Don’t go to Saba Island in the Caribbean

February 29, 2024   43 Comments »

Don’t go to Saba Island if you are looking for a beach, you won’t find one on this Dutch Caribbean island.

There are no concrete high-rises on this island that bills itself as the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean.” You won’t find a stoplight, bugs, fast food, crime, or cruise ships. Instead, charming, white, wooden cottages with forest-green shutters and red-tin roofs punctuate the island’s hills.

It’s not for people looking for a beach escape, umbrella drinks, or tan lines. It’s for the curious culture hunters, the ones who can appreciate the quirkiness of small-town island living. If you are reading this and thinking, “This sounds like travel paradise! This is my kind of destination”, then you and I are on the same wavelength.

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Is Saba for You?

Is Saba for you?

It’s actually easier to describe Saba Island (pronounced SAY-BA) on what it doesn’t have than what it does have. Saba, the smallest of the Caribbean islands, is also the most unique. Much like the island of Molokai in Hawaii, it’s not trying to be a big tourist destination like its Caribbean neighbors. It is more interested in maintaining its quirkiness, uniqueness, and secret status.

Saba is not its own country, it’s actually part of the Caribbean Netherlands – it is officially called Saba Netherlands Antilles. Saba is also a Caribbean island anomaly, the tip of a now-dormant underwater volcano with no beaches except for the tiny black-sand “disappearing beach” at Well’s Bay.

Saba (population 2,000) is not for the tourism masses, it’s for those rare pioneers who like exploring the lesser traveled road.

For those travelers looking for the quiet Caribbean, an island with old-world charm, look no further. If this sounds like you, then read on and find out why I fell in love with this Saba Island. This small Caribbean island captured my curiosity and awoke my inner explorer.

What Will You Find on Saba Island?

World’s Shortest Commercial Runway

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, built in 1963, literally put Saba Antilles on the map by opening them up to tourism, but also because its runway was the shortest commercial runway in the world. At only 1,300 feet, it’s just a few feet longer than some aircraft carriers! I love landing in remote, hard-to-get-to places; this landing with cliffs on both sides was what enticed me to Saba in the first place.

You’ll get the real sense of landing on an aircraft carrier as you’ll see the waters of Cove Bay to the left and the Caribbean Sea to the right of the runway. The approach is practically at a cliff, the rugged terrain of Saba blocks out the entire sky as you peer over the shoulders of your pilots.

Watch my Instagram story from that day:

Watch my Instagram story from that day

Prefer not to fly? Check out this full-day ferry ride to Saba

Beaches

Actually, Saba does have two very, very small beaches (hard to even call them that), at Cove Bay by the airport and at Wells Bay on the western side of the island. But, beaches are not the attraction on this small island. If you are looking for beaches – you better stick to the other Caribbean islands.

World-Class Scuba Diving

Saba’s deep waters are known for their world-class diving. Scuba divers were the first to arrive and fall in love with Saba’s world-class water. The region boasts one of the healthiest oceans in the world with spectacular pinnacles (islands of volcanic rock that never formed), stunning seamounts, drop-offs, walls, thriving coral reefs, and caves that start 40 feet deep.

Scuba divers now have a new find to explore off the Saban coast. The Saba Archaeological Center discovered two large ship cannons crossed one on top of the other during a sea-floor survey. They are both nearly 8.2 feet long. It appears they were sunk, to reduce weight on a ship or perhaps to keep them from enemy hands since there’s no evidence of a shipwreck nearby.

While scuba diving you’ll see a mind-boggling variety of fish – sharks, turtles, and marine life you don’t normally see in the Caribbean Sea. Credit goes to the sustainability-minded residents. They chose to establish a National Marine Park circling the island in 1987 before any damage was done. All marine life is protected around the island.

Snorkeling

However, even for the non-divers like me, there are still a few places to snorkel! We went out snorkeling near Wells Bay. The coral reefs were lovely and colorful; however, I will admit it was a bit deep for snorkeling. Regardless, I would suggest this snorkeling to anyone as it’s a super way to get out on the water and see the rugged landscape of this island from a completely different perspective. I was in awe of the views and the sheer cliffs above the sea floor and below the water!

Hiking

Saba may be known for its wonderful people and its excellent diving, however, the real hidden secret is the hiking! This is a hiker’s paradise with 3 different ecosystems on this little 5-square-mile island! You can experience the rain forest, dry forests, and coastal/tide pools hiking trails. There are about 20 different trails with miles and miles of hiking to incredible views.

