Saba Travel Guide
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How to Visit the Caribbean’s Best-Kept Secret Island

PHOTO: By Stefan Kuiper/Shutterstock

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Saba is the secluded island of avid hikers and divers, but we have the insider’s scoop on everything this tiny Dutch Caribbean gem has to offer.

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Arrive White-Knuckled or on “The Edge”

There are two ways to get to Saba—a tiny emerald green Jurassic looking island jutting out of the northeastern Caribbean Sea—and each has its own challenges. Typically, most visitors fly to St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana airport and then transfer to Saba by air or by sea.

By air, the experience aboard Winair’s tiny twin otter plane is sure to thrill. (Or alarm, depending on your adventure threshold!) After a 12-minute flight, the plane abruptly lands on one of the world’s shortest runways that leads right back into the sea.  By water, high-speed ferry The Edge takes some 90 minutes from St. Maarten and can also be an exciting yet sometimes rough journey. Either way, getting there is an adventure.

INSIDER TIPIf you are prone to seasickness, arriving by air is your best bet, as seas can be rough en route. 

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Ride The Rollercoaster Road

Ask a Saban the name of their main thoroughfare and they’ll simply tell you it’s called “The Road”. You can take the high road or the low road… it’s all the same road! This continuous ribbon of asphalt spirals around the mountain like a tightly coiled spring—with incredibly steep inclines and blind hairpin curves—and if you don’t know the unwritten rules like “up traffic gets the right-away” it can be very hairy. Best to hire the very affordable local cabbies that also double as unofficial tour guides to take the entire roller coaster tour.

INSIDER TIPThis road was built without heavy machinery upon steep and unforgiving rock; in fact, it was once called “the road that couldn’t be built.” But Sabans eventually triumphed in a way that some considered an engineering marvel of the time.

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Choose a Special Stay

You won’t find any high-rise hotels or all-inclusive resorts, but you will find a handful of charming cottage style accommodations mostly in and around Windwardside. Most of the hotels are geared to visiting divers and hikers like Scout’s Place and Juliana’s Hotel, though they are very pleasant places to stay, they can be a tad Spartan on the amenity front. But there are a few notable exceptions for those seeking luxury, like Queen’s Gardens Resort, where the Dutch Royal family stays when they visit, or the new Convent Cottage—a unique, historic, and luxurious boutique hotel full of priceless antiques and modern conveniences that was once home to Dominican nuns. There are also some opulent rental options like Spyglass Villa and Villa Orchid, a private estate.

The Pyramid House is another special spot, which is perfect for yoga themed escapes as it has a meditation circle built right into the lush natural surroundings.

 

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Take a Hike

Saba is very popular with avid hikers, and there are a dozen or so marked trails from moderate to extreme, with the most famous being the climb to the top of aptly named Mt. Scenery, where the panoramic view from the summit is well worth taking the 1,064 steps for. The peak at 2,877 ft. is actually the highest point in all of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Depending on the trail, you can pass through different eco climates from rainforest to cloud forest, and some hikes take you to tidal pools. Best to take a guided tour if you’re not a pro hiker. Stop by the trail shop for all the information, maps, and to book a guide.

INSIDER TIPEven if you don’t take an official hike, there is very little level terrain on Saba, so getting a daily work out is always on the agenda when going anywhere on foot.

 

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PHOTO: Saba Tourism Bureau
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Dive a Wall or a Pinnacle

Beyond being a hikers haven, Saba is also well known among scuba fans worldwide as a diver’s paradise. The deep drops right off-shore offer unique volcano wall diving and there’s pinnacle diving, too.  You can dive right around the “diamond,” an undersea mountain jutting up from the sea. The entire island perimeter is a protected national marine park established in 1987, which is why you’ll see so many healthy reefs and such a wide variety of resplendent marine life. This is also a great spot to learn how to dive, and there is also a freediving school.  There are three world-class dive centers on the island: Saba Deep Dive Centre, Saba Divers, and SeaSaba Dive Centre.

INSIDER TIPAdvanced divers really love this island because they can see so many large reef sharks when they dive. Rays and sea turtles are also very common, too.

 

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PHOTO: Vidar Skalevik
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Snorkel with Sea Turtles

You need not be certified to dive to enjoy the island’s rich diversity of marine life, though the waters surrounding the island are very deep. Go on a snorkel tour with SeaSaba Dive Centre to “The Nursery”, where it’s uncommonly shallow. This is where a lot of teenage sea turtles hang out. (Not the ninja mutant kind, but entertaining nonetheless.) The surrounding cliffs are surreal and otherworldly, and there’s also a cool sea cave to swim through.  You might also encounter young rays and small reef sharks, and the entire area is chock-full of colorful tropical fish.

