Condé Nast Traveler
Laid-back, dressed-down newcomer Villa Marie Saint-Barth has set tongues wagging in St Barth's. We take an exclusive first look inside the hottest new hotel on the chicest island in the Caribbean.
Drinking rum before breakfast, the saying goes, doesn't make you an alcoholic. It makes you a pirate. Eating pain perdu that's been steeped in rum for breakfast, as I did the other day -actually, as I did every morning for several days while staying at Villa Marie in St Barth's - makes you an extremely spoilt and cheerful pirate.
Spoilt and cheerful is the only kind of pirate that St Barth's has ever had anything much to do with. and none more so than Rémy de Haenen, the moustachioed roué who put the island on the map.
De Haenen came to the Caribbean in 1938 after quitting the French merchant navy. Perceiving that a world war was imminent, he took stock of his options and decided to become the biggest smuggler in the region. Ships were too slow and conspicuous for his purposes, so he leant to fly - in a single hour in Miami, he boasted. He was the first person to land a plane on St Barth's, having cleared a makeshift airstrip for that purpose. His near complete lack of flying experience may have been an advantage. If he'd known what he was doing, he might not have done it at all. The airstrip on which he landed is still, astonishingly, in use, one of the shortest and most awkwardly positioned commercial runways in the world, with a sheer, jagged hill-face at one end and the ocean at the other. Arriving by plane at St Barth's today is as much a source of childlike delight and abject terror as it has ever been.
After the war, and in between sabbaticals behind bars (but before becoming mayor of the island), de Haenen built a house just around a picturesque bend in the coast from his airstrip. He called it Eden Rock. Various friends and freinds of friends came to stay with him there - Rockefellers, Rothschilds, Garbo, Howard Hughes, the Begum Aga Khan. By the beginning of the 1960s St Barth's was well on its way to becoming quite the chicest island in the Caribbean.
Socially speaking, it has continued, if not exactly to evolve, at least to broader its appeal to the international rich and famous. As one long-time resident, quoted in Vanity Fair, put it :"It's like the whole island is Studio 54 at its peak". Like Studio 54 at its peak, St Barth's is a broad church. There's room, and rooms, here for all types - except, perhaps, those on a budget. Villa Marie occupies a sweet spot at the small and intimate end of the spectrum: pretty ans cosseting, not flashy of forbidding. Although, the serried sun loungers of the Isle de France on Flamands beach are clearly visible from the hilltop around which Villa Marie curls near the north-western tip of the island, all that seems light years away in terms of style and scale.
Here the 21 suites and villas are woody, whitewashed and shuttered, with an abundance of ceiling fans, seashells and Emmanuelle-style rattan armchairs. Beds are vast and canopied with elaborate headboards. Soft furnishings are printed with pineapples (which I found unfailingly happy-making), parrots (likewise, though something in their expression made me think they were laughing at me behind my back) and palmtrees (dark, moody and weirdly haunting). Other features suggest influences from more distant shores: sideboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl; dreamcatcher-y wall hangings; Slim Aarons prints. This spirit of playful eclecticism comes directly from Villa Marie's co-owners, Jocelyne Sibuet. Together with her ex-husband Jean-Louis, and latterly with their children, she has built up the Sibuet brand into something of a mini-empire. It started in 1989 with the rustic-deluxe Les Fermes de Marie, in Megève. Now there are a dozen or so Sibuet properties scattered across France - and, of course, in the immaculate little French overseas collectivity of Saint-Barthélemy.
Villa Marie has an identically named sister hotel in St Tropez. "Why so many Maries?" I asked Jocelyne over a glasso of rosé by the pool in St Barth's? "Alors, it was my grandmother's name, and it just seems right" she said with a Gallic shrug. The rosé, I noticed, came from a Sibuet-owned vineyard, Le Domaine de Marie.
The ace up the hotel's sleeve is its restaurant. I loved its airy open-plan design, which makes it seem bigger that it really is, and the fantastic attitude of the staff, who are mostly French and all clearly delighted to be on the island. And the superlative pain perdu. But whatever you do, don't miss the banane flambée. It, too, is cooked in generous quantities of rum. Here's to you, Rémy de Haenen, you crazy banane, and your crazy-beautiful island. Santé. Arrrr!