Saba, an Island Packed With Character(s)

A volcanic peak pierces the clouds, while striking pinnacles lie below the sea. With one tiny road and one tiny runway, this one tiny island makes a big impression on Sascha Zuger.

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The island of Saba in the Caribbean. Photo © Getty Images / John Hancock Photography

Getting to Saba, a Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles, is a two-part process. After landing at Princess Juliana International Airport in Sint Maarten, about 30mi (48km) away, I stroll to the adjacent Sunset Beach Bar to await my next flight. A plane approaches and the beach (famous for its extraordinary proximity to low-flying aircraft about to land at the adjacent runway) comes to life. Loungers leap to their feet to line up below the entrance to the runway, unconsciously raising their arms in worship to the massive, roaring craft skimming above their heads. Little did I know that would be the second-most impressive airport experience of the day.

A memorable Saban welcome

The island hopper to Saba might be pricier than the ferry, but soaring over the islands, dotting the sea with their crayon-box array of blues and light greens, is an excursion in itself. A fellow passenger, the island’s head-turning young doctor, points down at a little peninsula as we near.

“First visit? We’ll be landing there,” he says. I nod, eyes widening. “But the runway doesn’t look straight?” I say. “That’s the road,” he says, then points down on his side of the plane, “That’s the runway.” I lean over and laugh in disbelief. A short, flat platform sits atop the sea – very short. I’ve parked my car closer at the grocery store. The little rooftop is not a fishing shack, but Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport. We’ll be landing with less distance than one lap around a jogging track. It’s the only time in all my travels I consider applauding a landing.

A hillside village on Saba. Image credit: Getty Images / Oliver Benn

An instant family

The doctor notices Glenn, the island’s Director of Tourism, waiting at the terminal to pick someone up. He introduces us – my induction into the family of Saba. Everyone here runs into everyone else multiple times a day. By choosing to share the island’s beauty, travelers insert themselves into the population of 1,800 and will be waved to, called by name, and welcomed as a member of the clan.

Glenn offers me a ride, but I have a cab coming. “Donna’s outside,” both men say. “How did you know my driver?” I ask. “Donna is the cab,” says Glenn, “Though she doesn’t drive at night.” My mouth must have dropped, as the doctor offers, “But we just got an Uber! He does drive at night.”

Cottage life in Windwardside

Donna, my cab driver, cheerfully offers a guided tour as we wind our way along the island’s sole cliff road to my accommodation. The volcanic island has had a tumultuous past – fights between shipwrecked Englishmen, Dutchmen, native Amerindians, and famous pirates like Henry Morgan mark its history, though trouble is now as dormant as the island’s eruptions. The “Unspoiled Queen” even scared away Columbus with its jagged coast. With most of the men becoming sailors, the women became strong and independent in their absence, running farms, maintaining the island, and creating necessities and textiles like the famous Saban lace.

Donna invites me to join her daughter and the “ladies who lace” at their weekly sewing circle at Kakona Saba, a local initiative in Windwardside. Women of ages 14 to 92 gather to share lace patterns and the latest gossip.

Traditional buildings in Windwardside. Image credit: Getty Images / Michael Runkel

The hills are dotted with charming white cottages with gingerbread trim and red tile roofs. Flowers spill from yards onto the roadside, spiking the air with a heady scent. Donna pulls into Compass Cottage, my airy and inviting home for the week. It’s Dutch perfection, precisely efficient, with a wraparound porch and swaying palms on the pool deck overlooking the sea and the distant island of St. Eustatius. It’s utter serenity, broken only by the soft bleating of baby miniature goats rustling through the hillside jungle.

Mark, my temporary landlord, stops in with coffee, cheese, and wine. As many here do, he pairs this multi-generational family business with his true passion as an upscale jewelry designer who travels the world during the rainy season collecting rare gems and stones – and occasionally handsome partners – to inspire his next collection. (His exquisite pieces are on show at historic Jewel Cottage in Windwardside.)

On Donna’s advice, I stroll up the hill to Jobean Chamber’s glass-blowing and bead shop for a workshop in the meditative art. I find myself sneaking off to the studio to chat and for mesmerizing sessions behind melting Venetian glass throughout my stay.

Diving into activities on Saba

While parking poolside with a book is tempting, I’m more enticed by Saba’s legendary pinnacles and wall diving. (In lieu of beach time, landlubbers can trek to the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ highest point, accompanied by famous local guide Crocodile James, who happily machetes his way up Mt. Scenery, sharing info on botanicals and inappropriate island tales in equal measure.)

I opt for Sea Saba, a PADI Resort and Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Field Station. Co-founder Lynn also started, with Johanna of Juliana’s, the annual Sea & Learn on Saba program.

Diving with a school of goatfish. Image credit: Getty Images / Brandi Mueller

Lynn organizes breathtaking dives to key sites including Eye of the Needle, Third Encounter (named one of Sport Diver’s Top 10 Dive Sites), Outer Limits, and Tent Reef Wall. Horseshoe-shaped underwater mountains, deep-blue needle pinnacles, and plateaus rich with soft corals and sponges invite snappers, butterfly and damselfish to linger. But even the free-swimming chain of moray eels are trumped by sleeping nurse sharks, massive grouper, and a quick glimpse of a passing manta ray. During a safety stop, a curious Caribbean reef shark offers a quick hello, yet another Saban resident ensuring we feel at home.

Trip Notes

Getting there

The Edge, a high-speed ferry, travels from Sint Maarten to Saba Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The morning route to Saba (9am) returns in the afternoon (3.30pm) to allow for day trips. Rates: US $100 (adults) and $60 (children) roundtrip, US $65/$38 one way.

The Dawn II ferry travels from Saba to Sint Maarten Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The morning route to Sint Maarten (7am) returns in the afternoon (4.30pm). Rates: US $110 (adults) and $55 (children) roundtrip, US $55/$35 one way.

Winair offers four or more daily flights. Fares depend on date and availability (USD $83-$132).

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