Tiny Saint Barthélemy, the belle laureate of the French West Indies, has drawn the world's social elite for generations, maintaining its cachet through constant reinvention – shorter skirts, skinnier stilettos and celeb-stocked soirees. But when newlyweds can't even get a dinner reservation because Shaquille O'Neal's entourage is as bloated as his endorsement bonus, perhaps the lure of this perennial honeymoon spot has expired.
As soon as I arrived on the 21-square-kilometre island last Sunday, my local network of les métros (those who winter here from la métropole, Paris) eagerly dished on the latest hive of celebrity sun-seekers. Apparently, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich's megayacht, aptly named Eclipse, blocked out the sun while moored here two weeks ago. At 536 feet long and with two helicopter pads, two swimming pools, a submarine and 80 onboard staff, it's the world's largest private yacht. Needless to say, the pervading social meme on St. Barts consists of snarky takes on the “new Russian” invasion.
Mr. Abramovich's annual New Year's Eve bash on St. Barts is the most over-the-top showbiz party going: A conservative estimate of the bill is $7.8-million. To ring in 2012, he opened his French Caribbean paradise (the $90-million, 28-hectare Gouverneur Bay Estate, once owned by the Rockefellers) to 400 guests. The guest list? Think Jon Bon Jovi chatting up Marc Jacobs, Harvey Weinstein avoiding Rupert Murdoch, George Lucas clinking stemware with Martha Stewart. And, of course, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen tendering in from his own megayacht just after midnight. Among the headliners flown in to entertain were Prince, Gwen Stefani, the Black Eyed Peas and, this year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Has the nouveau riche circus, coupled with the traffic-clogging returns of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, ruined the romance of St. Barts?
To find a remnant of that romance, look to Hôtel Le Toiny on the more secluded southeastern coast. Here, you're more likely to run into bespectacled biographers than barely dressed hangers-on.
Discretion and discernment have been the defining characteristics of Hôtel Le Toiny (pronounced twa-nee) since it opened in 1992 in the area of the island referred to as Côte Sauvage. Just 15 pastel bungalows are set on a gentle slope overlooking the Caribbean Sea, each surrounded by mature vegetation, featuring its own gated entrance and private pool. Vaulted ceilings add a hint of drama, hardwood floors give a sense of warmth, while the French Colonial decor is amorous without being too chintzy.
But, let's face it, the measure of an ideal honeymoon suite all comes down to a sublime bed. Le Toiny's traditional four-poster mahogany beds are a king-size study in wedded, bedded bliss. Once you hoist yourself up to its height, there's no going back – the sheets, buttery and crisp, are simply delicious. There's even more divine bedding in the hotel's intimate Serenity Spa Cottage, where couples loll the day away, drinking in panoramic views between treatments.
Privacy at Le Toiny is key. It's not a scene in the least. The five-star property has its own brand of sensual appeal. Uniquely situated high up above the sea, the five-star property brims with charm, and the peerless views and breezes are spellbinding.
For couples who consider a perfect plate of tuna tartare the ideal foreplay, the main lure of Le Toiny is chef Stéphane Mazières, the only chef in the Caribbean to share Relais & Châteaux grand chef status with the likes of Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. What better way to spark up a Valentine getaway than an in-suite delivery of salt-roasted veal spiked with truffles and purple artichokes? Silken homemade sorbet always comes with two spoons, perfect for sharing.
But, you really must leave your suite at some point. The dramatic cliffside terrace at Le Gaïac showcases Mr. Mazières's gastronomic art.
Famous French singer Johnny Hallyday can't resist the improvisational menu here, and is always keen on leaving lunch up to chef. And yes, even Mr. Abramovich has leveraged the appetizing overtures of Le Gaïac to please his lady love, Dasha Zhukova. With such ardent attention to the kitchen's output, the hotel has even installed a greenhouse on a former pineapple field to grow organic produce for the restaurant. The French- and Creole-influenced menu changes frequently, always evolving, always refining. On Tuesday's special Fish Market Night, guests select their own fresh, local fish, grilled a la plancha at their table. A tip for couples choosing dates: Don't miss the famous Sunday Brunch du Toiny. It is both a hedonistic feast and a venerable institution on the island.
Befitting a hotel catering to honeymooners, the property is managed by luxury hospitality super-couple Guy and Dagmar Lombard, poached from Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot in Morocco. The husband and wife team go deeper than menus and amenities, having cultivated a progressive stewardship over this gem. The goal of achieving harmony guides their every decision, leading to changes that contribute to the well-being of guests and the preservation of the untouched wilderness of the site.
For Toronto and Montreal francophiles, St. Barts is like St. Tropez without the jet lag. With 17 beaches, there's a bounty of natural beauty on offer. Couples prefer to stroll along Saline Beach – a secluded stretch of sand reached by crossing a dune. Swinging exhibitionists opt for the buzz of Flamands Beach, which has sizable waves for the surf-ready set. Bathing in bisque-warm turquoise water by day, sucking out succulent langoustines out of their shells by night, this is the idle traveller's dream. Nothing is taxing in St. Barts, and any tourist drama is greeted with an insouciant Gallic shrug.
For those who want to venture beyond Le Toiny, Premium IV's concierge services can pull off last-minute Champagne picnics, day trips to Anguilla and, of course, those seemingly impossible dinner reservations.
While Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr colonize the flashier side of this wee volcanic island, Le Toiny draws the more low-key likes of Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Ivan Reitman and Leonard Nimoy. Le Toiny is the best option for honeymooners wary of the inevitable awkwardness of being surrounded by better-looking couples at the glitzier resorts, or worse, sultry singles on the make. To be sure, sunbathing next to Mr. Spock won't cause as much performance anxiety as seeing your bride steal looks at Mr. Bloom on the beefier side of Barth.
Special to The Globe and Mail
(Editor's note: Chef Stéphane Mazières does not have a two-star Michelin rating. Hôtel Le Toiny does not have photovoltaic panels on suites to heat the pools. This version of the story has been corrected.)