A Caribbean island you've never heard of but can't miss: Saba, Netherlands Antilles
How is it that wee Saba, a little-known five-square-mile island in the Netherlands Antilles, got singled out as the "Best Island in the Caribbean, Bermuda, and the Bahamas" by readers of Travel + Leisure for the magazine's 2006 World's Best Awards when so many more flashy, popular beauties were in contention? Maybe unspoiled, natural beauty is the new black among island aficionados.
The rain-forest covered summit of a dormant volcano, Saba sits like a big green gumdrop dropped in the blue sea, about 28 miles north of St. Maarten. The volcanic peaks and cones of Saba rise steeply from the sea to a height of 2,864 feet, and the island's four villages—The Bottom, Hell's Gate, Windwardside, and Zion's Hill—are perched on its slopes in clusters of red-roofed gingerbread houses. A single road (called "The Road") connects them; hiking trails and foot paths crisscross the interior.
Beach bunnies won't find much sand along the rocky coast, but the island is paradise for hikers, and its surrounding waters have some of the most pristine dive sites in the Caribbean. The highest point on the volcano's crater (and the highest point in the entire kingdom of the Netherlands), Mt. Scenery, can be reached via a strenuous three-hour round-trip climb that passes through palm stands and an elfin forest filled with tree ferns and orchids. On a clear day, you can see St. Kitts, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, and St. Barts.
A protected marine park that surrounds the entire island was created in 1987, just as dive sites were beginning to be established. Thanks to this protection, Saba's reefs are undamaged—an anomaly in the Caribbean. There are three dive shops on the island that can take experienced divers to some of the park's 25 established dive sites. Some of the most exciting sites are around the "pinnacles": underwater volcanic mountains that are covered in coral and sponges and attract a variety of colorful fish, sharks, and sea turtles.
Tourism is relatively new to the island—there wasn't an airport until 1963 and its boat pier wasn't completed until 1972—and Saba's 1,500 residents have sought to protect their environment and keep all tourist development eco-friendly. They've also managed to keep it virtually crime-free. "Not only do we never lock any cottages or our house, we have never even owned a key for our home," says Angelika Hartleib, owner of El Momo Cottages in Windwardside (double-occupancy rates start at $50 per night).
The Saba Tourist Office website is an excellent planning resource, providing detailed information and links about the island's hotels, restaurants, activities, environment, and culture. On TripAdvisor, average Saba hotel rates range from $75 to $350 per night.
To get to Saba, you must first fly to St. Maarten, and then take a short flight or boat ride to the island. From the St. Maarten airport, you can hop on a Winair flight for a 15-minute journey to Saba's Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport. Flights in January start at $75 round-trip, including taxes. For boat travel to Saba from St. Maarten, you can opt for an hour-and-45-minute trip from Phillipsburg on the Dawn II for $60 round-trip or an hour-and-15-minute trip from Simpson Bay on the Edge for $65 round-trip.