WINDWARDSIDE, Saba — When I arrived on this island of volcanic rock in the Caribbean Sea, "the accident" was on everyone's lips.
A day earlier, a French family — husband, wife and three kids ages 9 through 17 — had moored their 50-foot yacht just off Saba's coast and, in 6- to 9-foot swells, tried rowing a dinghy to shore. Almost immediately the waves tossed the woman and children into the sea. The husband stayed in the boat, presumably to right the vessel and retrieve his family. But the waves carried him closer to land until launching him into the rock wall that surrounds the island. He was fished out of the water and flown to a hospital; his family was uninjured.
James Johnson, 58, a Saban native and federal park ranger, recounted this story as we hiked the island's thickly wild North Coast trail in fading afternoon light. Johnson was among those who helped pull the Frenchman from the sea.
"I don't care how experienced a hiker you are or how experienced on a boat," he said. "Saba will put you through the test."
About 150 miles east of Puerto Rico, Saba — pronounced say-bah — was built on the tip of a dormant volcano and therefore has no beach; just rock wall in all directions plunging to the sea. To get anywhere, you basically need to go up or down.
Such a landscape makes Saba a world-class diving and hiking destination. The Dutch island has an easy charm, friendly souls and is one of the most culturally progressive Caribbean destinations. But it also is rugged and unforgiving, with fascinatingly moody weather and a landscape demanding respect.
Visitors have been killed or gravely injured hiking, swimming and boating on or around its 5 square miles in the last few years. But that's not an argument against visiting Saba; it's an argument to find adventure — carefully — because any Caribbean island too wild to host cruise ships is an island worth visiting.
The test begins on the flight over. Saba's runway was built in 1963 on the longest, flattest piece of land engineers could find, and it's not very long — about 1,300 feet at the island's northeast corner. At the end is a 90-degree plunge into the sea. Mess up, and you've messed up dearly.
Supposing you make it through that — and several 20-seat flights a day do — you're in for an adventure. Every visitor has his or her own:
A couple from New York City's Upper East Side came for two days of diving. Another New York couple came for a long weekend to read and relax, but were so swayed by the rugged beauty that they couldn't stop hiking. Two German men, one with a newborn back home, came for two weeks of diving.
"It is very easy and very excellent diving," one said."
My adventure began as soon as I landed. The highest point on the island, Mount Scenery, usually is bathed in clouds, but when I arrived, it was bathed in sunshine. I took advantage of my good fortune and began the island's most popular hike: 1,064 steps built into the earth, leading to the 3,000-foot summit. Backpack filled with water, snacks and a raincoat, I was so excited that I forgot an obvious truth: climbing 1,064 steps isn't easy.
But it was rewarding. I gained views of an endless sun-dappled ocean, the tiny strip of runway I'd landed on a few hours earlier and two of the island's three "towns" — Windwardside and Hell's Gate, both dotted with red-roofed homes. Clouds soon rolled in, and I couldn't see more than 50 yards. But then they blew out.
Back at my hotel, I talked diving with Ina, the German behind the counter. Saba routinely ranks as a top 10 international diving destination. Because I wasn't certified and didn't want to spend three days pursuing that, snorkeling would be my next day's activity.
"You'll see many things," she said. "Turtles and sharks and ..."
She said something else after "sharks," but I didn't hear it. Which she noticed.
"Don't worry about the sharks," she said. "They're reef and nurse sharks, not great whites."
The sharks make this as good a time as any to underscore the fact that Saba is a self-reliant island, given nothing. The man responsible for building the roads learned engineering by a correspondence class. Because there is no groundwater available, all the water is rainwater, filtered into a cistern, then filtered again for drinking and bathing. The island's rule of water conservation, even in washrooms of the most expensive locales: "If it's yellow, let it mellow."
Thus, in such an atmosphere of self-reliance, getting cozy with sharks only makes sense. Alas, no one on my boat of two young French couples, the German guys and me saw a shark. But while the divers combed the sea floor, I bobbed in the water and made a turtle's acquaintance. At first I was quite pleased just to spot the thing, which was about 3 feet from head to tail. But then it kept rising and rising — almost as if coming for me.
Instead it traveled to the surface about 10 feet from me, poking its little head out of the water and gasping. As I watched, it did this four times. The turtle watched me right back, not seeming to mind the audience. It was a reminder of the wonderful, gentle moments to be had around Saba. But I couldn't avoid thinking of the Frenchman, who was injured a stone's throw from where I floated.
That man, by the way, survived. Brain damage has made him stumble over simple words, and he has had multiple skull surgeries, but he is recovering at his home outside Paris.
IF YOU GO:
By plane: Winair, fly-winair.com.
By boat: sabactransport.com and stmaarten-activities.com.
STAYING THERE: Options include Scout's Place, sabadivers.com; Juliana's, julianas-hotel.com; Queen's Gardens Resort, queensaba.com; and Ecolodge Rendez-vous, ecolodge-saba.com, which has no electricity.
DINING: There are about 15 restaurants on the island, including Ecolodge's Rainforest Restaurant; Brigadoon, 599-416-2380; Eden, edensaba.com; and Saba's Treasure, sabastreasure.com.
WHAT TO DO:
Diving: Saba Deep, sabadeep.com; Sea Saba, seasaba.com; and Scout's, sabadivers.com.
Hiking: Saba Conservation Foundation, sabapark.org
MORE INFORMATION: sabatourism.com