A rare Caribbean island where beaches aren’t the draw – CNN

Saba (CNN) Saba should have an inferiority complex.

A scarcity of cruise ships and beaches -- short of a seasonal sandy strip that comes and goes with the tide at turbulent Wells Bay and a petite man-made curve of sand at Cove Bay -- may explain why Saba isn't a major tourist draw.

Yet, the gregarious Sabans, many with an ancestry dating back to the island's European settlement in the 17th century, hardly feel excluded. Rather, they treasure their unsung island paradise that's home to both sedate and exhilarating sights and activities, which only a cadre of mostly hard-core divers and hikers have discovered.

Awestruck with air travel

Saba's 1,300-foot runway is often classified as the world's shortest commercial runway.

Courtesy Saba Tourist Board

A few moments after departing Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten, Saba rears its head as a dark pyramidal massif. The Winair Twin Otter prop plane flies directly toward this mighty, but dormant, volcano, with nary a flat surface to be seen.

The experience becomes hair-raising after the plane turns sharply: A wild, precipitous landscape fills the cabin windows as the plane parallels sheer, towering rock walls.

With your adrenaline levels surging off the charts, the pilot touches down precisely, jamming on the brakes and allowing the plane to roll ever so close to the precipice, before veering toward Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport's terminal.

Meet and greet

You'll be embraced as a member of a big family on Saba, an intimate island of just over 2,000 people that welcomes visitors with its small town sense of community.

Stop at an intersection with your vehicle's windows rolled down and you'll likely hear a local shout, "Welcome to the island."

In Windwardside, the main commercial village, even ambulance drivers starting their shifts will yell, "Good morning!" as you stroll by. Forget your change at the market, and the cashier will chase after you.

Should you look lost as you wander about, it's likely a car will pull over, the driver offering you a ride to your destination.

Bizzy B, a tiny Windwardside bakery/coffee shop/cafe, is a prime gathering spot, especially in the early morning when, as you sip a latte and nibble a scrumptious warm apple turnover in the outdoor plaza, you'll hear residents catching up on the news, whether a painter has taken ill or a shopkeeper went off island for a wedding.

Navigating through nature

The peak of an extinct volcano, Mount Scenery, is the island's highest point.

Courtesy Saba Tourist Board

Almost two dozen trails thread Saba's rugged surface coated with rainforest, volcanic rocks and abandoned farmland.

The most popular hike requires trudging up more than 1,000 slick-when-wet steps to the misty summit of Mount Scenery, Saba's signature sight, where a magical cloud forest awaits.

Another path enchants those who thrive on the vertiginous: Mary's Point Trail, named for one of the island's first settlers, courses along a bluff edge past the ruins of a village, abandoned because of extensive erosion.

Not all trails strain the body or mind, however. The Big Rendezvous and Bottom Mountain trails are both relatively mellow, where the fertile land is peppered with lemon, orange and other fruit trees, and different types of hummingbirds and other species flit about.

Colorful and glittery baubles

In addition to baubles, the island is home to Saba lace, also known as Spanish Work, and Saba Spice, a rum-based liqueur.

Plunging to the depths

Cove Bay is just below the airport in Saba.

Courtesy Saba Tourist Board

Saba's volcanic origins created a dramatic and diverse underwater topography that entices experienced divers who gravitate to the area's drop-offs, caves, tunnels and pinnacles (the summits of undersea volcanoes).

The waters are rich in brilliantly hued tropical fish, giant grouper, myriad shark species and other marine life.

The Eye of the Needle, a pinnacle dive site, is a diver's Eden for spotting giant sponges and corals, as well as nurse sharks and manta rays. Tent Reef, a rocky ledge, is much loved for night dives where nocturnal marine creatures, such as octopus and spiny lobsters, can be spotted.

Where to eat

Set in an old Saban house with an al fresco terrace, Brigadoon in Windwardside serves Mediterranean/French cuisine with a Caribbean twist. An inventive thread runs through every course, especially the desserts, such as pina colada trifle with delectable layers of pineapple, cream and coconut.

Where to stay

Queen's Gardens Resort & Spa has a pool optimally perched for sweeping island views.

Courtesy Saba Tourist Board

Each of the dozen suites spreads across an entire floor and is complete with an en suite infinity jacuzzi providing enticing views of the sea and the surrounding towering hills. The bamboo-lined Frangipani Spa radiates serenity, offering treatments such as a four-hand massage or a Turkish steam bath.

Dutch owner Hemmie van Xanten gave his property an appropriate name, meaning "taste of the world" in Malay.

After all, the theme of each guest room -- currently just two of them, with a few more to be added later in 2019 -- reflects the culture and history of the countries he's traveled. For example, the Malaysian room displays darts and blowpipes used by the Borneo-based Iban tribe.

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A rare Caribbean island where beaches aren't the draw - CNN

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