Without looking for it, we found the spiritual equivalent of Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon in the Caribbean.

Saba (pronounced SAY-buh) projects 3,000 feet straight up out of the clear blue sea, its coast an unbroken circle of cliffs as foreboding as fortress walls. The island's five square miles comprise a place of lushly vertical extremes that time and tourism have pretty much forgotten, or never really found: There are no beaches, no resorts, absolutely nothing for the bikini-and-pina-colada crowd. Saba is simple, a quiet rural retreat with spectacular diving and snorkeling. In fact, most of the island's 20,000-plus annual visitors come in the morning from St. Maarten and leave by late afternoon.

My husband Steve and I found out about Saba from a boat captain who shuttles tourists between St. Maarten and St. Barts. We asked where he goes on his days off; he pointed to the distant conical form floating on the horizon, and we immediately packed our bags for an overnighter.

Above sea level, Saba's charms are quaint, homey and just a little weatherworn. Neat gingerbread trim adorns the cottages, most of which are white clapboard with red-tile roofs and dark green shutters. Flowering shrubs crowd every little yard; orchids grow like weeds; white picket fences frame every plot. Kids play kickball on the streets, and everybody walks: There is only one steeply pitched hairpin road twisting among the island's five villages.

A third of Saba's thousand-some residents live in the capital and largest town, The Bottom -- a misnomer, as it's 820 feet above sea level. (The name is a bad translation of the Dutch de botte, which means "the bowl," as the village nestles in a deep valley.)

Nearly everyone on the island is named either Hassell, Johnson or Simmons, after their Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian forebears (or owners) who first settled the island in the 1600s and occupied themselves with farming, fishing, sailing and, some say, pirating. The brogues remain as thick as the rain-forest clouds that obscure Mount Scenery, the island's pinnacle, and differ from village to village.

Sabans are Dutch citizens; theirs is a self-governing pip of the Netherlands Antilles, which includes faraway Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire as well as nearby St. Maarten and St. Eustatius. Saba and its neighbors comprise the Dutch Windwards.

Saba lies just 28 miles south of St. Maarten; the once-a-day speedboat ferry service takes about an hour to get there, while a plane trip lasts just 20 minutes -- if you can get on the plane.

That, we discovered, can be a maddening and time-consuming conditional. There are five flights from St. Maarten to Saba daily, but the plane may take off each time with several seats unfilled -- even if every seat has been sold and there's a standby list -- if the weight of the Saba-bound cargo exceeds certain limits.

We missed the 8:15 a.m. flight, on which we were confirmed, by seconds, and the rest of the day's flights were booked solid. We returned to the airport three hours later to try the next flight. No luck; the plane took off with four empty seats and a full cargo hold. On our final try in late afternoon the airport was more crowded than ever, but because we had only carry-on luggage -- and professed that we had confirmed reservations -- we finally scored boarding passes.

The air approach to Saba is not for the faint of heart. The plane flies directly at a sheer cliff, banking hard to the left at the last possible moment, then screeching to a halt halfway down the 1,312-foot runway, which covers a plateau with a 300-foot drop at either end.

We were slightly shaken but impressed at the pilot's prowess. Once we cleared customs, we found several mini-van taxi drivers soliciting disembarking passengers. We turned ourselves over to Carmen "Lollipop" Hassell, a convivial redhead who pointed out sights as her van strained up the island road. By the time she unloaded us at our lodging, Scout's Place in Windwardside (about 1,800 feet up, in the saddle between Mount Scenery and Booby Hill), she'd persuaded us to hire her for a tour of the island the next afternoon.

On checking in, we were asked immediately if we'd be eating in, and would either of us be wanting lobster. Not entirely sure what our other options were and liking the looks of the open-air dining room, we placed our dinner orders on the spot.

Our room had a four-poster bed and a small black-and-white television with static on every channel. It also had a marvelous view of the village rooftops, the sea and the setting sun. We quickly dropped our bags and set off to explore before darkness fell.

