Saba Travel Guide
Date Visited: May 2015
Saba is completely unique, totally unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. If you ever have the chance to visit this amazing island you should.
Along with Bonaire and St. Eustatius (Statia), Saba is part of the Caribbean Netherlands. The island is small with a land area of just 13 square kilometres and a population of 1,991 inhabitants. The capital and largest city is ‘The Bottom’.
Saba is located northwest of the Dutch territory of St. Eustatius (Statia) and southwest of Sint Maarten/ Saint Martin (Dutch/ French), St. Barths (French) and Anguilla (British)
The island is essentially a volcano, rising up dramatically out of the Caribbean sea. At 887 metres, the peak of the volcano – Mount Scenery – is the highest point within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The volcano is classified as ‘potentially active’.
The small population of the island consists of settlers from a variety of countries, including Dutch, English, Scottish, Irish and African.
Like neighbouring Statia, both English and Dutch are spoken on the island and both languages are official, however the everyday language is English. Education is in English.
Columbus sighted Saba on his 2nd voyage to the Americas in 1493, however he did not land as he was deterred by the rocky, perilous shoreline.
It wasn’t until the 1630’s, that the Dutch Governor of neighbouring Statia sent several Dutch families to colonise the island for the Dutch West India Company.
Due to it’s rugged landscape, the island is a natural fortress, and as such was used as a private sanctuary for the families of smugglers and pirates. In 1664, English pirates, including Thomas Morgan, evicted the Dutch settlers to neighbouring Saint Martin for refusing to swear allegiance to the English crown.
The Dutch returned and in the 17th and 18th century used the island to produce sugar and rum with a small population of slaves. Over the years the island has been controlled by the British, French and the Dutch. The Dutch have now held continuous control since 1816.
Saba bills itself as the “The Unspoiled Queen” of the Caribbean. Today tourism is the main industry, with about 25,000 visitors each year. Ecotourism is the main draw with hiking and diving the main activities.
Windwardside is the second largest town (population: 418) on the island. It gets its name from being on the windward side of the island.
It’s a cute, quiet town where all the buildings are painted with the same uniform colours. There’s no hustle and bustle, no traffic as most people walk and everyone seems to know everyone else. It’s a great base from which to explore the island.
Windwardside is the tourist centre on the island, where you will find a good selection of accommodation, restaurants, cafes, supermarkets etc. Its perched high up on the slopes of Mount Scenery with spectacular views in every direction of the Caribbean sea far below. The summit of Mount Scenery looms large above the town.
One ‘must-see’ site in town is the Harry L. Johnson museum. Housed in a former sea captains cottage (one of the first built on the island), the museum provides an insight into life on the island for the earlier generation of Sabans.
Through photos and informative displays, you’ll get an appreciation for how tough life was on the island. The caretaker of the museum – Jennifer – will happily provide you with a guided tour during which she’ll bring to life the history and stories of Saba. Highly recommended!
If you are in town on a Thursday, you can visit the Eugenius centre to watch elderly Saban ladies make Saba Lace. Lace making was once introduced to the island by a nun from Venezuela.
Around the Island
This is the capital and largest town on the island and depending on which hiking trail you choose you could end up here after one of your hikes. The town is very quiet, with some chickens and goats roaming the streets. It is home to the Saba Medical school, government offices, a few restaurants, shops, etc.
There are many fine hiking trails on the island, some of which start in Windwardside. Before you hike you should visit the Trail Shop Saba, which is located in downtown Windwardside at the foot of the Mt. Scenery Trail. The friendly, enthusiastic staff will provide you with maps, information, tips and a whistle.
A scenic hike is the Sandy Cruz trail (150 minutes one way), which links the settlement of Upper Hells’ Gate with The Bottom. The hike takes you through orchards, cloud forest and secondary rain forest, offering spectacular views of the coast and neighbouring islands such as Sint Maarten, Statia, St. Kitts and Nevis.
