Since opening half a century ago, this secluded Caribbean hideaway has attracted an endless parade of celebrities and European jet-set. Combining the effortless ‘70s glamour of the Côte d'Azur with a unique Caribbean flair, La Samanna, A Belmond Hotel, has long been the epitome of West Indies art de vivre. To mark our landmark 50th birthday, Belmond has commissioned a special publication on this colourful history, which will be available to hotel guests later this year. Written by Chris Wallace — former US editor of Mr Porter and executive editor of Interview magazine — we share a sneak peek of the publication here.
Benevolent palm fronds nod in greeting, then wave you in, beckoning. Through a pair of arches, you enter a cool cavern. Here, another series of scalloped arches lead your eye outward, on to the terrace looking down on the infinity of the horizon. Through the main building, past the main pool, brilliant yellow and red hibiscus blooms bob and bow in the breeze.
The afternoon sun has slipped down the sky across from you, casting your fellow beachgoers a muted gold. The golden light seems appropriate. “Gold for 50,” so the saying goes. Fifty years of La Samanna. Fifty years of stories and history and fun and family and beach and blooms, welcoming you in their warmth.
From the very beginning, Saint Martin was a crossroads, a midway point between the Caribe people moving northward out of the Amazonia basin, and the Arawak–speaking Taino peoples flowing southward before the arrival of Columbus.
For the St Martin–born archeologist Christophe Henocq, this history made the island fertile ground for exploration. And it is the clay figurines, the bowls and tools that Henocq found himself, which he says can tell us a lot about the discovery of St Martin. One of the experiences offered by the hotel is a Hiking with the Arawaks tour, guided by Henocq himself, which will take guests through the rich history of the island, with all of the depth of insight, joy, and experience of the St Martinois archeologist.
In the early 1970s, businessman James Frankel went looking for a place to build a home for his family on Saint Martin. After carving through the tropical growth to the basaltic cliffs, the view from the perch where La Samanna now sits — overlooking an immaculate beach and a calm bay of perfect turquoise — must have felt like a revelation.
Saint Martin was already a favorite destination for socialites, artists, and musicians — the cast of characters you’d see in a Slim Aarons image. In 1973 the hotel was christened La Samanna, weaving together the first names of the Frankel’s daughters, Samantha, Anouk, and Nathalie, with ‘La’ for a little French savoir faire.
“I taught Cindy Crawford to water ski right out there,” says Mark Sollinger, the director of the watersports programs at La Samanna. As he looks out, visiting boats make their way into the bay, depositing their sun–kissed passengers into that turquoise water, for snorkeling, hydra–foiling and jet–skiing.
Waterskiing was indeed the signature sport here, practiced by supermodels, business moguls and others from the international jet–set. The beach here is a powerful thing — waking up with your toes in the sand, the soothing calm of the waters, the patient embrace of the bay. Sollinger agrees: while marveling at the cast of characters who’ve frolicked on this bit of shoreline, he points out that the sense of privacy, calm and exclusivity will remain intact forever.
There is a term for it in French: art de vivre. A commitment to a life lived well, to all the possible pleasures in existence. In order to live well, one must eat well. Perhaps the best place to understand a Mediterranean lifestyle with Caribbean ingredients is, understandably, on the plate: local red snapper, grilled a la plancha, and served with a zingy escabeche salsa, as you might find at L’Oursin, the fine dining French restaurant here.
But beyond this delightful fusion, it is in La Samanna’s spirit where you can best see the convergence of Côte d'Azur savoir faire and Caribbean cool. Barefoot and sandy by day or draped in linen by night, sitting beside a turquoise sea with rosé in one’s glass, is as pure an expression of the good life as one can imagine.
For Adelle Rathe, La Samanna has been a second home for more than 20 years. She and her husband first visited in the winter of 2001, beginning a love affair with the hotel and island that has seen them coming back for decades, sometimes for weeks at a time.
If they were a bit dazzled by the glamour of La Samanna, then — “Nat King Cole was there with his daughter” — the Rathes were certainly comforted by the welcoming, family vibes, and quickly established a routine. “There are always so many fun people to talk to. I love the whole set up, having this community.” The more you talk to regular and repeat visitors, the more you will hear stories about how deeply the property is woven into the lives of some families.
Part of the romance of travel is insinuating oneself into a narrative — imagining the intrigue at one of the great white Golden Age hotels. The Moorish arched entry way of the main building, for example, does feel very much like the portal to a Poirot novel.
But then of course, La Samanna is too where some stories come to be written. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro famously came to St Martin to finish the shooting draft of Raging Bull. Richard Nixon somewhat infamously came to the hotel during rather different hardships, “when he was hiding out from all the Watergate stuff,” a friend of the hotel says. It was a soft landing spot for the newly established jet–set between Manhattan and Cannes, with glamour, glitz, and good vibes.
“There are blues here beyond my abilities to capture,” says Sir Roland Richardson, a native St Martinois with family going back several centuries on the island. He is also a great collaborator with La Samanna, having created several of his signature impressionist landscapes for the property. There is also the street– and graphic–artist ESPA who lives and works here at his studio in Marigot. From a young age, ESPA says he was drawn to the travel posters of Roger Broders, whose work will be familiar to anyone who has slapped a nostalgic luggage tag on a bag.
It is a wonderful parallax view of the island to see it through these two artists, and through the eyes of the artists who have been coming here for the light, for the blues and those landscapes. In the 1980s, Andy Warhol stayed at La Samanna; here are some wonderful pictures of him sitting on the balcony overlooking the bay.
La Cave is the beating heart of the hotel. Wine cellar, private dining spot and event space, this underground cavern is a pure distillation of La Samanna’s spirit. If you like your Morgons or your Margauxs, you can surely find them here — but so too will you find the special selections of Alessandro, the sommelier.
Proceeding further along is the rum room, which is anchored on one side by an entire wall of rum, the bottles lit like crown jewels. You can have masterclasses on rums in this room, learning about the differences between rums made from cane and molasses, about rhum agricole which is the local rum, made only in the French Caribbean. But you will also discover Alessandro’s labor of love, finding the best local ingredients, blended and distilled by the best houses by the best craftspeople expressly for La Samanna.
Luxury, in travel, for some may be connecting with friends, fellows and those of like mind, on the beach, by the pool, at the bar. While for others, privacy is the ultimate goal, even a necessity. Whether you are a famously private musician traveling with a group of confidantes, a family of five looking for a discrete spot to relax, or a wedding party of 50 wanting to celebrate in style, the hotel’s set up and personalized butler service create an entirely private experience within a world class resort.
Fifty years of history and hospitality is a special milestone, worthy of celebration, and La Samanna is good at celebrating. But so too is it committed to the 50 years to come: to accommodating the generations of families, of muses, moguls, adventurers, artists, and travelers who continue to be drawn to this pristine slice of Caribbean paradise.
The above is an abridged version of the original text by Chris Wallace. Pick up a copy during your next stay at La Sammana.