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The Glorious Guanahani of St. Barts

From St. Maartin’s, it is a giddy ten minute flight on a twelve-seater that seemingly skims the sea, only to soar and then swoop down between two mountains before coming to a heart-stopping halt on an airstrip mere yards from the rolling surf.

Photos by Harvey Frommer - Click on Photos for Enlargement

Click to Enlarge - Guanahani general manager Marc Theze (left) and chef Philippe Masseglia.
Click to Enlarge - Guanahani general manager Marc Theze (left) and chef Philippe Masseglia.

"Once the pilot didn’t brake fast enough, and we ended up in the water," a fellow passenger tells us mirthfully. Is she kidding?

Happily, we disembark onto solid ground and swiftly pass through a miniature airport terminal where a handsome young man holds a sign aloft. "Guanahani," it says, "welcome" in Awarak, the language of the long lost Amerindians who populated Caribbean islands in pre-Columbian times. It is also, aptly, the name of our hotel. Dimitri, the bearer of the sign, takes our bags, escorts us to his car, and we are off on our second ten minute ride of the day. Though this one is earth bound, from the promontory heights of the winding roads overlooking an endless expanse of azure, it is no less exhilarating.

We are on St. Barthelemy, the eight square-mile island of volcanic rock known affectionately as St. Barts, that has become the favored destination of rock singers, models, and movie stars, as well as other cognoscenti who are drawn to its sophisticated French ambience, splendid scenery, and pristine beaches. Some call it the St. Tropez of the west, but the mood is far more laid back. People watching has never been a passion here, the Belgian-born Dimitri tells us. Everyone drives the same kind of car, dresses in the same casual beach-going way. It isn’t a show-off kind of place.

Over the next few days, we will discover other distinctions of St. Barts, how for one thing, it is unique among the islands of the Caribbean in that it is not burdened with the tragic legacy of institutionalized slavery.  Click to Enlarge - The Glorious Guanahani! - Photo by Harvey Frommer

There was never a plantation economy here. The original settlers who arrived in the 17th century were from Normandy and Brittany, and it is their descendents who comprise the majority of today’s resident population although the upscale shops in the capital Gustavia that sell Hermes, Cartier, and Chopard at hard-to-believe duty-free prices as well as the island’s 60 some odd gastronomic restaurants are largely owned and operated by Parisiennes. French is the official language and the cuisine and culture are decidedly French. Still an interesting Swedish influence lingers from the nearly century long period when St. Barts belonged to Sweden.

Click to Enlarge - The Glorious Guanahani! - Photo by Harvey Frommer But for the moment, we are focusing on the Guanahani as Dimitri turns off the main road, and we pass beneath a stone archway onto a rolling property of beautifully manicured grounds. This four-star property sitting on a 15 acre peninsula was built in 1986, carved out of a hilly wilderness on the Cul-de Sac Bay in the northeast part of the island. 

Guanahani is St. Barts largest resort, but it gives the impression of being a vast private estate as each of its seventy five sherbet-colored bungalows trimmed with white gingerbread in the old Antillean style are situated along winding garden pathways and hidden by wall-high hedges ablaze with bougainvillea and hibiscus. Our’s is rose-pink; inside, the two-room suite is a study in gauzy white with floors of terra cotta tile. A wall of sliding glass doors opens to a private swimming pool surrounded by a deck and lush tropical plantings.

The grounds of the Guanahani slope down to two beaches: one faces a tranquil lagoon; the other, emerging from a coconut grove and lined with umbrellas of palm fronds, looks out to the temperate bay and ocean beyond. It is here at the circular seaside bar that we meet Marc Theze, the affable, forty-ish general manager whose attitude and style stamp the Guanahani experience. Click to Enlarge - The Glorious Guanahani! - Photo by Harvey Frommer

The son of a Genovese mother and a Breton father, Theze studied art history and began his professional life in a Paris gallery. But a persistent wanderlust led him to forsake the world of fine art to seek his fortune and future in the hotel industry. He got his training through the Intercontinental chain and moved up to being second in charge at the Carlton in Cannes, and then general manager first at the Royale in Deauville and afterwards the Beach Regency in Nice.

Click to Enlarge - The Glorious Guanahani! - Photo by Harvey Frommer In February 1994, he got a call from a head hunter offering him the position of general manager at the Guanahani. "I said no because I was slated to become the president of the casino in my hotel in Nice," Theze told us. "But the casino did not materialize and some months later, a second head hunter contacted me about the same position. At this time, I thought: the same job coming twice in a six month period. Why not? I came to St. Barts. I met the woman who became my wife here. Some things are just meant to be."

