When Christopher Columbus sailed past this island in 1493, he said a mouthful by naming the place for St Bartholomew. When the French took over, the island eventually became ritzy, glitzy St Bartholemy. The Colombian mouthful finally evolved into St Barth in French and Saint Barts in English.
In 2004, Conde Nast Traveller magazine named St Barts “one of the world’s 20 enduring Edens,” the island having successfully preserved its natural wonders for present and future generations of mostly rich, famous and pseudo-famous visitors. Columbus found the island semi-arid and serene. Today, St Barts is best described as chic, civilized and almost entirely European. The island never went into the plantation business, so there were never any slaves other than a few domestic ones. Plantation-free, extremely hilly St Barts has valleys and beaches that are among the most unspoiled and gorgeous in the Caribbean. From the island’s highest peak, about 930ft, it is possible to see St. Eustatius and St. Kitts islands.
On July 1, 1784, the King of France, in cahoots with King Gustav III of Sweden, traded St. Barts for a Swedish warehouse and Baltic Sea trading rights. Thus, St. Barts became Sweden’s only Caribbean colony. Today, little remains of Swedish rule – other than a waterfront warehouse, several Swedish street names, and the Swedish royal name “Gustavia” for the island’s commercial center.
Sweden’s monarch made his Caribbean colony a duty-free port. Almost ever since, St. Barts and its waterfront capital, Gustavia, have prospered as a shopper’s haven. However, trade dropped off in 1847 when Sweden’s king freed the slaves, what few there were. Since there were no plantations, most of the freed slaves left to find work in the US Virgin Islands.
In 1878, King Oscar II of Sweden ordered a referendum on sovereignty. Islanders voted to return as part of France, but only if the duty-free status could remain in place.
As the Caribbean’s most European island, you will find in St. Barts dozens of excellent restaurants, huge wine cellars, fashion shows galore, and top-of-the-line art galleries. In a charmingly French touch, the police wear kepis as headgear. The center of St Barts’ tourist industry is the town of St. Jean, east of Gustavia. This site of the earliest settlement on the island is chockablock with Euro-styled bistros, brasseries and chic boutiques. Old St. Barts can be found in the hills east of St. Jean. Here you will find the luxurious villas replaced with the dry-stone walls and red roofs of old-time St Barts. Nearby is the island’s highest peak, about 930 ft high and boasting a view that can reach as far as St. Eustatius and St. Kitts.
The largest aircraft servicing St. Barts has no more than 19 seats. Almost all food is imported via daily flights from France. Nevertheless, the world’s glitterati and cognoscente continue to stream to this most posh of Caribbean isles. Among frequent visitors are Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Donna Karen. Before they “discovered” St. Barts, it was a favorite hangout of such well-heeled families as the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers.
The most famous of the island’s 20 gorgeous beaches include Anse a Colombier and the even more beautiful Anse des Flamands. (Anse means cove in English.) Topless bathing is permitted but, surprisingly for a French destination, nudity is a no-no.
For a more active lifestyle, check out facilities for boating and sailing, coastal and deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, scuba diving and tennis. Most visitors are more than content with St. Barts as the perfect place to do nothing all day and then rest afterwards.