was a villa rookie when I crossed the doorway of Villa Le Roi Soleil (King of the Sun), high above Gustavia, St. Barts' picture-postcard capital.

Sol and Charlie, the husband-wife team of caretakers/chefs, welcomed me with champagne; plunked me in a lounge chair on the wide, tiled pool deck; and deposited my bags in my bedroom.

They returned with hors d'ouevres, discussed the dinner menu and refilled my crystal flute.

Mon dieu! I was in villa-heavy St. Barts, and already I was a very happy customer.

Villas are synonymous with St. Barts, which has more than 300 of them. The term is used to describe properties from small cottages with a cook/maid to over-the-top estates with gardens and gazebos.

The four-bedroom, red-roofed Villa Le Roi Soleil -- which is reached after a winding, uphill, 20-minute drive from Gustavia -- was built in 1998 and totally renovated last year. It ranks in the super-upscale category of places to lay one's head on an island known for its sophisticated lodgings.

St. Barts is 8 square miles, full of winding roads and steep hills that dip into valleys and stretch onto beaches. Sol and Charlie barbecued fresh fish for the arrival dinner; I dined barefoot by candlelight on a terrace overlooking the harbor of Gustavia and the lights of St. Martin in the distance -- the perfect end to a day that had begun hours earlier in wet snow at Newark Liberty Airport.

Two days later, after inspecting several villas -- which ranged from Arc en Ciel, a rainbow-hued, multilevel property with a Mayan stone ruin/cum shower stall in each of the four bedrooms, to Byzance, an all-white, columned edifice flanked by marble lions and lots of gauzy canopies over modernistic, sleek king beds, to Casa Blanca, a casual two-bedroom place with bunk beds for kids -- I was feeling very proprietary about Villa Le Roi Soleil.

This place felt like home -- albeit a very upscale and elegant one -- a comfortable, private place in which to wake up, hang out or return to each evening.

Each of the villa's four bedrooms had its own bath with tub, bidet, balcony and private outdoor shower. The master suite featured a small Jacuzzi on the deck, a plasma-screen TV, a ceiling fan and lots of light switches.

The other three bedrooms did not have a TV or a ceiling fan, but the air conditioning was efficient and the stars at night were big and bright.

Among the villa's obvious charms were its decks; balconies; an infinity pool; courtyard gardens with a fountain and waterlily pond; an outdoor gazebo with a TV, a bar and comfy cushions; a tiled kitchen where we could wander in and out at will and poke about in the refrigerator; and an entertainment center with a multiple-disc CD player and cable radio music.

Luxury tour operator Island Destinations launched its 30-villa collection on St. Barts this winter.

The firm also offers villa stays in St. Martin and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands in addition to its 50 hotels in Bermuda, Costa Rica, Mexico, Fiji, French Polynesia and the Caribbean.

Island Destinations' five hotel properties in St. Barts are Guanahani, Carl Gustaf, Eden Roc, Le Toiny and St. Barth Isle de France.

Pascale Gheradi, the company's vice president and CEO, said she is confident that the villa product line is the perfect vehicle for travel agents.

"We only work with agents; we are the first tour operator to have an agent-only villa inventory on this island," she said.

And not only does the firm offer bulk air to accompany its villa getaways and pay 10% commission -- many villa stays are priced from $20,000 per week in the high season -- but "we also personally inspect each villa and reevaluate each property at least once a year," Gheradi noted.

According to Gheradi, Island Destinations' clients "are the travel agents, and their goals are our goals: Boost productivity, increase commissions and fulfill clients' every vacation desire."

"These villas will accomplish all of the objectives," she said.

Because client demand for the villas is heavy "and because there are so many beautiful properties on St. Barts," Gheradi said Island Destinations plans to expand its villa inventory by another 15 or 20 properties by next winter, particularly villas appropriate for families. She said the company also hopes to add Anguilla villas to its roster.

Villa rentals generally run from Saturday to Saturday; clients are met at the tiny St. Jean Airport in St. Barts and transferred to their villas, where a rental car awaits.

Island Destinations has an on-island rep to handle transfers and itinerary changes if need be.

Caretakers do everything else, and they possess a wealth of local information. Sol and Charlie conferred with me about menus and advised me on masseuses, places to shop, the best beaches, island sightseeing and funky nightspots.

But, in fact, it was hard to leave the villa once there. The island stared back at me from the villa's decks and terraces.

St. Barts is a gem, and the Villa Le Roi Soleil a diamond. I was smitten.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

Room key: Villa Le Roi Soleil
Lurin, 97133, St. Barts, French West Indies
Phone: (011) 590 590-29-16-62
Location: Perched on the crown of a mountain in Lurin above Gustavia, about 30 minutes from the airport.
Tour operator: Island Destinations at www.islanddestinations.com
No. of bedrooms: Four
Facilities: Two-level infinity edge pool with a terrace and a 180-degree view over Baie de St. Jean; tropical gardens, lily ponds, and a fountain; outdoor gazebo with large-screen plasma TV and seating area; indoor TV and entertainment center; open-air dining area; well-stocked kitchen with snacks and beverages.
Rates: $25,095 per week through April 15. In value season (April 16 to Dec. 14), rates are $20,090 per week.
Commission: 10%
Noteworthy: Dramatic sunset views can be viewed from multiple terraces; the villa has a homelike, comfortable feel despite its upscale amenities; and caretakers/chefs Sol and Charlie are gems.
Not worthy: Light switches and air-conditioning controls are confusing; no ceiling fans in the three bedrooms (the master suite has a fan).

Words to the wise

• Rent a car. St. Barts is an 8-square-mile, hilly, rocky island with more than enough anses (beaches), baies (bays) and coves to explore than there's time for. There are two gas stations and no taxi services. Roads are narrow and steep, the cars are small, and the drivers drive fast.

• Dine out. Villa chefs often are "extraordinaire," but so are many island restaurants, so advise clients to try a few of them. Villa staff know the island and can make recommendations and reservations; restaurant listings and information can be found on the island Web site at www.st-barths.com.

• "In" clubs change from season to season; advise clients to ask around for the hot spot of the moment. Le Select in Gustavia is the island's original hangout, a beer garden setting on Rue du Centenaire.

• Spot a celebrity but stay cool. They're all over the island but just trying to relax like everyone else.

• Although prices generally are high in this French playground, there are duty-free deals to be had, especially in perfume, fashions, jewelry and artwork.

• Don't expect mega-cruise ships, casinos, high rises, golf courses, night landings, traffic lights, poverty, all-inclusive resorts, beach vendors or U.S. fast-food outlets.

• Get used to the euro. That's the currency, and it fluctuates slightly with the dollar, which is accepted everywhere.

• St. Barts has plenty to see, and most visitors explore the island by car, spend time at the 14 beaches, shop at boutiques and art galleries, dine at more than 60 restaurants and prowl around Gustavia's natural harbor.

• St. Barts is pricey, chic, tony and French to its marrow in signs, language, flags, newspapers, brasseries and baguettes. St. Barts also is Caribbean, with its red roofs, green fields, blue water, Creole pastel cottages and schoolchildren in crisp uniforms.

• Although St. Barts' airport will be closed in September and October for an upgrade, ferry service from St. Martin will be available and five hotels will be open. -- G.N.M.

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