Who ever 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 iconic Eden Rock hotel.
Playground: Eden Rock Hotel (above) is owned by Pippa Middleton’s in-laws
Now that the party crowds have moved on, this gorgeous island is ideal for a pampering break, blissfully pairing the indulgences of the Cote d’Azur with the warmth and vivid colours of the Caribbean.
There’s no escaping its high price tag, but the hedonism is classy and seductive — St Barths is a soigné isle, where they heat the pools and chill the red wine, and where it’s a lot easier to buy a frou-frou bikini than a baguette.
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, and you can bet your woolly socks the snowed-in Scandinavians still rue the day, in 1878, when they sold this little speck of paradise.
Pippa Middleton paddle boarding
Framed by bougainvillea and palm trees, St Bartholomew’s delivers an amusing coup de theatre at noon, when its church bells ring Praise To The Lord, The Almighty across the Gallic tin-roofs. What will they proclaim on Brexit Day, I wonder?
‘Don’t come here at Christmas!’ warns Mandie Vere Nicoll, the English co-owner of Hotel Le Toiny on the island’s Cote Sauvage. She’s lived here for 20 years and we meet when she kindly gets off her sunlounger to settle a dispute my wife and I are having about what islands you can spot from its Beach Club (Saba, St Eustatius and St Kitts, we learn).
‘This is my office,’ she says with a grin, pointing to a palm-roofed palapa, where her petit chien Gladys is standing guard.
Mandie’s advice is sound. Fly in now and you’ll find it’s much easier to get into restaurants, plus, there’s no shortage of hire cars.
When our hotel quotes £95 for a day’s car rental, I simply get on the phone (as we’re in the EU, there’s no roaming charges) and, the next morning, a local firm named Gumbs delivers a tres sportif Mini Countryman for just £52.
Driving is 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 countless trucks, vans and cement mixers roaring around as the island rebuilds after the devastation of Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
There’s little evidence of storm damage to be seen now, but it’s still taken St Barths more than a year to get its mojo back.
THREE OTHER FRENCH CARIBBEAN IDYLLS…
Split between French and Dutch sides, this island is a lively holiday hub with watersports, good beaches and nightlife. Newly opened Belmond La Samanna has an excellent spa and sits and beside the gorgeous sands of Baie Longue. belmond.com
A popular stop on Caribbean cruises, mountainous Martinique takes rum-making very seriously. Habitation Clement is one of the best distilleries to visit and there are terrific scenic drives inland. onyxtravel.co.uk
The location for BBC1 crime drama Death In Paradise (which screened its last episode this week), butterfly-shaped Guadeloupe is a happy mix of beaches, rainforest and gourmet cuisine. inspiringtravelcompany.co.uk
Eden Rock won’t be unlocking its illustrious doors until winter 2019, but the majority of the island’s 28 hotels have reopened, looking better than ever. A quarter of these are five-star, with lavish rooms, gastronomic restaurants and bouncy staff in white uniforms.
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 10 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.
Elegant Resorts (elegantresorts.co.uk, 01244 897581) offers seven nights at Le Sereno St Barth, from £3,995 pp, including breakfast, transfers and flights.