11 Irresistible Reasons to Visit Saba Island The Smallest Island in the Caribbean

Saba cottages on a hill surrounded by palm trees

If you ask people if they’ve been to Saba Island (pronounced Say-ba), in the Dutch Caribbean, a municipality of the Netherlands, chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare. “Is it in Indonesia?” one friend asked. “Are you making it up?” inquired another.

I only learned about the smallest island in the Caribbean, a tiny speck of a former volcano, a few weeks before my visit. And that’s exactly why I wanted to go. Who wants to go where everyone’s been?

After four lovely days, I discovered that Saba’s footprint is a mere five square miles, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up in pristine nature, a relaxed small-town vibe, and super-friendly locals.

If you’ve never considered the Island of Saba for a holiday, I’ve listed a few reasons why you might want to rethink your plans.

Saba Island is Beautiful

Like other Dutch Caribbean islands, Saba is endowed with cobalt blue water, soaring palm trees, and exotic terrain, what it’s not is slick and manicured to an inch of its life. Locals call it the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean,” and from a nature perspective, it’s a well-earned moniker. Visually the public areas are a little frayed around the edges, spots are overgrown, and buildings battered by hurricanes need a coat of paint. It’s what I imagine St. Martin or Jamaica looked like 20 – 30 years ago before commercialism reigned supreme.

There’s an Old-School Small-Town Vibe 

Saba’s four small villages (Hell’s Gate, Windwardside, St. John, and The Bottom) are wedged between the few valleys the volcano affords. Red-roofed homes scale the mountainsides taking advantage of every ledge and plateau on which to perch.

Each village has its own personality and in some instances dialects, yet what they share is a refreshingly slow pace, a laid-back charm, and a “Mi Casa et Su Casa” warmth.  Locals smile and said hello, gladly offering directions, recommended places to go, and things to do with genuine enthusiasm. Living in New York City, the contrast is sadly remarkable.

A view of the small village of Windwardside from the homes on Booby Hill
Windwardside as seen from a residential district named Booby Hill

Taxi driver Donna Lockhart, who’s been on the job for 14 years, said the community’s kindness was one of the main reasons she moved to Saba Island two decades ago. “It’s the only place that I know of that I’ve ever driven, that people will meet head-on [on the villages’ narrow streets], and both start to reverse to let the other one go.” 

Saba Island is (very) Safe

Saba’s generosity of spirit is underscored by a dearth of crime. Homes are left unlocked, cars sport keys in the ignition, and late-night strolls are only a walk in the dark. 

This enviable tranquility is born of a shared heritage and pure practicality. A good portion of the population is a web of distant familial ties knotted over centuries. Everyone knows one another, and with a robust network of chatter, secrets don’t last long. Add the fact that making it off the Island without being caught is unlikely, you have the perfect storm of deterrents to illegal shenanigans. 

Tide pool in the lava flow on Saba Island
A tidal pool at low tide

Few People Know Saba Island Exists (Which works in your favor)

Saba’s relative anonymity means it remains unscathed by hordes of tourists. The kind who visit a tropical paradise then over time love it to death. 

Large cruise ships belching passengers ashore are blissfully absent as are chain anything. If you crave a Starbucks or a Big Mac, you’re out of luck. Thankfully.   Even small ship cruises that frequent the Caribbean do not dock in Saba.

The cemetery in Windwardside on Saba Island
The Windwardside Cemetary

It’s not lost on me that I am praising a destination for its obscurity while simultaneously drawing attention to it. But Saba’s predominantly vertical geography naturally discourages major growth in tourism.

The tiny Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (boasting the world’s shortest commercial runway – more on that later) only accommodates helicopters and small passenger planes. A once-a-day 90-minute Ferry from St. Maarten (a mere 30 miles away) principally services day-trippers.

