I’m at the highest mountain in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. But I’m not in Europe. And my plane has just successfully completed one of the scariest landings in the world. You might have seen it on one of those Discovery Channel programmes. Welcome to the tiny island of Saba, home to 1,800 people in the northern part of the Caribbean.
That plane landing was an incredible experience. In the last few seconds we appeared to be aiming straight at a steep cliff wall of brown volcanic rock. Then we suddenly veered left onto the short, steep runway, just 400 metres long. It’s better than any rollercoaster ride I’ve been on!
The official signs at this tiny airport are in English and Dutch and portraits of their royals are on the walls. Saba is as Dutch as Delft and as much a part of Holland as The Hague. The red, white and blue horizontal bands of the Netherlands flag flutters on all the flagpoles.
Outside the terminal, I approached the only cab driver waiting for passengers disembarking the 16-seater Twin Otter aircraft. Lollipop is the most cheerful cabbie I’ve ever met. Apparently she was given that nickname because she’s so sweet to old folk.
As I looked in awe at the imposing, towering mountain above, I realised how much Saba looks like a child’s drawing of a volcano – a triangular, green cone rising 2,910 feet above sea level. And as Lollipop’s cab zig-zagged up the steep roads, the words of Saba’s national anthem made sense. She sang me the chorus of “Saba you rise from the ocean.”
As I peered nervously over the sheer drops beside the twisting, winding, cliff-hugging road, I wondered out loud why Saba is the only developed destination I’ve visited where you don’t have to use a seatbelt. “It’s not a must. It’s safer to drive without,” explained Lollipop. “If you fall over the edge and the seatbelt locks, you don’t have a chance to jump out.”
Lolliop told me that power steering made a big difference to driving on the island’s roads when it was introduced! The road, which ribbons alongside the steep mountain, is supported by huge retaining walls in places. As it stretches into the distance it resembles the Great Wall of China. Later, I admired the view with Director of Tourism, Glenn Holm.
Sabans are proud of this feat of engineering. “The Dutch sent us engineers to build a road but they returned to Holland and said it was not possible because of the steepness,” said Glenn. “So a local, Josephus Lambert Hassell, took a correspondence course and learned engineering. He proved it could be done. It took 20 years to build and was constructed by hand, using picks and shovels. It’s concrete and one of the best kept roads in the Caribbean.” I suggested that Mr Hassell was in demand after that. “I’m sure he was,” Glenn laughed. I was also pleased to hear that traffic lights and street lamps haven’t been introduced. In Saba you can stargaze and your view isn’t spoiled by light pollution.
The island is a mix of Northern European order and Caribbean colour. Driving seems safe and motorists are courteous. A sign on one hairpin bend advises you to ‘blow your horn.’ Another sign outside a shop in the capital offers a space for ‘common sense parking.’
It’s also spotlessly clean, unlike many Caribbean islands. Windwardside, where most shops and bars are, lies in a basin beneath the green mountain peak and it has the uniform neatness of the Alps, rather than the Antilles. You’ll notice how Saba’s distinctive white painted, wooden cottages appear to be in pristine condition. Most have red corrugated iron roofs and green shutters and are often hemmed in by neat, white picket fences containing flower-filled gardens. Lollipop told me that, ”Every day our roads are properly swept. Every year people wash their houses down with bleach. The roofs have to be painted red. We’re brought up that way.”
Ryan Espersen manages Saba’s Archaeology Centre. He explained that islanders think first appearances are important. “There’s a cultural pride Sabans have – more so than other islands. You’ll take pride in the appearance of your house even if it means going without bread.”
As well as being spotless, Saba feels very, very secure. You won’t be hassled by touts or have to worry about pickpockets here. “It’s not scary. You can walk anywhere you want and it’s bug free,” laughed Lollipop. She was right. The communities are higher up the mountain and not at sea level like much of the Caribbean. That means no mosquitos.
There are no real beaches on Saba, but that didn’t seem to matter. Glenn drove me to view the waves breaking hard on Saba’s northwest coast. We were having trouble speaking, the sound of the pounding ocean was so loud. “This is called Wandering Beach,” he hollered, “because the swell moves the sand around.”
The lack of beaches means Saba doesn’t appeal to sun worshippers. “It’s a blessing,” shouted Glenn. “It means that Saba has not been overdeveloped. Some days there are just fifty visitors here.” Tourism is low key, discrete and you’ll find personal service offered by genuinely friendly locals. It’s also a gay-friendly destination.
Those tourists who come to Saba have two choices. Relax, wander and chat – or get active and immerse yourself in the landscape. As we looked out to sea, we could see two surfers riding the massive waves. Behind us were 200ft high red rock cliffs while opposite was a similarly sized triangular rock that appeared to be painted brilliant white. “The seabirds nest there. It’s bird poo that makes it white,” Glenn told me.
