Ending any statement with the words “in St. Barts” immediately makes life sound much more appealing and less mundane.
“How was your summer, Jim?”
“Oh fine, I spent it cleaning sewers and mining salt…in St. Barts.”
“Ooooh…St Barts! Look at you!”
The island has an exclusive allure, yes, but many wouldn’t know much about it outside of its occasional mention in pop music lyrics. So, it remains a mysterious oasis of sorts. Picture Puerto Rico, and you’ll conjure up images of grand colonial architecture and salsa dancing until dawn. Say “Turks and Caicos,” and your mind is a wash of turquoise crisp, blue water, and pink sandy beaches.
St. Barts? You probably imagine rich, beautiful people letting loose in thousand-dollar flip flops and designer insect repellant. Otherwise, it might as well be on the moon.
But when you venture beyond the beach clubs and Rosé-all-day, you’ll find an island with stunning natural wonders and very unexpected history. It has gone from desert wasteland to an elite playground in barely half a century. But more than that, you’ll find an island that’s unlike any in the Caribbean, both in its European ambiance and rugged arid terrain.
A tropical paradise once traded for a storage unit
St. Barts wasn’t always the see-and-be-seen capital of the Caribbean. Quite the contrary. Compared to its lush, tropical neighbors St. Kitts and St. Maarten, St. Barts is a desert–a pile of brown rocks and cacti with nary an animal and no natural sources of water.
It was a sitting block of island land for much of its history. Allegedly first “discovered” by Columbus and named for his brother Bartolomeo, nobody bothered living on St. Barts until France sent a handful of hearty colonists in the late 17th century. They thought so little of the place that in 1785 France traded it to Sweden in exchange for some warehouse space in Gothenburg.
The Swedes made St. Barts into a free port, beginning its long tradition as a tax haven. The duty-free trading post quickly brought commerce and construction and with it the thriving little town of Gustavia, named after Swedish King Gustav.
Eventually, the island was ceded back to France in 1878. Life on the island was hard–it lacked electricity until the 1960s, and water came from communal cisterns until 1972 when it opened its first desalination plant. Its first fully operational power plant opened in the 1980s.
Over the next few decades, the island attracted the world’s elite, many drawn by St. Barts tax-free status as a French overseas territory. Celebrities followed, and Jimmy Buffett became a mainstay. Expensive restaurants and retailers filled the streets, and today the short flight from St. Maarten feels like a 15-minute trip to the French Riviera. It’s the cleanest, fanciest, and most efficient island in the Caribbean. And you’ll notice it as soon as you pull into the capital city of Gustavia.
Transport yourself to Europe, a couple of hours from America
Gustavia is a seaside red-roofed hamlet that serves as St. Barts capital city. The narrow streets are lined with classical French and Swedish architecture, with tiny cars and mopeds lurching through its steep hills and waterfront thoroughfares.
Many of the city’s historic buildings are adorned with numbers and historic plaques, explaining each building’s role in the island’s history. Some of these homes now house Gustavia’s handful of museums, like the Dinzey House. The 1800s merchant home serves as the city’s historic museum, where you’ll learn exactly how awful St. Barts was before it got running water and air conditioning.
Just down the street sits the Wall House Museum, a two-story stone structure that hosts rotating art showcases downstairs and the island library upstairs. Ask anyone in St. Barts about the history of the Wall House, and their answer will be something like, “Nobody knows, it just showed up on old records at some point.” A vague and secretive answer that seems quintessentially St. Barts.
If you’re up for some walking, climb to the vistas atop the ruins of Ft. Karl. The former Swedish sentinel has been reduced to foundations now, but still boasts spectacular views over Shell Beach, and out to Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Kitts in the distance.
The best place for people-watching in town is Le Select, which passes for a funky dive bar on this island of opulence. St. Barts oldest bar is said to have inspired Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and sits at the main pedestrian intersection of the city. You’ll spot off-work yachties and dive instructors sipping cheap beers next to the people who own the yachts, creating what may be the one place on the island that feels devoid of pretense.
Hiking through the desert to a washing machine and secluded beach
Though St. Bart doesn’t have the tropical jungles or verdant foliage of some of its volcanic neighbors, hiking here is breathtaking in its own right.
The island’s quintessential hike is the trek to Grand Fond, which takes you across a rocky beach to a desert mountain that’s lined with crashing waves. There’s no shade, but other than that, the half-hour-or-so-jaunt isn’t especially difficult. After traversing the mountainside, you’ll arrive at a couple of inviting natural pools only a short walk down from the path. The clear, turquoise water beckons you from below, and cooling off in the calmer of the two pools is a welcomed endpoint.
The second pool, however, has been deemed “the washing machine,” where waves shoot up over limestone rocks and crash down over unsuspecting bathers. It’ll knock you around if you don’t brace yourself properly, and always be sure to hold on to your sunglasses.
