Let's begin with the bad news: There is not a single square inch of beach to be found on the tropical island of Saba (pronounced SAY-buh).
Actually, that's good news too, for if there was a beach on this forlorn, jungle-choked volcanic crag that rises in near complete isolation on the eastern prow of the Caribbean chain, it would undoubtedly have gone the way of its neighbours (and arguably the entire West Indies, with the possible exception of Cuba) and become a crowded jumble of all-inclusive mega-resorts. Rather, atop this forgotten spec of green land – which provided the mythic silhouette for Skull Island in the original King Kong – a rare fairy tale endures.
After a 10-minute flight from nearby St. Martin, our Twin Otter made a stirring touchdown on a postage-stamp size runway, shoehorned between cliff and sea. I'd come to the former Dutch protectorate for the adventure – Saba boasts world-class diving and extensive hiking – but the sleepy, Old World nature of the tiny islet was immediate and unmistakable. Beyond Immigration (little more than a lemonade stand with a hand-painted welcome in Dutch), three taxi drivers were playing backgammon. That's 30 per cent of the Saban fleet.
Eddy stood and welcomed me warmly. “Thank you for visiting Saba, son. Thank you.” His accent was almost Barbadian, but with his mix of auburn and grey hair, and a ruddy complexion, he looked like a well-tanned Irishman – which fairly describes half the Saban population, the progeny of buccaneers and settlers who landed here in the early 1600s. The other half are the dark-skinned descendants of slaves. Today, everyone is related to everyone else, but local legend holds that anyone able to untangle the entire island's genealogy will go insane in the same breath.
As the tangerine sun set over a vast sea, Eddy revved his engine and slammed the minivan into gear, lurching up the island's only road. This tortuous switchbacking route, which connects Saba's four small settlements, was deemed impossible to construct by European engineers. Undeterred, locals began carving it out by hand in 1938, and completed the massive undertaking 25 years later. Regularly exceeding 20 per cent gradient, it would strike fear into the heart of Tour de France riders.
“No addresses or street numbers here,” Eddy noted. “The road doesn't even have a name. Just send a letter to Eddy, on Saba, and I'll get it.”
Does he know every person living on the island?
Past quaint bungalows we climbed and on through the sleepy settlements of Hells Gate and Windwardside. Every single building – from churches to cottages to the former governor's residence and occasional stores – is identical: whitewashed walls with red tin roofs and green shutters.
“It's the law,” Eddy nodded. “$5,000 fine if you paint another colour.”
Everyone we passed, whether strolling along the road or leaning against open doors, waved earnestly. I didn't spy a single franchise or trinket shop. The largest hotel on Saba has only 12 rooms.
“Most people come to the Caribbean in need of escape,” Eddy mused. “But the odd thing is, they bring the ways of home with them.”
We drove on in silence, serenaded by a symphony of tree frogs, cool evening air washing through the car windows.
“Did you notice?” Eddy asked abruptly. “Not a single mosquito!” There is no standing water anywhere on the steep volcanic cone, and after residents stocked their cisterns with guppies, Eddy explains, the last mosquitoes vanished.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the Queen's Garden Resort. In typical Saban fashion, the owners, a young Dutch couple, were waiting on the driveway to welcome me. Eddy had somehow telepathically alerted them (or perhaps it was via surreptitious text) that my luggage did not arrive, and I found toiletries and fresh pyjamas waiting by the bedside. The view – across a darkening ocean and framed by steep, verdant peaks – was more Tahitian than Caribbean.
Jungle James was waiting for me the next morning, with a machete on his waist and freshly polished British military hiking boots. Forty-six years ago, as a teenager, he began leading curious tourists to Saba's remote sulphur mines, and has been wandering the island's hillsides ever since. With 16 well-maintained trails (stretching over more than 32 kilometres), hiking is a major draw. Routes navigate everything from crystal clear tidal pools and arid shoreline brush to cloud forests cloaking the summit of Mount Scenery, which at 877 metres is the highest point in the Netherlands.
The first spots of rain were landing as we set off, and within minutes, drizzle turned to downpour. But it was a warm rain, and as I was stuck in the same set of clothes for the third straight day, I reasoned at least they were getting a rinse.