Saba: ‘The Unspoiled Queen’

View of Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

Elephant ear leaves. Photo by Richard Varr

Taxi driver and tour guide Donna Cain whisks me along Saba’s main road as it weaves up the lush green hillsides and cuts through valleys sheltering the island’s main towns of Windwardside and The Bottom, each dotted with red-roofed white cottages. I see tree ferns, hanging orchids and giant elephant ear leaves along the way as we pass hiking paths leading up to the island’s central peak, 2,910-foot-high Mt. Scenery, the highest point in the Netherlands. With each stop, Donna calls everyone she meets by first name. And it doesn’t take long for me to realize why this small mountainous island of only five square miles is called “The Unspoiled Queen.”

View of The Bottom. Photo by Richard Varr

“If you’re a partier, this is not the spot,” Donna tells me during my island tour. “It’s beautiful, quiet and peaceful. For just total relaxation and unwinding, Saba is the best spot in the world.”

Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

Along with neighboring St. Eustatius and St. Maarten, Saba is part of the Dutch West Indies. But unlike St. Maarten, you won’t find sprawling hotel resorts along white sand beaches. Saba is a community of only 2,000 or so friendly residents, like a small town, where everyone knows everyone. Crime is rare. Hotels are small, welcoming and with a personal touch, often housed in villas or cottages. There are no hotel or restaurant chains. Streets are quiet with hardly a traffic jam and not one traffic light.

Airport with short runway. Photo by Richard Varr

Diving, Hiking and an Unforgettable Landing

To many, arriving on Saba might be a touch harrowing as its airport has one of the shortest commercial runways in the world – about 1300 feet, the length of an aircraft carrier. Actually, it’s quite safe as the pilots of Winair land their twin-prop planes there several times a day with remarkable ease. When I landed, the aircraft’s incredible braking power kicked in, stopping the plane maybe halfway or more down the short runway. The landing is certainly worthy of the T-shirt I found at one shop in The Bottom, the island’s seat of government, reading “I survived the Saba landing.”

Hiking up to Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

The Ladder. Photo by Richard Varr

Because of Saba’s dramatic waterside cliffs and rocky shoreline, there’s hardly a beach to be seen. But a national marine park with excellent diving spots surrounds the island, luring divers and snorkelers. Hikers also flock here as there are a dozen or more trails cutting through the countryside, some connecting Windwardside to The Bottom, while others ascend Mt. Scenery. One northern trail leads to old sulfur mines. A challenging hike is The Ladder, a 400-step stairwell once used to haul up every piece of clothing, furniture, food and medicine from the island’s first port at Ladder Bay to The Bottom. The rewards of the hike down are great ocean views, but hikers are then faced with the arduous climb back up.

Hiking the Tide Polls. Photo by Richard Varr

I opt for the unique Tide Pools hike, stepping on jagged igneous rock ledges along the shoreline. This moonscape was formed over the millennia as surf pounded and formed deep pockets and gullies in the rocks. “When you hike the Tide Pools, watch out for wet rocks,” warns James Franklin Johnson, my tour guide who is proud of his pirate ancestry dating back eight generations. “Just don’t get too close. If there’s a sudden wave, you can get swept out.”

Harry L. Johnson Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Windwardside courtyard. Photo by Richard Varr

Windwardside highlights include the Harry L. Johnson Museum housed in a 19th century cottage. Once the home of a sea captain, the museum includes period furniture, photos depicting Saba’s recent history and traditional Saba lacework. The Dutch Museum has blue Delft tiles, 18th century paintings and a remarkable collection of 17th-18th century books and bibles. In The Bottom, the Saba Artisan Foundation features Saba lacework sewn by local women who are continuing the tradition, hand-screened linens, and original Saba liquors made with rum and spices. Saba has many excellent restaurants serving up everything from Caribbean and Dutch dishes to fine French cuisine and other international flavors.

Saba Lace Ladies. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Windwardside. Photo by Richard Varr

Wakeup Call, Saban Style

During my stay in Windwardside, I heard a horn bellow every morning – a wakeup call of sorts, sounding off maybe five or six times in a row at the crack dawn. I soon learned local resident Percy ten Holt blows his conch shell at 6 a.m. sharp from his home on a hillside overlooking the town. Before leaving Saba, I was able to interview Percy and videotape him blowing the conch shell.

Percy ten Holt blowing his conch shell, overlooking Windwardside. Photo by Richard Varr

“I do it because it’s a tradition on Saba,” he told me, admitting he got in trouble with neighbors when he first started blowing. But now it’s something all of Windwardside seems to expect. “I’ve been doing it for 34 years and I feel proud doing it,” he said. Click on the link below for my video clip of him blowing the conch shell and explaining why he does it every morning, except Sundays.

