Saba: May 3-6, 2007

Click on the above thumbnail for a map during this time period

Saba (pronounced Say-ba) is approximately 28 miles southwest of St. Barts, from which she can be easily seen when atmospheric conditions are appropriate.  Mt. Scenery, an extinct volcano, is the highest point and rises steeply from the sea to a height of over 3,000 feet.  The footprint of the island is a scant 5 square miles.  The extremely steep shoreline looks very hostile, with no beaches and no harbors, and no real bays.  So why go there?  Two main reasons: the waters surrounding Saba -- to a depth of 200' -- are all part of Saba Marine Park, which provides some of the best scuba diving in the world, and, secondly, the place is absolutely charming, with its friendly people occupying colorful red-roofed homes perched atop vertical cliffs.

We moored off the west coast in Ladder Bay, a stretch of shoreline that is really not a bay, on one of the moorings provided by the park for just that purpose.  Took the dinghy around the corner -- into the waves and rollers --south from the relatively calm Ladder Bay around to Fort Bay, a very small area created by a breakwater that provides protection for the ferry and freight landing.  There, at the foot of a road that leads up to the high village misleadingly called "The Bottom", are the customs office, the Marine Park office, a sometimes-open bar/grill called "Pops", the island's power plant, with its noisy complex of diesel engines, and three dive shops. 

Ladder Bay gets its name from The Ladder, a set of some 800 steps that lead from the Bay straight up the steep cliff to the village of The Bottom, the picturesque capital and administrative center of Saba.  (The Bottom got its name, not from its elevation, but from the Dutch word for "bowl": botte.)  In the days before there were roads and therefore before there was a Fort Bay mini-harbor, The Ladder served as the sole means of getting people and/or supplies up to The Bottom.  That is ALL supplies, including groceries, household goods, and building supplies.  It is said that a piano was carried up The Ladder, as well as a Bishop.  History does not record which weighed the more.

Before the road, the only way to get between the two main villages of The Bottom and Winwardside was by a steep mountain path.  Engineers from Holland had declared that building a road on the island was impossible due to the topography.   A resident, Josephus Lambert Hassel, took a correspondence course in road building, and under his direction, the locals built their road by hand.  It took them 20 years, starting in 1943.   Now, the road climbs through 20 hairpin curves to a height of 1,788' before dropping to just above sea level at Ft. Bay.

Windwardside is higher than The Bottom, and on the other side of the mountain.  Most of the classy gift shops and restaurants seem to be located there.  We had a nice dinner at Scouts, sitting on an outdoor balcony that gave us a spectacular view out over the sea, and, as evening fell, that put us in the middle of an enchanting melodic concert that featured uncountable tree frogs in the adjoining rain forest.  Our waiter told us an interesting story when we commented favorably on the "concert."  Seems he had previously worked at a restaurant higher up, near the end of the road and the beginning of the path that leads to the the summit of Mt. Scenery.  The name of the restaurant is "The Rain Forest", a name shared by the unrelated chain of restaurants in the United States.  Perhaps that is why one evening the waiter was asked by an impatient patron if he wouldn't please turn down the damn tree frog tape!

Enticed by something we read somewhere that made it sound entertaining, we hung around afterwards for the karaoke that is featured every Friday night.  Saba has a relatively new medical school, and the latest batch of students were on the island early for orientation.  So in addition to the "regulars", the place was packed with med students.  Unfortunately, the large crowd did not translate to a diversity of singers.  Far too often, owners Wolfgang and/or his wife Barbara would hog the microphone and absolutely butcher classic songs from the 60's and 70's or more recent country-western ditties.  Strange, how something like that lingers.  I am still bothered by the voices echoing in my head: heavy German accent, sharply barked and clipped enunciation, off-key falsetto with a trace of a lisp.  "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind; the answer is blowin' in the wind".  Aaaarrrrggghhh!