If you are looking for the typical Caribbean island with sandy beaches and palm trees then Saba is not the island for you. There are no beaches on the island, except for a small patch of sand, which has been installed next to the airport.
Saba is known for it’s unique pinnacle dive sites, created when magma pushed up through the seafloor creating underwater towers of rock which soar up to around 26-m beneath the surface. Due to the unique underwater seascapes, diving on Saba is a unique experience.
There are 4 dive operators on the island. I chose to dive with Sea Saba, who i would recommend. They have an office in downtown Windwardside and provide transport to the port. Dives sites are a short distance from the port.
Currents can be strong but you are rewarded with abundant marine life and spectacular underwater scenery.
Jo Bean Glass Art Studio
For something different, you could enroll in a half-day glass bead making class, run by the bubbly and infectious Jo Bean. Jo will take you through the process and then set you up with a torch and lots of thin rods of coloured glass so you can create your own works of art. If you don’t have time for the class you can always purchase something from her shop.
Jo is a native of the United States who has been a long-term resident on Saba. Her studio is located a short walk outside of Windwardside on Booby Hill. Highly recommended.
Accommodation on the island is limited, its best to book in advance using an online agent such as booking.com
Most accommodation is in Windwardside. I stayed in the centre of town at Juliana’s Hotel, which I would recommend. A hummingbird was nesting right outside my room.
Many ex-pats have settled on Saba and some of them have opened restaurants and cafes. There is a good range of restaurants in Windwardside, from fine dining to simple BBQ.
Located in the downtown shopping area is my favourite cafe, the Bizzy B Bakery. Their freshly baked bread is amazing as are the pastries, sandwiches and coffee. There is a nice outdoor seating area offering great views of Mount Scenery.
The best BBQ on the island can be found downtown, opposite the Big Rock market at Swinging Doors. You enter this simple restaurant through the swinging saloon doors where you’ll be served the tastiest BBQ on the island. This is the restaurant that locals enthusiastically recommend – everything about this place is awesome.
Some nationalities require visas for Saba – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
Scary and exciting all at the same time! Saba’s airport is ranked as one of the worlds most dangerous.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport has the shortest commercial runway in the world at 400-m long. At the end of the runway are cliffs that plunge into the sea. On one side of the airport is a towering mountain. A most unlikely location for an airport but the only suitable location on this volcanic rock.
Only experienced Winair pilots can land here using special planes, STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing). When you land you only break once. When you take off you only start climbing once you have flown off the end of the runway. No room for errors at this airport.
The airport is located at Flat Point, the only flat area on the island. The idea of an airport here was considered by many to be fanciful, including the government. However a determined Captain Remy F. de Haenen (from neighboring St. Barths) assured the locals he would attempt a landing if they constructed a makeshift runway. And so, in February 1959, after the locals cleared the land by hand and graded it, he landed his small plane. His bravery and determination changed the island forever more.
Only one airline flies to this unique destination:
- Winair – service to Sint Maarten/ Saint Martin
A ferry service connects Saba with Sint Maarten/ Saint Martin three times a week. The 45-km journey takes one and a half hours. The service is operated by Saba Transport using the vessel Dawn II.
Check their website for current schedules and fares.
Saba has one main road, The Road, which consists of 16-km of narrow, windy, twisting, steep paved surface. Owing to the terrain, Dutch and Swiss engineers claimed a road was impossible to build on the island.
One local man, Josephus Lambert Hassellman, believed a road could be built. He took a correspondence course in engineering and, with the help of locals, started building a road across the island. It took 20 years to complete, mostly by hand.
There is no public transport on the island, however a few taxis are available. The drivers are a great source of information on island life, providing free guided tours as you travel and all the latest island gossip.
There are four car rental agencies on the island but hiring a car on such a small island is hard to justify. The island is compact enough and quiet enough that walking is the preferred option.
Around every corner is another amazing view.
Author: Darren McLean
Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.