Heaven On Earth

For the past 25 years, writer and illustrator David Coggins has been making an annual family pilgrimage to St Barths, recording his impressions in the vibrant watercolour sketches featured in his recent memoir of the French West Indian paradise. He tells Damon Syson what makes it so special.

For David Coggins and his family, arriving on the island of Saint Barthélemy in 1994 was like experiencing love at first sight. Winding their way up a steep mountain road in a hired Moke, they reached their rented villa and were greeted with an astonishing 180-degree panorama of lush hills, verdant valleys and azure seas dotted with islands.

“Coming from a particularly harsh winter,” he recalls, “it felt like we’d arrived in paradise. And that feeling has repeated itself every year.”

Like many Minneapolis residents, Coggins and his wife Wendy try to seek refuge – at least for a week or two – from the snow that blankets Minnesota from November to April. In the early years, when their children David and Sarah were little (they’re now in their early forties), they followed the snowbird flock to the Bahamas, but for the past quarter of a century they have made an early spring sojourn in St Barths an annual family ritual. Last year Coggins, an award-winning writer, artist, and set designer, published Blue, an illustrated memoir of their stays on the island.

Sketched scenes of St Barths – including an emerald-green hummingbird, local rum, a cruise ship en route to the port of Gustavia and an old French Franc banknote; books are a major feature of the family’s stays; the view from the first villa they rented 25 years ago, high on a cliff above the sea in Lurin

 

As the book explains, while the fabulous views might have sparked their initial passion, it was the Gallic savoir vivre so abundantly displayed in this corner of the French West Indies that has continued to enchant the Francophile Coggins family. “It’s a small, intimate island with no huge hotels, no golf courses. You have a sense of being away from it all – and yet you have access to great food and wine, some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and as much privacy as you want. It’s the perfect combination of beauty, isolation and that French lifestyle: casual but always chic.”

Like Blue’s charming paintings, a selection of which can be seen within these pages, the text is lyrical and evocative, an impressionistic blend of anecdotes, vignettes and aperçus – peppered with the odd literary reference. While the book is predominantly personal – the distillation of 25 years’ worth of paintings and journal entries – it captures the essence of life on the island: the scent of frangipani and freshly baked brioche; elegant sailboats gliding past on the Sargasso Sea; visits from doves, hummingbirds and the occasional iguana; a sense of life lived in a languid but fruitful way: painting, reading, drinking, talking.

Of course no visit would be complete without dinner at Eden Rock – St Barths. “It’s really magical,” says Coggins. “They had an outdoor restaurant on a headland jutting out into the bay, so you were looking out over the water with underwater lights showing off the fish swimming by. They also have excellent chefs, and it’s always very stylish. The history is pretty special, too, with all the famous people who have stayed there – it all adds to the general aura of glamour.”

Yet the glamorous side of St Barths, while undeniably seductive, is not what draws them back each year. Rather, it’s a sense of coming home. In his acknowledgements, Coggins writes:

“Some of the best hours of our lives were spent together on this small island in the French West Indies.”

For Blue is much more than just a book about St Barths. It is, as he puts it, “a celebration of family, and of spending time together in a beautiful place.” He adds: “In a way, you’re outside of time, unencumbered by work, shopping, everyday life. You talk more freely, feel more at ease. You’re funnier and happier. You almost become better versions of yourselves. Doing this keeps you close as a family – it’s one of the greatest things in life.”

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