It was a few days before Christmas; rambling red poinsettias blossomed prettily in many yards, as did a seasonal white-flowered shrub called snow on the mountain. Sounds arose as we walked: roosters crowing, dogs barking, crickets chirping, televisions, telephones and dishes clinking.

Conversations start easily in Saba, as we quickly learned. Everyone we encountered was friendly and forthcoming, curious and ready to chat at length, happy for the diversion from daily routine.

We fell to talking with Margery Hassell, an older woman who lives in a little house called the Floral Cottage, just below the house where she was born, which in turn lies just across the path from the family plot. Down the hill is an inn called Captain's Quarters, which was Margery's grandparents' home. Her garden was delightful, but she fretted over the damage done to her plants and picket fences by Hurricane Hugo, which had passed within 25 miles of the island a few months before.

We strolled on, admiring the juxtaposition of Christmas lights and tropical plants. We peeked in at Captain's Quarters' dining room and contemplated a little restaurant called Brigadoon (another legendary location with which Saba is often compared) but decided we liked our inn's setting better, at the top of the village instead of the bottom. We stuck our heads inside one of the village's simple churches and chatted with the priest, a non-native whose last posting was in Africa.

Sunset brought a definite chill to the air so we donned jackets and shared dinner with a couple from Oregon, who'd come to Saba for a week of diving. The meal was tasty and ample, without gourmet aspirations.

The next morning brought a most unexpected visitor to the breakfast table, and really clinched the Lake Wobegon connection for us. A seventysomething woman of broad beam and equally broad grin whooshed in, pulled up a chair and introduced herself with a hearty handshake and a merry, gravelly voice as Pauline Paul. A former Californian and a Vietnam veteran, she has lived on Saba for 18 years as a Bahai missionary.

"Mind if I interview you for my radio show? Good!" she announced, pulling out an address book and scribbling down our vital statistics. If we tuned in that night, Pauline promised, we would be mentioned on her program, "The News From Saba," which follows her Bahai readings on the AM band every evening.

In turn, she cheerfully hyped herself and her adopted home to us. "I'm absolutely infamous -- I make hats and bags, and do my radio show every night. Honey, I'm busier 'n a bird dog! We've never had a serious accident at the airport," she boasted. "But if they have another hurricane, I'm gonna leave. We sat in our houses with all the shutters closed for 10 or 12 hours. That was too much. It never really quit. We were absolutely shut off from the world." She shuddered at the memory.

Pauline assured us we could get a great story about Saba if we stuck around for a while, but railed righteously against writers "who think they're qualified to write about the place after spending a day here. Harrumph!" With that, she was up and gone to teach a piano lesson.

Her admonition ringing in our ears, we nevertheless decided to do as much as we could on Saba in the space of one day.

We began with a hike partway up Mount Scenery, which was shaded with cooling clouds. The path to the 2,854-foot summit begins just outside Windwardside, and consists of 1,064 steps, some hewn into the rock, others poured concrete. At every turn we were dazzled by gigantic ferns, delicate wildflowers and vines sturdy enough to hold any Tarzan wanna-be. We heard the chatters, chirps and cries of jungle wildlife, but saw only hundreds of small silent butterflies.

It can take a few hours to get to the top, as the route is extremely steep; we turned back after an hour, since we still had plenty to see and do. Back at Scout's Place, we slipped into the tiny swimming pool briefly, then found Pauline and several other expatriate American women enjoying their regular ladies' lunch and grousing over the barking dog that had kept the whole village awake during the night.

Jean Macbeth runs Around the Bend, a boutique next door to Scout's Place. Katherine Maeder owns the Windwardside Gallery, on the other side of the inn. Norma Waddington is a nurse at the clinic in The Bottom. A happier colony of widows and divorcees could scarcely be imagined. All clearly love where they live; Jean moved to Saba from St. Thomas when that island became too touristy, after having abandoned New York City long before. Their lives are both comfortably safe and adventurous -- an enviable combination.

