This arid, volcanic rock of just eight square miles is home to an eclectic mix of iguanas, night-blooming cactus, and fabulous beaches as well as luxury yachts, designer boutiques, and celebrities… Peopled primarily by descendents of the original French settlers and transplanted Europeans, this is an island with a strong, independent personality. Through the vagaries of its history it became a duty-free port and more recently liberated itself from the administrative yoke of Guadeloupe. It is certainly the most unusual of the French West Indies islands.
Shaped like a horseshoe around a small, sheltered harbor, and once protected by stone forts whose vestiges remain today, Gustavia remains a busy port, as was its original occupation. Called Carénage in the early days of colonization, and renamed in 1785 by the Swedes in tribute to their king, Gustav III, Gustavia served as a center for provisioning and commercial trading, while maintaining its neutrality. As such, during the colonial wars that raged in the Caribbean at the end of the 18th century, the Swedes made it possible for a boat captain to sell his plundered treasure and at the same time replenish his ship. On the shores of this free port, visited by vessels flying flags from around the world, warehouses were filled with goods and the city prospered with as many as 5000 inhabitants during the Swedish era.
If today the town has only 3100 residents (census of 2005), Gustavia remains primarily a port and has conserved the sense of commerce it inherited from the past. Yet electronics and luxury goods have replaced arms and the essentials of daily life in the many shops along the waterfront, and schooners carrying cattle on their way to Martinique have been replaced by sailboats and mega-yachts. In spite of its good fortune, Gustavia has been able to conserve its charm and the simplicity of its past: the Saint-Barths, concerned about their cultural heritage as well as their interests, have been able to infuse the island’s authenticity with a sense of opulence.
Today it is possible to stroll among glittering jewelry stores and designer boutiques or admire the restored facades of a few handsome wooden and stone buildings that remain from the Swedish era. You might also settle in for some people watching on the terrace of a waterfront café, or walk along the docks under the watchful eye of the pelicans and delight in the line-up of fabulous sea-going “toys” anchored here. On the far side of the harbor, opposite the Rue du Bord-de-Mer, are more restaurants and businesses, as well as the renovated Wall House, also a survivor of the Swedish era. This two-story stone building currently houses the island’s library as well as its principal museum, which chronicles the history and culture of Saint Barthélemy (there is also a shell museum in Corossol).
The charm of the island’s capital lies in its architecture, from the vestiges of the Swedish era with a pretty little Anglican church topped with a cupola in wood to various colonial-style houses, some painted in bright Caribbean colors and others cool behind their white clapboard facades and slatted shutters.
On the outskirts of town it’s worth the detour to follow the cactus-studded path up to Fort Gustave (near the lighthouse). Built in 1787 by the Swedish, this fort sits atop a steep hillside where its historic ruins (ramparts, guardhouse, munitions depot, wood-burning oven, etc.) provide the perfect place to take in the breathtaking view that overlooks the port that was once the refuge of pirates, and today hosts a variety of spirited regattas. Just a few miles from the port and accessible by car via Lurin, the little cove of Gouverneur provides an unspoiled natural landscape and one of the island’s most beautiful beaches, more isolated and peaceful than Shell Beach, which is the closest beach to the center of town.
Corsairs once protected Saint Jean with a battery of canons in the middle of the bay. As of the early 1950s, the Eden Rock, the island’s first hotel, has been located on a promontory overlooking the bay. The hotel was built by Rémy de Haenen, an adventurer and pioneer of aviation in the Caribbean,who served as the island’s mayor from 1962 to 1977. His hotel was frequented by David Rockfeller, who most likely contributed to the promotion of the island to its earliest American visitors.
Saint Jean is not only centrally located, but this popular neighborhood also comprises the second largest shopping area on the island as well as magnificent villas, hotels, and excellent restaurants.
A very pretty beach is found at the end of the runway at the Gustav III Airport, but access to the zone right at the end of the runway is strictly forbidden.
In the hills, luxury hotels and pretty villas are hidden in the tropical vegetation and a profusion of colorful flowers. From Saint Jean, you can head toward Gustavia or continue on to Lorient, following the coast road, which has pretty views of the ocean and mountainous landscape.