I am onboard a plane looking down at Sint Maarten’s Maho Beach as we take off for the tiny volcanic islet of Saba, which is actually no more than one 900-meter-high mountain rising out of the sea.
“I am afraid to fall off,” I hear another visitor say. Some of the most beautiful landscapes of the Caribbean are found in the Saba National Marine Park, with hot springs, lava tunnels, coral gardens and pinnacles, fantastic needle-shaped rocks that emerge from the bottom of the sea. There are more than 30 diving locations that experts rate as among the best on the planet.
“The diving is small-scale: there is never more than a handful of divers on Saba,” says divemaster Wolfgang Tooten, the owner of Saba divers. “The underwater world is simply unique and really pristine. This combination can be found nowhere else.”
The coastline is steep and impassable, with a few pebble beaches where locals go at weekends with barbecues and packs of beer. The surf rolls in gently, goats graze among the rocks and seabirds soar in the spray of seawater from the endless crashing waves.
One level up starts the inhabited world. Most of the 1,600 people live in the two main settlements: The Bottom and Windwardside. With their white wooden walls and red roofs, surrounded by lush green vegetation and bright red bougainvillea, the houses are like a fantasy vision of what the Caribbean should look like. A church, a school, a few shops, a bar, a hotel and a restaurant complete the picture. People bury the remains of their loved ones in the front yard. Life is reduced to the basics; there are no casinos and night clubs. Saba’s isolation has resulted in a special mix of culture and nature.
Where the houses stop, the tropical forest begins. Exotic ferns, tropical fruit trees and vines cover the fertile slopes. Take three steps off the path and you get lost in the green shade of the rainforest. The sea breeze is gone, the air is warm and clammy, the soil wet and slippery.
With a illustrated guide to Saba’s flora and fauna in hand, I spend days walking through the various biospheres of the island on a voyage of discovery. A well-maintained network of hiking trails circles Mount Scenery at different heights and I never seem to pass the same spot twice. Around every bend lurks a breathtaking view, or the chance to see a rare bird.
The top of Mount Scenery, also the highest point of the Dutch Kingdom, feels like ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, but without the gorillas. In the small crater mouth I find myself in a fantasyland of oddly shaped magic trees and the wandering souls of pirates and nymphs. Moss hangs in long strings off the erratic branches, fungi and ferns grow in the canopies and the mist makes the crater a place of strange shadows.
Then the wind picks up, the fog is dissipated and I suddenly see blue sky. Down below, a bright white village appears as if I am awakening from a surreal dream.