Tiny Island Offers Big Gay Welcome
By Alex Robertson Textor
Originally published in The Miami Herald May 3, 2009
Saba is an oddity among Caribbean islands. It has no beaches, no all-inclusive resorts, no cruise ship visits, and a mere 90 hotel rooms.
Located a stone's throw from St. Maarten, this Dutch territory measures just five square miles in area, with a population of about 1,500. And while several Caribbean spots have nabbed headlines for discouraging gay travel, tiny Saba has quietly earned a reputation as one of the region's most gay-friendly destinations.
There's not a single gay bar on this quirky island, where villages filled with red-roofed gingerbread cottages have fanciful names like The Bottom, Hell's Gate and Windwardside, but gay visitors have taken note of the island's welcoming spirit and underwater treasures. The island's hospitality providers estimate that about 80 percent of visitors come to Saba to don a wetsuit and peer at sea life -- including gay and lesbian scuba groups organized through gay tour operators such as Alyson Adventures and Undersea Expeditions.
LIKE KEY WEST
''Like Key West, it's a small island that's isolated, so people learned how to work out their differences and get along a long time ago,'' says Alyson Adventures owner Phil Sheldon, whose company has led annual gay scuba trips to Saba since 1998. ''There are many gay Sabans integrated into the community.'' The company's Saba tour draws the most repeat clients of all their offerings.
Although the number of day-trippers to Saba has declined in the economic downturn, overnight visitor numbers are holding steady, says Glenn Holm, the openly gay director of Saba's tourist bureau. ''The gay and lesbian market continues to grow,'' he says, adding that many gay and lesbian travelers have made multiple visits over the years.
Saba offers plenty of activities for non-divers as well. Hiking trails are superbly maintained. The Mount Scenery Stairway takes hikers to the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a strenuous climb that passes through a range of terrains before reaching a lush, 20-acre cloud forest at the nearly 2,900-foot peak. Only one trail, the North Coast Trail, is considered to be extremely difficult to complete without a guide.
Saba also has a beautiful island history museum and quaint souvenirs, like its distinctive local lace, glasswork and a liqueur with bite called Saba Spice.
''Saba is everything that circuit parties are not,'' says Paul Cizek, owner of Tropics Caf?, one of the island's favorite eateries, with his partner Chris Fries. ``It's for gay travelers who are not looking for a party atmosphere.''
The couple, former Washington, D.C.-area real estate agents, moved to Saba in 2008 after vacationing there for years. Both men are effusive about the island. But they're also very careful to describe Saba as a low-key destination for gay tourists.
''It's a live-and-let-live place, but at the same time, it's a conservative place,'' Fries says. Not conservative in a fire-and-brimstone manner, he explains, but conservative in the sense that it's a little place with its own values.
Though Saba has been a Dutch territory since 1816, English is by far the most widely spoken language on the island, and the settlement of the island owes more to the English and the Irish than the Dutch. But it's the Dutch influence that could increase Saba's gay-friendly reputation even further in the next year or so when the Netherlands Antilles -- the political unit to which Saba belongs -- ceases to exist.
Curacao and St. Maarten, two of the federation's islands, will establish their own semi-autonomous relationships with the Netherlands. But Saba, along with its sister islands St. Eustatius and Bonaire, will become fully integrated into the Netherlands as overseas islands -- making the arrival of gay marriage on Saba all but inevitable.
And when that happens, the pretty, gay-friendly island will be perfectly situated to become the Caribbean's first real gay wedding destination.