If I asked you to name a list of Caribbean islands, I doubt Saba would be at the top of your list. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it until a week ago when I saw the island on the horizon from Sint Maarten. After a bit of research, I soon knew that this place had to be added to my to list! Fast forward a week later and I’m sat by the pool in the middle of the jungle writing all about this amazing island I’m calling home for the weekend.
I’ve been based in Sint Maarten for the past 6 weeks and, as much as I love the lively nightlife and gorgeous beaches, it is undeniably very full of tourists. It welcomes multiple cruise ships each week and, combined with the array of superyachts and their crew, you don’t need to go far before finding people from the same place as you. One of the big things which attracted me to Saba (pronounced say-ba) was that it is truly off the beaten track and like a little island paradise just a short flight from Sint Maarten. If you’re wanting to see golden sand beaches and party in lively beach bars, Saba is not the place for you (but I would deffo recommend Sint Maarten if this is the case) Instead, it’s an ecotourism paradise and a true hidden gem in the Caribbean.
Part of the joy of Saba is that it is not massively accessible to tourists – in fact, you can only access the island from Sint Maarten. Sint Maarten Princess Juliana airport welcomes flights from all over America, the Caribbean and even Amsterdam and Paris and it’s from here that you can hop onto another flight to Saba. For me, the flight was one of the things which really attracted me to Saba. At just 400m long, the runway is the shortest commercial runway in the world and so can only allow for tiny 15 seater planes to land. A return ticket from Sint Maarten set me back £157 and the flight took just 15 minutes (it seemed like we’d only just entered the air before it was time to come back down again!) The flight was an experience in itself – there were no safety demos, it sounded like the plane was about to fall apart and who knows what decade it was built in but my inner adrenaline junky was loving it. Lucky for me, I had the best seat in the house right at the front so had a perfect view of the runway as we came in to land. As we flew over the breathtaking cliffs of Saba, I thought of how much it was something you’d see in a King Kong movie – funnily enough, it wasn’t until I was reading up on it after I left that I realised that Saba was the backdrop for ‘Skull Island’ in the original King Kong movie! If you do decide to fly, just remember to bring $10 cash as a departure fee when you leave.
If that description just filled you with dread, then fear not. There are frequent ferries leaving from Sint Maarten to Saba such as ‘The Edge‘ ‘Great Bay Express‘ and ‘Dawn II‘ which cost around $80-100 for a return trip. The journey takes around an hour and a half but I’ve read that the ride can be pretty choppy. Personally, the exciting landing and much smaller travel time justified the bit more money it cost to fly. Regardless of whether you’re flying or ferrying, you’ll need to bring your passport with you so that you can enter the country (and gain a cool new stamp!)
WHAT TO DO:
Saba is the smallest island in the Caribbean and, at just 5 square miles, I thought it would be a good idea to walk everywhere. As soon as I arrived at the airport, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be the case. Be warned – Saba is very hilly!! There are four main villages on the island of Saba which houses its 2000 residents and these villages are all connected by one road – aptly named ‘The Road’ (A* for creativity there) My taxi driver informed me that it was built by the locals of Saba in 1938 and it took 20 years to complete! I’d planned to walk the length of the road but as soon as I saw the massive incline from the airport, I didn’t have to think twice about calling a cab (there was a group of taxi drivers stood outside the airport but I didn’t actually see many around during the weekend so it’s best to get their number) As we drove up the winding hill to my accommodation, I thought to myself ‘wow this taxi is the best $15 I’ve ever spent!’ Saying that, I didn’t use a taxi for the rest of my trip but decided to get my hiking shoes on and do it for myself; the first incline from the airport is by far the worst! Here’s my quick rundown of Saba’s four villages:
Zion’s hill (formerly named ‘Hells Gate’ before being changed after receiving complaints from the church) is the first village you’ll come to after arriving into the airport. It mainly consists of residential properties so nothing much to mention with regards to things to do. You can get a pretty good view of the airport runway from the top of the village as you walk down the corkscrew road – it was cool to see the plane I’d later be leaving in landing on the island.
Windwardside is by far the most tourist orientated and was the village where I was staying. Here, you can find a variety of restaurants, bars and hotels as well as lots of little trinket shops selling goods such as Saban lace and jewellery. I ate in ‘Saba Snack Bar’ twice during my stay – once for dinner on Saturday night where I had the BIGGEST burrito for $14.50 and again for a refreshing lemon juice after completing the hike up Mount Scenery (and it was the best idea!) It’s no fine dining experience but the food is reasonably priced and good quality – just what I needed.
Outside of the main village, you’ll find little roads where you can wander and get lost in little trinket shops and gorgeous gardens. If you head up Booby Hill, you’ll find ‘JoBean Glass Studio’ which sells handmade glass jewellery and decorations – they’re made in the shop and you can either watch or get involved with the glassmaking yourself!
