St. Barts is back with a bang: The Caribbean hotspot’s comeback story

CNN  — 

The Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy, typically just called St. Barts, is having a comeback.

The island, a favorite travel spot for celebrities, the rich and the who’s who in general, is once again poised for visitors following damage from 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

Though the storm’s impact wasn’t as bad as it was on Puerto Rico and some other islands, many of St. Barts’ 28 hotels were hard hit and forced to close. Most have reopened today and look even better than they did before Irma.

St. Barthélemy is a Caribbean island that's part of the West Indies and one that caters to the high-end traveler.

The isle, an overseas collectivity of France and part of the Leeward Islands, has a population of almost 10,000 people and is roughly 9.6 square miles in size.

Gustavia is the capital and main town, and the rest of the island is defined by hilly terrain and curvy, winding roads. Tourism is St. Barts’ main industry, according to Nils Dufau, the president of the St. Barts Tourism Committee and a vice president with the local government.

Travelers vacation here to see and be seen – and to enjoy the 17 white sand beaches and attractions such as snorkeling and boating.

But St. Barts has plenty more to offer beyond these classic island lures. Here, the top five reasons to plan a St. Barts getaway in 2019:

The glamorous hotels

With their celebrity clientele (Beyoncé, Jon Bon Jovi, Gwen Stefani and Miranda Kerr are among the regulars) and photogenic settings, the hotels in St. Barts – most of which hold less than 60 rooms – are the stuff of legend. They’re tourist attractions in and of themselves.

Expect sticker shock with room rates. But if money is no object, rest assured that these properties are some of the most chic places in the world.

Many have been reconstructed after the hurricane and have a shiny new look and new amenities, too. Even if you’re not a guest (more on affordable accommodations later), you can still drop in for a meal or a drink and rub elbows with a swanky crowd.

Who knows? You may even catch a star sighting or two while you’re there.

What storm? The rebuilt Le Sereno is the perfect place to relax.

Our top picks include:

Le Sereno, a 39-room property on the beach at Grand Cul de Sac, was heavily damaged after the hurricane and has been rebuilt. It has added six rooms post-Irma and also has a new seafood-heavy, feet-in-the-sand restaurant as well as a new bar, spa, gym and boutique selling menswear, swimwear and an impressive collection of cigar boxes.

The aesthetic here is contemporary but laid back with sustainable wood and stones throughout. Renowned French interior designer Christian Liaigre is behind the custom-made furniture, both in the public spaces and guest rooms.

Le Sereno, Grand Cul de Sac BP 19; 888 LE SEREN

From $1662 per night
Rates provided by
Le Toiny's Beach Club is the property's latest draw.

Le Toiny, situated on a hillside on the secluded bay of Anse de Toiny, faces the sea and is awash in white, giving it a crisp, cool feel. The 22 rooms are like minivillas: Each has a bedroom, a spacious living room with a sitting area and kitchenette and a large deck with a plunge pool and plenty of lounge chairs.

The new Beach Club is the property’s latest big draw.

Located on the water about a two-minute car ride or seven-minute walk from the main area, guests can access the club via the resort’s free shuttle. Open only during the day, the glam Beach Club includes a pristine strip of sand with lounge chairs for relaxing and a restaurant serving light dishes such as tuna tartar and chicken skewers.

Le Toiny, Anse de Toiny, + 800 680 0832

From $1876 per night
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The Sisley Spa at Hotel Christopher is the spot to get away from it all.

Hotel Christopher, on the island’s quieter northern shore, has 42 rooms and three new villas coming this year. Design touches have a natural feel and include stone, wood, resin and gray marble. There’s a large pool, along with two restaurants: the casual Mango Beach Club, offering salads and other light dishes, and Christo Lounge, where the focus is on organic meats and vegetables.

The Sisley Spa is one of the best spots in town to indulge in a massage or facial. Its five treatment rooms face the sea and have outdoor changing areas with showers.

