The aesthetician rubbed a silky cleansing milk over my face in circular motions as I lay on a pop-up table in my St. Bart's villa. A private pool, sparkling turquoise sea, and salty air lay right outside my French doors. The sun was low in the sky.
Life seemed easy on the French Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy and I couldn't believe I was here. Because of its reputation as a playground for celebrities and extremely wealthy businesspeople, I didn't think I'd fit in. But I had always coveted the French culture and lifestyle: a 35-hour workweek, four to six weeks of annual paid vacation, flavorful food and wine, and a language so pretty I made Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" my wedding song. Combine all of that with a tropical island and you have … heaven.
It's hard to see now, but life on the island wasn't always a walk in the park. Christopher Columbus discovered it in 1493 and named it after his brother, Bartolomeo. It was first settled in 1648 by French colonists from neighboring St. Kitts. Several years later, a raid by angry Carib Indians destroyed the settlement, but the island was settled again by the French. But with no fresh water source and consequently, little agrarian potential or rich natural resources (a reality today — it imports everything from France), the island was sold in 1665 to the Order of Malta. By 1764, the island was back under French rule, only to be sold to Sweden 20 years later in exchange for trading rights in Gothenburg (hence the capital's name, Gustavia, after Swedish King Gustav III). A terrible fire destroyed Gustavia. Sweden no longer wanted it. France took St. Bart's back for good in 1878.
The island opened to the outside world in 1945, when Remy de Haenen landed the first airplane there. By then, residents of St. Bart's had been given the same privileges and responsibilities as French citizens, making a slave descendant just as French as Cyrano de Bergerac. Money and social status were no longer criteria for basic civil rights on the island. People began coming to St. Bart's for paradisal refuge and tax-free opportunity.
It's hard to believe that an eight-square-mile island with 9,000 year-round residents became the "it" spot for the world's rich and famous. Blame it on the island's humble history, but in my brief encounters, St. Bart's hot spots were surprisingly unpretentious, if not completely laid-back. It was off-season, the April-through-November period when lodging and flight prices are slashed in half, along with the number of tourists. But there was no need to dress fancy for dinner, show off a $900 bikini at Gouverneurs Beach, or brag about pop stars you knew at Gustavia's international music festival. Yet hospitality staff still treated us with friendly, attentive service.
At Nikki Beach Restaurant, a stylish beach party spot, a hostess with wildly long blond hair and Botoxed lips in a swimsuit cover-up leads me to a beachside table. I meet Stephane Lanson and Bernard Blancaneaux, a lively couple whose upscale Gustavia boutique, Stephane & Bernard, helps the island's jet set shop for high-end apparel (think Versace or Valentino) for special events. I feel like I'm at an electronica-thumping day party without the heels. Stephane, a former Parisian modeling agent, sincerely tells me I have beautiful eyes. I blush a little.
I had safely come to the conclusion after a couple of days on the island that everything the French touch turns to gold, including my face. An hour-long round of in-villa cleansing, toning, and moisturizing treatments had my skin glowing like an anointed saint's.
This is what St. Bart's is all about — find private digs, pick a beach, and relax. In fact, the island, which has no chain hotels or eateries, focuses on concierge services for the very reason that you shouldn't have to lift a finger if you don't want to.
By the time I opened my eyes at the end of my facial, the sun had gone down and I hadn't even noticed. The aesthetician tells me that a job in the beauty business is hard to come by in her native France. She works for the island's only manufacturer, Ligne St. Barth, which employs 30 full-time workers and produces 300,000 units of natural, Caribbean-derived skin-care products found mostly in upscale German, Swiss, and Austrian spas. Buy them in St. Bart's and get the products at about 20 percent off.
The island is peppered with 500 villas — 70 percent of them owned by foreigners and priced from the affordable to the unattainable. Take the Rockstar Villa at the Eden Rock Hotel, a six-bedroom, white and silver mansion with private pool and recording studio, which will set you back up to 25 grand a night. In low season, you can find affordable lodging for 100 to 200 euro per night if you don't mind forgoing a private pool. But who cares when some of the world's best beaches are so near?
Of course, you can't deny the exorbitant wealth that permeates the tiny island. Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich threw a $7 million New Year's party at his $90 million estate near Gouverneurs Beach this year, attracting the likes of Demi Moore, the Black Eyed Peas, and Prince. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have been known to vacation here. It's possible to hike from a hilltop overlooking St. Bart's Natural Reserve to the beach near tycoon David Rockefeller's former home, which caught Americans' attention in the late 1950s. You wonder who owns the multimillion-dollar estates that sit without much activity atop grassy, rocky hills overlooking the vast sea.
Getting to St. Bart's from the United States is an exclusive process in itself — easy and difficult at the same time. U.S. visitors come via St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, or Guadeloupe, which could be their second stop. The last leg to the island is spent on a 20-person prop plane for 15 minutes, during which you can watch the pilots negotiate low air space just inches away (no need to turn off your cellphone) and experience a harrowing (but safe) landing on St. Bart's quarter-mile runway. Once you get off the plane, quickly retrieve your bag on the runway, and speed through a one-man customs line, you'll be at your blissful destination in a half hour.
I notice one day that Claude, a native French speaker, has a "Life Is Beautiful" sticker on his dashboard. I ask him why it's in English.
"It just looks prettier," he says.
"Prettier than French? Yeah, right!" I exclaim, dumbstruck that a man who lived on an exclusive island and spoke a lovely language believed that.
I guess we all glamorize the exotic.