St Eustatius - the Golden Rock

I'm coming from Saba, on my trip to visit islands in the Caribbean which I've missed on my previous travels. I stopped by Sint Eustatius on the outward journey to Saba and it didn't look exactly, how shall I put it, imposing. This island has more historical tales to tell than Saba though. Perhaps they'll pique the interest. Sint Eustatius is a bit of a mouthful and locally it's always known as Statia, so I'm sticking with that from now on.

Big Dipper to Statia

The ferry ride to Statia, is, if anything. even rougher than the journey out. The pitch dark of night doesn’t help, as we hang onto the railings, while the boat tosses up down and swings from side to side. I’m not keen on fairground rides anyway and this is like being on a continuous Big Dipper. I’ve never known time pass so slowly. Everyone sitting outside with me is vowing that they’re going to fly back.

Statia, Background

Statia, is a special municipality (officially "public body") of the Netherlands, along with Saba and Bonaire. Together, they are known as the BES Islands. The island's name, Sint Eustatius, is Dutch for Saint Eustace, but it was previously known as Nieuw Zeeland ('New Zeeland'), after the Zeelanders who settled there in the 1630s. (I’ve heard that name somewhere before.) The indigenous, Arawak name for the island is Aloi meaning ‘cashew island’. Sint Eustatius exported sugar and cotton, but most of its trade was in slaves. When it was first settled, Statia was the most prosperous island in the Dutch Caribbean (because it was a freeport, haven for pirates and contraband and because of its slave trade) and it was dubbed The Golden Rock accordingly.

Statia is very different to Saba. It doesn’t soar, but there’s still a formidably sheer cliff escarpment. Up-top is almost a plateau, sloping to the Atlantic coast. There are hills to the north, and to the south-east, the spiky outline of the Quill (Dutch for pit or hole) Volcano (about 600 metres). The island has an area of roughly eight square miles (six miles long and up to three miles wide). In cross section, it’s a saddle shape, depicted proudly on the nation’s flag. The flatter middle section is almost bisected by the runway of Franklin D Roosevelt Airport.

Quill Volcano

Quill is also known as Mount Mazinga. You can see it from almost everywhere on the island, dominating the skyline. It must have been an awesome explosion. Fortunately, it was about 1600 years ago. The Quill is a national park, with attendant (steep and often slippy) hiking trails.

Saba or Statia?

As I've already observed, Statia is nowhere near as pretty as Saba, even utilitarian at times, with government offices and rows of gas and oil tanks facing out to sea. There are still peaks and it’s picturesque in parts, with Prussian blue sea coves edged foaming white. But you can't shut out the cylindrical tanks, peeking at the corners. There’s no uniform plan for building houses here. No Toytown. Instead, there are an assortment of dwellings, mostly timber, some concrete, some stone, ranging from ramshackle to highly decorated. There are still elements of gingerbread, with jutting eaves. And some are decidedly historic; as I had hoped, the diversity and colour does makes Statia more engaging.

Quill Gardens - Almost the Lap of Luxury

My hotel is definitely an improvement, however. It nestles beneath the Quill Volcano. I have a room with a huge sleigh bed, an enormous bathroom and a view across to the Atlantic coast. There’s a gorgeous, tastefully decorated terrace, with deft touches like blue lanterns. And a breakfast that features about eight dishes. Ah luxury.

At least, until the weekend. I chose this place, even though it is out of town, as it looked like a good place to relax and it has a swimming pool. But no, building renovation is in full scale, every day, all weekend. Even Sunday. I’m the only guest, so the owner deals with it by hustling me out of the way. Go snorkelling. Go hiking. Have a nice day!

Oranjestad

I’ve walked in to the capital, coastal Oranjestad (Orange Town, after the Dutch royal family, the same as the capital of Aruba). This is where my ferry landed. It’s rural round the hotel and the road is bumpy and unmade, to start. There’s a historic large boulder, painted with the name Big Rock. Apparently, it was spewed from the volcanic crater, on my left.

Oranjestad sprawls gently onto the middle of the saddle. Most of the population live here, in the residential and commercial hub. I wander past banks, schools, various shops and supermarkets, wares piled higgledy piggledy and spilling onto the pavement. There’s Duggans, the largest supplier, with rows of well stocked refrigerated cabinets. But it’s so warm outside, that all the doors are covered in condensation and you can’t see what’s inside. It’s also hard to tell if the various restaurants and drinking establishments on the Fort Oranjestad Road are open - they’re dark and a little shabby.

At the cliff edge, things get interesting. Merchants' houses, restored Caribbean timber dwellings, churches (there's a ruined Dutch Reformed church built in 1755, with a tower that can still be climbed), government offices, museums, the ruins of one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, a Jewish cemetery and a fort.

Fort Oranje

I think twice about entering Fort Oranje. This is the third fort in two weeks and I’m forted out. I’m going to change that phrase – it’s open to misinterpretation. I’m suitably fortified already. This seventeenth-century fort is as well built and maintained, as Brimstone, in nearby St Kitts, if smaller and lower down. It has cannons, intact bastions and a courtyard. the impressively steep slopes beneath have been reinforced and there are sweeping views along the coast. And some interesting history. A plaque proudly proclaims this to be the first nation to recognize the independence of the USA, when they returned a salute from an American ship.

Statia was a well known supplier of armaments and ammunition and was instrumental in supporting the Americans during the war of independence, when other sources refused to supply them. The relationship was cemented when, on November 16, 1776, Captain Isaiah Robinson sailed the American ship Andrew Doria, into the waters' below Fort Oranje. Robinson proceeded to fire a thirteen gun salute, (one gun for each of the original thirteen American colonies). The governor replied with an eleven gun salute. (international protocol required two guns fewer in reply). This event is commemorated annually on Statia Day.

