Saba…An Island In The Clouds

From Anguilla, we headed south, to Saba, which was on Scott’s must-stop, cruising list. Similar to Montserrat, the weather needs to be pretty stable to stop at Saba. The island has no natural harbor, and the mooring balls on the island’s west side aren’t protected, essentially placed in the open Atlantic.

The winds were far from calm, and offered only a two day window before they would increase even more, and force us on, but we decided to make a go of it. After having to give up Montserrat, we decided that visiting Saba would be worth a few days roll on a mooring ball.

As we traveled, Scott put lines in the water, hoping for a bite. He got one…just as we noticed a waterspout on the horizon!

The bite was a big one, in the form of a sizeable white marlin! Scott worked on reeling the fish in, while I kept my eye on the spout.

Obviously, we weren’t going to eat the marlin, and I forbid the fish from entering the cockpit, with its inhospitable bill. Scott didn’t want to lose the lure, so he reeled the fish in, pulled the lure further up the line and cut the marlin free. He sure was pretty up close, even with the inhospitable bill.

Not long after he’d cut the marlin loose, Scott reeled in a mahi. It was much easier to reel in, but that fish put up quite a fight in the cockpit, before Scott declared victory.

The tiny island of Saba is the peak of a 500,000-year-old volcanic cone, soaring 5,000 feet from the sea floor. You may not have heard of Saba before, but chances are you’ve seen it: the producers of the original 1933 King Kong movie were enthralled with the island’s craggy, volcanic silhouette, and used its likeness as the backdrop for the colossal gorilla’s “Skull Island” home.

As Saba came into view, it could definitely have passed for a prehistoric island.

Aside from its brief brush with fame, the island remains widely unknown, and is referred to by locals as the “Unspoiled Queen” of the Caribbean. Untouched by cruise ships and chain restaurants, with an insanely small airport, lack of a real harbor, sandy beaches and sheer cliffs all around, Saba is in no danger of being over-commercialized any time soon.

We tied to one of the free moorings in Ladder Bay, on the island’s west side, and spent the rest of the day taking in the view of Saba’s majestic cliffs, and rocky coastline.


Saba even impressed Howard.

Sadly, landing the dinghy along the rocky coast was not an option, which upset Scott greatly, as he noticed the many caves along the waterline, begging to be explored.

But what really upset Scott, was not being able to land his dinghy and climb The Ladder. Ladder Bay is named for a steep set of 800 steps, carved into the rock, known as The Ladder.

The steps lead to Saba’s old custom house, and before the island’s only road was built in the 1940’s (more on that crazy project later), The Ladder was the only way to reach the island’s capital city. Anyone or anything had to ascend these crazy, winding, Lord of the Rings-style steps.

Here’s a great three minute video I found online, posted by a guy descending The Ladder in 2014. He starts the journey down at 26 seconds, and at about a minute and a half (1:30), the steepness factor turns up a notch.

Our mooring was approximately seven miles from the  Saba Bank, a huge submerged atoll, and the third largest of its kind in the world. The bank is a flat-topped seamount that rises almost 6,000 feet from the ocean floor, to within sixty feet of the surface. It’s teeming with life, and home to a vast array of corals, sponge and fish species, some of the richest diversity in the Caribbean Sea. A pretty cool tidbit, even though we weren’t here to dive.

Back to the view from our mooring ball. We continued to stare at our beautiful surroundings, which became even prettier at dusk, and then enjoyed a beautiful sunset.

The next morning, we took the dinghy on a lumpy ride around the corner, and into the small commercial harbor at Fort Bay, to clear in. The island has been a Dutch territory for the last 345 years, but today’s official currency is the USD, and English and Dutch are both official languages.

The island’s four villages are all located at much higher elevations than the harbor. We’d read that a taxi ride to the town of Windwardside, where we were headed, would run $50.00, and include a bit of a tour and local information. Done deal, as walking the steep, winding road was not an option. It actually is an option, but since we weren’t in  training for a triathlon, the cab option was just fine.

One of the dive shops along the harbor called a cab for us. We were told Dawn was on her way from the other side of the island, and not to get into any other taxi. In less than ten minutes, Dawn arrived and we were on our way up The Road (yes, another “The”).

Before The Road, life on Saba was much more difficult. Traveling the island’s twisting trails was an arduous task, as everything including the kitchen sink was transported by hand, and donkey, across the island’s grueling elevations (after being carried up the steep steps of The Ladder), beneath the unforgiving Caribbean sun.

Both Dutch and Swiss engineers claimed a road couldn’t be built on Saba, due to the island’s extreme topography.  However, local Saban, Josephus Lambert Hassell, had issues with the word “couldn’t.” He earned an engineering degree through correspondence courses, and in 1938, with the assistance of his fellow Sabans, got down to the business of building the impossible.

