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.)

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