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a sucker for museums. It sounds very old and boring of me but I love finding out more about the heritage of a place so I was very excited to visit the two museums located in Windwardside – ‘Harry L Johnson Museum’ and ‘Dutch Museum’. The Harry L Johnson museum is also known as the ‘Saba Museum’ and includes lots of history on the island whereas the Dutch museum holds Dutch antiques from between 1600-1850 (Saba is a municipality of the Netherlands hence the Dutch influence) Unfortunately, both were closed when I visited due to sickness and opening hours but I would have loved to have had an explore if they were open.
Saba is known for its amazing hiking and undeniably, the best of the lot is located in Windwardside – Mount Scenery. This 887m volcano dominates the Saban landscape and I was very keen to hike to the top! There is a very good trail which takes you right to the summit and you can access it easily by heading just out of Windwardside village. It is located opposite the Saba Trail Shop where you can find out information on the hike aswell as many others in the area, pick up a whistle or stick for your journey and even collect a congratulations certificate when you come back down. You can book yourself onto a tour here where a guide will venture up the mountain with you or, if you’re making the trip alone, it’s a good idea to record your name in the shop and sign back out when you’re finished (it’s better to be safe than sorry hey?)
After feeling the heat from the day before, I made sure I woke up bright and early to tackle the climb before the sun kicked in and by 8am, I was already making my way up. The trail begins in a dry forest before turning into a rainforest as you climb higher up and is generally pretty easy to navigate with paths and some signs. There are a lotttt of steps though (1064 in fact) and the climb to the top is pretty much all uphill so you have to be in relatively good shape. The summit is 2855ft high and considering the plane ride was 2000ft high, I feel like this gives a pretty good indication of the climb! I would never have realised it when I reached the top however as all I could see was a mass of fog and cloud. I’ve read that 80% of the time, the summit is engulfed in clouds and it was just my luck that the day I visited was included in this. It made me laugh how I’d climbed all the way to the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to be rewarded with a view of greyness. Nevertheless, something about being in the clouds so far above sea level seemed so surreal and I had to keep reminding myself that I was muchhh higher than I thought. Once you reach the top, there’s the option to go just that teeny bit further by scrambling up some rocks. If I was gonna climb all that way, I had to make sure I did it properly but did so with caution knowing that it was a LONG way down! After a long breather and moment to take in the ‘views’, I headed on my way back down. As I made my way further down the mountain, the clouds began to clear and the irony of ‘Mount Scenery’ having no scenic views at all was gone. I had to keep breaking to take photos and just to admire the beauty of where I was.
I did the walk alone and it wasn’t until the very end of my descent that I actually saw other people – it felt like I was the first explorer of the mountain but it did cross my mind a couple times that this was what I heard about in murder documentaries!! But fear not, Saba is commonly known as the ‘safest island in the Caribbean’ which is what I had to keep reminding myself after I heard some rustling in the leaves. I may not have had the threat of a mountaintop kidnapping but I got a bit of a reality check after slipping on some moss on the way down. I tumbled down a few steps and thankfully only ended up with a few cuts and bruises but it made me realise that things could easily have ended a lot worse (lesson learnt: take care walking down the steps as it can be slippy)
The sign when you enter says that it takes 90 minutes each way so I’d recommend setting aside a few hours to complete the hike. If you’ve got it in you and up for a challenge, then I would 100% recommend this!
St Johns is another village which consists predominantly of houses. There’s not a great deal for tourists to do here but you do have to drive through it to get to the fourth and final village named ‘The Bottom’. There is the option of walking part of the ‘Crispeen Track’ if you want to walk from St Johns to The Bottom without going along ‘The Road’. If you’re coming from the Windwardside direction, take a right just after the ‘Welcome to St Johns’ sign and then take the first left past a house to follow the ‘Crispeen Track’. It’s pretty much downhill on path and pebbled steps and is a way to get down to ‘The Bottom’ which bypasses St Johns. I walked through the village to get down to ‘The Bottom’ and back up the ‘Crispeen Track’ and my way home.
As the name suggests, ‘The Bottom’ is quite literally located at the bottom of a hill and is the final village you’ll come to when following ‘The Road’ from the airport. It is the islands capital and is home to a police station, hospital and other government buildings as well as an international medical university which is home to 400 students (that’s 20% of the population!) Windwardside is by far the more tourist orientated village out of the 4 but there are still a few little restaurants in The Bottom. The view of the village as you come down the road is amazing. It seems like a perfect utopia; no signs of damage from hurricane Irma which still shows its destruction in neighbouring St Martin, perfectly uniformed houses all with red roofs – Sabans have a lot of pride in their island and you can tell! In fact, it’s not just The Bottom where this is evident but in every place I visited.