Hotel Christopher, Pointe Milou, 9 St. Barthelemy BL 97133; +590 590 27 63 63

From $2219 per night
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The rooms in Cheval Blanc have a notable mix of styles.

Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH, can lay claim to being the most upscale digs on the island (at least, until Eden Rock finally reopens) and has the advantage of being on the ocean but secluded amid lush gardens.

Jacques Grange designed the beachfront rooms and suites of the 61 total rooms (42 are open with the rest slated to debut in the fall). The rooms have touches of turquoise and furniture in a mix of styles, making them far from cookie-cutter hotel stays.

The property includes a Guerlain-branded spa, a beachfront restaurant serving excellent salads and a famous crudité and a long stretch of beach.

Cheval Blanc, Baie des Flamands; 800 810 4691

Eden Rock, the hotly anticipated iconic hotel, is expected to finally reopen in November following several delays, according to general manager Fabrice Moizan. The hotel counts Leonardo DiCaprio among its guests, along with a bevy of other bold names as regulars,

It will have 37 rooms and a remodeled Sand Bar with new menus by Jean Georges (who happens to have a house on the island).

It will also have a new Remy Bar, which is a tribute to Remy de Haenen, who owned the hotel in the 1960s, and an expanded boutique with goods from Diptyque, Hublot and other popular brands.

Eden Rock, Baie de Saint Jean; +855-333-6762

The scenic hikes and walks

While definitely sceney, St. Barts isn't all Champagne and glitter. The island's hiking trails provide a nice extracurricular activity.

Insiders know that St. Barts is a haven for hikers.

Local guide Helene Bernier says that the island has 15 hikes, ranging from gentle, 30-minute strolls to strenuous, four-hour treks.

“These hikes are a unique way to experience this beautiful island,” she says. “You’ll go through the hillsides, see wild goats and can stop at natural pools along the way and take a dip.”

As a bonus, these hikes feel like a world away from the crowds at the restaurants and hotels, perfect for taking a break from the scene. Most hotels have hiking maps on hand that detail all the possible routes.

One of Bernier’s top picks is the two-hour Petit Cul-de-Sac hike on the island’s eastern coast.

“You walk along the stunning coastline with rock formations and views of the sea, and just when it starts getting too hot, you see a natural pool and can jump in for a swim and cool off,” she says.

The local shopping

All of the shopping in St. Barts is duty-free, making it particularly attractive for travelers who enjoy retail therapy.

Gustavia is full of name-brand designer stores, but the island also has a robust homegrown boutique scene, according to Dufau of the tourism committee.

These shops are both in Gustavia and in the town of St. Jean. They sell a diverse range of goods, including handmade jewelry, bathing suits, beach coverups and casual summer staples such as shorts and T-shirts.

Local jewelry designer Fabienne Miot, who has a shop in Gustavia, is highly regarded worldwide for her handmade statement necklaces, bracelets and other baubles that use pearls and precious stones.

The skincare brand Ligne St Barth, which incorporates natural ingredients in its product line, has a shop in Gustavia and is a cult favorite. Try the lip balm, made with sugar cane.

The food

Nikki Beach Saint Barth is the sought-after beach club that also has good food.

The Caribbean has a reputation for its forgettable cuisine, but the exception has always been St. Barthelémy, where even the most discriminating travelers rave that the restaurants are second to none. There are more than 80 places to dine on in St. Barts. Many are in Gustavia, while some are set off the main road or hidden in the hills. And, of course, most of the hotels sprinkled throughout the island have on-site restaurants

Our top picks include:

Go for the view and the food. Bonito Saint Barth's ceviche is especially memorable.

Bonito Saint Barth, a popular French and Caribbean restaurant in downtown Gustavia with water views, has a menu that includes an array of raw seafood such as ceviches as well as simply prepared fish and meat dishes. The wine and cocktail list is expansive – and expensive. Dinner for two with a glass of wine or a cocktail for each is around $200.

