Saba | Saba, Netherlands Antilles

Posted by on June 26, 2002

They’ve got a secret on the tiny Caribbean island of Saba. Hardly anyone knows of its existence, and when outsiders do learn of it, they are scared off by the difficulty of getting there. The flight is short but terrifying, and the access by boat is fraught with seasickness. And if you are not frightened enough by that information, people say it’s not worth visiting anyway, because there are no beaches and it’s boring.

As one who has recently been there, please believe me when I tell you that there is nothing boring about the trip itself, and nothing dull about a visit to this under rated Dutch island. Such dullness as might overcome one after several days would be welcome indeed in this frantic world of ours.

This tiny former volcano, which rises like Bali Hai out of the incomparable Caribbean Sea, south of Sint Maarten, boasts the shortest airline runway in the world. If not THE shortest, at 1312 feet, it’s definitely a contender.

I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to risk my life on that runway, but I had been looking at Saba (please pronounce it “Say-ba”) from Sint Maarten for years, romanticizing the hazy volcanic peak in the distance. Finally, relying on local scuttle-but that the landing wasn’t really half bad, I joined our friends and took the flight, on a DeHavilland Twin Otter, with 16 other intrepid folks. I could describe the landing in detail, but I think you should experience it yourself. I’ll just say that it was less frightening than landing at St. Bart’s, with which many of you are probably familiar.

Saba may be the polar opposite of St. Bart’s, except for the fact that they are only separated by twenty miles of ocean. It has NO beaches, so that should keep out the sun

worshippers (mind if I say “thank goodness”?) Actually I don’t mind sun worshippers, I just think too many of them can spoil a perfectly good island. And it is certainly not “chic.”

Saba is not for beachcombers, but it is for hikers and divers. Climb up the 1064 steps (but who’s counting?)through a tropical rain forest to the peak of Mt. Scenery and you will have reached the highest point in the Kingdom of The Netherlands. En route you will have encountered hillsides covered with giant “elephant ears” and hundreds of varieties of wildflowers, including hibiscus, oleander, orchids and bougainvillea. In addition, cashew, coconut, banana and mango trees flourish in this climate. I would think botanists would hyperventilate here seeing the beautiful examples of flowering cassia trees, red ginger plants, towering Norfolk Island pines, and frangipani, growing wildly all over the island,

There are several other hiking paths on the island, for which a trail network has been developed. Luckily, there is an active conservation group, trying to keep the island unspoiled and not overdeveloped.

The other big sport here is diving, and with many dive sites, it is said to be among the best spots in the Caribbean. About this sport I know next to nothing, so I must quote the guidebook. Saba has “over 27 different, unspoiled diving locations, all patrolled and protected by the Saba Marine Park.” “Saba is the only one of the northern islands that is equipped with a recompression chamber.” The guidebook waxes eloquent about the many sightings of seahorses since 1999, apparently a fairly rare occurrence, since the seahorse is endangered by modern development. Their presence signals the healthiness of the ecosystem.

Just over 1000 people populate the four small towns of the five square mile island. The people of the island built the nine-mile concrete road around the island themselves, by hand, after European experts told them that it could not be done. It took twenty years, and was supervised by Josephus Lambert Hassell, who appears to have been a descendant of early settlers from Europe.

There are no high rises here, no fancy buildings, no golden arches. All of the houses are in the old style of one

story, hip-roofed Caribbean dwelling. There is some sort of rule that all houses must be painted white, with green shutters, and red roofs. Everyone seems to be a gardener and the result is a treat for the eyes.

There are only eleven taxicabs on the island, we were told. We were also told that we could never hire a cab, that they were all pre-reserved, and that there were only five of them. Beware the information that you get from someone who is trying to sell you an all-inclusive tour. We hired a cab at the airport to take us around for the day. It was no trouble and the cost was $40 for the three of us, from11:00 am to 5:00 pm. We had a marvelous time with our ancient driver in his ancient car. He took us over all nine miles of the road, from Hell’s Gate where the plane lands up to Windward side, the commercial center, then down to The Bottom, the seat of government.

We wandered around, shopped, lunched at YIIK, on a nice grilled chicken salad, chatted with local residents, checked out all the art galleries we could find, stopped to fill up the car with water (those steep hills are tough on an old car, as they are on old legs) and tracked down a painting which had attracted us in the brochure. It turned out to have been painted at Mohonk by the artist. This did not dampen our enthusiasm about Saba, since we got to meet the artist, tour her house, and hear about the artist’s colony there, and realize how much of a treasure this island really is, considering how small a world it is.

We cajoled the driver into driving us up the steepest hill to the island’s only luxury resort, Willard’s of Saba. (We were already fantasizing about a return visit.) It is indeed a spectacular spot, with only seven elegant and spacious guest rooms, a pool overlooking St. Eustatius and St. Kitts, and a super tennis court. It’s spectacular location, 2000 feet above sea level, should be checked out at www.willardsofsaba.com. While you’re on the Internet, look up Saba itself, to discover more about this true island paradise.

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