Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Known affectionately as St-Barths, this ultra chic French haunt of the rich and famous is a Caribbean St-Tropez with magnificent yachts in the harbor and Parisian chefs in the restaurants.
Anse de Colombier
Anse de la Grande Saline
With an international renown that far outstrips its 10 sq miles (25 sq km) of white beaches and craggy hills, this tiny French island at the top of the Leeward Islands is a magnet for the rich and famous. As a result St-Barthélemy harbors some of the world’s most sought-after real estate. Like St-Tropez in southern France, sky-high prices only serve to enhance the allure of St-Barths, as it is popularly known.
A competitor in the St-Barths Bucket regatta.
This is the very essence of France in a tropical haven, and it smells of France, too - baguettes baking in the boulangeries and coffee wafting from the street cafés. The island’s network of narrow roads has given rise to the sensible use of the now ubiquitous compact Smart car. It is perfect for the terrain of St-Barths, particularly in the high season when the place is crowded and parking spaces are at a premium.
French settlers and pirates
Columbus sighted the island in 1496, naming it for his younger brother, Bartholomew, and it first appeared as a mere fly-speck on a Spanish map in 1523, identified as San Bartolemé.
The harbor at Gustavia.
French settlers from St Kitts set up home here in 1648, only to be massacred by a passing band of Carib warriors several years later. Undeterred, a group of Huguenots from Brittany and Normandy arrived, establishing the first permanent settlement, which thrived, not on farming and fishing, but on piracy. St-Barths became a clandestine rendezvous for pirates, plundering the passing Spanish galleons laden with treasure. The island’s rocky, arid hills, with no fresh water supply and lack of savannah, made a sugar industry unthinkable, although some cotton and tobacco were cultivated. Few slaves were imported and the people continued to live the peasant life they had in France. The French government reported them to be “good people, very poor, honest, rather ignorant, and quite quarrelsome.”
There are many islanders whose family lines go back to the early settlers from Brittany and Normandy. The Norman dialect is still spoken and a few of the elderly women wear tall white hats called quichenottes.
Sold out to the Swedes
Nevertheless, in a most unexpected and bizarre trade, in 1784 the neglectful government of Louis XVI gave St-Barths to King Gustaf III of Sweden in exchange for trading rights in the port of Göteborg (Gothenburg). The Swedes immediately got down to turning the island into a model possession. The capital was given its decidedly non-Gallic name of Gustavia while the port was declared duty-free.
Spared the terror and dissolution that were about to overtake her French sister islands during the French Revolution (1789-95), the island flourished. The local administration worked to organize the population, not as Swedes, but as people of St-Barths, with their own traditions and heritage. A rational pattern of streets was laid out around the harbor, warehouses were built, the roadways cobbled. By 1806 the island wallowed in relative prosperity, with a population bloated to about 6,000. However, during the following decades St-Barthélemy experienced a series of devastating disasters - natural and economic - and in 1878 Sweden sold the island, with the 1,000 remaining French descendants, back to France.
St-Barths, together with St-Martin 15 miles (24km) away, came under the administrative umbrella of Guadeloupe, an overseas department of France (for more information, click here), but pressure grew for more autonomy. A referendum was held in 2003 on separation from the administrative jurisdiction of Guadeloupe, and in 2007 St-Barths finally became an Overseas Collectivity (COM). It has a governing territorial council, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) is now the Hôtel de la Collectivité, and a senator represents the island in Paris.
Gustavia - a Gallic town with a Swedish heritage
Set around a yacht-filled harbor and careenage too small for cruise ships (small ships can anchor in the outer harbor), the picturesque buildings of the capital climb up the steep hillside behind. Gustavia 1 [map] is still a free port, and the latest haute fashions from Versace to Saint Laurent and Prada to Valentino are all available right here in the exclusive boutiques, along with Gucci leathers and Louis Vuitton suitcases. Boat-loads of shoppers arrive from Sint Maarten, and cafés spill out onto the streets Parisian style, buzzing with a young, chic French crowd. There are no beggars or hucksters here, no ramshackle shops or rums, and no colorful, aromatic market clogs the waterfront - only four makeshift vegetable stalls on a side street, operated by a half dozen women who sail the 125 miles (200km) from Guadeloupe weekly.
The feel, sound, and smell of the capital is French, but the Swedish influence can still be seen in the architecture and the names. The harbor is attractive and well cared for, with plenty of interest for a brief walking tour. In the southeast corner by the promenade there is a huge anchor on the waterfront. Weighing 10 tons and dating from the late 18th century, it is marked “Liverpool…Wood…London” and probably came from a British frigate.
Opposite the anchor stands St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, built in 1855 from local stone, with bricks for the steps brought from France and dark lava cornerstones from St Eustatius. Go round the corner and up rue Gambetta and you come to a stone bell tower, all that is left of an old Lutheran church destroyed by a hurricane. The bell, cast in Sweden in 1799, was used until the 1920s for celebrations and to ring the curfew at 8pm. In 1930 a clock took over this role, but until then children used to toll the bell at sunrise and sunset. Further up the hill, so its sound would carry further, is the bell tower of the Roman Catholic Church, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption,
The sophisticated waterfront.
