The Caribbean isle of Saba has no luxury hotels, no Michelin stars and no beach clubs. And that is its allure. by Nicola Chilton
There was a moment, just before landing in Saba when I wondered if we were actually going to land at all. As the island’s steep green slopes filled my view, it looked as if we were heading straight for them. But with a sharp bank to the left, the pilot aimed the plane’s nose at the 400 meters of tarmac that cling to Saba’s only piece of flat land, and there was a collective sigh of relief as the wheels touched down on the world’s shortest commercial runway. It was a suitably memorable arrival in a place that’s unlike any other in the Caribbean.
Saba (pronounced say-ba) is a dormant volcano that rises out of the sea just a few kilometers from St Barth and St Kitts, and only a 12-minute flight from St Martin. It doesn’t have luxury resorts or beach clubs. In fact, it doesn’t have any real beaches at all, apart from a periodically appearing strip of volcanic sand at Well’s Bay and a small manmade cove next to the airport.
But people don’t come here to sunbathe or party. Instead, they come to dive with sharks, barracudas, and batfish on shallow reefs and deep seamounts, to hike the 20 trails maintained by the Saba Conservation Foundation and to experience Caribbean life at a different pace.
I’d come primarily to experience the landing at Juancho E Yrausquin Airport, an adventure that often features on lists of the world’s scariest flights. But the more I researched, the more I wanted to explore Saba’s diverse ecosystems and tranquil twisting lanes lined with “gingerbread” houses, as they’re known here. And, if I’m honest, I wanted to go somewhere that practically none of my friends had ever heard of.
To gain an elevated perspective of the 13sq km island, I met James “Crocodile” Johnson to hike the peak of the 887m-tall Mount Scenery, the highest point in Saba and also in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, despite being 7,000 kilometers from Amsterdam. A spritely septuagenarian armed with a machete for clearing overgrown paths as well as countless island anecdotes, Johnson has been guiding people up this mountain since he was 14.
It’s a steep 90-minute slog through dry evergreen forest and secondary rainforest to reach the cloud forest at the top. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the Lesser Antilles chain from the peak, but we found ourselves hiking through the mist, and emerged at the summit shrouded in clouds. Instead of peering aimlessly into the white, I kept my eyes and ears on the forest around me, while Johnson pointed out mountain mahogany and hummingbirds, prehistoric tree ferns, heliconia shaped like lobster claws, and the skinny — and completely harmless — red-bellied racer snake.
The Mount Scenery trail ends in Windwardside, the prettiest of Saba’s four pocket-sized villages. It’s a friendly community of white wooden houses with orange roofs and green window shutters, surrounded by well-tended gardens brimming with bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers. Windwardside is also where the island’s main “action” is, with a handful of small restaurants and bars catering to locals and visitors, the Big Rock supermarket recognizable by the big rock in front of its door, and a couple of small shops selling everything from T-shirts and fridge magnets to stethoscopes for the students at the Saba University School of Medicine.
Despite its population of just under 2,000 people, Saba has been settled by many over the centuries, from the Ciboney who arrived more than 3,000 years ago to the Arawaks and Caribs, the inevitable Europeans and the even more inevitable import of slaves as a result. The Dutch eventually took control of the island in 1816 and today it is part of a special municipality of the Netherlands, along with St Eustatius and Bonaire. But many islanders claim to be able to trace their roots back to the Irish and English pirates who settled here in the mid-1600s.
There’s a sense of seclusion on the island, despite its proximity to neighboring St Martin. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the time when everything — from food to freight to grand pianos — was rowed in and carried by hand or donkey up steep slopes on arduous trails. It wasn’t until work started on Saba’s first road, known officially as The Road but nicknamed “the road that couldn’t be built”, that the different parts of the island became connected to each other.
It’s worth taking a taxi tour of the island, not least because driving on the twisting, narrow road can be a daunting experience, but because every driver is a character with a repertoire of island tales, some based on fact, others possibly apocryphal.
Local legend says that when Dutch and Swiss engineers said that building a road was an impossibility, Josephus Lambert Hassel took issue with the claim, signing up for a correspondence course in civil engineering from the USA. In 1938, “Lambee” gathered a group of men and work on the road started by hand, with no machinery other than a wheelbarrow. Five years later, the first stretch was completed, although the island wouldn’t see its first motor vehicle for another four years.
Saba doesn’t get a huge number of visitors and only has 124 rooms for guests, spread across a few small hotels, rental villas and cottages. Juliana’s Hotel in Windwardside is an island stalwart, home to Tropics Café for lobster fresh from the Saba Bank, and the poolside Tipsy Goat bar, where you’re likely to meet islanders and visitors chatting over potent margaritas. In The Bottom, Saba’s administrative capital, a short but steep uphill walk leads to the recently renovated Queen’s Hotel, Bar & Kitchen, where mature mango trees and cheerful red umbrellas are the perfect shady spots to recover with a cold drink. For more privacy, Haiku House (sabavillas.com), inspired by the design of a 16th-century Japanese villa, sits on a lofty hilltop perch with views out to sea from its infinity pool.
But to feel immersed in the island’s heritage, seek out Mark Johnson. Owner of the Cottage Club boutique hotel and the island’s jeweler, Johnson also manages a collection of extraordinary historical cottages. I spent my last night in the antique-filled Hidden Garden, a dreamy, wood-paneled former sea captain’s home in Windwardside, built in 1890 and still retaining many of its original features.
A lichen-covered path leads through gardens filled with tropical ginger and elephant ears, where bananaquits warble among the flowers and tall palms sway languidly in the breeze. As night fell, I sat in a rocking chair on the porch and the evening air filled with the saw-like buzzing of unseen bugs and the whistling of tree frogs, until they were tired of the noise they were making and turned in for the night.
On Saba, there’s a slower pace, a sense of tranquility, and a feeling of magical realism that infuses everything. It’s worth foregoing the beaches and luxury resorts of Saba’s neighboring islands to spend a few days wrapped in such serene seclusion.