Saba, known as "The Unspoiled Queen" due to the protection of its unique ecosystem, is a 13 sq km (5 sq mi) volcanic island in the Leeward Antilles. Since it is not a reef island, it does not have the sandy beaches most notable in the Caribbean, but rather mostly cliff faces and rocky shore. The island, however, attracts tourists for its diverse and vibrant ecosystem and the unique diving experiences (pinnacle diving, wall diving, etc).
The population of Saba is 1,424 people spread into four major villages, and includes the 200-300 medical students attending the Saba University of Medicine. The medical school houses a hyperbaric chamber, which coincides nicely with Saba's extensive diving draw.
Politically, Saba is a "special municipality" fully integrated in the Netherlands proper.
It is said that Christopher Columbus sighted Saba on his trans-Atlantic voyage, but did not land due to the rocky shores. The island was colonized in 1640 when a group from the Dutch West India Company were sent in from neighboring Sint Eustatius. In 1664 these settlers were evicted by the notorious buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan. This is one of the few times that the rough terrain of Saba was successfully invaded. The Netherlands finally took over in 1816, and that is how it remains today.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Saba was a haven to pirates throughout the Caribbean. Most notably, Hiriam Breaks took residence in Saba, who coined "Dead Men Tell No Tales."
Sugar and rum were Saba's chief exports through the 18th century, as well as fishing (particularly lobster fishing) later. Once trade routes became more open, Saban Lace (a derivative of Spanish Lace) became very popular. By 1928 the women of Saba were exporting $15,000 (USD) worth of lace yearly.
For a long time the only way in and out of Saba was through treacherous Ladder Bay. The Ladder is a long series of rock steps that have a near vertical grade. Finally in the 20th century, a self-educated local engineer took interest in connecting the villages of Saba with a road, which had previously been deemed impossible by engineers before him.
There are four small villages on Saba.
- The Bottom is the largest and is the capital of the island.
- Windwardside – the second largest village and home to most of the shopping and tourist attractions in Saba. The regular sea breeze usually renders air-conditioning unnecessary, and makes it a nice choice for accommodation. Located between Hell's Gate and St. John's.
- Hell's Gate – the first village passed when traveling from the airport
- St. John's – the smallest village and largely residential. It does, however, contain both of the island's schools (primary and secondary), as well as a church and a couple eateries. It lies along the road between The Bottom and Windwardside.
Josephus Lambert Hassell was the engineer who, in 1938, designed and supervised the building of the road from Fort Bay to The Bottom. Over the next 20 years, 14 km of road was painstakingly laid by hand and wheelbarrow by locals. It is said the men of Hell's Gate put in the most effort on the project because they were the farthest removed from the bay. Of course, the addition of the airport later would turn the main arriving point of the island around.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport
Opened in 1963, Saba's airport is a 1300 feet (400 m) length of runway sitting on Saba's biggest and flattest portion of land. Many pilots rate it as the world's most dangerous airport, even though no major tragedies have occurred there. The runway is marked with a large white X at each end denoting that it is not for commercial flights. In fact, pilots needs special training to land there, and Winair is the only airline currently serving flights on the DHC-6 Twin Otter.
The danger of the airport comes from its location in relation to the island. The side by which aircraft come in is flanked by a large cliff that the plane flies directly toward before banking hard left to get in line with the runway. The airport is 60 feet above the ocean, and sheer cliff on both sides of the runway leads to those rocky depths, running the risk of airplanes over shooting the runway and falling into the ocean. A crosswind will cause airplanes to renege flights, as the rough turbulence can give even good pilots a hard time.
Travelers should know about this ahead of time, but the lack of a tragedy should put them at ease about the trip which occurs 5 times a day. The airport is the shortest international runway in the world. It has a bar, no air traffic control station, and the airport manager is known by pilots for paying close attention to every incoming flight, and if it rated as too sloppy he will most assuredly complain.
Flora, Fauna, and Ecology
Saba has a lot of different types of plant life on the island, most notably its wild orchids. An orchid researcher found 9 different types of wild orchids on the island on his initial 2 week trip in 2003 and is expecting to find many more in the future. You can't go too far without seeing these wild orchids as they grow along hiking trails, in gardens throughout the island, and even along the side of The Road.
