On This Caribbean Island, It Doesn’t Take Long to Feel Local


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Mount Scenery, on the island of Saba in the Dutch Antilles. Its summit, at 2,910 feet, is the island’s highest point.

Credit
Cees Timmers

THE BOTTOM, Saba, Dutch Antilles — Hiking all the trails on an island just five miles square seems easy — until you consider the terrain. The small volcanic island of Saba in the Dutch Antilles rises from sea level to nearly 3,000 feet. There are trails all right, but few are horizontal.

I had just three days, so I was in a hurry, but my guide, James Johnson, 64, kept a slow pace. He wanted me to look around, which is not easy while walking on steeply pitched slopes or the sea-hammered rock paths down by the shore.

My first day we went to the Tide Pools at Flat Point, on a trail as beautiful as it was treacherous. On more a scramble than a hike, we hauled ourselves carefully along pinnacles of volcanic rock as enormous ocean swells filled and drained the gullies with a noisy intensity.





Mr. Johnson pointed out crabs and urchins in the clear seawater. “You could swim here,” he told me, but with the roar of the ocean in my ears, there was little chance I’d be doing that. Swimming is mostly done offshore by divers and snorkelers. Saba may not be well known among the general run of vacationers but as a dive destination, it is world famous.

The island encompasses three distinct ecosystems — coastal/tide pool, dry forest and rain/elfin forest — with a diversity of plants and animal life both indigenous and imported. The small population (fewer than 2,000 people) is a bit of a curiosity, too. It is composed mainly of people with Dutch, English, Irish and African ancestries, reflecting the many times that the island changed hands between 1640, the year the Dutch West India Company arrived, and 1816, when the Dutch regained control. In 2010, Saba, along with the nearby islands of St. Eustatius and Bonaire, became a special municipality of the Netherlands.

It doesn’t take long for some faces to become familiar. And the Sabans I met turned out to be as interesting as the island’s natural scene, beginning with Mr. Johnson, who goes by the nickname Crocodile. As in Dundee, Australian hero of the 1986 movie.

Mr. Johnson is a guide and custodian for the private nonprofit Saba Conservation Foundation, which looks after the trails and the marine park. During our walk along the Sandy Cruz trail, he told me how he once caught some visitors trying to smuggle native plants off the island. He was doing a little hunting and had a dead goat over one shoulder and a rifle in his hand when he confronted them. They quickly surrendered the plants, he said.

“What we are protecting is from our ancestors. We didn’t overkill or overfish or whatever,” Mr. Johnson said. The island was protected and, he added, “it still is.”

Later we watched two residents shoot a goat in a field of scrub by the island’s lone beach. Unlike the flora, goats are not protected and actually overpopulate the island. The solution: Hunt them for eating or for sale in town, where their meat fetches $5 a pound, or at the market on nearby St. Maarten.

After Mr. Johnson and I parted, I walked the Dancing Place trail, a paved path with spectacular views. Saba is home to several dozen sea and inland birds, including three species of hummingbird. On this afternoon, I saw my first brown-throated parakeet, with its bold green and yellow feathers.

The island over all is “low-key and it’s ecologically minded,” said Andries Bonnema, managing director of El Momo Cottages at Booby Hill, on the island’s east side. He estimates 60 percent of his guests are there to hike, 35 percent to dive and the rest to do nothing.

Touring Saba isn’t exactly easy. The island’s only road wasn’t completed until 1958. The airport was built in 1963 and — as it has what locals say is the world’s shortest commercial runway, at 1,300 feet — only the St. Maarten-based airline Winair is certified to fly scheduled flights here. The harbor was built in the 1970s.

The highest point on Saba is the summit of Mount Scenery, at 2,910 feet. I had hiked it in November, the first time I visited Saba, and it had inspired my return in January. From the town of Windwardside to the top is a near vertical climb, but the elevation of the trail head provides a 1,300-foot start. The spiky peak is hidden in clouds 80 percent of the time, according to Tom Van’t Hof, a conservationist and marine biologist who lives in Saba. But many lookouts along the way offer views of the ocean and of the Dutch-inspired red-roofed, white cottages clustered in the hills.

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Part of the Sulphur Mine Trail, said to have been used by pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Credit
Cees Timmers

Having already checked Mount Scenery off my list, I took the Sulphur Mine Trail, which pirates are said to have frequented during the 17th and 18th centuries. I walked carefully while under the canopy because it had rained the previous night and the steep path was still slippery. After about 30 minutes, the trees yielded to a wide meadow dropping precipitously to the sea.

I inched down the hill and secured myself behind a boulder to watch the birds while I ate my lunch. I saw frigatebirds and boobies, but I was captivated by the red-billed tropicbirds with their three-foot wingspan and two elegant tail feathers streaming behind them like kites.

Mr. Johnson had taught me to stop often and look around on my hikes. And later that day, I was rewarded again when I spotted a purple-throated carib hummingbird and a brilliant yellow bird called a bananaquit. I also found a turpentine tree, nicknamed the tourist tree because the bark is always red and peeling like a sunburned visitor.

Three days out in nature by day would have been incomplete without at least one night in the forest, so I walked to the junction of seven separate trails and followed the path to the Ecolodge, a hiker-friendly compound of cottages reachable only on foot. Electricity is solar and the kitchen runs on propane.

That didn’t stop Keith Murphy, the chef, who is from the United States, from preparing a sophisticated three-course meal flavored with a few herbs and greens I might have seen on my walk if I had known what to look for. But the goats I’d seen all over the island were not on the menu.

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