A Travellerspoint blog

How Many Countries Can You See From Fort St. Louis?

French half of Caribbean island has a colonial fort with a gem of a view

sunny 84 °F

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Fort Louis on the French half of St. Martin has a wonderful view from its ramparts

Zero, one, two, or three? How many countries can you see from Fort Louis? It rhymes, but also asks an interesting point. When you visit a place like St. Martin, the French-owned half of the Caribbean island divided between it and Dutch St. Maarten, where are you? Are you in a separate country? Are you actually in France? Could you claim to have been to both France and the Netherlands by exploring both halves of this island? Or are they their own entity, like I like to look at them? Thus, my question. On my most recent trip that covered St. Martin, St. Maarten, and Saba (a,so Dutch owned), did I visit three countries? Or two, or one, or none?

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The French flag flies over St. Martin, but should it count as a country visited?

Since they all have their own flags, governments, and personalities, I am sticking with three. My trip to St. Martin was by far the shortest of the three. We took a taxi from our hotel in St. Maarten, crossing the border to visit the colonial era fort named after the French king. Our taxi driver dropped us off in downtown Marigot at the foot of the stairs and pathway that lead to the hill overlooking the harbor.

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View from the bottom of the hill looking up at Fort Louis

My research warned that there were 99 steps to the top and to be prepared for a steep, hot climb. After our hiking on mountainous Saba, this was mere child’s play! We ascended relatively quickly, stopping to take some photos of the fort’s stone walls gleaming golden in the morning sunshine. Looking to our left we nodded - the view from atop would be spectacular as the reports said. There are a number of weathered markers in French and English throughout the fort’s ruins. The first, just inside the opening that was once a gateway, pointed out the loopholes constructed for the soldier’s muskets to fire at attackers. I was struck by how identical they looked to medieval loopholes in castles for archers or crossbowmen.

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Once you reach the top of the hill, you are greeted with a stunning view of both the French and Dutch halves of the island

The island that St. Martin and St. Maarten share has a bewildering number of bays, inlets, and coves. These stretched out before us, gleaming bright blue in the late morning sunshine. In each of them, a scattering of yachts and other boats were anchored like white pearls strewn across a blue tabletop. Lazy wakes marked a handful in motion, but mostly it was a picture of calm. Marigot was laid out below us with brightly colored buildings, busy streets, and markets. A lone cannon lay rusting in the grass, an impotent threat to the boats ignoring it below.

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Rusting cannons and semi-ruined stone walls sit above the harbor, built to protect its ships

In some places the walls had crumbled away, in others they were in good repair. I love to wander ruined historical sights like this. Yes, I also enjoy those that have been reconstructed to the majesty of the olden day’s, but there is something romantic about a windswept hill with the crumbling remains of a spot that was once important enough for men to bleed and die for. I slowly circled the fort, looking out over views to the nearby islands in the hazy distance. I switched back and forth between my telephoto and normal lens, trying to capture that shot the sums up the view from a sun-dappled for on a hill in the Caribbean Sea.

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Built in 1789, the walls for the fort were built to repel attacks of the Dutch, English, and Spanish colonial rivals

I climbed to the crumbling remnants of the fort’s highest buildings. There a modern aluminum pole was implanted in the ground and the French tricolor flapped proudly in the breeze. The 360 degree was phenomenal, though the wind gusts buffeted you and made you struggle to steady yourself for your photographs. Descending to the far wall, I was surprised to see two more cannon still mounted on their wooden carriages. Chances were, the carriages were probably decades old done during a renovation, while the barrels were obviously centuries old originals. As it was, the carriages were falling apart under the cannon’s weight. One of the cannons was a definite “long gun” — I guessed a 12 or 18-pounder. The placard confirmed it would indeed hurl cannon balls weighing 12 pounds at ships far below. I looked around for a furnace to see if Fort Louis had one to shoot cannon balls that had been heated to red hot before firing. The biggest risk to mariners in the days of wooden sailing ships was fire, and one red hot cannon ball wedged in its timbers could consume a ship with flames in minutes.

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A 12-pound “long gun” has fallen from its reconstructed wooden carriage atop the walls of Fort Louis

It was a perfect sunny day to enjoy a scenic view. The steady breeze kept it from being too hot, and there were only a handful of other visitors to contend with. Finally, after we had taken all of our photographs, we descended the steps to Marigot below. This island being under French influence, it was easy to find a cafe with outdoor seating along the Main Street. We refreshed ourselves with an ice-cold peach tea, while watching the traffic motor by.

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The Dutch half of the island looms in the distance, easy to spot on a clear day

We had noticed an outdoor local souvenir market and decided to visit it. Most of the shops had similar items. I was tempted by the colorful, button-up tropical shirts. My batik shirt from Bali is getting old. I purchased it there more than two decades ago, and love its lightweight fabric that breathes. This fabric didn’t seem like it would do as well, so I passed. Suddenly, I was caught by the sight of African-style, carved masks. Their bright Caribbean colors spoke of the melding of Africans brought to the Americas, persevering to create a new culture and artwork. Perfect! I bought it as the token of my visit to...was it one, two, or three countries?

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A view from the fort’s walls at the marina anchorage

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:34 Archived in Saint Martin Comments (0)

Double Dutch Treat - Two Pairs of Days on St. Maarten

Beaching it and an amazing “Yoda Guy” museum

sunny 86 °F

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A quiet, 2-day stop in St. Maarten on my way to Saba began in Philipsburg

The Dutch-owned island of St. Maarten was not my true destination. I was actually headed to nearby Saba, but the only way to get there was through St. Maarten. The connecting flights didn’t line up so well, so I ended up booking two nights on “the Friendly Island” (as its license plates proclaim) both before and after Saba. I hoped it would be a double Dutch treat, so to speak. I am not a big beach person, but a day here or there in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean never hurt anyone!

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Heavily dependent on the cruise ships, Philipsburg has not recovered to its pre-Covid crowds

The airlines have completely messed up the arrivals on the island, with American, Jet Blue, Air France, and Delta (who I was flying on) landing a half dozen international flights within an hour or so of each other. This results in a massive backup at immigration, which has only exacerbated the new Covid-19 restrictions. All visitors to the island must be fully vaccinated, but also take a Covid test within three days of arrival. Not everyone had their paperwork in order, so that slowed things down even more. It was almost two hours before we made it through the gauntlet and were checking into our hotel, a small locally-owned one named Alicia’s Inn.

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Still very pretty and pleasant to walk around, Philipsburg is putting on a brave face

After semi-unpacking, it was time for a wander around Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of the island and where we were staying. Although there was a smattering of traffic, it seemed fairly quiet for a weekday afternoon in a capital city. The most noise came from young islanders popping wheelies on their motorcycles - I guess we were supposed to be impressed. Even the teenagers popped wheelies on their bicycles. We noticed that at least half of the stores were closed as we wandered through Old Street onto Front Street. We would find that Philipsburg had not recovered from the Covid interruption in travel to the same extent as the rest of the island.

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After about 6pm, the streets of Philipsburg empty out quickly

We were shocked to see three cruise ships anchored in the harbor. Where were all the passengers? The streets should be teeming with passengers on day trips. We looked closer and saw no one on the railings or on the balconies. A bartender confided that they were empty, though one would be loading up and setting sail in in a day or so. Philipsburg was geared to the cruise traffic, and until it picked back up, it remained somewhat of a dusty ghost town with only scattered businesses open and trying their best to put on a brave face.