Barb was stricken by a mysterious malady that left her feeling very ill and weak for many days, and so her feelings for Saba are perhaps not so positive as those experienced by Audrey and Chuck, who absolutely loved the place.  They braved the 800 steps of The Ladder one afternoon.  Of course, Barb couldn't dive, and didn't do any hiking.  Chuck did two dives on each of three consecutive mornings, and was blown away by the clarity of the water and the beauty of the submerged pinnacles that provide such a unique dive experience.  The benefits of the protection provided by a marine park were obvious:  there were many many more fish than had been seen on any of the earlier dives at other locations on this trip.

But every rose has its thorns, it would seem.  On the day before we left, after Chuck came back from his dives and we had had lunch, Barb feeling much better, the girls decided they wanted to go snorkeling up north near Diamond Rock.  Chuck, sated by his fantastic dives, would take them there but stay in the dinghy.  They had not swum 100 feet before Audrey cried out in distress and came frantically paddling back toward the dinghy.  Had she seen a shark or some other fearsome creature?  No, she had been stung all over her body by something.  Barb left the water too, reporting that she had felt just a few stings as well.  We treated Audrey with vinegar when we got back to TT II, Audrey having declined the more notorious folk remedy, and soon she was fine.  And then Barb began to develop welts that itched and itched.  So what happened?  We think Audrey was stung by jelly fish, and that Barb was a victim of sea lice, to which she seems to be especially vulnerable.  Audrey's discomfort was short lived.  Barb's lasted for days.  Chuck still thinks Saba is a virtual paradise.

On one afternoon during our stay, we had a taxi driver meet us at Ft. Bay and take us on a tour of the island.  Spectacular views.  We followed the road most everywhere, with the exception of the branch that goes down to Well's Bay, just north of The Ladder.  That road is so very steep that most taxi drivers refuse to travel it for fear that they will not make it back up.  (See the picture below of the bottom of the Well's Bay road.)  We also didn't go all the way down to the airport, but got a picture from an overlook.  The airport, by the way, features the world's shortest commercial runway.  That airport was also declared to be not possible by Dutch engineers.  So Sabans acquired the assistance of Remy de Haenen, a pilot from nearby St. Bart.   Under his direction, Sabans flattened an area by hand, removing rocks as they went.  Finally, Haenen felt he could land, and Saba now has an airport.  Chuck dove with a person from St. Martin who said he wouldn't think of taking the ferry over to do some diving, because landing at the airport was such an exhilarating experience.   Reportedly, the starboard wing passes within what seems like mere feet from the sheer cliff, and then the plane plummets down to the strip that looks like a flat rock with a white stripe painted on it.   Obviously, when the winds are not from the correct direction, all flights are canceled.

On our last day there, we thought it would be clever to have the dive boat pick up Chuck at our vessel, instead of taking the dinghy around to the shop.  (All dives on Saba must be accompanied by a local dive master.)  That way, after the dives he could be dropped off at the boat and we could get underway to St. Kitts immediately.  Bad plan.  At the end of the dive, in the confusion of moving all the dive gear back over to Tusen Takk II from the dive boat, Chuck's sandals got left behind.  Didn't realize it until the next day on St. Kitts when we prepared to go ashore there.  :-(

Saba as seen from our anchorage at St. Barts

Fort Bay, Saba

Audrey and Chuck at the Marine Park Headquarters

Pop's Place in Fort Bay

Well's Road: actually runs up the cliff to past the dwelling to The Bottom

Audrey snorkeling in Ladder Bay

We bought three lobsters from fishermen

Priced by the pound

Audrey and victim

Chuck just about to separate tail from head

The Ladder -- 800 steps up the cliff; formerly the ONLY way to get to the residences

The bottom third of The Ladder

Audrey at the very bottom of The Ladder

Rocky shore at the foot of The Ladder

Looking north from a lower portion of The Ladder

Those little specs are people going up The Ladder

Plaque describing The Ladder

Audrey near the very top of The Ladder

Tusen Takk II (and others) at their mooring below The Ladder

The Bottom

The Bottom -- med school on the right

The village of Windwardside

Part of mural in Windwardside

Saba airport: world's shortest commercial runway

Plaque commemorating the engineer who made the road

Med students enjoying karaoke at Scouts

License plate for Saba: "Unspoiled Queen"

Flag courtesy of ITA's Flags of All Countries used with permission.