Saint Barthelemy, a French Diamond in the Caribbean

Saint Barthelemy is known as “billionaires’ island” due to its celebrity population. A former French colony and now an Overseas Collectivity, the island also attracts American tourists looking for sun and French culture.

St. Barts is a volcanic gem spanning 10 square miles, located ten hours by plane from France and three from the United States. When French pilot and adventurer Rémy de Haenen arrived on the island in 1946, he landed his two-seater between a herd of sheep and a lake. At the time, the island was a natural oasis without running water or electricity.

De Haenen was elected as mayor for 15 years and lent his name to the local airport whose 2,100-foot landing strip faces the Caribbean Sea. Small propeller planes land there daily in a flurry of comings and goings against the backdrop of the sunset.


The landing strip of Rémy de Haenen Airport is just over 2,100 feet long. Pilots require a specific permit to land. © Robert Dilworth

The 180,000 passengers who arrive at the airport every year have certainly earned it, as getting to the island implies a stop in Saint Martin, 17 miles to the northwest. This isolation first hampered the development of St. Barts, before becoming one of its key assets when the island became a luxury tourist destination.

The air and water temperatures of 80°F are perfect for swimming. © Robert Dilworth

American billionaire David Rockefeller was the first to realize the potential of this little slice of France. In 1957, he spotted Colombier bay on the northwest point of the island while on his boat. Immediately won over, he built a villa on a 67-acre plot of land with no road access — preferring to arrive by yacht. The Rothschilds and the New York jet set soon followed suit, and St. Barts became the most stylish destination in the Caribbean.


Locals, stars, and tourists all mingle on the terrace of Le Select, the island’s oldest bar opened in 1949. © Robert Dilworth

From Thanksgiving through April, tourists come to spend winter in the sun. St. Barts is a choice destination for celebrating the New Year, during which time the population grows to 17,000 compared with the usual 9,500 the rest of the year. As part of the festivities, dozens of yachts drop anchor in and around the port, and the cuisine and hotels à la française are as popular as the climate.


The marina in Gustavia, the island’s main town, usually hosts some 30 boats. © Space SBH

Colorful village and picturesque beaches line the winding roads. Lush vegetation abounds, with perennial plants, Turk’s cap cactuses, and palm trees offering a home for tortoises, endemic bird species, and iguanas. The island has no agricultural sector, and all products are imported from mainland France.

“You could almost say we are victims of our own success. People appreciate the cleanliness, safety, and the island’s harmonious development,” says Bruno Magras, president of the local council. “But too much development would spoil all our selling points and lead to economic disaster.” While some criticize the “concretization” of St. Barts, 66% of the island is a protected natural zone in which all construction is forbidden.

Despite the passage of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the untrained eye will not see any sign of destruction as the island drew on its own resources to rebuild in record time.


A number of traditional huts clad with wood or whitewash have been spared by the cyclones and the real estate developers. © Robert Dilworth

=> Read our feature on Saint Barthélemy in the September 2018 issue of France-Amérique.

  • L’île de St-Barth est paradisiaque ! On est joyeux et soulagé de voir le rétablissement de la vie normalisée et prospère au jour le jour là-bas après le menace de l’ouragan Maria et les cauchemars dans son sillage.

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