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    Caribbean '99
Saba: Small Town, Straight Up

By Jerry Haines
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 28, 1999; Page E01


Disregard its location 28 miles south of St. Maarten and 17 miles northwest of St. Eustatius. Saba is a Midwestern prairie town. It's just that it has been tipped up on its edge and speared into the Caribbean--the prairie flatness exchanged for an exotic rocky verticality. All it lacks are a grain elevator and an annual walleye tournament.

Consider, for example, that our hotel rooms have no locks. There is only a small safe in each closet. But should someone decide to steal anything, everyone probably would know about it within minutes. Only 1,200 people live on the island, and their telephones are all on the same party line. One morning as my wife, Janice, and I shop, we hear concerned discussions in three different stores about a local woman's possible stroke. We go to buy Saban lace at a local woman's home, and she chides us in a light Dutch brogue that Richard, our innkeeper, "told me that you were going to be here yesterday." I expect her to complain that Earl has left the light on in the milk house again. And Saban townspeople grouse about their government just like townspeople everywhere. They mutter "Curacao" the way outside-the-Beltway Americans say "Washington."

But instead of waiting for the Greyhound from the big city, the locals wait to see who will be on the plane from St. Maarten. It's easy to pick out the tourists--they're the ones exclaiming about the landing. Saba (pronounced SAY-ba) has the shortest runway anywhere this side of an aircraft carrier: 1,300 feet. Indeed, as the Winair pilot lines up for his approach, the view up the aisle and through his small windshield looks like a Navy training video.

We glide in past the rocky walls and above the foamy surf and come to a smooth stop on a patch of asphalt no bigger than the average parking lot at Hechinger's. The pilot has used less than half the length of the runway.

Then it's a taxi ride, up and up, around swooping S-curves, the horizon ever expanding as we spiral toward the clouds and the town of Windwardside. That the road even exists is incredible. Clearly, Saban engineers have mastered the science of sky-hookery. We pass houses tucked in wherever a rocky shelf accommodates, postage stamp-size cemeteries and, inevitably, goats.

Our fellow guests are here for the extremes of altitude--either low (scuba divers) or high (hikers). No one comes here for the beach: There isn't one. Saba rises straight out of the sea and there just isn't room for more than an occasional, temporary splash of sand.

Myself, I could spend the rest of my life here in the middle, at the side of the hotel pool, contemplating the succession of clouds docking at the top of Mount Scenery. Moving around the island means a lot of walking--walking up. (I don't remember any walking down.) The best preparation for a vacation on Saba would be to go repeatedly up the down escalator at the Rosslyn Metro. Fortunately, it is not a large island--only three miles in diameter. On the map, there is barely enough room for its four-letter name.

The divers and snorkelers we meet are enthusiastic about life in Saba's depths. The protected waters of the Saba Marine Park offer both shallow and deep-water adventures where you can visit spectacular fish in their homes. Should you be so distracted that you make unfortunate errors in judgment, Saba also features a hyperbaric chamber. It seats four, if you need to bring some friends.

Both below and above the water, Saba is--true to its motto--the "unspoiled queen." There are so few cars that most of the license plate numbers are only a double digit. While litter often mars the landscapes of other Caribbean islands, on Saba's streets and paths you would never know that the aluminum can or plastic bag had been invented. Mosquitoes haven't been invented here yet either, because the porous rock drains water away before larvae can breed in it.

One cloudy day, we set out to conquer the mountain. This sounds much more adventurous than it is, as there are steps all the way to the top. Typical of Saba, someone has gone to a lot of effort to make things nice. The steps are wet, though. My wife finds a walking stick, but not wishing to undercut my macho image, I decline. Not that there are many people on the trail to impress. We share it for a while with a retired Ohio River tow boat cook, and we encounter a few hikers on their way back down who insist that the view from the top is great.

I begin to question their enthusiasm. The orchids, ferns and vines along the path are charming, but otherwise, climbing Mount Scenery on a cloudy day is like going up inside the Washington Monument--you can't see much during the trip, but you hope the view at the top will be worth it. Also, that thick foliage holds the moist air against the trail. I'm sweating like a sailor in confession, and the Rolaids in my pocket turn into a calcium slurry. In the occasional open area, however, the wind drives away the humidity and whips the fog along at a most un-foglike velocity.

There are more than a thousand steps to the top of the trail. Many of them are steep, requiring reversion to the toddler style of planting both feet on a step before taking on the next one. Behind me in the fog I can hear Janice and her walking stick. Step, step, thud; step, step, thud. "How's it going back there, Igor?" I tease.

Finally we reach the end of the path. We can see the water way down below, but before I can even get the cap off my camera lens, the clouds close. That's all, folks. Still, we are exhilarated.

We return through the Elfin Forest, the cloud-nurtured vegetation at the top of the mountain. The mist, the shadows of mountain mahogany and the roar of the wind make it an eerie landscape.

My feet skid on a wet patch and slip from under me. Instinctively I turn to protect my camera--and the full force of my crashing body is absorbed by the little finger of my right hand. When I pull myself up I see that my camera is unharmed, but that my pinkie extends at an unnatural 75 degree angle, in apparent permanent preparation for a polite society tea. (Later I will discover that it is fractured.) To her credit, my wife does not point out that a walking stick might have prevented this. But I hear the mountain god chuckle, "Don't get cocky, punk."

