Saba is pronounced Say-Ba. Now that’s out of the way. If you are looking to get away from tourism, are sick of large public beaches, and just need some quiet…you want to escape to Saba. My quick pitch for Saba is that it has an incredibly well preserved tropical ecosystem and very few “touristy” features. The only beach on the island is a man-made swimming area down in a cove, the whole island is quiet and peaceful, the people are friendly, it’s affordable, the hiking is beautiful, and the underwater marine park is like no other. A little gem in the Caribbean, Saba is an amazing getaway.
Saba is not exactly a secret. Saba is visible from St. Maarten and it is not difficult to get to with a little planning. Even though you can see the island when you head out on the boat, you watch the island get bigger for over an hour, never quite reaching it. The secret of Saba is not its existence, but its community. The whole island is one large community! With a population of only 1,800 people on a five square mile island, the community of the island is intimate.
Since Saba is a volcano, the mountain reaches skyward from the ocean with arms extending in all directions. The Bottom and Windwardside are two of the larger towns on the island and are tucked in-between the different peaks.
The edges of Saba are sheer cliffs which are not conducive to water front towns, but The Bottom gets closer than most. Here you will find Fort Bay Harbor, the only port on the island where supplies, citizens, and visitors pass through on the way onto and off of the island. The port itself is very quaint with a parking lot and small customs office. Fort Bay Harbor has an amazing website that has all kinds of great information and images that we recommend checking out.
The majority of people live in The Bottom, so it is the capital of Saba and where you can find most of Saba’s municipal services (hospital, police, etc). The Bottom is also home to the Saba University School of Medicine which hosts many medical students throughout the year.
Windwardside, where we spent most of our stay during the trip, is located on the other side of the island and above The Bottom, nestled between peaks of the volcano. Considered the tourist part of the island, it has a nice collection of restaurants and many visitor accommodations located within the hills. Windwardside has a lot to offer despite being the smaller of the two towns. In the center of Windwardside, you can find several restaurants, the market, bakery, hiking shop, scuba shop, churches, tourism office, and one of the few ATM’s on the island. This is also were you get to socialize with the locals.
It was surprising to me how safe I felt in Windwardside. There were hot days in which we left all our doors open, including the front ones. Our room, with all our stuff was open to the world, but it did not feel out of place. We actually locked our doors on the first day, but by the second it just seemed silly. The only time we locked the front door, was when we were asleep. We walked the streets until early morning hours and never felt in danger. There is always the danger of something going wrong, but Windwardside felt safer than my own city of Poughkeepsie (yeah…perspective).
Since Saba is a bit harder to get to, lacks the typical sandy beaches, and is much less developed, it is not as appealing to the traditional Caribbean tourists. The island experiences less than 25,000 tourists a year who largely appreciate and respect the island, keeping the island preserved and giving the island it’s nickname “The Unspoiled Queen”. The citizens of Saba are very proud of their island and are protective of it. They formed the Saba Conservation Foundation to help maintain both the developed and undeveloped areas of the island. While we were there we overheard a resident complaining about a gentleman who wanted to build a house. She was arguing that he should buy something that was already there instead of building on a new location on the island. This was the feeling that we got from others as well, but building anything, anywhere on the island appears to be extremely difficult due to the geography – it seems that almost all of the land is at a 45 degree angle or greater.
I have to put a special note in here and a big shout out to the taxi drivers of Saba. These people are amazing. Under no circumstance should you drive on this island, for your own safety and the safety of everything living there. The taxi drivers are there for you. They are qualified for their jobs, work very hard, and are your neighbors. You should carry a list of the drivers names and numbers with you always, but if you lose it you can ask any shop owner for help. Again, it is a small island, you will know the drivers by the time you leave. Bring a good amount of cash to be able to pay them.
There are no Sandals resorts, Hiltons or Marriots on this island. Windwardside’s accommodations are mostly Bed and Breakfasts with a few other hotels scattered around the island. There are really no bad options so try to pick a place that is near enough to what you want access to by walking. You can find most of the accommodations on the normal booking sites as well as on the Saba tourism site. The owners and operators of these places will be your main source of information during your visit. They can help you figure out where everything is, answer questions, get you the right phone numbers for taxis, and generally take care of you during your stay.
Roberto and I stayed in a house called Selera Dunia, which is owned and operated by Hemmie and Yenny. They were wonderful hosts. They have two rooms that are kept very clean, breakfast is delivered daily to your room, and they were always available when we needed help. We were very happy there. The room had a great view, was open and breezy with lots of space and a large bathroom.
One evening while we were out at a restaurant, the owner asked us where we were staying. We mentioned the house and he asked us if Hemmie still kept his coy fish. I skeptically said yes, but that there was a net over it. The owner explained that the fishing birds on the island will take the fish right out of the ponds and he recounted a story in which a bird was sitting on his fence with a large coy in its beak!
