A solitary main road winds its way across the island from northeast to southwest. Aptly named The Road, it links four diminutive towns that the modest population of approximately 2,000 people call home. The formidable coastline features jagged boulders and choppy jade waters. Because on this rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, there’s not a hint of the eggshell-colored sand and calm cerulean seas that lure tens of millions of people to the Caribbean every year. Indeed, this is a different brand of paradise. Unblemished by commercial pursuits and untouched by mass tourism, Saba has earned the right to call itself the Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean. This first timer’s guide to Saba tells you what you need to know to make the most of your time on the island.
Where is Saba?
A volcanic pinnacle rising 2,910 ft above sea level, Saba is a Caribbean island that is also a municipality of the Netherlands – the smallest municipality to be exact. A mere 47 km away from St. Maarten and 52 km from St. Barthelemy, the island’s exact coordinates are 17°38′N 63°15′W.
How do you get to Saba?
There are two options available for those visiting this slightly isolated island: float or fly. Either way, you’ll have to brave some extreme conditions to get there.
Winair operates 4 flights daily between St. Maarten and Saba. Flying time is a mere 15 minutes but landing at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport can be scary for some people. With just 400m of runway before the tarmac gives way to the ocean, Saba has the world’s shortest commercial runway. While I found our abrupt landing and takeoff quite exhilarating, others have described it as nerve-wracking. Consider yourself warned.
Pro tip: If you’re already apprehensive about flying avoid this option.
Two ferries service the sea bridge between St. Maarten and Saba. Both The Edge and Dawn II depart once daily from St. Maarten on alternating days, with a 5 hour turnaround time before they depart from Saba. The Atlantic Ocean doesn’t usually facilitate smooth sailing so the approximately 1.5 hr journey can be unforgiving.
Pro Tips: Don’t take the ferry if you’re prone to seasickness. Don’t use this option if you’re doing a day trip because you won’t have enough time to truly experience Saba.
What’s Saba like?
As I mentioned earlier, Saba offers a different version of paradise. A version that delivers an experience so pure, so unpretentious, so peaceable that you can’t help but fall for its unassuming charm.
Saba is the kind of place where secrets can’t be kept and strangers can’t exist. A pleasant side effect of a small population occupying an equally small piece of real estate. It’s a place where cute cottage homes are dressed up with fairytale-like shutters and dainty replica mailboxes. Where tiny roads morphe into tiny lanes that lead you unexpectedly into someone’s tiny backyard. Where doors are never locked and windows are always open because, as any resident will tell you “there is no crime here”.
Saba is the place where you can fall off the grid yet still take care of business thanks to that one establishment that offers a legion of services, from PO box and printing to home insurance and DVD rentals. Heck, Saba is a place that, in 2019, people still rent DVDs. And I love it!
When night falls, there’s no loud music, no boisterous laughter, no vehicular traffic to pierce the sound of silence. The only noises penetrating the darkness come from the wind and nocturnal creatures. This level of low key may not be for everyone, but it worked for me.
Where to stay in Saba?
Quaint B&B’s, luxurious resorts and palatial villas are all a part of Saba’s room stock. However, a rigorous process of elimination led me to Juliana’s Hotel in Windwardside. Perched on a hill that gifts almost every room with a panoramic ocean view, Juliana’s is the epitome of idyllic. Designed in Saba’s iconic gingerbread house architecture, the hotel has all the subtle charm of a bed and breakfast along with the modern minimalism of a chic boutique hotel. Top that off with the vibrant mural by local artist Heleen Cornet, in my room, the Mango Suite; and the hospitality of the hotel manager, Wim, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a pleasurable stay.
It’s within walking distance of everything from the hiking trails and dive shop to several grocery stores and practically every restaurant in the village (including Juliana’s very own Tropics Cafe), making it incredibly convenient for a short or long stay.
What to do in Saba?
Saba is small. Saba is quiet. Saba may not have a bustling nightlife. But the island still has a whole lot to offer. If you’re into fresh air and lush greenery; friendly people and well-preserved history; underwater adventures and delicious cuisine…you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Visiting Saba and not hiking is commensurate to visiting Paris and not catching a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. An eco-tourism haven with 520 species of plants and 60 species of birds, Saba has a dozen trails crisscrossing the island and it would be bordering on blasphemous not to tread along at least one of them. The options range from Tide Pool’s “easy” to The Ladder’s “strenuous” so there’s something for everyone!
Recommendation: If you want to go for gold hike the Mt. Scenery Stairway. Rated “moderate-strenuous” this hike is 1.5 hrs one way and it takes you to the highest point on the island, and all of the Netherlands, which is pretty cool.
One of the most pristine marine habitats in the world exists just meters off of Saba’s rugged coastline. Dive sites comprising towering corals and sprawling seamounts are teeming with over 150 species of fish, 5 species of shark, along with turtles, conchs, lobsters and a variety of crabs. The enforcement of fishing restrictions and the landscape’s limitations for coastal development have resulted in an unspoiled and well preserved underwater playground that endears Saba to many divers.
Recommendation: If you want an amazing dive experience with a knowledgeable guide, go with Sea Saba. From first contact via email to the actual dive, everyone I engaged with was professional, informative and friendly.
Like most small islanders, Sabans are extremely proud and doubly knowledgeable about their home. As long as you’re out and about, you’re bound to stumble upon an interesting historical fact or two. Whether it’s your affable taxi driver noting that the road you’re driving on was actually constructed by hand; or the knowledgeable curator of the Saba Museum, giving you a full rundown on Saban lace industry…be open to each conversation. Take the opportunity to ask more questions and learn as much as you can about this unique gem.
Saba’s dining scene is quite impressive. You can hardly take two steps without encountering a restaurant or patisserie, and the meals I sampled during my brief stay were all delicious. In fact, dinner at Chez Bubba was the best meal I had on all three of the islands I visited on this trip. Both the fish and pork were prepared to perfection, the coconut rice was delectable and even their vegetables (which I’m usually not fond of) was an explosion of flavor. Breakfast at Tropics Cafe also served up yummy Saban french toast and perfectly scrambled eggs while even a quick takeaway meal of quesadillas from the Cantina turned out to be a culinary treat.
Recommendation: Have dinner al fresco on Chez Bubba’s open deck and ask the friendly waiter for a tour of their very impressive wine room.
While devouring a good book isn’t a bad idea, I’m actually talking about the signs. Saba’s signage game is strong and you will come across many entertaining ones. From their hilarious conch weather forecast to the airport’s adorable “Kiss and Ride” sign that subtly nudges drivers to drop off their passengers and move on, the island is chocked full of signs that are bound to make you chuckle!
The opportunity to exist in a space with so few distractions is rare. When nature’s soundtrack is the only ambient noises you’re likely to hear, one of the best things you can do is sit (or stand) perfectly still…close your eyes…and just be. Listen to the birds chirping, the wind blowing, the waves crashing. Pay attention to the sound of your breathing, the beating of your heart and thoughts buried deep within. It may sound cliched or contrived but it is such a relaxing experience to be silent and still and truly engrossed in nothing but Mother Nature and yourself.
Sometimes, a destination’s charm lies as much in the elements it lacks as the attributes it possesses. Saba is one such destination. It’s demonstrated restraint against infrastructural development and its reverence toward the environment makes it one of the few Caribbean islands that can still justifiably call themselves “unspoiled”. If Saba isn’t already on your radar, it should be (click here to read more on why). And if it is on your bucket list, you need to lock in some dates, book your trip and finally see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed!