The Best of St. Barths and St. Tropez: Two Amazing French Destinations

Beach fun is never so luxurious as it is in these French vacation spots. One is winter chic, the other is summer fabulous, but both are to-die-for destinations. This article gives a complete travel guide to both destinations. It also features exclusive quotes from David Matthews, owner of the legendary Eden Rock St. Barths Hotel; Lisa Vanderpump, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star and Dr. Deborah Brosnan, renowned Professor of Biology and Environment and Policy Scientist.

There are many excellent things about France, not the least of which are the wine, the exquisite palate, and two first-class destinations: St. Barthélemy (St. Barths) and St. Tropez. These quintessential vacation spots are known as the places to be and to be seen, offering superb views, picturesque beaches, fine dining and nightlife. One is the perfect summer vacation; the other best in winter – but both are certain to charm and delight.

WINTER IN ST. BARTHS

Wintering in St. Barths, French West Indies is the perfect antidote to life everywhere else. Between December and April (but especially around Christmas and New Year’s) the island welcomes media moguls and the über-rich, who flock to St. Barths for its beautiful beaches and relaxed atmosphere. For those whose presence attracts attention and paparazzi, St. Barths is the perfect getaway. For the rest of us, St. Barths is just as attractive a destination. Superlative views, dining, shopping and indoor-outdoor living combine to create a luxury vacation in a tropical setting. Paradoxically, the island is both a haven where you can enjoy complete solitude, and a scene with vibrant nightlife and people watching.

WHERE TO STAY

Luxury meets elegance at St. Barths’ five-star hotels. Eden Rock Hotel, located on beautiful St. Jean Beach, was initially purchased by its present owners to be their personal home; however, the couple, David and Jane Matthews, instead created a blissful hotel. Seventeen years later, Eden Rock is part of the Relais & Châteaux group, which has been scouting excellence in restaurants and hotels for over 50 years.

Le Sereno is another excellent option designed by top interior designer Christian Liaigre. With its warm tones and stunning setting on the Grand Cul de Sac, the hotel is boutique at its finest. Book one of the 37 suites or stay in one of three private villas, each with over 7500 square feet (697 square metres) or space. You’ll be counted among glitterati guests such as Valentino, Max Azria, Victoria Secret models, Uma Thurman, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Guests will also enjoy the Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France and its first-rate service. Many people also opt to stay in rented homes. Wimco Private Villa Rentals offers a variety of choices.

WILDLIFE AND ACTIVITIES

Dr. Deborah Brosnan, Professor of Biology and Environment and Policy Scientist at the University of California Davis, has her own lab called The Brosnan Center. She spends much of her time working out of St. Jean Bay in St. Barths, which contains a barrier reef and several patch reefs. Brosnan explains this reef contains “hundreds of species of corals, fish, invertebrates and plants.” She describes her team’s work as “developing a marine reserve and helping to protect the oceans.” This has “helped to bring back coral reef species, especially grouper, seas turtles, and conch.” The Brosnan Center’s goal is “to make the bay healthier and more beautiful underwater.” To enjoy this beautiful and exciting ecosystem, take part in some of the plethora of water-based activities on offer including scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing and swimming. Those interested in simply watching sailing will enjoy the island’s nautical events. The St. Barth Bucket Regatta, Les Voiles de St. Barth and the West Indies Regatta are counted among these. It is also possible to charter yachts around the island for exploration, relaxation or simply to feel the wind in your hair.

St. Barths also offers many luxury spas perfect for a day of unwinding. One of the island’s best is in the Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France. Their deep tissue massage is their most popular treatment but guests can also indulge in the spa’s most luxurious treatment, an 85-minute cosmetic lifting facial called the Multisensorial lifting, which is designed to firm up the skin and provide anti-aging effects. For hair, try Cristophe Salons, a well-known, well-loved brand with locations in The United States. Stop in for a cut or blow-dry, as the humid Caribbean air may make its mark on your mane.

BEACHES

The island boasts 14 beaches, all public, spacious and clean. Don your swimsuit beneath a wrap before you venture onto them, as they are without changing facilities. It is not uncommon for women to go topless on the beaches; however, nudity is prohibited. Well-loved beaches include St. Jean Beach – which extends from the airport past the Eden Rock Hotel – and Columbier. This is the island’s least accessible beach necessitating a boat ride or a half-hour walk on a rustic, rocky path (though its beauty merits the effort). Another notable beach is Gouverneur Beach, with just one private home owned by Russian business mogul, Roman Abramovitch.

SHOPPING

Shopping is a draw as the island offers a wide selection of duty free goods. As the capital, Gustavia, is a port, cruise ships often coast in for a day of sightseeing and shopping. Unlike other Caribbean ports, however, it is never overrun by tourists. Locals and other visitors also enjoy the many high-end stores, including flagships of high-end European brands such as Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari and Hermès. These are housed within the Cour Vendôme area, along with clothes shops such as 100% Capri, Lacoste, Roberto Cavalli and Teddy Smith.