The British were very upset and eventually declared war, the fourth Anglo-Dutch War. in 1781, Admiral Rodney turned up with a massive feet and forced Statia to surrender. Ten months later, the French arrived and took control. Then the Dutch won it back.

Oranjestad, Lower, Coast Road

Instead, I drop down to the coast road. I follow the steep Old Slave Path down the cliff, (there are signs abjuring me not to let the goats through, no matter what they tell me), to find it is being renovated at the bottom; I have to scramble over a heap of rubble to get out. But there’s gin and a meal waiting for me down here. This is where the best restaurants and most up market establishments are.

This road leads from the harbour, up to the north end of town and is lined with small beaches, which disappear and reappear over the years. Erosion is a big problem. The original wall defending the coast is several metres out, below water. The same fate, it seems, has befallen numerous colonial buildings along the path. Excavation and renovation has revealed an assortment of stone buildings, on both sides of the route. Existing plans are on hold, while they are all examined.

Maybe Not So Flat After All

Walking back to my hotel, I discover that the road from Quill to Oranjestad was a long, fairly gentle, descent. Returning is much harder work. I’m not encouraged to repeat the experience, especially as cars speed by giving little quarter. I’ve been told not to risk it at night. Which is fine, if you can track down taxi driver and don’t mind 10 USD a pop. I’ve also discovered that my hotel only serves dinner some nights and these are fairly random. So it’s town, or go hungry, or stock up at the supermarket, if you can find anything in the cabinets.

Exploring The Golden Rock

I’m back in Oranjestad again for a Round The Island Tour. Also along for the ride are a Dutch couple, normally based in Curacao, with the Dutch navy. Unlike my last guide, in Saba, taxi driver cum tour guide, Wade, knows his stuff and takes his time showing off the whole island, and trundling down most of the roads.

Round the Island is clearly a misnomer. There are roads on the flatter parts of Statia, but not into the hills at either end. and many are unmade. Where the streets are surfaced, the concrete is disintegrating badly. Wade says they were fine until building development expanded rapidly. Increasing numbers of parcels of land have been bought and built on over the years, with prices escalating accordingly.

Fort de Windt

South, to Fort Windt. (Yes, another one.) Fort de Windt at the extreme southern tip of Sint Eustatius about five kilometres south of Oranjestad, guarding the channel to St Kitts. It was one of 16 small forts built on Statia. It dates from 1756 and was named after its commander, Jan de Windt (not because it was windy there, though it is Dutch for wind). The fort never saw action and was abandoned in 1815. The two remaining cannons, on the restored fortifications, face across the choppy waters, to the loftier guns of Brimstone Fort on St Kitts.

South Statia

There’s little evidence of cultivation, other than market gardens. The sugar plantations, with their stone arched entrances and mills have long been abandoned and the ground is now a riot of flowering vines and creepers.

Hugging the bottom of Quill, to the east, and on to the not quite completed, but very upmarket, Golden Rock Resort. The gardens in the resort are glorious, replete with exotic blooms.

North, across the island centre and round the airport, to a viewpoint in the hills, in the north-west. These are the smaller summits of Signal Hill/Little Mountain (or Bergje) and Boven Mountain. From here, Quill consumes the whole of the horizon.

Then, we drop down to Zealandia Beach, where the turtles (three species) brave the Atlantic rollers and come to nest. But not today. It’s wild, windy and strewn with weed. Swimming not allowed.

Wade began the day by suggesting we could go to dinner at Golden Rock later. So, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how old I am. He hasn’t mentioned it again.

Snorkelling, Oranje Bay

I’ve been more or less thrown out of my hotel, so time to go snorkelling. It was on my To Do List anyway. The lovely people at the dive shop, on the coast road, in Oranjestad, point out the reef, just off shore, in Oranje Bay and are very happy for me to leave my gear with them. They only run dive trips here.

The reef runs parallel to the shore, some of it inextricably mixed with the colonial, underwater ruins. It’s maybe a couple of metres at its tallest and perhaps two metres below the surface. It’s not the most thrilling of underwater experiences, but there’s bright yellow coral, some crimson strands and plenty of small fish, parrot fish, sergeant majors, weavers, puffer fish. The usual suspects. They’re congregating in twos or threes though, or hiding under ledges. No shoals. There’s also a cannon or two.

I’ve taken my underwater camera, but discover that I’ve brought it all the way from England with no SD card in it. So, after my swim, I toil up the Slave Path, to a Chinese supermarket, a glory hole containing every type of good that you can imagine in its depths and find a phone card I can adapt. It pours with rain. Back to the water and up and down the (murkier thanks to the downpour) reef again, taking pictures. When I emerge, (it’s one of those beaches where you scramble out trying to look dignified as the waves knock you over and your crotch fills with sand) I discover that I’ve had the camera on the wrong setting and most of the images are all out of focus.

It's raining again, so I wrap my towel round me and ask if The Barrel House Restaurant next door minds me coming in wet. The waiter says its fine, but it seems they thought I meant wet hair and are not so keen on me sitting there in my cossie. I’m not sure why - it is a terrace by the sea. But by now, all my clothes and towel are sodden and the rain buckets down again, blasting the terrace. So no-one objects any more.

Sayonara Statia

All good things come to an end. though not the renovations at my hotel, it seems. So it's time to return to St Kitts (on the evil ferry again) and on to Barbuda.

(Or read more about the BES Islands here.)

Who Do the BES Islands Belong To?

Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius (usually called Statia) are the Caribbean Netherlands, although the term 'Caribbean Netherlands' is sometimes used loosely to refer to all of the islands in the Dutch Caribbean. They're also known as the BES Islands, for obvious reasons. The islands are classified as 'public bodies' in the Netherlands, overseas countries and territories of the European Union; so, European Union law does not automatically apply.

