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A rare Caribbean island where beaches aren’t the draw

Saba should have an inferiority complex.

After all, this speck of a five-square-mile Caribbean island — a special municipality of the Netherlands — is left off many maps. Even for the savviest of travelers, it’s often an off-the-radar destination with a name of uncertain pronunciation. (It’s “say-bah.”)

A scarcity of cruise ships and beaches — short of a seasonal sandy strip that comes and goes with the tide at turbulent Wells Bay and a petite man-made curve of sand at Cove Bay — may explain why Saba isn’t a major tourist draw.

Yet, the gregarious Sabans, many with an ancestry dating back to the island’s European settlement in the 17th century, hardly feel excluded. Rather, they treasure their unsung island paradise that’s home to both sedate and exhilarating sights and activities, which only a cadre of mostly hard-core divers and hikers have discovered.

Whether you’re a travel thrill-seeker or a mellow sort, you’ll be infatuated with Saba — perhaps because of, or in spite of, the white-knuckle flight to its volcanic shores.

Awestruck with air travel

A few moments after departing Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten, Saba rears its head as a dark pyramidal massif. The Winair Twin Otter prop plane flies directly toward this mighty, but dormant, volcano, with nary a flat surface to be seen.

The experience becomes hair-raising after the plane turns sharply: A wild, precipitous landscape fills the cabin windows as the plane parallels sheer, towering rock walls.

Like a mirage, a wee 1,300-foot-long ribbon that terminates near a cliff edge suddenly materializes as what’s often classified as the world’s shortest commercial runway.

With your adrenaline levels surging off the charts, the pilot touches down precisely, jamming on the brakes and allowing the plane to roll ever so close to the precipice, before veering toward Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport’s terminal.

Meet and greet

You’ll be embraced as a member of a big family on Saba, an intimate island of just over 2,000 people that welcomes visitors with its small town sense of community.

Stop at an intersection with your vehicle’s windows rolled down and you’ll likely hear a local shout, “Welcome to the island.”

In Windwardside, the main commercial village, even ambulance drivers starting their shifts will yell, “Good morning!” as you stroll by. Forget your change at the market, and the cashier will chase after you.

Should you look lost as you wander about, it’s likely a car will pull over, the driver offering you a ride to your destination.

Bizzy B, a tiny Windwardside bakery/coffee shop/cafe, is a prime gathering spot, especially in the early morning when, as you sip a latte and nibble a scrumptious warm apple turnover in the outdoor plaza, you’ll hear residents catching up on the news, whether a painter has taken ill or a shopkeeper went off island for a wedding.

Navigating through nature

Almost two dozen trails thread Saba’s rugged surface coated with rainforest, volcanic rocks and abandoned farmland.

The most popular hike requires trudging up more than 1,000 slick-when-wet steps to the misty summit of Mount Scenery, Saba’s signature sight, where a magical cloud forest awaits.

Another path enchants those who thrive on the vertiginous: Mary’s Point Trail, named for one of the island’s first settlers, courses along a bluff edge past the ruins of a village, abandoned because of extensive erosion.

Not all trails strain the body or mind, however. The Big Rendezvous and Bottom Mountain trails are both relatively mellow, where the fertile land is peppered with lemon, orange and other fruit trees, and different types of hummingbirds and other species flit about.

Colorful and glittery baubles

In an almost 150-year-old dwelling in Windwardside that serves as Marie Petit’s residence and atelier (Marie de Saba), you can spend an hour learning how she sources seeds mostly from all over Saba, including her garden, transforming them into unique necklaces and bracelets. Among her wearable art objects are dolphin-shaped pendants carved from seed pods.

Whether inspired by Saba’s botanical and marine forms, or the brilliant hues of gems that he sources from as far away as Sri Lanka, Mark Johnson is renowned for his mostly silver avant-garde, luxe creations. His emporium, the Jewel Cottage, is ensconced in a Victorian villa in Windwardside that’s been in his family since 1640.

Whimsical objects, such as fishbone earrings, dragonfly necklaces and mermaid beads, vie for your attention in the sunny studio of JoBean Glass Art on Booby Hill. JoBean Chambers created most everything on display from Venetian glass. But those who sign up for a one- to four-hour or longer workshop can flame their own glass beads, turning them into unusual jewelry.

In addition to baubles, the island is home to Saba lace, also known as Spanish Work, and Saba Spice, a rum-based liqueur.

Plunging to the depths

Saba’s volcanic origins created a dramatic and diverse underwater topography that entices experienced divers who gravitate to the area’s drop-offs, caves, tunnels and pinnacles (the summits of undersea volcanoes).

The waters are rich in brilliantly hued tropical fish, giant grouper, myriad shark species and other marine life.

The Eye of the Needle, a pinnacle dive site, is a diver’s Eden for spotting giant sponges and corals, as well as nurse sharks and manta rays. Tent Reef, a rocky ledge, is much loved for night dives where nocturnal marine creatures, such as octopus and spiny lobsters, can be spotted.

Where to eat

Chez Bubba Bistro (Lambee’s Place, Windwardside, Saba) blends sophistication with casual elegance. A French-inspired menu — with items such as blue cheese-topped gnocchi — is served in a space that exudes a French countryside sensibility. (The walls are hung with sketches of farm animals and veggies.) Oenophiles delight in the wine cellar that stocks 150 varieties by the bottle.

The Queen’s Gardens Restaurant (Troy Hill Drive 1, Saba) is chock full of culinary surprises, especially at their special themed dinners. A recent four-course, avocado-centric menu included avocado risotto with Saban lobster, and avocado soup sprinkled with cheddar cheese and jalapeno.

Set in an old Saban house with an al fresco terrace, Brigadoon in Windwardside serves Mediterranean/French cuisine with a Caribbean twist. An inventive thread runs through every course, especially the desserts, such as pina colada trifle with delectable layers of pineapple, cream and coconut.

Where to stay

The Queen’s Gardens Resort & Spa (Troy Hill Drive 1, Saba; +599 416 3494) is an elegant cliffside hotel enveloped by bougainvillea, orchids and other foliage.

Each of the dozen suites spreads across an entire floor and is complete with an en suite infinity jacuzzi providing enticing views of the sea and the surrounding towering hills. The bamboo-lined Frangipani Spa radiates serenity, offering treatments such as a four-hand massage or a Turkish steam bath.

Selera Dunia Boutique Hotel (+599 416 5443) has a prime location, just 15 minutes from Windwardside atop a hill that affords stunning 180-degree views.

Dutch owner Hemmie van Xanten gave his property an appropriate name, meaning “taste of the world” in Malay.

After all, the theme of each guest room — currently just two of them, with a few more to be added later in 2019 — reflects the culture and history of the countries he’s traveled. For example, the Malaysian room displays darts and blowpipes used by the Borneo-based Iban tribe.

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