SCUBA diving in Saba

Top Things to Do in Saba

About Saba

Saba is a Dutch island in the Caribbean Sea.  Only five square miles with a population of 2,000, this small island is known as the Unspoiled Queen. With little commercialization and no cruise ships, Saba is a tropical paradise!

Saba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 but he did not consider the mountainous landscape important enough to colonize.  From its discovery until 1816, Saba changed hands many times…from the Spanish, to the French, and to the Dutch who took final possession.

The island includes four small settlements, the world’s shortest commercial runway (1,200 feet), the tallest mountain in the Netherlands which is the potentially active volcano Mt. Scenery, and world class SCUBA diving.

Our first view of Saba was from Winair’s 30 seat propeller plane.  We sat in the first row for our 15-minute flight from St. Maarten to Saba.  Little did we know that we know that we were flying into such a short runway until we looked through cockpit windows!  To us, our island adventure started before we landed!!

Where to Stay in Saba

While I heard the diving in Saba is the best in the Caribbean, I knew little else about this Unspoiled Queen.  Fortunately, I stumbled across Juliana’s Hotel while scrolling through Google maps in an effort to find the best place to stay.  What luck!  Juliana’s is a perfect place to stay in Saba. 

Juliana's Hotel

Juliana’s is located in the Windwardside Village which caters more to tourists than the Bottom, the other town that has accommodations in Saba.  While normally I try to avoid the tourist area, on Saba, the Windwardside Village is the place to stay.

It has more dinner options (maybe 10 choices), it has more shops to browse (maybe 6 places), and it is located higher up on the mountain which provides excellent views and a cool evening breeze!

Juliana’s Hotel includes both ocean view and garden view rooms as well as cabins.  Julie, Rootie and I selected ocean view rooms which were spacious, uniquely decorated, and had very comfortable beds.  In all my travels with Rootie, I’ve never seen her sleep so long.  Every morning and night she’d say, “Did I tell you how much I like this bed?”

I felt the same about the Tommy Bahamas bath amenities.  For those who know me, I’m the last person that cares about soaps, shampoos and conditioners.  I just use whatever is provided.  In this case, however, I tried to find the soap and conditioner when I came home.  Unfortunately, it is only available commercially.  I loved the subtle fragrance of the soap and the conditioner made my hair tangle free after being in the wind all day.

Not only were the accommodations nice (except for no soap for the sink), the compact grounds were lovely.  As with all the buildings in Saba, Juliana’s featured the white plank buildings with red roofs.  Its small pool with lounge chairs overlooked the sea.

A bar next to the pool offered free wine from 4-5pm everyday and happy hour from 4-6 daily.  Wim, the owner, worked the bar from 4-5 daily.  After 5, Picky manned the ship.  Ask for a Saba Rum Sour!

Picky and Wim were both very friendly and shared all kinds of knowledge about Saba.

Saba relies on rain for its water.  What is collected via rooftop gutters is used for drinking, bathing and cooking.  What is collected from the street is used for the toilets.  Juliana’s is the only place on the island that has a water filtration system, so we could drink it rather than buying bottled water.

The sewer system is basically a big ditch dug below each house.  Guppies are added to keep the septic system clean.

In addition to tending bar an hour a day, Wim doubled as the morning chef and office manager when the office was closed.  The breakfasts at the Tropics Café were excellent and included in our stay.  Frankly, all the food was delicious.

If we had a problem, Wim fixed it.  The USB chargers didn’t work in our room upon arrival.  The next day, they did.  The internet on Saba stinks.  We had difficulty connecting as Google consistently flashed danger messages.  Wim showed us how.  If we needed a Taxi ride, either Wim or Lynn at Sea Saba would order us one.

In fact, upon making our reservations at Juliana’s, we purchased a dive package which they arranged with Sea Saba.  In addition, we advised them of our arrival time to Saba, and they arranged the taxi for pick up at the airport free of charge.

For the whole week, we hardly lifted a finger.  That’s what a vacation should be, right?  I’d definitely return to Juliana’s for another stay in Saba.

Where to Eat in Saba

The Bottom Bean Coffee

With the exception of an afternoon coffee at The Bottom Bean Coffee in The Bottom that looked like it served some excellent sandwiches, we ate all of our meals in Windwardside Village.

The Bottom Bean Cafe in Saba

Tropics Café (Breakfast)

Every morning we started with our breakfast at Juliana’s Tropics Café.  Our favorite option was ordering three a la carte items.  Wim cooked the eggs to perfection.  Julie and Rootie loved the yogurt with granola.  The pancakes were light and fluffy.  And who doesn’t like bacon?  When the Tropics Café opened at 7am, we were there for our pre-dive meal.

