Caribbean blue: Island style elegance



Where am I? The coat of arms I'm looking at offers no definitive answer. Its escutcheon bears three French fleurs-de-lis, three Swedish crowns, and the Maltese Cross, while along its ribbon is written 'Ouanalao'. France, Sweden, Malta and somewhere I wouldn't be able to place on a map. It's confusing, to say the least. Of course I know where I am, though no thanks to that heraldry. I'm in St Barthelemy, aka St Barts (Ouanalao turns out to be the Caribs' name for the island), a premium hump of extinct volcano at the top of the Leeward chain in the eastern Caribbean, just 21sq km and home to fewer than 8,000 souls.

I've come to sample a little Caribbean style in France's ritziest outpost, to knock back Puligny-Montrachet in the heat of the tropical sun. And I've arrived in appropriate style, on a new flight with Tradewind Aviation. This US-based airline now connects Antigua, one of the main gateways to the region for British travellers, with St Barts in under an hour.

Yet, standing on a street of quaint gingerbread cottages in the capital Gustavia, I seem to have stumbled upon the most exotic quarter of Sweden, too. For a tin plaque on the wall tells me I am, at once, on the Rue du Bord de Mer and the Ostra Quayen. And amid the stone buildings with their brightly coloured clapboard and shingle cladding, which line the neat grid of streets first laid out between the mountains and the sea by the Swedes in the 1790s, I spy an example of Gustavian style in the shape of an overhanging gallery, which still provides passers-by with much needed shade.

You don't expect to find Swedish heritage in the Caribbean. Indeed, St Barts was the Scandinavian kingdom's only conquest in these parts (other than a brief spell ruling Guadeloupe). In fact, the Swedes did a swap. The French, who first settled the island in 1648, only to find it had poor soil, gave it up to Gustaf III in 1785 in return for lucrative trading rights in the port of Gothenburg. (This wasn't the first time the French had sold on the island. The Knights of Malta had previously bought it in 1651 but were slaughtered five years later by the Caribs.)

Still, the Swedes made the best of it, by turning their attention to St Barts's splendid natural harbour, a large cove sheltered by mountains. They created a duty-free port, open to all ships and nationalities, which thrived when other islands limited who could access their waters during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

And though the island's fortunes have been mixed over the intervening centuries — the opening of more free ports in the area prompted the Swedes to hand back the territory to the French in 1878 — the ruse to create a tax-free haven continues to profit the island today. Where clipper ships once filled the harbour, I see superyachts disgorging passengers to browse Gustavia's designer boutiques and stock up on essentials at Chanel and Cartier.

St Barts's current good fortune has been boosted, too, by the development of another moneyspinner: luxury tourism. The seeds were sown with the arrival in 1945 of the London-born adventurer and playboy Rémy de Haenen. He swooped down to the island in his two-seater plane, hopping over a cliff to land on a short strip of grass by St Jean's Bay. By doing so he simultaneously identified the spot for the island's future airport and created the necessity for special training for every pilot who flies in the small aircraft that can set down here.

This is the second shortest runway in the Caribbean, after that belonging to the nearby Dutch island of Saba — also De Haenen's creation — and regularly figures among the top five most dangerous airstrips in the world. The local taxi drivers make good money taking tourists to wait beneath the cliff to see, close up, a plane jump over them to make the daredevil final descent. While you'd think such a perilous entrance would discourage visitors, the clearing of an airstrip in fact signalled the slow beginnings of St Barts's tourism industry. In 1953, De Haenen bought a rocky outcrop in St Jean's Bay and built a small guesthouse on it, Eden Rock, where his style of remote luxury attracted the likes of Robert Mitchum, David Rockefeller and the King of Sweden.

With the airstrip finally concreted in the 1970s, the gentle flow of visitors began to form a tide. Now, 70,000 come to stay in the island's villas and hotels each year, while a further 130,000 call by in boats. (Kate Simon/The Independent)

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