St. Martin & Sint Maarten

I lucked out more than once with accommodation on the island. First, I found an amazing couchsurf host on the French side that had a car and an interest in running on beaches, dining out and gambling for free drinks. I stayed with him at the start and end of my trip, and only had to pay for one night in a hostel which turned out not to be a hostel, but a crew base for yachtees. If I wasn’t working boats, I was a tourist, and was supposed to pay for the expensive hotels and resorts, but I accidentally snuck thru the cracks to pay $40 a night for a bed instead.

feasting on the beach

I did a bit of kayaking, beach lazing, swam with horses, watched planes land and take off at SXM and got lost amongst the cruise ship crowds every once in a while. I tasted some rum, rented a few beach chairs, and enjoyed pampering myself without having to drive anywhere (the island has great public transportation).

Great Bay beach, where the big cruise ships dock

I wanted a manicure and pedicure at the same time, and found a salon in Philipsburg where two latina girls were free to do both at the same time. I cringed in my seat as the cut, shaped, filed and exfoliated every digit, drawing blood a couple of times, but they were so into singing along with the Spanish gospel music playing from their phone that they didn’t notice me holding my breath.

swimming with horses

Whether you’re on the Dutch or French side, it’s a hit or miss what language to approach people in. Most spoke to me in English, Spanish or French, but drivers would also answer in Dutch and Creole, so it’s a wonder how much must get lost in translation, or never said at all. The French side had more exclusive Frenchies, white and wrinkled, sunkissed Metropoles who can’t speak a word of English and never let a dollar pass thru their hand – they live in a mini France, in French, with Euros and their Carrefour supermarkets, filled with delicacies and wines only from France.

Maho beach under the airplanes

The island is still re-developing from the disaster of Hurricane Irma, and dozens of buildings remain roofless and abandoned. Entire hotels have literally blown away, at least substantial bits of them, and parts of the facades or building frames stand like haunting reminders of the power of mother nature. Debris and dirt are still scattered anywhere that doesn’t matter, since people have seemingly given up trying to clean up all the mess – it barely seems possible, especially knowing the hurricane season will come back again and again.

yet another perfect beach

Saba, the unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean

Saba was my favourite, not surprisingly, but unexpectedly. It’s tiny, with one road going thru it, which has to go up and over from the two main coastal entry points: the airport on one side, or the ferry port on the other.

I loved Saba

The rest of the island’s coast is barely reachable, as Saba is basically a massive mountain rising straight out of the sea. Cliffs all around it’s edges keep the inhabitants inland and uphill, and the two major towns are simply ‘Windward’ and ‘The Bottom’, which is more like the only flat-ish part in the middle.

panoramic of Saba’s typical hilltop, red-roofed villages

Hiking trails circle the mountain, connecting towns and parishes and the few accessible shores. There’s no beaches, so jumping in the water can be done at the bottom of the ‘The Ladder’ trail (if you dont get swept away by huge waves on the rocks) or the harbour where boats share the port. The only thing resembling a beach was beside the airport, but the tide pools in the rocks below the runway were more appealing.

playing the conch shell by the airport cost to start our cross-island walk

We did a cross island walk, nearly 10km, one morning, which is just up up up for the first hour and a bit, then another hour just cruising back down, with a stop at the ‘top’ of Windward side. The top top of the island is Mt. Scenery, which marks the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom at 887m. You can hike to it in just under 2 hours from Windward side, but I stopped short at Mas’Cahone’s hill viewpoint since the peak was covered in misty clouds.

tidepools

Saba was clean, green and full of trails, an absolute hikers paradise. My favourite trek was the Sandy Cruz trail, which wraps halfway around the mountain from Upper Hell’s Gate to Troy’s Hill. Just after you reach the trail end, you’ll pass Queen’s Gardens Resort where you can opt for a $27 gin and tonic to cool down, or you can carry on down to ‘The Bottom’ and start hiking back up and over along the Crispeen Trail.

Mas’ Cahone’s viewpoint

The biggest highlight I missed out on completely – Saba is a diver’s dream. If you like underwater adventuring, this island has even more there than on land, at least so I’ve heard, so dont only go there for the landlocked nature.

Statia, aka Sint Eustatius

St. Eustatius is the second smallest Dutch Island in the Caribbean island, at only 20sq. km with 4,000 inhabitants. Once upon a time, it used to be the center of commercial trade in all of the colonial Caribbean, and flourished in the late 18th century with 20,000 inhabitants. It’s a volcanic island between St. Kitts and St. Martin, but part of the Netherland Antilles, along with Bonaire and Saba.

The Quill volcano crater from the sky

Arriving at the old shack that is the EUX airport is somehow very welcoming, and being able to walk from there to anywhere on the island makes things comfortable, but the casino across the street was weird to see. The most memorable feature of Statia is The Quill crater, visible from St. Martin and St. Kitts and anywhere in town, and hiking from Oranjestad up to the top of it is an easy climb doable without a guide. Just don’t forget to pay the $10 park fee at one of the National Park or Dive center offices in town.

charming colonial Oranjestad

Other charming sights were the new, blue street signs, marking even dead end, gravel driveways with names in bold, caps font. The names ranged from Basil, Rosemary and Oregano to Stinging Thyme Road, Papaya and Watermelon Road, some names of men, and my personal favourite – Fatpork Road. Only the streets near the old town had Dutch names ending in ‘weg’, and I heard Dutch-looking people speaking Dutch there, but mostly everyone else spoke English or Spanish. The ruins and history were rich close to Oranjestad, with roads, forts and colonial buildings dating back to the 1700’s.

the fort at Oranjestad

Statia is the kind of town where everyone says hello in passing, wither with a wave or a good morning. Some men even yell from their cars, adding in a ‘beautiful lady’ to the salute. St. Eustatius is actually famous for what America calls the ‘first salute’ – back in 1776 during the American Revolution, not only did Statia trade arms and weapons to strengthen the rebellion, but they were the first country to recognize the 13 States as their own country!

sunset from Statia

There are plenty of cocks and bull dogs, both nice enough from afar but the cocks start competing their morning cockadoodle at 5 and the dogs are kept tied up, probably because they’re dangerous enough to be used in dog-fights. Cock fights probably happen behind closed doors, but the island was going through an awareness campaign against domestic violence and child abuse. There was also a Center for Common Sense, where people of all ages can drop in to discuss life or philosophize, so maybe an animal rights movement can start there to help the cocks and bull dogs.

at the top of the Quill

The mosquitos are tiny, almost too small to see or hear, but they bite just the same and damn do they itch. I always noticed the bite after it was too late, and swelled up like I had chicken pox all over. There weren’t many tourists, but the ones I saw were probably divers. There wasn’t much of anything going on, but the café Para Mira was a popular lunch place with top notch food. Other hotels and restaurants were mostly empty, and tourism was a lazy pastime for locals to entertain only once in a while. My airbnb host, who I never met, was one of two people who rented on the island, and they probably affect the few hotels and their competition in a big way… but during Carnival they all fill up for sure.

trail markers in Quill National Park

If you need an excuse to visit Statia, don’t let it be for the chinese corner stores and american cars, but the abundance of hiking trails up, down and around the Quill. Bring your camping gear and mosquito nets if you want an off-the-beaten-track adventure!