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Classic St. Bart's Hotels

St. Bart's is a private club posing as a Caribbean island, with all the style (and attitude) you expect from the French. On the hotel front, the possibilities have never been greater. Traditional resorts, boutique properties that rock into the night, freestanding villas that defend your privacy: they're all jockeying for your business. Measuring in at just 10 square miles, St. Bart's may be petite, but that hardly makes navigating the hotelscape easy. With so much to know (and the season just about to begin), we thought we'd better clue you in.

EDEN ROCK HOTEL Baie de St. Jean; 877/563-7105 or 590-590/297-999; doubles from $689; www.edenrockhotel.com. When wags say that St. Bart's has a St. Tropez complex, they have the Eden Rock Hotel in mind. It's the scene-iest hotel on the island. For anyone with even sketchy experience of France's summer fleshpot capital, the cast is familiar: beautiful girls in Sticky Fingers tank tops and camouflage headbands, Women of a Certain Age with spectacular boob jobs, potbellied moneymen chewing on Cohibas. At the Sand Bar, the Eden Rock's beach restaurant, a pipe running the length of the awning's edge emits a curtain of cool mist. At night, the hotel's logo is projected onto the sand, as if the Eden Rock were a movie celebrating its opening.

Smothering every inch of a tiny northern promontory with a pocketful of mismatched cottages thrown up wherever there was space between the boulders, the hotel didn't always cultivate a tape-à-l'oeil reputation. It was created organically over time, with no great concern for logic, starting in 1951, by Rémy de Haenen, the father of St. Bart's tourism. What people prized about the Eden Rock in de Haenen's day was its enchanting air of shipwrecked desuetude.

Much of that changed when David Matthews, an English entrepreneur who made his fortune in city-transport systems, purchased the place in 1995 and began running it as a real, numbers-crunching business. To his credit, Matthews understands something about the spot's original, bohemian magic. Under him the reception area has become a deliriously baroque cocktail of stuffed animal heads, blackamoors, mirrors framed with gilded putti, and a painting of St. Michael's Mount that is as big as it is bad. It's not every hotel that can get away with a Jerry Vale sound track and stone maidens proffering urns. But without descending into kitsch, the Eden Rock makes them a meaningful proposition.

The hotel has grown under Matthews, from 6 to 16 guest rooms. They're pure Fantasy Island, with wonderfully goofy upholstery, needlepoint cushions, florid antiques, and acid-toned plaids. Not everyone is juiced about the Eden Rock's evolution, however. As one local put it, trying not to sound critical, "The Eden Rock started out as a small hotel on a big rock. Now it's a big hotel on a small rock."

I didn't know how to break it to him that the hotel is getting even bigger. This year Matthews acquired his well-liked if slightly mumsie neighbor, the 30-room Filao Beach Hotel, which will close in April for a complete makeover in the Eden Rock's image, take its name in marriage, and reopen in late 2004. One of the things the Filao's new owner hopes to improve is the architecture: the existing bungalows look like Monopoly houses.

With the merger, Matthews is looking forward to fattening a customer base that thinks nothing of dropping $431 for 50 grams of Shassavar caviar in his Le Rock Restaurant. His secret?"I'm not a professional hotelier. I guess sometimes it pays not to know what you're doing."

EDEN ROCK HOTEL
THE LOOK Sunstruck British Eccentric
THE SCENE St. Tropez transfer
SECRET WEAPON Tapas on the Rocks, a sizzling restaurant with multiple levels glued to a cliff face
DIRTY SECRET A tight squeeze
BEST ROOMS Harbour House, owner David Matthews's quarters, which he also rents out; and Haenen, the former digs of the Eden Rock's founder

HOTEL GUANAHANI Grand Cul de Sac; 800/223-6800 or 590-590/276-660; doubles from $558; www.leguanahani.com. If you like low-key, you'll love Guanahani. It will never win a personality contest, but then personality is hardly the point here. The hotel contents itself with offering a traditional, bona fide destination-resort experience, like Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda, or Caneel Bay on St. John. Buzz?Guanahani is just not interested.

Being a card-carrying resort means that guests can check in and never once leave the hotel if they are not of a mind to. You want your hair bobbed, you go to the coiffeur. You want a tennis lesson, you book with the resident pro. You can get an acceptable crab sandwich on the beach at L'Indigo at one, a $52(!) first course of foie gras with a "ratatouille" of mango and other exotic fruit on the veranda at Le Bartolomeo at eight. Okay, maybe you sneak into Gustavia to troll the watch shops, but no one would think of missing the cocktail party hosted by the French general manager. And so on.

If it all sounds a little like a cruise ship, it is. There's even a photographer who circulates at dinner, to the tinklings of a pianist playing "Lara's Theme." No shorts or T-shirts, s'il vous plaît.

Indeed, of all the top-tier hotels on St. Bart's, none is more into control than Guanahani. Nobody—neither management nor patrons—wants anything unscripted to hap-pen, and happily, nothing does. This ethos extends to the setting. The property occupies a 16-acre peninsulaand has the secure, self-contained atmosphere of a gated community. Sixteen acres may sound like a lot, but build several dozen gaily painted West Indian cottages on them, and there's not much left over. The cottages are garnished with lacy gingerbread trim and include 75 guest rooms. That's approximately 22 too many for the size of the main beach, which is nice enough, just too small. The resort makes a big deal about its second, backup beach, but it's not as well groomed, there are no lounges or palapas, and you can forget about someone to take your piña colada order. No one sets foot on this beach.

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