Bonaire (including the islet of Klein Bonaire) is one of the Leeward Antilles and is located close to the coast of Venezuela, along with the other ABC Islands. So, Bonaire is geographically part of South America and part of another island group, as well. Sint Eustatius and Saba are in the main Lesser Antilles group, south of Sint Maarten ( a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

Saba and Sint Eustatius are (there is some debate about this) part of the Windward Islands and are volcanic and hilly, with little ground suitable for agriculture. The highest peak is Mount Scenery, on Saba. (At 887 metres this is the highest point in all the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

A Brief History of Saba and Sint Eustatius (See ABC Islands for Bonaire)

Saba is thought to have been inhabited by the Ciboney people as early as the 1100s BC and then, later, circa 800 AD, Arawak peoples from South America, whilst Statia was first inhabited by Caribs.

Christopher Columbus is said to have sighted Saba in 1493, but he didn't land. He didn't like the look of the impenetrable cliffs. That didn't stop him naming it St Cristobal, but his name didn't last very long. He possibly also saw Statia, but the first firm sighting was made by Francis Drake and John Hawkins. A tussle for both islands then developed between the Dutch, the English and English pirates, From the first European settlement in the seventeenth century, until the early nineteenth century, St. Eustatius changed hands twenty-one times between the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

Over this time, Saba became a key refuge for smugglers and pirates. Fishing was also a major source of revenue and the women learned to make lace ( introduced by a nun from Venezuela).This became the primary source of revenue and Saba became known as 'The Island of Women'.

When they were under Dutch control (as of 1678), the islands of St. Eustatius, Sint Maarten and Saba fell under the direct command of the Dutch West India Company, with a commander stationed on St. Eustatius to govern all three. The Dutch eventually gained full control in 1816, still generally ruling from Sint Eustatius, where the main plantation owners (sugar, tobacco, indigo and rum) were housed. But the main incentive and profit came from slavery. Statia was well positioned in the middle of the islands and it had a good harbour, which was a freeport. It also sold arms and ammunition to anyone willing to pay and used these to support the American War of Independence. (That led to one of the occasions when it was captured by the British).

The BES Islands were part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the islands became special municipalities, within the country of the Netherlands.

Facts and Factoids

  • English, Dutch and Spanish are spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento, in Bonaire.
  • Dutch and English are spoken in Saba and Sint Eustatius
  • The currency in all three islands is the US dollar.
  • In 2012, the islands of the Caribbean Netherlands voted for the first time, in the 2012 Dutch general election. due to now being special municipalities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,

Which BES Island is the Best?

  • Bonaire is very small and dry, and is much further south, but has real character and is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
  • Saba is the smallest special municipality (officially "public body") of the Netherlands and consists mainly of Mount Scenery. It is the smallest territory by permanent population in the Americas. It's very pretty with steep roads, chocolate box houses and forested slopes
  • Sint Eustatius is less attractive, but still has picturesque areas. Some flatter walking, and plenty of history. Statia, as it is known locally, was dubbed The Golden Rock as it was, for some time, the most prosperous island in the Dutch Netherlands

Saba, Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean

On this trip, I'm visiting islands in the Caribbean that I've missed on my previous travels. Sometimes, because I hadn't even known that they existed. I've just fitted in Trinidad and realised that the Dutch islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius have historically, totally passed me by. I'm really unsure what to expect. But Saba dubs itself 'The Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean', so that's promising.

Ferry, the Safe Way to get to Saba?

I’m travelling to Saba on the ferry, from St Kitts. It’s a two and a half hour journey and the forecast says its gusting 30 mph so I’ve downed two travel sick pills and found a seat outside. It wasn’t easy. There was a scrimmage to get on board, even though the woman in charge just called for families with children. To be fair, she didn't say anything about the age of the children. Makana Ferries promise a modern experience and a bar. A man brings round bottles of water in a plastic bag and says that’s it. At least they’re free. There are no safety announcements.

The crews' tee shirts suggest a triangular arrangement of islands, but in fact mine is an almost linear journey north-west. St Kitts, Sint Eustatius (I’m coming back to this island), Saba. Great panoramic views of cloud nestling on the mountains of St Kitts and Brimstone Hill Fort, from the boat. Then, once past the leeward side of the island, we’re lurching alarmingly in the Atlantic swell, from the starboard side. It's a little too exhilarating and the passengers practise their 'I'm not scared' faces. I’ve made sure I’m sitting on the left. Even so, at times, the spray rolls right across the top of the catamaran, cascading onto the deck. It drizzles a little too, but it’s hard to tell when.

Suitably damp, I arrive at Port Bay Harbor, somehow squidged in, against the cliffs, below The Bottom. This is the name of the capital of Saba, even though it’s up top, in a high valley. The captain is warning the passengers that it’s going to get really wet from now on, as they dog leg north east up to Sint Maarten. I’m glad I’m departing.

Saba is Stunning

Saba juts incredibly from the sea, soars even, with slopes that are steep and sheer in places. Christopher Columbus came here, but didn’t land at all, deterred by the perilous crags. (It didn't stop him naming the island St Cristóbal, after himself). It’s not surprising that Saba was a key refuge for smugglers and pirates.

Saba consists mainly of aptly, if unusually named, Mount Scenery, the tallest mountain in The Netherlands (877 metres). The road here is a masterpiece of engineering, a concrete strip, lined with a wall, which zig zags across the peaks, like the Great Wall of China. Several engineers claimed that a road in Saba was impossible, but Saban, Josephus Lambert Hassell began building in 1938 (without machines). It took 20 years to complete The Road that Could Not be Built, linking port to airport, with spurs off. Today, it’s usually just called The Road.

Today, Saba (say it Sabre -say-bur- if you’re speaking English and Sah-bah if you’re speaking Dutch) is a municipality of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Together with the other two Caribbean municipalities, Bonaire and St Eustatius, it’s known as the BES Islands. No-one is quite sure how the name Saba evolved, but it was used by John Hawkins in the sixteenth century. This is the smallest territory by permanent population, in the Americas, with a land area of five square miles. The population was 1,911 in January 2022. That’s a population density of just 380 per square mile.

