Saba and Statia: Mighty Mounts of the Lesser Antilles

Who would guess that these two tiny, cloud-dusted mounts rising abruptly from the ocean floor in the eastern Caribbean could harbor so many secrets,...

Who would guess that these two tiny, cloud-dusted mounts rising abruptly from the ocean floor in the eastern Caribbean could harbor so many secrets, so much excitement? Born of molten lava and raised violently from the depths, Saba and St. Eustatius (better known as Statia) pack in enough physical beauty, cultural interest and thrilling underwater experiences to satisfy the most sophisticated traveler, the most intrepid diver.

Underwater, the islands nearly mirror the topside topography. Magnificent pinnacles rise hundreds of feet from the depths, and massive ravine-gouged promontories lead to thousand-foot-plus drop-offs. Shallow shelves sculpted by lava flows extend fingerlike, pointing out to sea.

Both islands are dormant volcanoes, their peaks draped with dense vegetation and an impressive array of tropical flora. Underwater, the diversity multiplies. Rocks, boulders and pinnacles are encrusted with deepwater gorgonians, giant brain coral and anemones, barrel sponges, and mountainous star coral, all in massive proportions.

A strong environmental ethic on both islands ensures that marine life is given protected space to flourish.

Decidedly Dutch

Together with the far more populous St. Maarten, these remote outposts comprise the Dutch Windward Islands, part of the Netherlands Antilles. Although the official language is Dutch, everyone speaks English and the U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere. St. Maarten is the hub for flights to these islands, as well as to nearby St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis, etc., all via Windward Island Airways, or Winair, as it’s known.

While visitors to St. Maarten are attracted to its duty-free shops, beaches and nightlife, Saba and Statia entice with more natural charms — hillsides of gingerbread houses, uniformly white with red roofs and wooden shutters; trails leading through canopies of giant ferns and elephant-ear palms; nesting tropic birds; goats scampering up cobblestone streets; and roosters providing your wake-up call. On these islands people acknowledge even strangers with a wave or toot of the horn. One toot is for “hi” and a series of toots means something like “great to see you again!”

Hiking and diving are the primary activities on both islands, and on Statia, strolling among historical fortifications and walls built of ballast bricks is a journey into the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors should bring hiking boots for traversing steep hillsides.

Saba — The Unspoiled Queen

Simply landing on cone-shaped Saba is an adrenaline rush, with the incredibly short runway wedged against a cliff, and precipitous drop-offs into the blue all around. Imagine landing on an aircraft carrier, and you’ll get the idea.

On our flight into Saba, the pilot realized that we were attempting to take aerial photos, so instead of making the usual approach, which would have put the sun smack into our lens, he circumnavigated the island. We were treated to some superb photo ops and all the passengers loved it, clapping and yelling when we landed. Such personalized treatment is rare in the world of travel today, but not at all unusual in this little corner of the Caribbean.

Definitely unspoiled, Saba is also surprisingly sophisticated, with exceptional restaurants; upscale, intimate lodgings; and beautifully restored gingerbread-style cottages and carefully tended gardens. But historically Sabans have always lived “on the edge,” making their living as farmers, boat builders and traders.

The Spanish ruled Saba for nearly 150 years, dating from Columbus’ second voyage, but it was the Dutch who first established a colony at The Bottom, now the administrative center and also assumed to be the volcanic crater. Over the years the island was also dominated and colonized by the English and French. African slaves added to the mix. Peace came in 1816 when it was returned to the Netherlands.

Without a natural harbor or roads, islanders hand-carried cargo up treacherous cliffs via The Ladder, more than a thousand hand-hewn steps, straight up. Only steep trails connected settlements.

When experts claimed that a road across the island couldn’t be built, an enterprising islander took a correspondence course in road building and supervised a 15-year effort (completed in 1958). The result was The Road, a gorgeous piece of work with a postcard view around every hairpin curve. Fortunately a lava flow produced enough land to barely fit a runway, which was finally accomplished in 1963. Its location: Flat Point. The other five square miles of Saba are all uphill, but life is considerably easier now for its 1,200 residents.

