Crystal@Home Featured Port: Gustavia, St. Barts

Where Ritz and Glitz Unwind

St. Barthélemy

French, But at Ease in Any Language

A lush oasis ringed by white sand and turquoise water – and boasting 300 days of sunshine a year – tiny Saint-Barthélemy is very French, very plush, very peaceful, and is known for catering to the very rich. Pronounced “san bar-tell-eh-me” but usually shortened to St. Barts – the island was discovered in 1493 by Columbus, and named for his brother Bartholomew. (We know he idolized his brother, but apparently Christopher canonized him as well.)  

The first French settlers arrived in 1648, and except for a brief British takeover in 1758, the island remained firmly Gallic until 1784 when St. Barts’ citizens awoke to the astounding news that one of King Louis XVI’s ministers had traded the isle to Sweden.

The Swedes took over for the next 100 years, rechristened the capital Gustavia in honor of their king, and declared St. Barts a free port. Even after the island reverted to the French in 1878, the free port status remained, along with such Viking legacies as neat-lined buildings, some street names and signs, and the town name.

Fast forward to the late 1930s when a French-Dutch merchant marine named Rémy de Haenen was introduced to St. Barts while working on a research vessel in the Caribbean. Immediately smitten by the island’s beauty, he rented a house and set up a small shipyard in the Port of Gustavia before ultimately turning his attentions to aviation and creating the airline called Compagnie Aéirenne Antillaise. 

Today, visitors arriving St. Barts by air will land at the Rémy de Haenen Airport – and pilots must have specific training to land here on the 2,133-foot runway that ends on a short stretch of beach (probably a better idea to arrive on a Crystal ship!).

In 1953, de Haenen opened the Eden Rock Hotel – an enduring symbol of St. Barts’ jet-set glamour – attracting an elite celebrity clientele with names like Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Jacques Cousteau and John D. Rockefeller. Today owned by Pippa Middleton’s in-laws, the hotel continues to attract A-list names such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Mariah Carey, Rihanna and many more.

St. Barts’ charming anciennes dames pad about the quaint village of Corossol barefoot, peering out from under their distinctive large white sunbonnets, and spending the bulk of their days weaving the straw hats, placemats and baskets so popular with locals and visitors alike.

Shapes of the Shore

Vaguely V-shaped and occupying only about eight square miles, St. Barts lies 125 miles northwest of the French island of Guadeloupe (of which it is a dependency), and just 15 miles southeast of the French/Dutch island of St-Martin/St. Maarten. Notable geographic features include steep, green hills (once active volcanoes), deep, lush valleys, and beautiful beaches cupped into the island’s scalloped coastline.  

The beach at Baie de St. Jean, a large crescent of sunny sand, is the most popular on the island, with a number of small hotels, shops and restaurants lining its picturesque shore. As with most north-facing Atlantic-side shores, on St. Barts the beach is often pounded with heavier surf, while the southern coast facing the Caribbean is washed with gentle waves. 

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Bienvenue à Gustavia 

St. Barts’ toy-scaled capital lines the three sides of the horseshoe-shaped harbor, a popular layover haven for yachts breezing along the rim of the Caribbean. Averaging only about 15 feet deep, the harbor is too small to accommodate large cruise ships; Crystal ships must use its tenders, which dock at the principal quay on the east end of the port, center of the town’s activity.  

Boutiques offer French specialties – especially perfume, cosmetics and sports clothes – at duty-free prices. Gustavia is small, quaint and clean. Its handsome antique buildings house cute cafés and fine restaurants offering a photogenic mixture of French creole and Swedish colonial architectural styles. Depending on your resistance to cafés and boutiques, a stroll around the entire town should take no more than an hour. 

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Getting Around St. Barts 

Taxis are not plentiful and not cheap. Drivers – like most St. Barts residents – speak mostly French, although basic English is understood by many. Here is a chance to use your French for hailing a cab and communicating your desire for a quick tour, or a trip to one of the island’s many remote sandy beaches.  

For the truly brave and adventurous wishing to explore the island, motorbikes, mopeds or scooters are available for rent, but only experienced motorbike drivers should even consider renting them, as they can be extremely dangerous, especially at the speeds with which most local drivers negotiate the narrow roads. French law requires that you wear a helmet and have a valid driver’s license.  

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Language & Currency

While French is the pervasive language on St. Barts, most areas and services catering to visitors’ shops, restaurants, beach services, hotels, car rental agencies have someone who speaks at least some English. Naturally, you’ll feel a bit more comfortable if you can parlez un peu de français, but St. Bartians are friendly, and will make you feel at ease in any language. The currency is based on France’s, so the Euro is the coin of this realm.

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