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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org