St Barths Unfiltered

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St Barths Unfiltered: A rare glimpse of the Island and its culture a few months after Hurricane Irma

By, Douglas Marshall 


When I was growing up I dreamed of going to Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean. It was painted as this idyllic beach island with chic French culture, reserved for the elite. It seemed like an exclusive private club, so I wanted to go there. About 10 years ago I had my first taste of St. Barths.

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One of my college friends who had been vacationing there all her life took a group of us down for her bachelorette weekend. We stayed in an open-air villa, sunbathed on beautiful beaches, dined on exquisite French food and spent many Euros on overpriced luxury goods. It was everything I imaged it would be, and more. It was naturally stunning with beautiful architecture and the island had a very intimate feeling peppered with a sophisticated European vibe. The one thing I noted is that most of the people who live on the Island are nice and pleasant, but they never seemed overly preoccupied with visitors to the island. There was an expectation that people flock to the island, so I often felt like shopkeepers or restaurant hosts were aloof. It’s not off-putting though. That attitude is part of the St. Barths charm and it’s why the Island’s culture is so alluring. It keeps you coming back for more.

I’ve been going there regularly ever since and it’s an almost yearly vacation tradition for me and my husband. In September 2017 when Hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean headed directly to St. Barths, we were nail bitingly watching news coverage. As I saw videos and pictures online of all the destruction the hurricane left in its wake, my heart sank. My husband and I looked at each other in dismay and we agreed, “No St. Barths this year.”

For a month or two after the hurricane we would search the internet for articles on St. Barths to see how it was progressing. Some articles said recovery efforts were going well but there was still so much to do. A lot of them talked about how tourism was taking a big hit. We saw one article in particular that said most of the jet setters were opting out of St. Barths this year. That really spoke to us. We didn’t want to be the couple who skipped out just because the Island had to take a few steps back after a category 5 hurricane. We decided to plan a trip there for February 2018, to support the Island and the community.

Planning the trip wasn’t so easy. An airline that flew direct from Minneapolis halted service for the season due to lack of demand and there were no direct flights to be had and ticket prices were through the roof. We had to take 3 flights just to get there. The airport on St. Maarten that you connect through was literally a tent because the airport suffered so much damage. For accommodation, only 25% of Island’s lodging (hotels and villas) were available due to damage suffered from the hurricane. Many places were not available due to reconstruction efforts. We found a guest cottage on VRBO that was beautiful, listed at a very low price, and had no reviews. I thought it was too good to be true until I started having a lovely correspondence with Abigail. Her husband, François Pecard, is a very well-known and coveted architect on St Barths. A year ago they built the guest cottage on the property of their villa for friends and family to use. After the hurricane, they wanted to open up their home to travelers like my husband and I, who are Island regulars that needed a place to stay. It was their attempt to promote tourism; something I found to be a loving gesture. I liked Abigail’s energy so we took a chance on the cottage. We decided we were going to wing this trip because a lot of things had changed on St. Barths and we didn’t know what to expect.

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After 15 hours on multiple flights, we arrived on St. Barths. It was so good to be in a familiar place. At first glance everything looked great but as we drove through the town to our cottage, I saw and felt the aftermath of a category 5 hurricane that had happened less than 6 months ago. A rubble pile next to the airport contained a few demolished cars and a twisted up plane. Palm trees were devoid of fronds. When I looked up into the hills at the once stately villas, so many were missing roofs, had broken windows or were all boarded up. Two staples in the small town of St. Jean, The Eden Rock Hotel and Nikki Beach were both closed and being rebuilt. A crane stood high above Eden Rock and there were wooden barricades painted in their signature red saying #SolidasaRock and #StBarthsStrong. The Mercedes SUVs that chauffeured guests were covered up. Seeing this new side of St. Barths was like seeing a movie star without make up – still beautiful, but more real. This was St. Barths unfiltered. While the devastation was abundantly clear and the rebuilding efforts were rampant, I immediately felt an easier laid-back energy. The once buzzing island was humming. Less glitz and glamour and more “take me as I am”. St. Barths had been humbled, and it was more stunning than before in a different way.

