27 January 2017

Saba - Incredible and Impossible

When you approach Saba, you are deceived by scale.  It looks like a small round island with some cliffs and mountains.  Then you realize that you are still 5 miles (not 200 yards) out and as you get closer, the sheer cliffs around the perimeter of the island tower above you.  And on top of those towering cliffs, are some very tall and very steep mountains - a dormant volcano, actually.

Bob Damiano

We departed Simpson Bay in St. Maarten and headed Southwest toward this tiny Dutch island 30-ish miles out in the distance. We stayed in St. Maarten a little longer than we planned because of my collar bone incident, so we were on the fence about hitting Saba or just going directly to the BVI. We're both glad we did as Saba was one of the most unforgettable experiences so far.

On approach to Saba from the northeast. That cloud was over Saba the whole time we crossed from St Maarten. This is common with mountainous islands in the trade winds. The trades run up the windward side of these mountains, cool and condense.

Saba looks absolutely uninhabitable from the water (save for the houses you can see on slopes of the Northeast side).  And, don't come here for the beaches. There are none. Well, I mean there are usually none. Apparently an occasional beach washes up on the western (leeward) side of the island near "the steps" (more on those later) and remains for a few days to a few weeks. Sabans take advantage of this beach whenever it appears. The lack of a beach is a selling point to me. Since breaking my collar bone at Maho Beach in St Maarten, I can say with authority that beaches are dumb!

Besides the lovely scenery, villas, hotels and great restaurants, Saba is also a major diving and snorkeling destination and lots of people come here just for that.  We didn't have a lot of time to play in the water (and with my shoulder...) but we found some of the clearest waters so far here.

Sure, lets build a town, and an airport on that thing!

Jagged, dramatic cliffs along the entire perimeter of Saba. One would think that Sabans do not want to be bothered with visitors, but the opposite is true. Saba has an extremely welcoming culture.


There are two main places to grab a mooring at Saba: Well's Bay on the northwest side and Port Ford pier on the south side of the island.  The latter is where you must go first to check into customs. Neither place is especially protected - or to be exact - protected at all.  One of the reasons we decided to come here was that we were in for a spell of very light winds and calm seas. Saba can be a miserable place to sit on a mooring in any sort of weather. As it turned out, we were perfectly comfortable in both mooring areas.

The view from Port Ford is not so inviting. There is a commercial pier surrounded by sand mines, an auto graveyard and very steep cliffs. At this point, you are maybe questioning why you came. It gets better.  Anyway, we grabbed one of the free (and very well maintained) moorings and took our long-ish dinghy ride to the customs dock.


The commercial pier.. and sand.  LOTS of sand.  It is Saba's main export.
Aside from the occasional cruising sailboat who wants to brave the conditions, Port Ford also is a cruise ship destination - for tiny cruise ships, that is. Apparently there is one that comes once a month with about 40 passengers and it actually arrived the 2nd day we were there.  She dropped a very large anchor a few hundred feet out (too big for the pier) and a shuttle boat brought passengers to Customs, a "welcome" station and of course the waiting fleet of cabs.  Besides that, there is ferry service from St Maarten.

Pop's Bar near the pier and dive center

Some of the sand mining operation and a bit of the junkyard can be seen too.


Customs and the harbormaster office.

After Customs clearance, there is not much to do right in the immediate area (unless you are into sand mines and junk yards).  While passing the harbor on the way to the moorings, we caught a glimpse of one of the settlements up in the hills.  It didn't look that far and we wondered if we would just walk it.  Well, it's not that far in 2D but the Z axis is a killer here.  We wandered into Pop's Bar (the only bar near sea level on the entire island) outside of customs and asked about a taxi. Two different taxi drivers happened to be drinking in the bar at the time (Hey, it's the Caribbean, mon!) and we had our ride. (We think that the driver who had had less alcohol volunteered to drive us.) All four wheels had all lug nuts - a bonus as we have been in some interestingly maintained vehicles among islands.

Wider shot of Port Ford harbor. The beginning of "the road that could not be built" can be seen as well as a bit of The Bottom settlement.

Long and Winding Road (that could not be built)

Prior to 1950, the only way for people and goods to get on and off the island was from Well's Bay (completely exposed) up crazy steep stone steps and with no sort of dock... only a thin strip of rocky, surf battered shoreline at the base. We wanted to go ashore here but even with our mild conditions, beaching the dinghy was untenable. It is hard to imagine the dangerous conditions that residents must have had to deal with for hundreds of years.

These 800 winding, steep steps lead up to The Bottom. This was the only way for people and goods to arrive/depart the island until the harbor and "the road" were built in the 50s.




Another shot of the steps

Warning: Any pictures in this blog that attempt to capture the insane steepness and height of these roads and structures fail miserably to do so. I suggest you read the blog while up on a wobbly step ladder standing on one leg. That might help.

Today there is a semblance of a harbor (Port Ford on the south side) and an actual road connecting the harbor to the small capital of The Bottom and on to the other town of Windward Side. After quickly ditching ambitions to walk up the mountainside, our driver, Willum, started up the steep road from the harbor.  Very soon you realize the absolute insanity of building this road. Within the first half mile there is a "S" turn that is incredibly steep with very sharp, tight hairpin turns.  They also happened to be resurfacing this part so one lane was out. At this point in the road, you've gone less than a half mile from the sea but are 617 feet above it. (This link has a great topographical view of Saba and you can see elevations at any point by dragging the marker around.)

"The S" from our taxi.

"The S" from space.


