah Carey, Daniel Craig and Pippa Middleton.
In fact, it turned out my French-speaking taxi driver had recently shown Dua Lipa and her family round the island and to their rented villa in his air conditioned car. He casually added he’d also seen Drake, Lenny Kravitz and Bono at various times in St Barths.
The five-star hotel I was staying at, Le Sereno, with its understated elegance, warm but discreet staff, knockout pool and superior views of the coastline, was certainly A-lister ready as well.
However, I soon learned that although hoards of celebrities, the 1% and their megayachts annually flock to St Barths for high-octane New Year’s celebrations, the rest of the time the island, for both the famous and fameless, is a fantastic place to unwind, take a nature walk and enjoy some beautiful beaches.
In short, although you might spot Bella Hadid on the next sun lounger, you’ll likely be more captivated by green turtles and rays in the crystalline sea.
Perhaps the secret of St Barths’ enduring popularity with A-listers is its lack of interest in them. St Barths is not at all thirsty. It is well and truly hydrated. It’s the French shrug come to life in Caribbean island form. It is also a place that almost feels like it shouldn’t exist – a rocky little island with no agriculture and almost everything imported.
Originally called Ouanalao by its Caribbean residents, it was renamed St Barths by Christopher Columbus in honour of his brother, Bartolomeo, and claimed for Spain. French settlers arrived in 1648 and it was traded to Sweden before being ceded back to France in 1874. Although little could grow due to the dry climate and poor soil, the island was valued for its strategic location in the Caribbean.
St Barths had a major glow up in the 1950s when half-French, half-Dutch smuggler and adventurer Rémy de Haenen built a home called Eden Rock. It soon served as a guesthouse for the rich and famous including the Rockefellers, Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes. David Rockefeller built a villa on the island in 1957, part of a tradition of luxury holiday home construction that has continued to today, although now the villas are owned by celebrities and billionaires such as Roman Abramovich, who paid about £72 million for a 70-acre estate above Gouverneur Beach.
Visit today and you’ll find a laidback, French and English-speaking Caribbean island like no other. The meals I tried were created with the same reverence for fresh ingredients and the joy of communal dining you’d find in the Loire.
Highlights were beautifully balanced Thai curries at Black Ginger, piña coladas made from just cut coconuts at Gyp Sea Beach Club, mahi mahi fish and chips at Fish Corner, incredible dips at fashionable Sella and elegant pasta dishes at Le Sereno Al Mare.
And, oh, the bread. You could tell this was a Gallic island from the bread alone. It felt like a petit France but with white sand beaches, perfect seas, stunning marine life and private jets forever zooming in overhead.
When your belly’s full, your time is best spent immersed in nature, spotting scraggly mountain goats as you hike and climb to hidden pools such as the Piscines Naturelles Grand Fond. I also enjoyed spotting tortoises meandering round the hotel grounds.
And then there’s the sea life. I swam out from Le Sereno’s beach and explored their coral growth programme. On the way I encountered two enormous turtles, one white, one green. Swimming beside them felt like a real privilege. I later paddleboarded back to the shore. My guide for this outing, an ageless surfer called David Blanchard, was passionate about supporting marine life and educating guests of all ages (for one thing, until our chat I had no idea that sun block is often bad for coral reefs and marine life). More creatures of the deep were spotted during a morning boat trip with Sunkissed Charters which included (optional) cliff-climbing and jumping, swimming and paddle boarding. I stalked stingray and shoals of fish to my heart’s content.
Later it was back to the A-list life with a superior massage at Le Sereno. Quite unlike your average treatment, one end of the room was open, looking out to a private enclave over the sea, so the sound of the waves and the gulls rolled in as the knots were kneaded out.
St Barths may not have been the hedonistic ‘sleb-packed place I’d expected but it was infinitely better – calming, chic and in rude health.
St Barths on a shoestring:
Although it’s more of a challenge to have a budget holiday here than other Caribbean islands there are ways to keep costs down.
First, visit off-season, when a BA return flight to Antigua costs from £459. Between March and June, when temperatures are about 30 degrees, is a good time to go. Hurricane season is from August to October.
If you can’t afford to stay at a hotel, try an Airbnb but treat yourself to lunch or dinner at a five star hotel such as Le Sereno Al Mare (I recommend the aubergine parmigiana and the salad nicoise). See and be seen with the glam squad during cocktail hour at Sella or at a beach club such as Gyp Sea. Many of the most famous hotels also offer day passes, especially off-season, so you can swim in their pools, easily access top beaches and dine in their restaurants.
If you opt self-catering accommodation you can stock up on groceries at the Marché U opposite the airport. When settled, explore the bakeries, gourmet food shops and wine merchants in Gustavia. There is also a market on the first Sunday of every month there.
Pack your beach bag and head to Colombier, Saline, Governeur or Flamon – all beaches on the island are public.
Boat trips aren’t cheap but are a great way to explore the island if your budget allows. I had a fantastic time on a 3 1/2 hour morning trip with Sunkissed Charters. This costs £1,367 for up to 10 people (£137 each). Or try Jicky Marine for a range of options.
Finally, remember to bring any Euros you may have lying about from previous Europe trips – this is the currency of St Barths.
B&B doubles at Le Sereno cost from £744 per night. This rate includes airport transfers and service charges. Le Sereno Villa costs from £4,412 per night. The villa hosts up to six adults and two children. The rate includes breakfast, airport transfers, service charges, butler service and the use of two cars. This works out as £735 per adult per night.
Flights from Antigua to St Barths with Tradewind Aviation cost from £463 return.