By Alexander Britell
There was a lively bourbon masterclass event at Gustavia’s popular 25 Quarter bar on Monday, a few hours after a luxury yacht had found its way into the harbor.
La Petite Colombe was serving warm baguettes and tartes and the sound of hillside airplane landings was back to its regular hum.
A little less than seven weeks after Hurricane Irma, St Barth is quickly getting back to normal.
The power network and water lines are back, roadways are cleared, the airport is operational and buzzing, the harbor is open and grocery stores and bakeries are already back in action. And yes, the hills are starting to green again.
But there was another milestone this weekend that says even more about the state of St Barth’s tourism product.
“We had our first arrivals this weekend,” says Stiles Bennet, president and CMO of WIMCO Villas, the Caribbean’s leading villa firm and the preeminent player in St Barth’s villa market. “We’ve already got people there who were determined to come.”
While St Barth’s hotel product is crucial, it’s the island’s villa product that has long been key to its tourism economy, from hillside retreats to beachfront cottages — in large part because much of the experience of visiting St Barth is in eating around, shopping, exploring and simply living the island’s dreamy French-Caribbean fusion lifestyle.
And with much of the island’s hotel product not planning to open until next summer, St Barth’s villas will be essential to a productive winter season. (Of course, a number of hotels will also be ready for Thanksgiving, from St Jean’s Le Village to Les Ilets de la Plage villa resort to Tom Beach, among others).
The good news? You can stay in a villa in St Barth for the holidays. Lots of them.
The vast majority of the island’s villas suffered at most exterior damage, Bennet told Caribbean Journal, with WIMCO having already done at least one inspection of each of the 385 villas it represents in St Barth.
“We have a lot of reservations in place for Thanksgiving and the holidays and we want to make sure our clients’ houses are in terrific shape,” he says.
WIMCO’s product available for the holidays includes everything from a three-bedroom villa overlooking Gustavia Harbor, to a five-bedroom villa with two swimming pools on Pointe Milou.
“The people of St Barth are incredibly resilient and have already made great strides in recovering from the hurricanes and readying the island for a busy tourist season,” says David Zipkin, co-owner of Tradewind Aviation, which flies multiple daily flights (and private charters) to St Barth from San Juan. ”Despite some hotel closures, most of the restaurants are committed to re-opening soon and there will be many beautiful villas for rent starting for Thanksgiving. We are currently operating flights to St Barth and we will continue flying our normal schedule through the 2017/2018 season.”
Indeed, the island’s rebound has been such that the only thing that will largely be missing for Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations in St Barth will be its famous hotel experiences, Bennet says, like dinner at the Eden Rock’s On the Rocks restaurant and long beach lunches at the Cheval Blanc. (Both properties will not reopen until 2018, although with a wave of hotel reopenings it should be a very active summer in St Barth, too).
“The one thing we we really felt strongly about was we really felt like the restaurant community had to be there to make sure there was a great product on the beach,” Bennet says. “We wanted to make sure that in [the hotels’] absence that existed.”
Accordingly, he says, hotspots like Tom Beach’s La Plage and Shellona Beach will both be ready for Thanksgiving.
And then there’s Gustavia – St Barth’s charming Creole capital that, thanks to its somewhat protected location, wasn’t “really badly hit,” Bennet says.
There are already 35 restaurants now open in Gustavia, with plans for as many as 50 to be open by the holidays.
“The things that people really come to St Barth for, the beaches, the restaurants, the people, those are all really intact and bounced back really quickly,” Bennet says.