An Island Without Beaches

Addressing an audience of travel agents and travel media in New York City recently, Saba's Commissioner of Tourism Will Johnson began his remarks with information that was surprising to people not familiar with his island. "We're not big on beaches," he said. "In fact, we don't have any beaches."  Many visitors come to Saba for its pristine diving conditions; depths of 1,000 feet can be reached a half mile from shore

A Caribbean island without beaches? Yes, it's true. Lest he lose his audience, Johnson followed with what his island does have. The island's marketing slogan says it all: "Rainforest. Reef. Relax."

About the Island

Only five square miles, the Dutch island of Saba in the Lesser Antilles does not have room for hordes of tourists, and that's one of its appeals.

A small island has a small airport. Opened in 1963, JuanchoE.YrausquinAirport has a runway that is only 1,000 feet long, according to Johnson. Fewer than 25,000 tourists come to Saba each year, all connecting through St. Martin. The journey from St. Martin takes one hour and 20 minutes by boat.

About 40 percent of Saba's visitors are on day excursions, says Glenn Holm, the island's director of tourism. Most divers stay about a week, he says. American visitors to the island for 2005 totaled 9,045 with 8,437 visiting last year. The main reason for the decline, Holm says, was a number of cruise calls (small cruise ships such as Sea Dream Yacht Club) had to cancel some calls due to bad weather.

"We anticipate the number of American visitors growing this year, because of additional airlift into St. Maarten, increased promotional efforts and the return of Sea Dream Yacht Club," Holm says.

A volcanic island (the volcano is dormant), Saba has dramatic topography that attracts rock climbers and hikers; trails sometimes end at hotels. But diving is its main attraction.

View of The Bottom, the largest settlement in Saba

Sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, the island was ruled by the Spanish for 150 years, before struggles among the British, French and Dutch left the Dutch with its possession in 1816.

Diving

Beth Jansen, owner of Dive Saba Travel, based in Seattle, sends about 20 people a month to the island. About 90 percent of her clients visit for diving excursions, while the remaining 10 percent are attracted to Saba to pursue ecotourism activities.

"There are some 30-to-40-foot dives, and fishing there wasn't allowed for years, so there is an abundance of life underwater and the corals remain in great shape," says Jansen, who lived in Saba for seven years.

Dive Saba Travel offers agents 10 percent commission. Operators and consolidators however can receive 20 percent commission if they book directly through Jansen's partner company SeaSabaDiveCenter, which packages diving tours with accommodations.

Because of the island's unique geology, within half a mile from shore, divers can explore to depths of more than 1,000 feet. Diving enthusiasts get especially excited about its pinnacles—the summits of underwater mountains that begin at around 85 feet and extend to an abyss.

If you have clients who would relish the excitement of swimming with sharks, they don't have to travel to Australia. Shark sightings around Saba are becoming increasingly prevalent. Annual scientific surveys indicate that fish density, variety and size are increasing here, thanks in part to the care the island has taken in creating and maintaining dive areas.

Along the edge of Saba's sheer wall dives, divers can spot turtles and rays. The island's underwater attractions also include shallower walls and reefs. The SabaMarinePark is situated around the entire island and includes the waters and seabed from the highwater mark down to a depth of 200 feet, as well as offshore seamounts.

Where to Stay

Jansen recommends both The Cottage Club and Juliana's because both properties are in prime locations for diving.

The Cottage Club can be reached at 011-599-416-2486. Juliana's phone number is 011-599-416-2269. But Travel Agent recommends calling Lynn Costenaro, owner of Sea Saba dive center at 011-599-416-2246. She organizes packages for most tourists to the Island and can provide agents, operators and consolidators with specific information on best rooms and best deals in the area.

Juliana's is located in Windwardside, a few minutes walk from Saba's best dive shops and hiking trails. Juliana's has 12 rooms: six have ocean views, hammocks and private balconies; three look out over the gardens and have kitchenettes and air-conditioning.

Getting There and Getting Around

All travel to Saba connects in St. Maarten. Windward Islands Airways (Winair; 800-634-4907 or 011-599-5-454237) makes five or more flights each day to Saba's JuanchoE.YrausquinAirport. Via ferry, the 22-seat air-conditioned Dawn II (599-416-3671, info@sabactransport.com) travels between FortBay, Saba and Dock Maarten in Philipsburg, St. Maarten three times a week: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from Saba at 6:30 a.m. and from Dock Maarten at 5 p.m. A roundtrip ticket is $60. The 62-passenger The Edge (599-544-2640, aquamania@sintmaarten.net) takes the 1 hour and 20 minute trip to Saba from Simpson Bay/Pelican Marina on St. Maarten Wednesday through Sunday, departing St. Maarten at 9 a.m. and returns from Saba, departing FortBay harbor at 3:30 p.m., arriving back on St. Maarten at 5 p.m. The rate is $65 roundtrip.

The island has only 10 miles of concrete roads. There is taxi service, or clients can rent a car for about $50 a day from Caja's Car Rental (599-416-2388, takijah77@hotmail.com). The agent contact is Kennedy Levenstone.

—Additional reporting by Joe Pike

Facts at a Glance

      Language: Dutch is the official language but everyone speaks English
      Population: 1,500
      Holidays: Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Queen's Birthday (April 30), Labor Day, Ascension Day, Antillian Day (October 21), Christmas, Boxing Day (December 26), Saba Day (1st week of December).
      Taxes and Tipping: There's a government room tax of 5 percent.
      Weather: Daytime temperatures average 80 degrees.