Ranked as the fourth most dangerous airport in the world, Princess Juliana Airport on the Dutch Antilles island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean brings landing aircraft low over Maho Beach. The take-off is equally exciting as planes have to bank sharply to avoid a hill.
SSS Islands – Long Read

Dutch possessions lying far away from the homeland

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

SSS Islands – Long Read Dutch possessions lying far away from the homeland

Hello SSS Islands of Sint Maarten, Saba and Sint Eustatius, a trio of Dutch possessions lying in the Caribbean sun. Far away from the homeland, they may belong to the Dutch Kingdom but that is about all they have in common – which makes them a perfect trio for a varied holiday.

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

In the morning, I climb to the top of Pic Paradis, at 424 meters the highest mountain on Saint Martin. Here begins a series of walking paths laid out by the Heritage Foundation that fan out all over the island, following ridges and summits. I start in a cool, dense mist that limits the view to a few meters. As the sun rises, the clouds start to burn off in the heat and I get glimpses of a cottage or a road. As if in a theater, the curtain slowly lifts to reveal the scenery of blue ocean and bluer sky. The delightful soundtrack is of birds chirping. It is going to be another wonderful day in the Caribbean.

The scenic view reveals another insight. Here, in Saint-Martin, the French part of the island, I see a marked contrast to the Dutch side of Sint Maarten. All is green and rural, rolling and charming, but Sint Maarten is busy and built-up, messy and grey. Where is the famous Dutch sense of order? Has it not made it to this remote outpost? Saint-Martin is undeniably French: the Euro is legal tender – an exception in the dollar-dominated Caribbean – and the gendarmes are as stern as anywhere in France. But the main reason for the difference is that 80 per cent of the French side is in the hands of one wealthy family, which has been absolutely opposed to all forms of development. This ban is the salvation of the island. Visitors can enjoy dance halls, casinos and shops on the Dutch side, and find good restaurants and unspoilt nature on the French side.

The walk that began on the Pic Paradis ends up in paradise. After six hours I reach the beach at Petites Cayes. It feels like the end of the world. I count three other visitors, one of them a surfer far out at sea on a brightly colored board, waiting for a big wave. I look for a place in the shade and let the New Age sounds of the surf work on me.

The next day, in Marigot, the capital of Saint-Martin, I enjoy a breakfast of café au lait and croissants. I have already visited the local fish market, held early every morning with no tourist in sight. When I pull out my wallet to settle the check, a passing bum asks me for a “small contribution”. I give him two euros and he sits at a table and orders a glass of red wine. Ah, yes, this must be France.

Their first Pernod of the day

If any more reminder were needed, champagne, wine and delicacies are displayed in the shops, fat cows graze in the meadows. At another café near the port, I eat a perfect tarte tatin while several Frenchmen – who look as if they will never go back to France – nurse their first Pernod of the day.

Further north is the old fishing village of Grand Case, an untidy collection of houses on a long stretch of beach. The bay is quiet, the water blue, the deck-chairs sit in the water. All the cliches of an Carribean holiday are imbued with a touch of French style. With no duty-free shops, the cruise ships pass on by and what the place lacks in entertainment and comfort, it makes up for in peace and quiet. In the evening, a mojito sets up an evening of à la carte dining in a seafood restaurant or whole crab and lobster at an open-air Creole grill.

Around midnight, Grand Case goes to sleep. The car headlights sweep the hills as the action heads for Simpson Bay and Maho. There, the discos are full, the stack of chips waits patiently beside the shiny roulette wheel for those who feel lucky, and the strippers are warming up for their first lap dance.

Sint Maarten takes its name from the day on which it was discovered by Christopher Columbus: the saint’s day of November 11 in 1493. Philipsburg, its capital, was named 200 years later after Governor John Philips. It is a busy and functional town, but with a certain charm, built on a narrow strip between the sea and the Salt Lake and fronted by a beautiful sandy beach. The Court House is the only historic building of significance and there is an attractive broad boulevard, the Boardwalk.

The narrow streets are full of cruise passengers, identified by colored wristbands, and if four or five ships come in together, any atmosphere is lost. “The Americans on cruise ships really misbehave,” says a shopkeeper. “They think they can do the things they cannot do at home, like drinking in the streets.”

Plane spotting was never so much fun

The other part of Sint Maarten, around the Simpson Bay Lagoon, is the domain of ultra expensive private yachts, casinos, smugglers, nightclubs and large resorts. The main attraction here for many is the unique Maho Beach under the flightpath of the Princess Juliana International Airport. Jumbos fly in to land, seemingly only a few meters above the heads of sun-bathers. Local lore has it that an Air France 747 even blew a passing car into the sea. That is why you find most tourists are not on the beach itself but in the adjacent Sunset Beach Bar enjoying the dramatic sight. The bar posts landing and take-off times for every flight; plane spotting was never so much fun.

The next day, I am onboard a plane myself looking down at Maho as we take off for the tiny volcanic islet of Saba. As varied and fascinating as Saint Martin is, it is with a sense of relief that I see it shrink beneath the wing. I had the constant feeling of being a guest at a rather out-of-control party of American cruise passengers – a nice experience if you are in the mood but not my idea of a perfect holiday.

