Destination: SABA, Netherlands Antilles

Saba’s road less travelled

Winding, hilly 14-km route one man’s impossible dream

By DIANE SLAWYCH -- Special to the Sun

The Bottom, Saba's capital, is located in a bowl-shaped valley. -- Photos courtesy of Netherlands Antilles Tourist Board

Flying into this Caribbean island is a unique experience. Ten minutes after leaving St. Maarten, our small plane lands on a solidified lava flow (Saba’s runway) and stops just metres away from the edge of an oceanside cliff!

Is this pilot error or precision landing? It’s the latter. Saba has one of the world’s shortest commercial runways. Builders couldn’t extend it beyond 400 metres because it’s the only flat stretch on the 13 sq. km island.

“Thank God for the lava flow,” sighs Glen Holm, who works at the tourist office in Windwardside.

The mountainous terrain that makes Saba so spectacularly beautiful has also posed a formidable challenge for builders of the island’s transportation routes. Locals built the airport in 1963 even though Dutch engineers had long maintained the island was too steep and rocky for such a project.

Years earlier, they said a road would be impossible too, but Josephus “Lambee” Hassell proved them wrong. With no training, he obtained information from the International School of Correspondence in the U.S and in 1943 designed and supervised the building of a road from Fort Bay to The Bottom.

Over the next 20 years, 14 km of road were constructed without any machinery — only a wheelbarrow. Now it’s possible to visit all of Saba’s four villages in one day.

A particularly notable stretch of The Road, as it’s called, leads out of the airport and has an incredible number of hairpin turns around a near vertical slope. About half way up is the Holy Rosary Roman Catholic church, located, oddly, at Hell’s Gate Hill.

From here, there’s an excellent view of the airport where you can see a large “X” at either end of the runway — a warning to pilots that the airstrip is restricted to short takeoff and landing prop planes only.

Meanwhile , in a community centre behind the church, you can buy and learn more about two of the island’s most famous products — Saba Spice, a potent rum liqueur and Saba Lace, a type of Venezuelan handwork introduced 100 years ago.

From the Hill we descend to The Bottom, the island’s capital, located in a bowl-shaped valley. There’s an attractive government building here, as well as a medical school with 300 students, a church and an old foot path called the Crispeen Track. Later, we stop to see a plaque on a stone wall along the road that says simply: “In memory of Josephus Lambert Hassell 1906-1983, eng ineer of t his road ‘that could not be built.’”

The road is still in remarkably good shape, probably because there aren’t many cars using it. The population is just 1,424.

As for tourists, they don’t come for the beaches. There aren’t any. But the diving is superb and you can hike to the island’s highest peak. And, if you’re looking for unique accommodation there’s Willard’s of Saba, an upscale property, located so high up a mountainside that most taxis won’t even attempt it.

In the villages, the houses are white with red rooftops and the shutters are painted red, brown or green — the colour code enacted in law.

At one of these homes in Windwardside I meet longtime resident Marguerite Hassell. Seated in a rocking chair, her Saba Lace needlework in hand, she remembers life before the road and the steep 45-minute hike to work everyday. By the time the road was completed, the post office where she worked relocated closer to her home.

Wells Bay

Back in town I explore the shops and am surprised to discover “Lambee’s Place” — where Hassell once lived. His cottage with an outdoor kitchen stood where the bakery is today. A friend bought the property in 1992. You can read about The Road’s history here and see a photograph of Hassell wearing his trademark pith helmet.

Thanks to “Lambee” I won’t have to walk to the airport today. I’ll be driven there on “the road that couldn’t be built.”

Saba and Mt. Scenery

Saba (pronounced “SAY-ba”) is the smallest island of the Netherlands Antilles and is easily reached by air or sea from St. Maarten.

Saba’s highest point is Mt. Scenery (877 metres) a dormant volcano in the middle of the island that is also the highest point of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Views of The Road, which winds for 14 km thorugh Saba's hilly volcanic landscapoe. Many people thought it couldn't be built.

The round-trip hike takes about three hours, following the 1,064 stone and concrete steps. Along the way are ferns, begonias, palms and orchids and at the summit, a mahogany grove.

There are six identifiable ecosystems in all. Staff at the trail shop in Windwardside can provide further information.

This story was posted on Thu, November 16, 2006

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