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On our second day in St. Maarten, our destination was the beach!

After doubling back and exploring the concrete boardwalk along the shore, we decided the heat was telling us to stop somewhere and enjoy a beverage to refresh ourselves. I’d spotted the Dutch Blonde Beach Bar which sported a sign advertising local craft beer. That made the choice easy, so we climbed to the breezy second story beachfront bar and restaurant. They had 3 local beers, the first being the namesake Dutch Blonde. Tasting it, I was reminded of my visit to Curaçao a few years ago. All the beers there had a thin, almost wheat beer taste. Even beers like Amstel and Heineken (world’s most over-rated beer, I call it) had that taste that it normally doesn’t have at home. All except one of these had that same taste, too.

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We rented two beach chairs and an umbrella the day (plus 6 drinks) for $25

The bartender was originally from Holland and very friendly. We peppered him with questions and he filled us in on how things were on the island. We decided to have dinner there, too, and I enjoyed my Chicken Satay. After eating, we wandered back to our hotel for a bit before venturing out again at dusk. Philipsburg did seem to shut down shortly after dinner time. There were still some locals out and about, but the boardwalk and Front Street - where the hotel’s and restaurants were located - was shuttered. Our first flight that day had left Columbus at 5:30, which meant a 3:30am wake up. So, an early night was probably a good idea!

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Philipsburg had an interesting little historical museum with artifacts from different time periods

For breakfast the next morning we found what appeared to be the favorite spot - the Coffee Lounge. Lots of selection from light Continental breakfast to full-on American or British heavy morning meals. A good handful of diners enjoyed the air conditioning inside like us or sat outside and ate breakfast. The plan for the day was simple: hit the beach! We borrowed beach towels from our hotel and headed for the boardwalk. We picked out one of the places renting beach chairs and umbrellas - $25 for two chairs, an umbrella, and a bucket with six drinks (your choice from water, soda, beer, or cocktails). The water in front of our chairs was crystal clear and that bight, turquoise blue the Caribbean is known for. The waves lapping the shore were gentle, and the sand was powdery white. Postcard-perfect beach setting! We settled in, applied our sunscreen, and relaxed. There were less than a dozen other beach goers in sight up and down the length of the beach. As it turned out, we were the only customers our beach chair rental guy had all day. I felt bad for the locals. Normally, a place like this would be packed in summer, I was guessing. Covid’s miseries across the world seem to never end. After several hours in the sun and warm water, we decided that our pale skins had probably reached their allotment of sunshine.

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An enthusiastic 19-year-old, budding Indiana Jones runs the museum in Philipsburg, St. Maarten

We went back to the hotel to change, then headed out to do some museum hopping. First up was the local historical museum. Their extensive and informative website got my hopes up. The displays were interesting, with artifacts from St. Maarten’s Arawak Indian days, through the colonial periods when the Dutch, Spanish, English, and French warred for control of the island. It also covered more recent History up till modern times. There were extensive sections on slavery in St. Maarten, as well as the various rum and indigo industries.

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The “Yoda Guy” Exhibit wouldn’t look out of place on the planet of Tatooine

A 19-year-old man seemed to be the local authority, a budding young Indiana Jones who had explored the breadth of the island’s historical sights. He entertained all half-dozen or so visitors with a PowerPoint he’d created to cover St. Maarten’s history. His passion was for the archeological sites on the island, many of which he had scoured the overgrowth and vegetation for signs of himself. He liked to use his drone to help him find the sites his research told him about. He was quick to admit when he wasn’t 100% sure of whether he had truly discovered the factory he was looking for or not. The presentation went on for a bit longer than the average attendee would probably want, but it was enjoyable listening to his passion for history and his confidence in addressing the visitors at his young age.

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One of the many creatures Museum director Nick Maley worked on was the beloved character, Yoda, fo course

The next museum was one I originally wasn’t sure I wanted to go to, but the reviews were all spectacular. The “Yoda Guy” Movie Exhibit is the brainchild and labor of love of Nick Maley, the man who designed or helped create many of the creatures from the Star Wars movies. As the museum’s name suggests, he was pivotal in bringing the beloved Yoda to life. He worked on more than just the Star Wars movies, being part of nearly 60 science fiction, fantasy, or horror movies.

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An amazing amount of props, memorabilia, and mementos of the Star Wars movies is inside the exhibit

Maley has stocked the surprisingly sprawling museum with a huge variety of exhibits. These include mannequins dressed in the authentic costumes from the movies, story boards from the Star Wars films, and video players with clips looping interviewing Maley or his colleagues on the movies, including the actor who portrayed Darth Vader. There are some exhibits covering movie magic in films he didn’t work on but whose story is pivotal, such as Terminator 2. His passion for film making comes through on every exhibit. He hopes his story and exhibit will inspire the next generation of youth to follow his footsteps in a career he has obviously treasured.

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Most of the exhibits contain video or audio loops that go into fascinating detail

When we arrived at the museum, with its exterior that would look appropriate on the planet Tatooine, we climbed the stairs to the second floor, reading the posters on the wall. Upon arriving in the small lobby, it appeared to be deserted. The lights were on, though, and we could hear the recordings in the various exhibits playing, we rang the “old-school” silver bell and no one appeared. We rang again and Maley finally appeared, apologizing for our wait. I had read that he pops in occasionally and lucky guests can meet him, but there he was in person welcoming us and explaining the story behind the museum. I have to admit to being a bit star struck, as I had read up on the museum beforehand.

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Maley has lots of stories and mementos from his years working with the cast of the movies

Gladly plopping down the $15 entrance fee, I spent more than an hour winding my way through the exhibits. It was fascinating and informative. I honestly feel that you do not need to be a Star Wars, or even Science-Fiction fan to enjoy it. Anyone who likes movies would be enthralled by leaning how the creatures were made or dreamed up, such as the iconic Cantina Band in the original Star Wars movie.

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The exhibits also details Maley’s Work on other science-fiction, fantasy, and horror movies

So, I am sure you are wondering why such a fascinating exhibit of Hollywood history and lore is in such a remote spot as Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Maley relates that when he decided to call it quits and retire, he and his wife bought a yacht and sailed it throughout the Caribbean. He fell in love with St. Maarten and put down roots there to practice his new passion - painting Caribbean landscapes. He lamented the decline of Philipsburg, and admitted he’s the only one working at the museum, now. Some days, he said he opens the doors and no one walks through all day. Once again, the blight of Covid spreads melancholy where there was once joy. If your travel plans include St. Maarten, make sure you check out this amazing exhibit and help Maley continue to cast the spell of movie magic!

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From signed photos to video clips, many Star Wars cast members thank Maley or provide additional insight

The “Yoda Guy” Movie Exhibit was one of the highlights of the first part of our visit to St. Maarten. On our return, we had no major plans for the two-day end cap of our visit. We were thoroughly sated by the five days in Saba, so just wanted to take it easy. One stop I definitely wanted to experience was Maho Beach, though. The St. Maarten airport runway is on one tip of the island and stops just short of the beach there. Prevailing winds mean that most aircraft landing on the island must fly over the beach at a relatively low height. So, if you position yourself even with the airstrip, you get to experience an international jet flight roaring above your head.