Saba’s airport has its own quirk: it is the world’s shortest and pilots need special training before they can land there. Next to me on the plane is a man who is completely absorbed in his smart phone. Only when Saba comes in sight does he look up and sigh: “Always so good to be home!” He is Chris Johnson, who turns out to be a prominent local politician. The green slopes of Mount Scenery loom as we make a last sharp turn and plop down on the landing strip, where we brake to a stop almost immediately. The experience feels very like what landing on an aircraft carrier must be, although to the pilots it is obviously just another day at the office.

Chris gives me a ride along the hairpin bends that lead past villages with names such as Hell’s Gate and Windwardside. He tells me about his ancestors, Scottish pirates who centuries ago were seeking a safe haven on Saba, about his father who was an important politician. When I start talking about what I might do, he immediately picks up his phone and starts calling contacts. That afternoon, I am lying on my stomach on a steep cliff to take pictures of the rare white-tailed tropicbird (haethon lepturus), there with a team of volunteers counting their nests. A warmer welcome and a greater contrast with Sint Maarten is hard to imagine.

I am afraid to fall off,

Saba 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 that the community has asked to be put on the Unesco World Heritage list.

Get lost in the green shade of the rainforest

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.

After a few delicious weeks it is time to leave Saba and head for Sint Eustatius. My welcoming little hotel has arranged a taxi to the airport, free of charge, and my new friends have come to say goodbye. As I drive down the only road on Saba, of which I now know every bump and bend, I wonder what Statia, as Sint Eustatius is called by everyone here, has in store for me. The general consensus is that Statia is boring, a remote corner, where no one needs to go. The hop from Saba to Sint Eustatius takes ten minutes; the islands lie in sight of each other. Without much expectation I set foot on land. Beside the runway grazes a cow. “Isn’t that dangerous?” I ask the pilot, as we walk together into the arrivals hall. He shrugs. The tone is set.

Goats jump out of the way

The short ride to Statia Lodge, my accommodation, is on a road filled with potholes. Goats jump out of the way, chickens squawk and flap, people walk in the middle of the road and only move aside if you honk your car horn. The island has one town, Oranjestad (“Orange City”), which is also the capital, of course. Music is omnipresent, boys and girls flirt in the shade. The relaxed atmosphere is contagious: I imagine this is how every Caribbean island must have been before the tourists arrived.

Statia, in contrast to Saba with its daily ferry from Sint Maarten, has no boat connection to other islands. The small aircraft limits the number of tourists per day to a maximum of 100 but that figure is never reached. “We are afraid we will be discovered by the cruise lines,” says a local. “The heritage is so amazing yet we only receive a handful of visitors. There is talk of building a casino but, if they do, then I will leave.”

Is Statia boring? On the contrary, after a few days I am completely under its spell. Why I feel that enchantment is harder to define. The languor that prevails is attractive, sure. The feel of having discovered an authentic corner of the Caribbean is appealing. It is nice, but certainly not as picture perfect as Saba. The climb up the Quill, the huge crater that dominates the island, is spectacular. In the crater mouth I find giant trees as if I am in the Amazon. But half of the island is off limits because of a major oil storage terminal, which keeps the local economy running. Total paradise it is not.

One special feature of Saint Eustatius is the pivotal and exceptional role it has played in the history of the world and of the Netherlands. Out for my daily run, I become more aware of the activity of the 20,000 inhabitants who lived here centuries ago and traded with the rest of the world. The shimmering sails of the hundreds of ships that once anchored here on a daily basis are almost palpable. The island still seems to resonate from all that energy, as if the island has a collective consciousness that I slowly become part of.

No more than a modest prize

When it was discovered by Columbus in 1493, Saint Eustatius, like many other islands at the time, was no more than a modest prize. During those first centuries, its ownership changed hands constantly, as if no one could be bothered to argue about it. It only became important after the Dutch West India Company built Fort Orange and a port. Its central location between South and North America and Europe, the sheltered harbor and the free trade spirit of 17th-century Dutch merchants made it one of the most important ports in the world.

One of the prize goods that lay in the warehouses here were the Dutch blue beads imported in vast quantities as ships’ ballast. Made cheaply, but assigned great value, the Dutch exchanged them with the indigenous peoples to buy their land for next to nothing. It is claimed locally that 30 blue beads from Statia were used to buy Manhattan from the Indians (see mini feature). You can still find these beads on the coast and, after each storm, the island population comb the beaches to see if any have washed up from the many offshore wrecks.

This tiny island played a crucial role in the establishment of the United States in the 18th century, supplying weapons and supplies to the rebellious Americans in their war of liberation against the British Empire. On November 16, 1776, it was the first country in the world to recognize the rebel United States when Dutch governor Johannes de Graaff authorized a return salute to the USS Andrew Doria, sailing under Captain Isaiah Robinson and flying the flag of 13 stripes. This particular event is still celebrated every year during Statia Day.

Ruined walls of the old warehouses

Only a handful of buildings from this illustrious time has been restored, such as Fort Oranje from where that salute was fired. On the beach at the bottom of the quay I sunbathe between the ruined walls of the old warehouses. A walk through the ruins of the historic buildings in Oranjestad delivers handfuls of shards, pipes and sometimes a coin or larger objects. Of the thousands of homes and warehouses, not is much left – but immediately under the surface lies over four centuries of history. A small team of archaeologists is active but the task is huge.

It will take a long time, even with the help of Unesco, to restore to Sint Eustatius a fraction of its former glory. Add in a boat connection to the surrounding islands, and it has a sunny future. So visit it now, before it turns into a museum, dotted with big name hotels, its population doubled with immigrants in search of work and its dock lined with cruise ships.

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