Posted March 15, 2018
The Caribbean has a lot of great beach destinations. We, however, were in search of the perfect destination. One that emphasized ecotourism and had amazing diving. Our search led us to the tiny dormant volcanic island of Saba, part of a special municipality of the Caribbean Netherlands, which is comprised of Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba. We combined our beach vacation to St. Martin and Anguilla with a separate diving trip to Saba. We traveled to Saba late in the summer-the low season for much of the Caribbean, which meant we would not only get great rates on flights and hotels, but we had beaches, diving, and hotels nearly all to ourselves!
Nearly every person we mention Saba to has never heard of it, which is surprising given its proximity to St. Martin/ St. Maarten, one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean. If you are into ecotourism, adventure, and diving, then Saba is the destination for you.
Saba and Tourism
Tourism is central to the economy of the Caribbean and Saba is no different. With Saba’s slogan the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean” it embraces its role as the destination for unspoiled beauty, making it an ideal destination for ecotourism. The island offers those in search of hiking, snorkeling, and diving a lot of options.
As previously mentioned, tourism plays a major role in the island’s economy, in fact, it’s the number one industry, representing roughly $30 million a year in trade. Saba, the smallest of the three Caribbean Netherlands islands receives most its tourists via ferry, of which an overwhelming number are day trippers from nearby Sint Maarten. While any tourism is better than none, day trippers are notorious for not being impactful visitors. Those who stay overnight contribute much more to the economy as they spend more time and thus more money. Our advice is to leave the crowds of Sint Maarten and treat yourself to a real ecotourism focused trip in Saba.
Getting to Saba
There are two ways to reach Saba. You can travel by air or sea, both of which depart from Saint Maarten. The sea option is via a ferry (three times a week) and is the most popular option, we, however opted for the more adventurous option, by air! The (15 minute) daily flight on Winair from SXM to Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, the smallest commercial runway (1,300 ft) in the world, is an adventure from beginning to end. The small De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter, which seats up to 19, but on our flight, there were a total of 7 of us, including the pilots, is the smallest plane we’ve ever been on. The plane is so small you have a full view of the pilots as they navigate to the island of Saba.
The short flight concludes with a thrilling landing, but in our opinion the takeoff is even better. Looking for the more adventurous way to travel to Saba? Then definitely fly.
Where to Stay in Saba
Saba doesn’t offer a lot of accommodation options. In fact, during our visit in the low season, there were only a handful of choices. We were, however in luck as the best possible option was open, the Queen’s Gardens Resort. Despite having “resort” in its name, it’s nothing like your typical Caribbean resort. The Queen’s Gardens Resort is a family-owned and operated property with a restaurant, pool, and spa. This is the place you should stay in Saba and here’s why.
Queen’s Gardens Resort
The 12 room Queen’s Gardens Resort is so good it’s where the Dutch Royals have stayed in the past during their visits to the tiny outpost! The resort’s amenities, staff rooms, location, restaurant, and service were perfect. To be completely honest, it was the view from the rooms and the property that sold us on staying there.
Upon our arrival, we were warmly greeted by the resort owner who helped us acclimate to our stay with a welcome drink and overview of the property while our bags were taken to our room. The resort’s staff were extremely pleasant and introduced themselves after we got settled in and explored the property. One of the perks of a small hotel is everyone gets to know you.
The two main reasons we chose to stay at the Queen’s Gardens Resort were the rooms and the view from the rooms. We opted for the Superior Suite (mid-range option), which had what I would consider to be the best amenity ever, an en suite hot tub with a panoramic view of the island and the Caribbean Sea. The absolute perfect setting to soak in the sounds of Saba’s wildlife.
Our suite was incredibly spacious with amazing views from the living room, hot tub, and bedroom. The living room was enormous and ideal for taking it all in!
Where to Eat and Drink in Saba
Like the hotel situation, Saba doesn’t offer a lot of options for dining, especially if you stay outside of Windwardside, where the majority of the restaurants are located. There are very few options for breakfast and lunch within walking distance of the resort. So this meant we ate the majority of our meals at the resort’s restaurant, which we were happy to do since the food was delicious.
Queen’s Gardens Resort Hotel Bar
If you happen to stay at the Queen’s Gardens Resort you will be lucky enough to enjoy the bar every night! Others, as you will see, will trek from other hotels just to come to the bar. Managed by Duco, the bar offers the best gin selection we have ever seen, and no we’re not just saying that it’s actually true. Not only is the selection amazing, but much of the garnishes are from the island. All you need to do is tell Duco what you are in the mood for, e.g. something spicy, mellow, or sweet and he will make a gin and tonic that will leave you satisfied.