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”Greedo” - another of the creatures Maley tells the story of bringing to life

I honestly feel that a place like this would not exist in America. The airport and local government would fear someone being injured and suing them, so would fence it off and restrict access. However, in the Caribbean, the mindset is a bit different - to say the least! In my research, I read a blog which claimed that people have been killed being thrown by the jet blast of aircraft taking off. I am typing this on the flight home, so hopefully will remember to research this more fully before publishing this blog entry!

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Maho Beach where the lanes fly really low over to land in St. Maarten

We unfortunately arrived at Maho Beach a little later in the afternoon than we should have and missed most of the big jet arrivals. Still, it was great to see the commuter aircraft roar in for a landing looking as if their wheels were going to touch down on sand! There are a handful of restaurants and bars lined up on either side of the beach. Since we had more than an hour before JetBlue’s A320 arrived, we relaxed and enjoyed some refreshments. When it was close to time, we staked out a position even with dead center of the runway. Before JetBlue arrived, we had a surprise when another jet took off (with the wind instead of into it) and zoomed over our heads. A short time later, the JetBlue plane approached. My IPhone camera was fairly handy taking video, so I tracked it as it rocketed over my head, touching down behind me. Very cool experience!

Watch this video of a jet taking off over us

After a short walk on the somewhat rowdy beach (large groups dancing in the surf to rap music booming from speakers), we headed back to check out the beach near our hotel. It was much more tranquil. We were staying closer to the airport in the Simpson Bay Area this time around. It was definitely more active and had more tourists. The stretch of sand adjoining the Buccaneer Beach Bar proved to be a perfect place to wind down our trip. We sat and watched the sun go down, swimming in the warm waters, and enjoying the panorama of scenic St. Maarten all around us. For a place that was supposed to be just a stop on the way to my true destination, I had enjoyed my days in St.Maarten. I hope others follow in my footsteps soon, though, and help the islanders revive beautiful destination of sun, sand, and History.

JetBlue A320 Landing Directly Over Our Heads at Maho Beach

Regional Jet Landing over top Maho Beach, seen from the bar and restaurant area

Turboprop Commuter Landing Over Maho Beach

Another Commuter Prop Plane Landing at Maho Beach

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:47 Archived in Sint Maarten Comments (0)

Relaxing End to an Adventure

One final hike and walking around Windwardside

sunny 82 °F

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Some of the views along the pleasant Dancing Place Trail hike on the final day in Saba

When planning my trip to Saba, I chose to fly out on the evening flight from Saba in an attempt to squeeze another half-day on the island. Since we had to check out of our excellent hotel, Juliana’s, at 11am, that limited what we could do. We couldn’t get all muddy and sweaty on another long hike or anything like that. So, we opted for a short morning hike. In the afternoon, we would get our Covid test for entry to the U.S. We would spend the rest of the time poking around Windwardside, shopping, and checking out its museum.

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The ground slopes away steeply from the trail side, falling to the sea

After breakfast, we took the Dancing Place Trail, which begins just outside of town. It’s start and end connects with the road, and it is entirely paved. It is named that, we were told, because the cowherds and shepherds would let their animals graze on the slopes beneath the trail. Meanwhile, they would party and dance above them while keeping an eye on them from the trail’s scenic view. The ground fell steeply away from the trail in several sharp ridges and scrubby green slopes. We were hiking beneath the trees, but the land was more open beneath us. We could see it had some gardens and fruit groves on it, but it was mostly wild and looked unsettled.

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The trail both begins and ends along the road, being a gentle rising and falling arc through the trees

Far below, we heard a baby goat crying out for its mother. The cries kept up incessantly, and we had the same thought: we hoped its mother had not been “culled.” Goat culling is controversial on the island. Garvis, for example, thinks its a terrible idea. Willem and Joanna, owners of Juliana’s, aren’t necessarily for it, either. The idea is that having no natural predator, wild goats are breeding out of control. People are worried they will deforest the island and cause soil erosion. Saban people say the goats are a nuisance and destroy their gardens. Garvis counters then why not let people kill the goats who encroach on their gardens and leave the ones in the wild be? From my unskilled eye, Saba seems anything but deforested, and goats will eat about anything. So leave them to munch away on all those tropical plants no one is cultivating. My guess is the plaintively crying baby goat we heard below us would agree.

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Every bit the equal of sights along Saba’s trails are the views you see along the road, like this one of Windwardside

Despite having amazing and scenic trails, some of the island’s most jaw-dropping sights are seen along its road. I actually took more pictures after the hike while walking along the road back into Windwardside. There were great views of the town, which meanders along the slopes and rises high into the hills. Most of the homes seems to have drop-dead, gorgeous views. That seems to be true all over the island. You will be riding along in either Garvis’ or Not-Garvis’ taxi, looking out the window, and marveling at the views. Then you will see a house set way up a hillside and shake your head, wondering what it would be like to wake up every morning to that view.

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Another view from the road: what building is perched on this summit? The island’s school!

We did some of that musing as Garvis took us to The Bottom, the town where the island’s hospital was and where people could get their Covid tests. After a bit of run-around paying at one place and getting the test done in the other, we got that accomplished. This was my third test because of this trip: once to enter St. Maarten, once to enter Saba, and the final one to get back in the U.S. Saba was the fastest in emailing us our results. Thankfully, I am 0-3 on all three. No Covid antigens in my schnoz. We then headed back to Windwardside and spent the last couple hours walking around, shopping, and visiting a local museum. It turned out to be the preserved home of one of the island’s most important residents. I was actually a bit disappointed. It felt less like a museum with interesting tidbits of information and more like a series of rooms with antique home furnishings in it. Probably the only disappointing site on the island, to look at it on the bright side.

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Interestingly, many homes in Saba have tombs of their parents or grandparents right alongside the house

We said goodbye to the other guests we’d met, to Willem and Joanna, and of course to their rambunctious 11-month old Labrador Retriever. We hopped into Garvis’ aging, red and white diesel van for the final time, and drove towards the airport. For one final time, we watched Saba’s stunning landscape slide by the windows. We watched as drivers waved cheerily to each other or pedestrians, beeping their horns to say hello more than anything else. As we past Mt. Scenery, we remembered the grueling hike to its top. As we passed through the Bottom, we remembered the lovely views of it from the end of our hike on the Sandy Cruz Trail. As we decelerated down the winding switchbacks towards the airport, we remembered exploring the Tidal Pools.

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A last look at Windwardside and its church

It was sad to bid farewell to Garvis and say goodbye to the island itself. For a last-minute substitute destination, it had been a memorable trip. If you enjoy hiking or diving, I highly recommended you take up where we left off and make the acquaintance of Garvis, Joanna, Willem, and all the other fascinating residents of this island I had never heard of before this summer!

