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What Should I Know About Saint Barthelemy?

The waters off Saint Barthelemy are popular with scuba divers.
A portrait of Christopher Columbus, the explorer who named Saint Barthelemy.
Sweden ruled Saint Barthelemy for a time.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2014
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Saint Barthelemy is a small island in the Caribbean. The island covers 8 square miles (21 sq. km), and has a population of just over 7000. The island is located in the Leeward Islands, and along with Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, make up the French West Indies, an overseas region controlled by France. Saint Barthelemy is often called Saint Barths, Saint Barts, or even Saint Bart’s.

Saint Barthelemy had been settled originally by Arawaks, and later displaced by Caribs sometime in the 13th century. Columbus landed on Saint Barthelemy in 1493, naming it after his brother. The Spanish did not colonize the island, however, and it remained under the control of the Caribs for more nearly two more centuries.

In the mid-17th century, a number of colonists arrived from Saint Kitts to establish a permanent settlement on the island. The Caribs resisted this settlement strongly, and killed or drove out nearly all of the settlers. Some managed to survive, however, and two decades later a second attempt at settlement was successful. The French officially absorbed the island in 1673, placing it under the administration of nearby Guadeloupe.

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A century later, at the end of the 18th century, King Louis XVI traded Saint Barthelemy to Sweden, receiving a warehouse in Goteborg Harbor in return. Sweden immediately declared the island duty free and tax free, and an influx of Swedish settlers arrived. For the next few decades the island prospered as a desirable port for traffic heading to and from America. With the advent of steam power, however, visitors decreased, and Saint Barthelemy entered an economic slump.

At the end of the 19th century Sweden finally decided to give up Saint Barthelemy, selling it back to France. Sweden included the provision, however, that Saint Barthelemy remain duty- and tax-free in perpetuity.

Following World War II, Saint Barthelemy was linked with Guadeloupe as a department. In 2003 the island would eventually break with Guadeloupe following a referendum, officially becoming an Overseas Community. Tourism began to grow on the island sometime in the 1960s, with a small airstrip installed, and a number of notables making Saint Barthelemy their premiere vacation spot.

In recent years Saint Barthelemy’s popularity among the wealthy in America has only expanded, and it’s name has become synonymous with tropical paradise. As a result of its status, the island can be somewhat pricey when compared to other Caribbean islands, but the level of service available on Saint Barthelemy’s is unrivaled.

A great deal of the property on Saint Barthelemy is privately owned, and the authorities have intentionally kept development from growing too much, so getting a room on the island can be difficult, or at the least require a bit of planning ahead. Once there the beaches are the main attraction, with a myriad of perfectly manicured swaths of sand awaiting you. Snorkeling, diving, fishing, yachting, and essentially any water play you can imagine are also right at hand. The nightlife in Saint Barthelemy is surprisingly laid back for a place that is so popular with the Rock Star and Royalty crowd, with a handful of small clubs and restaurants.

Flights arrive daily in nearby Saint Maarten from a number of major international hubs, and a ferry or smaller plane can take you from there to Saint Barts itself. Private yachts and private planes also arrive fairly regularly, and for the adventurous hitching a ride on a yacht from a nearby island in the Caribbean can be an affordable and exciting option.

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