To search St. Barts on Instagram is to discover a land untouched by the anxieties of a world besieged by a pandemic.
The photo-sharing site surfaces pictures of people in various forms of undress, puckering, smiling and smirking without any mask to obstruct their sun-kissed faces. Speedboats buzz among anchored yachts like pollinating bees. The streets in December are busy with famous visitors such as Chrissy Teigen, John Legend and Paul McCartney.
Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips also headed to the island this month, causing a political storm at home in his locked-down province.
On Airbnb, the cheapest available place is a one-bedroom pad going for $1,149 a night, but at least one $50,000-a-night villa was still available for New Year’s Eve, always one of the island’s busiest nights of the year.
This year will be no exception.
“The jet set will come again for New Year’s Eve this year,” said Romain Garin Laurel, chief executive officer of Entourage Villas Group, a high-end villa rental and real estate company, and St-Barths.com, a travel website. “They are arriving already. It’s full. It’s packed.”
Saint-Barthélemy, abbreviated to St. Barts in English and St. Barths in French, first became a beacon to the rich and famous in the late 1950s, when David Rockefeller bought a massive estate.
“He brought all of his friends,” said Mr. Laurel. “And the magic starts like this.”
They came for the parties and stayed for the 16 pristine beaches, perfect temperatures and rugged landscape. In 1978, Jimmy Buffett sailed into the capital of Gustavia and was so enchanted he decided he would be buried there one day, according to an interview in The New York Times.
Today, it’s considered the most expensive island in the Caribbean. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased a portion of the former Rockefeller estate for US$90-million in 2009. Sotheby’s currently lists 20 properties for sale on the island. The cheapest one measures just 62 square metres and goes for $2.7-million. The most expensive is 20 times that.
“St. Barts is luxury,” said Mr. Laurel. “Its sister island, Saint Martin, is considered the friendly island. It has a casino and this kind of entertainment.”
In 2017, Hurricane Irma obliterated the island, sinking power boats and peeling roofs from luxury hotels. While Puerto Rico and other nearby islands have yet to fully recover, St. Barts roared back to life with the largesse of well-heeled patrons such as Mr. Buffett, who bankrolled supply flights to the island and gave a benefit concert in Gustavia.
The pandemic closed the island to visitors in March, but authorities opened it back up on June 22.
COVID-19 restrictions are minimal. Travellers to St. Barts require a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 72 hours before arriving. On the ground, the island’s restaurants can seat no more than six diners at a table. Masks are encouraged on the busy streets and inside the Bulgari, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and other local shops.
By raw numbers, the COVID-19 caseload seems low on the island, with the average number of new daily cases rarely topping two. But with a population of around just 9,000, two cases a day works out to a rate of 22.22 per 100,000, roughly the same as Alberta.
Although an increase in visitors will almost surely mean an increase in COVID-19 cases, Mr. Laurel said residents don’t seem concerned. “This is business,” he said. “These two weeks [over the holidays] are extremely busy and important for the island’s economy.”
There’s easy access to rapid PCR tests and antigenic tests, according to Bruno Magras, President of the island, an overseas collectivity of France.
“We have never had any deaths or emergency transfers due to COVID,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Yes, as of today, St. Barts is doing well. We have a lot of celebrities on the island.”
Why do they keep coming in the middle of a pandemic? Tranquility and privacy, the same reasons as Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Buffett years ago. “It’s a pretty chill island,” said Mr. Laurel. “They come here not to be seen.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.