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Room Number: Where to Stay in St. Barts for a Winter Getaway

In her column for The Hollywood Reporter, travel expert Melissa Schwartz of Destination Happiness picks the best room just far enough away from the crowd.

Hotel St. Barth - Isle de France
Courtesy of LVMH Hotel Management

In her column Room Number, travel expert Melissa Schwartz of Destination Happiness -- whose client roster ranges from top agents to Wall Street titans -- reveals her favorite rooms in a different location on the entertainment industry travel circuit.

In just a few weeks, New York and L.A.’s bold-face crowds will descend for the holidays on the spectacular island of Saint Barthelemy (usually abbreviated as St. Bart’s, or St. Barth’s as the French call it, or “SB” as we will also name it for brevity’s sake). But unless visitors are arriving by yacht, a trip to SB really starts on the neighboring island of St. Maartin, where you fly in from your city of embarkation and transfer for the last leg of the journey to St. Barth’s (a “Territorial collectivity” of France, SB has as its official currency the Euro, although, given that the majority of visitors come from North America, the U.S. dollar is graciously welcome everywhere…).

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Most visitors will then climb aboard a twin-prop, 19-seat Winair Airlines de Havilland Twin-Otter (or on St-Barth Commuter) for the 10-12 minute jaunt to SB that’s a bit of a roller coaster ride. It’s not the flight itself, but the white-knuckle (and for some, tummy-churning) landing that is legendary: at only 2,100 feet above sea level, SB has the shortest runway in all the Caribbean, and to get to it, the plane must fly through a gap between two peaks, drop down rapidly in rather dramatic fashion, and jump on the brakes quite hard — you don’t want your first swim at the island to take place in the Baie de Saint Jean literally at the end of the runway (but don’t worry, commuter accidents are very rare, especially given the volume and frequency of landings during the very busy winter holiday season. For thoseless adventurous, there are private boats and ferries that can also get you to SB, albeit slower -- about 45 minutes or so -- and perhaps bumpier, depending on the mood of the seas.

When your heart rate finally settles down to its normal rhythm, the next phase of your roller ride begins when you start your drive to the home of our Room Number of the week, the celebrated Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France (B.P. 612, 97098 Saint-Barthelemy-Cedex). From the airport to the elegantly simple loggia of the hotel, the drive (all of about 10 minutes or so) feels like a romp through a championship slalom course, with twists and turns up and down the mountainous roadway that circumnavigates the island. After gunning through the concluding hairpin turn to reach the final short drive to the hotel, you let out an exhilarated grin. You have finally arrived at one the most exquisite (and rather exclusive) locations on Planet Earth.

And as of July 31, this celebration is secure for the indefinite future because as of that date the hotel was purchased by LVMH (Louis Vuittton Moet Hennessy), the purveyors of ultimate luxury, with consumer brands including the eponymous leather goods and spirits houses, as well as fashion icons Givenchy, Celine, Fendi, Pucci, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, as well as jewelry/timepiece stars such as TAG Heuer and Bulgari. With company like this, the hotel is sure to benefit from the company’s dedication to innovation in the luxury goods sector (and should we be surprised to find a bottle of fine Hennessy cognac on our beautifully appointed bureau for a bit of a nightcap, and perhaps a Givenchy purse in the gift shop?).

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You alight from your vehicle and slowly mount the gently flowing white marble steps (next to a softly bubbling fountain) to the open air reception area where you are warmly, yet enthusiastically, greeted by the exceptional staff, welcoming you like family (so many guests come back year after year they really are like family and receive not just a cordial handshake, but a continental double buss on both cheeks) to this oceanside gem with its 40 rooms, suites and villas (daily rates range from 510 Euro to 12,000 Euro). Picture whitewashed whites, subtle grays, azure blues, soft unpolished marble, warm barefoot–comfy French chene oak flooring and decking.  next to the reception area, a soaring arch-roofed sculpture gallery lined with white linen-upholstered carved benches, gentle plantings and majestic columns leading directly to the lounge area surrounding the pool (the main hotel building, fresh and new, was completely renovated in late 2011), and then, mere stepsaway, to the object of your St. Barth desires: the beach. The famous Flamands Beach.

After a welcoming champagne and a cold cloth to mop your brow, you are then personally escorted by your host (which could be the enchanting and charming Elodie Blanchard Laplace, the directrice des relations presse) several steps to the adjoining two-story Beach Suite building, just completed in November 2008 and refurbished annually. At the top of the stairs, tucked into the corner furthest removed from the sounds of your fellow travelers hanging out at the beach bar down below or lollingabout in the sugary sand is our 1,500-square-foot Room Number, Room 41 Upper Terrace Beach Suite (daily rate from 1,800 Euro to 5,010 Euro, depending on season). Understated yet elegant, this one-bedroom suite feels so much like your own private beach home you can’t wait to move in all your flip flops, bathing (and après-beach, too) costumes (maybe a new Pucci that you picked up at the marvelous intimate hotel boutique, ofcourse), sand buckets and shovels, sea shell collection and other personal treasures, to seal the deal. But what you really can’t wait to do is ease yourself into your own private plunge pool with its infinity edge (yes, a plunge pool on the second floor!) and stare out over Flamand Beach at the calming ocean just beyond as you float serenely. After your soak, you can wash away the rest of your cares in your private outdoor shower on the deck next to your pool.