I take to The Road. It's a memorable and stunning drive. From diminutive The Bottom, (there’s a medical school here too, which accounts for 25% of the population of the island). I wind steadily (with taxi driver Cyril) to the smallest village St Johns (nevertheless home to both primary and secondary schools) and then across the island to Windwardside, the main tourist area. The last village, which I haven’t seen yet, is Hell’s Gate (there’s an old sulphur mine below), though the vicar likes people to call it Zion’s Hill. So, that’s what the signboard says, though the locals aren’t always very obedient.

Windwardside, the Tourist Centre of Saba

The hillsides are dotted with houses, nearly all white wood, with corrugated red roofs, gingerbread frilly eaves and shuttered windows, that have dark green frames. Though some rebellious types have gone for all white. The churches have shutters also and pointy witch hat spires. It’s all impossibly cute. Windwardside is a toy village, with plate glass, supermarkets cafes and restaurants. There’s a tourist information centre and signboards loaded with historical and geographical information. A bank with a covered ATM. It’s all USD here, English signage and American accents. Though the folk I’ve met tell me they were born here. Apparently, 30% are Dutch speaking.

And, my goodness, the roads are steep and winding. I’m staying in some eco-cottages, which are 70 ache inducing steps above the road. I think they should install an oxygen station half way up. The views are great, of course, out across the Caribbean, though obscured by the rain forest. And we really are in the cloud forest here. A feast of vegetation, palms waving, bushes laden with exotic blooms, creepers, royal palms, elephant ears, mangos, bananas and much more. The tag line Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean seems appropriate.

On Mount Booby

White (and black ) cloud puffs (carrying more drizzle) waft above my head, as I slumber by the little pool. The cottages are built on the side of Mount Booby, an apt name for me at the moment. There are trails up to the top, but The Seventy Steps is enough for me.

The damp accounts for the moss on the steps, but there’s a fine line between eco and not caring for something. I think it’s being crossed here. There are broken steps, leaves un-swept and a pile of rubbish in a plastic bag. All the furniture is ‘rustic’ as the paint has peeled off and the fencing round my cottage is algae covered and could definitely do with a lick of paint. But maybe that’s not eco friendly?

My cottage is as basic as it gets. Two single beds (the blurb says I can push them to make a double, but that looks like a Herculean task that would leave no room to get into them) and a table. The toilet and shower are outside. In separate cubicles. The shower is just a dribble. There’s no lock on the door, just a hook, that I haven’t got the strength (or knack) to engage. There’s one other guy staying here, but he’s clearly not up for conversation. He just manages to squeeze out, 'Hi', as he scuttles past.

It’s not entirely peaceful, however. I’ve also been adopted by the local cat, who commandeers the best spot on my sunbed. And there are numerous dogs around. Barking competitions fill the air, as dusk draws in. When the canine chorus pause for breath, the insect gamelan cuts in. A continuous chirrup from the trees, mainly harmonious, but intermittently a loud creaking and occasionally a more raucous buzzing, like an electrical device that’s gone wrong.

Wandering (or not) in Windwardside

Marooned by the steps, I’m spending my days lounging by the pool., the water in which is dotted with leaves. It may or may not get strained in the morning. The pump is on semi strike. Hot sun, cloud, drizzle, heavy but short showers, in rotation, are the order of the day. Tiny anole lizards skitter by, peeping round corners (they always skitter), hummingbirds hover in the undergrowth and butterflies skip around the bougainvillea.

Windwardside is 1850 feet away, as the crow flies, from the bottom of The Seventy Steps. Up a slope, then down again, a very steep hill, as are all the roads here, it transpires. It’s the reverse on the way back of course, which combined with aforesaid Seventy Steps is exhausting. Fortunately, there’s sometimes a kind soul who offers a lift, for some of the road section at least. It’s a small island, so I assume I’m safe and besides I can’t afford to worry about stranger danger, when my lungs are about to collapse.

The village rewards exploration, with its museum, numerous information boards (history and natural history) and chocolate box houses. Two well stocked, if expensive, supermarkets. A scuba centre, catering for the diving, for which the island is famous. Saba is surrounded by a Marine Park. Snorkelling is not so good, I’ve read, and besides it’s very windy. The locals say the Christmas winds have come early.

One of the information boards tells me about the scarlet flowered flamboyant tree. But that flowers in the summer and, I discover, is not to be confused with the gorgeously in flower, at the moment, African tulip tree. Another of the signboards focuses on lacemaking (and there's still a lace shop). The women here learned to make lace (introduced by a nun from Venezuela). For a while, this was the primary source of revenue and Saba for some time, became known as 'The Island of Women'.

The food is good, in the restaurants I’ve sampled. Divine coconut shrimp curry in the Tropic Café at Juliana’s Hotel. Behind Windwardside towers Mount Scenery, blanketed in greenery. A hiker’s paradise. So I’m told.

Round and About in Saba

After humping my bag up The Seventy Steps Cyril promised me an island tour, before my return to the ferry. ‘It’s easier to do it all in one trip’, he suggests. But, ringing him up in the morning to confirm, it transpires he’s now agreed to take someone else to the airport, so I’m getting two halves of a tour, one earlier in the day.

Cyril drives me a little way up Mount Scenery and then along the one main road, up to Zion’s Hill (Hells’ Gate), with stunning views beneath. Velvety folded slopes, running to a foam splashed cove, Spring Bay. Further on, the airport, beyond an even more picturesque crag ringed headland - Tide Pools. Juancho E Yrausquin Airport is tiny, with a short runway (ostensibly the shortest in the world), almost surrounded by ocean and blocked at the end, by the sheer mountainside. You can buy 'I survived landing at Saba' tee shirts'. Despite this, there's never been an accident at the airport. A peek up a couple more spur roads, creeping round one of the local’s gardens to admire yet another scenic drop to the sea. (‘He won’t mind’, says Cyril.)

