The Caribbean Unplugged
Just a daysail away from some of the Leeward Islands’ hot spots, St. Eustatius has much to offer cruising sailors—lush scenery, vibrant reefs and a laid-back vibe.
The strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang clearly through the old Dutch fort. Sung so sweetly by the young islander, after “Het Wilhelmus” (the Dutch national anthem) and “The Golden Rock,” St. Eustatius’ anthem, it was surprising. After all, here we were on a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, 1,200 miles from U.S. soil. Yet the 3,500 occupants of Statia (as St. Eustatius is colloquially called) claim a unique and affectionate connection to the United States.
During the American Revolution, Statia was one of the fledgling republic’s few shipping connections to Europe. Munitions and supplies trafficked through the then-bustling port were pivotal to the fight for independence.
But Statia’s charm lies in more than its rich history. Verdant beauty, treasures on land and sea, and the warmth of the people make the often bypassed island a breath of fresh air in the central Caribbean.
Statia is 33 miles south of St. Maarten—where my friends and I chartered a Beneteau 50.5 from The Moorings—and 8 miles north of St. Kitts. Because of the generally north-south orientation of these islands—including the other nearby islands of St. Barts, Nevis and Anguilla—a voyage to Statia promises a spectacular reach in the easterly trades.
Statia is about 5 miles long and 2 miles wide, and a 2,000-foot dormant volcano known as the Quill (kuil being the Dutch word for pit) dominates the landscape on the southern end. Halfway down the coast on the western, leeward side are the harbor and anchorage, beneath Fort Oranje and the picturesque capital village of Oranjestad. Statia definitely has a laid-back vibe—you won’t find five-star resorts, overpriced cocktails or a haughty attitude here, but you will find plenty of authenticity, warmth and charm.
Although nearly 5,000 miles from The Hague, Statia is a municipality of the Netherlands, stemming from colonization in the 1600s. Despite its diminutive size, its central setting and proximity along trade routes made the island a prominent hub for shipping and trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. So prosperous was this lush mountainous paradise, it was called the Golden Rock. As a Dutch colony, Statia was a free port, where ammunition, food and supplies were traded to American revolutionaries, despite the British Royal Navy’s attempts to blockade shipping. Statia was critical to America’s battle for liberty.
Four months after the Declaration of Independence, when the brig Andrew Doria arrived at Statia’s shores flying the new American flag, the cannons at Fort Oranje greeted the ship with a cannon-fire salute. It was America’s first official recognition by a foreign nation, and duly noted. Statians take pride in their part in America’s freedom, and that day—November 16, 1776—is still celebrated annually with a street fair, fireworks, contests, and displays by schoolchildren.
Visiting Statia is easy — the entry fees are modest, and Oranje Bay, which is the only anchorage, is fairly protected from the prevailing conditions. You can tie up at the 250-foot pier (with prior arrangement) or pick up one of the dozen yellow mooring balls. Mooring fees are $10 per night or $30 a week, whether on a buoy or at the dock. Because the anchorage is a fairly open roadstead, in rougher conditions it may be advisable to use your own tackle to anchor behind the breakwater, where you’ll find good holding in the sand.
There is a sizeable new dinghy dock, which is also the site of lobster feeds and other events promoted to encourage tourism and mingling among islanders and visitors. To the right along the rubble road, at the entrance to the pier, is the harbor office (monitors VHF 16/17) where guests can register and fill out paperwork. To the left is the St. Eustatius National Park Foundation. It oversees both land and marine preservation, has information on Statia’s natural wonders and will collect related (but modest) usage fees. And it has toilets and showers that are serenaded by frogs and geckos.
From here, continue north along Lower Town past ruins softened by time and greenery. Tumbledown warehouses tell of a thriving haven of the 1700s, where 20,000 inhabitants once lived. These days, stop at the Old Gin House for a cocktail and Wi-Fi; settle into one of the plush chairs beneath a lazy ceiling fan, and catch up on the world. Gentrification has a solid foothold here, with eateries like the Blue Bead Restaurant and several shops along the way.
One-third mile north of the pier is a stone lane on the right that leads through rustling trees up a hill. It’s a steep and somber trek along a path well worn by the thousands of slaves marched along this route hundreds of years ago. Arrive at the crest at Fort Oranje and Statia’s only town, Oranjestad, on a bluff between mountainous bookends. Many of the village’s 18th-century brick buildings are still standing, and the quaint historic museum points out these and other notable features. Upper Town also holds a surprising number of restaurants for such a small community, including superb Chinese food at Sonny’s Cantonese Restaurant. Duggins Supermarket and several other small grocery stores are open daily for reprovisioning (however, hours are slim on Sundays). Currency on the island is the U.S. dollar.