Over 60 species of birds inhabit the island, while over 200 kinds of fish swim near its shores. All of this diversity comes from Saba's very unique ecology. The ocean surrounding the island goes from fairly shallow to very deep, pinnacles scattered throughout. A fair portion of the island is considered rain forest, and Mount Scenery gives a diverse range of climate in which living things can thrive.
Be it lizards, aphids, sea life, or otherwise, Saba offers a level of diversity that seems impossible given its extremely small size.
There are two official languages in Saba: Dutch and English, which is the predominant language.
Saba is a 15 minutes plane ride from St. Maarten's Juliana International Airport, the regions largest airport with flights to the US and Europe. Winair is the airline used to get to and from Saba, and flights occur about 5 times a day (wind permitting).
Two boats offer ferry service to and from Saba and St. Maarten: Dawn II and The Edge. Dawn II travels on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Check out www.sabactransport.com for the current schedule and rates. The Edge travels between Saba and Saint Martin Wednesday through Sunday.
Saba has one main road which was laid by hand starting in 1939 and wasn't complete until 1961. It runs from the airport to the harbor, and passes by all 4 villages of the island. Taxis can be called to travel from one town to another, and considering the treacherous nature of the road (not to mention the length), it is probably not wise to walk it.
The taxi rates from town to town are strictly regulated, so, your likelihood of being hustled is slim. 2 people with 3 bags, airport to Windwardside: $15. Windwardside to The Bottom, 2 people: $10. (prices as of 1/1/2011)
There is also a car rental place in The Bottom called Caja's Car Rental, however you might want to pay attention to how the locals drive on the road before you decide to go that route.
If you stay in Windwardside, you can walk to anywhere in Windwardside, and likewise for any of the other villages. But if you stay in one village and want to get to the next, it's probably best to just call a Taxi or get a ride in some way. Some of the grocery stores will offer delivery service to where you stay, so don't worry about not being able to carry them all back with you if you walked there (be sure to ask if they offer it before you start buying). Walking along The Road to the Bottom is not particularly pleasant, since traffic is fast and the road is narrow. A pleasant alternative, if somewhat steep, is the walking trail which leaves the Road at the Saba trail shop and meets up with it again directly uphill from the Medical School.
The people on Saba are very friendly, so hitchhiking from town to town isn't rare. Taxi drivers have even been known to pick up hitchers, not charging them for the ride if that's the direction they're going anyway.
- Mount Scenery (862 m) on Saba has the highest elevation in all of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There is a hiking trail to go up the mountain that starts just outside Windwardside. It is best to hike up in the morning as the peaks is often fogged in during the afternoon.
- Hiking Trails offer a nice view of Saba's flora and unique beauty. Some pass old ruins, some delve into caves, some go around the uninhabited side of the island, some go through the rain forest, and all offer something different. All trails are very well marked and in good condition. An excellent trail map is widely available.
- A road (not The Road) from Windwardside leads up to Booby Hill which has a few things to see. JoBean's Glass Studio is on that road, as well as a Guava tree orchard.
In the Sea
Wall Dives can be an almost humorous experience because the sea life that live along the wall may think that the wall itself is down, and orient themselves in that direction. Walls also offer lots of nooks and crannies in which sea life can live and hide, so you often see a wide variety of life on the wall.
The seabeds surrounding Saba are so diverse, that any level of diver can go there and have a good time. It doesn't matter if you're Open Water, Advanced Open Water, Nitrox, or whatever, the sea offers dives for you and the dive shops do their best to work with your wants.
Saba is one of the top destinations in the world to go Scuba diving due to its sheer underwater cliffs, pinnacles, and the multitude of diving locations surrounding the island that each offer a unique experience. The people in the local dive shops are very friendly and great at teaching inexperienced people how to dive. They can take someone without their Open Water Certification and offer them a quick course and certification to get them in the water, or they can take them all the way into getting their Open Water Certification so they can dive without an instructor present. So even if you've never gone diving before, you can get certified in Saba.
There is also a medical school on the island, attended primarily by American and Canadian students.
Every October sees a month-long event put on by Sea & Learn: a non-profit foundation sponsoring events geared toward educating attendees about the flora and fauna of Saba and the surrounding waters. Nightly talks are given at local eating establishments by scientists from around the globe who also perform participative field experiments and/or nature surveys.
