When it comes to Caribbean islands, why limit yourself to just one? Though many islands in the West Indies are quite isolated from one another amongst the turquoise waters, there is a section of the northern Dutch Caribbean that is tailor-made for island-hopping. Saba and Sint Maarten are separated by a mere 28 miles — or, rather, a thrilling, 12-minute flight. Yet, despite the islands’ proximity, they couldn’t be more different in terms of their history, landscape, and offerings for travelers. Think of it as a tropical version of town and country: You begin in the bustling melting pot of Sint Maarten before heading to the mountainous vistas of remote Saba. Read on for your ultimate two-island getaway — paradise awaits.
Sint Maarten: The Melting Pot of the Caribbean
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Begin your trip in St. Maarten, an idyllic white-sand paradise that’s home to 37 stunning beaches across 37 square miles. Luckily, you can get there fast before you take it slow — the Princess Juliana International Airport is a major hub within the islands, hence its nickname: “the gateway of the Caribbean.” Despite the relative smallness of the island (which is nevertheless enormous compared to Saba, but more on that later) — St. Maarten is home to two separate nations. It is the tiniest landmass on earth to be shared between two nations. The Dutch side of the island, Sint Maarten, is home to more commercial and tourist activity, while the French side, Saint Martin, is more rustic and remote.
Though you are technically crossing into a separate nation when you pass through to the other side of the island, border patrol is nonexistent, nor are passport requirements. You will, however, immediately sense that you’ve arrived at a different destination entirely when traversing from the Dutch part of the island to the French — while English is largely spoken in Sint Maarten, French is the language of Saint Martin (merci, beaucoup). You’ll notice that Saint Martin overlooks the nearby island of Anguilla, which was once a territory of significant concern for the French.
But it’s not just the English and the French who found their way to the island: “St. Maarten is a melting pot. It’s a place where — no matter where you come from — you feel at home,” says Jonathan van Arneman, founder of Johnny SXM Tours. “You have people from all parts of the globe who make their way to the island.”
Learn more about the history of Sint Maarten by visiting the historic overlook of Fort Amsterdam, and spending an afternoon at Pasture Piece, a historic 1800s home that’s now been turned into a museum by Natasha Richardson. She commemorates her family’s past — as well as the past of the island and its people — through tours and local events. This preservation of history is particularly important, as much of the island’s past is being chronicled accurately only now.
“Due to our history of slavery and plantations, we have a lot of our culture that’s passed down but not written. But now, the story will live on,” says Marla Chemont, who coordinates these efforts with the St. Maarten tourism department.
You can also engage with this history in real-time, by visiting TJ’s Cassava Coal Pot and learning to make local specialties such as salt fish and Johnnycakes. Check out the vegan offerings at Ital Shack, where much of the produce is grown in the on-site gardens of the charismatic founder (and author) Ras Bushman. Beachside dining at Kalatua offers a chic, hipster vibe, while the laid-back vibes and live Caribbean lobster at Lee’s Roadside Grill are perfect for an evening out.
Finally, no visit to the island is complete without a trip to Captain D’s Rib Shack — order the Guavaberry Coolada (a popular off-menu cocktail made with the island’s most popular native fruit). Be sure to check out the local events at Emilio Wilson Park during your stay, and if it’s truly a party you’re after, sync your visit with Sint Maarten Carnival — the mellow relaxation of Saba will feel all the more appreciated after one of the largest, and liveliest, carnival celebrations in the Caribbean.
Saba: The Unspoiled Queen
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For your next adventure, head across the sea aboard a 12-minute flight to the shortest commercial runway in the world at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, on the island of Saba. Home to less than 2,000 people, the island is a remote paradise that remains largely undiscovered to this very day. The intimidating green cliffs rise up to the cloud barrier as you approach by (very tiny) plane — which is fitting, considering the cloud forest is one of the island’s five microclimates, one for each square mile.
Once you arrive on land, a world of natural beauty and unexpected enchantment awaits, all of which is sure to upend any expectations you may have for what constitutes a traditional Caribbean island. (And, if the Winair flight is too nerve-wracking for your standards — or, rather, if you get nervous flying on a Boeing-787, then opt for a 90-minute ferry from Sint Maarten, instead). Saba does reward risk-takers, however, as the island is home to some of the most magnificent diving and hiking in the West Indies.
The island is home to some of the best diving in the world, and Saba Bank is the largest submarine atoll in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a designated Mission Blue ‘hope spot’ — one of the most unique and thriving underwater destinations on the planet. The annual Sea & Learn summit in October hosts scientists and academics who specialize in aquatic preservation and discovery.
But there’s more to see above the water. Saba is not a vacation for those who only want to laze on the beach all day — first off, there isn’t a beach. Secondly, the most magnificent island views in Saba aren’t found by the water, but high above the mountaintops. First-time visitors should sign up for a guided hike along one of the island’s 23 hiking trails with Crocodile James, an eighth-generation Saban otherwise known as James Johnson, before continuing on to explore Mount Scenery National Park. True outdoor enthusiasts should consider signing up for the Sea to Scenery triathlon which begins in the ocean and heads north up past the shoreline and rainforests to the very top of Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom.
But even if you don’t partake in the adventure activities, Saba offers an excellent opportunity to unwind, and truly get away from it all. You won’t be surrounded by tourists — there are only 150 hotel rooms on Saba and no all-inclusive resorts — and it’s easy to get on island time. Stay at The Cottage Club Hotel in Windwardside to truly feel like a local, and walk to the favored watering holes: Long Haul for pina coladas and Saturday night karaoke, and the Tipsy Goat for poolside mojitos at sunset.
The Cottage Club also boasts a pool of its own (as well as stunning views of Mount Scenery). But, would-be sunbathers should be warned that pool-weather is not a given in Saba — which makes the lack of a beach on-island all the more insignificant. The weather is chillier, and less humid than other Caribbean islands (which is all the better for hiking, of course), but the atmosphere does tend to be buggy, so pack some insect repellant and a light sweater for the evenings. And, if you truly want to get away from it all, stay in the rainforest environs — or at least dine beneath the stars for an evening — at Rendezvous at EcoLodge.
But, whether you’re looking to venture into the wild, or simply to discover the rhythms of a laid-back island lifestyle that’s increasingly difficult to find, Saba is sure to cast you under its spell. There’s simply nowhere like it on earth — it must be seen to be believed, and after one visit, you’re likely to never want to return to the mainland. Life is easier on island time, after all.