The Bottom, Saba — 

The small propeller airplane lands quickly and softly, like a butterfly, on one of the world's shortest commercial runways on the rain-forest-capped island of Saba, which rises stunningly out of the Caribbean. It won't take long for visitors to see why the sign outside declares: "Welcome to The Unspoiled Queen."

Saba's Mount Scenery, at 2,877 feet high, is touted as the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. (The island became a Dutch municipality after the breakup of the Netherlands Antilles.) Still, some of the island's most sought-after peaks are underwater near Saba's sharply rising shores. The small island's volcanic nature has sculpted the seascape for unique recreational diving, as its coral-encrusted pinnacles and seamounts top out within recreational diving limits of 85 to 120 feet. Yellow sulfur deposits on the sand at the dive site known as Hot Springs show volcanic activity continues. If you stick your hand in the sand, you can feel its heat.

About 150 species of fish have been identified in the waters of Saba, such as this princess parrotfish in Saba Marine Park.
About 150 species of fish have been identified in the waters of Saba, such as this princess parrotfish in Saba Marine Park. (Photos by Brian Witte, The Associated Press)

Forget the beach. There isn't one. No casinos, either. After hiking and diving, one of the next best things to do is simply relax and wait for the symphony of whistling frogs that fills the night with song.

Many who take the time to visit this remote and verdant island about a 15-minute flight from St. Maarten are scuba divers who come to explore some of the most colorful and vibrant underwater life on this side of the world. A main draw for divers are the pinnacle dive sites, where magma pushed through the sea floor to create underwater towers of volcanic rock that start at about 300 feet down and rise to about 85 feet beneath the surface.


Advertisement

A giant barrel sponge in the Saba Marine Park.
A giant barrel sponge in the Saba Marine Park. (Brian Witte, The Associated Press)

"There's tons of color and, of course, because they are out in this blue oasis of water and then all of the sudden you've got formations, it attracts corals and sponges which, of course, attract the smaller fish, which of course attract bigger and bigger fish," said Lynn Costernaro, who owns the Sea Saba Dive Center, during a presentation to divers visiting the island.

The sponges, both in their variety and size, are one of the most noticeable features of the Saba Marine Park. Giant barrel sponges almost as big as the divers tower over the seascape, which is thick with striking red, purple, orange and yellow sponges. Sea turtles and stingrays are regularly spotted. Reef sharks can be seen on patrol. Spiny lobsters, crabs and moray eels hide in small openings in the corals.

One of the park's most thrilling dives, called Third Encounter, is on top of an underwater mountain. The top, which is about 100 feet deep, is covered in coral and sponges, with deep, dark blue drop-offs along its sides. Soon after getting there, a dive guide will start moving off into the deep blue, seemingly toward nothing. A few heart-pounding moments after hovering over the blue abyss, a narrow towering spire suddenly comes into view — again covered with colorful growth.

The first known divers in Saba waters did not come until 1982. The Dutch government decided to create a marine park not long after, before much diving had started. The park was officially established in 1987, but steps had been taken before that to protect the area, such as talking to fishermen and setting up homemade moorings for boats.

About 150 species of fish have been found in the island's waters. Measures are being taken to protect them. For example, restaurants do not serve grouper. As a result, a variety of species of grouper that is harder to see around other Caribbean islands is commonly seen here.

After spending the morning diving, there's plenty to do on land in the afternoon, if you're not ready to relax by the pool. The island has six vegetation zones, including rain forest and cloud forest at the very top, where there are orchids. It has more than a dozen trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Mount Scenery, at the top, takes an hour and a half each way to hike. Tour guides are available.

Saba also has more than 60 species of birds. Its rain forest even boasts a lodge and restaurant. It takes about 10 minutes to hike along a trail to reach the restaurant, and a flashlight is needed at night. Frogs cling to the windows in the dining room. A slide-show presentation on the rain forest is given on Wednesday nights.

The island has only one main road, steep and twisty, often providing exhilarating views over sheer cliffs down to the sea. Hitchhiking is common. Cars regularly roll along from one side of the island to the capital, known as The Bottom, a town of red-roofed white buildings with green shutters in a valley surrounded by lushly green and high-rising peaks.

A road leading to one resort about 2,000 feet above sea level is so steep, one cab driver boasts he is willing to make the trip, while some of his colleagues won't.

The details

Saba: Flights to the Caribbean island of Saba are available from St. Maarten on Windward Islands Airways, fly-winair.com. Service by ferry, which takes about 90 minutes from St. Maarten, is also available. Although Saba is a municipality within the Netherlands, English is widely spoken and the U.S. dollar is the official currency. More info: sabatourism.com