Find this artisans’ enclave in the Caribbean: The tiny island of Saba impresses with its natural beauty and creative community
On the descent into Saba, survival is top of mind.
The runway — a 1,200-foot-long strip on the 13-square-kilometre island — is the shortest commercial one in the world. It’s so short that pilots must be specially trained to land the twin otter planes on the Netherlands municipality. It’s so short that when I touch down, there is no visible runway left in front of me.
The passengers on my 12-minute flight from St. Martin are split: Half close their eyes and grip their chairs; the other half have their phones out, trying to document the just-made-it arrival.
But once I land and step out into the sunshine, the reason people risk everything to visit a place touted as “the Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean” is clear: this is one seriously beautiful island. (For the less intrepid, a 90-minute ferry ride will also get you there.)
It makes perfect sense, then, that amid these mountainous peaks surrounded by deep blue ocean, I find artists and artisans everywhere — a mix of Dutch citizens who prefer the island life, and expats who arrived, fell in love and never looked back.
It’s a fact not often mentioned when people speak of Saba. Instead, you’ll commonly hear that the Dutch Caribbean island is a haven for hikers drawn to the cloud and rainforests, and for snorkellers and divers who come for the coral-lined waters. It’s for travellers seeking to get away from city trappings (fast-food joints, skyscrapers and duty-free stores don’t exist here), and for anyone wanting to sink into a pace of life that slows to a drip.
That’s all true, but the luggage at the departure gates — laden with painted ceramics, handmade jewelry and other skilfully crafted souvenirs — tells another story, too. As I discovered, Saba is also a surprise shopping destination, full of creative goods, especially when contrasted with the international, find-them-on-every-island shops on St. Martin.
My first inkling of Saba’s status as an artisan hub comes in the workshop of jeweller Marie Petit, who turns nature into wearable art. Soon I’m following her into the garden where she grows seed-bearing plants like Job’s tears and donkey eye. Once picked and dried, the colourful seeds inspire her imagination, and she turns them into beads for necklaces and earrings. I try on no less than a half-dozen of her designs and happily leave with my favourite — a double-stranded necklace made with sculptural-looking red “stones” plucked from sword bean pods.
Down the road, Jobean Chambers isn’t content with having me try things on at her art studio/gallery. She hands me goggles and sticks of glass, and then talks me through the melting process that allows me to create a necklace of my own.
Trained in Corning, N.Y., and Venice, Chambers now teaches students from around the world in her Saban workshop. In the room is a menagerie of delicate critters — multicoloured mermaids, seashell-backed crabs, floating sea horses — which invite shoppers to try their own hand at craft-making. When we finish our mini workshop, the pride I feel in my simple bright orange bauble shows on my face. I waste no time adding it to the growing collection around my neck.
My next stop takes me to Troy Hill, high above Saba’s capital city, called the Bottom, to meet fibre artist Els Mommers, who shows me her textile creations, a combination of sewing, embroidery and painted fabrics. On closer inspection, I can see the intricacy of her quiltlike wall hangings, which range from rainbow-coloured works to stark black-and-white pieces inspired by the pandemic. Her tulip collection, featuring oversized flowers, is bound for a Paris showcase soon after my visit.
When I arrive at the Studio inside Juliana’s Hotel, artist Anna Keene is hours away from her 70th birthday celebration and already decked out in purple taffeta and white feathers for the occasion. Still, she takes the time to share her eco-friendly process for dying fabrics and prints with plant leaves or Saban wild indigo. She encourages me to return for one of her “booze and beads” nights, where locals and travellers alike join her to craft as they sip wine and cocktails.
The entirety of Saba has only 124 guest rooms available for overnight stays, so most people visiting from St. Martin will need to return at day’s end. But those who can’t squeeze an hours-long workshop into their travel plans can still make time to pop into Kakona, a boutique where island artisans collaborate to sell their wares.
Here, I spy watercolour-painted canvas throw cushions by Heleen Cornet, smell the lemongrass-scented Saban Passion soaps, and can’t resist purchasing a Stacey Simmons ring embossed with lionfish spindles — a unique way to celebrate the invasive species.
There’s a bonus to this particular visit. The shop adjoins the workspace of Saba’s Lace Ladies. There, around a large table, about a dozen middle-aged women and seniors chat while doing delicate needlework pieces, including table runners, pillowcases and handkerchiefs. Their technique is tied to the island’s heritage of Spanish drawn thread work, which dates back more than a century. At one point, 10 per cent of Saba’s population made a living from the craft, exporting it around the world. Now, the Lace Ladies preserve the connection for future generations.
Peggy Barnes, who demonstrates the precision art for me, doubles as one of the island’s preeminent distillers. She offers samples of her homemade Saba Spice liqueur in the back of the shop, and I immediately envision the cinnamon- and clove-infused dark rum over ice cream and lament the fact that my carry-on-only life means I can’t take it home.
A few days in Saba quickly pushes that initial landing anxiety out of my mind. Instead, as I return to the runway for my flight home, I find myself contemplating the way sunlight hits the glass, the taste of sweet liqueur on my tongue, and dreamy regrets for souvenirs left behind.
Writer Heather Greenwood Davis travelled as a guest of the Saba Tourist Bureau, which did not review or approve this article.