There’s good nature watching available here, particularly beneath the waves. Saba’s waters have been protected since 1987 when the marine park was created. They strictly enforce a spearfishing and shore diving ban. There are approved dive operators who can help divers enjoy the impressive underwater volcanic landscape. “We have pinnacles – islands that never formed – where you have to dive down 40 feet to get to the top,” explained Glenn. “You get to see all the big pelagics, sharks and turtles and fish that you would not normally see on a Caribbean island.”
Luis Fonseca discovered Saba when he was presenting a TV show on the Caribbean fifteen years ago. He’s relocated from Venezuela, where he had owned a dive school, to launch freediving lessons here. “Freediving is diving while holding your breath,” Luis told me. “You’re free from heavy equipment. It’s the purest way to be underwater, the way our ancestors used to dive for food. To comfortably dive town to 25 metres, you have to educate your mind about yourself and your connection with the water.”
Luis chose Saba because it’s known for its wildlife. He says freedivers enjoy a more respectful interaction with turtles, dolphins, sharks and fish. “They’ll get closer to you because there are no bubbles to disturb them.” You can find out about Luis’ courses at SabaFreediving.com.
If you’d rather spend your time above the water, there are plenty of self-guided walking trails. Island Estate Agent and jewellery designer Mark Johnson returned to the island in his mid-20s and says Saba offers peace and solitude for walkers who want it. “You can take a hike and not see anyone for three hours. I’ve been to national parks where there are crowds in front of you and behind you all talking. Not here,” he told me proudly. If you’ve got the stamina, you could climb the 2,910ft volcano. It’s well named – Mount Scenery.
Both Lollipop and local restaurateur Courteny Hassell told me that the view is stunning, although Lollipop confided that she’d only made the ascent twice. It takes 90 minutes to get up the 1,064 steps or you can cheat and cab it to the mountain road, which shaves off 274 of those steps.
Local man James Johnson offers walks and guided hikes, mixed with wildlife spotting. He’s interested in the medicinal qualities of plants and says he’s learnt a lot from his relatives and forefathers’ wisdom. Before refrigeration was introduced, islanders salted meat to preserve it. That practice can raise blood pressure so Sabans used to consume leaves of the cecropia tree, because it’s thought to counteract the effects of salt. You can learn more about local herbs on James’ medicinal walks.
And there’s a lot growing here. As walkers scale the volcano’s peak, they will pass through a number of different climatic zones. “We have a mahogany forest up there. We have palm trees and as you descend, the vegetation changes. By the coast you have an eco system where you see different species of cactus growing into the rock,” said James.
James also offers a food foraging walk and fruit grows in abundance. “We have a rare fruit called a mammy apple, which can be seven inches in diameter and weigh 4lbs. It’s orange inside and it looks like a cross between a peach and an apple. People make pies with them, with pastry and brown sugar,” he explained. “We also have mango, oranges and if you hike up the mountain right now you’ll see a tree yellow with lemons.” Saba is just a massive fruit bowl.
You can book James through the Marine Park, the conservation agency that protects the underwater areas of scientific interest. His two suggested walks offer very different experiences. “It’s more topical on the Santa Cruz trail while the North Coast walk crosses historical sites and has more ocean views. On that trail you can see the village, which was abandoned in 1934 because of cliff erosion.”
Glenn told me that his mother was forced to relocate when the order came to leave Mary’s Point. “My mother’s family decided that they’d move to Zion’s Hill village. They dismantled their home, took it to the ocean and floated it around the island. They reassembled it piece by piece at Zion’s Hill,” said Glenn before adding, “The house is still standing.”
I was intrigued by Saba’s history. The superb infrastructure is what you would expect to find in Europe and it came as no surprise that this enclave was treated as part of the Netherlands. Saba has changed hands a few times. It was French-owned for 14 years and Britain was in control for 18 years, but its longest connection is with Holland, having been Dutch for 345 years.
Renee Caderius van Veen has relocated from the Netherlands and set up a museum detailing the story of Saba’s Dutch connection. All of his artefacts have been imported from his home country and are displayed inside his house. They range from 17th century books to a vast array of traditional blue and white tiles. “I discovered I had a lot of lacework that I inherited. There’s Chinese porcelain too,” he said. So Renee decided to put on a permanent display.
Just around the corner is the Saba Museum, a beautifully restored wooden cottage with rooms made up like the early settlers’ homes. The kitchen contains a huge Dutch oven and the bedroom’s impressive four-poster bed features a really high mattress. You’d need a ladder to get into it. “They would put storage under beds as they had very little space,” explained the curator, Jennifer.
The first settlers came from Zeeland via the neighbouring Caribbean island of Statia in 1640. They gained woodworking skills from Barbadians and used the plentiful supply of mahogany trees to craft into furniture. That’s why the old pictures of the island show little foliage.
