Is the Most Interesting Thing About St. Barts Its Past?

Saint Barthelemy skyline and harbor in the West Indies of the Caribbean.

Saint Barthelemy (St. Barts if you’re American; St. Barth if you’re French) is a tiny dot-on-a-map island in the French West Indies. Despite its small size and remote location (or maybe because of it), it’s known as the island for the world’s rich and famous. Victoria’s Secret models hang out there, as does the billionaire owner of Victoria Secret, Leslie Wexner. Entertainment gods like Paul McCartney, Bono, Beyonce, and Jimmy Buffett are, or have been, regulars. Oprah celebrated her 65th birthday on the island this year. And Johnny Hallyday, the Elvis Presley of France, called St. Barts home. Sadly, he’s now buried at Lorient cemetery.

Lorient Cemetery St. Barts

Everyone who’s anyone has at least dipped their toe, if not their anchor, in Saint Barthelemy’s crystal clear water.Gustavia, the island’s red roofed capital city, is where millionaires and billionaires come to show off the size of their yachts (mine is pictured above:). Between Christmas and New Year’s, the small town of Gustavia is eclipsed by superyacht after superyacht. It’s one of the most grandiose displays of wealth on the planet.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about St. Barts. I’ve never been much for the “be and be seen” lifestyle and I’m definitely not rich or famous. I was headed to the island for my friend’s wedding. She got married in the charming Anglican Church in Gustavia. When I got to St. Barts, I went looking for culture beyond the beaches, fancy restaurants, and expensive boutiques. But as a tourist, I didn’t know where to find it. Don’t get me wrong, the island has everything you need to fulfill your beach fantasy, but I was eager to experience its soul, too.

With beaches like this, who would ever want to leave?
With beaches like this, who would ever want to leave?

I had read about the Seashell Museum (Inter Oceans Museum) in the charming fisherman’s village of Corossol. But when I got there and asked a local Frenchman, who looked like one of the crotchety old men who sit up in the balcony during the Muppet Show, he dramatically ran his hand across his throat as if to say the owner kicked the bucket. What a shame no one kept it open, I thought. There were more than 9,000 seashells from St. Barts and other beaches around the world in the owner’s collection.

I was told that local women from Corossol make baskets from native leaves and come running out of their homes to sell them to you, but I couldn’t find them or their baskets. Still, after visiting the island, I could feel something from St. Barts’ past calling me. So when I got home, I started to dig up its stories. And what I found was a past full of tales of pirates, buried treasure, severed heads, and eccentric personalities searching for beauty and solitude on a remote island well suited to impress the likes of Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, and foreign dignitaries.

The history of the island starts out as a familiar enough story. St. Barts was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493 even though Island Caribs (indigenous people of the Caribbean) were already there when he arrived. The Caribs gave the island the name Ouanalao, which, depending on who you ask, means iguana or pelican, both of which live on the island. When Columbus arrived, he named the island after his younger brother, Bartolomeo.

St. Barts is about 8 square miles. You can reach just about any area of the island in 15 minutes, if the steep, windy, and narrow, roads don’t intimidate you (they don’t seem bother the locals who drive them like they’re on Germany’s Autobahn). The island was formed by a volcano and its climate is hot and humid, and expect for a few tropical fruits, not much will grow in the brutal conditions. And to make matters worse, there are no natural rivers or streams, which means no fresh water sources. Almost everything on St. Barts has to be imported, which explains why a dinner on the island is so expensive (that and the celebrity clientele).

St. Barts was originally settled by the French in 1648, but living conditions on the island were so difficult, they couldn’t create a lasting community. So in 1651, the island was sold to the Knights of Malta. But a few years after their arrival, an angry group of Caribs returned and massacred them all. The natives severed their victims’ heads and placed them on poles lining Lorient Beach as a gruesome warning to all would-be invaders. Not surprisingly, it worked (for a little while).