In fact, until the 1950s, this road did not exist and conventional wisdom held that it would be impossible to build a road that could transit this island.  Sabans are a very stubborn and proud people and telling them something can't be done is apparently a sure way of getting it done. A man named Josephus Lambert “Lambee” Hassell took a correspondence course in Civil Engineering, designed and led the building of the road that couldn't be built in the 1940s and 50s. Needless to say, he was hero and remains a legend among Sabans.

Generally speaking, the well-maintained roads in Saba do not look wide enough for two vehicles to pass - yet they do and with a friendly "toot toot" of the horn because of course everyone knows everyone here.

The Road as it cuts across the south of the island. The huge retaining walls remind one of "the great wall".


A plaque in honor of Lambee - the builder of this road. The house he lived in is still in Windward Side

Eventually you get to a somewhat flat area of the island, and it is here that the lower settlement called "The Bottom" is built. The Botttom is a mere 917 feet above sea level (about .9 miles inland).  This is a fully equipped small town with government offices, stores, shops and a restaurant or two. The Bottom is situated in the crater of the dormant volcano.  By the way, on wikipedia, Saba's volcano is classified as "Potentially Dangerous".  It has not erupted since 1640, but in geological time scales, that is like yesterday. I would say Sabans worry about the volcano about as much as Americans worry about Yellowstone.

Looking down on The Bottom (and the medical school) from the roadside en route to Windward Side.


We stopped briefly in The Bottom but had our taxi take us on up to Windward Side. On the way up, we passed the Saba University School of Medicine (yes, you can go to med school in Saba) and picked up a student who was hitch hiking up the hill so she could watch Sunday night football in one of the bars. Windward Side is the big city of Saba.  Here, you will find a few hotels, restaurants and bars, art galleries, museums, churches, markets and the hospital and pharmacy. Windward Side is over 1300 ft above sea level and about a mile inland from the southern shore.


This graveyard is solar powered.
The next day, we hired "Lollipop", a local jack of all trades and lovely woman who not only runs a taxi/tour, but a laundromat, guest houses and student apartments. She also does home visits to take care of an elderly woman on the island. Lollipop is what you call a good person. She acquired her moniker from one of her elderly clients who thought he was "as sweet as a lollipop". Lollipop gave us an excellent tour of the whole length of the road explaining lots of local trivia and telling us about her family as we went. Later we ran into her again in Pop's bar of course.

Lifelong Saban "Lollipop" - our taxi driver and excellent tour guide.

 


Looking south east from the road. On this very clear day, we could see Eustacia, St Kitts and Montserrat.  It's very rare that they can see all the way to Montserrat


Another view of The Bottom.
Lollipop dropped us off in Windward Side for a few hours so I could log in to work for a while (using restaurant wifi was the only option here), and we could explore a little on foot. It was here looking out over the Caribbean so far below and seeing these incredibly steep, high mountains all around that the whole thing started to feel like a strange dream. This beautiful, vibrant picturesque town in the middle of this totally forbidding environment. It just seems impossible. But there you are.

My office for the day at Scout's Bar.  We're probably 1500 feet above sea level here.  Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Netherlands, towers above this area rising to 3,000 feet.
Linda and our new friend, Picky.


Still on the mend from my broken collar bone enjoying some local medicine.

View over some hotels and homes and the blue Caribbean far below.

And churches too.

A very good pizza at Long Haul in Windward Side.

Cleanliness

We started appreciating how incredibly clean and well maintained everything was. And we noticed more than one person outside of their home or business with a broom sweeping the street. Lollipop explained to us that this type of pride in their community is ingrained in all Sabans from a young age and it's just part of the culture now. There is also reportedly virtually no crime as all of the less than 2000 inhabitants seem to know and support each other. A real community.

A resident out painting his fence and generally keeping things beautiful.  As you do in Saba.

Signs like this are for us tourists (and maybe newly arriving American medical students).  Locals would never have to be reminded not to litter.

By Air... on the shortest runway in the world

Saba is challenging to visit by sail boat.  You really need a good weather window to be there. You will either need to stay in Well's bay which is in the lee of the island, but a very long dinghy ride to the port, or near the port which is completely exposed to the easterly trade winds (and still a relatively long dinghy ride).  Another thing they said couldn't be done was to build an airport here.  So of course they did. We met a pilot in St Kitts who described Saba's airport as like landing on an aircraft carrier. Apparently you are not allowed to land there until you've co-piloted with someone else who has.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (IATA: SAB). Not a lot of margin for error there. The runway is the shortest commercial airstrip in the world at only 400 meters long with a steep mountainside on one side and cliffs at both ends.
There was a flat enough spot on the Northeast corner of the island that, with clearing lots of rocks and boulders, was just big enough to build Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport. Flying in to this airport on one of the small Winair planes is said to be quite the thrill. The road to the airport is also full of sharp winding s-turns as it rapidly climbs the mountains.

SAB airstrip from space and the extreme road connecting it.

Moving On...

We moved Argon from the Port Ford mooring up to one of the balls in Well's Bay.  It was from here that we would depart at midnight for the British Virgin Islands under a moonless but star filled night.

The much more picturesque, albeit intimidating and isolated, northwest coast. Thankfully there are a handful of well-maintained moorings (all were vacant, we were the only boat in sight) as it would be impossible to anchor here due to the depths and likely rocky bottom.

3 comments:

  1. Fantastic?? Nice lookin' pizza too!!

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  2. Glad you enjoyed Saba and happy to hear it hasn't changed much in the past ten years. I also enjoyed cocktails at Scouts and had hiked up Mt Scenery and attended Easter mass in that church! Enjoyed that little gem of an island.

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  3. Wow! What an amazing and special place! Great read! Thank you!

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