Cyril's worried about his new car. He says it’s making strange noises and odd warning lights are appearing on the dashboard. I point out that it’s a hybrid and it’s going to go quiet at times. It turns out that the warning lights come on, when he inadvertently presses switches on the centre of his wheel. He thanks me for fixing his vehicle.

Cyril doesn’t turn up to collect me for the second half of my tour, until it’s almost dark. He’s still got his airport pick up in the car. We have words. He claims to be very sorry, as we scoot inside the Church of the Sacred Heart, at The Bottom. He’s even praying for forgiveness. I’m not sure God can help here. They’re big on Christmas lights on Saba, so there are illuminated houses to admire, at least. The beach at Wells Bay (famous Diamond Rock at the end of the point), on my list of Highlights To Tick Off, is just visible in the inky dusk.

Farewell to Saba - and Cyril

Then, we arrive at the ferry port. ‘You’re late’, says the check in clerk, even though Cyril has told me I have plenty of time. I’m now instructed that I should be there an hour before departure time. It would be helpful if they gave you that information when they issue the tickets. But we do depart early, as the boat is ahead of schedule and all are on board. None of this stops Cyril from demanding 40 USD and declaring he will make up for it all by sending me a ticket to come back. He also wants to call me on Christmas Day, to play a song on his guitar for me. Thankfully, he doesn’t have my phone number.

I'm still going Dutch. I'm now on my way to Sint Eustatius.

(Or read more about the BES Islands here.)

St Kitts and Nevis - A Brief History

Saint Kitts was subject to more than the usual colonial intervention. It was initially claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but it became the site of the first British and French colonies in the Caribbean, in the mid-1620s. This gave it the perhaps unenviable title of  'The Mother Colony of the West Indies'. Its position meant that it was easily reached on the currents and it soon became the first port of call for transatlantic expeditions. The English took up the middle, with the French at the top and the bottom. The Spanish took over in 1629, but left again a year later.

The island alternated repeatedly between English (then British) and French control during the seventeenth and eighteenth, until 1783, when the British finally seized absolute power. They already had control of Nevis, which had become a huge centre for the import and export of slaves. St Kitts Nevis became the richest islands in the Caribbean, mainly because of the sugar plantations. They were both part of the British West Indies (to begin with, just in union with Anguilla) until gaining independence in 1983 as a federation.

A Glorious Confusion of Names

There's considerable confusion over names. It was thought that Columbus named the island of St Kitts, St Christopher (Cristobal in Spanish). 'after his patron saint'. But it transpires that he actually named it St James and the nearby island of Saba, was supposed to be St Christopher. Similarly, Nevis was supposed to be St Martin. but the Dutch/French Caribbean island was mistakenly called that instead. So, Nevis was named after the cloud around its mountain - Nieves - Our Lady of the Snows in Spanish.

Facts and Factoids

  • Today, St Kitts and Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere, in both area and population, as well as the world's smallest sovereign federation. The country is a Commonwealth Realm, with the British monarch as head of state.
  • St. Kitts green vervet monkeys are some of the most photographed faces on the islands. Estimates suggest there are thousands of charismatic creatures living there today and they’ve had a huge impact on the island. From hikes up Monkey Hill to rum punch cocktails at The Monkey Bar, you’ll find them everywhere. They’re not actually native to the islands either. French settlers brought them to the islands in the 17th century and kept them as exotic pets
  • Nevis was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton Founding father Alexander Hamilton and protagonist of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit Broadway show grew up in Nevis. Long before he authored the Federalist Papers, served as the country’s first Treasury secretary and achieved Revolutionary War glory, he was on the idyllic island of Nevis. As a teenager, his wealthy adoptive parents sent him to New York to pursue his education. Here, he met and married Frances ‘Fanny’ Nisbet.

What To See on St Kitts and Nevis?

The two islands are separated by a two-mile stretch of sea known as ‘the narrows’. To get between them, you can hop on a five-minute water taxi, to Charlestown, Nevis. Every year, thousands flock here for the Channel Swim, joined by kayaks and fishing boats to keep a lookout for sharks. Or:

  • Take a round the island tour of St Kitts and make sure to see the views from Brimstone Fort and Lookout Hill.
  • Wander in Basseterre
  • Enjoy the beaches (Cockleshell is the prettiest) and variety of water sports.
  • Stay in a plantation house.

A Brief History of Antigua and Barbuda

  • Antigua was first settled by the Ciboney. Native American hunter-gatherers around 3100 BC. They were followed by the pre-Columbian Arawak-speaking Saladoids and then the Caribs. Antigua is known as Waladli (or ‘Our Own) by the native population, but was named Antigua (Spanish for ancient) by Christopher Columbus, after an icon in Seville Cathedral, "Santa Maria de la Antigua" - St. Mary of the Old Cathedral. Apparently, he made a vow to name many islands after aspects of St Mary that year.
  • Barbuda is Spanish for 'bearded'. It's thought it might refer either to the male inhabitants of the island, or the bearded fig trees found there.
  • Antigua was colonised by the British, from St Kitts, and became Britain's 'Gateway to the Caribbean' in 1632. Barbuda followed, in 1678. Christopher Codrington settled on Barbuda in 1685 and was handed control of the island. at this point the island was known as Dulcina. Tobacco and then sugar was grown, on both, worked by a large population of slaves transported from West Africa, who soon vastly outnumbered the European settlers.
  • After prolonged wrangling both internal and external. Antigua and Barbuda gained full independence on 1 November 1981; Vere Bird became prime minister of the new country.

