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The rock and royal island

Macca and Pippa adore it, Simon Cowell drops anchor there - so let Nigel Tisdall tell you how you can join the St Barths' crowd

Whoever wears a silk tie in the Caribbean? Prime ministers and funeral directors, perhaps - yet, here, in Gustavia, capital of the minuscule French territory properly known as Saint Barthelemy, they are on sale for £155 a pop.

Hermes, Prada, Louis Vuitton - all the designer stores have mini outposts here, lining Rue de la Republique like courtiers eager to impress visitors who step off the superyachts glistening in the harbour.

In the winter season, St Barths becomes a magnet for billionaires and celebrities, from Sir Paul McCartney and Simon Cowell to Pippa Middleton, whose in-laws, the Matthews, own the iconic Eden Rock hotel.

But this gorgeous island, classy and seductive, is also ideal for a pampering break for us mere mortals.
St Barths is a well-groomed and sleek island, where they heat the pools and chill the red wine.

Arriving in St Barths is not for the faint-hearted and the approach is memorable

Bizarrely, all the street names are in French and Swedish - so Rue General de Gaulle is also Ostra Strandgatan. This topsy-turvy isle was part of Sweden for almost a century - the only Caribbean island under Swedish rule for any length of time - and you can bet your woolly socks the snowed-in Scandinavians still rue the day, in 1878, when they gave up this little speck of paradise. France's Louis XVI had given the island to Sweden in 1784 in return for trading rights in Gothenburg - and Sweden returned it to France following a referendum!

Framed by bougainvillea and palm trees, the little church of St Bartholomew's delivers an amusing coup de theatre at noon, when its bells ring Praise To The Lord, The Almighty across the Gallic tin-roofs.

Hotel Le Sereno is set beside the beautiful Anse de Grand Cul de Sac lagoon

As far as the eye can see

From the Beach Club at the Hotel le Toiny on the island's Cote Sauvage you can spot a number of other islands. The hotel's English co-owner, Mandie Vere Nicoll, kindly gets off her sun-lounger to settle a dispute my wife and I are having about exactly which ones are visible - Saba, St Eustatius and St Kitts it turns out.

'This is my office,' says Mandie with a grin, pointing to a palm-roofed palapa where her little dog Gladys is standing guard.

And away from peak season, says Mandie, when the celebrities have moved on, can be the best time to visit - and it's easier to get reservations at the restaurants.

We hired a car, a tres sportif Mini Countryman, from a local firm - and found, admittedly, that driving was the only stressful thing here; think dodgems on top of a rollercoaster. Steep hills, sudden bends, potholes, goats, crazy Frenchmen.

The narrow roads are a Wacky Races of quad bikes, mokes, electric cars and scooters - plus trucks, vans and cement mixers as the island rebuilds after the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

There's little evidence of storm damage to be seen now, but it took St Barths more than a year to get its mojo back.

The majority of the island's 28 hotels have reopened, looking better than ever. A quarter of these are five-star, with lavish rooms and gastronomic restaurants.

Hotel Christoph exudes a St Tropez style glamour

Glamour and sophistication

If you're content with a big pool, but no beach, Hotel Christopher has a St Tropez-style glamour, while Hotel Le Toiny is quiet and sophisticated, with breakfast served beside your private plunge pool. If swimming from your front door appeals, Hotel Le Sereno is set beside Anse de Grand Cul de Sac, a lagoon with turtles, stingrays and richly-coloured coral.

Wherever you hang your straw hat, superb sands are nearby. St Barths is only ten square miles but has 16 beaches.
Colombier, Gouverneur and Salines are the stars, but when we arrive at the latter, it’s clear we’ve made a mistake.

I’d assumed there’d be all the usual beach bars, loungers and hawkers you find across the Caribbean, but non! Here, the glorious bay looks as unspoilt as it did in 1493 when Christopher Columbus named the island after his brother, Bartolomeo: a blaze of spotless white grains and turquoise waters with not a rum shop or boombox in sight.
Sheepishly, we head back up the hill in search of cold water and le pique-nique, marvelling at how the French have managed to create such a fabulous playground while still preserving its beauty.

First published in the Daily Mail - May 2019

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