Saba tales: in which I find things to do on dry land

Feeling a bit wonky and also slightly water-logged, I opt for a day on dry land. The tropical weather doesn’t seem to want to cooperate, repeating its sun-rain-fog-sun-fog-rain rhythm as a fog swoops down from Mt. Scenery and envelops Windward Side. The town has two markets, a handful of restaurants and bars, a bakery, a couple of dive shops and a few other random places to spend a tourist (US$) dollar. I find a quick brekkie at the bakery in town, the Bizzy Bee (“flour, flour” on their sign). From their Christmas stollen (shared on the boat with my new diving friends Christmas Day) to the almond cookie I had on the trail (filled with marzipan!!!), their stuff is fabulous! Sated, I embark on the day’s mission: summit Mt. Scenery, the highest point in the Kingdom of The Netherlands.

20151228_105755In 1967, a stairway comprising 1064 steps was built, leading up to the “Elfin Forest” at the top of this dormant volcano. A somewhat treacherous (mossy and steep) climb through the rainforest and around a private residence which reminded me of something like a tropical Deliverance (“take no photos, please respect” signs clearly posted), and then rising through the elephant ear and mountain palm, tropical flowers and trees. The trailside was teeming with butterflies: little white ones, black and yellow-striped and some even a vibrant orange. The mosses and ferns truly made the setting look like a scene from Grimm’s.

With a fog-ensconced trail, I was not optimistic of seeing much besides treetops and tropical mist when I (finally) reached the summit. And so, an hour after leaving the trail shop, I did, in fact, land at the top of Mt. Scenery; greeted by a friendly mountain chicken and a dense blanket of cool fog (which was actually quite refreshing after that tricky ascent). And so, as Samuel Clemens said about the weather in New England, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” Or 15, in my case. For the wait, I was rewarded with a parting of the clouds as it were: a brilliant view of Saba, from the Airport over to The Bottom, materialised in front of my eyes. Blue skies, lush hills, the charming red-roofed buildings in Windward Side and a shining Caribbean sea below. I stayed until the fog returned, its little cat feet guiding my way down the mountain once again.

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Down is harder than up on the moss- and jungle mist-covered slick steps, and I’m certain a mountain troll or elf is giggling at me from behind the elephant ear as I slip and teeter down the trail. I have seen hummingbirds and butterflies and lizards and the myriad rainforest flora. I land back at the trail center…mission: accomplished.

Lunch is a spectacular grouper sandwich at Scout’s Place. As I order, I hesitate – I have a moral dilemma with grouper. I love it but at the same time it is a scarce fish in most parts because of overfishing and poorly-designated marine reserves. But in pristine waters like this, with few fishermen on the island, the catch is both hand-reeled and controlled. So it’s doubly cool when the chef can show you a picture of the fish you’re eating, and more than likely introduce you to the fisherman.

2015-12-23 10.38.06The afternoon is rounded out with a siesta on my little terrace, views of Mt. Scenery (partially enveloped in its signature fog) in the distance; an ear out for the giant iguana thrashing about in the trees and the hummingbirds with their miniature jet fighter trajectories. Background din is the melange of goats from down the hill, birdsong, roosters and an occasional barking dog. The sun is looming lower in the sky and the peeper frogs (Coquee) are on deck to begin their nightly chorus more.

Saba, Day 1: in which I meet locals, critters (and local critters) and get a little lost

2015-12-22 16.53.46.jpgAfter a day of flights, weather delays and an ultimate departure on the last flight of the day on the small plane that would ferry me to the volcano-island that was to be my final destination, we turned around a mere kilometer from the runway because of low visibility and impossible landing conditions on this, the shortest commercial runway in the world.

Welcome to Saba, a Dutch territory in the former Netherlands Antilles. Comprised of a 5000-year dormant volcano, 4 towns (the capital being The Bottom; Windward Side, where I’m staying, being closest to the top; St. Johns and Zion’s Hill) and inhabited by the ancestors of Pirates, Slaves, Dutch, French, Carib Amerindians, fishermen and rumrunners. Throw in a smattering of ex-pats for good measure and you have a grand-total population of not quite 2000. One could describe it as a European-feeling mountain village situated in a rainforest. Verdant, I think, is the operating word. As well, Saba claims the highest elevation in The Netherlands.