Facts and Factoids

  • Antigua and Barbuda consists of two major inhabited islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and a number of smaller islands. including Redonda, Guiana Island, Bird Island, and Long Island
  • Antigua measures around 108 square miles (280 square km). It is mostly low and undulating, but in the west there are volcanic rocks that rise to 1,330 feet (405 metres). There are no rivers.
  • Barbuda, formerly called Dulcina, sits 25 miles (40 km) north of Antigua. It is a flat coral limestone island and it receives less rainfall than Antigua. Codrington is the only settlement and it sits on a lagoon to the west.
  • Redonda is an uninhabited volcanic rock, home to many seabirds. Redonda means round. Apparently, this tiny island is actually its own kingdom with its own king. A Montserratian trader called Shiellin announced this (he was the king, he said) in 1865. The island is inaccessible except by boat in the right sea conditions. It's actually closer to both Monserrat and St Kitts, than to Antigua.
  • The economy relies largely on tourism and the country is trying to position itself as a luxury Caribbean escape.
  • Barbuda also exports a lot of fish, especially lobster.
  • The permanent population is approximately 100,000, with 97% residing in Antigua.
  • St. John's, Antigua, is the country's capital, major city, and largest port.
  • Mount Obama is the highest point. The name was changed from Boogy Peak (sometimes written Boggy) on 4 August 2009, when it was renamed after Barack Obama, who has his birthday on this day. The former title, Boogy Peak, came about because slave masters told the slave stories about the Boogie Man who took spirits and lived on the mountains. Their attempts to dissuade escapees weren't always successful.
  • Fungie, pronounced foon-jee is the national dish. It's cornmeal with a vegetable mash, sauce and saltfish (usually).

What To See on Antigua and Barbuda?

  • This is an economy that is very dependent on tourism, especially in Barbuda.
  • The climate, again, especially in Barbuda, is classified as tropical marine, which means that there is little seasonal temperature variation. In January and February, the coolest months, the average daily high temperature is 27 °C (81 °F), while in July and August, the warmest months, the average daily high is 30 °C (86 °F).
  •  Antigua and Barbuda claims, conveniently, to have 365 beaches, many of them beautiful. Barbuda's coast is virtually lined with beaches. 'Pink sand' and karst rock formations are found on both. Water sports abound and Stingray City is a popular excursion from Antigua. Antigua is also home to historical sites, most notably Nelson's Dockyard and old sugar mills.
  • Barbuda’s Codrington Lagoon National Park has the largest frigate bird colony in the western hemisphere. More than 2500 roost in the mangroves every year. The best time to visit is mating season, from September to April.
  • Read about my trips to Antigua here and cruising when I called into Antigua here.
  • Read about my visit to Barbuda here.

Getting to Curaçao

The flight from Bonaire to Curaçao only takes 15 minutes – 46 miles. We’re up and we’re bumping down again. All of these islands have the same prevailing winds. First impressions of airport organisation aren’t encouraging. They’ve just introduced a fancy self-scanning booth system for chipped passports, but the signs say that you have to complete an online embarkation form before you arrive if you want to use them. Nobody told us about that, so no-one is entering the shiny new booths, despite the fact that two large planes have just arrived from Amsterdam.

As the immigration queues build up the officials decide to waive this rule. They call us up one by one and  scan our passports for us. In the baggage hall the handlers have totally ignored the screens telling us the carousel at which our luggage will arrive. They’ve decided to make life interesting by mixing up bags from the four arriving flights on all the belts.

Curaçao

Despite the inauspicious beginnings it’s already obvious that Curaçao is very different again, from Bonaire and Aruba, with much better infra-structure and, dare I say it, sophistication. It’s also much more Dutch. My boutique hotel is a picturesque converted town house, by the sea, in the Pietermaai district, of the capital Willemstad. I’m delighted to find it has an excellent restaurant, which serves possibly the best caipirinhas I have ever tasted.

Willemstad, the Capital of Curaçao

Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, is a UNESCO heritage city, so I have high expectations. There are clusters of bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses. It’s most colourfully picturesque along the banks of the canal like opening which leads to the sea-water-lake-cum-harbour around which Willemstad is built. There’s a wobbling pedestrian pontoon bridge across this, which swings open with very little warning, to let boats through. A buzzer sounds, but it moves almost immediately, no flashing lights, resulting in hordes of suddenly running people, leaping across the steadily decreasing overlap, as the pontoon slides away. I'm one of them.

There are a couple of forts and a ‘floating market’, which is not really floating, as all the goods have been taken off the boats and displayed on stalls along the roadside. It’s also a busy cruise ship port. The west bank, especially, is crowded with escapees from the liner on the dock. ‘Where did ya get your map love?’ It goes without saying that the route from the quay to the fort is lined with so called high end shops - Tiffany, Gucci, Prada, gaily decorated, in an attempt to blend in with the local architecture.

Pietermaai

Pietermaai feels more authentic to me. The gabled buildings have not been over-restored and are generally more shabby chic. Some are so crumbly they have been rescued with hoardings and vibrant street art. There are plenty of murals. I spend the afternoon on a tiny man made ‘City Beach’ here. And I’ve sampled another good restaurant this evening. Really tasty Asian/Caribbean food. Really expensive too.

Westpunt

I’ve opted for car hire today. This is something I usually avoid: driving on the wrong side of the road, unfamiliar cites and stick shifts (as the Americans call them). But it’s cheap here and they have automatics and it’s the most convenient way to tour the beaches. My car is a dinky little Nissan Micra and, as it turns out, driving on the right is a doddle, even in all the traffic. Maybe it’s like riding a bike-once you’ve done it before adequately  you’re okay.

The road signs and the GPS are a different matter altogether. I’ve downloaded an app called maps.me, as it works offline and the phone signal is erratic. I’m directed to ‘slide left’ and also to ‘exit, then turn left’, which apparently means, just turn left. ‘Turn right and then left’ means goes straight on, according to the road markings. I’m forever in the wrong lane and thankfully the locals are reasonably patient. They overtake me as soon as they can, but no-one toots at me.