Julie always did a third dive, so she ordered a to go lunch from the Tropics too.  Rootie and I resorted to grocery store food like hummus, peanut butter, and tuna packets. The trick is to know when the two grocery stores open and when the food is delivered.  We arrived on Saba at the worst possible time, Saturday evening.  The grocery stores are closed on Sunday and the food is delivered to the island on Wednesday, thus we got the dregs on Monday.

Saba Snack

For our Sunday lunch, however, we ate at Saba Snack.  The meals were pricey for lunch, but the portions were enormous!  Rootie’s fried rice fed two of us for two days!  My coconut shrimp were very good.  We just didn’t always want to be sitting for lunch for an hour and eating giant plates of food.

For dinner in Saba, we learned to ask when the restaurants are open and to make a reservation.  Certain places close different nights and many places only have about six indoor tables.  While some have patio seating, rather cool temperatures and rain interfered some evenings.

Tropics Café (Dinner)

For our first evening in Saba, we ate at the Tropics Café.  By the time we were checked into the dive shop and the hotel it was nearly 7pm, so walking across the street to the hotel restaurant seemed like a reasonable choice.  We had lambchops and ceviche…both excellent. Another night we had spring rolls.

Long Haul

Our second evening in Saba we went for the best pizza in town at Long Haul.  We got the last table in the joint.  The three of us sat at a six-person table, so the staff was slow to help us at first because they thought we were waiting on others.  Nope.  When we finally got our pizza, I don’t know if we were just ridiculously hungry or if the pizza was just that good, but we ate every bit of it.  We split the large between three people and the price was reasonable.

The Brigadoon

Every Monday night, the Brigadoon hosts a presentation by Sea Saba at five.  We attended this and learned a lot about Saba including the history of the island and its sea life.  This is where we found out we could volunteer to clean the coral.

After the presentation, we indulged in a three-course, pricey vacation meal!  The delicious escargot appetizer was drenched in garlic butter.  And it’s tough to beat fresh lionfish.  We all ordered it advance when we made our reservation this morning.  Rootie ordered the best dessert, chocolate mousse.  Our meal was decadent, and we enjoyed it, but we wouldn’t be doing that every night.

The Brigadoon also has a Caribbean dinner on Sunday night that many locals attend.

The Hideaway

The following day, we tried making reservations at The Hideaway for Taco Tuesday later in the evening, but its inside dining room was full.  Fortunately, we didn’t choose an outside table as it was a rainy night.  We had another meal at the Tropics Café and made a reservation at the Hideaway the following evening.  Rootie and I split the sliced tuna and spring rolls which was more than enough food while Julie ordered the pulled pork.  It was good and a different place to try as we’d been almost everywhere!

The Hideaway

Chez Bubba Bistro

For our final dinner, we tried Chez Bubba Bistro.  We had been putting it off because it was described to us as fancy French which wasn’t exactly accurate.  The jewelry shop owner who also does real estate and owns one of the grocery stores told us we should go.  Then when we tried, it was closed Tuesday and Wednesday night!

We finally made it to Chez Bubba Bistro which is located above the dive shop.  Had it not been raining, the patio seating with a lovely view of the sea would have been awesome.  Instead, the restaurant patrons squeezed inside.  At Chez Bubba Bistro, I highly recommend the very reasonably priced lobster.  It was very good, and I’m glad we went!

Bizzy B

For a good coffee or a tasty treat, stop in at Bizzy B.  The bakery is open from 7am to 3pm and has a variety of sinful sweets.

Stroll the Streets in Town

The Bottom

The two biggest towns in Saba are the Bottom and the Windwardside.  The Bottom includes a very good medical university, the hospital, several government buildings, a few churches, a grocery store, a small museum and a few restaurants.  We learned that the Bottom is more local and government oriented while the Windwardside caters more to tourists.

We thoroughly enjoyed meeting the owner of The Bottom Bean Coffee.  He ran a huge catering business in Washington DC and came to Saba for a change of pace.  I asked how it was for a foreigner to open a business in another place and got an interesting history lesson.

When problems arose in Cuba years ago, casinos started moving to St. Maarten.  They did not have enough English-speaking workers, so The Netherlands and the USA have a reciprocal agreement to let each other work in their respective countries.  Really?!?

In addition to visiting The Bottom Bean Coffee, it is worth visiting the Sacred Heart Church just to see the brightly painted sanctuary which locals call the Sistine Chapel of Saba.  The murals include Saba’s nature and children.

Windwardside Village

The Windwardside includes a handful of shops, a variety of restaurants, two museums, a church, and two grocery stores.  The shops are nice and too touristy.  There are so few that it doesn’t take too long to pop in each one of them.

Regardless what either town offers, just walking around the towns while admiring the quaint houses all of red and white architecture is wonderful.  Gingerbread style houses with picket fences pepper the hillside.  It’s hard to tell if the narrow streets and walkways stop or keep going.  We weren’t ever sure where we’d end up, kind of like Venice!

