Unless you’re a scuba diver, chances are you haven’t heard of the Caribbean island of Saba. Why you may ask? Well, it’s not your typical Caribbean island. Sandy beaches? Nope. Nightlife. Nada. So what’s the draw? The diving and hiking!
Saba is a volcanic island located in the Caribbean roughly 30 miles southwest of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten. Like Bonaire and Sint Eustatius (aka, Statia), Saba became a special municipality of the Netherlands after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in October 2010. The other islands of the former Netherlands Antilles - Curaçao and Sint Maarten - became autonomous countries, while Aruba became a constituent state - a territorial and constitutional entity forming part of a sovereign state. I digress. Anyway, Saba covers about five square miles. And as of January 2013, the population was just under 2,000 – which is about 500 more inhabitants than the first time I visited!
The main town, with most of the shops and restaurants is called Windwardside. The administrative center is call The Bottom. Fort Bay is at the harbor and is where you catch the ferry and board dive boats. Some of the other areas are Zion’s Hill (aka Hell’s Gate), Troy Hill and Booby Hill.
Now that you know where it is, here’s why I love it!
It Really is the Unspoiled Queen
The official nickname of Saba is the Unspoiled Queen and it’s easy to see why. Sabans are serious about maintaining their resources – primarily the rain forest for hiking and the underwater world for diving. There’s not a franchise or chain restaurant around. Sure, there’s satellite television, and ATM machines are available, but those are probably the closest things you’ll get to the big city. The cottages (most people don’t call them houses) don’t have addresses, they have names, like Dushi Cottage (dushi means cute or sweetheart in Papiamentu, which is mostly spoken in Aruba,, Bonaire and Curaçao) or Flossie’s Cottage (I haven’t stayed at either place). Yeah, there are hotels like the Cottage Club or Queen's Garden Resort (both of which I have stayed at), but there are no megaresorts. They’re personal and cozy and intimate and all part of why I love Saba.
It’s Hard to Get to
Huh? You’re probably asking, why would you want to go somewhere that’s hard to get to? It’s not that it’s difficult to get to, it's just not a straight shot. You’re not going to get on a plane and two hours later step off of the plane and walk onto the beach because (1) you have to change planes at least once to get to Saba and (2) Saba doesn’t really have what most people think of as a beach. It’s a really small patch of volcanic sand at Well’s Bay and, depending on the tide, it’s there - or not.
You can easily get to Saba via a 12 minute flight from St. Maarten on one of Winair’s De Havilland Twin Otter – it’s hair raising! The runway at the Juancho E Yrausquin Airport is the shortest commercial runway in the world at 400m or roughly 1200 feet! For the faint of heart, you can take a ferry from St. Maarten on either The Edge or the Dawn II.
So why do I love it when it’s hard to get to? In my experience, I’ve learned that the more effort you have to put into getting to a place, the better it is, usually. I’ve found that to be true of Saba. Sure, getting there takes some time, but the reward is that you get to a beautiful, low key place that’s filled with people who are there to dive or hike.
The Diving is Awesome… and the Hiking’s Good, Too!
Diving: Saba has incredible diving and it’s the main reason I go. Dive tourism started in the 1980’s and the Marine Park was established 30 year ago this year. The Marine Park surrounds the entire island and you have to pay a per dive marine park fee – to “use the pool”. Most of the dive sites are within about a 10 minute boat ride from shore so you’re never out of view of land. But don’t be fooled – while there are plenty of shallow dives, some a shallow as 40 feet, there are numerous 100 ft dives – more than you’d expect so close to shore. And you have a choice of dive shops - sadly, my favorite has closed temporarily while it goes through an ownership change.
Hiking: You’ll recognize Saba because of Mt. Scenery - the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom at just under 2,900 ft. The trails wind through the rain forest and are loaded with all sorts of cool and rare plants, including orchids! You can hike on your own or go to the Saba Conservation Foundation's for help with a guided hike.
Tidbit: We’ve stayed in Saba’s many red roofed white cottages in the rain forest from time to time. It’s a really unique experience. You may be in the clouds with zero visibility in the rain forest, but walk out of your cottage and down a few feet and the weather is bright and sunny!
People are Fantastic
Sabans are friendly. And, since they live on an island they appreciate the importance of helping each other. The first time we were on Saba, our luggage didn’t manage to make it with us. The shops had already started to close by the time we arrived so we thought we were out of luck. I don’t know how people found out, but before we knew it, a shop was open so we could get essentials and another place had given us tee shirts.
One of the other things I learned on my first visit to Saba is that it’s ok to hitch a ride with people, even if you don’t know them….as long as you can survive the second most hair raising experience (the first being the plane ride in) of driving on……The Road.
When you live on Saba, there’s no such thing as a right turn or a left turn onto say, Main Street. It’s all The Road and it just depends where you’re going on The Road. People will say they’re going to Windwardside or to Booby Hill. What’s so great about a road, you ask? It’s not just any road – it’s the only road and it’s The Road.
They said The Road couldn’t be built, but the five year construction project started in 1938 going from Fort Bay to the Bottom. No heavy equipment was used either. The entire project took about 20 years to complete a road from Fort Bay at the harbor to Zion’s Hill near the airport. The result is the scariest most white knuckle-inducing ride, worse than any roller coaster… except you’re driving in a car. The Road is almost entirely switchbacks from end to end on a steep incline. The views are amazing, but don’t take your eyes off the road check it out because you may hit a goat or run into the remnants of a rock slide.
So what’s to love about that? Well, now that I’ve been to Saba six times, I’ve gotten used to it, and now I look forward to riding on The Road and see it as part of the Saba experience.
Like I said at the beginning, Saba is not your typical Caribbean island – there’s no beach, no nightlife and the most exciting thing that you have to look forward to is getting stuck behind a herd of wild goats. Clearly, Saba is not for everyone. It’s for those who are interested in superb diving, incredible hiking and the chance to wind down and recharge. If that’s you, than Saba should definitely be on your list. It’s one of my favorite places and if you go, I bet it will become one of yours. Hey, and here’s the link to the Saba Tourist Bureau site!