Saba, Known as the Unspoiled Queen
Saba (pronounced say-bah) is not a usual tourist or even yachting destination, since it’s steep rocky cliffs rise directly from the water, and make anchoring near and accessing the island very difficult. This tiny island is a ‘special municipality’ of the Netherlands and is definitely worth exploring as either a scuba diving or hiking destination.
There’s something otherworldly about this spiky volcanic peak that sits but a hop, skip and jump from St. Martin/Sint Maarten. Dense forest drapes its peaks and valleys, making it look like Ireland while the traditional red-roofed houses with their green shutters and white gingerbread trim seem plucked from a Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale. I am obsessed with them.
There are no beaches on Saba, except for occasionally in Wells Bay when the sand is deposited on the rocks. From what locals tell me, it disappears as quickly as it gets there though. The volcanic cliffs drop straight into the ocean and continue to make for some spectacular diving, that turns into a colorful kingdom of coral teeming with sharks, turtles and luminous tropical fish. There is zero crime rate, little traffic on the one road around the island, and a close-knit local community that’s genuinely happy to be here – and to see you in their “Unspoiled Queen.”
Traveling to Saba
Saba is a quick, 90 minute ferry ride over from St. Maarten, or a quick 12 minute flight on Winair, the regional airline.
Winair flies DHC Twin Otter 19-passenger aircraft to Saba. Since the Saba airport runway is so short, and the shortest international runway in the world at 400 meters, the Twin Otter is just about the only plane that can reliable land on it.
The flight over to Saba was great – taking off and cruising in the Twin Otter was a smooth. Additionally, the landing went well – the airport is on a very steep cliff, so the pilot must touch down perfectly, or risk rolling off the end, which is always a fun thought.
I sat in the very first row of seats in the plane, so I got a front row view over the pilots shoulders of the landing. They both looked fairly relaxed, and we actually stopped well short of the end of the runway. In fact, they only used 1/2 of the runway! Very impressive. As soon as the plane touched down, the pilot switched the props to reverse thrust to slow us down very fast.
Introduction to Saba
Driving Around the Island
We stayed at the beautiful Julianna’s Hotel on the Windwardside and also booked our diving through their partner, Sea Saba. Upon arrival, the hotel’s taxi driver, Garvice was waiting patiently for us at the airport and whisked us away to our home for the next week.
A Day in Saba
The Road That Couldn’t Be Built
16 dives total in 6 days. Well worth it. Originally we planned on diving 10 times throughout our trip, two dives a day, and maybe a couple of extra days. After our first day of diving, we decided there was WAY too much that needed to be seen under the water.
Our taxi picked us up each morning at 8:45 am -ish and drove us down to the Harbor, down “the road that could not be built.”
The history behind this road in itself is amazing! In 1938, Josephus Lambert Hassell, with the assistance of his fellow Sabans and no heavy machinery (yes it was all built by hand!) proceeded to build the impossible road. The vital access road from Fort Bay to The Bottom was completed within 5 years and inaugurated in 1943. Four years later the first motor vehicle arrived. In 1951, the road to Windwardside and St. John’s was opened. Seven years later the road was completed. The road took 2 decades to complete.
Every morning on our way to the harbor we passed workers working on the road, laying down a new layer of cement.
Time to Dive
Once at the Harbor, we boarded the Sea Dragon, a 40′ vessel, a met our dive masters for the day. Sea Saba has some amazing dive masters and captains working for them. After 16 dives with the crew, we became friends, and had a ton of fun both in the water and during our surface intervals. We also made some great friends with the other divers as well. There is a max of 10 divers on the boat, and we got them on a slower week during high season. Perfect!
Saba Marine Park
The Saba Marine Park was established in 1987. One of the few self-sustaining marine parks worldwide, it’s important to note that it was not established to help repair a damaged environment and ecosystem, unlike many national marine parks, but rather to safeguard and ensure the continued quality of an extraordinary resource. Such progressive thinking, and it definitely shows.
