From a distance, the cylindrical Dutch Island of Saba, in the Caribbean, looks like nothing more than a volcano. It’s only 32 miles away from the more populated Island of St Barts which I visit each year, and I’ve long been fascinated by this silhouette,13 square kilometers, rising steeply across the sea.

Who, if anyone, lived here?

What was the scenery like up close?

There are some scheduled flights, and a ferry service from St Maarten, but to get to Saba this way from St Barts would require two ferries and an overnight in St Maarten. Saba has no natural harbour, although one is planned for 2027, so it’s still hard to access by small boat. Boat rental companies on St Barts don’t even allow you to go there (yes, their craft are fitted with GPS, so they’d know if you tried) and the landing strip is the shortest in the world, so only the smallest craft, with the most confident pilots can attempt it, and there is no scheduled service with St Barts.

Fortunately, we discovered that West Indies Helicopter offer a charter service which costs ~$320 per person (for 5 people) and in just 15 minutes, we were approaching it’s vertiginous flanks.

Even up close, the island appears to have very few houses, as the population (some 2,000 souls) live mostly clustered together in the villages of Windward Side, St. John, and The Bottom.

We singled out two, owner-operated properties for our short stay: Juliana’s Hotel and The Cottage Club.

Juliana’s mini-van came to meet us at the airport for the ten minute ride up the mountain to the cliffside spot on the edge of the Windward side village where 16, cottage-style rooms perch, offering spectacular views of the lush, tropical slopes, and the deep blue sea beyond.

Stepping out of the van at Juliana’s Hotel the picture perfect white wooden cottages, with their clapboard fencing and verandas, the exotic palms, blowing in the wind; the absence of traffic, all contributed to the feeling of arriving on the set of a 1950’s movie, set in a Caribbean island which tourists had yet to discover.

The hotel is owned and run by Johanna van’t Hof and her husband Wim Schutten who met at University, in Holland. After graduating, they were married on Saba, where Johanna was raised, in August 2002 and soon began working at Juliana’s Hotel which they later acquired. The hotel also houses The Studio where artists can come together for workshops, share techniques and learn new art forms from Shibori,weaving, sewing, jewelry-making, painting (watercolors, acrylics, oils,) to textiles and photography.

No suprise that the 16 bedrooms as well as the hotel’s Tropic’s Cafe, feel more as though they have been decorated by an eccentric artist than by a conventional designer. Vivid screen-prints of tropical frogs hang in one room, sepia portraits of Saba legends in another. It’s charmingly eclectic.

We were greeted by front of house manager, Xiomara Coffie, or Xio, as she’s known. No ordinary front-desk manager, Xio was born on Cuacao, has an MBA from the University Johnson & Wales, in Miami, and is fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish & Papiamento. More than this, she is kind, patient, and wonderfully warm. She showed us to our room, where the four poster bed was extremely comfortable, the bathroom modern and comfortable and the view simply breath-taking. I have had the pleasure of sleeping over in many Caribbean hotels and villas over the years (we’re talking at least 30) and the sea view from Room 7 at Juliana’s, framed by rock and palms, was second to none.

Let me be clear, just as you don’t go to a Broadway musical for the scenery, you don’t come to Saba for the hotels or restaurants. The whole point of the place is the nature, above and below sea-level; and the quiet way of life.

As we arrived on Saba in the morning we chose to make the ascent of it’s highest peak on our first day. Xio provided us with a walking stick and binoculars, and we packed a delicious lunch from Bizzy Bee bakery in the village.

18 months ago, as an inpatient at University College hospital in London, I certainly didn’t imagine I’d be climbing mountains again, let alone Mount Scenery, an 887 metre climb to the very top. 3,000 feet is nothing too strenuous for an experienced climber, of course, but it was way more than I had thought I was capable of at this point in my life.

I took my time (4 and a half hours) stopping frequently, yes, to catch my breath, and also to admire orchids, giant tree-ferns and banana palms, mountain mahogany trees, wild chickens, and even an orange belly racer snake. We had our packed lunch in the clouds.

Instead of seeing it as a competition, I treated it as a game called “How high can I go?” I figured that A. even if I didn’t make it to the very top, 600m, 400m or even 200m would still be a great result for me. And B. Did it matter whether I reached the summit if every moment of the hike had been an immersive and joyful adventure?

We were back at the hotel in time for a short rest before a delicious dinner of coconut shrimp and local lobster at Brigadoon, the longest running restaurant on the island, located within a typical Saban cottage.

For such a small esttablisment, the breakfast menu at Juliana’s Tropics cafe was surprisingly full: everything from Lobster Eggs Benedict, to Saba French Toast. And, like the service at Juliana’s, the breakfast itself was of a standard most metropolitan five star hotels would be proud of, setting us up for our snorkellling trip with Sea Saba.

Due to the island's rocky coastline, our snorkelling adventure began with a boat ride around the shores of Saba to the rich waters of the Saba Marine Park. Not far offshore, Saba’s famous pinnacles and seamounts rise dramatically from the depths to within 85 feet of the surface. Like the Caribbean Reef and Nurse sharks, Hammerheads, Bull and Tiger sharks, the underwater mountains can only be seen by divers, and as we were flying the next day, we didn’t risk a dive. As snorkelers, we did get to swim alongside turtles, angel fish, in the Chrystal clear waters around the dive site.

Back on shore we strolled around Windwardside, before meeting At Mark Johnson, a local realtor and jewellery designer who has turned his family’s house and garden into “The Cottage Club,” a divinely chic compound of 10 cottages, and a luxurious “penthouse” suite, all with wonderful views of the sea, around a chic 1930’s style swimming pool. The rooms are decorated by Mark in an easy, understated style that combines European drawings with asian artefacts and sculpture. Each room has it’s own kitchenette, for guests who prefer to prepare the odd meal for themselves, and there is an elegant, but relaxed sitting room where guests can congregate.

The Cottage Club is perched on the edge of a cliff but also close to the bustle of the town where we took in the clean and orderly, comfortable, yet exotic, old world Caribbean charm. Most houses and cottages are inspired variations of the Saban vernacular of white wash or stone exteriors, red zinc roofs, gingerbread trim and colourful shutters. Lush gardens, and yes, family cemeteries, large and small, fill every outdoor space.

Like Mark’s own family, the English speaking Saban community is descended mostly from Dutch settlers who came in the 1600s.

One candid conversation with a local historian confirmed what seemed apparent from a meal we took at Lolliop’s restaurant, and other encounters, that racial divisions have receded among younger generations. “The difference here is we worked the soil back to back with our white neighbors. But even my mom’s generation didn’t have white friends. That happened with my generation. Now there’s plenty of inter marriages.”

Sabans certainly seem to enjoy sharing their island with visitors. One local, on noticing us admiring her passion-fruits, invited us into her garden for a tour of her raised herb beds, while she picked a bag of passion-fruits for us as a gift. Another, on spotting a colourful shirt I was wearing, rushed out to ask me whether she could persuade me to sell it to her. I’ve never made so many new “friends” in such a short space of time.

If you’re hoping for sandy white beaches (or any beaches at all) Saba is not the Caribbean island for you. But if you’re excited to experience an unspoiled Caribbean island, with little development, few tourists and a richness and diversity of nature, both above and below sea-level, there is no place I have listed which rivals it.