Caribbean Cruising '23: Saba

Suzanna Pinder on 03 March 2023
‘’Saba rises from the sea like a fairytale picture of a forbidden land. If there was ever a hidden Shrangri-la in the Caribbean, it is Saba.’’ - Doyle Leeward Islands Cruising Guide

Approaching in the early hours, we could see lights glistening way up high against a black backdrop and as the sun rose, the rock that is Saba appeared in all her glory. At only 5 square miles but a whopping 3,084 feet tall, Saba is unmistakable and approaching from the east it looked nigh on impossible for anything to have been built on this sheer sided rock, nevermind accessing it.

Although Saba has been home to hardy souls for decades, until the 1940’s the island was almost inaccessible, with everything carried up and down a steep stone staircase cut into the rock and boats only able to attempt approach in rare calm conditions. Goods were often passed between men chest high in water before the gruelling haul up the 800 steps, including legend has it, a bishop and a piano! Whilst access has since been improved, it is still possible to climb (in places, scramble!) up the original steps at Ladder Bay and fully appreciate exactly how hardy the early settlers must have been. In the photos, the Customs House is only halfway up!

A ‘new road’ from the sea was built in 1943 but with no port for shelter it was still tricky landing supplies and transportation between the two villages of The Bottom and Windwardside, perched high on the top of the island, was also still along a steep mountain track. Dutch engineers said it would be impossible to build a road between the villages and moreso contemplate building an airport. However, a local Saban decided to take matters into his own hands, undertaking a correspondence course in road building. Taking several years and the help of many locals to hand build the road, it was finally completed in 1958. The Sabans also called in a pilot from St Barts to prove landing would be possible on their hand flattened landing strip on a magma flow, the only flat part of the island, resulting in the opening of their airport in 1963. Saba Airport is today the shortest commercial runway in the world at only 400m (only marginally longer than an aircraft carrier!).

Saba really is a special place and the locals are so proud to show off their tiny piece of paradise. Following a rather treacherous disembarkation into the dinghy and trip ashore (the harbour is very exposed to the Caribbean elements!) we were treated to a fabulous taxi tour. Our driver, Cuchi, was Saba born and bred and I don’t think there was anything or anyone he didn’t know! Full of island tales and facts, Cuchi entertained us whilst effortlessly navigating the narrow roads, seemingly oblivious to the sheer drops down the mountainside. He even introduced us to a part time resident living between Saba and Chichester.

From properties squeezed onto every available flattish piece of land, through to those on stilts clinging precariously to the cliff sides, The Bottom and Windwardside are like toy towns, with delightfully pretty white washed, red roofed buildings, cute shopping arcades and roads so narrow we found ourselves occasionally breathing as we squeezed between buildings. Tourism is a good part of Saba’s income, not only from visiting yachtsmen but also hikers, divers and tourists simply looking to get off the beaten track. We passed a couple of lovely little hotels and a good handful of delightful restaurants. For any visiting sailors, there is also one of my new favourite anchorages, Ladder Bay. On the sheltered western side of the island, anchoring under the spectacular high cliffs with pelicans diving for fish and countless turtles really is a magical setting.

Many people are unaware of Saba’s existence and it is certainly not the easiest of islands to reach. However, I think that all adds to the islands charm and mystery and any visitors who do make the effort can be sure of a very warm welcome and a memory that will last a lifetime.

This article was published as part of a series ‘Caribbean Cruising 2023’.

Next article ‘St Eustatius (Statia)’.