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Many homes in Saba have decorative nameplates with the residents’ family name on it

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:54 Archived in Caribbean Netherlands Comments (0)

Tidal Pools are a Fascinating World by the Seashore

Veteran Saban resident leads us on a hike through volcanic rock to his favorite places

sunny 84 °F

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The tidal pools on the island of Saba, our fascinating hike for the day

Our last full day on the island of Saba featured a hike along its volcanic, rocky coastline to its tidal pools. We were guided by our ever-present driver, Garvis, who has lived on the island his whole life and everyone recommends to show visitors the pools. It has been one of his favorite places ever since growing up. He pointed out places he fished, climbed, and swam. Once at the pools, he showed us his favorites to relax and even take his children to teach them to swim.

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Saba’s pools are actually splash rather than tidal pools, as you see a pool being infused with more water from a big wave

Garvis picked up our group of four Americans at Juliana’s Hotel, and then drove us on the winding but stunningly scenic road to the airport. The Tidal Pools are just a short walk from there. The airport itself is gorgeously sited between the Pirate Cliffs and Cove Bay. The sun was shining brightly and the waters of Cove Bay and Spring Bay beyond it sparkled. Above them, Old Booby Hill - named after the birds that nest there - was a bright green cone. In the bay in front of us, a large mass of Sargasso seaweed had been brought in by the waves. The Sargasso is the brown streaks we saw on our flight in to St. Maarten. We were worried that it might be pollution or an oil spill, but it turned out to be completely natural. Some islands are upset about its bloom because it washes up on their pretty white beaches. Saba, of course, has none of those and doesn’t seem unduly concerned about it.

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Any drive on Saba includes looking out the windows as the island’s stunning scenery

After a short walk past an abandoned and ruined boiler for sugarcane or indigo, and through some scrub brush, we arrived at the moonscape of jagged, volcanic rocks. There are yellow blazes painted here and there to navigate yourself to the pools, but we had Garvis to show us the way. When the going got tricky, he reminded the four of us in single file to step where he stepped, to avoid loose rocks and follow the easiest path. First, he took us on an overlook of the tidal pools - which are actually splash pools. Rather than being created by a receding tide, they are actually formed by larger waves splashing over the rocks and creating the pools. So, the pools were not necessarily connected to the ocean at high tide then split off when it receded. Rather it was the opposite. The biggest and most advanced waves filled in or replenished these areas.

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Cove Bay, with its Sargasso brought in by waves, and Spring Bay beyond

We admired the pools, pointing out coral and even some fish we could see swimming around in them from above. He then showed us the “path” down to the pools and let us make our choice. It was a 10-foot drop with a rope hanging halfway down. He demonstrated the descent and we were immediately game for attempting it. I set my camera bag/backpack against some rocks and slung my camera around my back ready to go. Max, who plays adult amateur hockey beat me to the punch and was the first to descend. He did it without mishap - balancing on the uneven and slippery after dropping the last several feet. I went next. I scrambled down, lowering myself on the rope and finding footholds u til my feet hung about three feet from the rocks. I landed okay, overbalanced, stepped across the narrow arm of a tidal pool, then slipped on the wet rocks and my foot went into the pool. Not a gold medal “plant” — a bit over-rotated the Olympic judges might say. Jenny and Ellen followed next. Not to critique their landings, but both involved water and one involved pulling Garvis, who was trying to steady us upon our landings, into the water with them!

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The crystal clear pools are filled with spiny sea urchins

This was our rite of passage, though. We entered into a beautiful and secret world. We marveled at the dozens of spiny sea urchins in the pools. We were fascinated by the coral formations growing in them - half-formed Brain Corals and yellow tubular ones. And the fish! There were tiny, yellow and black Sergeant Majors darting about. Their were guppies, crabs, and even a Finding Nemo Clownfish. Then we noticed the tiny snails! Their little purple legs pulled them along the surface of the rocks underneath the water. We oohed and ahhed over each little pool and its own little ecosystem. We took pictures and videos, exploring further and further as the series of tide pools stretched along the shoreline.

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It was interesting to see coral growing in these tiny pools

Occasionally, we’d hear the rush of the surf and a fresh big wave would crest the rocks and dump an infusion of water (and probably tiny sea life) into the pools. I switched between my camera and IPhone, and am glad I did. My SLR camera took the best scenic photos and wide shots. The iPhone excelled at the closeups and videos. Garvis was content to let us take our time and wander, obviously taking pleasure in our delight at a place near and dear to him.

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Garvis contemplates the view of a place he has loved since childhood

After we had explored this section of the pools to our heart’s content, we ventured back to our rope entrance/exit. We all ascended much easier than we descended. We gathered our equipment and continued on as Garvis had fresh wonders to show us. The first of these was a quiet, sheltered pool surrounded by high, Martian red volcanic walls. There was a twenty-foot long pool here with almost no sea life. This was where he brought his youngest children to learn to swim. The sunlight reflected off the water to create a beautiful rippling effect on the walls. It was like Mother Nature’s soothing light and sound show. Had I worn my swimsuit - like I considered - I would haves loved to swim in this pool.

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The turquoise sea crashing against the dark red lave rocks makes for spectacular scenery

Garvis gave us a choice at this point. The quick easy way back or the slightly harder scenic road. We all nodded assent to the scenic way. We picked our way among the volcanic rock, Garvis urging us to follow in his footsteps. He instructed us how to sequence hand and footholds - essentially keep three points of contact while the fourth limb moved you forward. On the Sandy Cruz hike two days ago, I felt my hiking sandals were a liability. Not enough traction left on the soles meant I had to constantly guard against slipping. On this jagged red rock, the rock was the traction. It was sharp and latched onto the rubber of your soles providing an extra firmness to your footing. It scraped up all of our hands a bit, too. Nobody minded the odd scuff or scrape, though.

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We saw crabs and other crustaceans among the pools and scuttling along the sun-drenched rocks

Our last stop was on shore watching the crashing waves buffet the rocks and mix white foam with the gorgeous turquoise sea. I have always loved rocky coastlines, and joyed to the sound of the surf, the cry of the seabirds, and the turmoil of the raging battle of sea and land. After we had taken our last photos, Garvis led us up towards the fence surrounding Saba’s tiny airstrip. It was slow and difficult going until we reached the fence and found a much more level and easier path going around the outer circuit. We relaxed a bit when we saw the path, as we all had been dreading picking our way 200 yards around to the other side of the airport.

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I have always loved rocky coastlines and the crash of the surf

We had one last thrill left on Garvis’ tour, though. Suddenly, a loud roar just above our heads made all of us clutch the fence in alarm. A plane had just taken off and flown less than 50 yards above us. It was the twice-daily turboprop to St. Maarten and we were all amazed how we did not hear it coming. The steep drop from the runway to the rocks hid the sound till it was literally right over our heads. Wow! It was like something out of Hollywood, we chuckled. Of course, we wondered if it was all part of Garvis’ plan. My guess is no, because it happened so suddenly we couldn’t snap a picture. If he truly had lingered to lead us up here at takeoff time, I think he would have told us to have our cameras ready. But who knows?

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Little did we know as we were scrambling along the rocks just beneath the end of the runway, a plane was barreling towards us!

It was an amazing day, though. We had talked earlier about how exploring around the tide pools tapped into that childlike fascination in all of us far discovering creatures. It was the nautical equivalent of turning over a rock or log to see the world of insects living beneath it. Sharing the day with Garvis, Max, Ellen, and Jenny added to the experience as we all fed off of each of our’s fascination with what we were seeing. Garvis lived up to his billing as the best tour guide for the Tidal (Splash) Pools. His stories and recollections of his time spent here on Saba gave us a look inside his world. We travel to see new worlds, and our day at Saba’s pools with him was the essence of traveling.

