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Leeward Islands

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, Saint Eustatius and Saba

Leeward Islands, Saba - View from Mount Scenery

On Saint Eustatius you can climb a volcano, The Quill, and on Saba Mount Scenery. The Leeward Islands are perfect for an active vacation: snorkeling amidst sponges, fish and sea turtles. At Pinel Island there even is a snorkel trail. And then there are the restaurants in Grand Case, the beaches of Sint Maarten, the faded glory of Oranjestad and the lively inner harbor of Marigot.

Text and photos: Marianne Bekkering

Leeward Islands, Saint Martin - Lizard

We begin our tour of the Leeward Islands on Sint Maarten. Sint Maarten is a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, since 2010. We stay our first three nights here, but in the French part: Saint Martin. The Dutch part of the island has too many highrises, large hotels and casinos for our taste, while the French part is also much friendlier.

Our hotel is near Grand Case, the culinary capital of St. Maarten. Its main street is lined with restaurants, varying from an open-air BBQ-place, where you can eat tasty spare ribs at a table on the sidewalk, to the best chefs of the Caribbean.

In the past, Grand Case was a sleepy town surrounded by cotton plantations and saltlakes, but more and more old wooden houses were converted into restaurants.

We have a great view of the sea from our room. A warm breeze, the lights of the next town in the distance and the sound of waves rolling on the beach: life is good..

Leeward Islands, Saint Martin - Bananaquit

When we wake up the next morning, we see all kinds of birds, lizards and beautiful flowers in the hotel's garden.

Leeward Islands, Saba - snorkeling at Grand Case

We go snorkeling in the bay in front of the hotel before we explore the town. We are disappointed to find out there isn't much coral here. We assume the sea is too shallow here and we'll have to dive deeper. But we see pretty fish in all colors of the rainbow, who leisurely swim ahead of us.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Parrotfish at Grand Case

We have dinner at café Calmos in Grand Case, where we order tapas, mostly fresh fish, with our feet in the sand. Everything is brought to our table and it's all delicious.

Meanwhile the sun disappears behind the horizon. When we walk back to our hotel, we look at the wonderful starry sky above us.

Saint Eustatius

Climbing The Quill in the shade of trees

After three nights on Saint Martin we move to St. Eustatius. Statia, as the locals call the island, is only 60 kilometers away. We try to find a ferry, but the only transportation is by Winair plane.

Leeward Islands, Saint Eustatius - Hummingbird

The flight takes less than half an hour. From the air we see the volcano, and next to it the plains where the tobacco, cotton and sugercane plantations used to be. With it's 21 km2 it's only a small island, but it used to be a very busy place.

Downtown is on the waterfront and in the past it was densely build up with warehouses and bars and brothels for the crews of ships that docked in Oranjebaai (Orange Bay) in the eighteenth century. Their merchandise was tobacco and sugar, but also slaves. Nowadays the island has only 1,800 inhabitants, who live mainly from tourism and oil transshipment.

Leeward Islands, Sint Eustatius - Parrot

We stay at the Kings Well Resort, a small hotel on Orange Bay near Oranjestad. The owner clearly loves birds. She has some large parrots who are free to fly around and everywhere are feeders, which obviously attract many birds. Lots of bananaquits but also many hummingbirds.

There also are two Great Danes and lots of cats in all sizes and colors. And again we have a great view of the sea.

Leeward Islands, Sint Eustatius - Fort Oranjestad

We walk to Oranjestad. On the way, walking along the sea, we sea remains of houses. One of the old warehouses that stood by the sea is restored, but apart from that, everything looks dilapidated.

Leeward Islands, Sint Eustatius - Canon in Fort Oranjestad

We take the slavepath to the uptowm where the fort is and a few restored buildings around it. Next to the fort is a kind of stairway, which drains the rainwater and prevents the fort from tumbling down because of erosion. It's remarkable how nice everyone here is.

The next day we walk the Crater Trail on the volcano The Quill. It isn't hard to find: you can see the volcano everywhere on the island.

Leeward Islands, Sint Eustatius - Coralita along the Crater Trail on The Quill

Just before the beginning of the path coralita, a beautiful weed, overgrows the ground. The path itself is very accessible and pretty. You walk there in the shade of trees and the path is well marked with colored stripes on rocks.

We see some Caribbean soldier crabs and a non-poisonous racer snake, but apart from those we don't see many animals, nor hear many birds. One of the trees that grow on the island, the gumbo limbo, is also called tourist tree, because of its red, peeling bark.

Leeward Islands, Sint Eustatius - Tourist tree along Crater Trail on The Quill

Closer to the edge of the crater the path gets somewhat steeper, but is still accessible. The trees here are thicker and higher. Once you're at the summit, you have a wonderful view of the large crater, with a diameter of 300 meters and a periphery of two kilometers. We sit down on rocks and enjoy the fantastic view before we walk back.

