Saba: Adventure above and below the Caribbean

We had two main objectives for our holiday: to sample the wonders of the undersea world, and to hike the legendary trails that crisscross the island. Three of our party are certified scuba divers with many hours logged in cold, northern waters. Diving in the Caribbean is a very different experience with 25- 30 m visibility quite common and water temperature in the mid 20’s Celsius. Only Joyce eschewed diving, but thoroughly enjoyed the crystal clear reefs from a snorkelers vantage point.

There are three dive operations on Saba. We went with Sea Saba, who we found most accommodating, and also served as our on-site travel agent helping us with a place to stay, restaurant reservations and more. They operate two dive boats in and around the waters of the Saba National Marine Park that encircles the island – and they visit dive sites ranging in depth between 10 and 35m. Sea Saba is not only very conservation-minded, but also skilled at tailoring dive programs to meet the wishes – and experience – of their visitors.

Particularly spectacular are the sea mounts and undersea pinnacles that rise from depths 100m to within 30m of the surface. They attract large, oceanic species that use the sea mounts as safe haven, cleaning station or restaurant! It is quite common to see large sharks and immense sea turtles having skin cleansed of parasites by tiny wrasses.

On a particularly eventful morning dive we witnessed tiny anemone shrimp doing their distinctive dance, a huge loggerhead sea turtle, and an equally massive moray eel apparently standing guard over a resting nurse shark!

Sea Saba is a class operation, friendly and attentive but never overbearing. The two-person crew of the boats is a wealth of information and one of them accompanies each dive. But this is not hand-holding – divers are free to explore the reef and plan their own dive whether that includes photography, or just marveling at the exquisite underwater display.The-Bottom.jpg

We had just one week to enjoy Saba and we split our time between diving or snorkeling, and hiking. The Saba Trail Shop, located in Windwardside, lists 16 hiking trails on their website. The shop itself is staffed through the week by a friendly member of the Saba Conservation Foundation, and is well worth a visit to get latest information on trail conditions, and general advice (you can also sample some Saban spiced rum while you chat!)

Our favourite excursions were the strenuous climb to the top of Mt. Scenery (887m), and the much more leisurely Sandy Cruz trail that winds through the rain forest on the west slope of Mt. Scenery. Hiking gave us a true appreciation of the variety of ecological zones on this tiny island and the magnificent variety of plant and bird life.

Over the course of our stay we saw tropic birds and frigate birds riding the air currents near Flat Point, Antillean crested humming birds feeding from flowers in the cloud forest, and cheeky bananaquits around every corner. At the top of Mt. Scenery we felt as if we had been transported to a Costa Rican cloud forest except for the presence of the stunning Mountain Mahogany found only in this part of the Caribbean.

The entire island of Saba is classified as a ‘non-active volcano’ but unlike many throughout the world, Mt. Scenery has no crater. The summit consists of a twin rocky ridges that provide a panoramic view of the entire island, at least, if you are lucky enough to reach the top in a rare cloudless interlude. Most of the time the peak is clothed in a thick blanket of cloud that gives life to the stunning flora and fauna of the ‘elfin forest’ (and indeed it conjures images of the Lord of the Rings in a tropical setting)
All that outdoor activity worked up a healthy appetite. Our rented house was well-equipped with a barbecue and full kitchen, but we cooked only once during our stay. For one thing, Windwardside had just too many intriguing eateries to offer, but also retail food supplies are a bit sparse on the island. The supply boat from nearby St. Maarten comes just once a week (on Tuesday) and you had better be quick if you want some steaks for the barbecue!

Instead we sampled the chicken and ribs at Eddie Hassell’s Swinging Door bar (our advice – forget the steaks – they come ‘as is’, sometimes good, sometimes mediocre), grilled Mahi Mahi and a great selection of other delicacies at Brigadoon, and for a special occasion climb Booby Hill for the incredible sunset from Bistro Del Mare at the Shearwater Resort.

