Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Peace and quiet is what you will find on this small Caribbean hideaway, along with a network of hiking trails and a vast underwater landscape just waiting to be explored.
St Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum
Diving the Marine Park
Silhouetted palm trees at dusk.
Dominated by the dormant volcano called The Quill (1,968 ft/600 meters) with a lush rainforest center, this tiny Dutch island has so far avoided appearing on the beaten tourist track, making it a peaceful place to escape to. Colloquially called Statia, this 11 sq mile (28 sq km) haven, with Oranjestad its only town, has a fount of fascinating tales to tell about a more prosperous era.
In 1775, minuscule Statia was a thriving trading center, known as the Golden Rock, and had as many as 10 ships a day calling at Oranjestad, then a busy town. Janet Schaw, a touring Scottish gentlewoman, strolled along the seafront and recorded her impressions in her Journal of a Lady of Quality: “From one end of the town of Eustatia to the other is a continued mart, where goods of the most different uses and qualities are displayed before the shop doors. Here hang rich embroideries, painted silks, flowered Muslins, with all the Manufactures of the Indies. Next stall contains most exquisite silver plate, the most beautiful indeed I ever saw, and close by these iron-pots, kettles, and shovels. Perhaps the next presents you with French and English Millinary-wares. But it were endless to enumerate the variety of merchandize in such a place, for in every store you find everything…”
This “lady of quality” would have difficulty recognizing Statia today. A few crumbling ruins, some under water, are all that is left of the warehouses and merchants’ offices along the seafront. Things are a lot quieter now.
St Eustatius was “discovered” by Columbus in 1493 and taken by the Dutch for the West India Company during the 1630s. Twenty-two changes of flag later, the island finally succumbed to the Dutch.
Plantations on the central plain - where the airport now lies - gave the islanders a good living, but their jewel was the safe harbor. Well positioned on major trade routes, in the 18th century Statia was made a duty-free port and reaped the rewards. Valuable goods filled the coffers at the numerous local trading offices and the island became a center for the slave trade, too. During the American Revolution (1775-83) arms and gunpowder were smuggled through the island in barrels of rum and molasses via the merchant ships bound for New England - and the population is reported to have swelled to 20,000.
In 1781, after invading St Eustatius, Admiral Rodney is supposed to have found most of his booty buried in the graveyard of the Dutch Reformed Church. He ordered the coffins to be opened after an abnormal spate of funerals had taken place.
Such was the island’s support for the rebellious British colonies in North America that in 1776 soldiers fired a salute when they sighted one of their warships, the Andrea Dorea. This was the first salute ever fired by another land in honor of the recently formed United States of America and moved Statia to the front of the world stage. The Americans were delighted, but, needless to say, the British were absolutely furious.
However, signals of that kind were normally only employed to greet trading vessels, and the Dutch government assured the seething British that they had no intention of recognizing the sovereignty of the USA, so it is not clear whether the guards up in Fort Oranje recognized the importance of the American flag.
Print of the British naval assault on St Eustatius.
Library of Congress
Britain finally settled the score when Admiral George Rodney attacked St Eustatius in 1781 and ransacked the warehouses, banishing the merchants and capturing their ships. He sent back to England £5 million worth of booty. This started a steady decline in the fortunes of the island, and the end of slavery in 1863 finished off the small plantation economy. The population dwindled to less than the 3,000 it is today, and the island’s main source of income is now an oil depot on the northwest coast where supertankers load and unload. Otherwise, the Statians live by subsistence farming, money sent home from relations abroad, and Dutch support.
However, poverty has not prevented the Statians, who mostly speak English, from showing their warmth and friendliness to visitors, and there is very little crime to speak of. They are still proud of their historical gesture and on November 16 each year, they celebrate Statia-America Day, when cannons are fired from Fort Oranje and the islanders get together and sing a hymn that includes the lines: “Statia’s past you are admired/Though Rodney filled his bag/The first salute fired/To the American flag.” The flags of the 13 American colonies are then hoisted above the fort to mark the occasion.
Oranjestad - a fallen town
Not long after Admiral Rodney’s sojourn in Oranjestad 9 [map] a mighty undersea earthquake caused much of the lower part of the town, where all the warehouses were, to crumble into the sea. Now some of the submerged ruins and sunken ships provide great snorkeling and there are plans to restore the parts of the Lower Town left on dry land. The Old Gin House, built with the bricks of an 18th-century cotton gin, is now an attractive hotel and restaurant on the waterfront. The Old Slave Road winds up to the top of the 130ft (40-meter)-high cliff where Fort Oranje (daily), dating from 1636 and restored in 1976 for the US bicentennial celebrations, guards the bay, the cannons pointing at imaginary enemies. There’s a fine view down to the mile-long dark sand of Oranje Beach, Statia’s best swimming spot. Memorial plaques on the fort from Franklin D. Roosevelt and the “St Eustatius Commission of the American Revolution” commemorate the island’s fateful salute.
