BIG PIECE OF PAR­ADISE

Is­land just a short flight or ferry from St. Maarten is un­crowded, un­spoiled and com­pletely unique

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - MARY ANN AN­DER­SON

It’s a hot and hu­mid sum­mer day in the Caribbean and the wind is up. Just moments af­ter Wi­nair’s de Hav­il­land Twin-Ot­ter bumpily takes off from St. Maarten, the tiny is­land of Saba, just a 10-minute flight away, rises like a scep­tre from the floor of the crys­tal-blue Caribbean.

As the plane put­ters to­ward Saba’s 1,300foot airstrip, the short­est com­mer­cial run­way in the world, I see waves lash­ing against the is­land’s rocky, steep shores. Be­neath the wa­ter­line, the vol­canic is­land stretches to the sea bot­tom, its jagged ledges and co­ral reefs pro­vid­ing ar­guably the best div­ing spots in the Caribbean.

Be­fore my jour­ney to the tiny, prac­ti­cally unknown is­land, I had read that the pro­duc­ers of the orig­i­nal 1933 “King Kong” movie were en­thralled with its craggy, vol­canic sil­hou­ette and used its like­ness as Skull Is­land. From the plane win­dow, I think the 5square-mile is­land looks more like a mas­sive emer­ald.

The plane glides in for a land­ing on the short run­way wedged be­tween cliff and su­per-clear wa­ter, and as I glance out of the win­dow, I re­al­ize the pre­cip­i­tous moun­tain­side is so close that the wing seems to al­most brush it. Star­tled at its close­ness, I draw in a deep breath but fully un­der­stand the pi­lots fly this route five times a day and know what they are do­ing.

When I read in an al­most-cen­tury old National Ge­o­graphic that de­scribed Saba (pro­nounced SAY-BA) as a “quaint lit­tle is­land,” I was at­tracted to it im­me­di­ately and made plans to visit. Along with neigh­bour­ing St. Eus­tatius and Bon­aire, in 2010 the is­land, for­mally a part of the Nether­lands An­tilles, be­came a Special Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of the Kingdom of the Nether­lands.

From the airstrip I’m picked up by my guide, the af­fa­ble Glenn Holm, a Saba na­tive who’s agreed to show me around the is­land for a cou­ple of days. Saba is pretty much a one-horse is­land, with one road, one car rental agency, and one gas sta­tion. On the road to Queens Gar­den Re­sort, where I’m stay­ing, Glenn tells me that most vis­i­tors hire a taxi.

Here’s why. The wind­ing, twist­ing, ser­pen­tine road — sim­ply called the Road — is nar­row and lined with flam­boy­ant trees filled with orange and red blos­soms, bright pink ole­an­der, and wide-leafed sea grape. Con­nect­ing Saba’s four small vil­lages of Zion’s Hill — also called Hell’s Gate — St. John, Wind­ward­side and the Bot­tom, the cap­i­tal, it al­most wasn’t built be­cause of the rugged to­pog­ra­phy of the is­land.

“This is the road that was said couldn’t be built,” Glenn says as he ex­pertly ma­noeu­vres a sharp switch­back. “Dutch engi­neers said it was im­pos­si­ble to build. A lo­cal man, Joseph Has­sell, took a cor­re­spon­dence course and proved to Hol­land that it could and build­ing be­gan in 1938. Each stone of the road was made by hand, with picks and shov­els, and fi­nally fin­ished in 1963.”

Be­fore we make our way to Queen’s Gar­den, I find yet an­other rea­son that Saba stands alone among its Caribbean sis­ters. Glenn ex­plains that since Saba is vol­canic, it has no beach. You read that right. A Caribbean is­land that has no beach, but that isn’t a de­ter­rent for vis­i­tors, who come here for myr­iad rea­sons.

By then we’re at Queens Gar­den, where I’m met by Hidde and Claire VerBeke. I’m no one special. It’s just tra­di­tion on Saba for own­ers to greet their guests.

“The only rule on Saba is that there are no rules,” Hidde says as he shows me around the lovely hill­side re­sort. “Just be your­self. Ev­ery­one is friendly.”

Then, he adds, “And there are no traf­fic lights, no crime.”

Even with no beaches, Saba was be­gin­ning to sound more and more like par­adise.

Con­fes­sion time. I love seafood, whether it’s fish, shrimp or lob­ster. Doesn’t mat­ter to me as long as it comes from the wa­ter.

That night at din­ner on the open air pa­tio at Queen’s Gar­den, Duco, my waiter, rec­om­mends a Caribbean spiny lob­ster. As he reaches into the tank, the lob­ster stabs him, gets him good. That lob­ster clearly doesn’t want to end up on a plate, and I de­cide at that mo­ment to forego the crusty crus­tacean and or­der the wa­hoo in­stead, a tasty lo­cal fish.

The next morn­ing af­ter be­ing ser­e­naded awake by bois­ter­ous roost­ers and bleat­ing goats that freely roam the is­land, Claire serves a de­li­cious omelette made with Gouda. The restau­rant over­looks the pool, where I watch a young cou­ple take a dive class.

“You can learn in the morn­ing and then dive that af­ter­noon,” says Claire. “You don’t have to be cer­ti­fied, as they will teach you and then take you on a shal­low dive. When you come here, you don’t need to think about any­thing. We set up ev­ery­thing from dives to hik­ing to snor­kel­ing.”

I wasn’t on Saba to dive, hike or snorkel, at least not this trip, just to ex­plore the is­land known as Un­spoiled Queen of the Caribbean.

Soon Glenn is there and we take off on the Road once more, slow­ing for sev­eral goats to me­an­der out of the way.

“Goats have the right of way here,” he laughs.

