Joan Larsen’s Caribbean Adventures: Touching Down on the World’s Shortest Landing Strip

Posted on September 7, 2016

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By Joan Larsen

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Some things in our world never seem to change.  That tiny volcanic island of Saba, only 5 square miles in size and actually hidden in the vast Caribbean, lies only a beautiful 20-minute plane ride from the wondrous isle of St. Martin – but still remains caught in another time.

SabaMapFor years, this island remained our secret.  Or so it seemed.  Friends seemed afraid to take a chance on landing on the world’s shortest air strip.  “Too dangerous,” they would say.  .  . even though the pilots of St. Maarten-based airline Winair have been specially trained and certified to fly the scheduled flights there.   For those of us who love Saba, there is always an air of excitement on seeing that little airstrip come up. 

And so this year we returned, wanting to renew our acquaintance with this mountainous, rugged island and its warm and charming people – many who have been here for 12 generations.  More than you would ever believe share the same last name:  Johnson. 

Once again, our tiny plane broke through the clouds . . . and Saba came into view.  We skirted the Pirate Cliffs and the Cave of Rum Bay, saw the tide pools far below, and the deep green of Mt. Scenery ahead.  Almost upon us was “the shortest runway in the world”.    And yes, our hearts still raced.   The air of excitement remained.  We know it always will.

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Once down, there is a feeling of bliss.  Sheer bliss.  We have returned once again to our secret place.   It does not disappoint.

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Saba.  Saba, the island that is the unspoiled queen of the Caribbean, is virtually unknown, and yet – once seen seems to hover in the mind forever after.  Getting there, however, seems to ward off all but the most adventurous.  Why? Well, its miniscule airstrip is reputedly one of the most dangerous on earth.  Bordered by sea cliffs on three sides while a mountain rears up on the fourth, you find it is small wonder that landing here is very tricky.  Let’s be honest:  you pray the pilot has had a lot of experience in these things!

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Coming in on a very small 2-engine motorized propeller-driven plane, there was no door dividing the cockpit from the few passengers who were enjoying the short run from the island of St. Maarten.  We were laughing, loving every moment  — well, we were until we notice that Saba’s Juancho E. Yrausquin airport’s very very short runway ends on both ends with a cliff that drops into the ocean.

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No one is speaking now.  The pilot must touch down immediately, making an interesting emergency right hand curve quickly to face the shoe-boxed size terminal. The other choice you wouldn’t want him to take is to go off the end of the cliff – and so far that hasn’t happened.  The only accident so far was the collision of a goat with the landing of the plane.  Since that time you will notice the landing strip is fenced in.

Once you see this short-version of the world’s most dangerous runway landing on You Tube that I have found for you, you will surely call this a “don’t miss” trip.

Saba to me?  I think I would called it the ultimate pristine getaway in all of the Caribbean.  The only island that feels untouched.  After landing, you venture out to find a taxi, all lined up and waiting.  You would be absolutely crazy to rent a car as this tiny 5 square mile oasis has only a single roller-coaster road (called “The Road”) that would be quite the experience for the person uninitiated to all the curves.

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This quick look will give you an idea:

Unlike the housing on the other Caribbean islands, Saba has a strict architectural code that I think provides an almost story book enchantment.  Tidy houses with white wooden facades, sloping red roofs, green or black shutters and gingerbread trim just fits into the mountainsides.  The people?  While with Dutch origins from their beginnings as the Netherland Antilles until recently, the people are English speaking, friendly and warm.

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This time it is to be a day trip, a chance to once again climb Mount Scenery… and if I can do it, you definitely can.  You see, much of this volcanic island is a rain forest with Jurassic-sized foliage and with every exotic flower you could imagine. It beckons the recreational climbers (that’s you and me) to conquer the more than 1000 stone steps to its summit.

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It is an absolute “must” – banana plants, mahogany trees, black-eyed susans, colorful birds, and the most darling bashful tree frogs.

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At the top, your head is often in a cloud bank… but the views that day  – well, they took my breath away.

There are some times when we find ourselves lost in dreams of beautiful sun-kissed days on a pristine stretch of sand.  We all have those times.  But there are other times – like this day in Saba – when we stand on the peak of Mount Scenery and feel as if we have been renewed somehow… like something has touched our souls.

And then we feel  blessed.

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JoanAvatar2Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home”.

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