The view from Mt Scenery

On the tiny island of Saba stands the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Nicholas Laughlin saw the sights on his trek to the top

A view of Saba from the north-east, from the plane returning to St Maarten. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinClose-up of an example of Saba lace, made by Imelda Peterson of Windwardside. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe summit marker on Mt Scenery, the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinTraditional Saban cottages — and modern cottages decorated in traditional colours — in the village of Windwardside. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

From the top of Mt Scenery, on a clear day, you can take in a 360-degree panorama of the Caribbean Sea, its dark and glittering expanse studded with islands: St Maarten to the north, St Barthélemy to the north-east, and to the south-east Sint Eustatius, St Kitts, and Nevis lined up one behind the other. On a very clear day, you might even glimpse Antigua a hundred miles away, a smudge on the horizon.

But I chose a grey and drizzly day to scale the dormant volcano, its summit hiding in a mantle of cloud. The trailhead is just outside the village of Windwardside. I stopped at the cottage housing the Saba Trail Shop, to pay the conservation fee and borrow a walking stick, then started up the long flight of steep stone steps that winds all the way to the top.

Suriname cherry trees shaded the first leg of the trail, their red fruit giving a tangy scent to the humid air. Now and then a white-painted cottage appeared. Higher up, the trees were smaller, thicker moss wisped from their branches, and tendrils of mist strayed from the mass of cloud above. Giant philodendrons and delicate begonias flourished at every bend.

An hour into my climb, the steps levelled off, and I realised I was almost there. The summit of Mt Scenery is really a ridge sprouting several small peaks. A sign pointed the way to the “scenic view” – the highest point. I slogged through ankle-deep mud under tree ferns, until the trail stopped at a bare face of rock. A rope as fat as my wrist and black with moss was slung along a cleft. After a quick scramble, I found myself in what felt like a crow’s nest atop the mountain: a natural platform, just a few feet across, fringed with ferns. A concrete pillar marked the highest point on Saba – for that matter, in the whole Kingdom of the Netherlands.

This is where I should have marvelled at the breathtaking view all around: the villages of Saba far down on the lower slopes, the disc of the sea, those islands, the immense sky. But all around me nothing was visible but cloud. There were miles of open air in every direction, and I felt as though I were closed in a little room. Doves cooed, invisible in the stunted trees.

The Antilles branch off from South America in an orderly arc, one island neatly following another, and only Barbados breaking ranks to the east. But as the archipelago bends north into the Leewards, it begins to scatter about the sea in no particular formation. Saba is perched on the edge of this confusion of islands.

It is almost the tiniest. Five square miles in total, rising to 2,877 feet, Saba is the tip of a sheer-sided mountain protruding above the waves, and from a distance it looks nearly as tall as it is wide. There is really no such thing as flat land on the island. The flattest bit – called Flat Point, what else? – was artificially levelled in the 1960s to build one of the world’s shortest commercial airstrips. Whether landing is more terrifying than taking off is a question the locals don’t seem to have resolved. Flying in from St Maarten on a 12-seater plane, I was mildly alarmed to notice we were headed straight for the towering northern slope of Mt Scenery. At the last moment, the pilot banked to the left, and reversed the propellers even before the wheels of the plane touched down. The runway ended abruptly with a hundred-foot drop to the sea.

From the neat air terminal, the road – there is only one on Saba – quickly ascends Mt Scenery through a dozen vertiginous switchbacks. A thousand feet up, it passes through the village of Hell’s Gate – named for an abandoned sulphur mine – then curves along the contours of the mountain, to Windwardside, in its narrow saddle. From here the road gradually descends again to St John’s, and thence to The Bottom, Saba’s capital.