In short, while there is wiggle room for a few additional accommodations and tourism-based businesses, the island doesn’t have the real estate for the necessary infrastructure needed to sustain a heavy influx of fans. 

a beautiful view of palm trees and the ocean from a spot on Saba Island
The view near my hotel

The Island is Rich in Biodiversity 

“There are few places in the Caribbean with Saba’s range of biodiversity,” said “Crocodile James Johnson,” a 67 years-young nature guide and trail manager who grew up on Saba and can trace his lineage back to the 1600s. “For its size, it’s the most biodiverse island in the world.” 

There are 700 species of plants, an indigenous black iguana, and 60 species of birds, including 10% of the red-billed tropicbird population. It’s also blessed with multiple ecosystems: coral reefs and lava flows, as well as a rainforest and Elfin (Cloud) forest atop the 2800 foot Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom.

A red-billed tropicbird flies to its nest amongst the cliffs of Saba Island
A red-billed tropicbird flies to its nest in the cliffs

The proximity of all this diversity made it easy for me to hike the rainforest in the morning, and an hour later, I scrambled over lava flows at low tide in search of tidal pools. 

There is World-Class Diving Around Saba Island

in the 60s and early 70s, tourism became possible after the completion of the airport and harbor. Scuba divers were the first to arrive and fall in love with Saba’s world-class water.

The region boasts one of the healthiest oceans in the world with spectacular pinnacles, stunning seamounts, drop-offs, walls, thriving coral reefs, and a mindboggling variety of fish.  

Saba’s Archeological center discovered two large ship canons on the seafloor, each measuring 8.2 feet long. The theory is that they were intentionally sunk, to reduce weight on the ship or perhaps to keep them from enemy hands since there’s no evidence of a shipwreck nearby.

Credit goes to the sustainability-minded residents. They chose to establish a National Marine Park circling the Island in 1987 BEFORE any damage was done. 

Diving News – Scuba divers now have a new find to explore off the Saban coast. The Saba Archaeological Center discovered two large ship cannons crossed one on top of the other during a sea-floor survey. They are both nearly 8.2 feet long, and as no evidence of a shipwreck was found in the area, it appears they were intentionally sunk, either to reduce weight on a beached ship or perhaps to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

Sea Turtle underwater in the Marine Park off Saba Island
Photo: Saba Tourism

Boats are limited, and it’s illegal for travelers to disturb the coral reefs. Visitors must dive with local outfitters such as Sea Saba, a veteran dive shop in Windwardside, who knows the sites intimately.

According to Kai Wulf, Director of Parks, the best time for snorkeling is during hurricane season around late August, early September. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but he swears between storms the frequently turbulent water is at its calmest. Granted, if there’s bad weather, you’re out of luck.  

Ironically, the snorkeling around Saba is so-so at best. Strong swells keep snorkelers confined to areas where marine life is relatively scarce. 

There are Excellent Hiking Trails

The hiking on Saba is as striking as the diving. Weaving through rainforest, cloud forest, and coastal terrain are 23 self-guided hiking trails that range in difficulty from moderate to extreme. Average times one-way run the gamut from 10 minutes to four hours.   

Sherry Ott and "Crocodile James" Johnson hiking on the Sandy Cruz trail on Saba Island
“Crocodile James” and Sherry Ott walk the Sandy Cruz trail

The trek to the summit of Mount Scenery is the most popular trek, frequented by locals and day-trippers alike. To reach the peak at 2,800 feet requires climbing 1064 stairs. At the top, a captivating cloud forest will be your reward replete with 200-year-old mahogany trees, and breathtaking views.  

During your journey, you’ll ascend through a dense rainforest rich with palm trees with leafs the size of a 12-year-old. There are orchids and dangling vines, and a zillion different species of plants I couldn’t begin to list.  

Many of the paths are historic, dating back hundreds of years when settlers carried everything by hand or on donkeys. How I don’t know, but I’ve heard tales about pianos and whole homes dismantled and moved to new locations this way. Incredible. 

"Crocodile James" Johson, guide and trail manager on Saba Island
“Crocodile James” Johnson,. 67-years young

To acquaint yourself with the options, stop by the Trail Shop at the foot of the mountain in Windwardside. There you’ll find maps and up-to-the-moment information on the status of the trails. 

