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Paradise, revisited

With European flair and A-list luxury, the only trouble with St. Barts is deciding where to stay.

About an hour's flight east of Puerto Rico lies a tiny, exclusive haven for travelers seeking the ultimate island getaway. The 8-square-mile St. Barthelemy (affectionately called St. Barts by many) offers some of the most refined relaxation for those who cannot get enough decadent living.

The arrival alone is enough to put travelers in the mood for a cocktail. Pilots must thread their aircraft - always small, by necessity - between volcanic hills, only to land on one of the shortest runways in commercial aviation. Traveling by boat or high-speed ferry from nearby St. Maarten is an option, although high seas can offer their own brand of wild ride. But for those not too faint of heart to make the journey, the hilly island's smooth-sand beaches and world-class shopping will leave them blissfully willing to do it all again.

As part of the French West Indies, the island was originally deemed inhospitable for sugar plantations, being much too dry, steep and rocky. So as it was unsuitable for agriculture, the island never was coveted during 18th-century colonial wars. These days, however, with its French infusion, the streets are lined with high-end shops, retailers and restaurants.

St. Barts fuses island nonchalance with European chic, and A-list celebrities count the slice of paradise among their favorite spots of respite. It's never too crowded, and temperatures are warm year-round, although the most popular time to travel is December through April.

Consider renting a car, but be prepared to honk your horn frequently on the island's hairpin-turn roads. The more preferred option is private escort, which brings the island to your fingertips.

And while brushing up on your French isn't necessary, it only adds to this paradise's perfection. 

Where to Stay

Eden Rock (www.edenrockhotel.com). Sixty years ago, this hotel was the private, beachfront home of St. Barts' mayor. Restored and expanded, this enclave of red-roofed villas is St. Barts' only resort to rank in Travel + Leisure magazine's list of the Caribbean's Top 5 hotels. Staff members say use of the famous French word "non" is banned here.  

Hotel Guanahani & Spa (www.leguanahani.com). Located on the island's northeast side at the end of Grand Cul de Sac Bay, the hotel is set on its own 16-acre private peninsula in the heart of a tropical garden. All rooms face the sea, and the spa's sumptuous offerings include Asiatic foot massage and Pressotherapy. 

Hotel Saint-Barth Isle de France (www.isle-de-france.com). Each of the 35 rooms in this award-winning boutique hotel is luxuriously appointed, with French fabrics and modern four-poster beds. For the ultimate in comfort and privacy, check into one of the hotel's bungalows. 

Le Sereno (www.lesereno.com). Redesigned in 2005 by famed Parisian architect Christian Liaigre, this hotel blends crisp modernity with a not-to-be missed aura of calm. All suites and villas feature terraces to soak up the sun privately. Peruse the spa's "multi-day menu" for the ultimate in unwinding. 

Or, consider a private villa (try www.stbarth.com). For the traveler seeking more flexible accommodations - from the cozy one-bedroom bungalow to the palatial home - St. Barts offers a reliable network of privately owned villas for rent. Most offer panoramic views, pools and privacy nonpareil. Take, for example, the Villa Camalie, a three-bedroom enclave in walking distance of the beach that, except for holidays, includes a car in the weekly rate ($4,570 in the low season).