A half-day sail from the glitz and glamour of St Barths lays the tiny Dutch island of St. Eustatius or Statia (pronounced Stay-sha) as it is known by the locales.
The first impression is that this island is not your typical Caribbean escape for a sailing charter. For one, if approaching from the north, your first glimpse will be of the 2,000-foot dormant volcano that dominates the southern part of the island.
With the top cone frequently covered in clouds, it looks imposing. Second, as you near the island, enormous supertankers wait offshore to deposit or retrieve fuel stored duty-free in large terminals. Passing by them on a sailboat is rather intimidating and makes you wonder just how commercial is this island. Finally, as you approach the main town and anchorage of Oranjestad, you realize there is no easy access ashore by dinghy. You need to tie up to the ferry dock and literally climb around and over the local fishing and dive boats until you find a footing on the wall to haul yourself up onto.
Well off the beaten path for most sailing charters, for those that make the effort, however, Statia is an irresistible and delightful island. Peace and quiet are what you will find on this small Caribbean hideaway known as, "The Historical Gem." With only about 3,000 residents (mostly of African descent, Dutch and a handful of expatriates eager to share their story), a lack of tourist development, beaches that are less than memorable and a nightlife that is almost nonexistent, Statia has remained unspoiled.
No other island is matched in the friendliness of its people towards visitors. Life on Statia is like taking a step back in time. You will feel the warmth as you are greeted as lifelong acquaintances by the locales, including the Governor himself. It is in this uncrowded and unhurried atmosphere that a visitor from a sailing charter will find the perfect place to roam past the historic ruins of this once proud and wealthy trading post between America and Europe, hike the network of trails in and around the Quill or dive a vast underwater landscape just waiting to be explored.
It is hard for present-day visitors on a sailing charter to imagine that this tiny island once had one of the busiest ports in the region. During its heyday in the 17th and 18th Century, Statia was known as the "Golden Rock." With over 3,000 ships per year, it was the international trading centre for the western hemisphere. As the 18th Century drew to a close, Statia gradually lost its importance as a trading centre and most merchants and planters left the island, leaving their warehouses and homes. In the 1960s and 1970s, the people of Statia realized the cultural value of their unique heritage and initiatives were taken to preserve and maintain their history through the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation and the Marine Park of St. Eustatius.
If you are on a sailing charter, you will most likely stay in Oranjestad Bay. Once you manage to get ashore and check in with the Harbor office and Marine Park Office, you are free to wander and explore the island's rich historical past.
Oranjestad (the only town) is made up of Lower Town and Upper Town. Lower Town, in the harbour area, still has a few remnants of its former glory. As you walk under the cliffs along the mile-long harbour, you can still see the ruins of old warehouses and stores that have mostly collapsed into the sea, although the restored Old Gin House provides a glimpse of what Statia looked like in its heyday. Continuing along the road, you will pass Oranje Beach. The beige and black sand is a good place to rest, and snorkelling along the old city seawalls and ruins are good provided there is not a swell which tends to make the surf rather rough.
Upper Town is where Oranjestad currently exists. There are three ways to reach this sprawling town perched on the cliffs above the bay. The first is to follow the paved harbour road from the Harbor office to the far end - about 1 mile. The road then curves sharply and rises steeply up onto the cliffs and into town. This route is easier by car than on foot. The second route is to climb a few deep stone steps behind the Old Gin House which brings you to the cobblestone "Old Slave Road." This road goes straight up the cliffs.
It is a lot easier going down than up, but if it is raining do not attempt it at all because the road becomes a waterfall. If you are hardy enough to use this route, the views of the harbour below are spectacular. The third route - often used by the locales- is the goat trail. It can be picked up behind the Marine Park Office and winds its way up the cliffs to the top where it stops in the backyard of a neatly painted white gingerbread trimmed house in the middle of town. Make no mistake - it is literally a goat trail. The goats complained bitterly as my husband and I intruded on their path, but they did move.
Statia's once-great past is readily seen in the charming mix of homes, buildings, and ruins of Upper Town. Fort Oranje, strategically situated on the Cliffside overlooking Lower Town and Oranjestad Bay, is the dominant building. It was built in 1629 and restored in 1976. Its canon, peeking through the old stone and brick wall, commands breathtaking views out to sea looking towards Saba. Outside the fort, the beautifully restored Government Guesthouse is now home to the governor and courthouse.
Nearby, the Sint Eustatius Museum, housed in one of the town's many 18th century houses, holds an impressive collection of historical finds ranging from Amerindian pottery and tools to colonial glassware and furniture that provides a taste of the high quality of life the island's merchants once enjoyed. Down an alley, you will find the remains of one of the oldest synagogues in the Caribbean. Built-in 1739, this two-story yellow brick building no longer has a roof and is gradually being taken over by vegetation. A few blocks further, the mid-eighteenth century Dutch Reformed Church is also largely abandoned, though the tower was restored in 1981 and the cemetery around it is beautiful. If trekking up to Upper Town from the harbour is not exercising enough, Statia is a hiker's paradise for nature lovers. By far the most popular hike is up to the Quill, a perfectly formed dormant volcano located on the south end of Statia.
The Quill, designated as a national park in 1998, soars 2000 feet to a perfectly formed crater nearly 1000 feet across. The Marine Park office provides maps or you can take a guided tour with one of the park rangers. A sometimes steep path starts on the outskirts of Oranjestad on the road leading west out of town. The footpath begins in low-level scrub and climbs through dry woodlands and lush tropical rainforest to the crater, about a 45-minute walk away. Considering this is rainforest, the path is one of the most well-maintained trails we have ever been on! The Panorama Track at the top has breathtaking views overlooking the entire island, as well as views of St. Barths, Saba and St. Martin.
