It may be small, barely 12 square miles, but the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius punches way above its weight.
Better known as Statia, this rocky speck of just 3,000 people boasts more protected historical sites underwater and on land per square mile than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Its 17-mile offshore marine park was named the best place to dive in the Caribbean by National Geographic. Its dormant volcano and signature landmark is considered one of the most perfect specimens in the world. Had it not been for Statia — once one of the wealthiest ports in the Caribbean — an independent America might not even exist. And where else in the world can you still find a legendary blue bead?
From diving through vintage shipwrecks and hiking into a volcanic crater to luxuriating in a chic eco-resort and reliving the past, here are six reasons I discovered to visit Statia now.
Statia’s tiny size belies its outsized role in history. “The entire island is an open-air museum with 80 stone ovens, 33 known burial grounds, 75 plantations, and ruins all over the place,” Statia’s director of culture, Nasha Radjouki, tells me at the cliffside17th-century Fort Oranje. “For such a small island, it has an abundance of heritage.”
That heritage stems from its unique role during colonial times. Although it was settled by the Dutch in 1632, the island became a free port and major slave trading hub for all the European powers in the Caribbean — French, Spanish, English, Dutch, and Danish.
No other port in Europe or the Americas was as busy as Statia’s in the late 18th century, when a whopping 3,000 ships dropped anchor in the harbor each year. That earned it the nickname, the Golden Rock.
Part of that trade was in weapons. Because it provided the American revolutionaries with enough military supplies to defeat the British, obscure little Statia can claim some credit for the birth of America. What’s more, it became the first place in the world to recognize the newly independent nation when the Dutch governor saluted the American brig Andrew Doria as it sailed into Statia’s harbor. That historic act, which inspired FDR to visit the island in 1939, is still commemorated with exuberant festivities in the national holiday called Statia Day.
As I walk the sunbaked cobbled streets of Oranjestad’s Upper Town with my guide, Gay Soetekouw, she points out the Slave Path, the oldest paved road on the island, built in 1636. We pass candy-colored “gingerbread” cottages on our way to the ruins of the 1739 Synagogue Honen Dalim, reminder of a once-thriving Jewish community. She stops to pick up vintage pottery shards camouflaged on the dirt path. “Look,” she says, “these represent four different countries — Holland, China, England, and the U.S. It just shows how much commerce passed through here.”
Legendary Blue Beads
Thanks to that commerce, Statia ended up with the pentagonal blue glass beads that became emblematic of the island. Merchants used the beads — sometimes handmade by Venetian glassblowers — to acquire slaves from western Africa. Island slave masters then used the shiny tokens to reward the enslaved, who later used them as currency among themselves and sometimes to buy their freedom.
Although these trinkets spread throughout the Caribbean, only Statia’s were uniquely shaped with five sides in cobalt blue. In fact, a necklace of the beads even ended up on the coat-of-arms as a reminder of the island’s dark past.
After slavery was abolished in the Dutch Antilles in 1863, these “trade beads” or “slave beads” became worthless. Legend has it that the newly emancipated — in a moment of triumphant defiance — tossed their beads into the sea to celebrate their freedom. Another theory says a ship carrying quantities of these baubles sank, spilling them across the ocean floor.
Either way, today Statia is only place in the Caribbean to find these heritage artifacts. Or, according to lore, the place where they find you. With beads littering Statia’s seabed, they beckon to divers just as much as the island’s dazzling marine life at sites like the Blue Bead Hole. And if you look closely, they also show up in plantation ruins and on the beach. They’re the only historical items allowed to leave the island. But islanders say that you don’t find the bead, rather, the bead finds you. And if it does, you are destined to return to Statia again and again.
Diving and Snorkeling
As I set off to snorkel Statia’s warm waters, still a bit murky from the previous day’s rain, I’m immediately rewarded with the sight of a sea turtle ambling along the shallow ocean floor. I’m thrilled with my first underwater turtle sighting after years of snorkeling around the world.
But it’s not entirely surprising, given Statia’s fame as a primo dive and snorkel destination. Indeed, Scuba Diving Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Awards ranked Statia No. 1 for Best Wreck Diving, Best Macro Life, and Best Marine Environment.
No wonder. From teeming reefs and historic shipwrecks to boulder labyrinths and steep walls, the island boasts attractions for everyone in some of the most pristine waters in the Caribbean. The encircling National Marine Park, which is larger than the island itself, harbors 36 dive sites and eight intact ecosystems.
Just minutes from shore, snorkelers and divers can be dazzled by a rainbow of tropical fish, corals, sponges, and swaying marine plants. And they can eyeball sea critters such as barracudas, nurse sharks, turtles, moray eels, and stingrays, all unimpressed by human interlopers.
Most dramatic are the remains of more than a dozen long-lost sailing ships, such as a French anchor dating back to about 1750 at Anchor Point, as well as modern coral-encrusted wrecks, such as the Charles L. Brown, a 1954 cable-laying ship and one of the largest underwater ruins in the Caribbean.
