The renowned escape for the well-heeled has come back in inimitable style—with extraordinary villas, chic beach hotels, and fantastic food.
The typical flight into St. Barts ends with a heart-stopping drop over a hillside traffic circle, the plane's wheels almost scraping the tops of cars, onto one of the shortest runways in the Caribbean. It's a fitting welcome to this little island of extremes, just scary enough to summon a jolt of adrenaline—and possibly a small gasp.
That feeling tends to stay with you as you travel the island's winding, narrow roads that hug cliffs with little or no shoulder. Everything about St. Barts is dramatic, from the sleek superyachts bobbing in Gustavia harbor to the expansive (and expensive) white villas with red roofs and open porches perched on the hillsides.
The prices for just about everything can be shocking, too, as well as the celebrities who are likely to show up at the next table. (Wait, is that Beyoncé?) But what makes this island so unique is its geography. Its 14 white-sand beaches, most of which have little to no development and very few people, are tucked into a rugged volcanic landscape. It's tough to grow anything here and tough to get to—a combination that historically made the island unattractive to colonists and developers
This may also be why the people of St. Barts are so resilient, not unlike the coconut palms and flamboyant trees that thrive in the rocky soil. When the eyewall of Hurricane Irma slammed into the island on September 6 with sustained winds of 200 miles per hour, most of the hotels, rental properties, and restaurants were badly damaged, not to mention hundreds of homes.
Miraculously, no one was killed, but there was so much debris in the streets that lifelong residents didn't even recognize their own neighborhoods. In most parts of the island there was no water or electricity for 18 days, but the resourceful islanders were undeterred. "The winds ended about 8:15 in the morning," says David Thyssen, a property manager for WIMCO Villas. "By 8:30 everyone was out trying to get debris off the road."
Marina Morel, who runs the Shellona Beach Club on the edge of Gustavia, lost not only the front half of her restaurant but also most of the beach, which had to be rebuilt using imported sand. With no one available to do the renovations, her crew of cooks, bartenders, and waiters did much of it themselves. "Sanding tables, varnishing chairs, putting up walls, doing electrical work—we did everything," Morel says.
WATCH: The Best Warm-Weather Vacations You Can Take This Year
Now Shellona is back to being one of the hottest lunch spots on St. Barts, serving up an inventive Greek menu while a DJ plays techno music under a canopy of white umbrellas.
As dozens of restaurants have reopened, St. Barts has quickly reclaimed its status as one of the best dining destinations in the Caribbean. Eating is sport here; hot spots like Bonito, L'Esprit, and Orega up the ante with adventurous, modern takes on French Caribbean cuisine.
Meanwhile, local favorites like Le Grain de Sel (near Saline Beach) and Eddy's serve delicious Creole food at reasonable prices. There's also Le Select, the legendary dive bar in Gustavia that Jimmy Buffett called his "office" for years, where you can order a pair of margaritas for $10. The bar's credo, painted on a sign above the door: "Avoiding progress since 1949."
"To really get a feel for the island, you must go to Le Select and have a beer," says David Sierra, the general manager of Hôtel Manapany in the village of Anse de Caye. "This is the real St. Barts."
The Manapany was more than halfway through a major renovation when Irma hit, breaking the pool in half and destroying the beachside spa. Sierra spent a terrifying night during the storm with his family. "All the roof from my neighbor came onto my roof," says the French native, "so it was very loud—pow, pow, pow, pow. I will never forget this noise."
Sierra has operated five-star properties all over the world, from Tunisia to St. Tropez, but says he's never seen a stronger, more resourceful community than the people of St. Barts. "It is a small island, so everyone was very motivated to help." The Manapany reopened this spring, after seven months of renovations. Its colorful, modern rooms are nestled into a rocky hillside facing the ocean. You have to drive down a steep, narrow road with a few crazy turns to get there, but it's worth it.
Tradewind Aviation, known for its excellent pilots and comfortable, eight-seater prop planes, connects daily to the Gustav III Airport from Antigua and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Winair and St. Barth Commuter connect daily from St. Martin; Air Antilles connects daily from Guadaloupe and Martinique.
Just five minutes from the airport and near the glitz and bustle of Gustavia, Hôtel Manapany hides away on Anse de Cayes bay with a charming bohemian elegance. Its 43 rooms and suites have ocean views, wide porches, and colorful, sophisticated interiors. Rates start at $508.
On a verdant ridge overlooking Flamands Beach, Villa Marie Saint-Barth has 18 bungalows and villas done in impeccably chic West Indian style. Rates start at $499.
If you're traveling with family, honeymooning, or just want more space and privacy, the villas on St. Barts are extraordinary. Most have private pools, ocean views, and open-air living spaces with amenities like outdoor showers and satellite TV (if you must). More than 80 percent of the island's approximately 800 villas have reopened; the remaining 20 percent is projected to open by December. WIMCO Villas provides personalized concierge services for its portfolio of 360 villas (including preferential restaurant reservations and beach service).
The island's famed resorts, among the most severely damaged properties, return in force for high season (the two weeks of Christmas and New Year's) and beyond. Hotel Le Toiny has added villas to its mix, and reopens in October. Le Sereno and Le Barthélemy plan to reopen in November. While Eden Rock-St. Barth rental villas are already welcoming guests, the resort property will reopen on December 22, the same day as Cheval Blanc St. Barth Isle de France. Le Guanahani will reopen in 2019.