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 10 hiking trails on the island range from a half-hour stroll through the Botanical Garden to the strenuous but rewarding trek up and into the heart of the volcano. Embark early in the morning before the tropical heat sets in. After summiting the lip of the crater (and catching your breath) drop down into a Jurassic Park of giant elephant ears, orchids and bromeliads that share the soil with banana, fig and breadfruit trees — evidence of the 70 plantations that once flourished here. Some of the rare and endangered wildlife that lives topside includes the red-bellied racer snake, Lesser Antillean iguana and red-billed tropic bird.
Wildlife abounds underwater as well. A marine park wraps around the entire 12-square-mile island, embracing a variety of habitat: calcareous reefs and corals; volcanic rock with cracks and fissures; a sandy plateau where scores of queen conch thrive; and beaches where sea turtles nest. Two excellent snorkel sites are adjacent to the anchorage. Plunge off your boat and discover a cannon on the ocean floor from one of the dozens of shipwrecks, amid waters brilliant with an underwater kaleidoscope of tropical fishes, corals and sponges.
Other snorkel spots are off Boven National Park on the northern tip of the island at Jenkins Bay, and in the Statia National Marine Park’s southern reserve at Blind Shoal and Twelve Guns. If you plan to use the Marine Park’s moorings, you’ll need to visit the National Park Foundation to purchase an inexpensive snorkel/dive pass. Scuba diving, however, is allowed only via local dive operators, available in Lower Town.
Recently the residents of Statia thwarted an apparent takeover of the island by a large oil-terminal company. Last year the company, NuStar, was pressing to expand to a site just one mile from Oranjestad, at an important archaeological site. Giant storage tanks already occupy much of the northern end of the island, and a commercial pier and transfer station are obvious on the northwestern shore. But except when approached from the sea, the terminal is blocked from sight by historic Signal Hill. The residents formed a protest movement, and David beat Goliath. In lieu of the terminal expansion, Statia’s Strategic Development Plan pinpointed tourism as a healthy and viable economic growth alternative.
Statia not only wants more visitors to its shores, it needs tourism and the dollars it will bring. In return, the island provides plenty of reasons to visit: hiking, swimming, snorkeling and sailing. Yet aside from the fun and exploration of the island, I found the residents to be its most charming attribute.
My first visit took place during Statia Day festivities, which are celebrated on November 16. Our multinational cluster of sailors was enveloped by warmth and friendliness as we entered the street fair. My buddy Karen even got up on stage for a dance contest, and was wildly cheered by all. We shimmied on the cobblestones with locals, and tossed Frisbees to the children.
My friends and I had frequented a particular beverage stand run by Mona, who had a smile as wide as the island’s Zeelandia Bay. Her sons joined her in working the booth, and all were polite, delightful and attentive. Later in the evening, with the boys in charge of the business, Mona ambled into the streets to join us as we danced in the rain to “Bati’e Aleman,” one of the more popular songs (judging by the frequency of play and the merriment it caused). It was a night long remembered.
When I returned a year later and Mona spied me, she ran out from behind her booth to embrace me. You don’t find that on St. Barts.
Based in coastal California, Betsy Crowfoot is a frequent traveler who enjoys writing about yacht racing, water sports and the ocean environment.