Video of fish and other sealife in the pool

Watch this video to show why Saba’s pools are “splash pools” and not tide pools

Check out more tiny fish swimming in the tide pools here

Posted by world_wide_mike 01:04 Archived in Caribbean Netherlands Comments (0)

Any Day When You’re Not Eaten by Sharks is a Good Day

Snorkeling in the waters around Saba

sunny 86 °F

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I signed up for an afternoon snorkeling trip with Sea Saba on my third day on the island

My friends and regular readers know that I am deathly afraid of sharks. We are talking nightmares of Great White jaws clamping down on me scared of sharks. Yet when I decided to visit Saba, I knew full well it was know for its excellent scuba diving. I don’t scuba, but Sea Saba assured me that snorkelers are not an afterthought on their excursions. So, going hiking during my stay but not getting in the waters is missing out on an essential lure of the island. So, I planned to do a snorkeling trip while on the island. And today was the day.

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Killing time before the snorkeling, I visited Windwardside’s Methodist church

There was the question of would the sea conditions be good enough for us to go out? Sea Saba’s trips are scuba trips primarily, and divers can deal with rougher currents and choppier waters because they’re under the water. Or at least that is how I understand it. So, when I called to check in the morning and again at noon to see if conditions were favorable for snorkeling (as instructed), Sea Saba gave me the thumbs up. The question is....would I actually be able to force myself into the water? You see, in the videos I watched about Saba’s diving one thing became abundantly clear. There are a LOT of sharks in the waters surrounding Saba. Yes, I saw that they are mostly black-tip reef sharks that are not known to attack humans. And yes, yes, I realize my chances are greater of being struck by lightning than being devoured by a shark. Phobias are not reasonable, though. And I wasn’t 100% sure I would be able to force myself to jump in.

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Saba’s harbor, where snorkeling trips and the ferry to St. Maarten leave from

Our snorkeling trip didn’t leave till about 1pm, so we had the morning to kill while waiting. A trip to the supermarket and a stop by Sea Saba’s offices to sign our waiver form (“I promise not to sue if Jaws decides to take an important chunk out of me...”) took up a little time. We tried to go to the historical museum in town, but it was closed. So, it was basically killing (wrong word) time until it was time to go. We did make plans for Tuesday. Our favorite taxi driver Garvis was going to take us on a tour of Saba’s tidal pools in the morning. Apparently, they are quite the sight, and you can see sea urchins and other sea life in the incredibly clear water. So read tomorrow’s blog about them, too. That is, of course, if I don’t get eaten today on my snorkeling trip. Losing a leg and hopping across the rocks to tide pools could be challenging!

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Ladder Bay us named after “the ladder” - the 800 step path from the harbor to the still standing Customs House

Zero hour arrived eventually and we walked the 5 minutes through Windwardside to the office. I played with the owner’s dogs until our taxi driver, who I will call Not Garvis, arrived to take us to the harbor. Driving along Saba’s one road is a breathtakingly beautiful experience. The 5-square mile island is incredibly mountainous and the views are stupendous. There was a short hiccup as we had to return to the office to pick up two German girls who showed up late. And another hiccup as, once we disembarked from the van, we were directed to three different boats or piers. Soon enough, though, we found our boat and they told us to chill in the harbor side bar for a few moments while they offloaded the last group, reprovisioned the boat, and got ready for us. I told myself not to think negative thoughts. These fine people may later being pulling me from the mouth of a shark, later. So no negative waves, Moriarty!

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It was cool to see Saba’s rugged and beautiful coastline from the water

A short time later, four snorkelers and two scuba divers were on board with the two crew and heading out to sea. We circled around the island close to Ladder Bay. This was the historic anchorage of ships pulling into Saba. The “ladder” is a series of stairs carved into the solid rock leading to the Customs House. Porters would carry everything brought to the island on their backs up the 800 steps all the way up until a road was constructed about 50 years ago. Our boat moored up to one of the buoys and the skipper helped us four snorkelers into our gear. I chose to use a flotation device - think airline life jacket - because I was worried about the current. I have snorkeled numerous times but not often enough to consider myself a strong, experienced snorkeler. Nor am I a strong swimmer. Not a weak or tentative one. Just not strong.

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The volcanic slopes of Saba provide perfect conditions for the growth of coral and the abundance of sea life

I often joke that when I am swimming in the ocean I always insist someone else be near me. “That way,” I deadpan, “there’s at least a 50/50 chance the shark will go after them. My fellow snorkelers were all fiddling with their equipment, and I was ready. Inwardly, I sighed. Of course. I tossed first one leg over the side, then the second. Looking back at my companions I slid into the water - and immediately my mask filled with water. I surfaced, cleared it, and tried again. Same thing. The skipper asked if I was okay and I explained my problem. He tightened the mask, but it still filled with water. I hung on to the side of the boat while he fetched a new mask and got it ready. My fellow snorkelers all watched me wide eyed. The new mask worked like a charm and I cast off from the side into the blue.

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Saba’s settlement known as The Bottom looms above the harbor, while its high peaks rise behind

The first thing noticed was that the sun’s rays were beautiful as they penetrated into the deep beneath me. I also saw no fish. The skipper had warned my to stay about 30 yards from the boat, and that it was better to go inshore rather than out to sea away from the boat. I began to paddle slowly, circling around the stern of the boat. Finally, I began to see fish - and my fellow snorkelers enter the water. I guessed they lived by the same philosophy as me and wanted to make sure I didn’t get eaten before they entered! It was interesting watching the divers enter the water, then slowly descend toward the bottom. Our two divers were on their final training dive with an instructor. They left a trail of bubbles heading to the surface as they disappeared into the blue gloom beneath me.

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Windwardside’s cemetery with centuries of islanders laid to rest in close quarters

As I continued circling the boat, soon found myself immersed in a school of silver and blue fish. They darted this way and that in perfect unison - just like in the nature videos. Of course, paranoid me immediately wondered what they were darting AWAY from! No sinister dark shapes appeared, though. I switched from the silvery fish school to the dark black with two white stripes on their fins school. As you can tell, I am no marine biologist and was unable to identify most of the fish that I saw. I did see colorful purple, yellow, and blue parrotfish, though. As I made my way further away from the boat and closer to the rocky shore, the coral bottom rose up to meet me. I found myself in a school of black and white striped fished. I saw sponges, fans, and coral of different shapes.

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A bust of Simon Bolivar donated to Saba by Venezuela - I will have to look up his connection to the island!

Every once in awhile a little water would get in my snorkel and I got better and better at expelling it back out. Same with the occasional leakage into my mask. I figured out how to hold onto the mask and blow air from my nose to force the water out. The most uncomfortable thing was the life vest, which was very uncomfortable and kept pulling up near my neck. I had to tug it down, or sometimes just hold onto it to keep it away from my throat. I even attempted to let a little air out of the vest and loosen its straps. Still, it remained uncomfortable. Yet it let me float effortlessly, moving only by paddling my feet or breast stroking with my arms.