Cottage Club cottages with views of Mt. Scenery. Photo by Richard Varr

Convent Cottage. Photo by Richard Varr


While on the island, I was a guest at the Cottage Club Hotel with its spacious rooms in individual cottages, each with its own kitchen area. A luxury villa rental, Convent Cottage is a two-bedroom, old-style Saban house in Windwardside. The property has been recently restored and is furnished with antiques and artworks.

For more information

Donna Cain, TAXI


St. Eustatius: Small in Size, Big in History

St. Eustatius with a view of The Quill from Signal Hill. Photo by Richard Varr

For such a small island, St. Eustatius, also called Statia, packs an enormous colonial legacy. “Statia was the international trade center of the Western Hemisphere,” says local historian Roland Lopes as he leads me on a tour of this Dutch island of eight square miles and with a population of over 3,000. “What really put it on the map was the Dutch West India Company.” Adding to the legacy, island rule changed hands 22 times between the Dutch, English, French and Spanish before the Dutch wrested final control starting in 1816.

Fort Oranje. Photo by Richard Varr

In the 17th and 18th centuries, St. Eustatius was known as “The Golden Rock” because it was one of the Caribbean’s busiest ports. Arriving ships carried cargos including cotton, sugar, ammunition and slaves from throughout the Caribbean and beyond. At its peak, more than 3,000 ships anchored in its harbor each year during the mid to late 18th century.

Honen Dalim walls. Photo by Richard Varr

Walls and tower of Dutch Reformed Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Dutch Reformed Church tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Today, a walk through the center of the capital Oranjestad, with some of the oldest preserved colonial buildings in the Western Hemisphere, is a history lesson within itself. The remarkably intact structures include the restored Fort Oranje dating back to 1729 with its central courtyard and cannons. The brick-walled, roofless Honen Dalim Synagogue from 1739 is the New World’s second oldest. Also with no roof is the mid-18th century Dutch Reformed Church with its well-preserved walls and tower. The St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum in an old merchant’s home showcases the island’s past with documents, paintings and artifacts.

St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

One of Statia’s most noted historical events is linked to the American Revolutionary War when the American warship Andrew Doria shot off a 13-gun salute on November 16, 1776. The cannon fire from the offshore warship was to celebrate the 13 Colonies claim of independence. Statia was the first nation to recognize the fledgling country by firing back an 11-gun salute. But England soon retaliated for that event, again seizing control of the island. It wasn’t until 1939 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented a plaque thanking St. Eustatius for the bold show of support.

Lower Town as seen from the Upper Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Oranjestad’s historical center is located atop a cliff in the Upper Town, while the Lower Town skirts the rocky shore where stone ruins of old warehouses and homes still protrude along dark sand beaches. Today, waterfront restaurants and cafes make the Lower Town a popular spot for visitors and divers. Like neighboring Saba, St. Eustatius is surrounded by a national marine park with a few dozen or more excellent diving sights, including shipwrecks from the island’s long maritime history. Because of its size, Statia also has a very friendly small town feel where everyone seems to know everyone.

Lower Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Lower Town’s ruins along the beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Many come to Statia to hike the Quill, a 1,968-foot-high extinct volcano with a crater. One of several hikes within Quill National Park, the Crater Trail dips into a rainforest with towering Silk Cotton and Yellow Plum trees. Other hikes include a steep climb up Signal Hill in the center of the island, and up hills in Boven National Park along northern shores.

Two cannons of Fort de Windt. Photo by Richard Varr

Another highlight is Fort de Windt on Statia’s southernmost edge. Actually a battery with two cannons, it was one of the many forts and batteries that once ringed the island. I was lucky enough to visit on a clear day with calm seas for its magnificent ocean view of St. Kitts, just seven miles away. “You could walk on the water to get there,” says Roland with a smile.

Fort Oranje entrance. Photo by Richard Varr

“Statia is a unique and quiet island,” says Dihiara Pierre with Island Essence, a local travel consulting agency. “We hope it stays like that. You can go to bed and leave your doors and vehicles unlocked. It’s still safe. So we invite people to come and experience that peace, tranquility and relaxation we have on Statia.”


Papaya Inn. Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit, I stayed at the Papaya Inn, a very small property convenient to the airport. A home-like dwelling with a backyard, it has clean and modern rooms, friendly staff and a terrific breakfast prepared by the owner and staff members.

For more information



Another St. Maarten Airport Landing

Photo by Richard Varr

I was only in St. Maarten for one day during my May trip to the Dutch West Indies, and yes, I just had to go shoot another video or two of dramatic plane landings. Here’s one I recently posted to YouTube. See the video link below.


