The Most Amazing Caribbean Country You've Probably Never Heard About
If you’ve not heard of Saba, you’re not alone. This 5-square-mile island, just 28 miles southwest of St. Maarten, is one of the last unspoiled havens in the Caribbean. Built upon a dormant volcano, Saba is untouched by cruise ships and chain restaurants. You won’t find a Cabo Wabo, a Señor Frog’s, or even a branded hotel with white sand beaches. What you will find is a treasured secret with pristine beauty and incredibly friendly locals.
Saba’s population just surpassed 2,000. The census bureau reports that a grand total of 2,041 residents are registered on the island, including several expats and 54 different nationalities. It’s a diverse and accepting community that resides in whimsical chockablock cottages.
Reached by a 12-minute plane ride, you’ll arrive into Saba on the world’s smallest commercial airstrip—get your iPhone ready. Once there, you’ll be greeted by the most friendly locals you can imagine. An example: There’s no need for transportation on this tiny isle. When I asked about a taxi to the airport or a restaurant, locals always advised that I simply stick out my thumb; hitchhiking is a way of life for tourists and residents—and it works. (On one ride, we dropped off three different women to the same birthday party.)
Once there, I immediately dropped my bags at the Queen’s Gardens Hotel, owned by husband-and-wife team, Hidde Verbeke and Claire Verbeke Nuyens. The Troy Hill property is perched 1,200 feet above sea level, and the couple’s pups will sleepily greet you in the open-air lobby. Here, most of the 12 suites afford views of the Caribbean, which are especially enchanting from the private Jacuzzi. The Frangipani Spa, built by Hidde, boasts a Finnish sauna, Turkish steam bath, herbal facial aroma pots, and a waterfall shower. House-made products, with ingredients found in the Caribbean, are used in the open-air treatment space.
It feels impossible to leave this property, but you’ll want to peel yourself off a lounge chair for the exquisite nature the island rolls out. Most visitors come to Saba for the diving; the country offers some of the finest in the world with no less than 26 sites. It’s not unusual to spot a bronzed tourist, touting his or her fins and preparing to embark on the island’s marine playground. Underwater hot springs and lava flows unfold to reveal over 150 species of fish, turtles, sharks, and coral. On land, there’s spectacular hiking to be found. Fifteen signposted hiking trails run from the burn-your-thighs difficult at Mt. Scenery to a leisurely stroll among the verdant rain forest. This isn’t exactly a “stick your toes in the sand” kind of destination, but you can find a man-made beach and a handful of bays for ocean swimming.
For such a speck on the globe, Saba is rich in culture. Five Square Art Gallery has curated a solid collection from the Caribbean, with a focus on Saban artists. Works from Heleen Cornet and Sara Muender line the walls of this splashy shop. Jobean Glass Art features intricate glass work from JoBean Chambers, who studied with master Italian artists and opened her own studio and gallery in 1992. Chambers also teaches half- and full-day workshops to visitors. And save space in your weekend for Saba lace. Needlework came to the island in the late 1800s and spread among the local women to support their families, dubbing Saba “the island of women” and “the island of lace.” The intricate lacework can be found at artisan shops across the island.
Come evening, dinner in Saba can range from a simple seafood shack to complex cuisine. Brigadoon serves upscale dishes in a charming cottage. It’s an easygoing kind of place where you’ll eat and drink quite well but feel at home in a breezy sundress and sandals. At the Queen’s Gardens Restaurant, menus change daily, and often include the spiny-tail lobster that’s plucked fresh from the waters below. Love birds should book the restaurant’s bird’s nest, a treehouse for adults that’s tucked into a grove of mango trees. All the better if you’re staying on the property. Come Sunday, locals head to steak night at the Swinging Doors (you’ll need a reservation). This saloon-style bar doesn’t offer much in the way of style (unless you’re a fan of kitschy signage and sports memorabilia), but the owner is a barbecue master, and you’ll find island-dwellers toting a bottle of fine wine to accompany their rib-eye.
Close out the evening at The Tropics Café at Juliana’s Hotel. This can entail a dinner in the black-and-white-checked dining room or a simple poolside after-dinner drink. When it’s time to head home, make sure to stick out your thumb.
Have you been to Saba? Thinking of going? Happy to answer questions as it’s one of my favorite hidden gems!
(A version of this story originally appeared in Vogue, written by Anne Roderique-Jones)