It’s definitely an island of two halves. Willemstad seems to be surrounded by a huge industrial estate and I’ve explored most of it by the time I’ve misunderstood all the ambiguous commands I’ve been given. The island is orientated more or less east-west and I’m heading west, where all the best beaches are. The traffic peters out eventually and I can potter along. As in Bonaire, (though that’s north-south) this end is pretty limestone hills, but this time covered in shrubs, as well as the ubiquitous finger cacti.

The Beaches of Curaçao

I visit five beaches, Playas Lagun, Jeremi, Grote Knip, Kleine Knip and Fortis. I snorkel at Lagun, where the publicity says the fishermen’s gutting of their catch brings in turtles. It’s a small sandy cove that’s pretty enough, though spoilt by ugly concrete constructions on the beach. No fishermen, (but some boats upturned on the beach) and no turtles, but plenty of unusual fish along the rocky headlands.

Playa Jeremi is a larger cove, but not as pretty. I talk to two South Africans relaxing on a bench on the cliff above. The guy used to live in Brighton near me, it so is a small world. Three Dutch divers tell me that the only decent snorkelling here is right out on the reef and there’s no-on else that distance away in the water. I decide to move on.

Grote Knip is another beach that features on the best beaches in the world lists. (See my own list of best beaches.) It’s longer than the others on the island and the sea really is an amazing blue. I’ve read that Curaçao liqueur is that colour because it’s supposed to represent the sea around Curaçao. Possibly, but I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s quite that lurid.

Grote Knip is also famous for rock bombing. Visitors queue up on top of a crag to jump into the crystal-clear waters (this bit sadly is true). However, the stretch of sand, though wide, is horribly crowded. There are tour buses parked up for heaven’s sake. So, I depart for Kleine Knip, which I’ve read also has good snorkelling. It does. And there are turtles.

I spend some happy hours in the small bay at Kleine Knip, swimming, snorkelling (there is a turtle here) and eating delicious, (at a price), fried snapper and banana, bought from the local entrepreneur. She has the monopoly on this beach.

Fortis, at the top of the island, brags that it has the best view in the west, all down the cobalt coast, but it’s shingly and definitely not the nicest place to snooze. There’s a bar there advertising iguana curry. I don’t think I’ll risk it.

Circumnavigating Curaçao

Next decision: a circumnavigation of  the island, visiting viewpoints on the way back. This is definitely a mistake. The GPS can’t cope and keeps diverting me down unmade roads, where I end up in people’s backyards. Their dogs aren’t too happy about it. I also need fuel - from what the locals call a pomp station. It would also have been good if someone had told me that you have to pay for petrol before you fill up here, in cash. Fortunately, it’s cheap - a dollar a litre - and I emerge from the whole day happy and unscathed. So does the car.

Endpunt

A last stroll east along the coastal road. More man-made beaches, more restored colonial gables, lots of bars, cafes and dive shops. A sign boasting 'Cold beer, Hot instructors' probably wouldn't pass muster elsewhere. A final fresh lime drink sitting on the rocks by the sea.

Then I’m braving Curaçao Airport again. It’s even worse than on the way in. The check-in queue curls half the length of the departures area and then turns to double its size. It’s a challenge trying to work out where to join it, as it’s unintentionally merging into the queue for security and immigration, which runs the whole length of the hall, before twisting back on itself. One thing about travelling – it’s taught me patience, to a certain extent. An hour and a half later, when I finally get to passport control and another line, there are three of those spanking new little e-passport booths illuminated, but roped off. ‘Can I use those?’ I ask, waving my little wine-coloured book. They nod and I’m through. Danki Dios, as they say in Papiamento.

Goodbye Caribbean, I’m heading home.

(Read more about the ABC Islands here.)

Getting into Bonaire

The flight from Aruba is only half an hour, crossing Curaçao on the way. The ABCs are not arranged in alphabetical order, in the ocean. A late arrival in Bonaire, but a happy one. ‘Have a good stay,’ beams the efficient lady on immigration. The reception at my new hotel, a dive resort is less effusive. They’re making me pay to rent the safe in my room. I’ve never come across that one before, when the safe is already in the room. 'Otherwise we will lock it up…'

Watching Wildlife on Bonaire

I’ve been having another quiet day in the sun, while I suss out the locality. I’ve been to the local Chinese supermarket (expensive). Like Aruba, the island is flat and arid, but without the wide sand beaches. The area around the hotel is hardly scenic. There is a water processing plant, cactus fencing and a view across to an even flatter, smaller island, Klein Bonaire, half a mile away. Instead, Bonaire has a reputation for the best diving in the Caribbean. It's known as "Diver's Paradise",(or falling that "The Velcro Island", and "Dushi Bonaire".

I’ve tested the snorkelling off the hotel jetty. There’s a drop off to a reef five metres out, but the wind and boats have kicked up sand and visibility isn’t great. There are pair of tarpons - enormous - under the pier though. They lurk around, as the hotel kitchen tips the scraps of fish into the sea for them.

I wind up the afternoon with a massage. In between, I’ve been watching the lizards and iguanas scurry round the pool and teeny humming birds sneaking nectar from scarlet tube-shaped blossoms. Those birds move fast. They might need to, as there’s also a black and ginger cat, who has taken possession of my patio.

Klein Bonaire

Snorkelling at Klein Bonaire. I spend an hour and a half happily drifting along drop-offs which start opposite my hotel. Like all coral in the Caribbean this is not particularly colourful, but at least it’s alive and there’s plenty of interesting animal life: eagle rays, angelfish, barracuda, turtles, eels, varieties of parrotfish and the usual assortment of striped sergeant majors and shoals of minuscule blue flashes. The stoplight parrotfish is common here. It’s one of those fish that changes sex, in this case from female to male. It must be an interesting life.

My very organised Dutch boat hosts say that Klein Bonaire used to be owned by Harry Belafonte. It’s where he wrote Island in the Sun.