All of the restaurants and bars are mixed with visitors and locals. Sitting at any of the restaurants, you can find yourself chatting with the owner, chef, or anyone else seated around you.
At Chez Bubba Bistro we knew we were in a good place when the chef leaned out the kitchen window and shouted “Let’s Go Mets!” when he saw Roberto’s baseball cap. I mentioned to the waitress that I loved wine and we needed to pick something for dinner so she brought me into their impressive wine room where we were joined by the manager. They talked about the how the room was just completed and explained all the different features. That same evening we were served a vanilla infused rum, which the chef was very proud of. When I asked him how it was made, he gave me an elusive smile and told me it was a secret. The chef was gracious and more than happy to discuss all the details of the meal we enjoyed.
This was not an unusual experience is Saba. We repeatedly found ourselves talking and hanging out with the owners and staff of these businesses. At one place the owner was serving drinks and hanging out with everyone. In another restaurant, the owner came out to talk to us about the different fish they got in that day and we ended up talking to him for several minutes about all the hiking opportunities on the island. Even talking with other tourists and visitors is a lot of fun, because you end up running into the same people over and over again. By the end of our 5 days there, we were on a first name basis with people just because you see them almost every day.
The Bizzy B is a bakery in town where you can get lunch, coffee, and a table outside in the courtyard. It is here that you can sit and people watch. It is a small gathering place and many people end up coming through there. Many people also gather on the beach on the weekends for picnics. So the question “where do the locals go” is not relevant on this island, because this is their home, you are just coming in for a visit and they welcome that.
Under the Water
Half the island that you can not see is actually located underwater. Saba has a world renowned underwater marine park that is completely self sufficient, protected, and surrounds the whole island. The extensive marine park makes Saba a destination for scuba divers of all levels from all over the world. The diving community is very open and willing to work with you to provide the best possible experience. You can contact them at any time with questions, concerns, and what you would like to accomplish. They know the marine park inside and out and in all conditions. There are several diving schools on the island. If you have never tried diving, make sure that you contact the diving schools before heading out so that you may get the proper clearances from your doctors. The schools take your health and safety very seriously. There are options to go snorkeling for anyone who doesn’t want to dive, but contact the diving schools for availability and conditions. We worked with Sea Saba(Link), which had their offices in Windwardside and made them easy to walk to in the morning. They were great to work with and very helpful in accommodating our needs.
Since the marine park is so diverse, learning to scuba dive here is an excellent opportunity. You can easily spend an entire vacation at their dive schools. There may be other Caribbean destinations that offer scuba, but Saba offers some of the most spectacular underwater scenery that is impossible to replicate anywhere else.
After scuba diving, Saba is best known for their hiking. Being on a volcano that is covered in rainforests, where a lot of the land is undeveloped, makes Saba a hiker’s paradise. Since Saba is also a little more difficult to get to, the hiking trails and areas are not overrun. You can spend time on a trail alone enjoying the rainforest. The community makes sure that the trails are clear and well maintained, but there are many areas that are dangerous and challenging.
This is where the Saba Trail Shop is an essential convenience. The shop is where you should stop in before hiking anywhere on the island. The Trail Shop staff will know all the conditions of the trails, which ones are accessible, and which ones require a guide. They also stock a good supply of maps and other basic hiking equipment. Even the most popular and seemingly easy hike up to the top of Mt. Scenery is not as safe as it appears. If it is raining at the top of the mountain, the conditions of the hike become extremely treacherous. The island is very proud of their hiking trails, making the island a great destination for those that like nature and getting out into it.
Everyone we met in Saba loves their island. The pride and care in which the locals do everything is a beautiful sight. The infrastructure on the island is a bit different then our home in New York and as guests you must be conscious of those differences and help the island with what you can. For example, you will be asked to conserve water because most of the water on the island comes only from rainfall. There are storage tanks under the buildings that store the water that runs off the roofs and roads. Filters are used to clean the drinking water. Cleanliness of the trails, waters and beach are a must and you are asked to keep them as you found them. You are not just a tourist when you go there, but a visitor to that community. They are taking you into their homes and sharing the island that they love with you.
Visit Saba, Love Saba
Saba is special for all the reasons that their tourism website explains. Their website is full of information and is very thorough. I highly recommend that you start there when planning your trip. Once you identify your travel time and accommodation, you can start working with the locals to set up activities and gathering information on what you would like to do. The website includes links, emails and phone numbers that will help with many of your travel needs.
For me, Saba was a quiet paradise and oasis during a very difficult time in my life. When I went to Saba, my personal life was in upheaval, uncertain, and in a state of turmoil. Saba provided a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment for me to retreat and gather myself.
In Saba I have never felt so at home in a new location after such a short amount of time. I look forward to returning one day to revisit the people and island that I have fallen in love with.