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Cheyenne Palma-Tinghir plays in the sand on the nearly empty Saline Beach.
Cheyenne Palma-Tinghir plays in the sand on the nearly empty Saline Beach.

Caribbean

St. Barthélemy: A wilderness about to be tamed Add to ...

However, today it's rare to see locals part with their land. "Why would I sell for a lot of money? I'd have money, but no land," says Christophe Turbé, who lives on property his father gave him, land he plans to pass on to his children. The Turbé family was one of many who welcomed the benefits of development on St. Barth. By the late 1970s, the island had electricity, water and the beginnings of a road network.

American Randy Gurley knew he was onto something when he arrived at the harbour in Gustavia in 1977, sailing his boat up to the island just as Columbus had done nearly 500 years earlier. "There was a bunch of guys talking on the dock early in the morning; a bakery I followed my nose to," he says. "It was a pretty ideal Caribbean town."

Just as Gurley, a Massachusetts native, was falling in love with the island, he was also falling in love with his wife, Maya, a native of Guadaloupe who had also just discovered St. Barth. Soon they were inseparable, and as they built their family life here, they also built a successful business, the now-famous Maya's Restaurant, which opened at tail end of 1984.

"When we first opened the restaurant, we didn't have a telephone," Randy recalls. "So we had a mailbox with a pad of paper. People who wanted a table would come by and leave us a message, and hopefully we could accommodate them."

In the 25 years they have been open, the couple have accommodated the likes of Sean Connery, Glenn Close, David Letterman and a host of others who have become regulars. "We have the best clientele in the world," Maya says.

Randy and Maya have watched St. Barth develop, seen the eclectic stores come and go, and in some cases be replaced by designer boutiques such as Hermès, Cartier and Louis Vuitton. They've seen the multimillion-dollar boats, the champagne-soaked parties and all that comes with being an "it" destination.

Some on this island go further, saying whether it's a protected beach or small businesses under threat, the almighty dollar (or euro) has changed the feeling in St. Barth.

"It's more everybody for

himself. Just money. Make the money," says Laurent Moller, a coffee-shop owner. "It's so expensive. Before it wasn't like that."

Moller came to this island in the mid-eighties, just an 18-year-old with some savings and a postcard of St. Jean beach with the Eden Rock Hotel towering above it. Now, all these years later, he has sold his shop and is even considering leaving.

"It's difficult to imagine living somewhere else," he says with a sigh. "But there's not much choice. … I'm still struggling." He says people just don't want to leave their villas or yachts to sit and sip a coffee at his off-the-beaten-track shop.

Just down the road from the coffee shop, Eden Rock's Matthews doesn't seem to be struggling at all, and he maintains that St. Barth's free-spirited approach is largely intact. What is necessary, he says, is for the island to concentrate on what's next. For Matthews, that means a two-pronged approach that focuses on the environment and the high-end tourist market. Being "green" means the hotel uses solar panels, electric cars, and collects almost every drop of rainwater for laundry and gardening. As for being "glitzy," look no further than Eden Rock's latest creation, Villa Rockstar, a 16,000 square foot beach house Matthews calls a "yacht on land." With its four luxury suites (aptly named Dylan, Lennon, Mercury and Marley), chef's kitchen, gym, pool and designer everything, Villa Rockstar cost tens of millions of euros to build.

But the pièce de résistance is in the basement: a top-notch recording studio that is connected with another studio in Los Angeles. The idea is a vacationing musician can lay down tracks, head to the beach for a couple of hours and come back to hear their songs fully mixed and mastered. Interested? Apply for a line of credit.

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