Just about all Saba’s inhabitants – not quite 1,500 people – live in these villages, which long predate the road that now links them. For centuries, Sabans traversed their island on thousands of uneven steps cut into the volcanic rock. The terrain was considered too steep for road-building, even by Dutch engineers, until 1938, when a headstrong Saban proved them wrong. Josephus Hassell, a carpenter by trade, took a correspondence course in engineering, then spent 20 years superintending construction. The road ended the semi-isolation of the four villages – it’s said that just a generation ago Sabans could tell a Hell’s Gate accent from a Windwardside one, even though the two communities are less than a mile apart.
My ears were not so keen, of course, and to me the Saban accent sounded like a gentler, more melodious version of Bajan. Which makes sense: the Barbados accent is derived in part from the Scottish burr of its early colonists, and Saba also was settled by Scots and Irish in the 17th century. But the very first inhabitants were Caribs, whose archaeological remains have been found in the vicinity of The Bottom, beneath a layer of volcanic ash. One theory suggests the Caribs were driven off the island by a pyroclastic eruption just before the arrival of the first Europeans (Columbus is supposed to have sailed past in 1493, without stopping). The French, English, and Dutch tussled over Saba for a century or two. In the end, the Netherlands kept the island, but by then most of its residents were English-speaking, and Dutch never caught on.

Neither did plantation slavery, a defining phenomenon for most of the rest of the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were brought to Saba early on, but with terrain so unsuitable for large-scale agriculture, the economics of slavery made little sense, and the system ended long before official abolition. Black and white communities lived and worked side by side, with little intermarriage. The result is a demographic anomaly, to Caribbean eyes: there are black Sabans and white Sabans, but not many brown ones, even though just a handful of surnames, like Hassell and Johnson, predominate on the island.

With no sugar estates, no harbour, and not even a road till 60 years ago, the people of Saba found clever ways to survive. Generations of Saban men became professional sailors, leaving their island to join the crews of vessels plying the world’s sea routes. Exotic objects from far-flung continents still decorate homes in Saba today, souvenirs from the travels of various great-grandfathers. And the women of Saba developed a curious cottage industry: lace-making.

In the early 1870s, the young Gertrude Hassell was sent by her parents to a convent in Caracas – or perhaps Curaçao, the records aren’t clear – to be educated. There she learned the art of drawn thread work, a kind of embroidery that produces lace-like effects. On her return to Saba, she began teaching friends and neighbours, and soon dozens of women were making intricate tablecloths, napkins, and handkerchiefs in the style that came to be called Saba lace.

Drawn thread work begins with a length of solid linen, from which some of the threads are carefully removed. The remaining threads are knotted together to make delicate patterns, with names like Butterfly, Diamond, and Sting-a-ray, some of which are unique to Saba. Having perfected this art, at the end of the 19th century Saban women set about finding a foreign market for their creations. When goods from North America arrived on the island, the women would note the addresses of the companies that shipped them, and send off samples of their work with a price list. Through sheer perseverance, they built up a mail-order business that for decades accounted for most of Saba’s exports.
You can still buy lace in Saba, though only a handful of women still practise the craft. Nowadays, as in much of the Caribbean, the main business is tourism. There are no beaches or resorts here, and most visitors come for one thing: scuba diving. The island’s topography of precipitous cliffs means there’s deep water almost right offshore, and the fringing reefs are pristine, protected by the Saba National Marine Park. Its dramatic drop-offs and submarine pinnacles are legend among diving cognoscenti.

I, on the other hand, have a terror of deep water. After my viewless – though exhilarating – trek to the top of Mt Scenery, I was content to explore the steep lanes of the village and admire a different kind of sight: Saba’s picturesque vernacular architecture. The classic Saba house is a little cottage of white-painted wood, with a hipped roof of red shingles, and green trim around the doors and windows. Its kitchen often has a brick chimney with a distinctive rounded cap, and more elaborate cottages sport delicate fretwork.

Along the southern end of the village a dozen well-preserved wooden cottages are set among miniature gardens lush with flowers. Clinging sturdily to their steep slope, they are a picture of modest domestic comfort, with Saba’s sublimely rugged landscape for an incongruous backdrop. I never did see the view from Mt Scenery, but the view from Windwardside was a fine second-best.