Saba’s Diverse Ecosystems

On this five-square-mile island, you will experience three distinct ecosystems; coastal/tide pool, dry forest, and rain/elfin forest. Where else can you experience such diversity in such a small place? Nowhere.

I went out with Crocodile James, a local hiking guide (and all-around interesting and quirky guy) to experience hiking in Saba’s 3 ecosystems. The hiking on Saba is challenging considering the only piece of flat land on the island is the 1,300-foot airport runway! Be ready to sweat!

Expect a lot of up and down, and even some scrambling at times. However, the trails are maintained extremely well by the Saba Conservation Foundation. You can tell that hiking on Saba is revered by the locals based on how well they take care of the trails.

Mount Scenery and the surrounding areas were actually designated as a national park in 2018. It covers 26% of the total island area.

The Sandy Cruz Trail to the summit of Mount Scenery is the most popular trek, frequented by locals and day-trippers alike. Reaching the peak at 2,910 feet requires climbing 1064 stairs. Fun trivia fact, Mt. Scenery is actually the tallest peak in the Netherlands!

At the top, a captivating cloud forest will be your reward replete with 200-year-old mahogany trees. About halfway through, the trees part revealing stunning views of St. Maarten and other islands beyond. They don’t call it Mount Scenery for nothing!

Windwardside

Windwardside is the most tourist-oriented village. Drop by the Saba Tourist Bureau and say hello, you’ll be within close proximity to three of the Saba hotels and home to many vacation rental cottages. You’ll have no trouble passing a day wandering through small streets, exploring the museums and shops, and a bite to eat is never far away.

Art

Saba isn’t only about adrenaline-inducing hiking and diving – they also have a really strong arts scene. I was able to get hands-on creating glass beads and jewelry with JoBean Glass Art for a morning. With a little instruction, I was suddenly creating glass beads – I was surprised at how fast it can be done!

JoBean’s Saba-inspired glass art and jewelry are sold at her workshop or at Kokona, a little art-themed gift shop in the Windwardside. Island artisans fill the shop with creative works of art from food and drink to sculpture and paintings.

In addition to glass art on Saba Island, there are a number of new art classes popping up around Saba. Maybe you also want to try your creativity at jewelry making, tie dye, or other textiles. They even offer classes where you can do crafts and cocktails at the same time; amping up your creativity!

Saba Lace

Keep your eye peeled for Saba lace – a needlecraft that arrived on the island in the 1870s. Saba Lace is hand-stitched lace, which the island’s women began making in the late 19th century and built into a thriving mail-order business with the United States. Originally known as Spanish Work, Sabans made it their own, and Saba lace is still created and can be purchased in several locations around the island today.

Saba Spice

You know I enjoy a drink now and then, so when I learned about Saba Spice, a homemade spiced rum that is only made on the island in people’s homes – I was pretty excited to learn more. Each family has its own secret recipe.

I went to learn how to make Saba Spice with Lucy, a local who still lives in the 112-year-old house she grew up in! Made with fennel, cinnamon, clove, brown sugar, water, and 151-proof rum, I watched as Lucy cooked it up in a big pot on her stove. It cooks for hours and makes the whole house smell delicious!

Most locals drink it after dinner with ice, however, I had it as a Saba Spice Sour – with lemon juice and a little sugar water. In addition, many Sabans cook with it as it adds so much flavor to meats and French toast, and you can even pour it over ice cream!

Gin and Tonic Tasting

If Saba Spice isn’t your thing – but you enjoy a good drink – then check out Chez Bubba’s for their gin & tonic tasting! Local bartender Duco Van Grieken will astonish you with his gin & tonic tasting. With more than 25 different types of gin and numerous types of tonic, Duco will create combinations that you will have never tried before. 

Harry L. Johnson Museum

This 19th-century sea captain’s cottage in the historical district of Windwardside is situated in a meadow surrounded by beautiful flowers. It houses a variety of artifacts from archaeological excavations on the island as well as period furnishings. Exhibits include collections from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A Human Bird’s Nest

There aren’t many Saba Island resorts, but the ones they have are special. Bird’s Nest at Queen’s Hotel has a private, intimate dining table built high up in the middle of a hundred-year-old mango tree. You can dine in a tree while watching the Caribbean Sea or the stars at night, as you enjoy a delicious meal delivered by your personal waiter.

I dined with my friend Susan in the ‘nest’ and between delicious courses, we gushed at how romantic this place would be if we had been with a significant other! So, when our waiter asked if it was ok if we took our dessert down below on the ground so that someone could use the nest to propose, we graciously gave up our perch in the name of love. And by the way – she said “yes”!

