BE SURE TO go to Saba, everyone had said. But why? The question was intriguing enough to get me into a tiny Windward Airliner for the 20-minute flight from St. Maarten.
"Because it's so charming," a bemused St. Maarten tourism official had replied. "Colonial, Volcanic. Entirely different from anything else you've seen in the Caribbean."
Good beaches? I asked hopefully, a contraband hotel beach towel in hand.
Further bemusement: "No beaches," said the official.
Indeed, the harsh little outcrop called Saba faily negates the traditional image of sugary Caribbean beaches. Fierce rocky cliffs drop directly into the sea, making Saba's few sea-level groupings of rock seem almost inviting by comparison. And, incredibly, the plane was cutting its two engines to land on one such pile of rocks.
Nestled among the rocks was a 1,400-foot runway and a one-room terminal. Clearly this was no landing for the aerophobe - as the island itself is no place for the acrophobe.
A single narrow road traverses Saba's circumference, dipping into the four communities that house the island's 1,000 residents. The steep ascent from the sea-level airport to Hell's Gate, the first community, challenges all but the most determined of drivers - who obviously include Gloria Johnson, one of Saba's handful of licensed tour guides.
"Gloria, the Girl With a Smile," as her business card identifies her, greets each morning's planeload of day-trippers to Saba, offering a day's excursion in her rattletrap VW bus for $15. "For one person, two people, 10 people makes no difference, the price is the same," says Gloria, displaying the famous smile.
Her tour turns out to consist mainly of navigating the bus around the island, stopping at all the obvious spots for photographs. Is the island really volcanic? she is asked, "Well, yes, they say so, yes," she says laconically. And then, as she heads in Hell's Gate: "You would like to buy some hand-made Saban lace?"
Without waiting for an answer, she pulls up to one of the tiny houses the guidebooks call colonial. Inside is a Mrs. Hassell, bearer of one of the two most common names on Saba, with a boxful of lace doilies, handkerchiefs, bread warmers, and a backroom still producing Saba Spice, the island's traditional and potent blend of rum and island spices.
The beverage, also sold in Saba's grocery stores, often comes in unlabeled bottles more suited for Robitussin than Remy Martin. Just the thing for visitors who have already purchased their duty-free liquor.
A quick overview of the island, weaving down toward The Bottom, Saba's capital, and The Girl With a Smile is back in the community of Windwardside, ready to leave her charges at one of Saba's two restaurants, which, coincidentally, are also Saba's two hotels. The Captain's Quarters has the distinction of a swimming pool (albeit empty), but rival Scout's Place has come more highly recommended by friends on St. Maarten.
Scout Thirkield himself presides over his hillside empire of mine somewhat rugged rooms-to-let and an open-air restaurant. He seems amused that anyone would wonder what brought him from his native Ohio to this speck in the Carribean.
"Well", he begins in a indeterminate drawl "about 25 years ago I was offered this job in Texas. So I went down there and I just couldn't stand the way they talked. The accent you know. So I went to St. Thomas for a while, and then I came here.
Somehow it does not seem illogical, coming from this 60-ish fixture of Saba. Nor; for that matter, does it seem odd to be eating french-fried pumpkin or to be hearing a reggae-style "White Christmas" piped in on Scout's radio.
In large part that very timeless/placeless quality accounts for Saba's curious allure. Since there is literally no night life, no movie theater, no beaches, not even a bookstore, Saba is not the place for people who need constant canned amusement. It is not even the place to escape to after robbing a bank, since an outsider on Saba is lucky to go unnoticed for five minutes.
On the other hand, one of Scout's rented rooms or one of the little gingerbread-trimmed houses might be just the place to write your novel, compose your symphony or clear your head of evil demons. It is hard to take life seriously on Saba, hard to think that such a thing as tension might exist. In fact, it is hard to do anything but unwind on Saba.
And for the weary traveler, what else is there?