As small as Saba is, the ‘unspoiled queen’ as the locals call her, the island boasts two world records.
SABA, LESSER ANTILLES, CARIBBEAN
The fourteen hundred residents of Saba (pronounced say-ba) proudly refer to their island as ‘the unspoiled queen’. As small as this ‘unspoiled queen’ is, she boasts two world records. The first is the world’s shortest commercial runway … it’s short … really short … a mere 400 metres. The second world record later.
Lonely Planet writes, “Landing at Saba’s Juancho E Yrausquin Airport is the second most thrilling activity undertaken on Saba.”
With both the pilot and co-pilot on the controls, our 20 passenger DHC-6-300 Twin Otter approached the sheer rock face which denotes one end of the runway, dropped onto the tarmac; hopped once and very quickly, hard on the brakes, stopped short of the big X at the other end of the only flat surface on Saba which then plummets to the sea swept rocks below. Lonely Planet continues by saying, “The first [most thrilling thing] is taking off.” We have two nights to regain our nerves.
Saba, an extinct volcano cone, juts up out of the Caribbean Sea to a height of 877 metres and is covered with thousands of years of fertile soil and lush forest. Saba has three directions … up, down and around. When Christopher Columbus passed it during his 1493 voyage of discovery, he found no natural harbour and therefore gave it little consideration.
Billy, one of Saba’s ten taxi drivers, drove us up to the EcoLodge drop-off point. We walked down to the Crispen Trail and after a few minutes walk arrived at the lodge’s Rainforest Restaurant where we met Tom.
Tom van’t Hof and his wife, artist, Heleen Cornet, have been living on Saba since 1986.
Tom established the marine parks on Bonaire, Curacao and Saba. With his interest in ecology and conservation of rain forests, it was a natural for them to develop Saba’s EcoLodge. EcoLodge has a great website not only featuring their accommodations but for anyone interested in Saba’s hiking trails including a great map.
Each of the 12 cottages stands alone with a private porch and ensuite bathroom. Lights are solar powered (no plugs), the composting toilets are environmental friendly and water is heated by solar panels (so have your showers between 11:00 and 18:00).
Each EcoLodge cottage is named for its decor, provided by the talents of Heleen. Our lodging for two nights was the Bird of Paradise … so named for Heleen’s painting on the wall. If you have ever imagined being shipwrecked on a tropical island and having luxuries like fine linens in a basic no frills setting … this is it. We found a golden bedspread, numerous fluffy pillows and a ‘four poster’ billowing with draped material. Turn off the solar lights, burn the candles provided, and you have the setting for a romantic fantasy.
Taking Tom’s advice, we took a taxi to the Upper Hell’s Gate start point for the Sandy Cruz trail. If we were to do but one trail on Saba, Tom said, the Sandy Cruz trail offers the most varied and interesting hike on the island; traversing well-developed dry forests, rainforests and steep ravines with ocean views along the way. The estimated time to complete the route to the Troy Hill trailhead would be three and a half hours. Terry could have easily done it in that time … but having Sherrie along and stopping for photos … it took longer. Ah, but there were so many sights along the way to marvel at.
During some sections, it was like walking through a botanical greenhouse … heliconia (locals call them wild plantain) which is a member of the banana family; bananas (not farmed but wild); fuchsia; black eyed Suzy, a native from South Africa and now Saba’s national flower; wild raspberries; wild lemons, elephant ear philodendron, lacy fern trees, coconut palms, white Amazon lilies which look like a cross between an orchid and a daffodil; and so much more … it was really breathtaking … and so was the heat and the steepness of some climbs.
Hiking boots, not flipflops, are designed for such challenges as Saba’s trails and we were glad for ours.
Towards the end of the trail there was a section of rainforest which looked as though a giant had gone through with a super-duper weed-wacker. The ‘giant’ was mother nature herself and the weed-wacker was hurricane Omar leaving a swath of palms and other plants lying flat against the hillside.
When we emerged from the Sandy Cruz trail at Troy Hill trailhead (near where the Bottom Mountain trail begins) we were overlooking The Bottom, Saba’s capital.
After cooling down and cleaning up back at our cottage, we went into the town of Windwardside and had dinner at the Saba Treasure. Greg Johnson is the island-born owner. “I’m seventh generation; descended from pirates,” he said with a rascal’s twinkle in his eye, “well, my forefathers weren’t really pirates, they were buccaneers, which are gentlemen pirates.”
The word pirate is derived from a Greek word implicitly meaning ‘to find luck on the sea’; so perhaps anyone who found beautiful Saba and made it their home, could be termed a pirate.
Pizza’s are their specialty and we were not there long before the waitress told someone, “Sorry, all out of large size.” Shortly afterwards, “sorry, we only have small left”.
The Saba Treasure is suitably decorated in a nautical theme including family photos. One by our table was of Captain Ernest Alfred Johnson. We asked Greg about him.
“His sea tale is a good one,” Greg said. Greg told us of how Captain Johnson was on the SS Atlanthus just after World War I, when he woke from a vision. He was so adamant in the reality of his vision that he was able to convince others to take the ship off course. In doing so the SS Atlanthus came across a partially sunk submarine off the Delaware coast . After considerable time and effort the crew of the SS Atlanthus was able to rescue the sub’s crew. Captain Johnson efforts were commemorated in Washington DC.