Round and About Bonaire

I find the most rewarding travel often happens when I get a local to take me round. Today, Oy (short for Gregorio) is taking me on a figure of eight tour round Bonaire, in his Kia. He is quietly knowledgeable and goes out of his way to stop for photos. It’s a surprisingly interesting and diverse place.

The reef runs right round the island, which is almost entirely coral and limestone as a result. The entire coastline of Bonaire was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. with more than 350 species of fish and 60 species of coral. There are more than 400 caves hiding here too.

The drop-off is really close to the shore, all up the western coast, so divers can access without boats. All of the sites are marked with yellow stones. ‘Thousand Steps’ (there’re really only 67 Oyo says), though access looks rather too adventurous, across slippy rocks in some. There’s a stripe of turquoise running along the coast, immediately turning cyan at the reef, so it’s very easy to see where it is.

The land rises to 2000 metres in the north, where there are some small mountains, lakes and a few flamingos. The limestone hills and cliffs are entirely finger cactus covered. It’s the only thing that grows (they make liqueur and slimy ‘healthy’ soup from it). All the food has to be imported. There are tall metal windmills running pumps (this is the Netherlands after all), numerous small ranches and some goats scattered across the countryside. Road signs also warn of wild donkeys and sure enough we encounter a small, shy group, grazing in the scrub

Kralendijk

Rincon, famous for its annual festival, visited by the king and queen, is the only town outside the capital, Kralendijk (Dutch for coral reef). The latter sits at the centre of our figure of eight, so is encountered twice. It’s unsurprisingly, a smaller version of Philipsburg, in Sint Maarten, with brightly painted shops cafes and bars and Dutch gables, geared up to cater to the cruise ship market.

South Bonaire


There’s a different sight around every corner. In the south are commercial salt pans, more lakes, some very pink, flamingos and a lighthouse. Apparently Bonaire has one of the largest flocks of flamingos in the world. To the west, more diving sites, sea bird covered rocks, restored slave huts and a bay where the sky is dotted with the bright sails of kite surfers. To the east, sea grass lagoons in a sheltered sandy bay, this one swarming with windsurfers. Colourful and fascinating. (Bonaire has produced several world champion wind surfers and kite surfers.)

Rudy

This hotel is a little hit or miss. The staff are mostly very friendly and work hard, though not very efficiently. However, one man who operates the late shift around the office has had a distinctly off tone of voice whenever I’ve dealt with him. When I inquire about my return transfer to the airport, which I’ve already booked by email, he reprimands me: ‘You’re supposed to give us the information’. So, I ask for his name, thinking I will mention it on Trip Advisor. ‘Rudy’ he replies. I can’t help smirking.

Canadian Club

I’ve been hanging out with two friendly Canadian couples, Dave and Barb and Bob and Sharon (sounds like a film) at my hotel. I met them first on my trip to Klein Bonaire and all four, although now retired, are in education too, so we’ve plenty to talk about, as well as the usual topics, Trump and Brexit. They invite me snorkelling on the local reef this morning – we’re all leaving this afternoon. Dave is so keen not to be mistaken as American that he even wears a Canada T shirt while he’s in the water.

Leaving Bonaire

I sit with them again at the airport this afternoon, recovering from today’s disasters. I lost my passport and boarding pass after I checked in. It was eventually handed in to the airline. Heaven knows what happened. But in the kerfuffle of searching for the passport I then lost my Maui Jim sunglasses. They don’t turn up. It’s an expensive and stressful day, especially as Insel Air are back to normal. The illuminated sign at the gate says ‘On Time’, but my flight to Curaçao is really running an hour late.

(Read more about the ABC Islands here.)

Which Continent are the ABC Islands In?

The ABC Islands are the three western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. They are located less than one hundred miles north-west of Falcón State, Venezuela and, as such, are generally considered to be the only Caribbean Islands that are part of South America.

Who Do the ABC Islands Belong To?

Aruba and Curacao are both constituent parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other two countries in the kingdom are the Netherlands and Saint Maarten. So, the nationality of the citizens of the ABC islands is Dutch, but the islands are not a part of the European Union.

Bonaire is one of the three Dutch BES Islands in the Caribbean, along with Sint Eustatius and Saba. Bonaire was part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the island became a special municipality within the country of the Netherlands. An 80% majority of Bonaire's population are Dutch nationals, and nearly 60% of its residents were born in the former Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.

A Brief History of the ABC Islands

The ABC Islands earliest known inhabitants were the Caquetio, a branch of the Arawak. They came by canoe from Venezuela in about 1000 AD. In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda arrived at Curaçao and a neighbouring island that was almost certainly Bonaire. He is said to have called the islands Las Islas de los Gigantes, or Islands of the Giants due to the size of the native inhabitants, the Caiquetio Indians. By 1527 the Spanish had formed a government and established Catholicism on the islands. However, the Spanish conquerors decided that the three ABC Islands were 'useless', having no mineral wealth.

Nevertheless, the Spanish remained until they conceded the islands to the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Netherlands lost control of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to the British twice during the early 1800s. The ABC islands were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.

Facts and Factoids

  • English, Dutch and Spanish are spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento
  • The Leeward Antilles have a mixed volcanic and coral origin.
  • Aruba's currency is the Aruban Florin, but the US dollar is also widely accepted.
  • The currency in Bonaire is the US dollar.
  • The currency used in Curaçao is the Antillean Guilder (ANG), also called the Florin.

Which ABC Island is the Best?

  • Aruba is the most affluent, and has beautiful sandy beaches. That's great if you just like to lay in the sun and swim. It is very American, full of all inclusive resorts. And it's promoted as One Happy Island. I didn't like it much - I found it lacking in atmosphere. Diving and snorkelling is much better at Bonaire and Curacao.
  • Bonaire is very small and dry, but is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
  • Curacao is the most diverse of the three islands. more history, beaches and snorkelling.

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