The fellow asking for mustard manufactures air bag parts in New Jersey; the pair of young women are in the car business in Pennsylvania. The other couple are, it appears, honeymooners. We've come to St. Barts in July, a relatively low season on an island where high-season visitors are more likely to be found aboard their own yachts than on a rent-a-cruise.

St. Barth Photo - LukeTravels.com - Luke Handzlik
Gustavia Harbour, Gustavia, Saint Barthelemy, F.W.I.
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High season in St. Barts has come to mean visits from the likes of David Letterman and Harrison Ford, both of whom have bought property here. Jimmy Buffett has spent so much time at Le Select, a Gustavia yachtsmen's bar, that the adjoining outdoor eatery was named in his honor: Cheeseburger in Paradise. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs cite privacy considerations but murmur such names as Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone, Claudia Schiffer, Brad Pitt, and "Tom Hanks." The owner of a pottery shop in St. Jean drops no names but leaves it to customers to discover the tag around the neck of a silver-trimmed Moroccan vase. The piece is being held for Steve Martin.

Writing in The New Yorker alter the murder of Gianni Versace, Andrea Lee described a recent lunch with the Italian fashion designer: "We ate with gold cutlery from Sevres plates, afloat in a stream of chatter about Kate Moss's thighs, vacations in St. Barts, and Gianni Agnelli's penchant for driving too fast."

St. Barth Photo - LukeTravels.com - Luke Handzlik
Gustavia Harbour, Gustavia, Saint Barthelemy, F.W.I.
Image Copyright LukeTravels.com™

How did this small island - environmentally undistinguished, politically invisible, a place with no casinos or glitzy clubs - become the Caribbean St.-Tropez? How on earth did conservative, rural St. Barts get into the same sentence as Kate Moss's thighs? "Paparazzi," answers Maya Gurley, the eponym of Maya's, an unpretentious restaurant much favored by celebrity vacationers. On this warm night she glows in a red dress, dark hair tumbling to her shoulders. The restaurant is full but quiet enough to hear the sound of water washing over rocks and romantic French music from a CD player turned low.

I've heard that Joan Didion is a fan of Maya's kitchen. Randy Gurley, an American who sailed to the Antilles from Nantucket in the 1970s, frowns when, at my request, his wife shows me the favorite table of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne. (OK, I'm as awed by Didion's prose as others are by Stallone's pectorals.)

"In terms of publicity, we don't need it," Randy explains, "and they don't want it. Besides, everybody is welcome here, celebrity or not."

Maya's food, based on recipes from her Guadeloupian family, is glorious. My dinner of shrimp 'on a round of yam with coriander, is followed by a callaloo made with salt cod and greens.

I picture Didion, unchangingly thin in dust jacket photos and ask, "Does she actually eat?" Randy grins. "You'd be surprised," he says. Those celebrities used to come here, and nobody was speaking about it, and then paparazzi come .... " Laurenee O'Keefe sighs and grimaces.

"You'd think the place was crawling with celebrities, and it is not," says her husband, Peter, who edits their quarterly Letter front St. Barths for an international list of subscribers. (The name is an amalgam between the French nickname "St. Barth," with its nearly silent "h," and "St. Barts" no apostrophe, the spelling generally used by Americans.)

It is a fine July morning, and Peter, an American who first came to St. Barts 30 years ago, has interrupted work on a tree house for the couple's six-year-old son, Julian. Over time Peter and his French-born wife have built their own house, a mid-island home whose airy rooms are perched on the heights of La Petite Saline.

Sitting at a picnic table shaded by a fan palm tree, they speak thoughtfully about the St. Barts they know, sipping good coffee, smoking American cigarettes, shuttling the pack between them like a game piece on a board. "How many of those people do you think comes 'ere, Peter?" Laurence asks. "Fifty, do you think? "Oh, probably more than that," he says. But most celebrities come and, go during a few hectic weeks in December and January. The rest of the year, life on this island of 7,000 residents reverts to its own patterns. "You can live here and never see a Harrison Ford or a David Letterman," he says.

The O'Keefes want it understood that tourists, even rich and famous tourists, are not what St. Barts is all about. Go back a few years, before the paparazzi, and you see that what characterizes St. Bart is a population and culture different from that of any other Caribbean island.


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