St Maarten is a mere hop, skip and a jump away from the picturesque island of Saba, known locally as the ‘the unspoiled Queen’ of the Caribbean. Ever since our Atlantic crossing, I’d harboured a deep desire to visit this place for its unparalleled diving. It is fundamentally an old volcano shaped like a large rock, only five by five miles, and home to 1,200 people. There is a medical school on the island which takes 500 students, so when semesters are in full flow, it feels a little busier. The beauty of the place has been so successfully maintained most probably due to there being no beaches at all. No beaches means no big hotels, therefore no masses of tourists pouring in. Heaven!
Winair takes you the 15 minute journey across on a teeny tiny propellor plane.
Before playing ‘spot my yacht’ in the air, you could see Abramovitch’s behemoth of a boat, Eclipse, nearly living up to its name and eclipsing our destination in the background.
The plane swoops in above the runway at the very last minute, which is so short that the brakes are applied instantaneously. It’s a rather exhilarating landing, which undoubtedly requires some serious piloting skills. During my two trips, the pilot was the same man on all four legs. He could well be the only one capable of such a feat, but reassuringly always has a friend sitting next to him in case anything goes Pete Tong.
My two night stay was to be spent at El Momo Cottages, recommended to me by the dive school as the most affordable accommodation on the island, at sixty bucks a night. In my aptly named Cricket Cottage, you share a bathroom with the person staying next door. It is an eco lodge with a rainwater supply, so the shower is a lukewarm dribble and you mustn’t be alarmed to come across any local critters. That’s not to say I wasn’t still extremely alarmed whenever anything buzzed or scuttled nearby.
The cottage comes complete with a miniature terrace, which was simply the perfect spot to catch up on emails, music downloads and the all important blogpost writing. One must take each and every opportunity of good wifi, on electricity-challenged islands such as these.
My first evening was spent watching the sun go down over the town of Windwardside. After a quick exploration, a beer and a bite to eat, I climbed back up the almost vertical hill to El Momo and fell asleep beneath my mosquito net, catching some well needed Z’s before my first day of diving.
There are two dive centres on the island, both of which I ended up diving with. On my first visit, Saba Divers took me on a total of five dives over two days.
We were a small group, consisting of myself, an eccentric German, and a lovely Canadian couple called Chuck and Deb. With brilliant one syllable names, I warmed to them straight away. They actually met each other years ago on a dive trip, so now every January at the time of their anniversary, they take a vacation somewhere new and exciting to explore underwater together. Serious couple goals.
Proudly wearing my five dollar rented Suunto Zoop, a blast from the past of my Thailand days. Selling my yellow one for the same price that I bought it for is one of my biggest materialistic regrets. Awkwardly, some of the pins in the strap pinged off after my second dive, but Chuck swooped in and saved the day by handily clipping it onto my BCD (buoyancy control device, the vest that you inflate with air and has everything strapped onto it). So instead of looking at my wrist to check my depth and no deco time (the time you are allowed to stay at that depth before you go ‘into deco’, meaning you have too much nitrogen in your body), I had to continuously check the dangling watch like a timepiece. Apparently I looked like I was constantly navigating.
With no underwater cameras, sadly none of the five dives were caught on film. But we were taken to some beautiful places. We were joined at a pinnacle by three Caribbean reef sharks for a full thirty minutes at about thirty metres deep, and at ‘Diamond Rock’ we rested on the sandy bottom to be joined by countless feeding stingrays and turtles.
Later that evening, upon walking through the town I stumbled into Francoise and Walter. Francoise was the French divemaster who lead all of my dives, and Walter was the boat driver. They were on a mission to pick up a crate of beers and some vegetables, to cook up a feast using the fresh fish they’d caught together earlier that day. Well I certainly landed on my feet by bumping into them, as they invited me round and I was treated to a beautiful dinner of real local Caribbean fare. There were three different types of unusual potato on our plates, a delicious sauted cabbage dish, all topped off with a selection of Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and one other fish that has evaded me.
It was with a heavy heart that I bid adieu to the island, asking myself when on earth will I ever be able to come back? Luckily, the answer was a hell of a lot sooner than I’d anticipated.
In a nod to Burns night, here we have neeps and tatties soup. Made with swede and potato, and finished with crumbled black pudding (in the place of haggis. As you can imagine, the Caribbean is not well stocked with the Scottish delicacy).
Tatty scones, topped with cream cheese, smoked salmon and dill. A potato scone, if you will.
Not Scottish in any way, shape or form, but scrumptious all the same. A white peach, mozzarella, pine nut, basil & parma ham salad, finished with a white balsamic & olive oil vinaigrette.
Nursing my post holiday blues, the best news possible came from our captain. We were no longer leaving for Miami that week, but instead remaining in St Maarten, meaning my month of hollibobs would start before the four day voyage stateside. It was such a relief to hear that I did a little jig in the galley. The first question to cross my lips was, ‘Can I fit in another visit to Saba?’ and the answer was yes. Yes!
So I donned my cap that unashamedly has ‘Adventure Babe’ emblazoned across the front, and set to hiking pretty much the entirety of the rock.
As luck would have it, the island was hosting their yearly Triathlon that very day. The ladies at the trail shop gave me a map, an emergency whistle, and sent me on my merry way to embark on the Sandy Cruz trail. The exact same trail that the runners were completing, except they were coming, in full force, from the opposite direction.
Some parts of the path were so muddy that my pace was reduced to that of a snail’s. It became clear to me very quickly that my four year old pink Nike trainers now have absolutely no grip left. It felt like walking in Vaseline covered slippers for about two hours straight.
But the views and scenery were magnificent, sufficiently making up for my suffering gait. The rainforest was stifling at times, intensely humid and a little bit spooky. A grass snake crossed my path, which gave me a hell of a fright, but luckily my taxi driver earlier that morning had assured me that there is nothing wildlife-related on Saba that can kill you.
A Catholic church in the Bottom.
Complete with a diverse mural of cherubs.
A friendly medical student I met over lunch encouraged me to try ‘The Ladder’, a set of unbelievably steep steps leading to the water’s edge. It was the sole method to bring supplies onto Saba until the port was built in 1970. Those poor workmen.
It took about ten minutes to scurry down, and a huffing and puffing thirty minutes to haul myself back up.
My third and final hike of the day took me back to Windwardside, where I happened upon two lovely people I was lucky enough to meet on the flight over that morning. Brad is the second officer on a boat docked two doors down from me, and Lucy is a deckhand on a really big yacht docked in Phillipsburg (where all the cruise ships go).
After a beer and a bite to eat, we agreed to meet up later that night after a much needed freshen up. Out of the three of us, Brad struck gold with the best accommodation in town. Poor Lucy had two single beds in hers, and my room was an Airbnb find, consisting of the spare room of a teeny tiny bungalow, owned by a Texan man and his OAP dog, Maggie. Needless to say, we reconvened in Brad’s ’boutique’ hotel, complete with a balcony, an enormous sailboat replica and (we think) a working gramophone from the 1800s. With a bottle of red the three of us watched an impromptu fireworks display unfold before our very eyes. It turned out not to be a celebration of the triathlon as I presumed, but instead to commemorate the ringing in of Chinese New Year.
After (not much) convincing, my leg was pulled and I agreed to come with them the following morning for more diving. This time it was to be with Sea Saba, the only other centre on the island. There’s only one little dock where the boats come and go, so it required some hiding on my part. Miraculously, Brad had a Go-Pro (I must get myself one of those…) so he managed to take some pretty cool photos underwater.
The very picture of grace!