Bonito Saint Bart, Rue Lubin Brin, Gustavia, St Barthélemy; +590 590 27 96 96

Nikki Beach Saint Barth is a party spot, yes, but the sought-after beach club on Saint-Jean beach, has good food, too. New additions include a sushi bar and a rotisserie, but the menu is wide-ranging and you can’t go wrong with the pizzas, steaks or seafood dishes. The cocktails, which err on the side of strong, are also recommended. Try the Nikki Beach Mojito made of vodka, fresh mint, watermelon and lime juice, ginger and tonic water. A meal for two with a glass of wine or a cocktail for each is around $160.

Nikki Beach Saint Barth, Baie de St Jean, +590 590 27 64 64

Tamarin is set in a picturesque garden with a towering tamarind tree as its centerpiece. Dining here is akin to a dreamy escape from the cares of the real world. The French-focused menu includes plenty of fresh and bright dishes such as yellowfin tuna with mango and toasted almonds and baked cod with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes. The lengthy wine and cocktail lists are impressive. A meal for two with a glass of wine or a cocktail for each is around $160.

Tamarin, Saline Saint-Barthélemy BL 97133; +590 590 29 27 74

François Plantation at Villa Marie, on a hillside above the Columbier coast, is a charming spot for a quiet poolside lunch. Aside from the main draw, delicious and simple French cooking, the environs are bursting with light and color, blooming bougainvillea and mango trees. Don’t fret if one of the local turtles come by. They just want a bite of your avocado toast.

François Plantation at Villa Marie, Colombier Gustavia, Saint-Barthélémy BL 97133, Gustavia; +590 590 77 52 52

The affordable side

Given its sky-high prices, St. Barts will always be out of reach for backpackers (there are no official camping facilities), but there are ways to have a trip here on a more down-to-earth budget.

Airbnb, for one, has more than 300 rentals on the island, including private rooms in palatial villas, private cottages and simple but comfortable apartments. According to data from the company, the average price for a night’s stay is $267, but many options are available for less $150.

Also, all beaches in St. Barts are public, so visitors can access for free.

Those who are renting accommodations can buy breakfast items from a grocery store (Marche U in St. Jean and ASB, with several locations, are popular go-tos) and save money on a midday meal by picking up cheese, bread and other nibbles. Add a bottle of wine, and you have a picnic lunch at the beach without breaking the bank.

You can stay in and cook dinner, too, or choose one of the more casual dining options on the island.

Try Le Select, in downtown Gustavia, for cheeseburgers, fries and other hearty fare. Papa’s Pizza is another affordable spot. After dinner, head to swanky after-dark spot Bagatelle, where the crowds dance well into the early morning hours.

Another insider tip: Visit from the end of April to mid-December, when it’s not peak season and hotels offer the lowest nightly rates as well as attractive packages.

Getting there

There are no direct commercial flights to St. Barts from the United States. Travelers can fly into the neighboring island of St. Martin and take a 15-minute shuttle flight to Saint Barthelemy Airport on either Winair or St Barth Commuter. Round-trip ticket prices are usually less than $200.

The less expensive option is the ferry: Operated by Great Bay Express or the Voyager, round-trip prices are generally between $85 and $110 a ticket for the 45 to 75 minute journey, depending on the port.

If budget isn’t of concern, the more upscale option is to fly into San Juan, Puerto Rico, and hop an eight-seat charter on Tradewind Aviation, which operates between 15 and 30 shared hourlong trips a day from San Juan to the island and is as close to a private jet experience as it gets.

Travelers are greeted by a Tradewinds concierge at the gate of their plane as soon as they land. Their luggage is looked after while they are escorted to a lounge stocked with snacks and drinks, including Champagne, while they wait for the flight.

On board, there’s more Champagne. Round-trip fare for this upscale experience runs about $1,341 a person.

Shivani Vora is a New York City-based writer who travels as often as she can, whether that means going on a walking safari in Tanzania, a mother-daughter trip with her 10-year-old in Istanbul or surfing in northern Portugal.