The shore on the wild northeastern Atlantic coast has a heavy surf only suitable for splashing about in. Zeelandia Beach is 1.5 miles (3km) of off-white sand and good beachcombing. Lynch Beach is smaller and safer, but always ask local advice before swimming.
Creatures of the deep - a green turtle and a French angelfish.
Brenda S and R Duncan Kirby/Fotoseeker
Close by, in Doncker-De Graff House, an 18th-century building once inhabited by an extremely wealthy Dutch merchant during Statia’s heyday, is St Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum (also known as Simon Doncker House; tel: 599-318 2288; www.steustatiushistory.org; Mon-Thur 9am-5pm, Fri until 3pm, Sun until noon). This is where Admiral Rodney made his headquarters for 10 months in 1781 before the French pushed him out. One of the best historical museums in the region, the house gives a genuine feel of what prosperous colonial life must have been like and has some excellent collections of Amerindian pottery, a skeleton, tools used by the early settlers, and detailed documentation of the ignoble slave trade. Excavations at Golden Rock near the airport uncovered a large Amerindian village, with round houses of different sizes, some capable of accommodating up to 30 people, and supported by timbers up to 25ft (8 meters) high set in deep holes. A complete floor plan is shown in the museum. People from the Orinoco region arrived in Statia about 1000 BC, but left in AD 700-1000.
St Eustatius Reformed Church.
The center of town around Fort Oranje is preserved as part of the Historic Core Renovation Project. Many small, wooden houses, typical of Dutch colonial architecture, with arcaded porches and balconies with gingerbread trim, have been restored and preserved.
Honen Dalim Synagogue was burned by Admiral Rodney and the large Jewish population was expelled. Built in 1739, its walls of yellow brick, brought over as ships’ ballast and unusual at that time, enclose a broad, two-story room, but the outside steps lead to nowhere. The walls were restored in 2001 as part of the renovation project, but funds have not as yet been secured for a new roof.
The congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church, the island’s largest church, a few minutes’ walk farther on, also departed with the drop in prosperity. The massive tower made of dark volcanic stone in 1775 is still standing after renovation in 1981, but the broad nave is roofless.
Green giants in the crater
The Statians shot several worried glances at The Quill ) [map] when Montserrat (for more information, click here) started erupting in 1995. Old paintings of the island show massive plumes of smoke above Mazinga, the old Amerindian name for the volcano. Nothing happened, however, and both the slopes and the crater are accessible to hikers. A sometimes steep but largely pleasant path starts in the outskirts of Oranjestad on the road leading west out of town, and continues up to the rim of the crater. When you reach the edge, you can actually descend into it and explore the primary rainforest growing there. Small geckos race across the ground, and tiny hummingbirds dip into the orchids growing wild on the trees. Most startling are the hermit crabs that tumble to the sea inside their shells to reproduce, before making the arduous return journey back up to the crater.
In the early morning, swathes of fog hang above the gigantic trees inside the crater. This is the best time for the 3-5-hour tour with guides provided by the St Eustatius National Parks Foundation (STENAPA, Gallows Bay; tel: 599-318 2884; www.statiapark.org). Some of the ancient trees along the route have been given biblical names by local people. Moses, for instance, is a mighty old tree covered with aerial roots.
Other hikes, all marked on the STENAPA map, are found in the area called Behind the Mountain on the southeastern slope of The Quill, where STENAPA has the Miriam C. Schmidt Botanical Garden (sunrise-sunset, suggested donation), complete with a visitor center, protecting the secret habitat of the rare, endemic, pink-flowered morning glory. In the lonely bush and meadow landscape in the north more trails extend as far as the Boven (964ft/294 meters).
While walking around the island you may come across archeological digs. Statia’s wealth of history is constantly being uncovered, from pre-Columbian times as well as the days of plantations and slavery. The St Eustatius Center for Archeological Research (SECAR, tel: 599-318 0066; www.secar.org) welcomes volunteers to help protect and develop the island’s resources and educate local people and visitors alike.
The rainforest in the crater of The Quill.
Treasures in the deep
Statia has at least a dozen interesting dive sites with a historical slant, and is a very rewarding destination for underwater fans, however experienced or inexperienced they may be. Sometimes an ancient clay pipe may be seen on the ocean bed, but leave it there; it’s against the law to remove historical artifacts. STENAPA has established a Marine Park on the leeward side of the island on the same scale as Saba’s (for more information, click here). Three dive centers in Lower Town offer, among other things, beginners’ courses and snorkeling around the Old City Wall in the bay. Between the ruined walls of Lower Town’s submerged buildings swim brightly colored parrotfish and angelfish.
The boat trip out to the other diving grounds only takes a few minutes. The finest ones are illuminated by the morning sun, such as Barracuda City, where dozens of these silvery glinting fish glide around 65-80ft (20-25 meters) down, beside a miniature precipice. An anchor has been lying here since the 18th century, and there are more at Anchor Point and Lost Anchor. Two wrecked ships at Double Wreck have undergone a sea change over the past 200 years and now stingrays, flying gurnards, and spotted morays live inside their hulls and cabins alongside vast communities of sponges and sea anemones.