Comité du tourisme de Saint Barthélemy/Laurent Benoît
During the Christmas period, the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul McCartney, Beyoncé, and Kate Moss can be found hiding out here, along with assorted billionaires, supermodels, minor royalty, and the scores of day-trippers who come over from St-Martin every day to try to spot them.
The Swedes bequeathed three forts - Oscar, Karl, and Gustav - at strategic points around the town, and beneath Fort Oscar is the Musée Municipal de Saint-Barthélemy (tel: 590-590 297 155; www.saintbarth-tourisme.com; Mon, Fri 8.30am-1pm, 2.30-5pm, Wed, Sat 9-1pm). On rue Avater in the Wall House building, the museum has exhibitions of local history, and costumes and island crafts. Another local private museum containing St-Barth curios, le P’Tit Collectionneur, has been opened on rue des Marins (www.saintbarth-tourisme.com; Mon-Sat 10am-1pm, 4-6pm), and the owner, André Berry, gives an interesting tour of his collection.
A 5-minute walk past the ruins of Fort Karl brings you to Anse de Grand Galets, also called Shell Beach, which, as the name suggests, is covered with shells. There is a pleasant beach bar for drinks or a meal.
Around the island
Going west out of Gustavia, you soon reach the tradition-bound fishing village of Corossol 2 [map], on a brown-sand beach lined with colorful fishing boats and lobster traps. The women sit outside their houses weaving latania palms into hats, mats, and baskets, which are for sale in the village.
St-Jean 3 [map], on the northern shore, has the most popular beach, divided in two by a spit of rock on which stands the rebuilt Eden Rock hotel, where Greta Garbo once stayed. You can lunch on freshly caught lobster, surrounded on three sides by a turquoise sea. On the west side of Eden Rock is the airport runway, which ends in the sand. If you are on the beach there you’ll be able to see the whites of the pilots’ eyes as they negotiate landing and take-off. St-Jean is a lively place and a focal point on the north coast. It is not a particularly large village, but there is a lot going on here. Behind the beach are shopping plazas, lots of small and medium-sized hotels, gourmet restaurants, bars, snack bars, and other entertainment, giving an atmosphere of the French Riviera.
Farther east, Lorient, where the first French settlers lived, offers good surfing or snorkeling depending on the mood of the sea. Paths lead down to the beach between rental villas. The village is quieter than St-Jean and traffic is lighter, but it has a couple of good supermarkets if you want to stock up with French food and wine.
A secluded coastline on St-Barths.
St-Barths has at least 14 beautiful white sand beaches, and one of the best of the secluded ones is Colombier 4 [map] at the tip of the northwest peninsula, where sea turtles come back year after year to lay their eggs. The beach cannot be reached by car, but the 30-minute walk from the village is well worth it for the magnificent island views en route. Another way in is by boat from Gustavia. Around the point to the east, the wide stretch of sand edged with latania palms and seagrapes at Flamands is rarely crowded despite a few small hotels with lots of facilities for water sports, a variety of which are available here as it is not in the marine reserve, although it is another turtle nesting site from April to August.
Only tiny commuter planes carrying fewer than 20 passengers can land at St-Barths’ Gustav III airport. They have to surmount Mt Tourmente on the approach, where there is busy traffic and a roundabout, then suddenly the plane dives steeply and lands, with brakes squealing, stopping just short of the sea and the beach of St-Jean.
The History Channel program, Most Extreme Airports, ranked it as the third most dangerous airport in the world. Pilots are required to have special training to land here, and for passengers, especially on a windy day, the landing is quite an adventure. It’s a tourist attraction in itself, and people park their cars on the hilltop to watch the action while sunbathers on the beach keep an eye on the other end of the runway.
Much of the coastline and offshore waters in the northeast are protected within the Réserve Naturelle, where there are three horseshoe-shaped bays sheltered by a reef: Anse de Marigot, Anse de Grand Cul de Sac, and Anse de Petit Cul de Sac. Marigot is very quiet, with crystal-clear water, rocky outcrops, and good snorkeling. Windsurfers and kitesurfers head for Grand Cul de Sac, which has a sandy bay backed by a large salt pond. It is so well protected by the reef and peninsula that it has the appearance of a lagoon, with shallow water of all shades of blue and green. Sand fleas can be a problem here, as they sometimes are on Anse de la Grande Saline, in the south, a long white beach also next to a salt pond. Surfers gather here for the waves while waterfowl enjoy the pond. They know a good place to stay when they see it. This is one of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean, backed by sand dunes and protected by cliffs at either end. There are no facilities on the beach but there are several restaurants by the salt pond for a good lunch.
It’s all part of the St-Barths allure.
Comité du tourisme de Saint Barthélemy/Laurent Benoît
Lorient is the home of the annual St-Barths Music Festival, held here for 2 weeks every January. The festival includes a series of classical music and dance events at several locations on the island.
Anse du Gouverneur can be reached from Gustavia via Lurin, where there is a satellite mast on the hilltop. A very steep road leads down to the beach, where parking is available. The pretty bay is delightfully quiet and unspoiled. Pirate treasure is rumored to be buried here, but the booty of 17th-century Montbars the Exterminator has never been found.