The Quill National Park has many species of endangered and rare species of flora and fauna, including at least 17 different kinds of orchids, the Antillean iguana, the harmless red-bellied racer snake (found only on Saba and Statia), the Bridled Quail-Dove (found only on Statia), exotic black and yellow striped butterflies and purple and orange hermit crabs that look like rolling stones as they tumble toward the sea inside their shells to reproduce before making the arduous return journey back up to the crater.
As well as hummingbirds, there are at least 54 recorded species of birds chirping and flitting through the forest. Once you catch your breath at the top, you can climb down into the crater itself, although since the path is not always easy to follow, it is best to do this with a park ranger. Hikers will find remnants of once cultivated planters' crops such as coffee, cocoa, and cinnamon trees, as well as bananas. An alternative hike is along the slippery Mazinga Trail, with a spectacular view of St. Kitts and Nevis. It is advisable to start out hiking the Quill early in the morning while it is still cool and before the afternoon clouds shroud the volcano top.
Be advised that this is an energetic hike. There are no picnic tables, water fountains or outdoor toilets. If you are the adventurous type, however, this is an exciting and unspoiled way to discover a unique park. Just bring water and perhaps an energy bar. The history of Statia does not end on land. It is one of the few locations in the world that offers coral reefs, walls, archaeological and modern wreck dives in such close proximity. Between 1775 to1800, Statia was the busiest seaport in the world with over 3,000 ships landing per year. With this volume of shipping traffic, it is no wonder that quite a few never left the surrounding sea. There are an estimated 400 shipwrecks around Statia resulting from hurricanes, fires, war, poor maintenance and deliberate sinking. Through both the Statia Marine Park and the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research, American and Dutch archaeologists have conducted extensive work defining the primary anchorage area by carefully mapping the artefact concentrations spread across the seafloor as well as identifying around 40 sunken vessels.
When visiting Statia on a sailing charter, you can choose between near-shore archaeological sites and those that are further offshore. Near Lower Town, just a short swim from shore, snorkelers and divers can view the centuries-old stone seawall and explore partially sunken warehouses built along Oranje Bay. The sea bottom is scattered with old ballast stones and other historical remains of the Golden Rock era. Now completely covered in coral, you can find cannonballs, clay pipes and even the blue glass trading beads in popular use during the 18th century. In deeper water, accessibility is only available to divers.
As every artefact is important to learn about the history of Statia and to ensure that divers do not remove anything from the shipwrecks, diving is only permitted if you go to a local dive shop. There are 3 PADI dive centres located in Lower Town happy to assist in your underwater exploration. There are approximately 30 dive sites around Statia ranging from 30-200 feet.
Visibility often exceeds 100 feet with water temperatures averaging 78-84 degrees. Some of the more spectacular sites include:
Double Wreck: This site is marked by two separate ballast piles from a Dutch ship, sunk between 1720-1730 and an English ship, sunk in 1760. It is surrounded by reef populated with the slipper and spiny lobsters.
Triple Wreck: This site consists of two coral-encrusted wrecks lying just 150 feet apart.
Doobies Crack: This site is a large cleft in the face of an underwater reef complex with a sand bottom about 100 feet.
Anchor Reef: A large anchor about 14 feet long and sitting upright is found here. There is an extensive variety of corals, fans and sponges, as well as lobsters, sea turtles and many varieties of fish.
Barracuda Reef: This site is a 400-foot vertical ledge.
The Wall: This site is found at the base of the Quill. A steep system of coral pinnacles starts at 90 feet and drops vertically 900 feet or more into a trench. You will see an abundance of sea life here including large fish such as blacktip sharks and barracudas.
Other dive sites include the Drop Off (a phenomenal wall); Five Fingers (a series of lava covered reefs); Gibraltar (a pinnacle which rises from great depths to just below the surface); and Stenapa Wrecks (a 45-foot tugboat that is part of an artificial reef). Whether you want to dive a pinnacle, a reef, a wall, wrecks, or an archaeological site, Statia has it all. With all the exploring on or offshore, you no doubt will develop an appetite. For a tiny island, Statia has a huge amount of restaurants. With virtually no nightlife, according to Chris Doyle, "the oilmen need something to do."
Food ranges from the obvious fare at Super Burger; American and Tex-Mex at Smoke Alley; German cuisine at King's Wall; French and Creole food at Blue Bead; numerous Chinese restaurants, and local dishes at Golden Era Hotel. My husband and I found prices to be extremely reasonable and the amount of food generous. In addition, like everyone we encountered the restaurant's owners were beyond friendly and accommodating. The owner of the Chinese Restaurant offered, "You no like my food, you no pay." (Our plates were clean). One of the co-owners of Blue Bead made us delicious mango and banana milkshakes after our return from the Quill, even though he was between the lunch and dinner hours. And while we were dining on delicious seafood at the open-air patio of the Golden Era, one of the oilmen came in mentioning he had a craving for lasagna. Within an hour, he had a huge plate set before him- served with a big smile!
For those on a sailing charter who like a sense of adventure, Statia is a historical gem of a Caribbean island. Whether exploring the ruins of its Golden Rock period in Oranjestad, engaging in a wonderful hiking experience in the Quill National Park or diving and snorkelling over the wrecks, walls, and remains of the 17th and 18th century, Statia is a friendly, peaceful place off the beaten track. Book your sailing charter and discover this hidden treasure of the Caribbean for yourself.
By Donna Wolfson