The first section of road was completed after five years of work, using no heavy machinery (yes, this crazy road was all built by hand!). In 1947, the first motor vehicle arrived, and in 1958, “The Road That Could Not Be Built” was completed, with its highest point rising over 1800 feet above sea level.

As we traveled, the expansive views across the mountains, and back down to the water below were amazing.

The Road itself, scared me to death. We could see it winding along the mountain ahead of us, full of twists and turns, many of them hair-pin and switch-back. In many places, one side of The Road was too near the edge of a steep incline, and other times it just seemed to hover in mid air (Remember…this sucker was built by hand!).

On our way to Windwardside, we passed through the village of….wait for it, The Bottom (what’s with the “The’s?!?), It’s the capital of Saba, and home to The Saba University School of Medicine.

Started by a local doctor, and initially funded by American expatriates and the Dutch government, the university is a lucrative business for the island. When classes are in session, its 400 students become islanders, and aside from providing healthcare for the island’s people, the school also adds a few million dollars to the Saban economy through its fees….win-win.

When we arrived at the village of Windwardside (named for its location on the island’s windward side), it looked like someone had picked up a picturesque European town and dropped it onto this volcanic island in the Caribbean. As we’d seen on the French islands, many of the homes looked as if they’d been freshly painted. Gingerbread trim, which accents many homes throughout the Eastern Caribbean, and neat and tidy gardens, full of tropical plants and flowers framed the quaint houses, and picket fences or other decorative wooden enclosures complete the picture.

What made the homes on Saba different, with a few exceptions, is that they all looked the same, at least from the outside. Red zinc roofs, that decorative Caribbean gingerbread trim, and green shutters seemed to define the architecture.  We learned that this uniform look is the law!

Apparently, locals never questioned how their homes should look, until approximately 30 years ago, when a few foreigners moved to the island and changed their new homes to suit their own preferences. Sabans, some of whom can trace their ancestors back to the first settlers in 1640, were shocked.

As a result, the local government decided it was time to make what was a long-standing tradition into a law, with homeowners abiding by strict style and color schemes.  “Saba houses,” one-story wooden homes, typically built on a stone foundation, are all white-washed. They have similar sized windows, with shutters that are painted either green and white, red and white or all white.

Those red roofs, all have the same  pitch of about 35 degrees (though over the years some homeowners have replaced the original shingles with sheets of corrugated iron, for easier upkeep and a bit more stability against hurricanes), and picket fences are trimmed in an approved color.

Dawn had relatives who lived on Saba, and recently moved to the island herself from St. Thomas, being lucky enough to buy a “Saba house” that had come up for sale soon after she arrived.

You’d think all of this uniformity would look uninspiring and dull, but in Saba the result was absolutely charming. Through the main part of town, and in surrounding hills, the fresh-looking red and white houses sparkled against sun, and made the view down to the sea far below even more beautiful.

Scott’s sole reason for coming to Saba was to hike Mount Scenery. A dormant volcano, Mount Scenery last erupted in 1640, and is the island’s most dominant feature. It rises to 2877 feet, which also happens to be the highest peak in the Kingdom of the Netherlands! Here’s an aerial view of Saba’s Mount Scenery, with the capital city of The Bottom on the left, and Windwardside on the right.

Behind a shop in Windwardside, a trail comprised mostly of 1064 stairs leads to the top of Mount Scenery. The staircase was constructed (by hand of course) in1969, to access the communications tower being installed at the summit, and was completed in 1970. Scott left me to wander the town, and began the climb. (I had the camera in town, so Scott shot these photos with his iPad, and they transferred over pretty small, and not as clear as I’d like…apologies).

A cloud forest dominates Mount Scenery’s upper 150 feet. Rain forests are located at lower elevations, so they tend to be much warmer. Cloud forests, on the other hand, are usually located at much higher elevations, and are much cooler. The difference in temperature causes mist and fog, often visible in a cloud forest, as the milder temperatures slow the evaporation process. Despite being cooler than rainforests, cloud forests are still very humid…yay for Scott! Here’s an aerial view of Saba, with it’s “head” in the clouds.

Scott walked up, through thick, lush vegetation, passing ferns, elephant ears and other plants, all huge in size.

The forest absorbs water from the humid air, so its plants and trees are constantly moist and grow abundantly. Saba’s cloud forest is unlike others found in the Caribbean, due to its 200-year-old Mahogany trees, which dominate the peak, and can grow up to 49 feet tall, while canopy heights in other cloud forests rarely exceed 20 feet.

These large trees are smothered with plants and mosses that hang from the branches and act like sponges, soaking up moisture from the clouds and rain, providing the forest, and vegetation at lower levels with a constant trickle of life-sustaining water.

