St Barthélemy guide
St Barthélemy at a glance
SAINT BARTHELEMY, usually called St Barth or St Barts, is the most chic island in the Caribbean; not easily accessible so exclusive. Excellent beaches, very French, well developed with just a few, but excellent, hotels, literally hundreds of excellent villas and some good self-catering rooms and apartments.
Read about St Barth history, population and politics in Island Essentials.
The Definitive St Barths Island Guide gives you independent reviews, listings, and information from top travel journalists and Caribbean specialists.
- Best for:
- Beach, Food & Cooking, Spa & Wellbeing, Art, Solo Travel, Sailing & Regattas, Birdwatching, Music, Weddings & Romance
- What for:
- Restaurants, chic style, upmarket shopping, seeing and being seen on the beach
- Not for:
- Backpackers, Golf, Camping, Casinos, Flowers & Gardens, Cricket
- How to get there:
- Fly via St Maarten, which has regular services from Paris, Amsterdam and North America, or via Antigua
- Top tip:
- Everyone thinks St Barth is for the mega rich, but there are plenty of budget options for accommodation and food. Getting there remains the expensive part. Combine with Antigua or St Martin
St Barthélemy in depth
About ST BARTS, St Barthélemy, St Barth...
This diminutive French island may only be 25 square kilometres with 9,000 or so permanent residents, but it packs a powerful punch as the Caribbean’s most sophisticated island. This is the place where Abramovich throws €5million New Year’s parties at his lavish Gouverneur Beach villa. Where Stéphane Lanson and Bernard Blancaneaux (previously model moguls who discovered Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin back in the day) will invite you into their Gustavia shop, lock the doors and find you the perfect Valentino dress. Where Eden Rock hotel has opened Rockstar Villa, a gleaming homage to excess right on the bay at Saint-Jean with its own recording studio containing the sound-mixing console used by John Lennon to record the song ‘Imagine’.
But despite the beautiful people who zip by on motorbikes and open-topped Smart cars and stroll the beaches in a mere nuance of a bathing suit, scratch just a little beneath the surface and there’s a tight community with firm grip on reality and a steadfast belief that St Barth is not all about the bling. The native population is primarily of European origin, notably humble fisher folk from Brittany and Normandy. The patois on the leeward side of the island is close to the French spoken in and around Normandy in the 17th century. For an insight into the island’s modest past, the Museum at La Pointe, Gustavia displays handmade fishing nets, Breton costumes and Singer sewing machines. Local choirs still perform at the stone built Anglican church in the pretty capital Gustavia and the Catholic Church in Lorient.
There’s no denying the island has immense style and atmosphere. The food is excellent, the island is safe and the shopping is the best in the Caribbean. All that France does so well has been transported across the Atlantic to a blip in the Caribbean.
St Barth lies about fifteen miles south east of St Maarten/St Martin, the main access point from the States or mainland Europe – British visitors tend to travel via Antigua, though it’s an equally doable journey via Paris and St Maarten/St Martin. The island is just six miles by two or three in size and extremely rough and mountainous but surprisingly beautiful. The beaches, some developed and some completely wild, are excellent.
From its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1493 to its evolution as a French Overseas Collective on July 15, 2007, Saint Barth was at various times under the rule of Spain, France, England and Sweden. Officially the island is called St Barthélemy, but it is usually known by familiar abbreviations - Saint-Barth in French, St Barth or St Barts in English.
Nowadays the atmosphere is overwhelmingly French, French from France rather than French Caribbean. Despite a long-standing political connection to the larger French island of Guadeloupe (which has been loosened recently), St Barth has almost no Créole aspect at all. The islanders are predominantly white, descendants of a few poor and hardy settlers, and they own the majority of the businesses. There is a large constituency of home-owners (of all nationalities) and then there is a population of mainly French, who work on the island. The vast majority of visitors to St Barth are from the States, and a large proportion of them are from Manhattan, though there’s growing interest from Russia.
A century ago, when the island was in the doldrums, the population of the island was a fraction of what it is now. But it goes even higher. In the height of the winter season, though, when the island is full to bursting, the total population can reach as much as 18,000 people. No wonder there is no parking space.
St Barth is quite exclusive (in that it is an expensive island). Some may find the island a little unreal - certainly it owes very little to the Caribbean – or just plain pretentious. The yachts in the harbour over Christmas are a sight to behold, massive hardware that teeters between magnificence and supreme vulgarity. Lunchtime entertainment, accompanied by a couple of bottles of white wine, is often a fashion show. Still, if you are prepared to spend quite a bit of money, the beauty of St Barth is that it doesn’t matter to most visitors and once you are on island it is quite low-key. The millionaires park their jets in St Maarten and then go barefoot in St Barth. You probably won’t recognise them in their bathing suits anyway.
Unknown to most, it is just about possible to visit St Barth on a budget. The key is to come out of season when the paparazzi have packed up their lenses and the island folk begin to party. April 15 to December 15 is officially low season. Don’t come in September or October as that’s hurricane season when most places are closed anyway. April to August is the best time to come when you can bag a low season rate on a hotel room or villa and the weather is fine. There are good, inexpensive places to eat, fabulous takeaways and good supermarkets. The biggest expense is getting there.
Definitive Caribbean's guide brings you in-depth island information and independent reviews covering everything you need to know about St Barths, its accommodation, things to do, places to see, getting around, how to get there.
Contributors include James Henderson (original copy), Jane Anderson (copy update and edit) Picture editor, Holly Cocker. Senior Picture Editor, Alexander Gray.
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St Barthélemy weather
Looking for inspiration?
- Head to St Jean beach where the hip, beautiful people go to see and be seen
- Indulge yourself in some designer retail therapy
- Sample the delights of fine French wines and dining
- Get pampered at one of the many island spas
- Experience a night of cinema under the stars during the annual St Barth Film Festival