No matter how staunch a Francophile you may be, there's one insurmountable problem with the French Riviera: it gets chilly in winter. Luckily, the celebrities, trustafarians, plutocrats, fashion designers, models and other members of the beau monde who flock to St-Tropez, Cannes and Monaco every summer have a solution to this inconvenience. They go to St-Barths instead.
I may still be waiting in vain for my trust fund to materialise, but I'm hardly immune to the call of this tiny, semi-arid island, officially known as St-Barthélemy, more often shortened to St-Barths. Having lived in New York for seven years, I've cracked the insider's code to surviving the city's notoriously brutal winters: get the hell out of town. There are hundreds of islands in the Caribbean from which to choose, but few offer the lures of this speck in the French West Indies.
It's ruggedly beautiful, it's overflowing with genetically blessed people, it has the region's most gorgeous beaches, and, unlike most of its neighbours, it offers food and wine that buck the reputation most resorts have for sub-par food and wine.
Truth be told, loving St-Barths can take time. On my first visit, about five years ago, I found myself alternately bemused and amused by the hedonism, the blinginess, the almost shameless devotion to the trappings of wealth and success evident in everything from the rare sports cars to the outrageous restaurant prices. But by the time I returned, I was hooked. In the midst of a recession that continues to grind on, there's something spirit-lifting about a destination that offers a complete respite from that particular reality, insisting that everything will be okay if only you accept that second glass of Champagne and hit the dance floor.
That carpe-diem attitude was in full swing during a recent visit to Hotel Carl Gustaf, a family-run boutique hotel located high above the comely capital, Gustavia. While I'd picked the property for its relative seclusion from the main party scene, concentrated around St-Jean Bay in the north, it wasn't long before I encountered two larger-than-life fellow guests - honeymooners who'd decided to hole up here with a posse of friends. She resembled Amy Winehouse crossed with Katy Perry, complete with gravity-defying coif, tiny hot-pants and enough expensive jewellery to pay off a portion of the Greek national debt, while he was a buttoned-up banker type in a pastel polo shirt, his face a mask of benign bewilderment (Edith Piaf's Je ne Regrette Rien playing in the bar was surely a coincidence, non?). The newlyweds and their hangers-on proceeded to work their way through the cocktail list at scandalous volume, creating their own little party in this otherwise tranquil eyrie. It was better than anything I could have found on the cable TV in my room.
About that room. It wasn't hard to feel like a master of the universe with the million-dollar view from the terrace. Each of the 14 cottage-style suites here is ingeniously designed as its own mini-universe, fringed by tropical landscaping that screens neighbours while revealing the sweeping vista of peaked red rooftops spilling down to a glistening harbour bristling with yachts. The terrace, with its plunge pool, was almost as large as the room itself. Swarms of white butterflies floated by on the balmy breeze. On the horizon I could just make out the blurry outline of St-Martin, an island divided into French and Dutch sides, the Gallic part of which desperately wants to be St-Barths when it grows up. (Do I sound smug? This preposterous paradise will do that to a person.)
Apart from the rooms, everything else at Carl Gustaf is compact, from the sweetly petite spa, where I had a wonderful massage, to the elegant dishes served in the restaurant, to the ever-gracious staff, svelte in fitted pink shirts. I had two memorable meals at Victoria's by Akrame, the hotel's fine-diner, with its floor-to-ceiling windows framing a view that really, at this point, is just showing off. The mood on the plate here sums up a lot of what St-Barths is about: classic French technique with a soupçon of Caribbean-Creole flair. Not surprisingly, seafood is the star on this and many other menus across the island. Lobster in all its cholesterol-be-damned permutations - steamed, butter-poached, grilled - is particularly ubiquitous. Caviar is also a big player.
One standout dish was both rustic and au courant: grilled oeil de boeuf (a kind of red snapper) served with beetroot two ways - puréed and foamed - on a bed of summer vegetables, spinach sprouts and shallots. In a nod to tradition, the restaurant also serves sole meunière, a dish I wouldn't normally order but which feels utterly right in this setting.
One day I strolled down the steep road to Gustavia - a journey precipitous on the way there and heartbreaking on the way back. The town itself is little more than a cluster of narrow streets crowded around the waterfront, but there's something charming about the unhurried, tropical pace and the pastel-coloured colonial buildings with their iced-gingerbread trim.
The hub of Gustavia's main drag is Carré d'Or, a kind of open-air mall doing a brisk trade in five-figure jewels and status handbags, anchored on each corner by Hermès and Cartier, the patron saints of the island. (I kid, but only sort of.)
I foraged instead in the independent boutiques, the two standouts being Mademoiselle Hortense, a cosy space lined with racks selling sexy little dresses made on the island from Liberty prints, and Poupette, where the stock in trade is wisps of lingerie and floaty frocks. Being a sucker for cosmetics and products with cute foreign names, I also spent an inordinate amount of time in the pharmacy, whose French inventory was both fabulous and mystifying.
