Statia is a little island that might restore your faith in human nature

The Quill volcano hasn't erupted for 1,700 years, but it looms over Oranjestad.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on December 15, 2011. I’d love to learn to scuba dive and head back to St. Eustatius.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

ORANJESTAD, ST. EUSTATIUS—If you’re a dreamer prone to losing a wallet in a crowded bar, this is your Caribbean island.

And if you come to Statia — an affectionate local name for this outpost of the Dutch kingdom — visit Franky’s. It’s fun, meals are excellent and affordable, and staff and patrons may bolster your faith in mankind, as they did mine.

“You see?” a laughing Lennox Roach says as he drives me — complete with wallet, cards and cash — back to my hotel.

If you run into shipping agent Lennox Roach on Statia, say hi for me. He's a cool guy.

After the night’s first exit, a customer spied my wallet under a chair and gave it to the bartender. Upon my frantic return, owner Franky Gibbs held it aloft, grinning broadly.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Roach says. “That’s Statia, my friend!”

Earlier, I’d gently chided Roach, a Trinidad-born, Venezuela-raised shipping agent who had the apparent naivete to claim his adopted land is crime-free. I still say crimeless Utopias are impossible, human nature being what it is. But I know now that Statia’s special, and not just because locals leave cars unlocked, keys in the ignition.

It seems the world must have long bypassed this island, and the ruins of Oranjestad’s exotic past are further proof. Surf rolls into kilometres of tumbledown warehouses, while up the cliff sunlight bathes the interiors of a Dutch Reformed Church and the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest synagogue.

Ruins of the Honem Dalim synagogue are impressive. Jewish merchants played a key role in Statia golden age.

Clearly, this obscure place was once important.

“As a boy, I played pirates down there,” historian Walter Hellebrand says, pointing from the heights of Fort Oranje to the beach and stone walls that housed cannons when Europeans continually fought over Statia. (From 1636 to 1815, flags changed 22 times.)

“Conquests of Statia were front-page news in Europe,” says Hellebrand, a former documentary filmmaker who came home to focus on the story of his birthplace. “This was the Caribbean’s busiest port. Now, nobody’s even heard of the place.”

Statia rose under the Dutch as a free port and hub for repackaging, allowing businesses to circumvent the mercantilist era’s restrictions on trade beyond one’s empire.

“Plantation owners and European manufacturers loved that you could buy or sell anything here, quickly, anytime you wanted,” Hellebrand says. “The warehouses were stocked with every imaginable product. It’s been called Pompeii of the Caribbean, because of the ruin. I’d compare it more to Carthage.”

Statia was a gathering place for the emerging West, with a population at least three times the current 3,500. Many languages were spoken, and a significant Jewish community contributed greatly to Statia’s boom.

Strolling the upper town with Hellebrand, the island’s director of monuments, it’s tough not to think of former inhabitants. Pirates and spies, prostitutes and barkeeps, soldiers, sailors and slaves knew these streets. Little imagination is needed to sense the ghosts.

But Statia was also where Americans acquired arms for their revolution, which indirectly scuttled Statia.

“It’s ironic,” Hellebrand says. “Our national holiday (Statia Day) celebrates, in part, the salute given an American ship (Nov. 16, 1776). It’s considered the first foreign recognition of U.S. independence, but within 40 years, the very establishment of the free-trading U.S. made us obsolete. We fell off the map.”

Being bypassed has advantages. Hellebrand, Roach and others say if trade had continued or mass tourism had come, relics of the past would have been destroyed for redevelopment.

“Statia’s not for everyone,” Roach says. “Our hotels are all small, but guests get to know their hosts,” he says, mentioning Scotty Newton of Statia Lodge, who picked me up at the airport, and Laura and Win (Piechutzki) at the Kings Well resort, where macaws visit guests at breakfast.

Macaws were introduced to the island by the owners of the Kings Well resort, but they've naturalized.

Statia attracts 4,000 tourists a year, mostly European divers. But there’s growth. The Old Gin House, a hotel and restaurant in a former sugar mill, and Mazinga on the Bay, a gift shop and gathering place rebuilt from ruins, have triggered waterfront interest. Many hike the Quill volcano’s rainforest crater or take in views from the rim.

Statia is also a rare pedestrian-friendly island, and not just due to a lack of crime. There aren’t many cars and I never saw one go faster than 30 km/h. They can’t and they don’t have to.

Hellebrand, meanwhile, says he has nothing against a company that wants to expand a largely hidden oil terminal into a visible area of Statia, “but the plan isn’t necessary and I think most people want to focus on tourism for economic expansion.

“We’ll never be into mass tourism, but we’re unique,” he says. “We’ll never have big cruise ships and white sand beaches, which is fine. We don’t have the infrastructure for mass tourism, but we have a beautiful, well-kept secret.”

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing fly direct to St. Maarten. From there, it’s a 20-minute flight on Winair. Flight-hotel packages can be booked through statiaholiday.com, operated by Authentic Caribbean Holidays, for about $1,600 (all prices U.S.).

SLEEPING There are no big resorts. Country Inn near Zeelandia Beach starts at $50 (U.S.) a night. Housekeeping bungalows at Statia Lodge are $140 and include Wi-Fi and a light breakfast. The Old Gin House, a beautifully restored sugar mill, is $147 to $330 a night. Links to hotels and restaurants are at statiatourism.com.

DINING If there’s an expensive restaurant on the island I couldn’t find it. Smoke Alley does steak and lobster, and has lots of specials. Blue Bead specializes in French and Italian. Original Fruit Tree and Super Burger (not just a burger joint) are good and affordable for lunch or dinner.

GETTING AROUND Nearly everything is so close you probably won’t need a car. Hotels tend to look after rides to and from the airport, though locals walk. If you pick Statia Lodge, you might want to rent a scooter for $20 a day.

DOING It’s a quiet island that’s big with scuba divers, who come from around the world to the marine national park. Hike the Quill volcano, but definitely hire a guide at statiapark.org, especially if you want to descend into the rain-forested crater (full day at $90). Historical walking tours of Oranjestad, for a suggested donation of $10, leave from the museum steustatiushistory.org. Cool Corner is fun for conversation and beer, but the Chinese food wasn’t great. There are only a couple of beaches and the dark volcanic sand gets hot. Currents off Atlantic side make swimming dangerous.