Alert the trail shop where you plan to hike. If there’s an emergency, the staff needs to know where to look for you. Please don’t walk alone. If you are hurt it could be hours before help arrives. 

I highly recommend going on at least one hike with “Crocodile James.” He’s a real character. He’ll regale you with island stories and legends and facts about flora and fauna. Don’t fret if you can’t always understand him, he speaks incredibly fast and has an accent that’s a mashup of Scottish, Irish, and French, with some Caribbean thrown in for good measure. 

Kai Wulf climbing the Mary's Point trail
Kai Wulf, Director of Parks, climbing the Mary’s Point trail

My friend, Sherry Ott, and I went with James on the Sandy Cruz trail. A route with its fair share of inclines and switchbacks in the heart of the rainforest. The sun was blazing and it was an ideal shady hike. About halfway through, the trees part revealing stunning views of St. Maarten and other islands beyond.

If you like history in addition to beautiful views, hike up to Mary’s Point. It’s a combo of stairs and dirt trail, and always going up, which makes it a challenge but worth it. At the top, you’ll find old settlement ruins from the 1600s. Not a lot, but there are a few foundations and walls, a cistern, and a couple of graves.  

James is a direct descendant of the people who lived there, and if you go with him, he’ll provide some intriguing context. 

A grave of a child on the Mary's Point trail on Saba Island
A child’s grave on the Mary’s Point trail

It’s Very Easy to Get Around 

The majority of accommodations, restaurants, and travel-related businesses are based in Windwardside and within walking distance. 

All four villages are connected by one main road, a narrow thoroughfare named The Road. (Imaginative names are not the Saban’s forte.) 

There are no traffic lights, no stop signs, and it’s laden with steep inclines and multiple hairpin turns. Not to mention, portions of the pavement are only wide enough for a single car. If you enjoy rollercoasters, you’ll get a kick out of The Road. 

Timelapse traveling “The Road” from the airport to The Bottom…. then my battery went dead

When you arrive, you’ll get a taste of it right off the bat. From Juancho E. Yrausquin at sea level to Windwardside at 1312 feet, there are 23 uphill curves alone. 

When it comes to excursions, the outfitters usually handle transport. Taxis are the best and most economical way to get around. Drivers like Donna Lockhart are available by phone, by appointment, and if you’re in any commercial business, ask the staff to call one for you. 

Rental cars are available, but, seriously, use the taxis. Parking is an issue, and with 45-degree inclines, you’ll be happier sitting shotgun enjoying the view than sitting behind the wheel. 

If that doesn’t sell you, how about drivers like Donna are just more fun. She has a wealth of information to share plus real-time reports on local happenings. 

The Food is Wonderful

I admit, I didn’t expect much food-wise but I was very pleasantly surprised.

Windwardside has the lion’s share of restaurants and bars with varying menus and cuisines. 

Bizzy B. Bakery is a local favorite. Get up early, and you’ll find locals enjoying their morning coffee and muffin before work at the tables outside. I had a yummy egg-salad sandwich there when I needed a quick and delish bite to eat. 

Amazing grilled Saban Lobster at Tropics Cafe on Saba Island
Amazing grilled Saban Lobster at Tropics Cafe

The poolside Tropic’s Cafe is part of Juliana’s Hotel, where I stayed. It’s one of the Island’s hot spots for good food and conversation.  

One evening, I had fresh grilled Saban lobster, (a.k.a Spiny lobster without the large front claws and is a tad less sweet the Maine variety.) It was so good, I still think about it now. 

At night, on the patio, the Tipsy Goat Bar is a must for cocktails with one of the best sunset views around. 

A couple of minutes walk from Juliana’s is Brigadoon, inside this former Saban cottage, it’s charming, romantic, and lit by candlelight. I recommend the Shrimp Brigadoon with scallops, green olives, and asparagus. 

