If one of the most attractive aspects of cruising the Caribbean is the variety that can be had within a short day’s sail, I recommend the sail from Saint Martin to Saba. We had read in Doyle’s cruising guide that ‘if ever there was a hidden Shangri La of the Caribbean, it is Saba’ but had taken such praise with a huge pinch of salt. We left Saint Martin intending to sail to Saint Bart’s but found ourselves making a course to Saba, sailing as close to the wind as we could. As Saba was on our list of places we wanted to visit, rather than put a huge tack in and sail all the way back to Saint Bart’s, I suggested we amend our plans and simply sail to Saba first. So it was rather a shock to the system to find ourselves, a mere ten hours’ sail from the beaches and touristic haunts of Saint Martin, suddenly moored up alongside the sheer cliff of this dragon’s tooth of an island, wreathed in mist with only two other boats for company. Instead of anchoring in shallow, turquoise waters we were on a mooring buoy in 20 metres. The water around us looked black like the water of a Scottish Loch. It felt as if we were suddenly in the Outer Hebrides instead of in the Caribbean that first night. That was the start of our stay in one of the most captivating islands we have visited so far.
Saba (pronounced ‘sabre’ like a light sabre) is a very unusual island. It has no beaches or shallow bays but rises out of the sea abruptly, which makes it a pristine dive spot. There are only two places to moor a boat; either on the west side of the island when the wind and swell are out of the south or to the south of the island when the wind and swell are out of the north. For most of the island’s history the only point of access was up a vertiginous set of stairs known as “the Ladder” on the west side of the island. There is no landing dock to these stairs and men used to stand up to their waists in water and pass everything along to the shore before carrying it up the steep steps. Nowadays there is a small harbour on the south side of the island, Fort Bay where ferries, fishing boats and dive boats dock. And dinghies, for those hardy souls who are brave enough to reach it!
We were moored up in Ladder bay, swimming distance from the steps. I took my trusty waterproof camera and swam onto the beach of boulders. Landing was the hard part, as I was wearing fins but once I had managed to get out of the surf without taking a bashing from the waves, I took my fins off and swapped them for the dinghy shoes that I’d tied around my waist. There was no issue with leaving fins and snorkelling mask on the beach. There was nobody else around except sea birds! Walking up the ladder was quite magical. I had never before been onto an island which I could explore for an hour without seeing a single human being! There was something really enchanting about climbing the “ladder”; an incredibly well built and sturdy staircase which leads to the old customs house and quickly offers stunning views over the bay (and the Princess moored below). The boat quickly became a distant speck. My first glimpses of the island were intriguing. The vegetation was lush and green with mango trees and ferns. I heard and then glimpsed my first wild Caribbean parrots. The road when I reached it was spotless and beautifully maintained, very different from typical roads in other Caribbean islands. No potholes here! I seemed to have been transported to another world. I began to understand our guide book’s Shangri La reference.
The guide book goes on to say that Saba, like many unspoiled islands worth the visit, is not easy to access. He is right there! The next day we saw calmer winds, so we took our courage into our hands and tackled the journey to Fort Bay harbour in our dinghy. We found ourselves in ocean swell in our inflatable dinghy and clung on for dear life as we confronted some pretty steep waves as we rounded the south of the island. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we finally arrived in the little harbour. This commute by dinghy is not for the faint hearted!
Once on land though, we found ourselves on a unique island, far from the madding Caribbean crowd. It has a real outpost feel and reminded us of Porto Santo, the first Atlantic island that we had reached after leaving Gibraltar, a tranquil and unspoiled place. Once we got up into the mountainside, the island reminded us of Madeira with its cooler temperatures, mist and unbounded, lush green vegetation. There are two towns on Saba, Bottom, the capital and Windward (on guess which side of the island?). We got a taxi to the higher town of Windward. It was unlike any other town we had seen so far in the Caribbean. This pretty little town with its pristine white houses with red rooves and white picket fences was impossible not to call “quaint”, even for non-Americans. The little churches look as if they have just had the wrapper taken off them and the Police Station in the capital, Bottom, is almost eerily clean. A park overlooking the sea is equipped with state of the art fitness apparatus and health messages adorn the perfectly painted primary school. It would be a good place to set a Scandi noir thriller! The island is currently under Dutch governance and apparently the Dutch government spends 11 million dollars a year on infrastructure and public services in Saba, although the island only generates 1 million a year in taxes by itself. We later found out that there is no unemployment on the island. If anyone is without a job, one is created by the Dutch government. This is why Saba is absolutely spotlessly clean!
Having qualified as a PADI Open water diver last year, I was incredibly lucky to make my first two real dives here (I don’t count cleaning the hull of the boat as a dive, although that was great for buoyancy practice). Saba is diving heaven, and attracts some pretty experienced divers who sing its praises, so my expectations were high. I was not disappointed. We completed two amazing dives here. I immediately saw a Caribbean reef shark on my first dive as well as two nurse shark. Three sharks on my first ever dive! (Plus many other pretty fish that are too many to mention). It was the second dive that will stay in my memory though. We swam around and between two huge pinnacles of coral, twenty metres deep. As I looked up, I found myself looking up a living wall of coral. A school of Barracuda swam past at one point. This was my first taste of truly stupendous diving which is surely as awe inspiring as going into space (but with more to look at). I can heartily recommend Saba Divers, headed up by KC and Jill. They are the perfect mix of professional, friendly and fun and they did the perfect job of reassuring me as a beginner diver. I am now officially in love with diving!
And a little in love with Saba. This other worldly place has a fairy tale atmosphere for anyone even a teensy bit romantic and heaps of unspoiled natural beauty, above and below the water. They are about to build a harbour which can accommodate sailing boats which will make it less a place of adventure for yachties. However, I’m sure it will continue to preserve its wild and untamed character coupled with its painstakingly pretty and well maintained towns. Unspoiled and civilised, there is nowhere quite like it in the Caribbean (except maybe Saint Eustatius). Anyone who gets the chance should visit but make sure your dinghy is fit for purpose!