We had been warned before we left Ecolodge, that we would need flashlights because once the sun went down we would not be able to find our way back in the blackness. Our flashlight was most helpful in shaded areas … but for much of the way, the nearly full moon was enough to light the trail.
The chatter of tree frogs and other night creatures grew loud as we lit the candles and settled into our charming surroundings … temperature just right … no mosquitoes.
We could hear a morning rain shower make it’s way, like a flat edged lawn sprinkler, across the forest’s broad leafs and then metre by metre across our cottage roof. There wasn’t any hurry this morning. We had breakfast in the Rainforest Restaurant while we watched a purple-throated Carib hummingbird protect its territory.
Although small, for a hummingbird it is large (approx 11cm) and beautifully coloured … mostly black with emerald green wings and tail and an iridescent deep ruby coloured throat and breast. It’s long black bill curves downwards. It had a favourite perch from which it aggressively chased intruders and kept us entertained.
After breakfast we took a turn through their vegetable garden, which helps keep the family and the restaurant in fresh food, and then returned to our cottage.
This is a nice quiet retreat to just ‘hang out’. Each cottage has a private porch outfitted with chairs, a coffee table and a hammock. Some have a miniature hot tub; Tom had shown us how to turn on the propane heater if we wanted, but Sherrie was content to dangle her feet in the cool water (even though there is a dip-pool nearby).
It was mid afternoon, before we became energetic enough to walk the Crispen Trail down to Windwardside and have a look around Saba’s second largest town.
Most buildings on Saba are built in the typical West Indian style … white wooden facades, green shutters, bright red sloping roofs with a white ridge board and facias (often enhanced with small gingerbread carvings). Each home also has a cistern either beside or on the ground floor in which rain water is collected. “Is it mandatory to build in this style?” we asked one of the locals.
“No,” he answered, “we just like it and take pride in the way our town looks.” How beautiful it was … neat, tidy and a pleasure to walk around.
We dropped back into Saba Treasure for a cool drink at the bar and sat alongside a fellow who looked like a pirate. He’s been on the island for five years, he told us, doing some cabinet making and as little else as he can manage. We ordered a Heineken beer … which brings us to Saba’s second world record.
Saba consumes more Heineken beer per capita than anywhere else in the world. “Tourists help out a lot with that number,” the bartender justified, popping the cap off another and handing it to the local ferry captain (an Alberta transplant). Locals continued dropping in for a quick drink, usually a Heineken which comes in a little 250ml just-the-right-size bottle, or take-out food orders.
We continued to walk. Folks here are friendly; if we didn’t start a conversation, they did. Graveyards showed headstones with only a few different last names. “Only about 5 original names,” one lady smiled, “and by now we are all related.”
Before the grocery store closed we picked up some water and something for an early breakfast tomorrow before leaving for the airport at 06:00. As former realtors we had always joked that the ideal place to have an office would be in the local grocery store because whenever we went to the store we spent so much time speaking to clients … past, present and future. Here in Windwardside one realtor had done just that … moved his desk into the store and set up business between the coolers and the checkout counter.
For dinner we decided to pick up some barbeque at the Swinging Doors. Island born Ed was on an upper level outside turning pieces of chicken and slabs of ribs on the barbeque while his wife, Pat, tended bar. “Have been here 20 years,” she told us.
“Oh, so you’re considered an islander now?”
“No, you’re never an islander unless you were born here,” she explained in a voice resigned in acceptance of local feelings. With a warm smile she greeting people coming through the swinging (western movie style) doors. Each person greeted her warmly and she knew most of their names. If she wasn’t considered an islander, it seemed certain that she was a welcome addition to the population.
The Swinging Doors was a popular place … the food good, beers cold, prices right. “Hi, Jeff,” she said to a twenty-something and turned to pick up his take-out order from a stack beside the cash register. “Jeff’s from Canada too,” she said by way of introduction.
Saba’s population is recorded at around 1400 but locals claim that 900 are islanders and around 500 are students studying at the island’s medical college. Jeff’s one of those students. “It’s hard to get licensed in Canada with a degree from here, but not impossible,” he told us. “It’s not always possible to get into a Canadian University for a medical degree. About 60% of the students here are from Canada; many of the others are from India.” It was clear he was passionate about becoming a doctor and just as passionate about wanting to practice in Canada.
We took a taxi back to the drop-off point for EcoLodge and walked by moonlight and headlamp back to our cottage where we had dinner by candlelight and packed for our early morning getaway … via Saba’s oh-so-short runway.
Billy was waiting for us on the road at 6:30 as agreed and drove us down to the airport.
The plane taxied the short distance to where one X marks the spot and turned. Hard on the brakes, the engines revved and screaming; the plane literally danced on the spot. With the brakes released, like a slingshot we bolted down the runway, off the end, dipped slightly, then climbed above the rocks below and took to the skies … invigorating!
We were off to St Martin for a change of planes and then on to St. Kitts.