It may be called ‘The Bottom’ but it isn’t actually the very bottom at all. If you walk further down through the village, you’ll be able to follow signs to ‘The Ladder’ which is a path of steps (800 of them!) leading down to a pebbled bay called ‘Ladder Bay’. Up to the end of the 20th century, everything which arrived to the island in boats had to be carried up these steps. Walking down the steps was very enjoyable – starting off walking down through the forest and then surrounded by the coast. The bay at the bottom was very pebbly so not really a towel down, sunbathing kind of affair at all. It was still very refreshing to dip my toes in the water though before making the trek back up – and it was no easy climb by any means. Okay, in comparison to the hike up Mount Scenery, this was nothing but under the heat of the Caribbean sun, I was deffo feeling it when I got back up to the top (or ‘the bottom’ should I say) I can only imagine the hard work it must have been back in the day when you actually had to haul goods up them!
I actually walked the road from Windwardside to The Bottom; partly because I like exploring on foot rather than by car, partly because I didn’t really see many taxis around but mainly because I’m just tight and would rather spend my money on other things rather than taxi fares! The walk was 3km and took me around 45 minutes (with lots of photo breaks!) It was up and down before getting to St Johns and from there, it was all downhill to ‘The Bottom’. If you’re coming to Saba, you just have to accept the fact that the only flat piece of land is the 400m runway!
After exploring all of what the villages have to offer, I decided to finish my trip with a visit to another ecosystem on Saba – the tidepools (you can find three distinct ecosystems in total on Saba and I’d already ticked off the dry forest and rain forest when hiking Mount Scenery) Since Saba is home to the once active volcano ‘Mount Scenery’ a lot of the landscape has been created as a result of volcanic activity. Cooling lava flows have created some cool landforms by the coast (the pictures describe it much better than I can) and there are some dips in it where seawater is trapped as the tide goes out. These are tide pools and they’re filled with lots of colourful plants and sealife (you’d have thought that seeing as I took Geography at A-level, I would be better at describing that but clearly not – I’ll let the photos do the talking!)
There is a trail which takes you to see lots of the little tidepools and you can pick up details on this in the Saba Trail Shop in Windwardside. If I was to have a tour guide for any of the hikes in Saba, I probably would have chosen one for here as there is a lottt of climbing up and down rocks which can get pretty sketchy at times. After my near shocker of a fall earlier down Mount Scenery, I was extra cautious and decided that a short little wander before admiring the tide pools from a distance would be my best bet. It was so cool though just to stand on the rocks – the best way I can describe it is that it kind of felt like I was on the moon. Okay so ignore the ocean and mountains on either side, but looking out over the rocks, I felt like the new Neil Armstrong!!
It’s also important to mention that the tide pools are affected by tidal activity (duh) so a guide will also help you to not get caught out by this!
The tide pools are located right next to the airport at Flat Point so they were a perfect last bit of exploring before I got my flight home. There is also a small beach nearby (it’s the final destination at the end of ‘The Road’) where you can sunbathe on tiny little bits of volcanic rock. The rocks were soooo light and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a bit back in my rucksack as a memory of my weekend. There is a big tidepool where you can have a cool off and even see some little fishes swimming around (and they’re SO friendly, I couldn’t seem to get rid of them!) There aren’t any permanent beaches on Saba so it’s not a beach lovers island at all but you can find a few tucked away coves of volcanic sand if the tide is right.
One thing which is also massively raved about on Saba is its diving. In fact, I’ve read that it is some of the best diving in the world thanks to its untouched landscape and array of marine life (fun fact: Saba has the nickname ‘The Unspoiled Queen’ which couldn’t be more true) You can find plenty of companies advertising diving excursions such as ‘SeaSaba’ but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fit this into my itinerary – I guess it’s just another excuse to come back again!
WHERE TO STAY:
My trip to Saba was a very last minute spontaneous decision booked on a very boring Friday night so my hopes weren’t high for finding a nice place to stay at such short notice. You can imagine my joy when I came across ‘El Momo Cottages’ – a cute little selection of huts in the hillside with the most breathtaking views and within my very modest price range. My luck was in
They’re located just outside of Windwardside village and a short walk down the hill takes you right into the heart of the action with plenty of restaurants to choose from. As with most places on Saba, it’s a very back to nature affair so be prepared for no aircon, compost toilets and showers using rainwater (but luckily it is heated which was my first concern!) However, you should also be prepared for an absolutely incredible view over the trees and sea, a private balcony and sunbed, a pool overlooking Mount Scenery and super friendly staff. I was absolutely over the moon with my stay and it was the perfect eco tourism retreat I was looking for – and it cost me just $85 for the night! There is a restaurant too where you can get breakfast for $8.50 or use the honesty bar where you can pick up snacks and drinks at any time of the day.
Considering it’s the smallest island in the Caribbean, Saba has a fair few accolades which I’ve realised are so deserving – ‘The Unspoiled Queen’, ‘Safest Island in the Caribbean’. It truly is like a little emerald gem in the middle of the ocean and a place which I can easily recommend as a must see in the Caribbean!