INSIDER TIPSaba has no beaches, so it’s not a popular nesting spot for turtles because they need sand to bury their eggs. But the juvenile turtles that come from other islands flock to this protected cove where they can grow strong enough and big enough to navigate deeper waters safely.

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Discover Island Flavors

Just off of the island is an atoll called Saba Bank, where the world-famous spiny lobster can be found. Of course, the best place to sample it fresh out of the sea is on Saba, and some spots like Tropics Café have live lobster tanks where you can choose your own. Beyond lobster, the dozen or so dining spots source locally for most of their produce and greens and offer up an eclectic array of local and international specialties in a variety of al fresco and indoor venues. For true local, try aptly named Island Flavors in The Bottom, or Dutch influenced pastries and snacks at Bizzy B’ Café in Windwardside. And don’t miss the fabulous Saba lobster festival, a 3-day culinary event on island the first weekend of November each year.

 

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PHOTO: Kai Wulf/Saba Tourism Bureau
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Sample Saba Spice Rum

You can’t leave the island without sampling some velvety smooth, sweet, spicy and very potent 151-proof homemade rum. But don’t even bother trying to extract the recipe out of the locals; it’s created from time-honored traditions curated in home kitchens. Saba Spice is full of locally grown herbs and spices and you can purchase it all over the island in gift shops, grocery stores, bars, and restaurants. It’s an ideal sipping rum—straight or on ice—and local barkeeps have come up with creative cocktails using it like the Saba Spice Colada you’ll find at the Tipsy Goat Bar at Juliana’s Hotel.

INSIDER TIPThe owners of Scout’s Place hail from Germany, so they decided to put some of their homeland taste into making their own local spice rum liqueur called Sabameister. It’s available for take-home purchase there, too.

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PHOTO: John Magor
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Get Artsy

Adorn yourself with exquisite artisan gems and pieces from the Jewel Cottage, which sells handcrafted one-of-a-kind work ranging in price from $40 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or, try your hand at making your own glass bead jewelry at Jobean Glass Cottage, where you can take workshops. Also, visit Kakona for all kinds of beautiful arts and crafts made by locals with locally sourced materials. You’ll also find work of Saba’s most talented artists at Five Square Gallery, featuring Saba’s beauty depicted on canvas from local art celebrity Heleen Cornet, whose work has appeared in major galleries and shows around the world. Ask at Five Square Gallery about Heleen Cornet’s outings with artists. She regularly takes up to 8 people with her to secrets spots like the natural ‘cathedral’ to paints in the clouds.

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PHOTO: Ingrid Zagers/Saba Tourism Bureau
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Witness a Stitch in Time

Every Thursday at Kakona (besides SeaSaba headquarters in Windwardside), the “Saba Lace Ladies” get together to keep an important age-old tradition of the island alive. Once called “Spanish Work” since a nun who learned it in a convent in Venezuela originally brought it to the island, Saba Lace was one of the island’s most important exports in the 1900s. The painstaking and intricate needlework required to make it is a true art. But though the elders are trying to get local youth involved in keeping the tradition going, it might well be a stitch that’s running out of time. So try to witness its creation in person while you still can.

INSIDER TIPAsk the staff at the Kakona store when the ladies are getting together that week—it’s usually in the afternoon or evening on Thursdays. You can purchase Saba lace souvenirs at most gift shops on island.

 

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Dig Deep Into History

Though Saba might be the smallest island in the Dutch Caribbean, it’s big on interesting history, and you can dig really deep into it if you take a tour via SABARC, located at the local Heritage Centre. SABARC is a non-profit archaeological research foundation that offers various historical and archaeological tours around the island. Find out why most homes have little graveyards in their gardens, why “The Bottom” isn’t really at the bottom, and why the tiny town of Zion’s Gate perched on a cliff was also dubbed Hell’s Gate!

INSIDER TIPYou can hike to one of Saba’s most famous sites: “The Ladder”—800 steps carved into stone leading up from the sea—where at one time everything had to be brought in by hand, including pianos and furniture. But, it also can be easily viewed from the sea when you take a boat dive or snorkel trip, so save your legs!

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PHOTO: Scouts Place
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Become a 'Sabaoke Idol'

For the past 15 years, Scout’s Place has been hosting a Friday night karaoke party that’s become so famous as a unique island event that it was renamed “Sabaoke Night.” But better bring your A game as locals, regular visitors, and international students studying at the medical school there are always out to be crowned that year’s “Sabaoke Idol”, an accolade that comes with great prizes, a crown, and of course, bragging rights. Even if you don’t want to sing, it’s still great fun to watch, and the set-up is very professional with thoroughly modern equipment, thousands of songs in multiple languages, a video wall, a big stage, and all the lights, bells, and whistles that go with it.

INSIDER TIPNovember is the month when the finals for ‘Sabaoke Idol’ really heat up, so if you want to see the best of the best, that’s the time to go.