In the ’70s a pier was constructed at Fort Bay, now the departure point for all dive boats. The three dive centers — Sea Saba, Saba Deep and Saba Divers — have stores in Windwardside, the diver’s hub, and all provide transportation to and from the dock. A hyperbaric chamber, owned and operated by the Marine Park, is also at Fort Bay. Established in 1987, the Saba National Marine Park is a model of success, supported entirely by diver use fees and donations.

“On the edge” is usually where divers also find themselves. Saba’s seamounts, with names like Third Encounter, Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, are deep, steep and spectacular. Depths of 1,000 feet and more are found within a half mile from shore. The pinnacles rise hundreds of feet from a subsea mesa to within 90 feet (27 m) of the surface and every inch is covered with brilliantly colored coral and sponge growth. Fed by ocean currents and protected from wave action and sediment, plate corals shelve out horizontally and you could easily lie down in some of the barrel sponges.

One such pinnacle, The Needle, would have to rank among the world’s greatest underwater wonders. This lone slender sentinel (with an “eye” at about 180 feet [54 m]) is reached after a few minutes of blue water kicking, appearing miragelike at first in the misted depths. This slender spectacle is festooned with sponges and deep-water corals and frequented by large barracuda and blacktip sharks, attracted by swarms of schooling fish.

Nearby, the Diamond Rock pinnacle actually breaks the surface and provides a wonderful habitat for sponges, including huge tube, barrel, elephant ear, and encrusting chimney sponges. It rises from a sandy seafloor, so marine life ranges from frogfish to Southern Stingrays. Turtles cruise casually among visiting divers.

Although most dives are 80 feet (24 m) deep or more and with some current, Saba’s 30 buoyed sites provide plenty of diversity, and even novice divers can feel comfortable. If the current is too strong, divemasters literally go with the flow and declare drift dives. All dive stores can provide nitrox mixes. Some sites are reminders that Saba’s volcano is only dormant, not extinct. At Ladder Labyrinth, for instance, yellow stains on the sand indicate where sulfur leaches up from the magma core.

Surface Intervals on Saba

On a nondiving day, there’s no lounging on the beach — there are none! Strolling around the settlements and taking hillside hikes are both wonderful alternatives. Shops in Windwardside and The Bottom sell lace-making products, a craft kept alive by islanders for centuries. It seems that an inordinate number of talented painters reside on Saba, and their works are carried in several shops and galleries.

The more energetic can tackle the trek to Mt. Scenery, Saba’s volcanic crown, but divers still off-gassing nitrogen should be mindful — this is a nearly 3,000-foot summit. You’ll progress through seven vegetation zones with huge elephant-ear palms roaring in the wind and cloud forest to greet you at the top. Walk up all the way or cut the trip a bit shorter by starting at the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous. And after working up an appetite, trek down to the Rainforest Restaurant for scrumptious cuisine.

Statia — The Golden Rock

Statia’s outstanding natural feature is a near-perfect volcanic crater called The Quill. But Statia also benefits from both flat land and a long curving coastline, and in its heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries it was one of the busiest trading centers of the Caribbean.

Its population reached 20,000 and ships by the thousands came to its shores. In the early days ballast bricks were offloaded and used for constructing forts, walls and warehouses. Evidence exists of 18 forts and the remains of an enormous sea wall flanked by warehouses all along Oranje Bay in Lower Town.

Statia’s Historical Museum also tells the tale of massive numbers of African slaves traded here. In fact, Statia was one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean. Divers and beachcombers still come across the blue glass beads that were used by slaves as currency. They are treasured by those who find them, but a sad reminder of those times.