It's also possible to descend into the crater, but there's a sign that says you shouldn't do that without a guide. We decided to hike without a guide, so we could walk at our own pace, if only to have time to take pictures.

Leeward Islands, Saint Eustatius - View of the crater of The Quill

That evening we have dinner on the hotel's terrace. Oranjebaai/Orange Bay is not only dilapidated, but most restaurants are closed, too, with some giving the impression that they have been closed for a long time. Honestly, we are a little disappointed. But it's nice on the hotel's terrace, the wine is good and Laura has some chocolate cake she baked yesterday.


snorkeling among sponges, fish and sea turtles

Leeward Islands, Saba - Santa Cruz Trail

We take a flight form the diminutive airport to Saba, with a transfer on St. Maarten. On the way we see a huge rain shower, which the captain avoids by steering around it. After 15 minutes we already see Saba right beneath us.

Landing on Saba is a spectacular experience. There are supposedly T-shirts with the words: 'I survived landing on Saba'. The runway is only 400 meters long and the only level piece of land on the island. We can hear the brakes strain and not far from the end of the runway we stop and turn.

Saba is a gem. Small, with a 4 kilometers diameter and only 2,000 inhabitants. But it's wonderfully green and the white houses with red roofs are well maintained. Actually, the island is just a volcano which rises straight up from the sea. But there is a lot to be seen on the island if you like hiking and nature.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Santa Cruz Trail

The wind blows usually from the northeast and drives clouds toward the volcano, so on this side it rains relatively often, which makes for a beautiful and green world. The winds are the northeastern trade winds. The southwest part of the island is drier and the rocks are bare there.

The road is steep and I understand now why you are advised not to rent a car, but take a tour of the island by taxi. The roads are not only steep but also narrow, so if you're driving you don't get much of a chance to enjoy the scenery.

Until 1947 there were no roads at all on Saba, just paths and steps. The Sabans used donkeys as means of transportation. It was assumed impossible to build roads on the island. A local carpenter took it upon himself to build a road, which took him 15 years.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Santa Cruz Trail

The Juliana Hotel in Windwardside is a great place and our room has a view of the sea. It's evening and we go looking for a restaurant in the village of Windwardside. We pick Brigadoon, housed in an old Saban house and specialized in fresh fish.

The next day we go for a hike on the Santa Cruz Trail, which leads from Hell's Gate around the volcano to The Bottom. This used to be the only way from Hall's Gate to Mary's Point, but nowadays it's just a wonderful hiking trail around the volcano. The hike takes two hours on paper, but because of the beautiful surroundings it may take much longer. It took us four hours.

During our walk we see everywhere around us beautiful, large elephant's ear, tall tree ferns and all kinds of flowers, moss and lichen. And lots of bromelias and other epiphytes. All of this in a stunning tropical rainforest. I'm in heaven.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Eucharist lily along Santa Cruz Trail

We hear birds, but unfortunately see very few of them between the dense foliage. We begin our hike at 1 PM. Not usually the best time for a walk in the tropics, but because of the altitude it's nice and cool here, and of course we also walk in the shade of trees. It's very doable.

Every now and then the path is rather steep and I am glad I am wearing my hiking boots. The walking stick isn't a luxury, either.

On the way we also have a view of the short runway where we landed yesterday. And we see beautiful flowers. At home you sometimes see those in exquisite bouqets, but here they grow in the wild.

Leeward Islands, Saba - view of the runway from Santa Cruz Trail

The next day we go snorkeling at the southwest edge of the island. We booked a snorkeling excursion at Scout's Place Dive Centre, because you can't get in the sea from the coast (there are no beaches here), so you have to be taken by boat to spots where you can snorkel or dive.

First we take a taxi to the southeast of the island and then we go to the snorkel sites by boat. There are strong currents and at the first location only certified divers are let off the boat. We wait for half an hour and then are taken to the second location, where we can snorkel.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Hawksbill sea turtle

We get into the water as fast as we can to explore the shallow rif. There is a little more coral here than in the snorkeling site at St. Maarten. I also see two hawksbill sea turtles who swim ahead of us leisurely.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Coral

The current is strong to begin with, and also increases, which makes one of the participants sea sick. Another one can't get back to the boat because of the current and is fetched by one of the diving instructors. We are both experienced swimmers, so the current doesn't bother us at all.

The next day we climb Mount Scenery. With its 877 meters it is the highest point of The Netherlands, because Saba is just like Saint Eustatius a 'special district' within The Netherlands. The peak of Mount Scenery is often hidden within a ring of clouds, but today it's clear.

