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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean

Saba offers dives, rainforest hikes and whistling frogs

Posted: 01/19/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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THE BOTTOM, Saba -- The small propeller airplane lands quickly and softly, like a butterfly, on one of the world's shortest commercial runways on the rainforest-capped island of Saba, which rises stunningly out of the Caribbean. It won't take long for visitors to see why the sign outside declares: "Welcome to the Unspoiled Queen."

Saba's Mount Scenery, at 877 metres high, is touted as the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. (The island became a Dutch municipality following the breakup of the Netherlands Antilles.) Still, some of the island's most sought-after peaks are under water near Saba's sharply rising shores.

The small island's volcanic nature has sculpted the seascape for unique recreational diving, as its coral-encrusted pinnacles and seamounts top out within recreational diving limits of 26 to 36 metres. Yellow sulfur deposits on the sand at the dive site known as Hot Springs shows volcanic activity continues. If you stick your hand in the sand, you can feel its heat.

Forget the beach. There isn't one. No casinos, either. After hiking and diving, one of the next best things to do is relax and wait for the symphony of whistling frogs that fills the night with song.

Many who take the time to visit this remote and verdant island about a 15-minute flight from St. Maarten are scuba divers who come to explore some of the most colourful and vibrant underwater life on this side of the world. A main draw for divers are the pinnacle dive sites, where magma pushed through the sea floor to create underwater towers of volcanic rock that start at about 91 metres down and rise to about 26 metres beneath the surface.

"There's tons of colour and, of course, because they are out in this blue oasis of water and then all of the sudden you've got formations, it attracts corals and sponges which, of course, attract the smaller fish, which of course attract bigger and bigger fish," said Lynn Costernaro, who owns the Sea Saba Dive Center, during a presentation to divers who were visiting the island in May.

The sponges, both in their variety and size, are one of the most noticeable features of the Saba Marine Park. Giant barrel sponges almost as big as some divers tower over the seascape, which is thick with striking red, purple, orange and yellow sponges. Sea turtles and stingrays are regularly spotted. Reef sharks can be seen on patrol. Spiny lobsters, crabs and moray eels hide in small openings in the corals.

One of the park's most thrilling dives, called Third Encounter, is on top of an underwater mountain. The top, which is about 30 metres deep, is covered in coral and sponges with deep, dark blue drop-offs along its sides. Soon after getting there, a dive guide will start moving off into the deep blue, seemingly toward nothing. A few heart-pounding moments after hovering over the blue abyss, a narrow towering spire suddenly comes into view -- again covered with colourful growth.

The first known divers in Saba waters did not come until 1982. The Dutch government decided to create a marine park not long after, before much diving had started. The park was officially established in 1987, but steps had been taken before that to protect the area, such as talking to fishermen and setting up homemade moorings for boats.

About 150 species of fish have been found in the waters of the island. Measures are taken to protect them. For example, restaurants do not serve grouper. As a result, a variety of species of grouper that is harder to see around other Caribbean islands is commonly seen here. Other seldom-seen fish such as frogfish also can be found, and the dive guides know where to find them.

After spending the morning diving, there's plenty to do on land in the afternoon, if you're not ready to relax by the pool. The island has six different vegetation zones, including rainforest and cloud forest at the very top, where there are orchids. There are more than a dozen trails of various lengths and difficulty. Mount Scenery, at the top, takes an hour and a half each way to hike. Tour guides are available. Saba has more than 60 species of birds. There is even a lodge and restaurant in the rainforest. It takes about 10 minutes to hike along a trail to reach the restaurant, and a flashlight is needed at night. Frogs cling to the windows in the dining room. A slide-show presentation on the rainforest is given on Wednesday nights.

There is only one main road, steep and twisty, often providing exhilarating views over sheer cliffs down to the sea. Hitchhiking is common. Cars regularly roll along from one side of the island to the capital, known as The Bottom, a town of red-roofed white buildings with green shutters in a valley surrounded by lushly green and high-rising peaks.

Even if you never go to the island's highest points, just about anything you do on the island will require some significant hiking, because the terrain is quite steep. Some shops, such as JoBean Glass, which sells handmade glassworks, will even send a car to pick up someone interested in having a look without making the big walk uphill to the store. A road leading to one resort more than 600 metres above sea level is so steep, one cab driver boasts he is willing to make the trip, noting some of his colleagues won't.

-- The Associated Press

IF YOU GO...

SABA: http://www.sabatourism.com/ . Flights to the Caribbean island of Saba are available from St. Maarten on Windward Islands Airways, http://www.fly-winair.com. Service by ferry, which takes about 90 minutes from St. Maarten, is also available. Although Saba is a municipality within the Netherlands, English is widely spoken and the U.S. dollar is the official currency.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 ??65535

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