Saba

This tiny Dutch island Saba, pronounced 'Say-bah', rises out of the sea, green and lush. It is the smallest of the three Netherlands Antilles in the Leewards group, and despite some development it is still deserving of its official title, the 'Unspoiled Queen'. An extinct volcano, its peak is aptly named Mount Scenery. Underwater, the landscape is equally spectacular and divers treasure the marine park, noted for its 'virginity'. When not under water, visitors find walking rewarding. Ancient trails weave their way around the island, the most stunning being the 1,064 irregular steps up Mount Scenery through different types of tropical vegetation according to altitude. Lodging is expensive, in small, friendly hotels, guesthouses and cottages, where you won't need a key - there is no crime.

Getting there

From Sint Maarten, Saba is 20 minutes by air or 1½ hours by sea. Saba claims to have the world's shortest commercial airport runway (400 m). Large aircraft cannot be accommodated. Planes do not land in bad weather in case they skid off the end. Sit up front behind the pilots for an excellent view of Saba when landing. On windy days the boat crossing can be very rough.

Getting around

There are no buses on the island but you can hire a jeep or car. It is about 1½ hour's hike from the airport up to Windwardside, through different scenery, vegetation and climate. There are taxis at the airport and a few others around the island. They can be hired for tours (US$40) and the drivers are knowledgeable guides.

Sights

There are four picture-book villages on Saba, connected by a single spectacular 10.5-km road which begins at the airport and ends at the pier. The road itself is a feat of engineering, designed and built in the 1940s by Josephus Lambert Hassell (1906-1983), who studied road construction by correspondence course after Dutch engineers said it was impossible to build a road on Saba. From the airport, the road rises to
Hell's Gate
and then on through banana plantations to
Windwardside
, where most of the hotels and shops are situated. There is a small museum, a bank and post office.
Lambee's Place
, originally the home of Josephus Lambert Hassell, has been redeveloped into a little shopping precinct. The
Harry L Johnson Museum
, was once a sea captain's house, built in 1840 and a typical, tiny, four-room Saban house on one floor. It is now filled with antique furniture and family memorabilia. The kitchen is in its original state. Croquet is played on Sunday afternoon in the museum grounds.

The road goes on past Kate's Hill, Peter Simon's Hill and Big Rendezvous to
St John's
, where the schools are, and which has a wonderful view of St Eustatius, then climbs over the mountain and drops down to
The Bottom
, the island's seat of government, with a population of 350 which doubles when the students are in residence
at the Medical University. The Bottom is on a plateau, 245 m above the sea. It can be hot, as there is little breeze. The 1935 Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church has a magnificent mural around the altar by Heleen Cornet incorporating local plants, architecture and children. The pretty 1919 Wesleyan Holiness Church is being restored after hurricane damage. The
Major Osmar Ralph Simmons Museum
, is in a two-storey family home heading towards The Ladder, diagonally opposite the Every Home for the Aged. The Major was a police officer for 40 years, who collected furniture and domestic artefacts. His widow, Carmen, is the curator. Leaving The Bottom, the road descends to
Fort Bay
, where cruise ships, yachts and the ferry from St Maarten arrive at the 85-m pier. Dive shops and the Marine Conservation Office are here. All houses on the island are painted white with red roofs and most have green outlines on the shutters. Heleen Cornet's
book,
Saban Cottages
, gives watercolour portraits and information on some interesting
houses. A walk around Windwardside will give a good idea of the traditional way of life, the houses walled in with a small neat garden, and the family burial plot in the yard.

Activities


Diving

The waters around Saba became a marine park in 1987 and 30 permanent mooring buoys have been provided for dive boats (less than half of which are for big boats). The park includes waters from the highwater mark down to 60 m all the way around the island. Spearfishing is prohibited (except for Sabans, free diving in certain areas), as is the removal of coral or shells (Sabans are limited to 20 conches per person a year without the use of scuba). Saba has no permanent beaches so diving and snorkelling are from boats, mostly along the calmer south and west coasts.