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The Little Z and her crew got me safely to my snorkeling spot and home

Finally, I decided it was time for a break. I paddled back to the boat, forcing myself to realize it would take awhile and not panic. Honestly, I feel that halftime battle of snorkeling is keeping yourself from panicking. Other than the initial snafu with the mask, I felt I did well at that. And as I clambered aboard, I realized that I had also achieved my number one goal. No, I had not seen any turtles or rays like many divers did that day in Saba. But I - Mr. Sharkaphobia had managed to enter Neptune’s realm once again and NOT get eaten. Woo-hoo! Let’s hear it for not losing a limb or dying!!

Where would I rank my snorkeling experience in Saba? It did not have as stunning as coral as Apo Island in the Philippines. Nor did it have as much vibrant sea life as Curaçao (where I saw turtles and an octopus). Still, it was fun and a very interesting day. Obviously, I knew I had to be a diver to see Saba’s waters at their best. The crew at Sea Saba did a good job of providing a fascinating experience, though. So, if my stories about Saba’s scenery and hiking have intrigued you, chock snorkeling here as yet another reason to visit this gorgeous island!

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:07 Archived in Caribbean Netherlands Comments (0)

Sandy Cruz Hike is no Walk in the Park

Day 2 of hiking on Saba challenges and fascinates

semi-overcast 82 °F

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The Sandy Cruz Trail is the 2nd most popular hike on Saba, so a perfect choice for day two

So if we hiked the most popular trail on Saba on our first day, what is the natural thing to do on our second? Hike the second most popular trail, of course! The Sandy Cruz trail on Saba passes through rainforest and goes up and down steep ravines that make you consider where each footstep will land to avoid slipping on the wet rocks, roots, or mud. I truly felt like an explorer trekking through jungle and half-expected to stumble across the ruins of a long-forgotten temple cloaked in moss, mist, and jungle vegetation. If yesterday’s hike to Mt.Scenery’s peak was physically demanding, Sandy Cruz was also mentally challenging as you picked your way through the jungle hoping not to slip and injure yourself.

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The path on the trail was slick and composed mostly of mossy rocks, roots, and mud

I know that probably doesn’t sound like the greatest endorsement for a day’s enjoyment. But it was a visually stunning hike. When we set off from the trailhead (dropped off by the ubiquitous Garvis — the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport yesterday and seems to be the most popular driver in Saba), it was a misty, late morning. The whiffs of Cloud and fog that drifted across the trail seemed the perfect atmosphere for a jungle hike. With the vegetation cloaking the views all around, the gray fog shrouded any further vistas and I truly felt I was hiking the Lost World. Today, I took the hotel’s advice and borrowed a walking stick. I smiled and remembered a fantasy novel I’d read long ago in which the character called his walking stick a “Whackum” stick - keeping it on hand partly to whack any creatures that might have a mind to attack. So, I joked to myself that I really didn’t need it for the hike, it was in hand to deal with any Lost World denizens that might appear out of the gloom.

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Our first break from the mist and cloud service was a view of Saba’s tiny airstrip and the coastline

Truth was, though, that walking stick was absolutely necessary on this hike. Not for any Compys (Procompsognathus in Jurassic Park), but as the much-needed third leg in this biosphere not designed for bipeds. As the hike progressed, I grew to rely on my third leg more and more. You absolutely had to plan where each footfall would land, and where you would plant the stick to brace yourself if one of your feet slipped. This is what made today’s hike much more mentally challenging than yesterday’s. At one point, I even mentally said where each would go: “Stick, right, left, stick, right, left.” More than once I looked ahead and said to myself, “You’re kidding! I am going up (or down) THERE?”

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At one point, we spotted a Sea Saba dive boat - would we be on one of those tomorrow for our snorkeling trip?

With the close jungle scenery, I didn’t mind the misty day until we got to our first scenic viewpoint. A bench sat looking at a gray embankment of clouds marking the spot. We knew we were overlooking the coast - we could feel the breeze on our faces and stopped to cool off and sip some water. I shook my head, thinking, “Really, Saba? You’re going to treat me like this on my stay?” Just then I noticed a slight clearing in the mist. I could make out the shape of the coastline. As it cleared more, I noticed we were looking down at the airport runway. I took a couple pictures of the fog-shrouded views, and all the while it cleared even more. Soon, I switched from my iPhone to my Nikon digital SLR camera. And it was almost as if Saba was apologizing for its cruel trick yesterday. The sun even came out! I took quite a few pictures of a nice view - not stunning or spectacular. But hey! Who knew when this might happen again?

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More pretty coastal views while the sun was out and we had a view of the sea

We continued on, spotting a scuba boat moored off of a picturesque rock spike sticking out of the ocean about a hundred yards offshore like a flint spear. Zooming in, we could see it belonged to Sea Saba - who we hopefully be joining tomorrow for a snorkeling excursion. We saw a couple more sunny coastal views before the path dived back inland and we were immersed in the jungle again. The most difficult part of the hike was about halfway through when it descended steeply in a series of switchbacks in a ravine between two creeks. Our progress slowed to an absolute crawl. Every step, every placement of the walking stick was carefully planned. Even with my care, my feet slid out from me at one point and I fell onto my back. My walking stick clattered out of my grasp. I paused, made sure there were no obvious injuries, and struggled to my feet. Lucky! No scrapes, no bruises. My backpack had cushioned my fall.

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Hiking in the rainforest of Saba was truly like exploring the jungles of a Lost World

The ravine seemed to go down forever. When we finally bottomed out and began to climb, I was grateful. I knew from the contour lines on our map that soon it would level off, and most of our progress would be along the slopes of a hill. Not up and down. And so it was. The trail became markedly easier and you did not have to be laser-focused on every step. The scenery became more like what I might see back home on a hike in Ohio, and less like the Lost World. We spotted the coastline again through the trees. And then, almost suddenly, we met the trailhead on the other side and were walking on pavement. We came out high above the picturesque settlement known as the Bottom. It was framed by high hills and a stunning backdrop of the blue sea.

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The Sandy Cruz Trail was both mentally and physically challenging

We slowly made our way down the road. There is only one road on Saba and it is known as - wait for it - “The Road.” I kept my SLR out the whole way down, switching between my normal lens and telephoto. The cottages and homes of the people living along the road with its million dollar view were quaint and gorgeously landscapes and maintained. It would be a treat to wake up each morning to that view. The road was very steep, and even though I wasn’t worried about slipping, I kept my walking stick in hand to ease my descent. There is something about a hilltop view of orange terra cotta roofs, white walls, green slopes, and shimmering blue sea that is pleasing on an artistic, relaxing, and tranquil level. Although I had enjoyed my time in Saba so far, I had yet to see any place where I could say, “Yeah, I could live here.” This hilltop view of the Bottom awoke that in me for the first time on the island.

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And suddenly, we were out of the jungle enjoying stunning views of Saba’s mountainous landscape

Soon, we reached the outskirts of town, and then were on the Main Street proper. We found a cafe recommended by the owners of Juliana’s, and settled in to refresh ourselves. I quickly sucked down the lemonade, then savored the crisp lager. We watched the traffic go by, wondering at all of the cars and trucks bedecked in red, yellow, and blue flags. We later learned it was the substantial Columbian workforce on the island celebrating their homeland’s Independence Day. After finishing our lemonades and lagers, we summoned Garvis to pick us up.

