You don’t expect to find Swedish heritage in the Caribbean. Indeed, St Barts was the Scandinavian kingdom’s only conquest in these parts (other than a brief spell ruling Guadeloupe). In fact, the Swedes did a swap. The French, who first settled the island in 1648, only to find it had poor soil, gave it up to Gustaf III in 1785 in return for lucrative trading rights in the port of Gothenburg. (This wasn’t the first time the French had sold on the island. The Knights of Malta had previously bought it in 1651 but were slaughtered five years later by the Caribs.)
Still, the Swedes made the best of it, by turning their attention to St Barts’s splendid natural harbour, a large cove sheltered by mountains. They created a duty-free port, open to all ships and nationalities, which thrived when other islands limited who could access their waters during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
And though the island’s fortunes have been mixed over the intervening centuries – the opening of more free ports in the area prompted the Swedes to hand back the territory to the French in 1878 – the ruse to create a tax-free haven continues to profit the island today. Where clipper ships once filled the harbour.
St Barts’s current good fortune has been boosted, too, by the development of another moneyspinner: luxury tourism. The seeds were sown with the arrival in 1945 of the London-born adventurer and playboy Rémy de Haenen. He swooped down to the island in his two-seater plane, hopping over a cliff to land on a short strip of grass by St Jean’s Bay. By doing so he simultaneously identified the spot for the island’s future airport and created the necessity for special training for every pilot who flies in the small aircraft that can set down here.
This is the second shortest runway in the Caribbean, after that belonging to the nearby Dutch island of Saba – also De Haenen’s creation – and regularly figures among the top five most dangerous airstrips in the world. The local taxi drivers make good money taking tourists to wait beneath the cliff to see, close up, a plane jump over them to make the daredevil final descent.
While you’d think such a perilous entrance would discourage visitors, the clearing of an airstrip in fact signalled the slow beginnings of St Barts’s tourism industry. In 1953, De Haenen bought a rocky outcrop in St Jean’s Bay and built a small guesthouse on it, Eden Rock, where his style of remote luxury attracted the likes of Robert Mitchum, David Rockefeller and the King of Sweden.
With the airstrip finally concreted in the 1970s, the gentle flow of visitors began to form a tide. Now, 70,000 come to stay in the island’s villas and hotels each year, while a further 130,000 call by in boats.
One of the main draws remains Eden Rock, from whose sunbeds you can watch the thrilling sideshow of Twin Otters and Cessnas buzzing in and out of the airport. (Signs on the beach at the end of the runway politely advise against sunbathing in this particular spot.) The appointment of New York-based French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten to oversee the kitchen will surely keep this hotel a favourite with Americans, as in De Haenen’s day. However, its look and footprint have changed somewhat since the current owners, David and Jane Matthews, bought the property from him in 1993 after spotting it from the deck of a friend’s yacht.
There’s a reason why celebrities, models, socialites, and It girls (like Bella Hadid, Jessica Alba, and Chrissy Teigen) consistently retreat to the tropical paradise of St. Barth’s. The island, an overseas collectivity of France, blends the sophistication of St.-Tropez with the laissez-fare Caribbean lifestyle—which means it’s exclusive yet totally unpretentious. Walk into any beachfront restaurant, for instance, and you’ll see well-dressed women with Birkins eating lunch beside sandy, barefoot beachgoers; walk into a club wearing jean cutoffs and no one will raise an eyebrow. It’s a specific brand of laid-back luxury that breeds instant converts. Make one trip, and you’ll find yourself immediately hooked.
Still, St. Barth’s can be an intimidating place to navigate if you’ve never been. Even the island’s name is cause for confusion—is it St. Bart? St. Barth? St. Barth’s? (The answer: St. Barth’s to locals; St. Bart’s to English speakers.)
Here’s everything a first-time visitor should know before planning a trip.
There are no direct flights to St. Barth’s . . . unless you charter your own plane. If a PJ isn’t a possibility, the next best option is flying to Princess Juliana International Airport on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, where, upon landing, you’ll have to choose your own adventure for the final leg: a 15-minute plane ride or a roughly 45-minute ferry crossing. Flying will get you to paradise quickly, but the flight itself—a roughly dozen-seat puddle-jumper—is not for the faint of heart. (The runway in St. Barth’s also happens to be one of the shortest in commercial aviation, which makes for a white-knuckled landing.) Book your flights in advance on either Winair or St Barth Commuter, the only commercial airlines that provide shuttle flights to and from the island. Or there’s the ferry: an incredibly unglamorous but efficient option for nervous flyers. Buy your tickets in advance on either Great Bay Express or the Voyager to secure your seat. Both have schedules posted online.
One thing St. Barth’s regulars love about the island is the diversity of its beaches. There are 16 (!) of them in total, each with its own distinct personality. At Saline Beach you’ll find topless women frolicking in the translucent azure water and stretches of soft, white sand that feels like powdered sugar between your toes. What you won’t find: tiki-style tourist traps hawking sugary cocktails. Saline, like most other beaches on St. Barth’s, is rather bare bones—no bars, no shops, no restaurants—so be sure to pack your own snacks and water.
Another local favorite is Colombier, an isolated haven accessible only by boat or a rugged, roughly 30-minute hike. Be warned: The downhill trail to get there is deceivingly easy. The way back . . . not so much. (Try going in the early morning to avoid the afternoon heat.)
If you prefer a more vibrant scene, head to St. Jean, where hot spots like Eden Rock and Nikki Beach provide ample people-watching. During the day, you’ll find the surfers at beaches like Toiny or Lorient and the snorkelers at Gouverneur or Petite Anse, but for sunset, everyone descends upon Shell Beach. It’s covered in millions of thumbnail-size shells and home to the famed Do Brazil (more on that below).