Popular local goods include silver and gold necklaces in the shape of the island, which are not only made in St. Barths, but are also worn by locals. These are available at jewelers such as Les Artisans, which also sells beautiful art. Another jeweler, Goldfinger, sells top-end watches by Tag Heuer, Omega and Corum, to name a few. They also offer up stunning jewelry including items by Mont Blanc and Roberto Coin. Both stores are situated in Gustavia. For beautiful and unique accessories and furniture, head to Sea Memory. Exceptional leather, crocodile and alligator goods can be found at Laurent Effel. The best swimwear is found at Kiwi – which offers a wide range of bright, gorgeous-colored suits – and Pain de Sucre. Both stores have locations in St. Barths and St. Tropez.

RESTAURANTS

St. Barths has many excellent dining options, with chefs hailing from around the world. With many discerning visitors, it is no wonder the island offers a variety of choice restaurants. One of the most delicious options is the restaurant in the Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France, called La Casa de L’Isle. Choose to eat in the open-air hotel or at a shaded outdoor table even closer to Flamands Beach. Among their specialties are their iced pea soup served with prosciutto and a hot chocolate mousse served with vanilla ice cream.

With 11 locations (soon to be more) and a star-studded clientele, Nikki Beach is world renowned, not only as a restaurant and beach club, but as a lifestyle brand. Both the St. Tropez and St. Barths locations of Nikki Beach opened in 2002 and have made a splash on their respective social scenes. Julie Fogel, Global P.R. and Communications Director at Nikki Beach, defines it as “the ultimate beach club concept that combines the elements of entertainment, dining, music fashion, film and art.” She explains that service is one of the draws and “everyone is treated as a VIP.” Try some of their most popular items: rose wine, champagne, the Signature Nikki Beach Mojito, sushi boats, the Nikki Beach Salad or an outstanding chicken satay. The St. Barths location is on St. Jean Beach just steps from the Eden Rock Hotel and its delicious Sand Bar, another of the island’s culinary lovelies. Offering a delicious lunch from Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (of New York City’s famed ABC Kitchen), Sand Bar boasts a panoramic view of St. Jean Bay. The menu, service and oceanside position are all highlights. Hotel owner David Matthews counts the lobster salad, tomato gazpacho and fresh local fish tartar among his lunchtime favorites.

Wine vendor and restaurant Absolutely Wine Le Bistroy is situated in St. Jean’s Villa Créole shopping district. The Bordeaux native chef is inventive and energetic, catering to the culinary desires of his lucky lunch and dinner guests. If your party comprises eight or more, book the private (and air-conditioned) back room wine bar.

WHAT TO PACK

The style in St. Barths is more relaxed than in other luxury destinations, like Saint Tropez. Swap the Louboutins and suits for more beachy attire. Most women wear lacey, breathable clothing layered over swimsuits. Panama hats are popular accessories due to the island’s extreme heat and humidity and quality examples can be purchased there. Structured and leather bags should be replaced by lighter options. And, of course, pack sunscreen. Men will be comfortable in T-shirts, linen shirts and shorts. The evenings tend to be cool so make sure to pack a few layers. A light pashmina, for instance, will go a long way.

HOW TO GET THERE

Gustaf III Airport has a name bigger than the actual airport, which consists of just one (very short) landing strip. In face, the runway is so short (2170 feet or 661 metres) and the landing so prone to turbulence that pilots must have a special license to land. This is why, unlike other high-end destinations, St. Barths is not overrun by private planes. Most visitors take small commuter planes from neighboring islands. Those who are absolutely set on landing their own planes in St. Barths can take the qualification course. Fabrice Danet, Gustaf III Airport Director, says approximately 70 percent of the flights that come into the airport are commercial. Winair and St. Barth Commuter are two of the 16 companies that offer flights to the island. These airlines brought in a total of 152,128 passengers in 2012, the majority of whom traveled from Princess Juliana International Airport in nearby Saint Maarten. Visitors can also opt to travel to St. Barths via ferry.

WHY ST. BARTHS?

I spoke with Eden Rock Hotel owner, David Matthews, about his favorite things about the island. “It’s the only entirely peaceful, essentially crime free, self governing and entirely debt free tropical island on the face of the Earth possessing low taxation for residents sufficient only to run the place to the highest standards safely – yet possessing also the magic of France as core to its everyday culture within the small island,” said Matthews. He is certainly in on the secret of St. Barths and now, dear reader, you are too.

