You might not have heard of Saba but you’ve probably seen it on TV. The pilot’s approach is often featured on those National Geographic programmes where they list the world’s most challenging airport landings. I’m not sure whether this is mentioned in the tourist brochure. At 1,300ft long, it is the shortest commercial runway in the world. And I’ve survived it. The runway lies at an angle across the only flat land in sight, a wedge buttressed against the rock of this towering volcanic cone in the sea. In the distance as I approached, Saba looked just like the volcano that an 8-year-old would draw – all conical and pointy.
I got my first glimpse of this excitingly secret place as I caught the short flight from the bustling and touristy island of St Maarten on board one of WinAir’s 18-seater Twin Otters. They can only use small aircraft on the route. I guess a 747 would end up dangling over the runway’s edge. Now I’m not a nervous flier and I’m used to small planes but I admit I experienced a momentary heartbeat-skip as the plane started what appeared to be a heading towards the sheer cliff face. Then, just in time, the plane shifted right for a climb along the short runway.
Once we’d landed (and had resisted the urge to applaud the skilled pilot’s efforts) we disembarked. The first sign that I saw told me that I was in a little piece of the Netherlands. The word vreemdelingendienst was printed at the immigration checkpoint. It translates as aliens. The entire airport was possibly smaller than the duty free shop at St Maarten. During that 12-minute flight, I had travelled to a different world.
It was the fastest border control I’d encountered. One minute later I was on the way out of the airport. There was a short queue at the small café counter, called ‘The Flight Deck.’ Their staff appeared to be lovingly cooking everything to order and not even a sandwich appeared pre-prepared. Can you imagine that at Heathrow? Saba had a different pace. This was an airport where they have all the time in the world. Nice. I decided to get some breakfast when I reached the town.
The island is the smallest in the Caribbean but it’s so mountainous that I suspect if you flattened it out, the landmass would be bigger than the whole of Holland. There are two main settlements both descriptively named. The main administrative centre was at the base of a valley. It was called The Bottom.
I had decided to stay at the more elevated commercial centre. It was called Windwardside. I was starting to regret not bringing my kite. There were no cabbies touting for trade at the airport so I stepped outside. Walking around the side of the airport drop-off point, I glanced down to a small wharf alongside the dark blue ocean a few hundred feet below.
Turning around, I peered up towards the densely forested volcanic peak behind. Opposite me, on a roundabout there was a sign announcing where I had landed. “Welcome to the Unspoiled Queen.”
“Do you need a taxi?” A friendly voice brought me back to reality. I turned around to see the smiling face of a 50-something woman. She was motioning towards her parked car. I climbed into the front passenger seat and began my journey to my hotel with ‘Lollipop’ acting as my driver and impromptu tour guide. As she navigated the narrow winding lane, we chatted about life on the island. I wanted to know about all the practicalities. How do locals get water? There’s a desalination plant. Do they speak Dutch? They are taught it in school, but everyone uses English. I also heard that medical care was good, especially as the island had now become part of the Netherlands. Islanders voted in a referendum for the abolition of the former Netherlands Antilles. A country had been erased! Good for democracy but bad news for stamp collectors.
Lollipop explained that a deal had been struck with Colombia for more specialist medical treatment. If you had a condition that required treatment, you’d be sent there or to Holland.
Lollipop had left Saba to receive care for a serious condition but, thankfully, she was okay now. Her smiling eyes suddenly filled with tears and her voice cracked as she told me how she was so worried that her overseas travel for treatment could have meant that she would not see her island again. She clearly loved Saba with every bone in her body.
The car continued on its long, steep climb to the main settlement. “How did you get your nickname?” I asked Lollipop, in an attempt to lighten the mood, “Well, since a little girl I have always looked after older people,” she replied, “and one lady said that I was so sweet, I was like a lollipop.” I could see how the name stuck.
First impressions count. I liked Lollipop. And I liked what I had seen of Saba during my ten-minute ride. As the taxi continued along the steep road, rising hundreds of feet from the ocean, following twists and turns and traversing sharp switchbacks, the difference with Saba struck me. The island was so well-kempt. Blooming flowers spilled out of the hedgerows adding bright reds, pinks and a dash of white to the verdant green foliage.
As we passed through small hamlets with interesting names like Zion’s Hill and Hell’s Gate there was no sign of the potholes or piles of rubbish rotting on the roadside which blight the appearance of many Caribbean islands. The road was smooth, its retaining walls were neat and well-pointed and all the homes that I passed appeared looked after and very much loved.
Saba’s white, wooden cottages are beautiful in themselves. They’re small, often single-story because all the building materials have to be hauled up the steep slopes from the water’s edge. The authorities encourage islanders to maintain their distinctive shuttered windows and their pretty red-corrugated roofs. From a distance the houses burst out of the lush, dark green undergrowth like red berries on a holly bush.
I realised that I had been in the taxi for almost 15 minutes and I had not put my seatbelt on. As I fumbled around, trying to fasten the buckle, Lollipop intervened. “Look down there.” She pointed down the steep hillside to the road below. “They tell us not to wear seatbelts because if you have an accident here, its likely that you’ll go over the side and you’ve more chance of getting out of your wrecked car when you’re not strapped in,” she said.