To say that the colonial era was turbulent is a vast understatement. Statia changed hands no fewer than 22 times before the Dutch finally took possession in 1636. Most Americans are unaware of Statia’s support of the American Revolution. Its warehouses supplied the colonial effort, and Benjamin Franklin even had his mail routed through Statia. Statians are particularly proud of their “First Salute” to the new nation. In 1776 they fired off a salute to an American vessel coming into the harbor, and thus were the first to recognize America’s independence.

Vestiges of this dramatic past still lie underwater. The crumbled warehouses and old ballast bricks now provide habitat for all sorts of marine life. Divers at Blue Bead Hole hope to spot glass treasure, but discover that the banded jawfish, pike blennies, tilefish and flying gurnards are great alternatives.

At Double Wrecks, two massive anchors sit on end, surrounded by stingrays, buried up to their eyeballs in sand. Slender filefish drift vertically among branches of gorgonians, and garden eels sway like drunken sailors among bits of broken crockery and pieces of metal.

Diving is done by boat, with most dive sites just minutes from the docks at Lower Town; many sites are shallow enough for new or “rusty” divers. In fact, Statia is a popular place for divers to hone their skills before tackling Saba’s more challenging dive sites. At Nursing Station, for instance, long ledges of coral-encrusted volcanic rock provide a home for nurse sharks and lobster, a nap site for hawksbill turtles and cleaning stations for grouper. At an average depth of about 60 feet (18 m), divers have plenty of bottom time for exploring.

But Statia also offers deep wall sites, such as the “Drop Offs” and Grand Canyon, which are as spectacular as any in the Caribbean. Promontories with huge swaying sea fans and deep-water gorgonians stand at the precipice to the deep blue below. Wreck sites include both historical wrecks and artificial reefs. The 320-foot Charles L. Brown gets top billing in the latter category.

Statia’s dive centers with the marine park cleaned and sank the Charles L. Brown, which was used by AT&T for laying phone cables around the world. For an hour and a half its air horns wailed as it dropped 100 feet (30 m), finally resting on its starboard side. One of the Caribbean’s largest and most dramatic wreck sites, the “Charlie” Brown will be a dive attraction for many years.

Surface Intervals on Statia

Begin a walking tour of Oranjestad at the Old Gin House, a beautifully restored 18th-century cotton gin converted into a hotel and restaurant. Then join the goats scampering up the Slave Path to Upper Town, a fascinating mix of historical sites and classic gingerbread cottages.

Fort Oranje dominates the scene, its flags flying on a cliffside perch and cannons pointing toward Saba. A walk through the historical core transports you back to a time when Statia was a prominent and prosperous center of commerce. Follow Kerkweg to the ruins of the Dutch Reformed Church, dating from 1755. An enormous mango tree shades ancient gravestones, and openings through ballast stone and brick provide expansive ocean views.

An island tour would hug the coastline and traverse both hills and valleys. Horses, goats and donkeys graze among historical ruins and under The Quill’s constant gaze. At Fort de Windt in the south, cannons point to St. Kitts, only seven miles off, and others are simply left to lie in the bushes.

At 2,000 feet (606 m), the Quill’s crater is the ultimate nature hike, complete with rain forest, and since water doesn’t accumulate, it’s always accessible. The name is derived from the Anglicized version of the Dutch word “kuil,” which means pit or hole. There are 11 other hiking trails to explore.

Nighttime is when turtles nest from April to November. Marine Park Manager Nicole Esteban oversees a program to protect nesting sites for greens, leatherbacks and hawksbills. And reports from divers who participate in data collection show turtle populations steadily increasing.

The Old Gin House and Golden Era Hotel provide about 60 rooms in Lower Town, within easy access to all dive centers. Restaurants, some with entertainment and dancing, are within easy walking distance.

With their physical beauty, welcoming inhabitants and magnificent dive sites, a trip to either island would make any diver giddy; however, since a mere 12-minute flight connects them, why stop with one — go Dutch treat and see them both.

The author wishes to thank Glen Holm, Saba director of tourism, Sea Saba and Golden Rock Dive Center for their assistance with this article.

Story by Jean Pierce