Though Saba (pronounced say-ba) is just south of St. Maarten (if you've seen the original King Kong, you may recognize its majestic silhouette from the beginning of the film), the islands couldn't be more different. St. Maarten is all beaches, gambling, and duty-free shopping; Saba is ecotourism, diving, hiking, and reveling in pristine nature.
Nearly half of Saba's 5 square miles (13 square km) is covered in verdant tropical rain forest; the other half is sprinkled with picturesque villages composed of white, green-shuttered houses trimmed with gingerbread, roofed in red, and built on grades so steep, they seem to defy physics. Flower-draped walls and neat picket fences border narrow paths among the bromeliads, palms, hibiscus, orchids, and Norfolk Island pines. The land dips and climbs à la San Francisco and eventually drops off into sheer cliffs that fall right into the ocean, the fodder for some of the world's most striking dive sites and the primary reason for Saba's cultlike following. Divers seem to relish the fact that they're in on Saba's secret.
But word about this Dutch Caribbean island has gotten out. Every year, more tourists are turned on to Saba's charms and make the 11-minute, white-knuckle flight from St. Maarten into the tiny airport with a runway not much larger than an aircraft carrier’s. Indeed, traffic jams along the winding, narrow road (yes, there's really just one) are rare, unless the driver in front of you stops to chat. The past few years have seen the opening of more restaurants and, most recently, a minimall (big advances, considering around-the-clock electricity was established only in 1970). But don't come expecting a booming metropolis; even as it changes, Saba retains an old-world charm.
A major point of local pride is that many Saban families can be traced all the way back to the island's settlement in 1640 (the surnames Hassell, Johnson, and Peterson fill the tiny phone book). And Sabans hold their traditions dear. Saba lace—a genteel art that dates back to the 1870s—is still hand-stitched by local ladies who, on the side, also distill potent, 151-proof Saba Spice. It is for sale in most of the island's mom-and-pop shops. And islanders like to keep their ancestors close in a very literal sense: in keeping with a generations-old tradition, the dead are buried in local families' neatly tended gardens.
Like the residents of most small towns, Sabans are a tight-knit group; nothing happens without everyone hearing about it, making crime pretty much a nonissue. That said, they welcome newcomers and tend to make travelers feel less like tourists and more like old friends. After all, they're proud to show off their home, which they lovingly call "the unspoiled queen."