The famous Saban lace, invented by Saba's industrious women (Gertrude Hassell), makes for an excellent souvenir. Cottages, villas, and houses of the sort are currently for sale on the island ranging from approximately 180,000 USD - 1.5 million USD. Living on Saba is an every day luxury for any home buyer. With almost every house on Saba you get amazing ocean and neighboring island views, views of Mt. Scenery, and spectacular views of flora and wildlife.
- Peanut Gallery, Windwardside (at Lambee's Place). Paintings, prints, ceramics by artists on Saba and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
There are grocery stores in both The Bottom and Windwardside in which travelers can pick up various snacks and food for meals if they want. Meals at restaurants run between $15 and $35 (USD) on average, so the grocery stores offer an alternative to that price.
There are a lot of Guava trees (and even an orchard or two) around the island. Locals have been known to share with visitors if asked nicely.
Groceries (including meat that isn't seafood) only comes in on Wednesday, and this leads to a few phenomenon on the island. For instance, Wednesday is the best day of the week to get red meat (from a grocery store or a restaurant) and oftentimes the locals have parties at their homes where they grill out (meeting them and being friendly ahead of time can land you an invite). Additionally, with the exception of Wednesday, seafood will be the freshest food on the island.
- Restaurant Eden is found in Windwardside behind the Sea Saba dive shop. Prices average about $25 per entree. Dinner is served 7 days a week from 5.30 til 9.30 Tables are located outside (all open air, some under a cover, others with umbrellas over the tables). The dinner menu is French with international influences. Food is great, some of the best on Saba. This restaurant must be tried if on the island. Website: http://www.edensaba.com
- Chinese Bar and Restaurant Chinese Bar and Restaurant in Windwardside is one of two Chinese restaurants on the island (the other being in The Bottom). Get to it by taking a steep road next to Brigadoon all the way up and off to the right. The restaurant can't be missed as there is a large lit sign displaying its name on top. The food is decent enough, and price is in the $12-$18 range mostly. It is run by an older Korean couple and their son.
- The Sea Witch The Sea Witch (formerly Saba Treasure) is located in Windwardside near the Sea Saba dive shop. It is said that the best pizza on the island can be found at The Sea Witch, and it's certainly good.
- Rainforest Restaurant The Rainforest Restaurant offers unique atmosphere and some of the best food on the island. Its theme is to be one with nature, and you certainly feel that way while dining in candle light surrounded by the sounds and smells of the rain forest brought in by the fresh breeze. The taxi will drop you off about 200 yards from the restaurant itself where you will have to walk the remaining distance on a path (bring a flashlight for the return trip!). The menu changes nightly because the restaurant only serves what it can get fresh that day.
- Brigadoon Every Saturday night sees Sushi Night at Brigadoon in Windwardside, and this shouldn't be missed. Reservations are needed and must be entered by about 2 PM or so of the same day. They also sell Saba Rum which is vanilla and ginger infused rum and is really spectacular. Ask them for a sample! Sit on the patio for the best atmosphere and enjoy the fresh flowers on the tables picked from Tricia's (the owner and cook's wife) garden.
- Scout's Place Scout's Place is located down the road that is next to Big Rock Importers in Windwardside. It is a Hotel, Bar, Restaurant, Dive Shop, and Boutique all wrapped into one. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and all are pretty good at a reasonable price. Breakfast pricing is about $8, lunch is about $15, and dinner is between $15 and $25 a person. Breakfast consists of a range of choices from French toast to omelets to ham and eggs. Lunch is mostly burgers and sandwiches, where dinner adds in fish and fowl. There is also Karaoke (called Sabaoke by the locals) at Scout's Place on Friday nights. The deco is pirate themed and there is an open air deck that overlooks to the South.
- Tropics Cafe Tropics Cafe is in Windwardside on a road near Scout's Place on the way to Booby Hill. It is owned by the same people that own Juliana's Hotel (located right next to Tropics), and Juliana's swimming pool is even right next to Tropics. When open, one of the walls is collapsed so that all tables overlook the sea to the South. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. Standard eggs and whatnot for breakfast, and hamburgers and other sandwiches for the rest of the day. Prices are about the same as Scout's: $8 for breakfast, $10-$15 for lunch, $15-$25 for dinner.
