The Shortest Commercial Runway in the World with the Longest Name
So you’ve finally booked your ticket to come visit our little island paradise, Saba. We can’t wait to welcome you!
I’m sure you can’t wait to experience the lush greens, the one road, the friendly people, and the perfect weather. I expect you’ve even done your homework in booking one of our island hotels. You’re not here yet, though.
So what can you expect before setting foot on Saban soil?
You’re going to be flying through Sint-Maarten (SXM for short) for a brief stopover and then you’ll continue on to Saba’s Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport. You’ll see Maho Beach just before landing, which is the beach where tourists gather to watch and feel planes land and take off, the beach where tourists stand in line of the jet blast of a departing plane, the beach where tourists are subsequently being flung onto the sand or the road. Locals either enjoy watching them get their comeuppance (sand in their eyes) or are annoyed by the dangerous traffic situation they cause and for risking their lives, despite the warning signs and fencing.
Now it’s time to land at Sint Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA). You’ll feel the big bird losing altitude and closing in on the landing strip. You’ll feel it first tentatively touching the runway with one paw, feel it bounce a bit, then it’ll let gravity take control. You’ll hear the churning of the engines to brake and feel your body being pulled forward. With it, you’ll quickly forget the several hours of being uncomfortably close to strangers inside a flying tube, eager to disembark and feel some tropical sun on your dry skin. The plane will glide through the air and over the runway heavily, gracefully basking in the golden sun. This is your Cadillac: slow, comfortably rolling, confident in its bulk.
During the hurricanes in the longest September of 2017, SXM’s airport got hurt badly, but kudos to them: services were up and running within a month. At PJIA, you now have an air-conditioned space where you can pay heed to the ground stewardesses hollering in the PA system for boarding, pre-boarding, or lost travelers.
Before you know it though, you’ll be shepherded into the bus that is going to take you to your plane – the only plane that can take off from Saba’s short airstrip. Take in the faces of your fellow travelers, take in the views of the runway and the beach beyond, and feel the air-conditioning in the bus blast icicles into your hair. You may wonder about this contrast in temperature. As you think back on the big bird Cadillac you were just in a few hours ago, it’s time to be herded out of the bus and lay eyes on your mode of transportation to Saba:
Welcome to your card board box.
This ain’t no Cadillac. This sure as hell ain’t no big bird. This is a Fiat 500, a sparrow – no, a bumblebee, your Twin Otter de Havilland. You may have thought you were uncomfortably close to strangers before, but welcome to a new level of intimacy! Your knees will push into the seat in front of you, pinning you so you can feel the knees of the person sitting behind you. There’s no avoiding it – the side of your butt and your leg will be touching the person next to you. There will be no room for your bag, which all of a sudden will seem grotesque and overflowing.
On this flying bus, no more than 19 people can fit on board. This is including the captain and co-pilot. You will hear nothing because of the racket. You could potentially see a lot… if only you could crouch to look out the tiny, low window. You will, however, feel and smell everything. Is that pepperoni you’re smelling? Is that lady seriously carrying a Domino’s Pizza box?
Gather your wits – that deafening din and the overpowering pong of kerosene means the cardboard box is getting ready to move, making its turn onto the runway. Mid-turn, as easy as one, two, three, and almost like an afterthought, you’ll find yourself in the air. The noisy box will make a turn to the right and if you look down, you will see the light blue of Simpson Bay making its way to a darker hue. As the plane straightens, settle into your seat, and exhale to enjoy the full 12 minutes of the flight ahead of you. In this plane, you will feel every gust of wind, every drop in altitude, and every itch of the pilot. You will begin to understand what it would feel like to be a hummingbird in a storm. One upside: the kerosene smell will by now have vanished through the cracks in the plane.
If you’ve done your homework, you’ll be sitting on the starboard side of the plane, as Saba will appear on that side. After spending 12 minutes above the ocean, you’ll spot the cliffs. Take note of how hostile the island’s shadows look and how there are actual houses perched precariously close to the edge of said cliff. If you look down, you’ll see white foam hugging rocks. You may wonder, why on earth did any human ever think of colonizing this rock? But trust me, you will soon understand.
Without warning, the din will weaken and the plane will seem to come to a standstill mid-air, yet the runway will still be quite a few stretches ahead of you. The more anxious among you may imagine the choppy ocean washing away underneath your feet. You’ll see the X that marks the spot on the 1,299 ft. airstrip. You’ll pray the plane lands on the X. This card board box, your best friend, your buddy, the vehicle responsible for whether you live or die this instant, will then plummet out of the sky, with alarm bells ringing from the cockpit. The rest happens in a flash and moments later, you’ll have come to a standstill on the shortest commercial runway in the world. Overcome with relief, you won’t know if you should applaud the pilots or cry. Happiness is really all you feel. You’ve made it. You can now breathe and enjoy the scenery from where you’ve landed.
Welcome to my rock, friends. Your Saba adventure awaits.