Unfortunately, we didn't get around to visiting the gallery or boutique, or the Saba Museum in Windwardside. Nor did we have time to see any samples of handmade Saba lace, or taste the sweet rum-based liqueur called Saba Spice.

Lollipop picked us up after lunch and got us down to Fort Bay for a snorkeling trip. "This hurricane destroyed all our breadfruit trees," she told us. "A lot of our trees got damaged, so we cut them down and made charcoal." We could scarcely tell, the jungle was so dense. As she negotiated the hairpin turns, Lollipop cheerfully advised, "You go off the road here, you're not gonna come back." We were glad to let her do the driving.

At Saba Deep Scuba Diving Center we geared up and set off with a boatload of other snorkelers and divers. The Saba Marine Park surrounds the island underwater; there are 25 dive sites, including several caves and drop-offs, with 200-foot visibility. From the small section we glimpsed during our one-hour excursion, it'll be well worth a return trip once we're certified divers. We saw several aquariums' worth of small brightly colored flitting fish, some substantial parrotfish, and Steve spotted a sea turtle flying over the reef. Back on the boat, the divers excitedly reported seeing barracuda and rays.

Lollipop was waiting for us when we returned, worried that she wouldn't be able to get us up, down and across the island to the airport in time, which would have wreaked complete havoc with our return to the mainland. Secretly, I wouldn't have minded at all. Pauline was right. Saba deserves more than a day. Before we'd even left, I was ready to return.

Magda Krance is a writer living in Chicago. WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE:

The round-trip air fare from Washington to Saba is about $470 via American, Eastern or Pan Am, all of which fly via New York or San Juan to St. Maarten's Juliana Airport and connect with Winair's 20-minute flights to Saba. You also can reach Saba via a one-hour speedboat ride on the Style, which departs the Great Bay Marina in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, daily at 9 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m. Once you arrive in Saba, taxis are available at the airport and pier. Tell the driver where you're going; he or she will tell you what the fare will be. Photographic and sightseeing tours can be arranged on the spot.

CURRENCY:

The Netherlands Antilles guilder is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are accepted throughout the island.

WEATHER:

Temperatures are 75 to 85 degrees during the day, 55 to 65 degrees at night. Days are sunny, the evenings breezy. Take a sweater, jacket and long pants.

WHERE TO STAY:

Virtually all available lodging is in Windwardside. Rooms at Scout's Place cost $55 to $85 a night double in winter, including breakfast. The open-air dining room also serves lunch and dinner, and there's a tiny swimming pool. For information: 011-599-4-2205.

Captain's Quarters is considered the premier inn on the island, although some of its 10 guest rooms overlook a parking lot. It has a slightly larger pool than Scout's Place, open-air dining and a choice of meal plans. Winter room rates are $125 a night double, including continental breakfast. For information: 800-328-5285 or 011-599-4-2201.

Cranston's Antique Inn has rooms for $50 double in winter. For information: 011-599-4-3203.

Juliana's Apartments consist of eight rooms ($75 double in winter), an apartment ($95 in winter) and a two-bedroom cottage ($100 per couple in winter). For information: 800-223-9815 or 011-599-4-2269.

ACTIVITIES:

Saba Deep Scuba Diving Center offers a variety of diving-accommodation packages with the inns listed above, including open-water and advanced certification courses. Single-day dives and snorkel trips are also available. For more information, contact Saba Deep, P.O. Box 22, Fort Bay, Saba, Netherlands Antilles, 011-599-4-3347.

Deepsea fishing and sunset cruises can be arranged; ask lodging operators for information. INFORMATION: Saba and St. Eustatius Tourist Information Office, 271 Main St., Northport, N.Y. 11768, 800-344-4606 or 516-261-7474.

-- Magda Krance