Story Published, South American Beaches Feature

My latest story published was a feature on South American Beaches in the current issue of Porthole Cruise Magazine, now on newsstands. Here’s a link to an excerpted online version.


Mackinac Island: Stepping Back to the Gilded Age

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

The dreamy 1980 movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour is how I first heard about Mackinac Island, Michigan – one of the Midwest’s most popular resort destinations – and its 1887 Grand Hotel, built during the Gilded Age. It’s the perfect stage for the late 19th century setting where the movie’s characters connect through time travel. The Grand Hotel helps set the tone of yesteryear with its traditional rocking chairs lining the 660-foot-long porch.

The Grand Hotel lobby. Photo by Richard Varr

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Grand Hotel’s porch. Photo by Richard Varr

Horses and carriage. Photo by Richard Varr

Hopping a ferry from Mackinaw City, I arrive in the busy port flanking Huron Street, the island’s quaint but bustling store-fronted main drag. It’s cluttered with bicyclists and echoing with the clip-clop of horse hooves only – that’s because automobiles have been banned here since 1898. Bicycle rental and fudge shops with their deep-chocolaty treats dominate every block it seems, providing some of the island’s favorite pastimes.

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Circling the island. Photo by Richard Varr

Although horse-driven carriages will take you to some of the same locations and sights, I opt to rent a bicycle and pedal along curvy roads and paths circling the island and cutting through forested bluffs. I stop in a few churches and museums on Market and Main streets, but many interesting sights are inland.

Sugar Loaf Rock. Photo by Richard Varr

Unusual stone formations pierce the tree line: Arch Rock, a bridge-like span of eroded breccias carved out of a hillside 146 feet above Lake Michigan’s shoreline; and Sugar Loaf Rock, another breccias mass shooting up 75 feet. The best views of the 2,318-acre island can be seen from nearby Point Lookout and the hilltop site of Fort Holmes.

Fort Mackinac. Photo by Richard Varr

View from Fort Mackinac. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort Mackinac along the waterfront, built by the British in 1780 but falling to the Americans after the Revolutionary War, has interactive displays and period furnishings filling 14 original buildings, while reenactments and gun and cannon firings reverberate within the stone ramparts.

Grand Hotel, view from the porch. Photo by Richard Varr

Mackinac Bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

In the evening, my favorite pastime is sitting on the Grand Hotel’s elongated porch – possibly the world’s longest – and looking out to the water’s edge as the sun sets, with views of the expansive Mackinac Bridge connecting the mainland with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Richard Varr

For More Information:

Gulf Shores, Alabama and Florida’s Emerald Coast: ‘Squeaking’ Brilliant White Sand

Beach along the Fort Morgan Peninsula. Photo by Richard Varr

I found the shoreline along Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula has what many might consider perfect sand dunes – sparkling white, seemingly untouched, windblown and with thin blades of grass swaying in the wind. Add to that the squeaking sand. What? Yes, the sand actually squeaks on this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico coast, and it’s some of the whitest shorefront on Earth.

Destin beach. Photo by Richard Varr

That’s because the sand from Panama City Beach to Destin to Alabama’s Gulf Shores consists of tiny quartz particles flushed down through rivers and streams from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf during the last Ice Age, nearly 20,000 years ago. Through the millennia, the crystals that have formed the protective dunes and sandy shores have ground down to fine particles by the surf and storms, thus squeaking when rubbing against each other.

Gulf Shores, AL. Photo by Richard Varr

Perhaps most surprising to many is that Alabama actually has beaches – 32 miles of shorefront stretching from the Florida state line to ramparts of historic Fort Morgan on the barrier island’s edge. “In some ways we’re still a best kept secret because the vast majority of the country has no idea that we’re here,” says Kay Maghan with Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “But for others, we’re the favorite place they’ve been coming to for the last 10 or 20 years.”

The Wharf commercial district at night, Orange Beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Central to this stretch of beaches is undeveloped Gulf State Park with its 1,540-foot-long fishing pier, the Gulf of Mexico’s second longest. Hiking and biking paths crisscross within the park, home to RV campgrounds and lakes. And along the Intracoastal Waterway, a hot spot for visitors is The Wharf commercial district where décor shops sell sea-themed objects such as pelicans carved from driftwood and oyster shell chandeliers. Nightly light and music shows emblazon the shops, boutiques and restaurants with dancing colored lights as visitors ride one of the South’s largest Ferris wheels.