At the peak, this is the view one would hope to see…

Unfortunately, this is what Scott saw, due to said cloud forest…

He waited a bit, and began to get a peek at the view below…

And then…cloud…

A bit later, another peek…..

Scott decided to linger, wander around and enjoy the surroundings….because how often do you get to hang out in a cloud?!?

Scott’s patience paid off, and voila!, the sun came out and the view below became much more clear.

Having waited out the clouds, Scott began his decent along the many stone steps, passing several Saba houses along the way.

At the bottom, he received a certificate in the trail shop, documenting his achievement. Only twenty more trails to conquer on this five square-mile island! But they would have to wait for another visit.

While Scott was sweating it out on the mountain, I was enjoying the town of Windwardside. The restaurants and shops in town seemed to follow the rules as well, with red roofs, white paint and green trimmed windows.

Several of the shops in town had pieces of Saba lace for sale, which has an interesting history. In the 1870’s, Mary Gertrude Hassell Johnson was sent by her parents to study at a convent in Caracas, Venezuela. There, the nuns taught the girl how to create the intricate designs of this needlecraft.

Mary brought the craft back to Saba and in 1884, when regular mail service first connected the island to the outside world, the wives and daughters of Saba’s seafaring men turned the craft into a home-based, mail-order industry.

The women came up with an ingenuous way to market their needlework. As boxes of merchandise were sent from the United States to Saba, the ladies would copy addresses of the American companies and send them letters, explaining their work and listing prices. Often, a sympathetic person receiving the letter would post it on the company bulletin board, and ultimately the lace makers would receive orders for their work. By 1928, the Saban women were exporting almost $15,000 worth of needlework annually…that’s a pretty darned good amount for 1928!

Now, more than a century later, the skill learned by a young Saban girl still provides a means of support for many families on the island. Blouses, dresses, tablecloths and napkins, in a variety of colors, are only a few of the pieces the Saban women create. The lace was beautiful, but pricey, so I had to pass on this piece of the island’s history.

I meandered the main street, past a beautiful church sat in the center of town, one of the few buildings that didn’t look exactly like the others, but surely used approved colors.

Stone walls lined most all the streets throughout town, and up into the hills, hand-made (like everything on Saba) from volcanic rock.

I continued to wander the streets, taking in the sights and admiring this unique and picturesque town.

And of course….the views!

As I walked, Mount Scenery was always visible in the distance, where Scott was making his ascent.

Tuckered out from my tour of town, and beyond, I settled in at a table outside the Bizzy B Bakery & Cafe. I ordered a beer, checked the internet and waited for Scott to show.

He soon appeared, soaked in sweat, but happy with himself. We traded stories of our day over another cold beer, and then went to grab a few groceries before Dawn arrived to take us back down to the bay. We would loved to have stayed into the evening, and spent time at some of the bars and restaurants in town, but weren’t keen on taking the dinghy around the island in the dark, so back down the mountain we went.

Instead of heading right back down to the bay, Dawn drove us to the west side of the island, where we had a good view of the airport below.

In 1963, Saba residents built the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (that’s a mouthful). The runway is challenging  1300 feet in length, with the span of actual “usable” runway between the white lines measuring just under 1000 feet! It’s reputed to be the shortest commercial air strip in the world, and to put it in perspective, that’s just over a tenth of the size of London’s Heathrow Airport!!

Obviously, due to its size, the airport can only accommodate small planes and helicopters. Officially, the runway is permanently closed to all air traffic, designated by an “X” on each end. However, aircraft are permitted to  land on Saba by obtaining waivers from the Netherlands Antilles’ Civil Aviation Authority. Here are more good online photos of this tiny runway, from a crazy person who flew in.

Depending on wind conditions, it is possible to land on both ends of the runway. Incoming pilots have to navigate over steep hills before coming to a stop on the short runway, to avoid a sheer drop into the ocean on the other end; passengers get more of a sense of landing on an aircraft carrier rather than on an island. Yeesh, looking down at that tiny airstrip made me glad to have arrived by boat!

The views were just as amazing on our way back down to sea level as they were on our ascent to Windwardside.

And The Road was just as twisting-turning.

We said goodbye to Dawn, had a beer at one of the dive shops along the bay, then hopped into the dinghy.

Back on board, we collapsed in the saloon, having seen and learned a lot in our single day ashore. We’d come to Saba for Scott to hike it’s highest peak, and my plan was to “kill time” while he did. I didn’t expect to love the island’s soaring views, and the lovely village of Windwardside as much as I did. We’d taken in much of the island’s beauty during our short, two-day stay, and the rugged but beautiful island of Saba had definitely been worth the roll.

Here are more photos, from our visit to Saba.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”