On the way back up the hill I flirted with the idea of getting a pastry from the heaven-scented Choisy, one of the island's oldest bakeries, which supplies many of the hotels and restaurants with pain quotidien. My better self prevailed when I considered the need to don a bikini for the afternoon's beach excursion. A good move, as it turned out, considering that by the time I made it to my favourite beach, Gouverneur, on the island's south-west shore, it had been invaded by a gaggle of topless young French beauties whose zero body-fat percentage was as good a gluttony deterrent as you're likely to find.
St-Barths is saturated with outstanding beaches, but there's something special about the wildness of Gouverneur with its crescent of fine white sand, insanely clear blue water and rocky headlands studded with cacti and grazing white goats. Russian oil billionaire and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, renowned for throwing wild parties here at his compound overlooking the beach, certainly seems to think so.
There are several other beaches where it's well worth staking out a towel-sized piece of real estate. Nearby Grande Saline, reached by scrambling over a series of sand dunes, has a similar feel to Gouverneur, but is the island's unofficial nude bathing spot (which mostly translates to going topless, something European women do everywhere anyway). Postcard-perfect Flamands beach, which ends at the lovely Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France, is more cultivated, with raked sand, beach chairs and roving drinks waiters. It's also a popular spot for stand-up paddle boarding, that newfound marine cult.
I drop by Isle de France to see what's new since I last visited a few years back. A lot, as it turns out. In January 2011, the hotel débuted a pair of grandiose new digs, the Flamands Villas, each equipped with VIP-worthy extras such as a private fitness room, home cinema and state-of-the-art kitchen, along with direct access to Flamands Bay. The spa has a new relationship with esteemed Spanish beauty company Natura Bissé and is offering glamorous treatments such as the Diamond Experience facial. And the resort's beach suites have also undergone some serious "refreshment": the dazzling white décor and pristine French country-style furnishings are enough to make you want to book in for some nipping and tucking yourself.
I'm partial to Flamands Bay, with its air of well-bred serenity, but at the height of the season, there's only one place to really be seen: St-Jean Beach. To set the scene: there's a bacchanalian Nikki Beach club at one end, the airport at the other (low-flying prop planes seemingly graze the heads of sun-worshippers) and in between, the legendary Eden Rock hotel.
If the island has a nucleus around which all the other fabulousness spins, it would have to be Eden Rock. This perennial hot spot is a celeb magnet, which may explain the Villa Rockstar, a sprawling compound set slightly apart from the rest of the hotel, with its own recording studio, butlers, private pool and art gallery. Art is an obsession of owner Jane Matthews, a glamorous Brit who has helped raise the profile of the island as a serious art destination, thanks to an on-site gallery that hosts exhibitions of high-profile and emerging artists, as well as an artist-in-residence program.
I spent my final two St-Barths nights at the hotel. The rock itself holds the premium themed suites, the most desirable (and, fittingly, the most secluded) of which is the fabulously old-Hollywood Greta Garbo Suite. Then there are the New England-style cottages and sprawling beach-side bungalows. If you ignore the prices (the first and only rule of St-Barths), the hotel's signature restaurant - On the Rocks - is just about heaven on earth. The dining area curves around the rock and is illuminated by flickering candles and the floodlit ocean beyond. It feels not unlike being marooned at sea, in the nicest possible way. The kitchen collaborates with New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who brings some of his Pan Asian-inspired chutzpah to the menu, most notably in dishes such as the Asian coleslaw and seared shrimp with egg noodles in spicy herbal soup. I tried a simple dish of mahi-mahi steamed with vegetables en papillotte and served in a delicate bamboo basket. A glass of wine, a soundtrack of waves gently lapping the rock and it all felt pretty close to perfect.
Though it's isolated from most of the island's action on windswept Toiny Point, the restaurant at Hôtel Le Toiny - another swanky hotel, co-owned by cyclist Lance Armstrong - is also worth a visit. (Considering you'll need a car to get everywhere anyway, the remoteness isn't a deal-breaker.) Restaurant Le Gaïac, loftily positioned high above the ocean, is arresting in its untrammelled beauty. The menu tells a familiar story - classic French cuisine with a Caribbean spin - but is rendered special by a devotion to fresh produce, much of it from the hotel's greenhouse, and seafood. Tuesdays are given over to the Fish Market, where guests choose a catch of the day which is grilled a la plancha in front of them.
While in the area, pay a visit to Pointe Milou, windswept cliffs that afford a panoramic view across to some of the island's most exclusive villas. Down a rocky little side road you'll find Le Ti St-Barth, one of the island's most famed night spots, which is a peculiarly French-Caribbean mix of cabaret, Champagne bar and Creole food joint. When I passed by it hadn't opened for the season yet, but on returning to my room at Eden Rock, I found the neighbouring Nikki Beach club in full swing, so I got my not-entirely-voluntary fix of high-octane house music anyway, late into the night.
That's okay. St-Barths might seem like the quintessential enchanted isle of our collective dreams, but this isn't the place you come to get away from it all. Au contraire: St-Barths is where you come to be right at the heart of things.