In 1763, the island was invaded again, but this time by French mariners from Normandy and Brittany. St. Barts soon became the headquarters for Montbars the Exterminator, an infamous French buccaneer (aka pirate, bandit, robber), who had a reputation as one of the most violent pirates in the mid-17thcentury. (You can read the gory details of his executions here.) Monbars stole vast quantities of riches from the Spanish galleons that helped the colony on St. Bart’s thrive. Rumor has it his treasure is still buried in the coves of Anse de Gouverneur or in the nearby sands of Saline Beach.

St. Barts remained French until 1784 when it was sold to Sweden by Louis XVI in exchange for trading rights in the Swedish port of Gothenburg. The island’s capital city of Gustavia was named after the King of Sweden, Gustave III. St. Barts thrived during Swedish rule and by 1815 nearly 6,000 inhabitants lived on the small island (today, its population is just over 7,000). But after a series of hurricanes, economic change, yellow fever, and a fire in 1852, the Swedes had enough and sold the island back to France. France officially took possession in March 1878. You can still see Swedish architectural influences on the island today.

In 1945, Remy de Haenen, an eccentric Dutch aviator, adventurer, and playboy was the first to fly into St. Barts. He landed on a grassy savanna next to a wild goat pasture and that might be why he got the nickname “brilliant lunatic.” Haenen built a house on St. Jean Bay in 1953 and named it L’Eden Roc after the Hotel Du Cap-Eden Roc on the Cote d’Azur in France. (He sold it in 1995 and it became the famous Eden Rock Hotel.) L’Eden Roc was a hideaway for famous figures like Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes, Robert Mitchum, David Rockefeller, and captain Jacques Cousteau. Haenen, beloved by the locals, was elected mayor in 1962 and brought electricity, phones, and a school system to the island as well as a small airstrip that to this day remains one of the shortest and most difficult landings in the world. If you’ve ever flown into St. Barts, you know why tranquilizers were invented (it’s actually not that bad).

In 1957, David Rockefeller bought land near the stunning Colombier and Gouveneur beaches and there, he entertained luminaries like Henry Kissinger and Aristotle Onassis. Not to be outdone, Benjamin de Rothschild also bought land on St. Barts and built a sprawling estate with a private beach that later became Hotel Guanahani & Spa.

With rich elites and their guests frequenting the island, it didn’t take long to pique the curiosity of the world’s jet set. Tourism began in the 1960s and 1970s and St. Barts instantly became the Caribbean St. Tropez. The sophisticated metropolitan French (termed “Metros” by the locals) descended on St. Barts and opened restaurants, boutiques, hotels, and villas. This new wave of French nearly obliterated the indigenous “old French” culture that had existed on the island.

There is a lot of tension between the Metros and the St. Barth’s [locals]—it’s all very well hidden because of the tourism, but, trust me, they hate each other.” David Zara, the vice president of Tradewind Aviation, as told to Vanity Fair

In 1972, Justin Colin, the president of the American Ballet Theatre, opened a small, four-room hotel, Les Castelets, and dining room that lured celebrities, including dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland.

In the past, outsiders came to St. Barths as a refuge. They valued privacy and detachment, and found differences of culture a welcome barrier to unwanted familiarity. They were interesting people, often eccentric, and preferred simplicity and meagerness to the hazards and resources of the wider world. Two local hotels, Eden Rock and Les Castelets, were designed and built by members of this vanishing breed.

CHEESEBURGER IN PARADISEIn 1976 Jimmy Buffet was rumored to have written his famous song “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after eating one at Le Select in Gustavia. He denies the story, but that doesn’t stop people from telling it (including me).

A sign on the wall outside Le Selet restaurant in Gustavia.

The steady stream of restaurants and hotels continued, but in 2002, the opening of Nikki Beach Saint Barth gave the guests of Eden Rock a place to party and have lunch on the beach. Mega stars routinely fly in to entertain guests at the swank beach club on St. Jean Bay. (Mariah Carey performed for this year’s NYE party.)In 2009, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich paid the most anyone has ever shelled out for a property in the Caribbean. His 70-acre estate on Gouverneur Bay cost $90 million.

