A towering shadow rising steep from the flat surface of the Caribbean Sea, Saba is just the top of an underwater mountainous formation, a steep and lush dormant volcano that hardly has a patch of level ground in all its extension. Measuring five square miles, The Rock, as it is called among locals, is visible from just about anywhere in the northeast corner of the atoll, and might well be the biggest little adventure in the Caribbean. Distant and recondite, no one and nothing ever makes it to Saba by coincidence!
To get to Saba you will need to hop onboard the charming 14-seater operated by Winair, the only airline licensed to land on the island. For those used to island-hopping in the region the short flight in the small propeller engine Twin-Otter will seem nothing out of the ordinary. But the tale behind the construction of the airport is emblematic of the determination of Sabans. Bar the exception of a seasonal strip of sand at Well’s Bay, Saba has no beaches, nor did it have a proper harbor until docking facilities were built in Fort Bay in the 1970s. Hence, for centuries the only way to get to the island or import any goods was through lighters that transported the cargo from the ships safely moored far from the coast to Fort Bay or Ladder Bay, both of them spots punished by hard seas on the calmest of days. Then came Rémy de Haenen, a true pioneer who in the late 1940s had operated his own airline, the Compagnie Aerienne Antillaise, and who for years used his Kingfisher flying boat to deliver the post to Saba. Sabans turned to de Haenen to survey the island for a suitable spot for an airport and he in turn asked them to clear Flat Point as best they could. On February 9, 1959 he landed his Stinson L-13 Grasshopper on little more than 300 feet of land—it was the first sprout of what eventually came to be Juancho Yrausquin airport, the smallest, and likely the most sublime commercial airfield in the world. Reputedly a conservative pilot, de Haenen never again landed on Saba—but the islanders had proven their point, and by the time the airport was ready, in 1963, Winair had already long contracted the services of José “Le Pipe” Dormoy, the pilot who for years would serve as bridge between Saba and civilization.
Not that civilization is one of Saba’s distinctive traits. Hiking trails, on the other hand, are, and the gem of them all is the route that climbs to the peak of Mount Scenery, the volcano that at 2,877 feet (877 meters) marks the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Not your conventional hiking path, the way to the top of Mount Scenery consists of 1064 steps that have been carved into the rain forest from Windwardside, the island’s largest urban center. Often a long walk—approximately two hours—the rustic trail meanders through a largely unspoiled rainforest, offering a number of alternative endpoints such as Maskehorne Hill, from which stunning views of the village of Windwardside and the islands of St. Barths and St. Eustatius are readily available. As the way becomes steeper, true rainforest vegetation dominates the landscapes with gigantic ferns and elephant ears reaching over from all sides and lianas hanging low from the treetops. However, it is the last 200 feet or so of climbing that bears the largest rewards, as visitors enter the Elfin Forest with hugely tall mahogany trees and epiphytic plants attached to them, offering an outlandish and altogether otherworldly scenery. This section of the trail is particularly toiling as the steps become slippery, the soil muddy and the breathing harder, but it is only just one final thrust to the summit and, on a good day, the most flabbergasting view of the surrounding area will be awaiting.
Curiously, the steps that these days trace Saba’s most popular hiking trail used to be the only form of communication available to islanders before The Road, the only one there is, was built, stone by stone, blow by blow, by locals alone over the course of more than 20 years. Sabans first requested the Dutch authorities to look into the possibility of building a road in the 1930s, but the central government sent a commission that promptly came to the conclusion that the gradient of the mountain was too steep to make a road feasible. After 300 years of treading on the same steps, the local councillor, Josephus Lambert Hassell, refused to let things be and, instead, took a correspondence course in engineering. Led by this man, Sabans rolled up their sleeves, disregarded the judgment of reason and resolved to build the road by themselves.
The first leg of The Road was built between 1939 and 1943, and it led from Fort Bay to The Bottom. Sabans would spend the best part of the next 20 years following the example set by their local councillor, carving the mountain with no machinery at all, simply picks and shovels, to allow the new communication system to reach the other settlements on the island: Windwardside, Hell’s Gate and finally Flat Point. An absolutely idyllic, if also dangerous bit of driving, The Road seems taken out of the most recondite Alpine scenery and placed whimsically in the middle of the Caribbean, among giant ferns, dramatically hand-chiseled boulders and vertiginous cliffs that fall directly onto the deep blue ocean. Until the building of The Road, everything brought into the island had to be physically carried by people or, after 1923, when the first one was imported, using donkeys, up the 800 carved stone steps from Ladder Bay or from Fort Bay to The Bottom, the administrative center of the island. Though the first stretch of The Road was finished in 1943, the first car—a Jeep—did not make it to Saba before 1947, and it was not until 1961 that The Road reached the area by the airport.
Interestingly, the inauguration of Juancho Yranquin airport at Flat Point in 1963 brought more than just a touch of modernity: it actually inverted the natural development of the island’s settlements. These days, as you drive up from the airport the first town you encounter is what used to be the last outpost of human presence on Saba, Hell’s Gate—a small group of houses high on the hill with a stunning view of the airport and the neighboring islands of Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barths, St. Eustatius and Nevis that is increasingly becoming a popular place among tourists. Meanwhile, Windwardside has become the most important hub of activity on the island, taking over from the administrative capital at The Bottom. Entrenched in the lush creeks of Mount Scenery, Windwardside might not be a cosmopolitan city, but it is an absolutely staggering village, punctuated by the red roofs of its traditional cottages, all uniformly painted in white with green shutters. Immaculately clean and caringly maintained, Windwardside perfectly embodies the attitude of modern Sabans, who remain as proud of their homeland and their history as they are intrigued by (and aware of) visitors. A walk around town takes you through a charming cemetery and eventually lands you by the statue of Simon Bolivar, which commemorates the Liberator’s passage through the island in April, 1816, on his way to the final campaign in Venezuela’s war of independence. It also takes you through a couple of attractive bars and a number of outstanding dining options.
And yet, none of this constitutes Saba’s main attraction: being the steep mountain that it is, Saba falls sharply into the ocean, quickly reaching over 650 feet (200 meters) of submarine depth. Thus, the island’s true unique selling point is its marine life. Reputed for its ecological approach and its sustainable policy, the perimeter around Saba is part of a marine natural park set up in 1987 following the example of Bonaire to preserve and manage the island’s resources. Particularly of note are the pinnacles: submerged mountain tops sister to the island’s Mount Scenery, they start at about 90 feet deep and reach all the way to over 1,000 feet underwater, featuring some of the most exciting sightings you will ever come up with, from brightly colorful colonies of sponges to copious schools of fish of all sizes, including rare and endangered groupers, and, sometimes, even sharks.
Nevertheless, the diving experience is Saba is not limited to the pinnacles. Its striking volcanic wall provides one of the most fascinating diving experiences not only in the Caribbean, but in the world, featuring outstanding lava formations, including tunnels and springs with tubular and elephant ear sponges that attract all kinds of tropical creatures, from the highly popular turtles to a variety of rays. Additionally, Saba’s shallow sites boast a combination of sandy bottoms and rocky foundations which are home to one of the world’s most pristine coral reefs.
Enjoying in full the two sides of Saba requires more than just a short stay of one or two days, given that diving and hiking are necessarily incompatible. Because though seemingly minute, Saba’s history, biodiversity, beauty and potential are expansive, like a piece of paper tightly crumpled into a fist—once you start undoing the foldings Saba will surprise you.
Taken from three separate pieces published by Experience St Martin between 2010 and 2012.