The Caribbean’s Unknown Island
In Saba, finding the Caribbean island of also
By Alexander Britell
SABA – I’ve got a tab at Zanzi Bar.
It’s the same Zanzi Bar it’s always been, except now it’s a new bar.
A week ago, Luis, a native of Peru, and his team, took over the management and changed everything but the name, he tells me.
I order another Brugal Extra Viejo on the rocks, after the bartender heads home.
I know her.
Earlier in the day, Jenny hadn’t been a bartender, but the manager of the Saba Art Foundation, selling high-end custom crafts and lace work downtown. I had purchased a small bottle of Saba Spice from her, a local spiced rum concoction made by only three women on the whole island.
Like many on this island, she multitasks, one role to another, day to night. The postman is also the postmaster general. The taxi driver also owns a restaurant.
It is an island of also.
The Dutch Caribbean island known as Saba is known for its diving, its fascinating topography and its medical school. And also for its lace. But it is also not known, and that is something the islanders relish.
It’s just 12 minutes by plane from St Maarten, a little less than two hours by ferry. But light years removed.
There are only 2,000 people on this rock in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, the one with just one main road called The Road and with a capital called The Bottom.
Above: the island’s main port at sunset
The Road was the vision of a man called Josephus “Lambee” Hassell, who spearheaded the construction of a road they said “could not be built.”
But today there is a road, and there is an island of people who live here in tranquil remoteness, without traffic lights or loud noises or bustle.
Lots of places in the Caribbean say that they are small. That they are quiet. But often, it’s because they don’t quite have a pulse.
Here, the only sounds you hear are the edges of the mountain breezes or the music played in a nearby living room.
But here, underneath it all, beneath the nighttime chirp of the coqui frogs, you can feel something beating.
It is this beat that flaps the Saban flag on the main street in Windwardside, one of the island’s four little villages. It is this beat that keeps the doors swinging at Swinging Doors and the one that keeps the streets almost miraculously clean for a Caribbean island.
I ask everyone I meet why they like Saba, what makes it unique.
Above: the main street in Windwardside
There is no tested trope, just an honest explanation.
“It’s a nice island,” George, the tour guide, tells me. “It is quiet, quaint and clean.”
It is all of those things, the same things that turned a few-month stint for Brigadoon’s Chef Tjeerd “T.J.” Abma, into six years on the island. Abma, a Dutch chef, has become one of the area’s most famous names for his role in putting the invasive lionfish species on the dinner menu.
Above: foie gras at Brigadoon
Perhaps it’s because many places advertise the old Caribbean, the one that appears only in books.
But this place actually is the old Caribbean. It is the Caribbean of novels, of sketches and framed paintings, the way the green and white houses with the red roofs dot the hills.
Here, it isn’t the old Caribbean. It’s the Caribbean that still is.
There are no beaches, save for one called Wandering Beach, which appears and disappears and shows up when the mood is right. There are no large resorts.
There is the largest mountain in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, called Mount Scenery, and a host of great hikes, and pure waters for serious divers.
There are restaurants, too, like the recently-opened Island Flavor and Brigadoon (the one that makes haute-cuisine lionfish) and Scout’s Place.
It’s the Caribbean that still is.”
There are a few hotels, like the Cottage Club and the rather beautiful Queen’s Gardens, Saba’s signature place to stay.
Above: the pool at the lovely boutique Queen’s Gardens resort
It is quiet here, but there is a pulse around the storybook cottages, a pulse that echoes in the valleys.
Saba is a small island. It is a quiet island. It is the island of also.
And it is also a very, very nice place to be.