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The Bottom - if Saba is a lady, she has a beautiful village named the Bottom

The drive back to Juliana’s was stunning. Saba is truly an island with gorgeous views. I need to make sure not to spend all of my time in the jungle and instead remember to savor its mountainous views. It was a great second day in Saba, all in all. We had an amazing, challenging hike and were rewarded with stunning scenery. The island I’d never heard of a couple months ago continues to amaze.

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Another view of Saba’s spectacular scenery

Posted by world_wide_mike 23:33 Archived in Caribbean Netherlands Comments (0)

Flying to Saba - an Island I’d Never Heard of...

After two years off from international travel, I can finally go abroad again

semi-overcast 88 °F

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The island of Saba comes into view from the window of my tiny, “puddle jumper” plane

It has been hard watching planned vacations slip away during the two years that Covid-19 has been shutting down our world. First, my 2020 spring break to Morocco was cancelled. Then, my summer 2021 excursion to Norway was sunk. Desperate to get out of the States, and resume my country count that had stalled at 93, I researched where vaccinated Americans could go. Of course, I wanted it to be someplace new. During my web surfing I stumbled upon an island I had never heard of - Saba (pronounced “say-Buh”). Or as my friend Tom called when he saw pictures, Isla Nublar from Jurassic Park!
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It had been more than two years, but I was finally off on an international adventure!

Saba is a five square mile island inhabited by only 2,000 residents. Many are descendants of Dutch colonists, and the island is a rare mountainous gem with no crime or poverty, from what I’ve read. It is formed from a now dormant volcano and consists of huge, jungle-clad mountains rising up out of the sea. There are no beaches on this Caribbean island. Visitors come for the abundant hiking trails and amazing scuba diving. Since I don’t scuba, I will hopefully get a chance to do snorkeling at least once during my time here.
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Saba is a former Dutch colony that has only 2,000 inhabitants on its five square miles

One of the reasons it is very much is from the beaten path for the Caribbean is that there are no flights arriving here from the U.S. To get here, you either take a ferry or fly from St. Maarten, which is what was doing early on a Saturday morning. The De Haviland DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft holds less than 20 passengers for the 15-minute hop to the island. I always like flying small planes like this. You actually feel like you’re up in the air and not just riding a giant bus in the sky. Fun fact: Saba’s runway at the tip of the island is supposedly the shortest commercial strip in the world. That said, I have had more “white-knuckle” landings than this one, but it was thrilling.
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Saba is formed from a dormant volcano and is very mountainous, home to excellent hiking

It was a bit of a splurge for my hotel, Juliana’s, and the balcony view was every bit it was billed to be. Juliana’s is located in Windwardside, one of several small communities on the island. I chose to be based here because it has most of the amenities like restaurants, supermarkets, and tour agencies. One of those, Sea Saba, was my first stop once I was unpacked. I had contacted them prior to arriving about signing up for one f their snorkeling trips. They are a diving outfit and we’re very upfront with me. They said they take out snorkelers on their dive trips only when conditions are favorable. They pulled up the current conditions online and said Monday looked like my best chance. They told me to have Juliana’s call them Monday morning to confirm if conditions would indeed be favorable enough.
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The view from my balcony at my wonderful room at Juliana’s in Windwardside

I have to admit that I am a bit nervous about this. Snorkeling in the open sea is intimidating. I am a moderate swimmer, at best. And as any who know me can affirm, I am deathly terrified of sharks. And guess what Saba is famous for its divers being able to spot? Sharks! Yes, I know these are usually black-tip reef sharks that don’t attack humans. Yes, yes I am aware that I have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than being munched by a shark. Phobias aren’t rational, though. I am more than 50% sure I will pee myself if I actually spot a shark while I am snorkeling! Still, I hope I can go Monday. You believe me....right?
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The well-maintained Mt. Scenery Trail - the most popular hike on Saba

Next up was up, up, and further up. The most popular hike on Saba is the aptly named Mt. Scenery Trail. The mountain’s peak is not only the highest point on the island, it is the highest point anywhere in the possessions of the Netherlands. The trail is very well maintained, and consists of a mix of stone steps, the mountain’s rock, and judicious spots of concrete. Still, it is slippery in some spots with vegetation and considered a “Difficult” climb on their trail system. The trailhead is a couple hundred yards from Sea Saba’s offices. I had been in a bit of a quandary on how to dress for Saba’s hikes. Should I bring hiking boots? Are shorts good enough, or should I wear long pants? There was very little information online, and even contacting the organization that maintains the trails didn’t get the response I needed. As it turns out, hiking boots would have been the best choice.I didn’t bring them and was instead relying on my Keens hiking sandals. The shorts were fine on Mt. Scenery, but I think some of the other ones may require long pants (I brought my lightweight pants with zip off legs, thankfully).
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The view of the Saba coastline as I hike up and up the Mt. Scenery Trail

The hike was grueling, every bit as “Difficult” as they labeled it. My legs were pretty rubbery by the end, but I feel fine as I type this later this evening. I was happy for the sections with rope or guardrail hand holds. It was slick From the halfway point when you enter the Cloud Forest. The official word on this hike is that the top is usually enshrouded in clouds, and you rarely see the killer views that you would otherwise on a clear day. It was a relatively clear day, though. What’s better, every group of hikers that I encountered coming down said the views were amazing. It was a great day to hike Mt. Scenery. I had also heard the views can come and go from the summit. One moment clear, one moment socked in with clouds. It was a roll of the dice, and so far all the players I’d met were winning!
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More views looking down from the Mt. Scenery Trail

As I neared the top, I spotted a bit of mist closing in on the island. Oh, no, I tried to hurry, but this was the steepest part of the trail. And sure enough, as I closed in on the summit, I found myself in a Cloud Forest. All around me, the greenery was cloaked by a thick fog of mist. There were actually two separate viewpoints at the top. The one near the communication tower that looked down on Windwardside wasn’t 100% cloaked. Occasionally, bits of the coastline would spring into a fuzzy focus. Other times, the gray curtain would totally block off my view. Since the views “come and go,” I waited about 20 minutes before heading to the other viewpoint. It was even worse. Gray clouds swept silently past in an unending parade of disappointment. Every single hiker that I met while climbing had seen great views. Me? Nope. I rolled a “1,” as my gamer friends would say.
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Wouldn’t you know it? Clouds close in and ruin my view from the top

The trudge downhill seemed even longer and more grueling than I expected. I would have sworn that I should have finished the hike 20 minutes earlier than the three hours it took. Still, it was exhilarating. The views hiking up before the capricious clouds closed in were magnificent. I saw a decent amount of wildlife - speckled lizards, black snakes, and even a goat who was desperately trying to avoid the “culling” going on here on Saba. Apparently, they don’t have natural predators and their population is getting out of control. Some trails are closed certain days while hunting is taking place.
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One of the speckled lizards who watched my hike upward, looking at me as if to offer, “Crisp?”

My shower in my awesome hotel room felt wonderful, and it didn’t bother me much that the cloud cover had turned to rain showers. I look forward to four days on Isla Nublar, and as I type this, all the Jurassic denizens are serenading me. Tomorrow is a new hiking adventure, one that hopefully ends better than Mt. Scenery did today. Come back to read further adventures as I try to avoid being eaten by sharks or other prehistoric denizens of this island I had never heard of before.