Back inside, the just-renovated stylish, graceful and unassuming (almost sparingly simplistic) interiors beckon you to retreat and rejuvenate from the sand and the sun. Pale natural-toned French fabrics and linens cover the living room couches and chairs (with their striped throw pillows with just enough color to offset the monochromatic tones of the other furnishings), just made for lounging under its cathedral ceiling, with its air stirring under the off-white, almost imperceptible tropical ceiling fan.  With its tremendous picture window’s vista of the ocean beyond, you feel like you are gazing at an Imax 3-D vision of world, but this one is for real (no red/green glasses required, but perhaps an iced highball glass will enhance the spectacle even more…!).  The bedroom coddles in the same delicate shades and soft fabrics, but with a pale splash of color in the light lavender bench at the foot of the bed.  The large master bath entices features an unpolished marble floor, oversized classic tall-sided stone soaking tub, glass enclosed shower, sculptural fountain, beautifully framed prints of ancient urns that echo the tub and fountain, double vanity (so both of you can admire your healthy tanned glow at the same time). This is a Room Number you cannot ever forget.

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But to help you ease back into the rest of world according to Saint Barth, here are five more treats you cannot miss:

1. La Cabane de L’Isle de France, at the Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France
We cannot help but showcase the lunch restaurant at our Room Number hotel for so many reasons. Most guests will slip off their sandals to approach their white linen-draped table, as the whole restaurant is set delightfully in the sand just above the beach (and directly next to the bar area), protected from the formidable island sun by a white-washed vaulted tented canopy. The food, prepared under the masterful direction of executive chef Yann Vinsot (originally from Brittany along the French coastline where he fell under the spell of the magic of the produce of the sea, which influenced him to create but keep things fresh and simple; then with stops along the way to hone his craft in three-Michelin-star establishments in Burgundy and Strasbourg before falling in love with St. Barth) reflects the freshness and open-air ambience of its beach side setting: the signature iced pea soup served with prosciutto ham and garlic-flavored croutons; a superb grilled mixed grill of salmon, local mahi mahi, fresh yellow fin tuna and shrimp; a surprising rack of barbequed ribs (yes, real ribs in the French Caribbean…) with the best thrice-fried French fries you’ll ever have; a mouth-watering very light, very simple Asian influenced tableside-prepared wok dish of fresh-from-the-garden vegetables mixed with tender chicken and just-caught shrimp, and on and on. Dessert is the piece de resistance: you will not know whether to drink up or spoon down the hot chocolate mousse with vanilla bean ice cream: absolutely heaven in a gorgeous glass. Chef Vinsot clearly knows his stuff, as his food has attracted the likes of Jay Z and Beyonce (four times for lunch during their recent villa stay; Mr. Z favored the pea soup and ribs, while Ms. B chose the breast of chicken with lemon, rosemary, ginger served with sauteed fresh vegetables); Richard Gere came for breakfast; renowned designer/architect Philippe Starck has enjoyed the chef’s repast; well-known French actor Gerard Depardieu apparently couldn’t make up his mind what to choose from the incredible menu, as he partook in the ribs, Colorado lamb chops with mustard sauce and chicken (don’t know if he still had room for dessert, too, but we hope he didn’t miss the mousse…).

2. Bonito (Rue Lubin Brin, Gustavia 97133 St. Barthelemy)
Chef Laurent Cantineaux brings his heady continental/Latino mixed roots -- via Paris (at Guy Savoie), New York (protege of famed chef Daniel Boulud) and Caracas, Venezuela -- to his very new, very chic and fashionable, yet relaxed beach house living-room-atmospheric (enhanced by perfectly-tuned swaying electronica by the nightly DJs) restaurant. Picture slowly enjoying a delightfully fresh wahoo ceviche garnished with sweet potatoes and popcorn (yes, chef wants you to have as much fun as he is having, too!) while gazing at a miraculous sunset overlooking the picturesque Gustavia harbor. The open air space with cozy rattan (yes, rattan that is actually comfy and cozy) and other islan- style ladder-back wooden chairs, and mostly white (offset by blue striped pillows) canvas banquettes along the terrace railing is the perfect setting for chef Laurent’s fusion cooking, where you can travel among eight choices of freshly-caught ceviches, tartars and “traditos” to entrees from the sea including pan-seared filet of Chilean Sea Bass with Maple Sirup (chef’s spelling, not ours) eggplant, cucumber, soy and basil butter sauce, to entrees from “la terre” including a perfectly seared Black Angus New York steak with Yellow Peruvian Potato Cookie, Jelly Ear mushrooms, red wine and shallot sauce (this dish seems to move from appetizer, aperitif, main course and dessert, all on one plate…), to magnifique French-inspired pastries from Napoleon Pear Mille-Feuilles with Maple Syrup (another variation of his spelling) cream and brown-butter ice cream, to a Pineapple and Mango Tartarwith fresh coriander and lime sorbet; all enough to crinkle the eyes of themost jaded Parisian patisserie aficionado on the Boulevard Saint-Germain from a giant smile of pleasure. Chef Laurent is clearly focused on reaching the top of his world, both figuratively and literally, as his Bonito is located on the top of the hill overlooking the harbor, and his visionary new 10,000-square-foot Miami venture, Juvia Miami Beach (awarded Design of the Year by Esquire magazine), is located on the penthouse floor of its Lincoln Road building; both placeslooking out to the future and starting at the top.

