This is how it begins: I am on a flight from Miami to St. Maarten in the Caribbean, and I’ve become part of a small party. I’ve been served a gin and tonic because a couple seated down the row from me—a middle-aged man from Oklahoma and his lovely dance-instructor wife—have bought drinks for everyone around. They go to the Caribbean every year and are ready to start their vacation.
Our impromptu celebration includes two long-haired college girls on spring break and the man seated next to me, who calls himself Captain Ahab. He grew up on St. Thomas and is returning to the islands in the midst of a divorce from a cruel wife. None of them can believe I haven’t chosen to go to the Caribbean. Instead, I’ve been sent by this magazine, with 48 hours’ notice of where I’m going. My plane companions think I’m the luckiest person in the world and make me promise to write about them. Another round of drinks appears and a toast is made to my luck. I smile weakly.
You see, I’m not the kind of person who usually goes on island vacations. My fair skin burns easily, I get bored on beaches, and the sound of steel drums makes me think violent thoughts.
I land on St. Maarten at night. Because the international airport is on the Dutch side, I decide to stay there rather than on French side. I go to Philipsburg, which is where many of the hotels are, and on the way I tell my taxi driver I’m considering a visit to the neighboring island of Saba. The taxi driver tells me the very short airport runway on Saba is near a cliff. It’s rated one of the 10 most dangerous landings in the world, so dangerous that pilots who land there have to take a flying test every month. He looks at me in the rearview mirror.
“Is there a way to get to Saba by boat?” I ask.
I check into the Pasanggrahan Royal Guesthouse, which was once the Queen of Holland’s summer house, and sleep in a four-poster bed. In the morning I walk around Philipsburg and am amazed that there can be so many jewelry, alcohol, and tablecloth stores on one main drag. I count at least five tablecloth stores, the busiest of which is called Mr. Tablecloth. Around me, the streets and stores start to fill up with tourists who have just come off one of the enormous cruise ships docked in the harbor. The women are all wearing white and the men are drinking Heinekens at 10 in the morning. Everyone appears lost in every sense of the word. I go looking for the first boat to Saba.
The boat I find is called the Dawn II, and the captain, who lives on Saba, says everyone there calls him Dawn II, so that’s what I call him. There are only seven of us on the boat—me, Dawn II, three people who own or work at hotels on Saba, and two Canadian sisters who attend the medical school on Saba. They explain that 400 of the island’s 1,500 inhabitants are med school students or faculty.
At the last minute, before we depart, a tall blonde woman wearing four-inch heels comes running to the boat. She’s from Iceland and her name is Saga and she’s running away from her shitty boyfriend. “In what way was he shitty?” I ask. “In that way that all shitty boyfriends are shitty,” she says. She smiles at me and takes off her heels, and we become fast friends. The boat trip to Saba takes two and a half hours, and for the second half of the trip the island looms in the distance, a large, gray tooth. It’s like the Matterhorn but without snow. It looks magical and ancient and completely different from any island I’ve ever seen.
After we dock, we go through immigration. An officer sits behind a large desk, and when he talks to me he sounds like the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. Maybe this is a joke, I think, and I consider responding to him in a similar Swedish Chef accent. Good thing I don’t, because as we walk onto the dock and hear people talking around us, I understand that this is how people on Saba speak. The original settlers of the island were Dutch and English, and those accents have blended with a Caribbean inflection to produce a speech pattern that reminds me of the way my favorite Swedish cousins talk when they’re tipsy and telling good stories.
There is one main road in Saba, called The Road, and it’s steep and zigzags and is bordered by rock walls. The Road passes through the lowest part of the island, which is called The Bottom, then rises up to a town called Windwardside, which is, well, you get it. I stay at a place called the Cottage Club, which has a pool fringed by palm trees and a cluster of immaculate red-roofed cottages.
On our first night on the island, Saga and I get pizza at Saba Treasures, where a piratey-looking waiter proudly points to pictures of his ancestors on the wall. They were among the first settlers in Saba, he tells us. This is not the sort of experience I have when Domino’s delivers. The pizza is possibly the best I’ve ever had, and yes, I’m aware I’m in the Caribbean. After dinner we go to the Swinging Doors Bar. We enter through … swinging doors, of the Wild West variety.
The bartender and owner is a man named Eddie, and he’s holding court when we arrive. Eddie is a former merchant marine whose accent is as intense and buoyant as any I’ve heard on Saba. He introduces Saga and me to the other people at the bar. Maybe I don’t spend enough time in bars, but this is the first time I’ve been introduced around by a bartender. We meet the honeymooning couple who have come to Saba to scuba dive, the locals who frequent the bar after their shifts at restaurants and hotels, and a pediatrician who graduated from the med school on Saba several years ago and often returns to the island from the United States to see Eddie.
“So you must have spent a lot of time drinking while you were in med school,” Saga says to the pediatrician.
“This boy here is good boy,” Eddie says in response. “There’s no friction between the med students and the rest of the people who live on Saba?” I ask.
“Nah,” Eddie and the pediatrician say in unison.
“If it weren’t for the medical school, Saba probably couldn’t sustain itself,” Eddie says. “They’re great people, the students.”
The discussion turns to whether or not Saga and I will be around on Friday. We look at each other: We’re both going to leave by then. By plane. “That’s too bad,” Eddie says. “We have a great barbecue here at the Swinging Doors every Friday night.”
Others at the bar concur. For a brief moment, Saga, the honeymooners, and I are all sad we won’t be here for the barbecue, for the camaraderie, for the feeling that we are part of some version of a bar that before coming to Saba we thought existed only in U.S. sitcoms.
I realize I might be falling in love with the island. Its place names may be basic, but its geography and ecology—volcanic rock at the bottom and lush foliage at the top—are rich and complex. Saga says the landscape reminds her of Iceland, and I agree that Saba does feel like a northern European island that has been transplanted to the Caribbean. You don’t need a car here. And the people I see working in the grocery store and in the bead and lace shops are the same people I see eating in the restaurants at night.
On my third day on Saba, Saga and I take the island’s most popular hike. It has 1,064 steps that go straight up a mountain. We climb up through a rain forest. The heat is suffocating. At one point, we consider stopping and going back. But we’re assured by everyone coming down the stairs—still sweating—that the view from above is amazing. So we keep going.
Once we’re at the top, we take in the view of the endless ocean below us, around us. The water is a blue I’ve only seen before on Russian Easter eggs. “I can’t believe we were thinking the view wouldn’t be worth it,” I say, because even though I’ve been on Saba just a few days, I should know better. We are, after all, at the very top of Mount Scenery.