The next day we hit bottom--well, the Bottom, the other major village on the island. Appropriately, the Bottom is the seat of local government. It has the island's only radio station as well as a small medical school. The road there is another segment of "the road that could not be built," which was in fact built, under the direction of a local guy who learned engineering via correspondence course.

We can see everything today without problem. The skies are clear and the humidity is gone. It is hot, and by the time we reach Lollipop's, a little bar and restaurant along the way, we are thirsty, hungry and a bit sunburned.

Carmen "Lollipop" Caines has not opened for lunch yet, but she agrees to whip up an order of deviled land crab for us as her toddler daughter scampers about under the pool table. Lollipop seats us in a sun-washed area smelling of carpet adhesive. We are to be the first patrons to use her newly decorated dining room. We ask her about a dramatically situated compound of buildings we have seen along the way, set on a little ridge that extends above the water. Is it an exclusive resort? No, she says, it is the high school. Poor kids--they have nothing to daydream about during lectures.

It is a day for daydreaming in the Bottom itself on this quiet Saturday. Most shops are closed. We let ourselves into the Catholic and Anglican churches and read their memorial tablets, buy some sodas at the local grocery, and locate a taxi for the ride back. (Somehow the hairpin turns seem more treacherous when viewed from the passenger seat of a car.)

Dressing formally for dinner on Saba means wearing socks with your shorts and T-shirt. The featured items are seafood but, oddly, many of them will not have been locally caught. The Saba Banks have been heavily fished, and any catch of appreciable size will go to nearby St. Barts, where people are willing to pay for it.

We meet other couples from the United States. One woman jokes about the puzzled reaction she gets when she identifies her ethnic heritage as "Saban American." She has come to trace her family, the Simmonses. We know the name--we have seen it on the memorial plaques at Christ Church in the Bottom. And I realize the significance. It calls up the real Saba, the one that existed before rum punches or T-shirt shops. It is the Saba born of the violence of the sea and settled even though living there should have been impossible. It is the Saba of struggle, of faith.

Saba was created in a volcanic eruption. Once settled (by Dutch, English and Scots), its population survived because of and in spite of the sea. Life was simple: If it could not be grown on the island, it had to come in by boat and be hauled up long ladders. Sabans had to be tough.

Christ Church contains many memorial tablets, many bearing witness to the stark realities of those years. One commemorates the deaths of four members of the Simmons family--ages 16 to 52. All lost at sea, all in 1918. An adjacent marker shows that a fifth member of the same family had been lost at sea only two years earlier. "Lost" at sea--what an inadequate euphemism to signify the sea's awesome power to hurl a man's body to the ocean floor and his soul to Heaven, in one terrible crash of a wave.

Maybe, in the great Eternal Scheme, there are more significant harms than a broken pinkie finger. But could there be a prettier place to contemplate such things than here, at the foot of Mount Scenery?

Jerry Haines last wrote for Travel about Al's Breakfast shop in Minneapolis.

Details: Saba
Post-Hurricane Update: Hurricane Georges clobbered Saba last September, but most tourist facilities are reportedly back up and running. According to Kathy Mikita of Saba Reef Divers, diving operations were not significantly affected, and the hiking trail to the top of Mount Scenery shows few signs of the storm. Most of the hotels were able to restore normal operations (see below). Alas, the beautiful high school lost its roof, but repairs are underway.

Getting There: There are no direct flights from Washington to Saba. American Airlines flies between Washington and St. Maarten and is quoting a round-trip fare of $521, with restrictions. From St. Maarten, you can choose between a white-knuckle air trip or a green-faced boat trip to Saba. In truth, the air trip is pretty tame (even with its screeching halt at Saba), and the boat trip is Dramamine-worthy only if the sea is rough. Typical round-trip air fare on Windward Islands Airways is $78; by boat, $60. WHERE TO STAY: Unfortunately, Captain's Quarters (telephone 1-800-446-3010, 011-599-4-62201; $115), perhaps the best-known Saban hotel, was thoroughly pounded by Georges. Nevertheless, it is operating on a limited basis (two rooms and a cottage are available). Other lodging options are the Cottage Club (011-599-4-62486; $115), which has 10 gingerbread cottages with kitchens; Gate House (011-599-4-62416 or, from the United States, 708-354-9641; $95); Juliana's Apartments (011-599-4-62269, apartments $135, rooms $115); Queen's Garden Resort (011-599-4-63494; $150-$300 for luxury units with kitchenettes); Scout's Place (011-599-4-62205; $89, includes breakfast); and Willard's of Saba (1-800-613-1511 or 011-599-4-62498; $250-500).

Where to Eat: The restaurant at Gate House (see above) is probably the best of the island's informal eateries, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients; a fixed-price dinner for one is $25. Lollipop's is ideal for a lazy lunch and local gossip, and Scout's Place offers salads, fish sandwiches and no pretensions; lunch at both runs about $10. On the fancy side, Willard's has an exquisite view and prices to match--about $50 to $60 for one, without wine.

Where to Shop: Like other tourist destinations, Saba offers many opportunities to buy tchotchkes--but Saban tchotchkes, produced by the local arts community rather than at some mass production facility, show originality. Try Jobean's glass works for whimsical expressions in glass, or the Saba Artisan Foundation. Saban lace work is available at several homes, and liquid art in the form of Saba Spice liqueur is made according to various family recipes. (Some varieties evoke childhood memories of cough medicine.)

Information: Saba Tourist Office, P.O. Box 6322, Boca Raton, Fla. 33427, 1-800-722-2394; or Saba Tourist Bureau, 011-599-4-62231,

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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