High-altitude island of Saba maintains a low profile

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To call Saba a quiet island is an understatement. Just a 12-minute, 28-mile flight west of St. Maarten, the statuesque rock jutting from the sea has, so far, gone unnoticed by mass tourism.

Named for the Arawak word siba, which means rock, Saba (pronounced SAY-bah) is a 5-square-mile, dormant volcano poking 2,855 feet above sea level. With ocean depths of more than 1,000 feet within half a mile from shore, Saba is a top diving destination.

Movie fans might recognize Saba as Skull Island in the original "King Kong" movie from 1933. Aviation aficionados know it for the world's shortest commercial runway, measuring 1,300 feet in length.

Saba has no traffic lights, three jail cells for those who may have had a few too many Heinekens (called Dutch tea in Saban slang), one gas station, one road (named the Road), four towns, four street sweepers, 10 cab drivers, 10 churches and a mountain aptly called Mount Scenery.

Saba did get WiFi access islandwide in January but is without many of the standard-issue amenities of other Caribbean islands, such as megaresorts, casinos and beaches. (There is one strand of gray volcanic sand that appears from spring until early winter and then disappears with the tide.)

But the island is more about what it does have: eco-perfection, fine dining and locals so friendly you'll think you've met them before.

On this "mountain that meets the sea" are four villages: Bottom, Windwardside, St. Johns and Hell's Gate. Mandated by law, gingerbread-style houses are painted white with red, sloping roofs and green shutters. If not painted to these specifications, the government will repaint or issue a fine.

The Road was built in 1943, the first car arrived in 1947 and the first plane landed in 1959.

"People want to come here, they just don't end up here," Saban-born Glenn Holm, the director of tourism, said from the tourist office in Windwardside.

"I never lock my house or my car. If you stole a car, where would you take it?" he asked as he described safety on Saba, adding that hotels rarely give out room keys.

With a population of 1,500, Saba welcomes 24,000 stayover and day-trip visitors each year.

The rainy months of April and May produce mountain breezes brisk enough that air conditioning is rarely needed.

Cautious on construction

With 150 hotel rooms on the island, "the government is cautious about allowing new hotels to be built," Holm said. "We do not want too much growth, or the island will lose its appeal."

Queen's Gardens Resort, the one four-star hotel, is distinctive, with rectangular towers that rise out of the rain forest 1,200 feet above the sea. Its 12 suites, 10 with Jacuzzis, are the most luxurious on Saba. The property has the largest rainwater-filled swimming pool on the island -- and also the only bathtub.

Nightly rates start at $220, double, with a 20% agent commission.

"Weddings are big business," said manager Claire Nuyens. "Saba law requires that six people with Dutch passports be present at the ceremony. Lucky for us, six Dutch citizens are on staff and will happily stand in as witnesses."

On the edge of a ridge with 10 cottages and a sun deck by the pool, Cottage Club is the only Saban-owned hotel on the island. "We had 400 more guests in 2008 than the year before," said manager Aaron Soares. "I guess the economic crash hasn't touched down in Saba yet."

Rates start at $118 per night, per cottage, and dip to $105 in low season with a 20% agent commission.

For nature buffs, Ecolodge Rendez-Vous is a collection of 12 solar-powered cottages scattered at the edge of the rain forest. Plunge pools hidden among papaya trees appeal to the sunbathing crowd, while the Rainforest restaurant is tops with gourmands who appreciate homemade ice cream in tropical flavors.

For those needing a good night's sleep before a day of diving, the German-owned, three-star Scout's Place Hotel & Dive Center is close to the shops in Windwardside. The 14 rooms, all with sea views and Internet access, are simple and clean. Single room rates start at $79 with breakfast.

Willard's of Saba, the only hotel on the island with a tennis court and the highest property at 2,000 feet, continues the family tradition of the landmark Willard Hotel in Washington. With seven suites and a solar-heated swimming pool, the hotel caters to discerning travelers with money. Gourmet dining in the restaurant is popular with locals, and Wine & Wow Night draws an eclectic crowd at sunset. Cliffside suites start at $250 nightly.

Island eateries

For a small island, there are a surprising number of fine eateries. Gate House Cafe, part of the elegant Gate House hotel with a villa nestled among cashew and orange groves, marries French flavors with Caribbean flair and boasts the most extensive wine list on the island.

At the Swinging Doors, opposite the Big Rock Market, chef Eddie Hassell's Sunday night "Cook Your Own Damn Steak" is a big hit with hungry Sabans who barbecue their own dinner while Hassell serves his signature side dishes and endless tales of his days as a U.S. Marine.

Things to do

There are 1,064 steps up to the summit of Mount Scenery; a sign at the base suggests it takes 90 minutes to climb to the top. At the summit is a misty rain forest called Elfin Forest where, if the skies are clear, views of five neighboring islands are spectacular. Trails through Saba National Park are well marked.

At the island's only spa, Saba Day Spa, hikers and divers are grateful for a treatment trifecta in the Ultimate Bliss Rejuvenation package: three hours of scrubbing, wrapping and massaging for $210.

Recreational diving started in the early 1980s by scuba enthusiasts from the U.S. and today is a major part of the tourism product. Saba has 30 dive sites within its Marine Park, reachable via a short boat ride.

Winair has several flights daily to the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport on Saba. Ferry service is available from St. Maarten on the Dawn II and the Edge three times a week.

Visit www.sabatourism.com.

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