The west coast from
Tent Bay
to
Ladder Bay
, together with
Man of War shoals
,
Diamond Rock
and the sea offshore comprise the main dive sites, where anchoring and fishing are prohibited. From Ladder Bay to Torrens Point is an all-purpose recreational zone which includes Saba's only beach at
Well's Bay
, a pebbly stretch of coast with shallow water for swimming and areas for diving, fishing and boat anchorage. The beach comes and goes with the seasons and ocean currents but when it is there it is scenic and good for snorkelling. The concrete road ends here but there are no facilities, so take your own refreshments and arrange for a taxi to pick you up later. Another anchorage is west of Fort Bay. East of Fort Bay along the south, east and north coast all the way to Torrens Point is a multiple-use zone where fishing and diving are permitted. Torrens Point is a snorkeller's favourite with an alley through the rocks and a tunnel for divers. Some of the most-visited dive sites are
Third Encounter
,
Outer Limits
, Diamond Rock and Man of War.
Tent Reef
is also a favourite.
Ladder Labyrinth
is a dive site which is good for snorkelling.

Dive operators collect the mandatory visitor fees to help maintain the park which is now self-financing. The
Marine Park Office
, www.sabapark.org, is at Fort Bay
. The
Guide to the Saba Marine Park
, by Tom Van't Hof, published by the Saba Conservation Foundation, is highly recommended, available at dive shops, the museum and souvenir shops, US$15. There are many dive sites of 27-30 m; if you are doing three dives a day you must follow your dive tables and stay within your limit. It is recommended that you take every fourth day off and rest or go hiking. Summer visibility is 23-30 m with water temperatures of about 30°C, while winter visibility increases to 38 m and water temperatures fall to 24°C.

Not much fishing is done in these waters, so there is a wide range of sizes and varieties of fish to be seen. Tarpon and barracuda of up to 2.5 m are common, as are giant sea turtles. From January to April humpback whales pass by on their migration south and can be encountered by divers, while in the winter dive boats are often accompanied by schools of porpoises. Smaller, tropical fish are not in short supply, and, together with bright red, orange, yellow and purple giant tube sponges and different coloured coral, are a photographer's delight. Divers are not allowed to feed the fish as it has been proved to alter fish behaviour and encourage the aggressive species.

Hiking

Before the road was built people got about Saba by donkey or on foot, and there are still numerous steep trails and stone steps linking villages which make strenuous, yet satisfying, walking. The
Saba Conservation Foundation
preserves and marks trails for those who like a challenge and for those who prefer a gentle stroll. All of them are accessible from the road and many can be done without a guide. However, they are all on private land and you are requested not to stray off the tracks.

The most spectacular hike is probably the one from Windwardside up 1064 steps of varying sizes and intervals to the crest of
Mount Scenery
, best done on a clear day otherwise you end up in the clouds. It is a hard slog, 1½ hours each way, but a road goes part of the way up if you want to avoid the steps from Windwardside to Rendezvous. The summit has now been cleared (
Cable & Wireless
have built a telecommunications tower there by helicopter drops) and there is a spectacular view down to Windwardside and the surrounding isles if it is not cloudy. Take a sweater and waterproof jacket, it can be very rough and slippery after rain. There are lots of birds, lizards, snakes and land crabs, and the botanical changes are noticeable as you climb. There is also a five-hour walk through a variety of ecosystems circling Mount Scenery. Starting from Windwardside, walk up the road to Upper Hell's Gate, then take the Sandy Cruz trail to the banana plantation. Proceed on the Sandy Cruz trail extension to Troy Hill, where you meet the road which takes you to The Bottom. A short walk up the road out of The Bottom towards Windwardside brings you to the start of the Crispeen Track, which is followed back to Windwardside.

A very nice lookout point is from
Booby Hill
, up the 66 terraced steps to the Booby Hill Peak.
The Ladder
is a long path of stone steps from the shore up to The Bottom, up which all provisions used to be hauled from boats before the road was built. For the
Sulphur Mine
take the
Sandy Cruz Trail
. Walk for about 20 minutes until you get to a sign for a turning to the right on the
All Too Far Trail
leading down to the remains of the old mines and the cliffs of the north coast, with splendid scenery. There is a shorter route starting in Lower Hell's Gate following part of the
North Coast Trail
. Mining was discontinued in 1915 and the Sulphur Mining Company donated the land to the SCF for a national park, which now covers 43 ha (100 acres). It is possible to carry on along the north coast to
Mary's Point
and Wells Bay. However, the SCF does not recommend you go far along this old path as several people have got lost. You are advised to take a guide. There are magnificent views of the northern coastal cliffs, but there is a danger of rock falls set off by feral goats which may be above you.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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