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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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