For a gentler hike-to-water experience, head to the far west end of the island to Colombier Beach. This secluded stretch of sand is only accessible by foot and by boat, with two trails leading to the shoreline.
The first is far more scenic–and more challenging–as you begin at a panoramic viewpoint and descend to the beach. You’ll pass through the dry forest and its resident mountain goats for about half an hour until reaching the sand. While it may tempt you to pop a few beers at sunset, remember the half-hour climb back up is considerably harder.
For those seeking an easier journey, park at Petite Anse Beach–closer to the water–and follow the dirt path around the northern side of the island. This far-flatter route takes you through sea caves, past turtles, and mountain goats, with the Caribbean Sea lapping the shore in front of you. The walk takes a little longer–closer to 40 minutes each way–but is far more leisurely.
The best hike on the island, though, is the walk around Le Toiny. It starts at a swanky club on Toiny Beach, of course, then ascends around an elevated point jutting out into the sea. Sweeping views of golden desert contrasting with aquamarine water follow you for nearly two hours as you hike up to two of the highest points on St. Bart. The culmination is a windswept view over Toiny Beach to one side and the emerald waves of Grande Cul-de-sac beach to the other. The end of the hike takes you through a mysteriously abandoned luxury home development, though in true St. Barts style, nobody can tell you what it is or why it’s there.
Shipwrecks as art
St. Barts National Marine Park sits just a five-minute boat ride from the harbor in Gustavia, preserving some of the most convenient dive sites in the Caribbean. The most obvious is le pain de sucre–or “the sugar loaf”–a massive rock at the entrance to the harbor. This 30-foot dive is a typical reef excursion, where you’ll spot grouper, stingrays, and the occasional turtle.
St. Barts history is also rich in wrecks and the luxury yacht that did not live up to its name, “Nonstop”, sank during Hurricane Hugo. Though the backstory is alluring, the yacht is upside down now and isn’t much more than a hull in the ocean.
The best wreck is the Kayali, a trawler that’s been submerged for nearly 30 years and now teems with marine life. Hurricane Irma knocked the wreck around back in 2017, and now it looks more like an abstract artist’s idea of what a sunken ship should look like, with large gears scattered throughout lopsided pieces of the hull and a coral-covered mast. It’s got plenty of swim-throughs and the most abundant life of any site near the island. Serial Divers has single-tank dives to both sites, leaving right from Gustavia.
Where to stay, what to eat, and how to get to St. Barts
Getting to St. Barts isn’t as difficult for the yachtless as one might think, as you’ll find a few flights an hour leaving from St. Maarten, which has nonstop options to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Charlotte, New York City, and other U.S. hubs. The 15-minute flight is scenic but prepare yourself for the hard bank and quickly drop into St. Barts airport.
Once you’re there, renting a car is almost always the move, as taxis are, to put it nicely, a racket. Rent the smallest car you can because they’re reasonably priced at around $100 dollars for a weekend and, in addition, the streets in St. Barts are borderline claustrophobic.
If you want to explore the island, stay at Hotel Barriere Le Carl Gustaf in Gustavia. It’s far from the most expensive hotel and easily the best located, within walking distance to all of Gustavia and only about 20 minutes from anything on the island.
It boasts private bungalows on a hillside overlooking the harbor, each with its own plunge pool and aqua bike. Breakfasts of fresh French pastries and coffee are included, and available at the restaurant or to indulge in your room. The bar brings panoramic views of the city and perfume-infused cocktails, and the almost-instant valet allows you to hop in your car and go on a whim. If you are looking for a luxe beach club experience, the hotel has an arrangement with the nearby Shellona Beach Club on Shell Beach for its guests.
Not that St. Barts is ever a discount destination, but if you’re not trying to drop your entire budget on your hotel, opt for the Pearl Beach. By St. Barts standards, it’s a bargain and offers front row seats to the hair-raising landings at the airport. You’ll need to drive to get into Gustavia or to do pretty much anything, but it’s also centrally located so none of your drives will be far.
Prepare to drop a couple of hundred dollars on dinners, but you’ll get the most for your money at Le Tamarin. The garden of twinkling lights is an oasis of banana plants and water features which make the experience like eating in your neighbor’s perfectly appointed backyard. The menu is a mix of Caribbean and French, with stuff like Snake River Wagyu Steak with chimichurri sauce, and lobster with Caribbean melon and buttercream.
That said, you can eat cheaply at Le Select, where the original cheeseburger in paradise runs about 10 US dollars. A block away, the Creperie offers a strong mix of sweet and savory crepes, alongside healthy sandwiches and wraps for about 20 dollars. It’s a good go-to if you’re trying to avoid sticker shock dining.
Make no mistake, St. Barts is still the playground of the well-to-do, and the primary aim of most visitors here is to tell other rich people they’re in St. Barts. But if you’ve got a few bucks and you want more out of your trip than Rosé and live sax players on the beach, the island still comes through. St. Barts can be an enriching experience in both history and nature. And no matter what you end up doing, it will always sound fancy.