A quick flight or 45-minute ferry ride 24km (15 miles) east of St. Maarten/St. Martin, this rugged, hilly, 21-sq.-km (8-sq.-mile) island ("St. Barths," to the locals) is practically synonymous with international glamour and glorious beaches. The cost for effortless chic is high, but the jet set has never minded. Despite its forbidding prices and luxury reputation -- and its sometimes ostentatious display of wealth -- St. Barts has retained its French soul and sunny, easy-going West Indian heart. The 8,000 locals -- many descended from the original hardy Norman and Breton settlers -- remain matter-of-fact and supremely unimpressed by the jet-setting crowd. And why not? Their cultural traditions are firmly entrenched in a fairy-tale capital, Gustavia; the Caribbean equivalent of the Riviera, St-Jean; exceptionally pretty fishing villages in Colombier and Corossol; and along a gnarled coastline, some of the world's most beautiful beaches.
It's been called the French Riviera in the Caribbean. St. Barts is a place where mega-yachts preen for other mega-yachts, where the well-heeled come to chase eternal youth under the tropical sun. In addition to historic architecture and thrilling aquatic activities, St. Barts offers pampering without pomp, inimitable French flair and a congenial Caribbean vibe, world-class beaches, and the promise of eternal sun and blue skies (it rarely rains).
Despite its reputation as a playground for the rich, a friendly, laid-back attitude prevails, as does casual dress -- sandals, flowing kurtas, tousled hair, bangles, little else -- though the sandals are likely Manolo and the bangles 24-karat gold. Yes, St. Barts can be prohibitively pricey, from the upscale resorts and tony French restaurants to the luxury brands and couture fashions. But it doesn't have to cost a fortune to stay here: You can rent a villa or private home (half the visitors who come here do), cook your own meals, and beach-hop with the rest of the islanders -- all the beaches are public and free. And yes, you may spot a celebrity living it up, but then again, you may be too busy living it up yourself to care.
New friends call it "St. Barts," while old-time visitors prefer "St. Barths." Either way, it's short for St. Barthélemy (San Bar-te-le-mee), named by its discoverer Columbus in 1493. For the most part, St. Bartians are descendants of Breton and Norman fisherfolk. Many are of French and Swedish ancestry, the latter evident in their fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. The year-round population is small, about 8,000 people living on 41 sq. km (16 sq. miles) of land, just 24km (15 miles) southeast of St. Martin and 225km (140 miles) north of Guadeloupe.
Despite the constant influx of young arrivals, old ways endure. A few locals still speak 18th-century Norman, Breton, or Poitevin dialect. In little Corossol, you might glimpse wizened grand-mères wearing the traditional starched white bonnets known as quichenottes (a corruption of "kiss-me-not"), which discouraged the close attentions of English or Swedish men on the island.
For a long time, the island was a paradise for a handful of millionaires, such as David Rockefeller. It still caters to an ultra-affluent crowd with European-style discos and flashy yachts elbowing their way into the little seaport of Gustavia, the island's enchanting capital. Old and new money feed a vibrant (and duty-free) luxury-goods market. Yet the island diligently maintains a quaintness, a natural warmth, and a generous bonhomie. It has an almost old-fashioned storybook quality, with gaily painted Creole cottages tucked into hillsides and flower boxes spilling over with colorful blooms. Picturesque cemeteries are dotted with simple white crosses draped in blooms and ringed by picket fences.
St. Barts has retained its quaint character for a number of reasons. The island has no clanging casinos, and cruise ships are discouraged (the natural harbor is too small to handle big cruise ships anyway). The airport and its comically short runway are too small to handle big jets. Local authorities, keenly sensitive to the perils of overdevelopment, have placed style and size restrictions on new resorts; most are tastefully tucked into the glorious landscape. For many people, just getting here can be daunting. Unless you're a passenger on a zillionaire's yacht, you'll have to fly in on a tiny plane that makes a heart-stopping landing on a tiny airstrip lined up between two mountains. Those who go by boat or high-speed ferry have the unpredictable, sometimes stomach-churning seas to contend with.
St. Barts' terrain is vastly different than that of its neighbor, Anguilla, where flat, sandy scrubland is the prevailing topography. St. Barts is a volcanic island, where roads carved into the creases and folds of the landscape have Monte Carlo-style curves and rollercoaster dips and rises. Driving these roads in a zippy little European number, hair tousled and kurta flowing, is almost like flying -- one minute you're cruising past meadows where baby goats graze and the next you're rounding a corkscrew cliff, with nothing between you and the crashing sea below but a rocky promontory and that witchy Caribbean air. Add a French-inflected reggae soundtrack, and that, more than Manolos and 24-carat gold, is St. Barts.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.