For something extra special, dinner at the Queen’s Garden Resort and Spa is worth splurging on. The 12 – suite hotel is etched into the mountainside poised above The Bottom, and the only 5-star accommodation on the Island. 

Juliana's Hotel Saba Island
Juliana’s Hotel and the poolside Tipsy Goat bar

Ask for the Bird’s Nest table, perched in a 110-year-old mango tree. The view of the village to the sea is gorgeous.

Swinging Doors Bar is the local haunt for after-dinner fun and BBQ on Tuesday and Sunday nights. I didn’t go due to lack of time, but everyone I talked to said it was a great place to hang out. 

There’s More to do than Diving and Hiking on Saba Island

While nature is Saba’s sweet spot, there are other things to do if you’re in the mood for something different.

Taxi Driver Donna, as well as other drivers, offers island tours. She’ll take you through the villages, point out all the key landmarks, and provide some historical context. It’s a great way to get your bearings when you first arrive. Plus, you’ll have a chance to experience The Road. It was constructed by hand with picks and wheelbarrows beginning in 1943, it took 15-years to complete.

Sunset at Wells Bay on Saba Island
The view of Wells Bay from Mary’s Point trail. The bay is a popular haunt for travelers and locals alike to watch the sunset.

Another location for a beautiful sunset is Wells Bay. Towering cliffs and dramatic coastline are backdrops to a stunning end to the day.

If you’re feeling crafty, Jobean of Jobean Glass Art, an accomplished artist, offers half and full-day workshops making beads with hot glass. Jobean is a spirited host and an enthusiastic teacher who makes sure her guests get the most out of their visit.

I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea, (I’m not much for jewelry), but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The class was educational, challenging and fun, with the bonus of instant gratification. I wear my beads all the time.

Jobean Glass Art Class on Saba Island
The beads I made cooling on cotton

A day at the Frangipani Spa makes it easy to pamper yourself. Or if you prefer retail therapy you’ll find Jobean’s work as well as creations by a slew of other talented local artists at Kakona. The word means “trinkets of value and objects of worth” in the Ciboney language, the aboriginal people who lived on Saba over 3,000 years ago.

You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to roam the shop. You’ll find hand-loomed shawls, jewelry, body products made from essential oils found in native plants, colorful paintings of nature and underwater scenes, and Saba Spice, a tasty indigenous 150-proof rum you won’t find anywhere else.

Every Wednesday, Tropic’s Cafe hosts dinner and a movie, a virtual hike narrated by Tom van’t Hoff, an environmentalist and founder of the Saba Conservation Foundation. The film takes you on a guided ecological tour of the island.

On Mondays, Sea Saba presents a slide show featuring the underwater universe off Saba’s shores.

Celebrate Carnival the last week in July. The “Sea and Learn” Festival takes place in October, a community effort to teach visitors and residence about ocean conservation. Scientists, naturalists, and educators from around the world design exhibitions, give presentations and produce shows about life under the waves of the Marine Park.

In December, Saba Days is a multi-day festival with games, dancing, sports, cultural activities, and week-long barbecues.

Map of the Villages of Saba Island

Map of Saba Island

A Brief Breakdown of the Four Villages

(This list is in order of appearance along The Road from one side to the other.)

Hell’s Gate (Also called Zion’s Hill) is where you’ll find the airport.

Windwardside is the tourism center with a variety of accommodations, restaurants, bars, and such as well as ground zero for most of the outfitters on the island.

St. John is a residential area and home to the school.

The Bottom is Saba’s capital. Most of the government and service offices are located here. There are a couple of historical sites as well.

The harbor is the last stop on The Road and below The Bottom. Residents joke that it’s the only place you have to go up to get to The bottom.

