ST. BARTS, WEST INDIES, October 31, 2015 – Christopher Columbus discovered St. Barts on his second voyage in 1493. Andre Charneau rediscovered it in 1968. Old Chris may be better known to most people, but it was the pioneering vision of Charneau, and others like him, that uncovered the true spirit of the tiny West Indian paradise.
In the five centuries between Columbus and the mid-20th century, Sweden controlled the island between 1784 and 1878, and that influence remains an integral part of the island’s character even though today it is French. So much so, in fact, that it is often called the “St Tropez of the Caribbean.”
Since Columbus, other celebrities have followed. David Rockefeller purchased two plots in 1957. Soon after the Rothschilds arrived and built an estate in a coconut grove.
The 70s brought Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jimmy Buffet and the stars having been aligning there ever since to establish St. Barts’ as a glitzy jet-setters hideaway for the past half century.
But there is another side to St Barts. The one that Catherine Charneau understands and passionately advocates to every visitor she encounters. Catherine is co-owner of LeVillage St Jean Hotel along with her three brothers. Together, they have embraced the vision of their father Andre, and captured his entrepreneurial spirit that is the essence of the island.
LeVillage St Jean is a metaphor for the island. Everything is there, visible to the naked eye, but to appreciate it you must peel away the layers. Celebrities come and celebrities go, but St Barts and the “idea” of LeVillage are eternal.
Perhaps part of the attraction is that you have to make a little effort to visit St Barts. You must work a bit for what you get in return, but if you do, the island will reward you.
LeVillage is much the same, as are the industrious islanders who have labored to create their image and now work even harder to preserve it.
Andre Charneau was a native of Guadeloupe who came to St Barts in the late 1960s when major corporations began to infringe upon his banana business. After searching several places in the Caribbean, he settled in St Barts on a hillside overlooking St Jean Beach.
Charneau wisely chose his location to avoid the seaside which was more exposed to hurricanes. At the time, the road was little more than a pathway. Visitors were rare and the airport, which today is an attraction in its own right, had only one flight a day…if that.
Virtually everything had to be imported, including water. Ironically, even today, clean water is a precious commodity valued at about ten times the cost of other places where it is abundant. As such, the Charneau’s, and other native islanders, are dedicated environmentalists, knowing all too well the value of nature and its life-giving resources.
In the early days, Andre shipped tons of hurricane-felled timber from his native Guadeloupe to create his first bungalows. Ingeniously he equipped his construction projects with cisterns for fresh water.
Later he was the first to bring air conditioning to the island.
By 1972 he had turned a fisherman’s hut on the beach just below his property into the Beach Club, the first seaside restaurant on St Barts.
Today with 80 restaurants on the island, of which 20 are located in the capital of Gustavia, food is one of the primary attractions. Mostly French, of course, but even Jimmy Buffet’s influence will get you a great cheeseburger. There is also a huge annual international food festival in November.
Air conditioning is everywhere and now, there are several flights an hour at the air field, which is the only straight and flat place on the island.
In the beginning, LeVillage had just one bungalow, but Charneau added at least two a year until it reached its present size of 25 rooms and 2 villas.
Eventually clients such Craig Claiborne and Greta Garbo made their way to LeVillage. They too enjoyed the family atmosphere of the property as do the “friends of LeVillage” who met there years ago and now return each February.
By the time she was 18, Catherine was running the hotel, and the “family” style concept remains evident in everything LeVillage incorporates into their business philosophy.
“Day trippers see St Barts,” says Catherine who is the best public relations resource on the island, “but they don’t feel St Barts, because you have to absorb it to understand it.
Taxis are expensive. Realizing the best way to experience St Barts, the Charneaus have made special arrangements with Hertz for rental car services. All the car rental agencies are available at the airport, but Hertz will even bring a car to the port if you arrive by boat.
The biggest challenge for Catherine, her youngest brother Bertrand, their right hand assistant, Jean-Phillippe, and Bamboo, the resident mascot, in running LeVillage is to “retain its character, without losing its identity.”
That is also true for St Barts itself.
LeVillage is the only 4-star hotel property on St Barts, which translates to value for the traveling dollar. Each room is different. Many feature kitchens which allow guests to cook should they choose not to dine out every evening. Rates are seasonal.
LeVillage has no restaurant, but continental breakfast is included. Eggs, bacon and pancakes are available for a small extra charge. In addition to the soothing Caribbean views, the breakfast room also features a piano and comfortable sofas.
Today, the swimming pool has replaced one of the original cisterns. There is an exercise room and massages are also available. If you like, you can even play a rousing game of boule, or bocce ball.
As Catherine proudly notes about the ample supply of books, “We have even re-introduced reading into the culture.”
By reputation, St Barts has been called “chic”, “glamorous” and “glitzy.” Catherine Charneau has another word which is more appropriate. She calls it “quality.”
You see the magic of LeVillage and St Barts is subtlety. It’s all there, but it’s up to you to seek it out. Columbus may have “found” St Barts, but Andre Charneau and his family “discovered” it.
LeVillage St Jean is one place on St Barts where you can truly Vive la difference!
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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