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SABA - THE LITTLE STORYBOOK ISLAND

The first thing you should do on Saba is nothing.

Just stand still and absorb the oddly beautiful little island that seems suspended in time, where there is little to do but enjoy spectacular scenery and lovely, unspoiled people. Saba ("say-ba"), a Dutch island in the Netherlands Antilles, has a magical quality like no other. It is a "Never-Never Land" of enchantment - almost unreal and heart-stopping as you first see the toy-like island jutting up like a green gumdrop from the blue Caribbean.

The strangely beautiful little island has only 1,200 inhabitants who think their fantasy island is perfect and want it to stay that way.

Sabans feel their island is "heaven on water" and refer to it as the "Unspoiled Caribbean Queen." But gradually visitors are discovering the fascinating ambience of this unique place after either flying here for a day's visit or lingering longer after they, too, fall under the spell of this picture-perfect island.

Located about 100 miles east of Puerto Rico and 28 miles south of St. Maarten, Saba enjoys one of the most perfect year-round vacation climates: warm days, 75 to 85 degrees and cool nights, 55 to 65 degrees - with delightful breezes and no humidity. Yet there are no beaches, no harbors, no glitzy resorts on Saba.

What, then, is the allure of this miniature island where people live in an unhurried, old-world atmosphere that epitomizes the island life of yesteryear?

The aura of peace that envelops the visitor is mesmerizing as a camaraderie develops with the islanders who seem to live in a capsule of tranquility.

Columbus first saw Saba in 1493 but not until 1644 did Dutch settlers arrive. The island changed hands 12 times but in 1816 it reverted to Holland and it has remained Dutch in everything but language; English is spoken by everyone. Though you may use florins and guilders, American money is accepted.

Some say the name Saba comes from the Arawak word "siba" which means "rock" while others attribute the name with Columbus' reading of the passage in the Bible about the Queen of Sheba while passing the island.

From the moment you approach the island - a short 20 minute flight from St. Maarten, you are swept into another world. Suddenly, the island appears, an extinct volcano dropped into the sea millions of years ago, rising 3,000 feet out of the Caribbean. The island itself is an unconventional beauty with cloud-draped mountains, small and large, hovering over green valleys tangled with magnificent growth.

The startling terrain seems to go either dramatically up or down and the only level spot on the entire island, Flat Point, is the Juliano Airport on the northeast coast. Yuancho Yrausquin airstrip, an engineering masterpiece, took more than 20 years to build by hand.

It was leveled out of the cliffs approximately 400 feet above the sea and looks, strangely, like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Both ends of the airstrip and one side of the 366-yard-long strip drop straight into the water. However, the small twin engine planes which fly in and out of Saba daily do remarkably well in their short takeoffs and landings.

Saba's four main villages are as picturesque as their names: the Bottom (the capital), Windwardside, Hell's Gate and St. John's.

The few villages, including the Bottom, are linked by a single road which winds up the hilly mountainsides. Until recently, there was just one swimming pool on the island but today several of the inns now have pools.

Underwater exploration has attracted many divers to the magnificent caverns and cliff faces. There are several excellent dive operations which give three-hour courses with one dive for anxious divers. A less strenuous activity is to hike from the village of Windwardside to the summit of Mount Scenery through a weave of tropical vegetation that is magnificent.

The Saba Artisan's Foundation offers locally designed fashions. "Saba lace" is lovely to purchase, home-made specialties by the ladies of the island -- dresses, tablecloths, hand-bags and other nice remembrances. There are some interesting shops to explore while strolling through the quaint villages.

Some time ago, Steve Hassell who was born in Aruba, moved to Saba to live with his wife and daughter. "It's such a marvelous place to live," he said.

"And it's so peaceful; there's no need for police. We have one jail with two cells (rarely used except for someone, occasionally, who has a little too much beer or Saba Spice, a local liqueur). And the door is always open." There's even a sunroof on top of the jail in case a prisoner wants to sun himself.

Hassell commented that "formerly, people used to travel from one village to the next by stone steps which were carved out of the mountainside until one islander, Josephus Hassell, took a correspondence course in engineering. In 1963, after more than 20 years of painstaking labor by the islanders, the one paved road was a reality." Today, winding like a serpent through the mountainous terrain, the road serves the few vehicles which only hardy residents attempt to maneuver.

Hassell recalled that "the first shipment of tiles that arrived here from Holland were red. The townspeople wanted everyone's roof to look the same, so today, no matter what color tiles one uses, we all paint our roofs red."

There are few modern day intrusions on the dreamy island. A small pier, built to permit boats to dock with the hope of attracting cruise ship visitors, has been built at Fort Bay. Through choppy waters that "kick like a donkey," it is here that fishermen, in rowboats, ply their trade bringing in fresh fish each day -- grouper, snapper, wahoo, blue marlin, lobster.

Saba is also a haven for divers. Saba Deep is a company that organizes fishing charters, gives scuba lessons and offers all sorts of exciting sea exploration. The company even conducts underwater photography lessons.

Mount Scenery is the dramatic peak, 2,885 feet, which beckons hardy hikers. Some even get to the top of the handsome mountain while others are content to go lesser distances.

On Saba, old customs survive. Each day, a bell rings in the post office to announce that the mail has arrived. When a young man is about to marry, his friends contribute money and labor to help build a home for the bride and groom. Because there are so many people named Hassell and Johnson on the island, confusion in names, which would be caused by referring to Mrs. Hassell or Mrs. Johnson, is avoided by referring to every woman, whether married or single, as "Miss" plus her first name.

On Saba, you can relax, read, sunbathe, play tennis on the one court at the Bottom and walk through fairy-tale like scenes, shop for Saba lace -- the intricate needlework created by the ladies on the island -- and dive into the stunning underwater scenery.

Travel information

Accommodations on the island are few but interesting. Willard's of Saba is the newest and most luxurious accommodation with a pool set into the hillside, a tennis court and fine cuisine; Juliana's Apartments also has a pool and offers dive packages; Cranston's Antique Inn, in the Bottom, has four-poster beds, and a pool; Scout's Place in Windwardside is a popular hang-out for locals and visitors; Cottage Club is a recent property with cottages of 10 spacious rooms; Caribe Guesthouse, the Gate House and El Momo are also cozy accommodations.

Good spots to dine are: Scout's Place, Corner Deli and Gourmet Shop, Brigadoon, In-Two Deep, Lollipop's, Saba Chinese Guido's.

While there's little activity on this timeless Eden, but for the perfect escape, Saba can provide magnificent rewards.

Several airlines fly to St. Maarten from many major cities. Winair flies several times daily between St. Maarten and Saba.

For tourist information, dial (800) 722-2394.