With so much money coming into the island, it’s no wonder there’s been some kerfluffle in recent years about how much development is too much. One of the biggest fights happened in 2009 when hoteliere Andre Balazs (who owns the Standard Hotels chain and the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles) wanted to build an “eco resort” on Saline Beach—one of the most beautiful and pristine beaches on the island. Few locals supported it. In fact the only ones who wanted it were those who saw green, and not from their reflection in the water.

St Barts President of Territorial Council, Bruno Magras, a businessman and a bit of a tyrant, was more than happy to sell Saline to the highest bidder.

Of course, some people would like everything to be green and to live with the little birds, the flowers. Some of them should go into the middle of the Amazon—you know what I mean—and live with the birds. That’s the best way. Because now they can build houses in trees. — Magras, as told to Vanity Fair

Rather than follow his advice, a group of environmentalists and a strong-willed local French woman (Hélène Bernier) collected signatures and mounted a successful campaign to stop the development…for now (Andre Balazs seems hell-bent on building it).

With Magras in control of building permits and most else, it’s unclear if he will preserve the natural beauty of St. Barts.

Construction, construction everywhere. It’s time to stop the construction because we’re really now seeing the trouble that it causes for the environment: for trash, for electricity, for everything. – Jean-Philippe Piter, as told to Vanity Fair

A 2017 report by the Wildlife Conservation Society, entitled Environmental Conservation in Saint Barthelemy, depicts the environmental damage done by the high-end tourism on the island. The report warns:

  • Reefs around the island are in critical condition
  • Fish population levels have dropped below the regional benchmark for recovery, inside and outside the Marine Protected Areas
  • Coastal erosion is severe in several locations around the island

Overall, the environment of St-Barthélemy seems to be degrading rapidly, with major concerns regarding land based pollution, urbanization and overfishing. — Wildlife Conservation Society

Today, one of St. Barts’ biggest challenges may be beyond its control. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned about the effects of climate change on Caribbean islands: annual temperatures are expected to rise creating a drier climate with less rain, sea levels are expected to rise, and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes will continue to increase.

We find ourselves at the front line of a war that we did not start. And one we cannot stop. — Dominica Prime Minister Roos evelt Skerrit, as told to the UN, Bloomberg 

I expected St. Barts to be more lush. A local told me they are experiencing a bit of a drought, but the water is breathtaking with or without the trees.

St. Barts has taken precautions and made it through 2017’s fierce Hurricane Irma better than other Caribbean islands, but there’s still work to be done. Luis Solorano, executive director of the Caribbean division of the Nature Conservancy, is heading a four-year climate residency effort across the islands. She stresses that protection is about more than better infrastructure, stricter building codes, and safer electrical grids; protecting forests and coral reefs is critical.

Aerial damage surveys have shown that reefs and mangrove forests can absorb an astonishing 98 percent of a wave’s energy in a storm. The more coral that survives the less damage there will be in a storm. — Bloomberg

With very little of its cultural past accessible to tourists and the precarious state of the island’s environment, what does the future hold for St. Barts?

Will those who come to St. Barts to soak up the sun and swim in its pristine waters continue to travel to its shores if they are overdeveloped? Will tourists want to snorkel in the crystal clear water when the fish have gone? How many hurricanes can the island sustain before the rich and famous sell their houses and move their yachts and take St. Barts’ economy with them?

The question St. Barts’ leadership has to answer is will they adapt to a changing climate and get more serious about protecting their coastal environment—or wait and risk St. Barts’ future?

Some of the regulations in place are well formulated to protect the natural resources of the island, however monitoring and enforcement are sorely lacking. — Wildlife Conservation Society

Feature image of Gustavia, St Bart Sean Pavone @iStock

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