St Barts, the sweet pearl of the French West Indies – World Meanderings (n°23)
By Frederic de Poligny
With less than 25 square km, St Barts is surely one of the smallest inhabited islands in the West Indies. This is not the only thing that makes it so special.
Discovered by Christopher Colombus in 1493, it was named to honour his brother Bartolomeo. First settlers came in 1648 when the island belonged to France. Surprisingly St Barts became property of the Knights of Malta for 5 years (1651-1656). Then it returned to France until 1784 when the island was sold to the Swedish kingdom for quite a century. The town and capital, Gustavia, kept its name from this Swedish period. Many street signs are still written in French and Swedish. Finally in 1878 the island definitely came back to France.
With its very dry climate and a soil rather poor, St Barts has no agricultural interest. For centuries the main activity was goat farming. That was a great source of difficulties for the population but it was also a good thing, slavery has never been in use in St Barts. The inhabitants are mainly descendants of European settlers, French and Swedish who worked hard to survive there.
More recently, in the 60’s and 70’s, when came the time of a massive touristic invasion of all the Caribbean islands St Barts decided to play its own game, banning mass tourism and looking for ultra luxury visitors. One of the first ones was David Rockfeller who bought a beautiful property in 1957 where he received numerous relatives and friends who soon became St Barts’ addicts. With local laws prohibiting high-rise buildings and a strict control of hotel permissions, St Barts’ authorities succeed in maintaining a human size for the island.
Living in St Barts is expensive. Don’t even think to visit it on a budget! Almost everything has to be imported. Hotels are mainly 5-star luxury ones with an average rooms number between 20 and 40. Don’t expect to find even one low price hotel. Restaurants are numerous, providing gastronomic cuisine, and their prices follow their quality. Don’t even think of eating in a fast food.
If your wallet is large, or if you decide to break open your piggy-bank, you will discover the charms of this peaceful and quiet island, which even offers all trendy and cutting-edge brands and has kept its colonial Caribbean atmosphere. Walking in the streets of Gustavia in the evening, you may see a well-known billionaire, but you will not notice him because he will walk alone not being surrounded by his classical escort of bodyguards. Artists, stars, politicians and wealthy people love St Barts for that. Here they find a kind of normal live, staying in luxury hotels or in unique villas, but they also can go out to shops and restaurants without being hassled by anyone.
As most islands, the beaches are the first images that come to mind when thinking of St Barts. They are covered by a pleasant white shining sand and all are open to public. But nevertheless they are never overcrowded. Some ones are sheltering hotels like St Jean or Flamands Beaches, others being rather untouched with no buildings in the vicinity, as Gouverneur Beach for instance, and a few beaches that need a little walk to be reached like Saline or a very long walk -30mn- to Colombier Beach.
The little Shelly beach is the only beach of Gustavia, 300 meters outside the city. It’s also one of the best spots for sunset. What a souvenir to slowly swim in such a warm seawater looking at the sun disappearing behind the horizon. Staying a week in St Barts, you can try to enjoy each of its 14 beaches.
All water sports are available, snorkelling, diving, sailing, windsurfing, sea kayaking. Jet skis and even flyboards can be rent in Gustavia. Visitors can also enjoy to cruise on board a huge catamaran for a halfday cruise that includes snorkeling in Colombier Beach, or even more romantic for the sunset Champagne cruise, a must for honeymooners.
In St Barts there is no public transport, and out of Gustavia, except for hikers, walking is not the best option. The roads are curved, steep and slopping. Taxis can get you anywhere in the island, but renting a small car is a better solution to visit St Barts. Renting a quad is also a great option with an undeniable sense of adventure.
St Barts offers many events all year long: Music Festival, Rocks Summer Sessions, Jam Music Festival, Gourmet Festival, Theatre Festival and some unique sailing events including Les Voiles de St Barth, la Bucket Regatta and the St Barth Fun Cup.
“Les Voiles de St Barth” is the perfect example of the spirit of the Island. This weeklong sailing race mixes ultra-sophisticated sailing boats, steered by world known skippers, and smaller ones with local crews. Divided in various categories all these boats compete on a common route, covering the sea with a profusion of beautiful sails, a wonderful vision for spectators.
The race begins and ends just in front of the harbour entrance, so anyone is able to see the most attractive times of the competition. Everyday when the boats come back to the main quay by the middle of the afternoon, the “race village” is open to the public and soon crews, tourists, and inhabitants can meet around the boats and in the huge bar that soon attracts everyone. Connection between professional and amateur crews and the locals is an important part of “les Voiles de St Barth“.
There also are two days off during that week. One is dedicated to a huge public and crew picnic on the beach. And almost every night, there is a party… Sport, fun and hospitality, are the credo of this event.
Gastronomy is also a great facet of St Barts, French cuisine mixed with Caribbean and Creole tastes. But you will have to wait until next week to read more about it in my next week story. More about food and more about a luxury stay in St Barts!
all info at: www.saintbarth-tourism.com
Texts & Photos © Frederic de Poligny