- Saba Coffee House. 7-7. A new addition to the island, the Saba Coffee House is a little slice of heaven for those interested in what is potentially the best espresso on the island. Small baked goods and sandwiches are sold on the premises, and dinner deals of $7 are the norm. The owners, an English expatriate and his fiancee (a Saba native) are highly affable and friendly. $1-7.
There are a few bars on the island including, Guido's, Lollipop, and Swinging doors. Again all of these places have the locals coming in at the end of the day, and its great way to absorb the local culture. Also the medical students on the island occasionally take time off from studying, so you may also meet them at the bars.
The beers in Saba are mostly Belgian and Caribbean/Mexican brews. Heineken, El Presidente, Carib, and Mackeson are the ones most common throughout.
- The Gate House. In Hell's Gate has achieved Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence since 2002. Reservations are needed.
- Swinging Doors Swinging Doors is a bar located on The Road in the middle of Windwardside. It is exclusively a bar except on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday nights: Tuesdays and Fridays are BBQ nights, Sundays are steak nights. Many locals hang out here throughout the week.
- Scout's Place is one of the most traditional places on Saba and always a good choice to stay. For divers, nature lover or businessman, Scout's Place offers an all-in-one service for everybody. Its own award-winning dive center offers daily dive trips into the Saba Marine Park, the restaurant is open daily, and the terraces offer one of the best views on the island. The hotel is cozy with nice rooms, a separate Pirate Cottage, pool, tropical patio and free wireless internet. The Friday night is legendary and a must while on Saba.
- El Momo El Momo has about 8 cottages along a hillside on the Booby Hill Road. All cottages have a good view of the ocean and some of the views are spectacular. Some have attached baths and kitchens. The breakfast room is a great place to watch the sunset for the Green Flash, and the small swimming pool is a wonderful place to cool off after a hot hike. New owners as of February 2008, so some things may change.
- Juliana's Hotel Juliana's has an intimate and informal atmosphere, Juliana’s guests can enjoy a range of comfortable accommodations; from spacious well kept rooms which feature ocean and garden views, 1 bedroom suites and more luxurious Saban styles cottages.
- Cottage Club Cottage Club is located in Windwardside down the road next to the Cemetery, taking the first left. There are 10 cottages for $65 or $85 a night (depending on the season). They look off to the North (so Saint Martin and Saint-Barthélemy can be seen on clear days), have kitchenettes with fridge and gas stove, 2 beds (queen and full), and no A/C (like most places in Saba) so windows must be left open at night to allow the cool night air in.
- Queen's Garden. Clings to a cliff above The Bottom. The suites, most with Jacuzzi, are spacious, and service is attentive. It's a bit out of the way but has a fine restaurant, and the staff will arrange taxis for tours and excursions. About $200 to $350 (plus 15% for service and tax) in season.
- Privately Owned Cottages There are quite a few privately owned cottages and houses on the island that have weekly rates throughout the year. The best way to find these places is to call the dive shops (Sea Saba, Saba Divers, and Saba Deep) who usually know about the cottages, pricing, and availability.
Saba offers a wide array of trails on which to hike, but know how good a hiker you are before choosing a trail. Some trails can be treacherous, and some hikes very difficult. If you don't go prepared to hike, stick to the easier paths. Beware of slippery moss, mud, and the occasional steep section. A walking stick is a tremendous help in making safe descents down the steep paths, particularly the trails leading to the coast.
As for street crime, Saba is one of the safest places in the world & on par with St. Barthelemy with respect to personal safety. This is mainly due to the small population on the island which is exceptionally friendly to tourists as they are a primary source of income for the island. You can walk any part of the island at day or night without having to worry about your safety.
Saba is so safe that some hotels do not have locks on their doors.
The usual safety precautions are required while diving. A hyperbaric chamber is available at the Saba National Marine Park at the Fort Bay Harbour and is maintained by the Saba Conservation Foundation.
It is not recommended to enter into the sulphur mine (specially not alone) as the high concentrations of sulphur in the air can make you unconscious within seconds and a prompt rescue would be logistically impossible.
Saba can be very windy, and the small planes of Winair cannot always deal with it depending on the direction. Check your flights leaving St. Martin, as some airlines only fly there once a week. If this is the case, planning to leave Saba a day early and spending the night in St. Martin may be a good idea. The boats can offer an alternative if planes can't make it in.