Don’t go to Saba Island if you are looking for a beach, you won’t find one on this Caribbean island.
You also won’t find a stoplight, bugs, fast food, buildings over 4 stories, crime, or cruise ships. If you are looking at this list and thinking, “This sounds like a travel paradise! This is my kind of destination”, then you and I are on the same wavelength.
It’s actually easier to describe Saba Island (pronounced SAY-BA) on what it doesn’t have than what it does have. Saba, the smallest island in the Caribbean, is also the most unique. Much like the Island of Molokai in Hawaii, it’s not trying to be a big tourist destination like its Caribbean neighbors. It is more interested in maintaining its quirkiness, uniqueness, and secret status.
Saba (population 2,000) is not for the masses, it’s for those rare pioneers who like exploring the new and unspoiled. It’s not for people looking for a beach escape, umbrella drinks, or tan lines. It’s for the curious culture hunters, the ones that can appreciate the quirkiness of small-town living.
If this sounds like you, then read on and find out why I fell in love with Saba Island, also known as the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean”. This 5 square mile island captured my curiosity and awoke my inner explorer.
So, What Will You Find on Saba Island?
Shortest Commercial Runway in the World
The airport, built in 1963, literally put Saba on the map by opening them up to tourism, but also because their runway was the shortest commercial runway in the world. At only 1,300 feet, it’s just a few feet longer than some aircraft carriers! I love landing in remote, hard-to-get-to places; this landing with cliffs on both sides was what enticed me to Saba in the first place.
Even though the island is only 5 square miles, you will experience three distinct ecosystems; coastal/tide pool, dry forest and rain/elfin forest. Where else can you experience such diversity in such a small place? Nowhere.
World Class Diving
Saba’s deep waters are known for it’s world-class diving. You’ll find pinnacles (the island that never formed), drop-offs, and caves that start 40 feet deep. Plus, you can see sharks, turtles, and fish you don’t normally see in the Caribbean. The whole area around the island is a National Marine Park and is protected.
However, even for the non-diver like me, there are still a few places to snorkel! We went out snorkeling near Wells Bay. The corals were lovely and colorful; however, I will admit it was a bit deep for snorkeling. Regardless I would suggest this snorkeling to anyone as it’s a super way to get out on the water and see the rugged landscape of this island from a completely different perspective. I was in awe of the views and the sheer cliffs above and below the water!
Saba may be known for its excellent diving, however the real hidden secret is the hiking! This is a hiker’s paradise with 3 different eco-systems in this little 5 square mile island! You can experience rain forest, dry forest, and coastal/tide pools hiking trails. There are about 20 different trails with miles and miles of hiking to incredible views.
I went out with Crocodile James, a local hiking guide (and all-around interesting and quirky guy) to experience hiking in Saba’s 3 ecosystems. The hiking on Saba is challenging considering the only piece of flat land on the island is the 1,300-foot airport runway! Expect a lot of up and down, and even some scrambling at times. However, the trails are maintained extremely well for such a small island. You can tell that hiking on Saba is revered by the locals based on how well they take care of the trails.
Saba isn’t only about adrenaline inducing hiking and diving – they also have a really strong arts scene. I was able to get hands-on creating glass beads and jewelry with JoBean Glass Art for a morning. With a little instruction I was suddenly creating glass beads – I was surprised at how fast it can be done! JoBean’s Saba inspired glass art and jewelry is sold at her workshop or at Kokona, a little art themed gift shop in the Windward Side. Island artisans fill the shop with creative works of art from food/drink to sculpture/paintings.
You know I enjoy a drink now and then, so when I learned about Saba Spice, a homemade spiced rum that is only made on the island in people’s homes – I was pretty excited to learn more. Each family has their own secret recipe.
I went to learn how to make Saba Spice with Lucy, a local who still lives in the 112 year old house she grew up in! Made with fennel, cinnamon, clove, brown sugar, water, and 151 proof rum, I watched as Lucy cooked it up in a big pot on her stove. It cooks for hours and makes the whole house smell delicious! Most locals drink it after dinner with ice, however I had it as a Saba Spice Sour – with lemon juice and a little sugar water. In addition, many cook with it as it adds so much flavor to meats, french toast, and you can even pour it over ice cream!
A Human Birds Nest
Bird’s Nest at Queens Garden Resort has a private, intimate dining table built high up in the middle of a hundred-year-old mango tree. You can dine in a tree while watching the Caribbean Sea or the stars at night, as you enjoy a delicious meal delivered by your personal waiter. I dined with my friend Susan in the ‘nest’ and between delicious courses we gushed at how romantic this place would be if we had been with a significant other! So, when our waiter asked if it was ok if we took our dessert down below on the ground so that someone could use the nest to propose, we graciously gave up our perch in the name of love. And by the way – she said “yes”!
As if landing on Saba wasn’t scary enough, then you get in a car and drive on the narrow, winding road. I’m not sure which panicked me more – the airport runway or the road! From the airport up to the Windward Side you’ll experience 23 turns – most of them hairpin. Simply referred to as “The Road”, it stretches 10 miles from one side to the other.
Sabans used to traverse the island by trail, but in the late 1930’s the decision to build a concrete road was made. Dutch & Swiss Civil Engineers said building a road on Saba wasn’t possible. Thus, the road got its title, “The road that couldn’t be built”. However, a local man, Josephus Lambert Hassell, took it on as a challenge. The first stage of the road was inaugurated in 1943.
There are no stop lights, a smattering of stop signs, and no straightaways. You’ll find the busiest corner in the Windward Side at a T intersection where the road narrows and tends to back up during ‘rush hour’. And if you are looking for some tummy tingling excitement – just head to Wells Bay where you’ll experience road grades so steep that you’ll be nervous to even walk down them. It was like going down a roller coaster where your butt lifts off the seat! I’m pretty sure that the most important shop on the island is a brake shop.
Saba Lobster (or better known as Caribbean spiny Lobster because it has no claws) is known throughout the Caribbean. The claw-less lobsters are found in the Saba Bank. No, this has nothing to do with currency. The Saba Bank is a 60-mile long stretch of submerged atoll a few miles off the coast. It’s a place particularly rich in biodiversity and in spiny Lobster. Many of the restaurants on Saba have fresh Saba Lobster in tanks that you can choose from. And in November the island has its very own Lobster fest!
Is Saba Island for You?
This tiny island is like no other; it may be small and lack a beach, but it has a uniqueness that I loved. Saba isn’t for everyone – but it is for me!
Where to stay in Saba
While in Saba I stayed at Juliana’s Hotel which has turned out to be the best place on the island in my opinion. The owners, Johanna and Wim, are young and fun and seem to be the social directors on the island holding happy hours and educational video nights and art/cocktail parties! Johanna grew up on the island and her mother is a local artist. We stayed in an old 1877 Saban cottage but they also have regular hotel rooms and suites. My highlights of the place were the old (and moody) cat Zion and the blow-up black swan that had a home in the swimming pool! The prices hover around the $150 to $175 range and include breakfast!
I was a guest of Saba Tourism for this trip, however, all opinions expressed here are my own.
All text and photos by Ottsworld.com