The per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion of Saba runs about 1,500 to 1,600, Glenn says, with those num­bers swelling with stu­dents, many of them Amer­i­can, when Saba Univer­sity School of Medicine in the Bot­tom is in ses­sion.

“Ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one else and their dog,” he says. “And while ev­ery­one speaks English, Dutch is the of­fi­cial lan­guage.”

Glenn is driv­ing slowly along, show­ing off spec­tac­u­lar scenery where dark vol­canic rock blends with lush for­est and then down to where it meets blue Caribbean. I’m lis­ten­ing to him and watch­ing the trop­i­cal colours swirl by when some sort of move­ment on the side of the road catches my at­ten­tion. With­out warn­ing, Glenn slams on the brakes when some huge creature that I thought at first was a crocodile or dragon of some type saun­ters in front of the car.

“Whoa!” Glenn prac­ti­cally shouts. “It’s an iguana. Look at the size of that thing. I’ve never seen one that big be­fore and I’ve been here all my life.”

With Saba’s 3,000-foot el­e­va­tion most Sa­bans sleep with their win­dows open as nights are wind-cooled. When I vow to Glenn there was no way I would keep my win­dows open that night for fear of gi­ant woman-eat­ing igua­nas, he laughs and as­sures me that igua­nas, too, sleep at night, and that there were no crit­ters on the is­lands that are dan­ger­ous. He adds that the only snake on Saba is a non­ven­omous black racer.

We drive along un­der the bluest of skies that re­flect off the sur­face of the sea, pass­ing mango, ba­nana and wild ap­ple trees. When we stop in Wind­ward­side to visit the Harry L. John­son Mu­seum with its vin­tage pho­to­graphs of Dutch roy­alty, Saba’s first tele­phone, an ex­traor­di­nar­ily pretty writ­ing box, and other tidbits of is­land his­tory, I stop and lis­ten to the nat­u­ral mu­sic of palm fronds crack­ling against one an­other in the breeze. The fra­grance of mint and bay leaves lingers in the air, lend­ing a Gar­den of Eden-like at­mos­phere to the surroundings.

Driv­ing back into the Bot­tom for a quick lunch and shop­ping, we stop for a traf­fic jam. Seems there are four cars backed up on the Road, and we must wait for a minute or two be­fore mov­ing for­ward. “Oh, this traf­fic,” sighs Glenn se­ri­ously as I laugh at him.

Most vis­i­tors to Saba come for scuba div­ing the pris­tine wa­ters or hik­ing the myr­iad trails of the cloud for­est that crowns Mount Scenery,

the high­est point on the is­land. And it is there atop Mount Scenery that we meet Keith Mur­phy, who runs the Saba Ecolodge, a sim­ple but com­fort­able lodge. Our con­ver­sa­tion turns to div­ing.

“Two hun­dred feet around the is­land is pro­tected,” says Mur­phy. “It’s all very colourful, too. That’s why our div­ing is some of the best.”

Mur­phy in­tones that among the sea crea­tures that in­habit Saba’s wa­ters are Hawks­bills, green and leatherback sea tur­tles, plus tiger, nurse and ham­mer­head sharks. Big eels, sea horses and Nas­sau grouper are also among the denizens of the sea.

Later Glenn and I make a stop at Jobean Glass Art Stu­dio where I watch lively, su­per­friendly owner Jobean Cham­bers fashion such pieces as sea horses, starfish and mer­maids from hot glass. She tells me that Queen Beatrix of the Nether­lands has sev­eral pieces of her work, and I watch com­pletely mes­mer­ized as she melts the glass into beau­ti­ful pieces of art with just her hands and a blow torch of sorts.

From there we drive to a non­de­script build­ing that hosts the lo­cal Lions Club where ev­ery Thurs­day a group of ladies of all ages gath­ers to tat Saba Lace, one of the is­land’s most cov­eted sou­venirs. Inside Glenn in­tro­duces me to sev­eral ladies, in­clud­ing Imelda Peter­son. She tells me that Saba Lace, once known as Span­ish work, is thread­worm that’s com­pletely hand­stitched into del­i­cate, in­tri­cate pat­terns in table­cloths, nap­kins, col­lars and book­marks.

“Any­one who wants a les­son can come in and just watch,” she says. “I’ve been do­ing this since I was 6 years old, but now it’s a dy­ing art.”

The ca­ma­raderie among the ladies is soft and sweet, just like all of Saba. With the wel­come ab­sence of glit­ter­ing all-in­clu­sive re­sorts, chain restau­rants and flip flops-wear­ing tourists, this is­land of “only one’s” and “UN’s” — un­crowded, un­spoiled and com­pletely unique — has a down-home, small­town feel and is mostly quiet, save the oc­ca­sional bleats and cack­les of goats and chick­ens.

MARY ANN AN­DER­SON, TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Saba as seen from the win­dow of Wi­nair flight to St. Maarten. Note the world’s short­est com­mer­cial airstrip and the Road, the is­land’s only road.

Saba Ecolodge is high in the cloud for­est of Saba. The sim­ple ac­com­mo­da­tions of the lodge are pop­u­lar with hik­ers and divers.

Jobean Cham­bers of Jobean Glass Art Stu­dio fash­ions such pieces as sea­horses, starfish and mer­maids from hot glass. Queen Beatrix of the Nether­lands is a fan of her work.

Saba is lush in trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion. Le­gend holds that the pro­duc­ers of King Kong movie used its like­ness as Skull Is­land at the be­gin­ning of the film.

PHO­TOS BY MARY ANN AN­DER­SON, TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Keith Mur­phy of Saba Ecolodge with his "lawn­mower," a goat named Noo­dle. The lodge is pop­u­lar with both hik­ers and divers.

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