The Road

As if landing on Saba wasn’t scary enough, then you get in a car and drive on the narrow, winding road. I’m not sure which panicked me more – the airport runway or the road! From the airport up to the Windward Side you’ll experience 23 turns – most of them hairpins. Simply referred to as “The Road”, it stretches 10 miles from one side to the other.

Sabans used to traverse the island by trail, but in the late 1930s, the decision to build a concrete road was made. Dutch & Swiss Civil Engineers said building a road on Saba wasn’t possible. Thus, the road got its title, “The road that couldn’t be built”. However, a local man, Josephus Lambert Hassell, took it on as a challenge. The first stage of the road was inaugurated in 1943.

There are no stoplights, a smattering of stop signs, and no straightaways. You’ll find the busiest corner in the Windward Side at a T intersection where the road narrows and tends to back up during ‘rush hour’. And if you are looking for some tummy-tingling excitement – just head to Wells Bay where you’ll experience road grades so steep that you’ll be nervous to even walk down them. It was like going down a roller coaster where your butt lifts off the seat! I’m pretty sure that the most important shop on the island is a brake shop.

Saba Lobster

Saba lobster (better known as Caribbean spiny lobster because it has no claws) is known throughout the Caribbean islands. The claw-less lobsters are found in the Saba Bank. No, this has nothing to do with currency. The Saba Bank is a 60-mile-long stretch of submerged atoll a few miles off the coast. It’s a place particularly rich in biodiversity and spiny lobster. Many of the restaurants on Saba have fresh Saba lobster in tanks that you can choose from. And in November the island has its very own Lobster fest!

Discover how many ways there are to eat lobster

An island like no other

This tiny island is like no other; it may be small and lack a proper beach, but it has a uniqueness that I love. Saba isn’t for everyone – but it is for me!

The Bottom Saba family friendly hotels

5 Travel Essentials if you go to Saba

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    03/02/2024 08:47 am GMT
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Where to stay in Saba

Juliana’s Hotel

While in Saba I stayed at Juliana’s Hotel in Windwardside which has turned out to be the best place on the island in my opinion. The owners, Johanna and Wim, are young and fun and seem to be the social directors on the island holding happy hours and educational video nights, and art/cocktail parties! Johanna grew up on the island and her mother is a local artist.

We stayed in an old 1877 Saban cottage but they also have regular hotel rooms and suites. My highlights of the place were the old (and moody) cat Zion and the blow-up black swan that had a home in the swimming pool! The prices hover around the $160 to $220 range and include breakfast and an airport shuttle!

Check prices and availability for Juliana’s Hotel | Read reviews for Juliana’s Hotel on TripAdvisor

Saba Arawak Hotel

Also in Windwardside, Saba Arawak Hotel has a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, terrace, and garden. All rooms have a balcony with a city view.

Check prices and availability for the Saba Arawak Hotel | Read reviews for the Saba Arawak Hotel on TripAdvisor

Queen’s Hotel

The Queen’s Hotel is a 4-star resort-style property located in The Bottom. It offers a bar, restaurant, garden, terrace, and outdoor swimming pool.

Check prices and availability for the Queen’s Hotel | Read reviews for the Queen’s Hotel on TripAdvisor

More information about Saba Island

Does anyone live on Saba Island?

Saba has a small population. The majority of the residents are of Dutch descent, and the island also has a diverse community of expatriates. Saban houses are well kept, the gardens team with flowers, and the doors seldom are locked. The friendliness of Sabans is not in any doubt, and everyone knows everybody.

What language is spoken on Saba?

Saba boasts a mixed population of European, African, and Latin descendants, speaking English, Dutch, and Spanish.

When is the best time to visit Saba Island?

The best time to visit Saba is during the dry season, which typically runs from December to April. This period offers pleasant weather with lower chances of rain and more sunshine. The temperatures during this time are generally comfortable for outdoor activities and exploring the island’s natural beauty.

However, keep in mind that Saba has a tropical climate, and brief rain showers can still occur even during the dry season. If you prefer to avoid crowds and get better deals on accommodations, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons (November and May) when the weather is still relatively good but tourist numbers are lower.

On the other hand, the rainy season, which falls between May and November, can bring heavier rainfall and occasional hurricanes, making some outdoor activities less favorable. It’s best to plan your trip during the dry season for a more enjoyable experience on Saba.

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Saba Island

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Disclosure

I was a guest of Saba Tourism for this trip, however, all opinions expressed here are my own.

Disclosure:

I was a guest of Saba tourism for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.



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