How to Get to Saba Island

Covid-19: Entry Rules and Protocols

“Saba started welcoming international travelers on May 1, 2021. Travelers can apply to enter Saba via the Electronic Health Authorization System or EHAS on sabatourism.com Fully vaccinated adults must provide proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before arrival or an antigen test within 48 hours and are not required to quarantine. Nonvaccinated travelers must quarantine for five days and take a rapid antigen test on day five. Transit travelers connecting through St. Maarten prior to visiting Saba must follow St. Maarten’s entry requirements in addition to those for Saba. However, a completed EHAS form for Saba will be accepted by St. Maarten, as both islands utilize the same platform. For full requirements, please visit stmaartenehas.com. Vaccinated day- trippers are also welcome with no prior permission.

Saba Tourism Press release

Getting to Saba Island is kind of a “thing.” This is less of a reason to visit as it is a heads-up. To get to Saba you need to go through St. Maarten. Google the flight from St. Maarten to Saba and you’ll see a slew of articles waxing poetic about Juancho E. Yrausquin having, at 1300 feet, the shortest commercial runway in the world.

In my opinion, airplane geeks and nervous nellies overdramatize the landing. If they tried to land a 747 on that tiny strip, I’d understand the fuss, but it’s a small 19-seater prop plane and the pilots are specially trained.

The final approach of the flight from St. Maarten to Saba

There’s a tight bank to the left on the approach, but it was more fun than scary. When the pilot touched down, he engaged the reverse thrusters immediately and we slowed down in an instant. We only used half the runway before turning toward the gate. No big deal. 

For greater flexibility, you can charter a flight on SXM Airways on St. Maarten. Flight costs are around US$1200 with a max capacity of six passengers.

Things to know

Traveler Requirements to Enter Saba

This page provides all the information you need to visit Saba.

It’s True, There’s No Sandy Beach

If you’re one of those people who dream of sipping umbrella drinks while sunning on Saba’s white sandy beach, you’re out of luck. Saba doesn’t have one. But trust me, with all it has to offer no one is complaining.

No Big Nightclubs Either

Same for clubbing. You won’t find it. Think laid back, balmy nights, relaxation.

Best Place to Get Information About The Smallest Caribbean Island

If you need anything pertaining to your stay visit the Saba Tourist Bureau in Windwardside across from Bizzy B’s. The staff there are happy to answer any questions you may have.

Call Ahead for a Taxi

It’s a good idea to work with the Tourist Bureau to arrange a taxi to pick you up at the airport. They don’t wait outside like they do in bigger cities.

It’s Hot During the Day But Can be Cold at Night

Bring a sweater or light fleece, evenings can be chilly.

You May be Off the Grid Whether You LIke it or Not

The wifi is sketchy and expensive.

Scuba Gear is available on Saba Island

If you don’t have scuba equipment, the dive shops will rent you the whole shebang. Beginners are welcome.

Tips on Hiking

When hiking:

  • Don’t forget plenty of water. You’ll definitely sweat and why risk becoming dehydrated. 
  • Don’t think you can walk the trails in flip flops, you’ll regret it. Hiking boots or shoes are a must. The terrain is uneven, there are roots everywhere, and slippery spots. 
  • If you explore the lava flows, wear long pants. The volcanic rock is like sandpaper with plenty of sharp edges.

On the way back to St. Maarten, ask the pilot if he’ll take a quick spin around the island, might do it. The detour takes five minutes, and the aerial perspective is wonderful. Sit on the right-hand side for the best view.


Visa Requirements

Click here for detailed Visa information for tourist and business visits to the islands of the Dutch Caribbean.

During my trip, I was a guest of Saba Tourism, but the words and sentiments are my own.

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32 thoughts on “11 Irresistible Reasons to Visit Saba Island The Smallest Island in the Caribbean

  1. erik panthel says:

    All your posts, are so wonderful about Saba. Do Sabaeans take Canadian dollars? I’m trying to find the exchange rate, or is it all American $$. How far is it to the next hospital? and how do you get there ? From St Martine can you drive your own boat to Saba?

