The tropics without the trappings

As I wobbled uncontrollably in the back of our two-engine STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft, the words of my friendly St. Martin taxi driver echoed in my mind: ''Saba looks like a big green gumdrop sticking out of the sea.''

I craned my neck to survey the archipelago of shadows formed by low-hanging fists of cumulus clouds. Nothing.

Suddenly the island loomed out of the mist - more like the head and shoulders of King Kong rising to swat our flea-size plane. Some gumdrop! Six square miles of tropical topiary shooting up 3,000 feet from a glistening, azure plain of Caribbean sea.

Like a Band-Aid on one shoulder, the landing strip was the smallest I'd seen anywhere. It is terrifyingly short (647 feet), with an 80-foot drop to wave-battered shoals at each end. The U-turn, loop-the-loop landing is legend - and as promised, seemed right out of ''The Right Stuff'' (which you had better have if you want to keep your eyes open).

This is a fairy-tale land of lush rain forests, mist-enshrouded summits and valleys, doll-size homes, villages, and tropical fruit: guava, mango, banana, sugar apple, breadfruit. The feeling is all Dutch: gabled roofs, lintels, red roofs, brick chimneys. Small gardens are crammed with large-leafed arums, begonias, and orchids.

Considerably slower than the more touristed islands (''there's absolutely nothing to do here,'' the inhabitants chime), Saba has no casinos, no night life , no high-rises (hotels or condominiums), and no air conditioning. It's the lack of beaches that has kept Saba remote, untrammeled, uncommercialized. It's not that the beaches are rocky, narrow, or hard to find. They're nonexistent. Zilch. The reddish, volcanic rock that formed the island shoots up perpendicularly from the sea.

The flip side of keeping development at bay, of course, is that Saba seems more like a ''real life'' island. The nearly 1,000 lacemakers, farmers, carpenters, electricians, and retirees go about their own business. So when you walk through one of the four towns (Hell's Gate, Windwardside, The Bottom, and St. John's), you are not cajoled by signs, stores, restaurants, or other trappings of tourism. There is, of course, a handful of taxi drivers that cater to the 30-or-so daily tourists - and a few restaurants, shops, and guest homes.

Most of the visitors are like me, vacationers from nearby islands (I heard about Saba on St. Martin, 28 miles away; but just as many come from St. Eustatius, 7 miles; Puerto Rico, 150 miles; and farther). Mine was a $40, 17 -minute (each way) round trip by air. You can also find longer trips by boat by asking at the omnipresent tourist stands in most major towns of all the Caribbean islands.

Saba is fun for the trip itself however you come. Plan on a taxi tour of the island, an assault of Mt. Scenery (about a thousand feet, one hour up and back), and a good meal at Captain's Quarters, Scout's Place, or one of about three other good restaurants. Local specialties are barbecued curried goat, spare ribs , chicken, steak, and lobster.

Most of the inhabitants are transients as well - spending only a few months each year on Saba. Half are black (descendants of slaves). The rest are predominantly Irish, English, American, and Scottish - ''seafaring types, not doctors and lawyers,'' my taxi driver said. An Artisans Foundation promotes and sells silk-screen fabrics and lace garments printed and handmade by Sabans. This work, as well as fishing, farming, and low-key tourism, is the mainstay of the economy.

There is one road up, over, around, and through the island. True to the guidebooks, ''if you are not going up, you are coming down,'' and the taxi drivers earn their money on the hairpin turns.

A team of engineers dispatched from the Netherlands came to the unanimous decision that a road could not be built. They said the mountains ''are too treacherously steep and wild.'' But a native Saban painstakingly ''placed stone upon stone'' to connect every house between the airport and Fort Bay, where there's a new pier and stone crushing plant. It took 20 years.

A miracle of engineering, the narrow, walled road looks like those of hilly San Francisco transported to paradise. Before 1947, when motor vehicles first arrived, there were no roads at all. Just steps.

Columbus discovered the island in 1493, but it was not colonized until almost 150 years later. The early economy was based on sugar and indigo; it nearly stopped in 1850 when the two products declined in world importance. Saba has switched flags 12 times and is now a firm member of the Dutch Antilles.

My visit lived up to the ad copy I read: ''Saba, the unspoiled Queen,'' and ''simply spectacular, spectacularly simple.'' Practical information:

Windward Islands Airways links Saba with St. Martin and St. Eustatius, with three daily flights.

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