The only thing being constructed on Saline Beach right now is a small sand castle, designed by four-year-old Cheyenne Palma-Tinghir. It's a hot Sunday in January on the French West Indies island of St. Barthélemy and as Cheyenne works away, more people arrive to tan and swim.
"It's a treat to come here," says Cheyenne's mother, Cécile Tinghir, who has lived on St. Barth for nearly a decade. "People like it because it's wild," she says, looking up at the craggy, dusty hills, which are dabbed with the green of cactus and other hardy vegetation.
But that wildness could soon be tamed, and sand castles won't be the only structures being built at Saline if a well-known New York hotelier has his way. André Balazs, the man who owns chic and design-focused hotels such as the Chateau Marmont in L.A. and the Standard in New York, wants to build an eco-lodge a stone's throw away from the beach.
"It will ruin it," Tinghir says. "Really ruin it."
On an island with a reputation as a laid-back French getaway with good food, fine wine and a certain je ne sais quoi, the demand to develop far outpaces local desire and the Balazs project has become a flashpoint.
"The greenest, most advanced eco-lodge can't compare to the natural greenery of Saline," reads the editorial in the latest edition of Pure, an island magazine. "It is the last unscathed spot in St. Barth … a symbol of the island's uniqueness."
Many people, it seems, agree. Twelve hundred names filled a petition that landed on the desk of Bruno Magras, the President of the Collectivity of St. Barthélemy. For now, the straight-talking St. Barth native, whose roots date back to the mid-17th century, gives the impression this project is far from a done deal. Revoking Saline's protected status requires approval from the island's 19-member council. Then, Magras says, the islanders themselves would decide the fate of Balazs's project in a referendum.
"At this point, the fact is he cannot do anything with it," Magras says.
This issue typifies the debate over development on the island, home to nearly 8,500 permanent residents and second home or vacation destination for thousands of others, among them the rich and famous, from Beyoncé to Dustin Hoffman to Steve Martin. The important question for all: how to preserve the uniqueness of St. Barth while still nurturing its sole industry, tourism.
The irony is that half a century ago, this rich gem in the Caribbean was dirt poor and barely on the map, a place with no running water, no electricity and seemingly nothing to offer.
"It used to be an island with 5,000 donkeys and one car, and that was owned by the Roman Catholic priest," jokes David Matthews, the charming British owner of St. Barth's most famous hotel, Eden Rock. "Now, it's an island of 5,000 cars and one donkey."
Things started changing in part thanks to Rémy de Haenen, the man who built the hotel Matthews and his wife, Jane, have spent years renovating. Local legend, former politician, daredevil pilot, the late de Haenen was the first to land a plane on the island and is credited with helping to bring in electricity and telephone service.
In the 1950s, de Haenen's Eden Rock welcomed the big names of the jet set - Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Robert Mitchum. Around the same time, another big American name was attracting attention. Millionaire David Rockefeller snapped up three prime pieces of property and began vacationing here with his wealthy friends and colleagues. People in the U.S., France and Britain started paying attention, paying visits, and paying very little for their own parcels of land. The St. Barth residents, who remain the majority landholders on this island, sold lots that would be worth millions of dollars today for mere thousands, using the money to better their lives and send their kids to school.
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.
"We had three sets of people wanting to spend 25,000 euros [$35,650]a night to stay here over Christmas," Matthews says, without blinking an eye. His dream is to have Paul McCartney christen the recording studio.
The former Beatle could certainly afford it. And if Sir Paul were to write a song about St. Barth, it would probably focus on the simplicity of life, that feeling everyone talks about. You can spend a fortune, but it's what's available for free that gets you in tune with paradise - taking in the views as you drive the winding roads, sunbathing, surfing or snorkelling, and watching small airplanes touch down on the island's tiny landing strip.
Magras, St. Barth's President, also enjoys the simple pleasures of his home, and says he would rather be strumming his guitar with friends than going to fancy cocktail parties.
He seems to have the faith of many locals and expatriates alike, and he will probably keep it if he takes a strong stand against the development around Saline Beach, or at least if he puts off making a decision. At this time, Balazs hasn't submitted a formal proposal for his eco-lodge, and his company isn't responding to questions about this project.
Blissfully unaware of the debate over the future of her favourite beach is four-year-old Cheyenne Palma-Tinghir. She's just happy that her sand castle is complete, and she's taking a break before digging a moat.
" J'aime les vagues," she says of Saline's waves before running into the water to cool off. Her mother takes a break from tanning and walks slowly after her. Noon is approaching, and the sun's heat is getting more intense. The long stretch of beach still seems almost empty. Just another Sunday in paradise.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Pack your bags
St. Barth's high season ends mid-April. Prices for accommodation spike during Christmas and New Year, and drop during the low season (mid-April to October).
Getting there You can't take a direct flight to St. Barth. Major airlines fly to St. Maarten, and travellers can get to St. Barth by boat (Voyager, www.voyager-st-barths.com) or by small plane (Winair; fly-winair.com)
Where to stay
Sunset Hotel Rue de la République, Gustavia; 590 590 27 77 21; www.st-barths.com/sunset-hotel. Double rooms from $148.
Les Villages St. Jean Colline de St. Jean, St. Jean; 590 590 27 61 39; www.villagestjeanhotel.com. Double rooms from $316.
Eden Rock Hotel Baie de St. Jean, St. Jean; 590 590 29 79 99; www.edenrockhotel.com. Double rooms from $985. Hôtel Le Toiny Anse de Toiny; 590 590 27 88 88; www.letoiny.com. Double room rates start at $1,798.
Where to eat Breakfast Go to a bakery. There are plenty on the island, especially in the port of Gustavia. Lunch Hôtel Christopher (Pointe Milou; 590 590 27 63 63; hotelchristopher.com); Maya's To Go (Les Galeries du Commerce, St. Jean; 590 590 29 83 70; www.st-barths.com/mayas-to-go); Le Grain de Sel (near Saline Beach; 590 590 52 46 05). Dinner Maya's Restaurant; Eden Rock Hotel; Pa Cri (Route de Saline; 590 590 29 52 24; pacristbarth.com).