Saint Barthélemy, officially the Collectivity of Saint Barthelemy, is an overseas collectivity of France. Often abbreviated to Saint-Barth in French, or St. Barts in English, the collectivity is one of the four territories among the Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean that comprise the French West Indies, along with Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Martin.
Located east of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Saint Barthélemy lies immediately southeast of Saint Martin and Anguilla. It is separated from Saint Martin by the Saint-Barthélemy Channel. It lies northeast of Saba and St. Eustatius, and north of St. Kitts.
Saint Barthélemy was first claimed by France in 1648. It was given to Sweden in 1784 (in exchange for trade rights in Gothenburg), which sold it back to France in 1878. The Swedish period left its mark in the names of many of the streets and the town Gustavia (in honor of King Gustav III of Sweden), and the presence of Sweden's national arms, the Tre Kronor, in the island's coat of arms. Saint Barthélemy is the only Caribbean island to have historically been a Swedish colony for any significant length of time (Guadeloupe only having been one briefly, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars). Nevertheless, the language, cuisine and culture are distinctly French.
Gustavia remains as a reflection of the Swedish period. The oldest settlement still remaining is the village of Lorient (or L'Orient). Lorient's sister village on the French mainland is the city of Lorient on the southern coast of Brittany. The population is spread among a number of quartiers, roughly corresponding to settlements.
St. Barts is today considered a playground of the rich and famous, known for beautiful beaches, chic gourmet bistros and high-end shopping. St. Barts has about 25 hotels, most with 15 or fewer rooms. The largest hotel offers only 58 rooms. Most of the rooms allocated to tourism on St. Barts are found in the many privately owned villas available for rent. Villa vacations are extremely popular; there are around 400 terraced into the hillsides across the island and many in beachfront locations. Villas here range from one-bedroom bungalows to large luxurious homes.
Of the 21 beaches on the small island, several are considered particularly attractive. Saline is a pristine beach on the southern side of the island, with no commercial or residential development. Colombier beach, on the western edge of the island, is reachable only by boat or a hike. St. Jean, Flamands and Grand-Cul-de-Sac are popular beaches attached to hotels and other retail establishments. Shell Beach is popular for families with children as it has little surf.
One of the main surfing beaches (Toiny) is known for its riptide, while Grand Fond is one of the island's only non-swimming beaches. Diving and snorkeling excursions are available, and visitors will find a diverse array of wildlife, including nurse sharks, lobsters, conch and green sea turtles that abound in the local waters.
The beach of Grand Cul-de-Sac is the easiest beach in the Caribbean for learning sailing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, as it has a reef which closes off the entire bay. The current that passes outside the reef here also carries the migrating whales and dolphins.