Saint Barthelemy, the official name of the island, is often shortened to St. Barts, but you may see it written as St. Barth, St. Barthelemy, Saint Barth, or Saint Barts. No matter how you spell it, this overseas collective of France forms part of the Leeward Islands in the French West Indies. Approximately 22 miles southeast of St. Martin, it once was part of Guadeloupe, until the population voted for independence. St. Barts is a cruise ship stop and a favorite port for private yachts and sailboat charters. The nearest large commercial airport is on St. Martin, but St. Barts has a small airport known for its hair-raising landings. Frequent ferry services also operate between the two islands.
The French influence and past history are some of the reasons why this is my favorite Caribbean island and why you will like it, too. The combination of French sophistication with Caribbean savoir vivre, lifestyle, and music is utterly charming. The official language is also French (with a distinct island lilt).
Another reason St. Barts is popular is the more than 22 pristine beaches that play a major role in why this Caribbean getaway has become so adored by celebrities as well as visitors from all over the world. Vacationers flock to St. Barts, especially in the winter, to be welcomed by the charming, red-roofed capital of Gustavia, named when the island was briefly under Swedish rule.
There are so many choices on St Barts, from underwater adventure to watersports, great food, shopping, and excellent nightlife. Because the island is so small, one can experience them all.
1. Endless Beaches
St. Barts is a volcanic island, entirely encircled by shallow reefs. It’s separated from Saint Martin by the Saint-Barthelemy Channel with several smaller islets scattered about. The island features 25 public beaches (there are some private ones), and according to their location, divided into leeward and windward beaches. With powdery white sands and turquoise waters, there is literally a beach for every taste, even a nudist one. The leeward beaches are more protected and better for swimming and safer for kids, whereas the windward beaches are popular with windsurfers.
On the windward side, there is the quiet beach of Lorient and the very wide and sandy beach of Anse des Flamands. Le Petit Anse is very safe and popular with the locals, who also take their kids.
On the leeward side lies Anse de Colombier, only accessible by boat, and Anse de Grande Saline, which is a nudist beach. Shell Beach or Anse de Grand Galet is so named because of the huge amount of seashells scattered on the sand. Walk carefully; you can easily cut your feet. St. Jean Beach is the most vibrant as it is home to Nikki Beach and Eden Rock.
At the north end of the island are two lagoons: Anse de Margot and Grand Cul-de-Sac. On the south side of the island, Anse du Gouverneur is a small but picturesque beach that is easy to access from the parking lot. However, this unspoiled beauty does not have any shade and isn’t near any restaurants or stores, so you may need to pack an umbrella and bring your own food and drinks.
2. The Thrill Of Arriving By Air
Of course, you can reach St. Barts by ferry or private yacht in a much more sedate way, but coming by plane is a thrill that never gets old. The reason? St Barts’ St. Jean airport has one of the shortest runways in the world — just 2,133 feet (650 meters). You look out the window of the little prop plane (the only ones that can land there), St. Jean beach below approaching fast, just skimming over the unperturbed sunbathers, biting your nails and thinking “Will we make it?”
Not to worry, the airport has an excellent safety record, and when you step onto the tarmac and look around you can only think that the paradise you have arrived in was well worth a moment or two of tension. WinAir is the most popular airline that operates the short flight from St. Martin to St. Barts.
Pro Tip: The best route from the U.S. to St. Barts is via San Juan, Puerto Rico, where you can catch a one-hour shuttle flight aboard Tradewind Aviation.
3. Easy To Navigate
St Barts is a small island, with a total surface of only 9.26 square miles. There is no public transport, so people get around by scooter, bicycle, renting a car, or on foot. You can circumvent the island by car in half an hour. There are some taxis, but they are scarce and very expensive.
It’s also easy to find your way around the capital of Gustavia. It’s built in a U-shape around the harbor and the streets (thanks to the Swedes when they ruled there) are laid out in a grid pattern. There are also several possibilities for boat trips.
4. Gustavia — Three Cultures Side By Side
From 1785 to 1878, before it sold the island back to France, Sweden ruled. Gustavia, the capital of this chicest of all Caribbean islands, is a melting pot of French flair, Nordic architecture, and the Caribbean calypso and salsa lifestyle. Fort Gustave, overlooking the harbor, was built in 1787 by the Swedes to protect the island. It’s actually three forts, but not much, except a few cannons, is left. However, it is worth the climb for the fabulous views over the harbor, the dense palm woods, and the trademark red roofs of the town. There is even a small museum on the island in a pretty, white-painted house that documents its Swedish past.
The small duty-free town features no less than 200 shops, many of them high-end designer boutiques of French origin, which is where the French culture comes in. Fancy a Cartier watch? No problem, a YSL perfume? No problem either. They are mostly located around the Quai de la Republique or a shopping mall and in French buildings. Local artisans are represented, too, in some galleries that exhibit not only paintings but also jewelry and accessories. More of the local culture can be experienced by having a drink or simple meal at Le Select, which claims to be the island’s oldest bar and has been around for over 70 years.
Pro Tip: Gustavia is a yachting haven and hosts several annual events such as the St Barths Bucket Regatta.
5. Colorful Marine Life
The greatest fun for me was observing the colorful underwater flora and fauna of St. Barts by going on a trip on the glass bottom boat called Yellow Submarine. Yes, it’s painted yellow, departs from Gustavia, and you can either sit on the deck and watch over the side or go downstairs through a tunnel and look out of the windows or through the bottom at whatever swims past. There is even a shipwreck — colonized by all kinds of sea creatures — to see.
There is also a vast nature reserve designed to protect the coral reefs and underwater species in the north of the island, which is fabulous to visit and to explore by snorkeling.
And, finally, a day of luxury can be spent cruising around the island in a splendid catamaran.
6. More Private Villas Than Monster Hotel
Many Caribbean islands have lost a lot of their charm to the construction of vast hotel complexes and resorts. That is not the case in St. Barts. There are approximately 25 hotels, many with 15 rooms or less. One of the most prestigious, expensive, and best hotels in St. Barts, Hotel Le Toiny, has only 12 rooms or, rather, suites. What it lacks in size is more than made up in quality and exclusivity with a gourmet restaurant and beach club.
On the other hand, where the very wealthy who come to St. Barts find accommodation (apart from their own yachts) is in private villas. There are approximately 400 for rent on St. Barts, all with their own pools, on or close to one of the many beaches.
7. Fun With Celebrity Spotting
Not an international movie star worth their salt hasn’t spent time on St. Barts or is a regular. Celebrity spotting is indeed a popular pastime on St. Barts and great fun because you can have a chance encounter just about anywhere, be it in one of the exclusive boutiques in Gustavia or in a simple beach shack where tables and chairs sit on the sand and the patrons, more often than not, have stepped out of the waves and sat down to an always fabulous meal in swimming trunks and bikinis.
As for the food, think fish and the freshest seafood, Creole and French cuisine, although there is the odd sushi and pizza place.
Pro Tip: If you really want to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, come for New Year’s Eve when the biggest yachts arrive.
Of course, nightlife spots is another good chance. Two of the best-known areas with live music are Nikki Beach and Le Plage, where it becomes very lively. Known well beyond St. Barts, though, and attracting visitors just to see the outrageous shows and cabarets, is Le Ti. Adult-themed and reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, you should try to get a front-row seat to see the performers up close. There is even the chance to go backstage and select your very own costume and headdress.
Pro Tip: If you spot someone famous, don’t ask for autographs. It’s bad style.