The trip to Saba gets interesting before you even set foot on its soil. Its tiny airport sits on a plateau between a jagged coastline and sharply rising cliffs on the north side of the island, where the winds often howl. The runway is the shortest commercial one in the world at 1,312 feet and is completely incapable of handling anything larger than a 15- or 20-seat intra-island plane (for comparison, Denver has the longest commercial runway in the US at 16,000 feet). This makes for a landing you won’t forget.
This arrival sets the tone for a visit that will bust through all the Caribbean stereotypes you’ve been harboring. This Dutch municipality, just east of the Virgin Islands and just north of St. Kitts, is only five square miles in total size and has a population under 2,000. It’s a volcanic rock that rises straight up from the sea with a summit that has a knack for collecting clouds. The island has only one natural beach, usable only half the year due to the strong currents that rush right up to the base of its tall sea cliffs.
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Visiting a minuscule Caribbean Island without beaches might sound limiting, but the small size, short runway, absence of beaches and lack of infrastructure is exactly what earns Saba its nickname of the “Unspoiled Queen”. As far as the cruise industry is concerned, this is not a proper destination for mass tourism; the tiny island has been left alone, free to be authentically itself. This translates to hiking trails so infrequently used that they’re lightly overgrown by grass, as well as thriving, healthy coral reefs just offshore.
|Where to Stay
The walkability of the island complements the hotel scene and creates a rare opportunity for visitors to hike from one hotel to the other. This doesn’t mean walking down a road — it’s a real route via trails that connect three very different properties in three very different locations on the island. A potential route: spend the night at the locally run Juliana’s Hotel or the prison-turned-hotel Scout’s Place in the town of Windwardside, then hike one hour into the rainforest and check in to a cottage at the Rainforest Ecolodge. The next day, continue on the trail for another hour to the island’s capital, The Bottom, for a night at the luxurious Queen’s Garden Resort, the crown jewel of the island that overlooks The Bottom from its perch on the mountain, offering suite-style accommodations, an on-site spa and a bed-and-breakfast atmosphere cultivated by the hotel’s owners, Claire and Hiddy. This novel hotel-to-hotel hike is contingent upon the fact that you travel with a backpack, of course, as jungles and rolling suitcases don’t mix.
|Where to Eat
As you might expect from a Caribbean island, seafood is Saba’s main culinary offering, and your best bet when looking for a fresh meal is to order fish. Almost all of the other food products, including the fruits and veggies, are imported from other nearby islands. That said, for a tiny island, Saba does have some impressive restaurants. For killer views, West Indies-inspired cuisine and an endless wine list, try the restaurant at the Queen’s Garden Resort. The Bizzy B Bakery in Windwardside is a local favorite for homemade breads, pastries and sandwiches (it has no official website). Local seafood is served at Brigadoon, and the Deep End Restaurant is a nice pre- and post-dive hang out, serving seaside breakfast and lunch (it also has no website). To chat with other divers and hikers over a few beers, pop into Swinging Doors in Windwardside. To mingle with Sabans, check out karaoke night at Scout’s Place, or better yet, make your way over to the Flight Deck at the airport, which, believe it or not, is the local hangout. The bar there is very modest, serving beer and basic mixed drinks, but it is filled with characters and is without question the place where you will get the most interaction with residents.
|What to Do
The island is comprised of two villages that serve as the main hubs. The capital, known as The Bottom, is home to government buildings, a hospital and the medical school, but you shouldn’t be fooled by the name: The Bottom is not at the bottom of the island or even at sea level. It’s actually positioned in a valley, surrounded by hills. The theory goes that “The Bottom” comes from the town’s original name, De Botte, which translates from Dutch to mean “The Bowl”, a name given in reference to the village’s position. The other major village, Windwardside, is perched on the cliffs above the eastern side of the island. The village wears a uniform of red roofs, white walls and green accents and houses the majority of the island’s accommodations and dive shops. Speaking of which: pull up a chair at any bar or restaurant on the island and you’ll without question run into someone who has come to explore the surrounding waters. Saba is best known for its soft coral — sea fan coral and other “waving” organisms on the ocean floor — that flourishes thanks to favorable currents and the lack of mass tourism, the latter of which keeps the reefs healthy and undisturbed. A dramatic drop-off along the coastline means most of the beginner spots (40 to 60 feet) are a few hundred yards from shore. Sea Saba Advanced Dive Center has daily outings, including night dives. Above the waterline, Saba’s volcanic nature makes your boots more valuable than your flip flops. Before The Road was built, the locals on Saba traveled between villages via hiking trails that traverse the rocky landscape and pass through small clusters of rainforest. The trails connect Saba so well that, in theory, you could land at the airport and set out by foot to anywhere on the island. The Mount Scenery Trail will take you into the forest, then straight up a set of natural stairs to the highest peak on the still-active volcano Mount Scenery, topping out at 2,910 feet and often encircled by clouds. Bring an extra layer and stop in at the Trail Shop in Windwardside for updates on conditions as temperatures can be significantly cooler at the top. For a slightly easier climb with equally good rewards, Maskehorne Hill is a 20-minute, modest uphill walk from Windwardside. The lookout provides sweeping views of the valley, the village and the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis in the distance. For a more extreme adventure, hire a guide to take you on the North Coast Trail. The Crispeen Trail provides views of a half dozen neighboring islands and a look at “Old World” Saba in the small village of St. John’s. Saba may not have much to offer in the way of beaches, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sneak in a swim. A man-made swimming hole and beach park is located adjacent to the airport, and Well’s Bay, the island’s only natural beach, comes and goes with the tides. Check in with locals upon arrival to see about its condition.
Because of its small size, Saba is indeed a place where 72 hours is an ideal amount of time needed to explore the island (those who are specifically on a dive trip and spending most of their time offshore may find a longer stay appropriate). Since flying to the Caribbean for a long weekend isn’t practical for most people, the majority of Saba’s visitors come from other islands in the form of a side trip. Saba is a 12-minute flight from St. Maarten, and the connecting point for travelers coming from islands in the Lesser Antilles, including Anguilla, St. Thomas, St. Kitts, Nevis and St. Barths. There is also a ferry to Saba from St. Maarten.