Jennifer came back to Saba from the USA to see her family for a holiday and decided not to return to the States. “This is where my roots are and I love it,” she told me proudly. Like many islanders, Jennifer can trace her family history back to the first settlers. “My father is a Johnson, my mum was a Hassell and my grandmother was a Simmonds. It’s a large family tree,” she told me.
Jennifer explained that some surnames are still connected with the island’s hamlets. Before the impressive road was built, many locals never saw the other side of the island, incredible considering there’s just five square miles of land. “Some people were born, lived and passed away in Hell’s Gate and never saw the Windwardside, ten-minutes drive away,” said Jennifer.
Saba’s excellent museum is open year round except Mondays.
You won’t find duty free shops or cheap tourist traps on Saba. If you want souvenirs you can buy handicrafts and gifts made entirely on the island. Take a cab down to the leafy capital. It’s down a steep hill from Windwardside so they named it The Bottom. Saba’s Artisan Foundation is there. I met Jamila who told me that it acts as a showcase for local crafts, selling bags, silkscreen printed shirts and lace.
It’s worth wandering around The Bottom. It’s a tiny village really. It won’t take long. Check out the cobbled lanes, the old church and enjoy outdoor dining in café’s and bistros. They offer high quality, European, deli-style menus and it’s very affordable.
If you want a unique Saban gift, head back up the hill. Jewellery maker Mark Johnson’s gallery The Jewel Cottage is in a beautifully decorated Victorian villa in Windwardside. Mark enjoys the finer things in life and Saba’s proximity to St Martin, home of the Caribbean’s second busiest airport, means supplies of quality produce are assured. Saba is a foodie heaven. “On Saba right now you can have a great curry, or get buffalo mozzarella and superb olive oil.” Mark told me. “We have access to great products – wines and cheeses from all over the world. You can get everything that you need to make an incredible meal.”
Courtney Hassell wanted to return to her home island after she completed her degree in Holland. So she created The Hideaway, a cool café bar and colourful Caribbean restaurant in Windwardside. Courtney and her partner Camilo are both in their twenties so they’ve added some hip touches. You’re encouraged to sign your name and write comments on the wall. It’s friendly, modern and unpretentious. And Camilo makes a mean margarita!
Their seafood is really special. “We just got in some fresh mahi and we sell red snapper, wahoo – whatever we can get our hands on. We either do it blackened, grilled or fried. It changes in a number of ways,” she said. I’d recommend Courtney’s delicious lobster roll. The meat melted in my mouth like butter.
As well as local food, Saba has its own liqueur, which you can buy widely on the island. Locals have their own secret family recipes for Saba Spice. Lolliop told me that it’s an after dinner drink, rather than a drink like beer. Her husband makes it using his mum’s recipe and the mix is passed down through the generations, so his daughter now knows the secret. The herbs needed are grown locally, but it does contain ginger, fennel and brown sugar. “He uses 151-proof rum as the base, which reduces to 70% when cooked,” Lollipop told me. Courtney also had a family recipe. “My grandmother used to make it. I have memories of her cooking it in the kitchen and that strong smell of fennel. It’s quite smooth,” she added.
Now when you’ve had some Dutch courage (see what I did there?) you might want to enter the big weekly event at one of Windwardside’s hotels. Barbara and Wolfgang Tooten moved from Cologne to Saba to start a dive school. They bought Scout’s Place, which was named after its former owner. It’s a friendly, clean, comfortable place to stay. It boasts a large pool and offers good food served in a stylish restaurant and a bar that’s the hub of local life.
Each Friday night, dozens of islanders turn out for ‘Sabaoke.’ Wolfgang stated this singing contest fifteen years ago. And even though Saba is a small island, there’s plenty of talent here because of the medical school, which has around 500 students of 50 different nationalities. Recently one of the backing singers for US singer Josh Groban was a student there. He quickly became a Sabaoke star.
“It’s a little different to karaoke because we have more good singers and not just people getting drunk on stage,” laughed Wolfgang. “Most people who sing here are actually really good.” I went along. The atmosphere was very friendly and the crowd was encouraging and supportive. Locals will talk to you and seem to want to ensure you’re having fun.
If you love a party, the big island event of the year is the Carnival on the last weekend in July. Sabans studying overseas return for the weeklong celebration, which includes nightly events. Visitors are asked to vote for the best calypso song and the winner is chosen for the procession.
I really enjoyed Saba. It’s unique. There’s nowhere else in the Caribbean with such a comfortable climate, jaw dropping scenery and picture-perfect villages. If you like partying, malls and casinos, it’s not for you. But if you want to unwind, wander around and enjoy conversations and great cuisine, you might want to consider the Caribbean’s unspoilt queen.
To get there from the UK you’ll need to get to the Caribbean’s international flight hub airport on the island of St Martins. Fly direct from Paris or Amsterdam then catch the fifteen-minute WinAir service from St Martins to Saba. It is worth it.