One of the first things Marc Theze did when he arrived at the Guanahani was to search for a new chef. "The old timers told me about Philippe Masseglia who had been the chef here some years before. The small luxury hotel business is a very small world, you know, and so I was able to track him down to a little restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida. I called him and said ‘Everyone here speaks so highly of you, Philippe. Come back to St. Barts.’ And he said, ‘Yes, right away.’"

Click to Enlarge - The Glorious Guanahani! - Photo by Harvey Frommer Today Philippe Masseglia is the chef with the longest tenure on the island. He was but 27 years old when he first came to the Guanahani in 1989, and after two years he moved on. "I was young and wanted to see the world," he told us. "But after Marc called me and I returned, it was to a very different situation. Before I had one little kitchen; now I have two big kitchens. The chefs on the island always are in need of things, but I get whatever I need."

There are repeat guests at the Guanahani who remember Philippe from his first stint at the hotel. "I know the kinds of dishes they want, the kind of salad they like, if they want the French sandwich with the baguette," he says. "They don’t even have to ask me."

Philippe’s domain includes the shimmering white and sky-blue Indigo which serves breakfast and lunch from a poolside site overlooking the sea and the more formal Bartolomeo (named for Christopher Columbus’ brother) up a little hillside from the beach in a lush garden setting. At the Indigo, Phillipe indulges in the creation of new dishes. "We add a little Japanese, a little Mexican to the cooking. It is not only French."

But the Bartolomeo presents the greater challenge. "I had definite ideas of what I wanted in this restaurant," Marc Theze says. "Few chefs would accept advice from an outsider, even a general manager. But Philippe agreed to work with me, and we developed a cuisine together. My idea was for the Bartolomeo to be southern French because that had become very fashionable in the United States, and we were after the sophisticated American palate. When we began, we were the only place doing Provencal cooking on St. Barts; the others were serving the heavy food that was full of cream. Now everyone on the island is doing Provencal cooking.

"We change the menu many times a year," he adds, "but the cuisine remains Provencal except for a six-week period between November 1 and mid December when we have our famous food festival."

During this period, the Bartolomeo is transformed into a Burgundian dining room under the direction of Marc Meneau, the famed chef and proprietor of L’Esperance in Vezelay (dinner is included in the room rate at this time). One of Philippe’s favorites dishes from this cuisine is very thin slices of tuna in a puff pastry filled with marrow and red wine sauce. "It sounds strange," he says, "but it is very good."

L’Esperance became the subject of hot debate of late when it lost one of its three Michelin stars, and its loyal clientele took to the ramparts in its defense. Caribbean restaurants, on the other hand, are not rated by this system. "Chefs change too often on the islands," Philippe says. "Also while we use local products wherever possible, we also import from France and the United States twice a week. To reach two stars, you must buy from the market every day."

If we were handing out Michelin stars, however, Bartolomeo’s would get an easy three – hands down. True, we were beguiled by the romantic setting: a candle-lit, Caribbean-colonial style verandah with deep, round wicker chairs and cushions of sea foam and peach. A full golden moon was hanging over the sea that night, and in the piano bar, someone was singing, "And when I looked the moon had turned to gold . . ."

But such distractions aside, the dinner was in every respect beyond compare, from the tangy chilled gazpacho, to the irresistible tomato rolls baked on the premises (there went the "no-bread" vow one of us had made at the start of this trip), to the whole sea bass, flown in from France that very day, grilled to perfection with a little olive oil and lemon, and set on a platter beneath a silver dome, festooned with garlands of red and yellow hibiscus. The hostess, Nancy, who comes from Brittany, looks like a very young Ingrid Bergman and sounds like Lauren Bacall with a French accent, lifted the cover with a flourish and expertly filleted the sea bass tableside.

The rest of the meal was attentively supervised by our waiter, Bart who assisted in the selection of an excellent, crisp Poully Fuisse. A student in hotel management from Holland, he was one of two chosen by virtue of excellent grades to work as an apprentice in a hotel for five months. "The bureau that arranges apprenticeships asked where we’d like to go," he told us. "We looked at a map, and pointed to the Caribbean. They said there was a place for two on St. Barts. We knew the Dutch islands, Curacao and Aruba, but we had never heard of St. Barts. We decided to try it, and we are not sorry. It is the most beautiful of all the islands. We work hard, but we are learning a lot."

Not long ago, Sirio Maccioni, the legendary owner of Le Cirque 2000 in New York City was telling us about the hardships he faced as a young Italian who came to work in the hotel business in post-war France. Like Bart, he was selected by his hotel school to further his training in another country.

"They sent me to Paris. But it was not easy to be an Italian in Paris in the 1950’s. I only survived because I worked very hard." Reflecting on his youthful struggle, how difficult it was for foreigners to find employment, to move from one place to another, Sirio Maccioni maintains young people should travel wherever they want and be able to work wherever they want. "That is the way to avoid war," he says.