The road we had travelled along laced along the side of the mountain, hemmed in and bolstered by the thick supporting wall. It was a feat of engineering, almost like the Great Wall of China. Later in my trip I learned that an islander, Josephus Hassell, built part of the round-the-island route, ‘the road which they said could not be built.’ He took a distance-learning course in engineering and proved them all wrong. I expect that his services were greatly in demand after that.
We left the stunning sea views behind as the road passed inland and we turned into Windwardside, a community cradled in a bowl-like dip between the mountains. We passed a church, some shops and a school. And then, in front of me was my hotel, Scout’s Place. It was an unusual name, particularly as its owners were Wolfgang and Barbara. 15 years ago when they bought the business as a dive lodge they kept the original name.
I stepped out of the car and waved off Lollipop – again the Saba difference dawned on me. Some Caribbean places are ramshackle or noisy. Not here. Saba had a sense of order. The neatly presented, well decorated cafes and coffee shops, the greenery and the cooler altitude temperatures that made this feel like the Alps, not the Antilles. It also reminded me a little of the North Devon town of Lynton, perched high on the wooded hillside.
Scout’s Place, my home for two nights, was built along the quiet lane that ran around the rim of the level plateau on which most of the small town was built. The seaward side of the hotel featured an expanse of wooden decking, extending the drinking and dining area outside. It offered stunning views, as the hill on which Scout’s Place was built sloped down the valley towards the sea, maybe a mile in the distance. The Caribbean glistened in the morning sunshine as I looked down across the red roofs and white cottages. And on three sides of my view the dense, tropical forest cloaked the rising peaks. The hotel was perfectly situated for strolling to the main town’s bars, shops and cafes, literally minutes away.
I climbed the stairs to the open-air first floor balcony and found my room on the corner. Heavy wooden window shutters acted as blackout blinds to blot out the bright Caribbean sunshine and keep the room cool. And they also ensured that the hotel was “in keeping” with the neighbouring homes. My room was decorated in tropical colours with a cooling tiled floor. It was clean and spacious.
I opened the shutter and walked across the room to open the windows on the opposite, street side. The cool air breezed through. I immediately got a feeling that both the hotel and island were very safe. And that’s not something I have felt about everywhere in the region. You could easily while away an afternoon at Scout’s Place. The large swimming pool appeared inviting for a swim or just a session on the adjacent sun loungers laid around the deck. And what a view from the bar! It was a stylish place to socialise, designed around dark woods with red glass lightshades and pillar-box red cushions providing a splash of colour.
The owner, Wolfgang Tooten, strode over to me and introduced himself. Wolfgang trained as a chef but soon discovered diving. He gained teaching qualifications in the sport and decided that he wanted to pursue his passion to make a living. He worked in the Philippines and had never considered Saba but he fell in love with what he experienced above and below the water. “Saba offers some of the best diving in the world,” Wolfgang told me. “And there’s only three dive licences, so it isn’t over-run with people,” he added. He made an offer on the hotel and quickly rejuvenated the business, undertaking major renovations to repair the damage caused by a hurricane.
Wolfgang and Barbara fell in love with the island. “It’s friendly, like being in a neighbourhood in Cologne,” he said. Wolfgang has put the Scout’s Place Bar at the centre of local life. I’d heard that their karaoke night, ‘Sabaoke’ was the must-attend event each Friday. “We once had a senator from the former Antilles government perform,” Wolfgang told me with some pride.
The island has a medical school and the weekly singing session offers the students a release from the pressure of their studies. Students come from all over the world. Recently an American lad who had worked as a backing singer for the country performer Josh Grobin had wowed the Friday night crowd. I was looking forward to tomorrow night’s session. “It gets bigger each year,” Wolfgang told me. “And now we’ve added Saba Idol too!”
Wolfgang was called away and hunger pangs hit me. You can often judge a hotel on the quality of its breakfast. What was described as a continental breakfast was in fact a mini feast of pastries, fruit, breads and cheese. It is not often that you get served good cheese in the Caribbean. Too often it’s the chewy and orange-hued American plastic. But the slices of Gouda on my plate underlined Saba’s strong Dutch connection. The coffee I was sipping was definitely of Dutch descent too. Strong but full-bodied and not the bitter blend that Americans prefer – the sort that you normally get in the Caribbean, but luckily not in Saba!
Behind me, I heard a familiar voice. Lollipop. She’d called in to order Scout’s Place’s special ‘Johnny’ cakes, hot from the kitchen. They’re not sweet, they’re savoury and this Caribbean speciality is quite hard to describe. The outside has the texture and appearance of a brioche roll. But when you bite into the bread, its soft and doughy, like a cross between a crepe and a doughnut but with a hint of soda bread. Johnny cakes are baked or fried. Mine was delicious. I didn’t dare ask how it was cooked. I hoped that it had been baked, the amazing taste suggested otherwise.
Now with quite a few calories to burn off, it was time to discover more of this distinctly different Caribbean destination.
Getting to Saba:
First, fly to St Maarten/St Martin. You can fly direct from Paris using Air France or Amsterdam on KLM. There’s more choice from the USA, with direct flights from a number of major cities including New York, Chicago, Washington, Miami and Philadelphia. Canadians can fly direct from Toronto.
When you get to St Maarten you’ll find a clean, modern, spacious airport. Take the short WinAir flight to Saba, the adjacent island.
You can find more about Scout’s Place and how to book on their website.