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The Guanahani of St. Barts:
A Family Affair

By
Jennifer Frommer & Jeff Schock    

On any given morning, the sun lifts from the ocean waves in a reveille that sets the tiny island in motion.  The fishermen push off from the shallow shores of Anse du Grand Cul-de-Sac and navigate the turquoise waters beyond the coral reefs. Meanwhile, backstage at the Guanahani poolside restaurant Indigo, the first pot of coffee is shared among the hotel’s dedicated staff, who commence a morning ritual that sets the pace for the Guanahani’s award-wining service and hospitality.

Dawn breaks, and the clientele is charmed with a breakfast served buffet style, 7 A.M. to 10 A.M. overlooking a tropical tableau of palm trees, blue sky and a beach raked smooth each day. You  are seduced by a steady stream of siren songs: Massive Attach, Sade and Dido; and a long gauntlet of eye opening sensations: fresh fruits and cereals, cheeses and exotic juices, and numerous “Viennoiseries,” baked much as they were hundreds of years ago.   Perusing your copy of the “News in Brief,” you hear bits of conversation spoken in different tongues by fellow guests.  
A pair of barefooted pool boys sway with the palm trees, working around the pool’s edge, polishing the crystal waters in  ballet-like motions.  Even the 45 cats seem to play a part in the hotel’s cadence, intriguing guests and “vouging” in the shadows of the lush landscape.  And so begins a new day at the Hotel Guanahani.

It was four years since our last trip to the island. Much had happened in our lives and around the world. We wondered if anything had changed on St Barts. Would the island compare to fond memories of trips past? The Guanahani would be our first resort experience on St. Barts.  Previously, we’d rented villas in different areas of the island: Vitet, Columbier, island-styled abodes built into steep mountainsides boosting spectacular views.  Although we always enjoyed the romantic seclusion of a private villa, that route is not without its perfunctory tasks: shopping, cooking, being your own bartender, and washing the dishes.

We had become fans of the island, evangelists in fact, and recommended St. Barts to our single friends and couples pondering the site of the ideal honeymoon.  We converted our parents, the oral historians and travel writers Myrna and Harvey Frommer who, when they needed a retreat from the long New Hampshire winter, took our advice and headed off to St. Barts. Then this past March, they  encouraged their youngest son and his new wife to spend their honeymoon at the Guanahani. Ian and Laura were duly enchanted. It was, they swore, the ideal honeymoon destination and plan to return one day.

It was this family circle of praise that inspired our booking the Guanahani and returning to St Barts to celebrate our birthdays in the Caribbean sun. We had just enough time to squeeze in a long weekend.

We’ve met many people, albeit fanatics of the island, who actually calculate where they are on the planet by how far they are from St Barts: New York is 1,700 miles removed, LA 3,600 with a time change. The trip can be done in a day from the east coast -- anywhere west of Denver will take you two days with a layover stateside before hopping to the Dutch side of St Martin and then on to St Barts. 

You know you’re close, ten miles close, when you climb up a three-step ladder into the hot cabin of a small ten-passenger AirCarib prop plane.  As the pilot races through his mandatory checklist, the “joie de vivre” is omnipresent as passengers exchange stories of previous trips, favorite restaurants and beaches, and the rumored parties of the rich and famous.  It’s a short flight that lands in St. Jean on an airstrip that runs straight into the sea, before making a u-turn and turning to the tiny terminal. 

Once you’ve landed on St Barts, your luggage is painlessly whisked through customs.  The Guanahani provides free pick up in their air-conditioned van to and from the airport.  But we couldn’t resist the freedom of having our own wheels to further explore the island and re-visit some of our favorite restaurants and beaches.  It’s also fun to circumnavigate the island in a leisurely 30-minute ride. We rented a relatively new, low mileage Suzuki Jeep with roof and side panels that folded over and ripped off, making the vehicle a four-wheel-drive convertible.  If you go this route - - try to get a new vehicle, and check the tires. The rough concrete roads really take a toll.  We had an inconvenient flat a few years back just as we were headed to the airport.

The trip to the Guanahani is about 15 minutes from the airport.  You share the road with wayward chickens, daredevil scooters, trucks and mini mooks.  You careen round corners that drop off a hundred feet into the ocean, putter up steep embankments and steer around blind curves. No worries, you’ll get used to the scabrous terrain and the hurried traffic after about two days. The directions are simple: head east, turn left when you see the Guanahani arch beyond Marigot, and follow the signs to the front desk.

Your first impression of the Guanahani can be deceiving. On a late Thursday afternoon, it appeared modest and quiet. You wonder what the fuss is all about as you enter the dark tranquil reception area.  We signed in - welcomed by two delightful French women charged with the running the hotels sales and reservations. Then the Guanahani’s charms began to reveal themselves.

The resort is built on a 15-acre peninsula off the main road, forming a secluded compound overlooking the sea. We were led to bungalow # 2 near end of the property. The suite was provisioned with a cold mini bar and even sunscreen.