3. Black Ginger (Rue Samuel Fahlberg, Gustavia)
This is really a scoop. This restaurant is so new, barely a month old, that the buzz is barely a whisper. While already getting busy with locals and a few adventurous travelers looking for the hottest and newest, this genuine Thai restaurant delights with its delicious traditional cuisine (try its Kai Sate chicken brochettes in peanut sauce, and their enticing Miengkram shrimp, lemon, ginger and coconut bouchees) spiced up with local fresh fish (but prepared with exotic style), such as Pia Pik Thai Dam(black pepper Mahi Mahi; sounds delectable, but have an oral fire extinguisher nearby just in case…).  The interior is fetching, with warm oaken floors, open-to-the-sky roof treatments, huge dome-shaped lighting fixtures, lots and lots of greenery; the whole place feels like you’re sitting in a native retreat near the edge of the beach in Phuket.

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4. O’ Corail (Grand Cul de Sac, St. Barthelemy)
So here’s the age-old question:  where does a world class chef go to escape for his own lunch (or dinner on Fridays and Saturdays)? Well, chef Vinsot from SB-Isle de France goes to O’Corail. And why does he go there (along with other chefs and those in the know)? Because the food is Caribbean (with a Creole accent) done just right (how about “sea” kabobs with chorizo, passion sauce and tamarind; lobster and fish cooked au gratin with vegetables and creamy curry sauce, or a simply grilled beef rib steak with green pepper orblue cheese sauce; or when you just need some plain old easy-on-the-tongue comfort food, a ham and cheese Panini…); the wine list, while not extensive, hits the right notes with its tasty French selections (just enough to make a renowned French chef feel right at home). But there’s much more (or less, depending on how you look at it): O’Corail is essentially a beach-front shack, where you can lounge with your feet practically in the lovely warm shallow waters of the sandy Cul de Sac lagoon, very casual, very laid back, very fun. Odette in the kitchen and behind the bar, and brother Patrick, locally-famous professional angler and deep sea fishing guide who provides the fresh-to-the-table and still wiggling fish for your lunch (and who also runs the next-door Ouanalao Dive Center, a textbook-beautiful place for scuba diving, sea kayaking, kite surfing lessons, and other delightful ways to get soaked (literally, not figuratively), own and operate this perfectly located snack-restaurant-island bar, an ideal spot for breakfast, lunch, or just a cooling beverage to ward off the heat from the rays of the West Indies sun.

5.  The St. Barth’s Night Scene
Days at SB are for sunning, swimming, shopping, lounging, and a bit of imbibing; but the nights (after sumptuous and delicious dining; see 1-4 above!) are for partying, dancing, more lounging, and lots more imbibing. This is a DJ scene, with local (and some imported) talent ruling the nights, and local (and visiting) inhabitants following their favorite turntable-ists.  There’s a party somewhere every night, but we love the weekends: on Friday, chill  at Bonito, with DJ’MaXx doing Deep House; on Saturday, the focus is on the scene at myth-making Le Ti (Pointe Milou), raucously infamous for guests spontaneously throwing off their inhibitions (even donning club-provided wigs/costumes to help mask super egos and let the ids run wild) and dancing on the tabletops (oh, it’s a Caribbean-style restaurant, too, but many go primarily to dance, dance, dance ‘til you drop to lotsa tunes from various DJs); on Sunday head to Nikki Beach for Yo-One Sutter Musik (originally from France) who brings his Groove on (do you wanna dance?) to this luxurious haven well-known for its plush beach beds and trademark teepees, with sister locations in Cabo, Ibiza, Mallorca, Marrakech, Miami Beach, and thatother legendary saint, St. Tropez.  The beach beds may come in handy after the sun goes down, too…

Contact Melissa Schwartz at: melissa@yourdestinationhappiness.com

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