Queen’s Gardens Resort Restaurant
Besides proximity, another reason we ate many of our meals at the resort's restaurant was that after diving all morning or afternoon we were too exhausted or didn’t have enough time to venture elsewhere for food. As I said the meals were delicious and the service great so we were happy to return. Over the course of our three nights at the resort, we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the resort’s restaurant. The head chef serves a variety of the Caribbean and international dishes using fresh sustainable produce in all his meals.
Not only is the food amazing, but you also have incredible views of Saba and the Caribbean Sea. It’s hard to say whether the scenery is better in the morning or in the evening when the sounds of the surrounding forest come alive. As a way to celebrate our arrival in Saba on our first night, we enjoyed dessert and a glass of Calvados, while Albert smoked a Cuban cigar.
Also worth noting is the supermarket just at the edge of The Bottom, the capital city. The supermarket was perfect for the essentials like snacks, toiletries, and beer. Oh and if you stay at the Queen’s Gardens Resort they will happily go to the store for you for a small fee.
Chez Bubba, a French bistro, is one of the most popular restaurants in Saba and is located in the town of Windward Side, roughly a 15-minute ride from the resort. The owners of Queen’s Gardens Resort also own Chez Bubba so they are more than happy to make a reservation for you and arrange complimentary transportation to and from the restaurant.
Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the restaurant’s wine room, which is the most extensive on the island. We dined outside under the stars on a perfect mid-August evening. For dinner, I (Albert) had the Seafood Risotto which included mussels, shrimp, Saba Lobster and locally caught fish topped with arugula and Parmesan cheese! It was heavenly and highly recommended, especially for the Saba Lobster. Carrie had the fish of the day!
What to See and Do in Saba
Go Hiking in Saba
Saba’s landscape lends itself to great hiking that ranges from easy to difficult. The Saba Tourism Bureau website explains the difficulty of each trail. Queen’s Gardens Resort is perfectly situated at the beginning of one of the island’s many trails. We hiked part of the Bottom Trail on our first day. The trail started out as an easy hike through the dense forest before quickly becoming steep and challenging to hike. After about an hour we turned around with our sights set on the hot tub in our room!
The trails are spread out across the island, one of which takes you to the top of the volcano. Saba’s terrain provides for varying climates while hiking, ranging from evergreen forests to rainforests. Atop Mt. Scenery you’ll find near constant cloud cover. While hiking you might be lucky enough to spot several of Saba’s nearly 60 different bird species.
Go Diving in Saba
One of the main drivers of our trip to Saba was its diving. The island, through the Saba Conservation Foundation, has done a phenomenal job in protecting the environment through the creation of the Saba National Marine Park in 1987. Through each dive, you are also helping to protect the park with a $3 fee, well worth it in our opinion as the marine life and coral reefs provide the perfect diving environment. The strict regulation and strong conservation efforts to protect the marine life below the surface have resulted in one of the Caribbean’s best-preserved dive parks.
The conservation efforts have helped protect the environment for some 150 different types of species that inhabit the marine park's waters. During our four dives (Torrens Point x2, Hot Springs, and Tent Reef) we encountered a range of marine life, most notably the porcupine fish, sea slug, sea turtles, stingrays, seahorse (I know how cool!!) and lots and lots of beautiful fish.
In addition to the abundant marine life, Saba’s natural landscape means it has high-quality diving. The steep coastal drop-off makes shore diving impossible and has prevented development along the coastline, meaning little to no pressure from tourism has impacted the environment. The volcanic landscape makes for a rich and diversified terrain below the surface with shallow patch reefs to deep underwater seamounts, perfect diving for every skill level. The volcanic landscape provides a unique environment to dive in, with pinnacle dives (for the more experienced) and the more accessible lava field dives.
Not only did we choose to go diving here, but we also chose it as the location to complete our Open Water Certification and we opted to do this with Sea Saba. Sea Saba was really helpful in facilitating the process for us to obtain our certification from the pool refresher to obtaining our certification card. The instructors and boat crew were friendly and helpful, and needless to say, we highly recommend them for your dive in Saba.
Hate crowds and overtourism? Love hiking, diving, adventure, and tranquility? Then Saba is the place for you. Trust us you will love it.
Have you heard of Saba? Perhaps you have been there? If so please drop us an email and tell us about your experience!
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All Photography by Albert and Carrie Bond