The bathroom was open and spacious, calming with beige tiles and dual sinks, plentifully stocked with Hermes products. Fuzzy white robes and slippers were provided for lazily lounging by your private Jacuzzi with views of the ocean.  The suite is divided into two rooms: a living room with a couch, TV, and coffee table to organize your odds and ends.  The bedroom is equipped with CD player and a second television.

We unpacked listening to U2’s  “It’s a beautiful day” while investigating the premises.  Both rooms open onto a terra cotta patio and a private garden with the Jacuzzi nestled between two palm trees. With the sun quickly turning into a sunset, and three short days ahead of us, we hit the beach as soon as possible.

St Barts is known for two primary activities -- its beaches and food. The Guanahani has both. The beach is picture-perfect, a long starch of white sand that wraps around the Grand Du Cul Sac harboring a protected nature preserve. Snorkeling over the grassy seabeds you quickly encounter schools of tropical fish at home in the colorful coral. You’ll spot many seashells scattered on the ocean floor, but you’re not allowed to take them.

The brief swim marked an end to our day’s travels. Then thirsty for a Caribbean libation or two, we headed to the outdoor beach bar where we met up with the Guanahani’s charming general manager, Marc Theze. Marc's a hotelier with impeccable style befitting the Guanahani five stars. Dressed in white linen, and the perfect Panama hat, a leather cigar case within reach, he suggested that his new guests might enjoy a  “Le Ti Punch,” the island’s signature drink. Le Ti Punch is a strong concoction made with rum and sugar and can be very strong; it’s drunk like a shot, and it packs a wallop.

Marc had just received the first printing of a new brochure, depicting  poetic images of his property: hot pink hibiscus set against an azure sky, a close-up of a green leaf set in white crockery, a silhouetted cat paused in a pathway.  There is an art to the Guanahani and the new brochure truly captures the resort’s alluring zeitgeist.

Our conversation centered on Marc’s work in progress, the Guanahani, a reflection of his constant attention to detail.  We talked of change in terms of slight enhancements. There is little desire to reinvent a good thing or pander to trends, but rather, a belief in subtle modifications keeping perfect pace with the needs of his loyal clientele.

Marc Theze and Jennifer - click to enlarge
Marc Theze & Jennifer

“I am concentrating on consistency – I don’t want us be gimmicky.  I think our regular customers like the Guanahani as it is,” Marc told us. “We want to be consistent, but not miss the trends. Our regular customers who never came with their kids, told us that they would like to come back only if they could bring their kids.  9/11 changed our business and we are reacting to the desires of our clientele.” 

To meet these needs, Marc designed a complementary day care program where kids ages 2-6 are looked after by counselors. “A special kids’ menu was created to please children from all over the world -- pizza, spaghetti and hot dogs,” Marc laughingly told us.

The epicenter of any great resort is of course its star restaurant, and the Guanahani is known for its five-star Bartolomeo, where chief Philippe Masseglia creates gastronomic delights with a Mediterranean motif complemented by a vintage wine list.

“I give my chef all the tools he needs and make sure he’s exposed to what’s ‘in’ and current. He trains at five star restaurants in New York and Paris and is perfecting his hand at preparing healthy lean cuisine, as this is the trend,”  Marc explained.

At 8:45 that evening, we woke from a long nap and hurriedly dressed for dinner, and our special birthday celebration in the Bartolomeo restaurant.  We were seated at a candle-lit table facing the piano player’s serenade and ordered two glasses of champagne. Our first course of lemon risotto was silky, lemony and light.  We shared a main course of beef with green tangy pepper sauce and potatoes gratin. While deliberating over what to have for dessert, a birthday surprise arrived replete with candles and a French accented chorus of  “Happy Birthday!” It was a mousse au chocolate surrounded by homemade vanilla and chocolate ice cream. The brilliant Guanahani staff had outdone itself surpassing our expectations with this most welcomed surprise.

As we looked around at the handsome servers, we couldn’t help remembering Marc telling us: “ I am most proud of my staff. They have helped to win the Island Destination award for excellence, a very hard thing to achieve. To work at the Guanahani, you must have a pleasant attitude towards life.” Looking at the beautiful young men and women in their smart La Coste shirts and dresses, we understood.

Before we knew it, our vacation had come to and end.  Reluctantly we checked out; sadly we said goodbye to St Barts and the Guanahani. As our plane rose into the east wind, we were already thinking of our next trip, hoping St Barts would never change, that the Guanahani would always be there for us. After all, it’s part of the family.

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 Jeff Schock

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Jennifer Frommer & Jeff Schock are a wife and husband team specializing in Caribbean and Mexican travel and cuisine from a multimedia perspective.  Frommer is a Marketing Executive for one of America’s leading teen magazines and former Vice President of Entertainment for Sony Music. Schock is writer and television producer who creates entertainment programming for networks such as MTV, HBO,  and the Disney Channel.

Frommer and Schock are currently at work on an in-depth feature on the influences of music on Cuban culture. 

You can reach the authors at: jbfrommer@hotmail.com

This Article is Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Frommer & Jeff Schock.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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