Gustavia, St Barthélemy | Neighbourhood

The picturesque capital of St Barts took a beating during Hurricane Irma — but was soon ready to welcome visitors again, to enjoy its Gallic charms with a Scandinavian twist

  • Photo by cdwheatley/iStock.com
  • Photo by T:mtcurado/iStock.com
  • Photo by Mtcurado/IiStock.com
  • Photo by Elvira Sa/Shutterstock.com
  • Photo by Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.com
  • Despite the ravages of Hurricane Irma, St Barthélemy is ready to receive visitors. Photo by Photostravellers/Shutterstock.com

After the storm

Although battered by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the residents of Gustavia got to work in the immediate aftermath, cleaning up and rebuilding their town. By the end of October, St Barts authorities reported that the island was ready to receive visitors for the traditional start of the tourism season in November.

 

Streetscape

Gustavia’s U-shape is determined by the contours of its harbour, hemmed in by the hills to the east, and watched over by three Swedish-era forts. Swedish influence is also evident in the town’s historic architecture, with its red-roofed, white-painted stone houses, now scrupulously restored. Look out for the clock tower on Rue Gambetta, shaped like a slightly squat obelisk, with an upper-section of blue-painted timber — the remnant of a church destroyed long ago in a hurricane. The bell, dated to 1799, is still rung to mark municipal celebrations and other momentous events. Another town landmark is a huge eighteenth-century anchor discovered by accident in 1981, thought to have belonged to a ship of the Royal Navy.

 

History

When St Barthélemy was claimed by France in 1648, Le Carénage — the small, narrow bay on the island’s west coast, sheltered by volcanic hills — was the natural site for a harbour. In 1784, St Barts was ceded by France to Sweden, beginning a near-century of Scandinavian rule. The Swedes renamed the capital after King Gustav III, and declared Gustavia a free port, opening an era of highly profitable trade (and smuggling). Repurchased by France in 1878, the island declined into an economic backwater until the 1960s, when electricity finally arrived and the construction of a small airport encouraged the first tourist resorts. High-end tourism is now the mainstay, as St Barts has developed a reputation as a playground of the international jet-set, who converge here in their yachts for New Year’s celebrations — when locals retreat to their homes, awaiting the return of the low season.

 

Fort to fort

Gustavia is small enough to explore by foot in a morning, and the town’s three forts make ideal guideposts. Start on the eastern side of the harbour entrance, where the Quai Jeanne d’Arc is overshadowed by the remains of Fort Gustav and its almost comical lighthouse. From here, you can scope out your entire route: south along the waterfront to St Bartholemew’s Anglican Church, then west to Fort Karl, then north again along the harbour to Fort Oscar and the Municipal Museum in the eighteenth-century Wall House, home to everything from historic artifacts to natural history specimens and local craft. Should your stroll rouse a thirst, you’ll have your pick of chic little cafés where the atmosphere ranges from French to very French.

MORE LIKE THIS:   Jamaica, land we love | Escape

 

Time for a swim

St Barts’s beaches are deservedly famous, and the island’s compact size — less than ten square miles — means they’re all within easy reach of Gustavia. Nearest to hand is popular Anse de Grands Galets, better known as Shell Beach, just over the hill from the harbour and below Fort Karl. (As its name suggests, the beach is strewn with pink seashells underfoot.) Further out along the coast, you can take your pick: does your dream beach have trendy bars and restaurants like St-Jean on the north coast, or do you prefer a more isolated locale, like Gouverneur to the south (with its view of St Kitts) or rugged Colombier at the island’s western tip, accessible only by a hiking trail?

 

Souvenir

Given the extremely well-heeled demographic of most St Barts visitors, it’s no surprise that Gustavia boasts some of the Caribbean’s poshest boutiques, including branches of designer shops from the most fashionable Paris streets. You’ll have no trouble replacing your Louis Vuitton luggage, your Hermès scarf, your Cartier necklace. In a somewhat less ruinous price range, you can also find boutiques with locally made jewellery and straw hats, and beauty products from Ligne St Barth, made with indigenous herbs and ingredients like mango butter, frangipani, and pineapple.

 

Co-ordinates

17.9º N 62.9º W
Sea Level

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Princess Juliana International Airport in Sint Maarten, with connections on other airlines and via ferry to St Barthélemy