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:25 Archived in Caribbean Netherlands Comments (0)

France Opens 'Travel Eyes' of 18-Year-Old Backpacker

I finally start to understand travel is sometimes about meeting people

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It was getting on towards dusk when the ferry set me on the docks at Boulougne. So far, my high school friend Brian and I had been misfiring on our travel adventure in the summer of 1981. Three days ago, we'd left the United States as high school graduates eager to backpack across the world. We'd given our mothers gray hairs by declaring we weren't sure WHEN we were coming home.

Our foray into England had been a mess. Rain and dismal camping weather had driven us to abandon that country without seeing much. Brian was all for "rushing through Europe" and heading towards the third world. I felt as long as we were there, we should take some time to see Europe. The split came on the docks with me walking to the youth hostel alone while Brian searched for another thicket to spread his sleeping bag in. Sleeping under the stars every once in awhile is nice, I'd said, but sleeping with the bugs every night was too much.

It was in France, traveling alone, that my travel eyes really began to open. The next day, after purchasing an obligatory bottle of wine, loaf of bread and some cheese, I marched off along the coast. I spent a few afternoon hours on a beach in Ambleteuse deciding the French looked an awful lot like us. Still in my "sleep cheap" mode, I shuffled off to find accommodations as evening approached. The priest of the church pointed me towards a door, where I explained my "plight."

Within an hour, I was at a house eating a free dinner alongside a bunch of volunteer health care workers. Their building, which sheltered handicapped French men, had a spare bedroom and took me in. A Scotsman who worked there befriended me and suggested an evening cafe excursion. A night of wine and new friends made traveling look less bleak than it had a few days ago.

The next morning, with a free breakfast to add to my lodging, I was off down the road again. I fell in with an Algerian girl, both of us hitchhiking to Dunkirk. She was going to visit her brother and I wanted to see the famous beach from World War II. We got along well, so once we arrived, she invited me to spend the night at her brother's. It was a fun night. There was a music festival in the square. After listening for awhile, we decided (of all things) to go bowling. Her and her brother were up early the next morning. He was off to school, she was headed home and I walked to the Dunkirk Youth Hostel, where I'd spend the next evening. Knowing we'd never meet again, we hugged, and said our goodbyes.

That day I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of mementos of the famous evacuation of the British army during World War II. It was a nice beach, though, so I wasn't TOO disappointed. Tomorrow, my road would take me to Belgium. I was happy with my tiny slice of France. Hopefully, the road would continue to bring new friends, new sights, and new experiences.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:54 Archived in France Comments (0)

Pleasant (and One Scary) Memories of Luxembourg

Early taste of Roman ruins and animal encounters

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I visited this small, European country as part of my "hitchhiking across Europe" tour in 1981. Memories fade, but I remember the capital city where I spent my first night as a pleasant, clean place. I dined in an outdoor cafe with a Welsh guy I'd met when checking in at the youth hostel. We discussed each other's traveling plans and walked around, admiring different views the city. Luxembourg seemed like a very "livable" place.

The next morning I got a ride to Grevenmacher, a town near the German border. I believe its name comes from the number of ancient, I think Roman, graves and their markers on the site. I walked around and studied them, puzzling through the German descriptions as best I could. Strangely, one thing I do recall quite clearly is that the youth hostel owners had a cat. I remember awaking in the night to the sound of its purring -- like an engine in its throat -- getting louder and softer as it explored the roomful of sleeping travelers. I can still hear that weird sound as it slipped past my pillow in the stillness of the night.

I had a different sort of animal encounter the next day. I was hiking across the border to Trier, Germany. The road ran through a thick section of woods that gradually constricted to an almost tunnel-like passage. Just as I began to think how dim it was getting and how long it had been since a car passed, I heard rustling among the trees to my right. Some animal was moving through the dried leaves and underbrush. From the noise of its progress, it appeared to be going parallel to me. Was it stalking me? My first thought was, "Oh shit, wolf!" The rational part of my brain told me it was doubtless a squirrel. Alone, and on a dark road through the woods, is not where people are their most rational, though.

However, I never found out what it was. A car appeared behind me, going in my direction. I stuck my thumb out and it stopped. I hopped in and escaped the forest wolves and the country of Luxembourg altogether.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:50 Archived in Luxembourg Comments (0)

Friendly German Schoolkids Brighten Visit

Youth hostels in Germany were cozy & inexpensive places to stay

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The thing I remember most about Germany in the summer of 1981 was the friendliness of the school kids. Groups of them seemed to be in all the youth hostels I stayed in during my backpack across Europe.

The friendliest batch were the schoolgirls I met in Trier. They saw me inking in my sign for the next day's hitchhike and descended upon me. They peppered me with questions about the United States, eager to practice their English. Then, they decided they each wanted an American pen pal. To my friends back home eventual dismay, I described each of them in detail, offering them up. As one of the girls picked each one, I duly gave away their addresses. A girl from Hamburg became my pen pal and we wrote for quite a few years.

Besides Trier with its Roman ruins, I spent nights in Saarbrucken, Mannheim, Weinheim, Karlsruhe, Ulm and Memminghem. I think the best was the three nights (the max you're supposed to stay in a hostel) in Weinheim. The Rhine-Neckar valley around Weinheim was dotted with castles. I picked up a regional map at the tourist office that showed each's location. I hiked to them all, exploring their grounds, reveling in their stark, weathered look. These were the first castles I'd seen. As a military history buff, I was captivated.

The youth hostel itself was nice, too. There were only four bunk beds per room. Each pair of rooms shared a shower, although both had sinks for washing up. There were ping pong tables, a "walk on" chessboard and numerous other amenities. The cost in deutsche marks translated to $5 a night, which included breakfast.

On a less positive note, I remember a hungry Sunday in Memminghem, in Bavaria. I'd lost track of the day of the week and didn't exchange enough for the weekend. So, I had to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my last few marks. I walked to all the grocery stores, checking prices and figuring out how to get the most food for my money. Lunch and dinner were bread, butter and water. Some may laugh and say "what kind of vacation is that?" However, I feel that inside each of us there is a soul that determines what kind of person we are. Privation, hunger and hard times can HONE this soul, make it sharper, clearer. The medieval monks felt the same way and fasted regularly. Anyway, I awoke the next morning eager to break my fast at the hostel's breakfast. Despite having plenty of food left over, they would not let me have "seconds." Each guest was given his strictly prescribed portion. The knot of hunger would not be untied until that afternoon, in Austria, when the banks opened and I could exchange money and gorge myself.

The strict and precise character of the Germans and their penchant for following the rules to the letter left a sharp memory. It impressed on me that, though we may look the same, there are distinct cultural differences between ourselves and people of different countries. That said, I can add that it reminds me of a joke I heard in the youth hostels. If a driver comes to a red light at an intersection in the middle of the countryside, and no one is around for miles, does he wait for it turn green? The answer: An Irishmen will never wait, an Englishmen will half the time, and a German will ALWAYS wait.

That joke, and the memory of the friendly school kids and castles of Germany, has stayed with me forever.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:39 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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