Elephant ears, an immense broad-leafed tropical plant, clogged the understory. Wild lemons and bananas hung overhead, asking to be picked. Steadily climbing, we entered stands of soaring mountain mahogany. The island's high peaks trap passing clouds, leaving the soil in these upper forests perpetually waterlogged, and the trees, which grow unusually tall for the Caribbean, are draped in bromeliads, epiphytes and moss.
Surprisingly, the grass underfoot appears manicured more carefully than a golf course green. “We gotsta trim da trails wit a machet an a weed whacka every mont,” James explains. “In two monts, dem trails gone. Vanish. Da bush here grow dat fast.” For the past 15 years, a contingent of Canadian volunteers has been visiting Saba, helping James maintain these ancient routes, which sprang from the original settler's footpaths.
The deluge lasts three hours. The trails become rivers; twigs and leaves sweep past our feet. At last, we reach the village of Windwardside, and stick out our thumbs.
Hitchhiking is common on Saba, and perfectly safe. It is a habit most tourists quickly pick up, James notes. Soon, a tiny car squeals to a halt. The young man driving looks and sounds oddly familiar. He's from Windsor, Ont., it turns out, and is attending med school. On Saba?
Saba University School of Medicine, the pride it seems of every islander, was founded 15 years ago by local doctor Jack Buchanan. It is something of a miracle. The 400 students (currently more than 70 per cent Canadian) live with local families, and contribute an estimated $4-million (U.S.) a year to the Saban economy, eliminating pressure to lure resort hotels or cruise ships to the shores.
Below the surface of the clean Caribbean Sea, Saba drops away precipitously, making for sublime diving. The island is routinely ranked among the top scuba destinations in the world. Most notable are a series of volcanic pinnacles that rise from the abyss, offering brilliant corals, sponge-encrusted walls and the chance to see rare passing fish, including jacks, groupers and sharks. With only three small operators, and 30 established dive sites, it's easy to avoid a common Caribbean curse: jostling dive boats and underwater traffic jams.
As we motored from the small harbour at Fort Bay, men on fishing boats tossed scraps of bait overboard. Immense tarpon exploded upward like shimmering logs, snatching the morsels before they hit the water.
“Big Mike,” a bald and leathery American who has lived on Saba for 15 years, briefs us on each of the day's three dives. It takes me hours to pry from the understated man that with more than 40,000 dives, he ranks among the world's most experienced scuba instructors. And it takes days to discover his former clients include Fidel Castro (“the most charming and charismatic man I've ever met”), Bo Derek (“as you can imagine, that was an enjoyable experience”), Bill Gates (“I had lunch on his yacht, and he was just one of the guys”) and John Grisham (“We dove together in the Caymans, right after his first book came out. It had flopped, and he spent the entire holiday fretting whether he should write again”).
Slipping into turquoise waters, Mike and I descend into the depths, aware only of our rhythmic breathing, bodies rising and falling, ever so slightly, with the swell and exhale of our lungs. A school of meaty tarpon floats past. Two turtles – a hawksbill and a green – swim close, sniffing our masks and tanks. Schools of reef fish flit amid the staghorn coral. A cleaner shrimp services a parrotfish, and is also happy to manicure fingernails poked close by. We linger with our hands buried deep in thermal sand, an underwater hot spring fuelled by the island's volcanic core.
Mike moves gracefully down the reef, without the slightest unnecessary movement, except when he sees a particularly large or noteworthy fish slipping away into the big blue. Then he waves like a schoolboy bidding farewell to mom. Back on the surface, he philosophizes: “Down there, everything has a place, a reason and a purpose. I want to tell them all: Stay down here. The surface is not all it's cracked up to be. We've messed most of it up royally.”
Saba, though, seems unspoiled. Writing about “untouched” spots always poses an ethical dilemma for, ironically, raising awareness may ultimately destroy the area's precious isolation. Such worries are unfounded with Saba. The island is naturally protected by sheer cliffs, it lacks a proper harbour and the tiny airport can handle only the smallest planes. More significantly, Saba isn't for everyone. But for those self-sufficient types, weary of the modern Caribbean's ostentatious tone, the island's quant towns, quiet trails and uncrowded waters just might be paradise.
Special to The Globe and Mail