Divers still uncover treasures of antique glass, porcelain, and other relics from the island’s trading past. And even the occasional historic blue bead, as happened during my snorkel foray. After a diving companion surfaced from the depths, the rest of us gathered around him as he excitedly opened his hand to reveal a shiny blue bead. “I guess I’ll be returning to Statia,” he proclaimed, with a grin as broad as the ocean.
About halfway up the Quill, an inactive volcano, I pause to observe a cluster of tiny Caribbean hermit crabs clinging to a tree trunk as they feast away on its bark. It’s a made-for-Instagram moment, but not the only one that catches my eye on this 3-hour round-trip trek to the 1,972-foot summit. Passing through several ecosystems to the dense, primeval rainforest blanketing the crater, I notice feral goats, lizards, and swirls of delicate butterflies. Not to mention lush vegetation glittering after a quick tropical downpour. Giant elephant ears, banana plants, ferns, wild orchids (up to 17 types), and twisted, strangler fig trees shroud the steep rocky trail, which is just one of eight that snake up this mountain protected by the Quill/Boven National Park.
Indeed, such hikes — which range from easy one-hour strolls to grueling all-day treks — are one of Statia’s most popular activities. And with good reason. The Quill, named for the Dutch word meaning pit or hole for its crater, is considered one of the most perfectly formed volcanoes in the world. You can even climb deep into its vegetation-choked Jurassic Park-like crater. And if you reach the summit (ropes help hikers along this steepest final part), you’re rewarded with pinch-me views of neighboring islands Saba, St. Barts, and St. Kitts, rising like dark green gumdrops from the sparkling sea.
Nobody visits Statia for pulsing nightlife, glittering casinos, or chic boutiques — there are none. Rather, the laidback quiet and friendly locals are the draw, where an evening out means a meal at a downhome eatery. Such as the popular in-town Cool Corner, which serves Chinese food along with a hangout vibe. Over a drink here, Gay Soetekouw, who’s lived on Statia for 35 years, explains why she loves it. “There are 47 different nationalities and everyone knows everyone else. We don’t even lock our houses. You can’t be in a bad mood here. By the time I get to town from my house, I’ve waved at 50 people.”
Nasha Radjouki, who hails from nearby St. Martin, agrees. “It’s a very humble, unhurried place. When I first arrived, I immediately felt at peace,” she says.
Same goes for South African Chef Eddie Manyenkawu. Even though he’s far from home, “I’ve never felt lonely here,” he tells me at Bobbie’s Beach Club at the Golden Rock Resort while preparing sushi, which he learned to make at Nobu in Cape Town. “What I like is that everybody is treated equally.”
That equality is on full display at the island’s only hopping nightspot, the harborfront open-air Boardwalk Café. Just a cluster of food vendors and bars with a DJ booth, it draws le tout Statia on weekend nights — where a lively mashup of locals, yachties, dive bums, tourists, and Dutch workers mix it up on the canopied dance floor with carefree abandon.
Luxury Dive and Nature Resort
On an island with only a few small boutique hotels, the 3-year-old Golden Rock Dive and Nature Resort is the 800-lb. gorilla. The only full-service, upscale lodging, it sprawls over 40 landscaped acres under the shadow of the Quill. Seventy rooms, villa suites, and standalone cottages dot the grounds of a former plantation. My stylish, well-appointed room in soothing tones boasts sigh-worthy views of the Atlantic from a spacious terrace. Not to mention a heavenly Swiss Sense bed and a deep soaking tub.
Stone paths lace the hilly grounds trimmed with 130,000 tropical plants and trees — hibiscus, bird of paradise, bougainvillea, and fragrant ixora — which attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Two freeform pools facilitate plenty of swim time, important on an island with only a few dark sand beaches and notably rough waters.
You can be pampered in two spa treatment rooms, work up a sweat in the state-of-the-art gym, watch a film in the brand-new cinema, do yoga and pilates, play tennis, basketball, mini-golf, and pickleball — and learn to dive. Opening this year is a state-of-the-art PADI Dive Center with professional equipment and gear, two luxury dive boats, snorkeling guides, and diving instructors for open-water certifications.
Two standout restaurants, provisioned by an onsite greenhouse, draw guests and locals alike: Bobbie’s Beach Club and Breeze, both gorgeous open-air pavilions. For successive meals, I feasted on Caribbean-inflected sushi (thank you, Chef Eddie), grilled-to-perfection spiny lobster, brick-oven pizza, and a lip-smacking seafood boil with lobster, shrimp, salmon, and jerk chicken in Thai curry coconut milk. Yum!
But like Statia itself, Golden Rock also breaks the mold. Some 2,240 solar panels admirably power the entire resort. And it boasts the Caribbean’s largest manmade, ocean-fed lagoon with an American school bus at the 30-foot bottom to serve as an artificial reef for diving practice.
Fitting for an island as noteworthy as Statia.
The former travel editor of USA TODAY, Veronica Stoddart is a multi-award-winning travel writer, whose work has appeared in dozens of publications and websites. She considers travel a force for good in the world.
Written by Veronica Stoddart
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