St. Barths evokes images of yachts, restaurants, and nightclubs populated by the rich and famous -- and it's all that, but more. Whether you are among the privileged few or just a daytripper from St. Martin, you can enjoy this French island's fine beaches, excursions above and below the waves, small-town life, and even a few unexplored corners where few tourists tread.
St. Barths is a duty-free port and famous for its high-end shopping, from local favorites like Ligne St. Barth cosmetics and toiletries (with stores in Gustavia and six other locations on the island) to global brands like Bulgari, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. Gustavia is the main shopping hub -- particularly the St. Jean neighborhood -- but there are also small shops scattered across the island, including in some hotels. The same is true of St. Barts fine art galleries.
St. Barths may be highly developed as far as Caribbean islands go, but residents also have taken great care to preserve the local marine habitat from overuse and exploitation. The Natural Reserve of St. Barthelemy includes five sanctuary zones around the island that provide protection to underwater habitats while also allowing diving, boating, and fishing under controlled circumstances. Local dive charters can arrange trips: Plongee Caraibes, for example, offers 22 separate outings in the Nature Reserve alone.
To see and be seen on the local beaches is a big part of the allure of St. Barts, which -- being French -- means topless sunbathing in most places, nude in a few others, but always tres fashionable. The island has at least 14 beaches to choose from, including Shell Beach (you walk here from Gustavia), surfer haven Anse des Cayes, remote Colombier, and au naturel Gouverneur.
The Toiny Coast
Take a walk on St. Bart's wild side with a visit to the Toiny coast area, which includes L'Anse de Toint and Grand Fond beaches. The local waters are better for surfing than swimming, but the rocky shoreline and cliffs are fun to explore, particularly on the walking paths around the Le Toiny hotel, which wander around a former coconut plantation. You also can walk from Grand Fond to a series of beautiful natural pools.
The Village of Corossol
The gentrification of St. Barts has somewhat spared this traditional fishing village, where you can walk along the beach or the narrow streets, visit the shell museum, and purchase traditional hats woven from latan palm leaves by native vendors. The local hillsides are dotted with rental villas if you want to stay and soak up the local culture.
The Inter Oceans Museum
Think you love seashells? Probably not as much as Ingénu Magras, the curator of this Corossol museum that consists of more than 9,000 shells -- tiny to tremendous -- collected on St. Barts and beyond, nearly all by the curator himself. This neatly organized collection will give you a real appreciation of the diversity and beauty of life under the seas.
St. Barths is undeniably French, but the capital, Gustavia, has a Swedish name (after King Gustav III) owing to the fact that France once sold the island to Sweden, buying it back about 100 years later. In addition to being the shopping hub of St. Barths, Gustavia also is home to restaurants like Le Select, purveyor of Jimmy Buffett's famed "Cheeseburger in Paradise." You can also hike to the ruins of Fort Karl and Fort Gustav overlooking the city, dip your toe in the waters of Shell Beach, or book a stay at the regal Hotel Karl Gustav. Some other traces of the Swedes still remind, including the Wall House, which now serves as the island's official heritage museum.
St. Barth's semi-submersible "Yellow Submarine" departs twice daily from the Gustavia docks for one-hour tours of the local reefs and wrecks of the island's Marine Park. Like it says, the 22-seat vessel never goes fully underwater, but the large, slanted windows allow for excellent views of corals, sea turtles, and the Marignan, a fishing boat sunk in a 1995 hurricane. Plus: narration in English, not always a given in the French Caribbean.
Boating and Sailing
One of the world's great yacht havens, the boating culture on St. Barts is rich and diverse. If you are among the unlucky few who don't have their own mega-yacht, you can rent anything from a jet ski to a crewed motorboat, sailboat, or catamaran at Jicky Marine Service. Sunset cruises are popular, as are fishing charters and wakeboarding and waterskiing outings from vendors like Masterski Pilou.