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My husband’s bag didn’t make it onto the plane, so as soon as we got to the Island, we had to go shopping. This is where the plot twists. I've never seen people happier to see me.  Everywhere we went in town, the shop keepers were so happy and chatty and profusely thanking us for coming to the island. In particular, I heard over and over, “Thank you for coming to see us.” Us meant the Island and its people. In the past, I never felt that the two were connected because it felt more aloof. Locals used to have this expectation that people would come no matter what. This time was very different. It felt more connected and people seemed to be more interested in us.

In the first few days we made our rounds on the Island to our favorite places. Most of the shops and restaurants in the main towns of Gustavia and St. Jean were all pretty much up and running and most of the beaches remained untouched. From that perspective, the Island was business as usual. However, there were noticeably less people on the island. And less super yachts. I used to love walking around the Gustavia Marina gawking at the 100+ foot yachts. The Marina was very vacant with some slips filled with more modest boats. This confirmed the articles that said jet setters opted out this year. It was a welcome change because it felt less pretentious. The slowdown of tourism on the Island produced a positive result on our trip. We could eat at any restaurant we wanted at any time. Places we could never get into in the past because they were booked had prime tables for us at a reasonable dinner hour. In prior years we used to go to dinner at 9pm at hard to get into places and we were exhausted and cranky at dinner! On this trip, no matter where we dined, everyone was happy that we came to see them!

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While we were there a lot the iconic hotels were still closed and rebuilding: The Eden Rock, The Christopher, Le Toiny and Le Sereno were most notably absent. The Hotel Christopher was set to reopen while we were there and it was a big deal for the Island. The night before we arrived The Christopher’s newly built restaurant caught fire and burned down and the newly constructed pool was trashed as a result. The fire caused them to push their reopen date to November 2018 and they had to quickly find villas for their impending guests. It was a huge blow to the Island because The Christopher was one of the first hotels to have power and running water after the storm and it wasn’t so devastated, so it housed many workers early on who came to rebuild other Island properties when there were no other places to stay. The hotel was working so hard to reopen and everyone was really excited for it because it was symbolic of the rapid recovery efforts. After the fire, the Island residents were very emotional when they talked about it.

 

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Once I started picking up on this trend that there was a softer, gentler and more human side of St. Barths, I wanted to learn more. I had some good conversations with Abi since we stayed on their property for the week. She and her family were on the Island during the Hurricane; she gave me a little bit of a play by play of how it all went down when the super storm hit and the weeks that followed. She said she had never seen or experienced anything like the devastation they had. She said the Island was practically crippled and it forced the community to rely more on each other. The streets were filled with rubble that took days to clear. A lot of people lost cars, roofs and flooding ruined possessions. If someone had power before their neighbors, they gathered there. If someone had water, other people came over to get some or bathe. People who didn’t know their neighbors got to know them quickly. There were no other options.

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The category 5 storm weeded out people and businesses that were not truly invested in the Island. Some large hotels just took their insurance payout and split. They haven’t rebuilt and it’s not clear if they will even come back. The people who stayed really dug in. They are the true locals and those are the people we were encountering in the shops and restaurants. They wanted to talk about their experiences and they wanted to get to know us. They were proud of their Island and they were so happy to have us. The sentiments and observations about post Irma St Barths were universal. The devastation produced a more intimate and interdependent community. A community, some said, had been lacking in the past.  A lot of people left, but the ones who stayed, have grown stronger and they are all working together to rebuild the Island. Abi said so much had changed and little by little she said it is for the better. A couple people I spoke to said that no matter what happens in the future for St. Barths, they hope this more intimate community feeling stays. It’s what the Island needed. With the bad, came a lot of good. A few told me they truly feel like survivors. From all the pictures and videos I saw online after the hurricane, I believe it.

I’m so glad we made the effort to go to St. Barths this year. The trip was a blessing because I fell a little more in love with the Island after seeing a new side of it. There was an abundance of gratitude, the tourists were more subdued and everything felt more authentic. I got a precious rare glimpse of the Island while it was emerging from a place of struggle. I hope the humility and unity that emerged after the storm won’t be forgotten as the Island builds back up. In a few months from now, all the grand hotels and hotspots will be open, probably better than before. Yachts will fill the Marina. The jet setters will return. St Barths will continue to be what it always was: An idyllic beach island with chic French culture.

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Ky West