Saba is primarily known for its diving -- this tiny (5 square mile) island has a wealth of scuba and snorkel opportunities rivaling those of much larger destinations. But you'll also find plenty to do on land on the "Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean," including some challenging hikes and climbs and historic villages to explore.
Arriving and Departing from the Saba Airport
Air travel used to be an adventure in itself: on Saba, it still is, owing to the hair-raising experience of landing and taking off from Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, built around a mere 1,300-foot runway that can accommodate only small prop-powered aircraft like Twin Otters or Islanders. Overshoot or undershoot the runway and you'll get a too-close look at the high hills and steep cliffs that flank the airport. If the short Winair flight from St. Maarten sounds too daunting to you, there's a much less scary ferry ride, instead.
Saba is widely acknowledged as one of the world's best, most pristine dive destinations. The Saba National Marine Park surrounds the island, and the waters and reefs are protected to a depth of 200 feet. There are dozens of great dive sites, including reefs, wrecks, caves, tunnels, walls, and the Pinnacles, which are unique rock formations thrust up from the ocean floor by volcanic action. Corals remain relatively healthy, there is abundant marine life thanks to the park's protection.
Climb Mt. Scenery
Mt. Scenery is a (potentially still active) volcano with a prominent lava dome at the center of Saba. This 3,000-foot mountain -- the high point not only on Saba but the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands -- can be summited in a half-day hike from Windwardshire, but it's not easy going. The trail is quite steep, but on a (rare) clear day you'll be rewarded with awesome views from the top, with St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Kitts, and St. Eustatius dotting the horizon. Figure on devoting 3 hours or so to the journey, which is aided by more than 1,000 stone steps, which as you imagine can get pretty slippery in a rainforest. Bring water and good hiking shoes, plus a camera if you're an optimist about the near-constant cloud cover lifting when you reach the top.
For a small island, Saba has a surprisingly diverse array of hiking opportunities. Beyond the hike to the top of Mt. Scenery (see above), trails snake through rain forests, along cliff tops with spectacular ocean views, to historic sites, and accessing the island's undeveloped quarters. Some are relatively well-marked and not too strenuous; others are marked as dangerous and you probably should hire a local guide unless you're an experienced hiker.
The Sandy Cruz trail is a mostly easy 3.5-mile hike that begins in Hell's Gate and ends at TThe Bottom, connecting to the Mt. Scenery trail along the way. The Crispeen Track starts in The Bottom and rewards hikers with backwards views of Saba's capital. If you want a challenge, try the North Shore Trail -- but hire a guide to help you negotiate this ill-marked and remote trail into the Saba backcountry.
The Trail Shop in Windwardshire -- near the entrance to the Mt. Scenery trail, and operated by the Saba Conservation Foundation -- should be your first stop if you want to hike Saba: you can get gear, maps, and connect with local guides here.
Drive "The Road"
You have to love an island where the only road is simply called "The Road." So what's so interesting about driving on a road? On Saba, it's more like an adventure, especially if you're a bit afraid of heights, or sharp turns, or narrow roads, or ... did we mention heights? The Road is actually something of an engineering marvel -- some said it could not be built -- but now connects the three main settlements on Saba -- The Bottom, Windwardside, Hell's Gate and St. Johns. Drive it if you dare (better yet, hire a local driver and let him or her negotiate The Road for you).
Explore Saba's Four Towns
Windwardside, The Bottom, Hell's Gate and St. Johns are the four main communities you'll find on Saba. The Bottom is the nominal capital, but all four are pretty small and similar, considering that there are fewer than 2,000 full-time residents on Saba.
Windwardside is where many of the island's shops, restaurants and hotels are located, The town also is home to the Harry Luke Johnson museum, located in a 160-year old former sea captain's home and surrounded by park land with a popular playground. The museum is furnished in Victorian style and features a collection of historic exhibits and artifacts from Amerindian archeological sites on Saba.
About 500 of Saba's residents live in the red-roofed homes of The Bottom, the government seat and the island's largest town. The Bottom hosts most of the big annual events on Saba, including the annual summer Carnival and the Saba Day celebration in December. The climb up and down The Ladder from The Bottom to Ladder Bay is a fun physical challenge. A 200-year-old Catholic Church is also worth a visit.
Hell's Gate -- the local church leaders prefer you call it "Zion's Hill" -- has a community center where you can buy the island's famous Saba Lace or the potent Saba Spice rum, both produced locally. The trailhead of the Crispin Trail, which leads past an abandoned sulfur mine, also can be found in Hell's Gate, as can the iconic Holy Rosary Church. Saba's smallest town, St. John's, is primarily residential.
Climb the Steps from Ladder Bay to The Bottom
Imagine that everything you eat, drink, or use while on Saba had to be carried up 800 steep steps from the shore of Ladder Bay to the community known as The Bottom. That's just the way it was on Saba until just a few decades ago, when all goods had to be hauled from this anchorage up to the old Custom House at the top of The Ladder. These days, with the much more user-friendly shipping pier at Fort Bay, mostly tourists make the 90-minute climb for fun or exercise, though you may soon be marveling at the irony of sweating your way through such an ascent to reach "The Bottom."