So after the weather-induced layover in Sint Maarten (perhaps the opposite of Saba in character and atmosphere, in this traveller’s mind), dinner at a (surprisingly very decent) Lebanese restaurant with the other stranded passengers (interestingly enough, Sabans now living in the States, going home for the holidays with their spouses) the morning flight both departed on time and landed on target. The timing forestalled a day of diving, but enabled me to get the lay of the land and meet some locals (human, reptilian and feathered).

2015-12-23 10.38.06The place I’m staying, El Momo Cottages (I have yet to learn who El Momo is, but will do before the week is out!) is a set of cabana-esque buildings, set into the hillside. It’s a super-rustic eco-lodge (read: there is no room service and you are close to nature, which sometimes forgets the difference between indoors and out) but perfect, really, with the rainforest wending its way wherever it can. Steps take you up and up (and then more up) to the office/pool and then the restaurant (which reminds me somewhat of a summer camp dining room, but I am charmed by its rustic simplicity). Each room is on its own level, affording spectacular views – the higher the room, the better the view! And mine, with its outdoor shower and view of the foothills of Mt. Scenery and the Caribbean beyond does not disappoint.

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In the first hour here, I encountered a curious giant iguana, numerous lizards, a monster cricket and a couple of snakes sunning themselves – that or one snake who just couldn’t find the right spot. This is the jungle, kids, and things which crawl and slither are in abundance… Truth be told, the cricket was a little creepy. Once settled, though, I set out for a walkabout. Did I mention that this island is a volcano? And even though it is smaller than 15 square kilometers in size, it makes up for that in verticality. I set off and headed for the dive shop, laden with gear. And in my zeal for getting to know this place, I overshot my intended target by a literal mile (stellar navigational skills at work yet again). Local hospitality tends to make itself known, so when I stopped to ask directions, I was piled into a pickup (driven by a colourful, and perhaps a couple sheets to the wind, local) for a ride back to town…I had clearly walked too far and this fermented, yet kind, soul confirmed that hitchhiking is practically expected here!

Now unburdened, I wandered the narrow streets of Windward Side in search of lunch. That came in the shape of a mediocre chicken burrito and, later, a slice of Christmas stollen, a German (or Dutch?) bread with raisins and almond paste. It’s strange, this multi-cultural mélange that combines Caribbean Creole speakers with Dutch/Pirate/Amerindian (etc.) descendants with transplants from around the globe. Today, I met native Sabans (with and without that sing-song Caribbean accent), a Swedish woman who “married a diver” and ended up here, a woman from St. Thomas who “just likes Saba better” and a couple from the Czech Republic who run the dive shop. In just a few hours today I heard accents from all over the world, which made me feel like this is probably a good place to be.

Called the Unspoiled Queen because Sabans long ago realised the importance of both conservation and community. And because it’s a volcanic island, there are no beaches to attract the hordes of sun-mongering speculators. The reefs have been long-protected and the natural resources much-treasured, so (depending on the kind of traveller one is) Saba offers the perfect combination of pristine diving and rainforest hiking, without the Caribbean tourists (yay!).

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Morning view from the little restaurant at El Momo Cottages

I have come here to dive. Hammerheads and manta rays are on request, though we shall see what mother nature decides to deliver in the way of critters when I get into the water tomorrow morning. My mermaid tendencies may prevail, but I’ve also come here to hike.

But now, as I type, I am being watched by a hummingbird. He is so close, I can hear his little “pip, pip” chirps and the furious beating of his wings (three species of hummingbird lives on Saba and I’m hoping to find them all while I’m here).

Meanwhile, the sun begins to set and the peeper frogs are competing for first fiddle or other such standing in their reptilian orchestra. They vie for airtime with the crickets (thankfully, I believe mine has left the building) and nighttime birds. And it is this symphony that will sing me to sleep this Christmas Eve Eve.