Brigadoon is worth a special note for a couple of reasons – chef Michael is a master at his trade, and also a talented underwater photographer (his work is displayed on the walls). Each Monday evening Michael and Trisha host a slide show courtesy of the folks at Sea Saba that is a great introduction to the island.

Speaking of slideshows, the Rainforest Restaurant at the EcoLodge hosts a fascinating Wednesday evening with naturalist/marine biologist Tom Van‘t Hof. This is another great window into Saba’s unique bio-geopgraphy and sets you up for days of personal exploration.

Saba never pretends to offer a classic Caribbean vacation. While the sun shines as reliably as anywhere in the West Indies, the lack of sandy beaches deter many sun-worshipers. But there are few places where you can connect so quickly with the locals. By the end of the week we were on first name terms with many of the Windwardside residents, who recognized us as the ‘folks staying up on Booby Hill’. Conversations gave us insights into Saban life both now and over many generations. We learned how to harvest and to prepare cashew nuts (hint: its not just the nut that is edible!), how Saban lace is crafted and why there are so many goats on the Island! Everyone was so friendly, in a way that makes you feel less like a tourist and more like an honoured guest. If you love the outdoors, both above and below the water, or just want to experience an ambience that is unique, accessible, and still gets you a tan you can be proud of, try Saba.

IF YOU GO:

Saba is a ‘special municipality’ of the Netherlands, that together with Bonaire and Sint Eustatius, opted against full independence some 5 years after the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved in 2005.  Many people speak Dutch, but English is the lingua franca. Currency is the $US, and only a passport is required for Canadian citizens

GETTING THERE
While a ferry or friendly Winair are your options for travel to Saba, there are many options to get to Sint Maarten, the usual stepping stone for a Saban vacation.  WestJet flies once a week to Sint Maarten from Toronto; American Airlines flies more frequently from Miami.

MAKING ARRANGEMENTS
We found Sea Saba a great clearing house for all our needs.  The staff are super friendly and can put you in touch with local hotel, and guest house owners, arrange transfers from ferry or airport, and even make dinner reservations for you.  Since supplies arrive on Saba only once a week, SeaSaba also offers a concierge service that will stock your rental accommodation refrigerator with food to get you over the first few days.
www.seasaba.com

WINDWARDSIDE ACCOMMODATIONS
There are several options, but we can highly recommend Saba on the Rocks a villa-style property on Booby Hill overlooking the ocea. Completed in 2011, the house overlooks the ocean, features a small sun-heated, dipping pool and lovely patio dining area.  Prices vary from a low of $180US per night in the low season to $400 from mid December to late April (depending on number of guests).  www.sabaontherocks.com

RESTAURANTS
(whatever you do, make reservations.  You might be lucky, but these places fill up so fast)

Brigadoon  
A great place for fresh sea food and other delicacies.  Michael and Trisha make everyone feel right at home.  Browse Michael’s underwater images from Saban waters that line the walls while you sample the best hummus anywhere! Entrees mid $20 range  Evening slide show with Sea Saba divers on Monday evenings.

The Rainforest Restaurant
Located at the Saba Eco Lodge the restaurant provides a cozy al fresco experience, right in the middle of the rain forest! Don’t forget to carry a flash light with you for the short walk back to the road.  Evening slide show on Wednesday is a great introduction to the Saban ecology. Entrees from about $21

The Swinging Doors
A fun bar frequented by locals and tourists alike (especially on Sunday when many restaurants are closed). It serves great barbecued ribs and chicken, but we suggest you skip ‘steak night’.  Dining is at long picnic tables under an open-air canopy decorated with tiny coloured lights. Nothing fancy here, but Eddie Hassell does a great job on the barbecue. Don’t expect much choice, though (it is an ‘if it’s Sunday, it’s potato salad’ kind of place). About $15

Bistro del Mare
Located in the Shearwater resort atop Booby Hill in Windwardside, this is one of the classiest restaurants on the island. You will enjoy a spectacular view, and great sunsets along with terrific food.  But it’s pricier than most – entrees high $20s to $30s