There are 30 dive sites on Saba. We were able to dive quite a few of them during our stay.
One of the beautiful things about diving Saba is that the volcano creates some spectacular formations and structural diversity, including the Pinnacles, starting at 90 feet.
My favorite pinnacle was called Third Encounter. Located at the eastern end of a horseshoe shaped seamount, we took a short swim out into the deep blue to the tip of the “Eye of the Needle” that rises majestically up from the deep to within 90 feet of the surface. I’ve never seen anything like it. The deep water has not only vibrant colors of coral, but all types of fish, and also deep water life such as large Caribbean Reef Sharks that often swim by.
Another dive site favorite was Man O War Shoals. The history behind the name is just as good as the dive site itself. We were told that pirates would often hold up in the cove and then wait for the Man O War ships to get caught on the rocks. Genius on the part of the pirates! This site offers some of the most diverse and luxuriant marine life and fauna in the Saba Marine Park ranging from Black Coral, rays, lobster and turtles to hoards Sergeant Majors and other brilliant fish.
Dive Sites we visited:
- Tent Deep
- Big Rock Market
- Shark Shoals – Pinnacle
- Man O War
- Hot Springs
- Third Encounter – Pinnacle
- Tent Wall
- Hot Springs
- Porites Points
- Outer Limits – Pinnacle
- Tent Reef
- Third Encounter – Pinnacle
- Man O War
- Tent Reef Shallows
Sea Saba is an amazing crew and is truly full service. Each day they would rinse our gear and even let us leave it on the boat for the next day of diving. Since there is no crime rate on the island, it’s safe to leave all dive gear on the boat. The next morning our gear was nicely set up for our next day of diving. So nice!!!
Even diving 3 dives each day, we were still back to the hotel around 3pm. This left plenty of time for us to explore everything the island had to offer.
Other Things to Do on Saba
There are several hikes on the island. One hike we started on we thought was going to take us to a viewpoint of the Saba Whale, but turns out we didn’t take the right trail and ended up following the road. The road is so scenic, and actually ended up being an amazing hike.
Mt. Scenery is the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom (877m or 2877ft) and is Saba’s dominant feature, however we learned from our new friends on the island that it’s only clear at the top about 80 days a year. Every time we looked up to the top of Mt. Scenery, it was enshrouded in clouds. There is actually a name for this, the Elfin Forest (cloud-forest) dominates the upper 50m (150ft).
Lucky for us, there is a slightly shorter peak just in front of Mt. Scenery named Maskerhorne Hill. We hiked through the dry evergreen forest and after a quick 20 minutes almost straight up we came into a clearing. The views from Maskerhorne Hill are exceptional. It was pretty windy, but we saw the entire Windwardside town and all the way over to St. Eustatius and St. Kitts.
The Food Around Saba!
Now, to one of my favorite subjects…FOOD!!! There are a variety of restaurants on island for every palate. Each restaurant has it’s own charm and delicious menu. The one complication, not every restaurant is open every day. Make a reservation and you’re good to go. Diving with Sea Saba, they told us the restaurants that were open that day and even made the reservations for us. As I said before, full service.
The only other complication is that not everyone takes credit cards. Not to worry though, the restaurants often told us just pay tomorrow. We went back and got cash since I wouldn’t feel right about it, but they are truly good, caring people on Saba.
These are the restaurants we ate at on the Windwardside:
- Tropics Cafe at Julianna’s – Breakfast each morning by the owners is amazing.
- Brigadoon – Lionfish is my favorite fish, but they did it justice. We ate here twice.
- Long Haul Grill – Your pizza on the island for those post dive cravings.
- Scouts Place – Good
- Swinging Doors – Some of the best BBQ I have had. (Tuesday’s and Friday’s, cash only)
- Chez Bubba Bistro
See you soon Saba!
As our trip came to a close, we spent some time by the pool, talking with our new friends at Julianna’s about when we will be able to come back. There were so many great memories and friendships formed during our week in Saba.
Check out my video of the weeks adventures here:
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