GUSTAVIA, St. Barts — It has been 40 years since Jimmy Buffett traveled on a whim to the French island often known as St. Barts.
He liked what he saw then from the deck of his sailboat, and he has continued to return: surfing off its beaches, writing books and songs and celebrating many a holiday, including Christmas, which is his birthday.
He is 71 now, as much business mogul as entertainer, branding Margaritaville to sell everything from pool floats to retirement homes.
But he has also used his clout and voice to support St. Barts after Hurricane Irma, sending private planes to help ferry supplies in the early days after the storm and giving a benefit concert in the port of Gustavia in December. He is one of the ambassadors for Les Voiles de Saint Barth, the annual sailing regatta that will take place this month despite the challenges posed by the island’s recovery efforts.
[READ MORE: Yacht Race Helps St. Barts Heal from Irma]
He is in the process of building his latest home on the island and plans to race aboard a friend’s yacht during the regatta. He did this interview from his boat in the Bahamas. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why was it important to you to be involved in this race?
I think anything we can do to make it known that St. Barts is on the way back is good, and as my friend said, “I guess your house will be ready just in time for the next storm.”
And I was going, “Please God, don’t let it be a big one.”
I think there’s a little bit of that apprehension in everybody there who went through Irma but you’ve got to keep moving on forward, breathe in and breathe out and move on. That’s kind of the way I think about it.
If you’ve been exposed to hurricanes the way people down there have and the way I have all my life, that’s what we choose to do.
It is hard to imagine anything resisting winds of 200 miles an hour.
I’ve never seen any storm like that, and I’ve been in storms as a kid and down on the Gulf Coast with 100- and 125-mile-an-hour winds, and they did enough damage of their own.
But I wish everybody well all over the region. I’m actually going to do some shows in Puerto Rico in January. Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing “Hamilton” down there to refinance the arts in Puerto Rico, so when Hamilton is in town, on their dark nights I will take my band over so we will be the entertainment when they are not up.
There are still so many blue tarps in place of roofs in Puerto Rico. St. Barts is obviously a much smaller place, a place of greater means, but when you see how far they’ve come in seven months, how do you feel about what’s happened in Puerto Rico?
It is a disgrace is what it is, the reaction to it. I don’t think there is enough attention being paid to the problem, but this administration in Washington, it’s pretty obvious to me that they don’t give a damn. I believe it will come back to bite them.
What goes around comes around, but they are great folks down there in Puerto Rico, and I’m going to do as much as I can. I spent time in all those islands: Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, St. Barts, St. Martin. It’s a great part of my life, and I’m going to do what I can to help them get back.
When did you first come to St. Barts?
It was 1978. I had a boat, a Cheoy Lee Clipper 48, and we had sailed from Bermuda down to St. Martin and I remember in those days there was very little technology other than charts and books. I was reading this book that had a short but very interesting little paragraph describing St. Barts. And I said, “Well, let’s check it out.”
I remember sailing in, and where Maya’s restaurant is now, there was a cemetery, and I remember saying that’s where I want to get buried when I die because it’s the prettiest place I’ve ever seen.
A couple of kids came out from a boat and they brought me croissants and coffee and said welcome to the island and there were parents living on board and home schooling their kids and so it just had a magic to it that I loved.
We sailed on, and my whole idea was to go to Martinique. I was infatuated with Martinique because I’ve got some French Creole on one side of my family. We sailed down there and almost to Trinidad, and we just looked at each other and said, “Well, the coolest place we’ve seen is St. Barts.” So we turned around and went back. I stayed a long time.
I know “Autour du Rocher” is about a club on St. Barts. How much of your work has been about the island over the years?
It’s a great place to write. I rented a house for years in St. Jean at the top of the hill and my oldest daughter kind of grew up down there.
It was a small place, so I rented a room in the old Eden Rock hotel before they renovated it and had a little studio in there, and I wrote most of my first book in there. And the last album we did, Songs from St. Somewhere, we did most of the vocals in the studio in the new Eden Rock hotel.
So it has always been a very inspirational place for me to either write songs or other things.”
A lot of people in St. Barts think you wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise” on the island.
There are many stories out there about “Cheeseburger.” A lot of people want it to be written in their bars, but I know exactly where I wrote it. I wrote it in Tortola back in 1972, when I sailed there for the first time on a little 33-foot boat.
Do you still have your open tab at the restaurant Le Select in St. Barts?
I have a deal at Le Select. I used to play there, just play at the bar, and Eddie, when he was running Le Select, he came to me and said, “I want to start a cheeseburger stand and is it O.K. if I call it, ‘Cheeseburger in paradise?’ ” And I don’t even know if we had any franchises at that point or not. But I said, “Here’s the deal, you can do it, but me and my immediate family eat and drink for free at Le Select for the rest of our lives.” And we shook hands, and the deal still exists.
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