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Erik – Thank you very much. I’m glad you like the post. The currency in Saba is US dollars. Not sure what you mean by how far is the next hospital? Do you mean off the island? St. Martin is the island you fly into. Unfortunately, I cannot speak for their rules about vessels. Have a great day~

  2. Marge says:

    We visited about 15 years ago. We were blown away! It’s a wonderful place and everyone is friendly and helpful. I did need a sweatshirt in the evenings we stayed at the pyramid house – a private home. My husband was helping out the owner in exchange for a place to stay. One thing we ran into on the day we were scheduled to fly out- a strong west wind ( which means no planes land!) it was a good excuse to stay another day

  3. Robert Hagedorn says:

    I have a question that Google won’t answer: how much cooler and how much windier is Upper Hell’s Gate than the rest of the island? Thank you.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Robert –

      Upper Hell’s gate is not that much cooler or windier. It’s midway up the mountain from the airport. The highest area is Windwardside. You can try the tourism bureau if there is a specific reason you’re asking. They’ll know best.

  4. steven says:

    Hi Rodney, you drove my son and I around for a week in Dec 2013. Many nice memories staying at El Momo Cottages. Can’t wait to get back without my kid! all the best.

    • Michael Feeley says:

      This is a wonderful article Susan! Thank you for your generous words and gorgeous photos. Your work and love for Saba will be ever so helpful as people return to Saba and new fans discover it for the first time. – Michael & Albert – Saba Island Properties

      • Susan Portnoy says:

        Hi Michael & Albert! I’m so happy you feel it does the island justice. I really enjoyed my trip. Please share.

        Was this article part of a newsletter by any chance? I noticed a lot of traffic today on that specific story.

  5. Rodney Engen says:

    We lived on Saba for 13 years commuting from London
    We owned The Peak outside Windwardside and miss it all greatly You captured much of what the island offers and so glad to see it has not been spoilt

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      So glad you enjoyed the piece. How lovely it must have been being able to commute between the two. Why did you stop?

    • Gary Palmatier says:

      Hi Rodney, we met at the pool at what was then Captains Quarters, now Juliana’s, and you had just bought your house. I believe that’s when I was visiting during one of my painting shows. If I recall, you are both writers and collected bronzes. The deck you built on the top of the Peak was awesome! Small world and a small island. Cheers! Gary Palmatier.

  6. Annet says:

    Your photos of this island are majestic. It is quite a quiet place as well. I think you have managed to convince me. I might pay a visit next year. Cheers!

  7. Elaine Hill says:

    Thank you I loved reading your comments. I am distantly related to Crocodile James Johnson, my paternal grandfather was born on Saba, James Clifford Johnson but I have not had the opportunity to visit Saba yet, we live in UK, but a visit is on my bucket list and your comments make me more determined to visit my relatives in Saba. 😊

  8. Jenni says:

    Great article and review of this beautiful island. 2 things you might want to update: 1) there IS a Beach. However it is seasonal. It’s only accessible certain times of the year. Another very steep road to get to it. 2) While some may not classify it as “clubbing”, Scout’s offers music and Sabaoke weekly, the island’s equivalent to Karaoke. There’s a lot of US transplants down there. Wonderful people. We can’t wait to go back.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Jenni –

      I so appreciate your thoughtful answer. Love the Sabaoke idea.. When you speak of the beach.. do you mean the Wells Bay beach or the man-made one by the breakwater?

      • Carolyn says:

        The seasonal beach is at the Wells bay. It’s presence is entirely dependent on the wind, water and tides. It is not however a white sand beach, has no amenities, and is difficult to get to. The man made break water beach is in the other side of the island under the airport. It also is not white sand, but does have a public toilet and is easier to get to. Although the comment that there is no beach is technically incorrect, neither beach are the type that “beach goers” would be looking for.

  9. Linda says:

    I lived on Saba for a couple of years back in the late 90’s while my husband was in their medical school. It is paradise, I loved it. You left out Saba Lace. JoBean taught me how to make glass beads, love her. We had a great night life while I was there, lots of fun bars and great music to dance the breezy night away!

I would love to hear from you! What did you think of the post?