Dare to Drive the Road

Before the Road, Sabans had to traverse the island via trails. Everything from a kitchen sink to a piano to monarchs were transported by hand or donkey.  This challenging way of life led to the decision to build a road.   Due to Saba’s extreme topography, Dutch and Swiss engineers declared the road couldn’t be built.

Joseph Lambert Hassell, from Saba, however, disagreed.  He enrolled in a civil engineering class by way of mail correspondence and learned how to build a road.  The project began in 1938.  Five years later, the first section of the road from Fort Bay to the Bottom was completed by HAND!

By 1951, workers finished an extension to the Windwardside and St. John’s.  And after a total of twenty years, the road that couldn’t be built was complete!  The road climbs 1,800 feet as it winds along cliffsides and makes sharp turns up the mountain.  It provides magnificent views of the sea as it passes through multiple ecological zones.  While driving the Road or while taking a drive, watch out for items intentionally cemented into the walls like a level!

the road in saba

Take a Hike

Saba has its very own trail shop which is operated by the Saba Conservation Foundation.  The shop is located across from Saba’s most popular trailhead which leads to Mt. Scenery, the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom.  Don’t worry, not every hike is a staircase, but the generally steep terrain does tend to make short distance hikes take an abnormally long time!  We took several hikes in Saba with a variety of ecological and historical features.

View of Windwardside in Saba
View of Windwardside from a hike

Explore the Tide Pools

The tide pools, located by the airport, are truly a must see.  A path leads visitors through a maze of lava peppered with small pools of sea water.  The contrast of colors between the red rocks, the aqua pools, the blue sea, and the green mountains are magnificent.  There isn’t much by the airport, so be sure to coordinate a drop off and pick up time with a Saba taxi or take an island tour.

Saba's tidepools

Go on an Island Tour of Saba

An Island tour has a set rate of $50 for four people and lasts 2-3 hours.  With tip, the three of us paid $20/person.  Garvis drove us around the island, first passing through the Bottom and then going to Wells Bay.  Then we turned around and headed the other direction where he led us through the tidepools and then waited for us to hike to the Sulphur mine.  Along the way, we learned the history of Saba.

Wells Bay in Saba

SCUBA Dive

Saba is ranked as a Top 10 location in the world for diving.  Saba has several types of diving including wall dives, biological reef dives, geological reef dives, volcanic dives with hot sand, and pinnacle dives.  The island is most famous for its pinnacles, specifically the Needle which is a column of coral which climbs from the ocean floor to 95 feet below the sea’s surface.  Much of the diving in Saba is deep so it is best to be Nitrox certified, but it is not required.

SCUBA diving in Saba

Visit a Museum

The Dutch Museum

Believe it or not, there are several museums on the tiny island of Saba, all of which hold limited opening hours.  Two of them were just feet away from our hotel, both of which we visited. The Dutch Museum featured furniture, dishes, books, and tiles dating back as far as the 1600’s.  The museum includes four rooms and takes less than 30 minutes to visit by donation only.

Harry L Johnson Museum

The Harry L Johnson Museum is located in a 19th century sea captain’s cottage.  It is open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and a $2 fee is requested.  This museum focuses more on Saba and its history.  Again, it includes furniture, dishes, artifacts from Amerindian archaeological sites on the island, and well as historical pictures.

Check Out the Cemeteries

For a population of 2,000, I felt like a I saw 2,000 graves!  Aside from a few large cemeteries by the churches, small cemeteries filled every corner.  Apparently, many ancestors are buried at their family’s homes.

Look for the Bunnies

Near the museums in Windwardside Village is a lovely manicured lawn and park.  Some of the biggest bunnies I’ve ever seen hopped around this grassy area and nearby cemetery.  A small albino bunny was recently added to the group.  We could actually catch and feed it. 

Try to Snap a Photo of the Goats

I think there might be as many goats as there are people on Saba.  We spotted multiple goats on our hikes, trotting through the roads, in the cemeteries, and in peoples’ yards.  They are everywhere.  But of the at least fifty goats we spotted, I probably only got my camera up quick enough for four photos.  They scatter like wind-blown leaves!  Taking a photo of a goat turned into a challenging game.

Go to the Grocery Store on Wednesday

The cargo delivery to Saba is on Wednesday mornings.  Fort Harbor changes from a quaint dock to a busy port.  After the grocery stores receive their deliveries, locals dash to the market for fresh produce. Not only is it amazing to see how the sleepy island awakens, it is also the best time to visit for fresh food lunch choices.

We really enjoyed Saba’s friendly locals, quaint towns, and eco-tourism.  I can see why Saba is called the Caribbean’s Unspoiled Queen.  ETB

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Published by

Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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