St. Barts, formally known as Saint-Barthélemy, officially as the Territorial Collectivity of Saint-Barthélemy, and as Ouanalao by the indigenous peoples, is one of the jewels of the Caribbean, an island paradise located in the northeastern waters of that sea. It’s one of the four Leeward Islands that make up the French West Indies, also one of the Renaissance Islands, and one of the most upscale and luxurious destinations in the Western Hemisphere.
The island is a part of the nation of France, and it’s a tiny realm, encompassing only 9.5 square miles, with a permanent population of 9,035 people as of 2014. The city of Gustavia is its capital, and also the largest city on the island.
St. Barts was one of the islands discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and named for his less-famous brother, Bartolomeo. The island was colonized by the French in 1648, and continued to be so until 1784 when it was swapped to Sweden in a trade deal. It is the only island in the Caribbean that ever belonged to Sweden. The island prospered under the Swedes, who declared Gustavia to be a free port, making it an important trading center in the region. For various reasons, Sweden gave St. Barts back to the French in 1878, and it has remained in their hands since.
Culture and High Society on St. Barts
St. Barts has for many decades been a mecca for the wealthy and famous, especially during winter in the northern climes, when thousands of well-to-do temporary residents from all over the world descend on the island to while away the months in a tropical playground until the warm weather returns. At anytime of the year though, the bays of St. Barts are filled with magnificent yachts and sailboats, and luxury automobiles and well-dressed people ply the streets of the cities.
Since the island’s economy depends mostly on catering to the tastes of the well-to-do, there are many world-class restaurants serving the finest gourmet and local cuisine, and upscale shopping is easily found.
Not all of St. Barts visitors are rich though, as the island has about 200,000 tourists each year, so there are plenty of sights and establishments to serve the needs of the less well-heeled adventurer.
French is the language most spoken on the island, along with variations of Creole and Quebec French, although English is also spoken at most restaurants, shops, hotels, and attractions.
The famous St. Barts Music Festival attracts thousands of fans of reggae, calypso, and merengue music each year, and is held in the latter part of January.
Things to See and Do in St. Barts
Sailors should be aware that St. Barts is surrounded by a marine preserve called the Reserve Naturelle. It consists of five different zones, and includes the bays of Petit Cul de Sac, Colombier, Grand Cul de Sac, Marigot, and Petite Anse, as well as some of the closer islets and larger rocks. The preserve has different levels of restrictions. Although these mostly apply to watersports and scuba diving, it should be noted that it is illegal to anchor within the preserve, so watercraft should be aware of its boundaries.
As mentioned above, St. Barts is mostly about gorgeous beaches and calm blue waters, exciting nightlife, wonderful cuisine, expensive shopping, and luxury accommodations. But the island has a rich history, and there are several sites of interest for the history buff.
The capital city of Gustavia, although razed by the British in 1744, was quickly rebuilt and many examples of the architecture of the period still exist.
Several old churches can be found in the city, as well as the 18th century remains of Fort Karl.
The Musée Territorial de St.-Barthélemy is the principal historical museum of the island, with collections and artifacts from every period in the island’s history, and well worth an afternoon’s visit.
St. Barts is a unique and very special place, and no sailor can truly say they know the Caribbean until they’ve paid the island a visit.