Gulf Shores, AL. Photo by Richard Varr

Just like other spots along the Gulf of Mexico, Gulf Shores and neighboring Orange Beach are prime fishing spots. In fact, Alabama has the largest offshore reef system in the country with artificial reef structures – sunken concrete triangles, ships and cars – enhancing fishing and diving habitats. Thus it’s no surprise that the area’s mostly homegrown restaurants serve seafood caught daily – grouper, triggerfish, cobia, mackerel, amberjack and red snapper. Local seafood specialties include sweet coconut shrimp and so-called “Royal Red” shrimp caught in deep Gulf waters with a texture like lobster and crabmeat.

Fort Morgan. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort Morgan. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort Morgan sits about 20 miles to the west on the tip of the Fort Morgan Peninsula. The fort was the last Confederate stronghold on the Gulf during the Civil War, along the shores of where the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay took place. It’s where Union Admiral David Farragut supposedly shouted his famous command, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” when he fearlessly ordered his fleet through a line of Confederate-planted underwater mines.

Blue Angels jets at the National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola. Photo by Richard Varr

Pensacola’s Blue Angels

Lighthouse Museum, Pensacola. Photo by Richard Varr

Once leaving Alabama, I visited the 1859 Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, the Gulf Coast’s oldest lighthouse, with views of Civil War-era forts Barrancas and Pickens. Fort Barrancas with its elongated brick walls dates back to the 18th century. The lighthouse and Fort Barrancas are on the grounds of the Naval Air Station Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron with its blue jets that fly in formation. Admission is free at the National Naval Aviation Museum, the world’s largest naval aviation museum with more than 150 restored aircraft.


The National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola. Photo by Richard Varr

Destin beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Destin: The Jewel along Florida’s Emerald Coast

I found more brilliantly white, squeaking sand splashed by the incredible aquamarine and green-tinted waters along the shores of Destin and Fort Walton Beach. And there’s good why the water looks so green. “The sand here is 97- 98 percent quartz and its main properties include its ability to reflect, so the sand here is cool to the touch and also has to do with the color of the water,” explains Kathy Marler Blue, Executive Director of the Destin History and Fishing Museum. “When the sunlight goes through the water and reflects off the quartz, it refracts through the bodies of the microorganisms, thus casting the color.”

Views of HarborWalk Village from the Marler Bridge, Destin. Photo by Richard Varr

Destin’s landmark, however, is HarborWalk Village and Marina with its multistory condo and hotel buildings towering over pulsing restaurants and bars. It’s from where tour operators depart on daily excursions, filling the surrounding waterways with snorkelers, kayakers and those on dolphin cruises, parasailing adventures and wave runners. The harbor is also home to the largest licensed charter and commercial fishing fleet in Florida and in North America. Destin has its own Fishing Rodeo each October.

Alligators at Fudpuckers, Destin. Photo by Richard Varr

An interesting stop for me was Destin’s Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grill with its free alligator exhibit, where 100-plus gators cram a central pond beneath viewing platforms.

Temple Mound Museum, Fort Walton Beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Other highlights include The City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center alongside the Indian Temple Mound Museum with an actual 19-foot high earthen mound built by pre-Columbian tribes living in the area from 700-1500 AD.

Rosemary Beach. Photo Courtesy Visit South Walton

SOUTH WALTON, FL – 16 Neighborhood Beach Communities

Heading east, stretching 26 miles from Destin to Panama City Beach, lie 16 beachside communities including Rosemary Beach, Inlet Beach, Seaside (where scenes from the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show were filmed), Seascape and Sandestin, to name a few. Wooden verandas skirt squeaking white sand beaches, where waters reflect the emerald glow along the Gulf of Mexico.

Seaside. Photo Courtesy Visit South Walton

Narrow boardwalks curve between sparsely-grassed sand dunes. White-stuccoed walls and pastel-like facades emblazon homes and businesses not more than 40 feet high along the beachfront. “That’s part of what makes this area more appealing,” says David Demarest, Director of Communications for Visit South Walton. “This is where celebrities buy their beach homes.”

Alys Beach. Photo Courtesy Visit South Walton

Weaving along the coast, 19-mile-long Highway 30A offers glimpses of pristine stretches of beach and winds along rare coastal dune lakes. There are four state parks with 40 percent preserved land. And visitors have wide-ranging choices of restaurants, shops and accommodations, from campgrounds and RV parks to high-end hotels, condominium rentals and beachside cottages.

Alys Beach. Photo Courtesy Visit South Walton


Story published in June

Luther cast from death mask, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

My story on Martin Luther’s Germany has been published in AAA Home & Away online.  The story highlights the cities and towns visited by the great reformer as he boldly rebelled against the Catholic Church, sparking the Protestant Reformation. This year is the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.  (Enter 73099 if asked for a zip code).