Leeward Islands, Saba - View of village while climbing Mount Scenery

There are 1,064 steps to the top and we climb the mountain at an even pace. When we are halfway, we have a great view of the villages below us.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Elephant's ears, Mount Scenery

Around us we see large elephant's ears, tree ferns and all kinds of flowers, but to be honest, I think the hike we did the day before yesterday was better in terms of landscape. It's because of the steps: the Santa Cruz Trail feels more natural. At the top of Mount Scenery is only a small patch of cloud forest.

The way back goes a lot faster: it takes us only 40 minutes to walk down.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Toadstools, Mount Scenery

Saba is often visited on a day trip from St. Maarten, but this doesn't do justice to the island. We stay four nights and still haven't seen everything and haven't hiked every trail that's worthwhile.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin

Lots of bays and beautiful beaches

Leeward Islands, Saba - Redbilled Tropicbird near the port

After a lunch of quesedillas and guacamole in the flower garden of the hotel we take a taxi to the port, where we board the ferry to Sint Maarten. It's the same port where we took a boat to go snorkeling.

Also this time there are redbilled tropicbirds, with long tails, who nest in the rocks around the port.

Leeward Islands, Saba - Departure from Saba

The sea isn't too quiet and the boat bounces up and down. We get in the front of the boat and enjoy the ride, next to the female helmsman.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - Beautiful seaweeds, seen while snorkeling

On the way we see flying fish who really jump meters high. One of them is caught by a large seabird during its jump. After an hour and 10 minutes we are on St. Maarten again.

We take a taxi to our hotel near Grand Case and have a wonderful dinner in the hotel's restaurant by the sea: pasta with shellfish and shrimp.

Today is another day of snorkeling. We see beautiful kinds of seaweed, in which sometimes airbubbles hang which look like pearls.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - French grunt

It looks beautiful. The yellow and white striped French grunts are the fish we see maost, but there also are wonderful blue fish, long, almost transparant garfish, and a barracuda, a predator with sharp teeth.

We also see a lot of sea urchins with long, black needles. If you step on them by accident, you're in trouble: the needles break off easily and are hard to remove. If you swim without flippers, you have to pay attention, because the sea urchins are hard to see amidst the see weeds.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - Barracuda

Apart from all there is to be seen, it's just wonderful to let the waves rock you and look down. The water is rather chilly and a long hot shower afterwards is a good idea.

The next two days we rent a car for a tour of the island. St. Maarten is both on the Dutch and the French side a pretty, green island with rolling hills and at the center of the French part is one high mountain: Pic Paradis.

Nature in St. Maarten is not as overwhelming as it is on Saba, but there are many bays and beautiful beaches. St. Maarten/St. Martin is most famous for its beautiful, wide and snow-white beaches.

We drive up the Pic Paradis, at the center of the island and its greenest part. It's a very steep road and our rental car just makes it in first gear. On the way we see three monkeys cross the road.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - View from Pic Paradis

When we're at the top we park the car and walk 5 minutes more to the summit, where the views are stunning. On one side there is Orient Bay, on the other side we see the towns of Marigot and Phillipsburg.

We drive on the westside of the island via Marigot to the Dutch part. Phillipsburg is near the airport; it has no personality and it's a cold place with highrises, large shopping malls and casinos.

There are stark contrasts between rich and poor in this city. The houses in the backstreets of Phillipsburg are diminutive, while near the sea there are large hotels and luxury apartment buildings, owned by foreigners. The beaches are noisy and crowded. Maybe also because of the four huge cruiseships that are docked in the port. We have a quick snack and then leave. Not our kind of place.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - Near Orient Bay

We drive to Orient Bay via the other side and stop every now and then at a beautiful spot by the sea.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - Red snapper on the market in Marigot

The next day we explore Marigot. We walk past lots of luxury yaughts that are docked here to the market, which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. First we take a look at the touristic part and then continue on to the real thing: lots of vegetables, fruit and fish.

We chat with people and then walk through the town to the inner harbor, which we liked so much last time we were here. It's still a lively place and we have a drink in one of the many outdoor cafés, with a view of the boats.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - Inner harbor Marigot

From Marigot we drive toward Pinel Island, in the northeast of St. Martin, a little north of Orient Bay. Immediately after our arrival the ferry leaves for the island.

Leeward Islands, Sint Maarten - Fish near Pinel Island

We brought our snorkel gear and walk straight to the part of the island where there is a snorkel trail. We don't see much coral here either, but there are many fish who get very close. They seem just as curious about us as we are about them: every now and then I have to swim backwards to get them in focus.

After we finish our snorkeling adventure, we warm ourselves in the sun, on large hot rocks, because the water is chilly. Then we visit Karibuni, a recommended restaurant in a quieter part of the miniature island and have some delicious tapas. Bananaquits fly around us and we have a nice view of the sea. Our vacation is over, but we will certainly come back another time.

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