The first place to recognize the United States is an island few Americans know exists.
Back when the United States was just a Revolutionary government, it repurposed merchant ships as war ships and used them to transport arms and munitions from the Caribbean. When one such ship, the Andrew Doria, sailed into the bustling Dutch free port of St. Eustatius in November of 1776 waving the American flag, the island’s governor ordered his men at Ft. Oranje to return its salute. It was the first time any foreign government recognized the US flag, and while it later would lead to England declaring war on the Netherlands, the First Salute is still celebrated every year on St. Eustatius.
Despite all that, most people couldn’t tell you what hemisphere it’s in.
Of course, that pleasant anonymity is what makes St. Eustatius (or Statia, as it’s locally known) one of the most alluring destinations in the Caribbean. Because few people recognize the name, much less know where it is, the island has flown largely under the tourism radar since it was the Caribbean’s largest trading hub 400 years ago.
That leaves the stunning nature – where you can hike up a volcano and down into its crater, then dive for blue beads along colorful reefs – mostly untouched and completely uncrowded. And with the opening of a gleaming new luxury resort, it’s easier to access than ever before.
A less touristy Caribbean island experience
If you’ve been to the northern part of the Lesser Antilles, then you’ve likely seen Statia from a distance. It’s the two-humped island in the far distance from St. Barts, and the large volcano that looks like it’s swimming distance from St. Kitts. Statia is a 20-ish minute flight from St. Maarten, too, but because the island hasn’t made much of a name for itself, it has largely stayed off of the tourism radar.
This has been all well and good by the local population, who going about their daily business around the lush volcanic island with nary a visitor. They work their property in the shadow of The Quill, the island’s iconic 2,000-foot peak, then visit their neighbors in the small bars of Oranjestad, and hike in the Northern Hills.
“Statia is one of those places you can still talk to someone. If you have a question just go up and ask them,” says Celford Gibbs, a Statian renaissance man who leads hikes up the Quill, does landscaping, and raises bees on the side. “If you need help, we help you. If you need a ride, we take you there. If you’re hungry, I’ll give you something to eat. You don’t need to be my friend to be fed.”
The only thing even remotely resembling a crowd is at the Boardwalk Café, a popular sundown happy hour spot for locals where you’ll find families enjoying pizza and beer as the sun sets. “Traffic” is when more than one car arrives at a stop sign. And you’ll never find a wait to enjoy a drink by the water in the breezy seaside bars in Lower Town.
It’s a refreshing change from the most popular Caribbean islands where everything caters to tourists. Statia offers a look at what life is like without a visitor-approved veneer. But experiencing this pastoral Caribbean lifestyle has traditionally been a challenge for visitors, as the island hasn’t typically offered much in the way of accommodations aside from a handful of rustic dive lodges and a few local B&Bs.
The new Golden Rock Dive and Nature Resort ushers in a new era for Statia
Late in 2021, seldom-visited St. Eustatius saw the opening of its first luxury hotel, the Golden Rock Dive and Nature Resort at the base on the Quill about 10 minutes from Oranjestad. It makes traveling here a comfortable experience thanks to a full-service restaurant, swimming pool, bar, and forthcoming private beach club.
“We are in the middle of islands filled with hotels, but our [island] is still nature,” says Peter Barnhoorn, the Dutch flower magnate behind Golden Rock. “Nature is almost untouched here, for divers, for nature lovers, for people who want to go rock climbing and hiking. It’s the perfect place to be, and now you can have a nice restaurant and a swimming pool.”
The resort, as it stands now, has 32 rooms in its long, two-story main building facing the Caribbean. Ultimately, the resort will include far more, including a collection of villas, dive “lodges,” and private houses near the water. No view will be obstructed, as the steep hillside serves as stadium seating for the ocean.
The whole project is ambitious, to say the least. And it’s a major gamble on an island that hasn’t traditionally been much of a tourist destination. But Barnhoorn believes once he’s put the place on the map, others will follow. In the future, St. Eustatius could see a similar economic flow from tourism dollars as other Dutch Caribbean islands.
“There has already been interest in buying other pieces of land for resorts,” he says. “We are working with the airport for a jet fueling station so larger planes can come in. We have to be the engine behind it, but the hope is other entrepreneurs will follow, and then the sky’s the limit.”
What to do on Statia: Explore a volcano, inside and out
From the front gate of the Golden Rock, an ambitious climber can immediately start straight up The Quill. For a slightly more gradual ascent, head to the main trailhead in Oranjestad. A path through tropical forest leads you to the top of the crater, where you can look out to distant islands in one direction, and down into the mouth of a volcano in the other.
This is where Statia differs from other Caribbean volcano hikes. Upon reaching the top, rather than hiking back down you can then hike right into the crater. The peak hasn’t erupted in over 1,800 years, so no need to worry about lava shooting up at you. The biggest danger is scaling the boulders along the trek down, though it’s pretty easy for an experienced climber.
Thick trees line the trail, as monkeys and other animals swing by overhead. The crater floor is a welcome slice of flat ground where you can stare up at 360-degrees of mountain around you and enjoy the sunshine as it trickles through the treetops. It’s an ideal spot for a lunchtime picnic, or even an overnight camping trip if you’re feeling ambitious.
For a second day of hiking, head to the island’s other side and Northern Hills. It sits about a 10 minute drive from the Quill and offers a completely different perspective of the island. Here, you can hike along the ridges of Gilboa Hill and past the ruins of old plantations and rum distilleries. You’ll also catch glimpses of surrounding islands in the distance, and wild, deserted beaches below. You won’t find a ton of shade in the Northern Hills, but if you pack enough water this half of the island is the kind of remote Caribbean experience that’s become harder and harder to find.
Dive for sunken blue treasure off the coast of Statia
Statia’s other big natural draw is its diving. While you don’t have to be an advanced diver, the best sites tend to be at lower depths, like the 40-meter Volcano Fingers – stunning rivers of petrified lava that now house colorful corals and seahorses.
Less-experienced divers can still appreciate the wreck of the Charles S. Brown, a 1950s cable laying ship that’s now filled with barracuda. The top if it sits at about 60 feet, and gives you plenty of opportunities to interact with marine life. The coolest thing about it, though, is the abundance of swim-throughs at about 100 feet, so you can poke around and discover the inside of the vessel beyond simply looking at fish.
The most unique thing about diving in Statia, though, is the hunt for blue beads. As local lore tells it, enslaved people on the island were paid in blue beads, and once they accumulated enough beads, they were granted their freedom. When a person was freed, they would then throw their blue beads in the ocean, where many still sit today.
Most local divers will tell you the blue beads on the ocean floor likely come from a ship that wrecked near the island. But they still make for fun treasures should you be lucky enough to spot one.
Most dives leave from Lower Town, the historic warehouse district that was once the busiest port in the New World. Today, the ruins of those 16th Century warehouses still dot the shoreline, interspersed with wine bars and sunset lounges. It’s the odd stretch of Caribbean beach bars that still feels relaxing and unfettered. And even with the addition of a luxury resort, this historic section of the island feels mostly unchanged.
Directly above Lower Town stands Fort Oranje, the place where the U.S. first received international recognition. Its significance, like everything on this island, remains mostly uncelebrated for now. How long it stays this way is anyone’s guess. But for the time being it strikes the perfect balance of remote and comfortable, and might be the perfect trip for island hoppers seeking something different.