The existence of the European Community has turned Sirio Maccioni’s vision into an actual possibility for young Europeans, and St. Barts, with its warm sunny clime, beautiful beaches, and French lifestyle has benefited from the breaking down of national boundaries. In addition to Dimitri from Belgium and Bart from Holland, we met Anja from Denmark and Jenny from Sweden, Julia from Germany and Delphine from Montreal -- a virtual League of Nations of engaging, appealing, and bright young people, all part of the Guanahani family who live up to the service-oriented standard set by Marc Theze. "I’m trying to make a place where attitude makes the difference," he says. "I am very flexible in human issues but there is one thing no one can mess around with, and that is attitude with the guests."

Although not one of the young Europeans, Charles Darden is an important member of the Guanahani family too. We met him our first night at the hotel when we retreated to the piano bar in the rear of Bartolomeo to better hear the man who so movingly sang "Blue Moon" earlier in the evening and followed it with renditions of other songs by Rodgers and Hart as well as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern– the music we love best . It was a case of instant rapport, shared tastes, and fast friendship. Here is his story:

An African American from California, Charles Darden graduated from the prestigious Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia where he studied orchestral conducting. In the 1970’s, he moved to the East Village in New York City and worked as music director and conductor for Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem.

"About a dozen years ago," he told us, " I became a crossover musician, playing in restaurants and clubs. I had this job in Bridgehampton for five years, then the job went away. I had $3,000 in savings, and I said to myself, ‘Now you must do something you always wanted to do, something brave.’ I called Bobby Short who was a friend. He said "I think you should go to Cannes. I know somebody who works there.’

"So I took my tuxedo (I had always seen pictures of people in Cannes wearing tuxedos) and went to Cannes. It was the off season, but every night I’d dress up in my tuxedo, go around to the various hotels, sit down and have a drink. Meanwhile I’d make sure there was a piano, and eventually I’d say ‘Do you mind if I try out your piano?’ That’s how I got a job at the Hilton which was right next to the Carlton which was managed by Marc Theze. I stayed for three years.

"When the job finished, I went back to New York. In the middle of that year, I got a call from Marc. ‘I’m looking for a piano player. Would you like to come and work in the French West Indies?’

"I said ‘Sure, but where is the French West Indies?’"

That was four years ago. Today Charles Darden spends eight months of the year at the Guanahani and the rest in New York. He not only provides Guanahani guests with sophisticated nightly entertainment, singing in both English and French, but he has become the quasi official music-master of St. Barts, conducting the island’s Anglican church choir as well a chorus made up of St. Barts citizens who enjoy coming together in song. This gives him the chance to do not only American standards, but the classical music in which he was grounded.

"We give concerts three, four times a year," he says. "We do spirituals; we do chorales with the orchestra that is on the island every year for the music festival. I came here as a piano player who would come to any job, and I’ve stayed."

Charles Darden completes the world Marc Theze has created since he left the French Riviera scene of big hotels for an intimate luxury resort on a Caribbean island. Apparently, he has no regrets. "While I was in Nice, I had begun to realize that I really wanted to manage a smaller hotel where I could get to know the staff and the guests, something that is not possible in 300+-room properties," he says.

"Here I know my staff and guests. I enjoy meeting guests while having an aperitif at the bar in the afternoon or at the cocktail party I give every week. They are interesting people who have made a success of their lives. We used to have many people who were in show business, but lately they tend to be on yachts or in private villas. The profile of the people we have today are brokers, doctors, lawyers, CEO’s of large corporation. Forty-five percent are American, 45% European and 10% South American. It’s a good mix, it’s interesting. We have regulars, people who come back over and over. Some come every Christmas, reserving the same bungalow. Some come twice a year.

"My vision was to turn the hotel into a commercial success without it becoming a commercial hotel. We don’t go after clients to make them spend money, asking them what do you want to eat, what do you want to drink. But at the same time, I wanted it to generate sufficient revenues. The turnover was $5 million when I came, now it is $10 million. There were sixty 60 employees when I came, now there are 120. We doubled the revenue and the employees. We increased the price and increased the service, made it more upscale."

To our minds, the Guanahani is far more than just another upscale resort with all the extras of tennis courts, fitness facilities, and a range of water sports from snorkeling to sea-fishing. It is more than the beautiful oceanfront setting, more than the sublime al fresco dining, more than the luxurious accommodations, more even than the captivating French elan. What truly set the Guanahani apart for us was its delightful cast of people, each with his and her own little sense of adventure, who maintain the impeccable property, provide the perfect service, and graced our stay with their charisma and charm.

Hotel Guanahani
Grand Cul-de-Sac
97133 Saint-Barthelemy
French West Indies

Phone: (011) 590 590 27 66 60
Fax: (011) 590 590 27 70 70
Email: guanahani@wanadoo.fr
Web: http://www.stbarth.com/guana.shtm

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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