SUMMER IN ST. TROPEZ

Like St. Barths, St. Tropez is an exquisite travel destination and one that appeals to a similar crowd. The main differences between the two are their accessibility (St. Tropez is part of mainland France, and thus easier to reach), humidity and unofficial dress code. While St. Barths is much beachier, St. Tropez is a dressier and more crowded destination. Both places are under French dominion, conduct themselves mostly in French and use the Euro.

RESTAURANTS

Possibly the most famous restaurant in St. Tropez (though it is actually in neighboring Ramatuelle) is Club 55. Located on a beautiful beach, the restaurant is half beach club/half seating. Club 55 was made famous by bombshell Brigitte Bardot, who extolled its virtues. When filming And God Created Woman, Bardot and her film crew discovered this gem. The name stems from the year this happened – 1955. The restaurant is still in the family, currently owned by Patrice de Colmont. Diners will love the classic crudités dish for the whole table, my personal favorite thing on the menu. It consists of delicious, homegrown vegetables (so fresh you’ll want to discipline them) and a perfect accompanying dip. Whole tomatoes, carrots, radishes and other vegetables come on this enormous healthy platter. The restaurant also serves delicious fresh fish – as well as many other dishes – and has a wonderful dessert menu. There is plenty to enjoy at Club 55 besides the food; the people watching will attract even the most oblivious. Also in the town of Ramatuelle and about three miles’ drive from St. Tropez is Restaurant Tropicana.

There are three Michelin-starred restaurants within four kilometres of St. Tropez. Villa Belrose and La Badiana each have one star. The third, located in The Résidence de la Pinède Hotel, is called La Vague d’Or. Only open six months a year (April to October) and for dinner, this restaurant earned its third Michelin star this year. It serves Mediterranean fare offered up by Alain Ducasse-trained chef, Arnaud Donckele. Ducasse himself has a restaurant called Spoon in The Byblos Hotel in St. Tropez. Other delicious restaurants include Plage des Graniers Restaurant for lunch, and Salama, a Moroccan restaurant perfect for dinner.

NIGHTLIFE

St. Tropez often makes the news with pictures of celebrities partying while on vacation. Lisa Vanderpump, star of two reality TV shows – Vanderpump Rules and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills – has owned 26 restaurants, bars and clubs over the years. I met Vanderpump filming RHOBH in St. Tropez this past summer and recently asked her to recall her fondest memories of St. Tropez. “My stepson has a house there and we enjoyed pulling our yacht into the harbor,” said Vanderpump. “I love going to the bar at Maison Blanche [now called White 1921].” This is just one of St. Tropez’s hottest nighttime spots. There are also several clubs in the area include Les Caves du Roy in the Byblos Hotel.

SHOPPING

Like St. Barths, St. Tropez offers an abundance of luxe shops. Many of the same shops are repeated in St. Tropez. Kiwi is one such brand. I adore their swimsuits and shorts for their unique colors and excellent fits. Another fabulous swimsuit store in Soobaya, a brand created in St. Tropez. With suits in colors and patterns reminiscent of Vilebrequin (which also has a store in St. Barths), Soobaya is a great go-to for trunks and ready-to-wear. Be-shorts also sells great shorts in a variety of bold and fashion-forward colors. They recommend wearers pair their shorts with brightly woven belts in complimentary colors. Like Kiwi, find Be-shorts in both St. Barths and St. Tropez.

Many of the Tropezienne streets are lined with shops, but notable shopping streets include rue Gambetta and rue François Sibilli.

St. Tropez certainly has a few ‘must-shops’, including one of my personal favorites, Rondini with its Tropeziennes sandals. The Rondini family was St. Tropez’s first sandal cobbler and has been a staple on the shoe scene since 1927. Find them at 16 rue Clemenceau. The store is tiny and packed full of customers, who sometimes wait outside to find space to enter the shop. Trying on their sandals is ritualistic, with the salesperson first retrieving, then powdering the shoe before it is slipped on the foot. My favorite is the elegant and comfortable Salomé sandal.

Another insider’s tip is the market held in the Places des Lices every Tuesday and Saturday morning. The Places des Lices Market is a sensory explosion. Time flies by as you browse the many stalls chock full of everything from clothing to linens to art and jewelry. Sifting through the many items for sale, you can find the same styles sold in high-end boutiques the world over for a 10th of the price.

WHERE TO STAY

St. Tropez is a small town so many visitors end up staying in the outskirts and adjoining communities. To stay in the town is to experience the true St. Tropez – historical, cobblestoned and beautiful. There are many rental properties in the area, but guests can also stay in lovely local hotels. These include the Hotel Byblos and La Ponche.

Once little-known destinations, St. Barths and St. Tropez have become popular for their spectacular settings and beaches. They are both excellent places to travel and their shopping, dining and other features leave them a cut above all other warm-weather vacation spots.

Originally published in Urecommend Magazine, August 2013, in English and French.

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