ORANJESTAD, St. Eustatius - Next to the towering kapok tree, Dirk, my conspicuously tall hiking companion, doesn't seem so tall anymore. The skyscraping kapok's yards-wide trunk, covered in wrinkled gray bark, rises and bends like a colossal elephant leg frozen in mid-step.
Or maybe I'm just feeling my own sore knee and projecting. The craggy trail that has led us down here required a tough 15-minute butt-to-boulder crab walk. We're exploring the jungly crater floor of the Quill, the dormant volcano that watches over the sleepy Dutch island of St. Eustatius. (In Dutch, it's Sint Eustatius.) The few people on Earth who know that this isle exists call it Statia.
Dutchman Dirk Groeneboer asks how old the kapok is. "We can't determine the age," says our guide, park ranger Hannah Madden. They're speaking English, the main local language. "There are no growth rings on tropical trees," she adds, "because there are no seasons."
Enjoying the cool, all-day twilight bestowed by the dense forest canopy above, I think of how easy it would be to lose track of time in more conventional ways. With orchids blooming and the kapoks buttressing a heavenly stained-glass ceiling of dappled bright greens, the crater provides a serene cathedral for nature worship. It's not only humans who take refuge inside the Quill. Birds ride out hurricanes in here.
Hannah begins carefully overturning rocks, which wear a dusting of moss that resembles a light coat of lime-colored spray paint. She wants to show us one of the tiny Lesser Antillean whistling frogs that sing the soothing yoo-hoo chirping we can hear. Instead, she finds a creepy-crawly tailless whip scorpion. As befits the tranquil setting, the scorpions lack stingers.
Hannah says that she hopes to uncover an entirely new species one day. It seems possible. Her recent survey found six bee species previously unrecorded on Statia. "It's been my mission to figure out what we have here," she says.
You could say that my five-day visit has a similar mission.
I serendipitously discovered Statia six years ago during a sailing trip with my dad and brother. None of us had heard of the tiny island, which measures just eight square miles, before we saw it on the nautical chart. The only reason for our visit was to shorten the crossing from St. Kitts to St. Barts, but when we cruised into the harbor, I was immediately smitten. The shore was lined with mysterious stone ruins and palm trees, overlooked by a storybook fort complete with cannons. Oranjestad, the island's only town, looked to me like a New England fishing village transplanted to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
Ashore, we were almost dumbfounded when several Statians told us, completely unbidden, that they were glad that we'd come and wished us a nice visit. Not only did they say that - something I've rarely heard anywhere in the world away from a hotel front desk - but they seemed to mean it. I've returned to find out whether I'd really caught a glimpse of the Caribbean Shangri-La.
Up inside the battlements of that storybook fort, expat Kentuckian Gay Soetekouw explains that warmly greeting Americans is a tradition on the island. Officially, Statians invented the practice. "By the outbreak of the American Revolution, Statia was a major trading port," she tells the dozen folks who've joined her renowned historical walking tour of Oranjestad. "There were up to 200 ships in the harbor at one time," she adds, gesturing to the virtually empty waters below the fort. Back then, the island was called the "Golden Rock" because of the great wealth its duty-free trade created for local Dutch merchants. The stone ruins along the shore are the remains of the warehouses that held the goods.
In 1777, the Continental Congress dispatched the naval vessel Andrew Doria from New Jersey on a secret mission: Evade British warships, sail to St. Eustatius, deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the island's governor, Johannes de Graaff, and ask whether he would kindly smuggle desperately needed guns and gunpowder to the rebels. The Andrew Doria announced its arrival the old-fashioned way. "You couldn't send an e-mail, so you fired signal cannons," Soetekouw says, patting a big black gun as if it were a pet.
Replying to the 13-cannon salute (one for each colony) would be, according to diplomatic formalities, recognition of the American revolutionary government that the ship represented - a gesture sure to infuriate the British.
"The governor gave the order to fire back," Soetekouw notes, leading us to the plaque that Franklin D. Roosevelt personally delivered in 1939 to thank St. Eustatius for pulling the trigger. America-bound gunpowder moved through St. Eustatius by the ton. Without it, lamented the British ambassador to the Netherlands at the time, "the Americans would have had to abandon their revolution." Four years after the "First Salute," now celebrated as a Statian holiday, the British invaded and plundered the island in retaliation.
We head out into town, passing red-roofed houses painted in a variety of cheerful pastel colors. Soetekouw leads us to a rather plain-looking dirt back road and directs us to examine the ground for anything unusual. I don't get it at first, but then someone holds up a half-dollar-size ceramic fragment. Soetekouw looks it over and says in her lilting voice, "Oh, this is a Chinese porcelain shard." Another discovery: "This is from the base of a wine bottle. . . . Ah, Delft blue. . . . This plate fragment is Mallorcan, maybe Spanish. . . . And here, here we have an almost complete pipe stem." It turns out that Soetekouw is the president of the nonprofit St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research; she gives these free walking tours for her own enjoyment.
"We have more artifacts here per square inch than anywhere in the world."
Everyone's ears perk up when Soetekouw mentions that one of the locally famous "blue beads" was found poking up from the dirt underfoot. "Blue beads are found anywhere the Dutch traded," Soetekouw says, pushing up her necklace, which is strung with eight of the chunky beads. "They bought Manhattan from the Indians with 30 of these."
On St. Eustatius, the opaque, midnight-blue beads were used as currency by the slaves. Upon emancipation, the slaves saw them as an unwanted reminder of the past and tossed them all over the place. Today, searching for beads is a kind of ongoing island-wide Easter egg hunt. "We say that the bead finds you," Soetekouw says. "If you have a blue bead, it means you belong to Statia."
We follow the dirt path to what's said to be the second-oldest standing synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, Honen Dalim (She Who Shows Mercy to the Poor). St. Eustatius, Soetekouw informs us, was a haven for Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. Although still standing, the synagogue lacks a roof. "We hope to restore her someday," she says. "She's a very special building." Soetekouw explains that the narrow yellow bricks in the synagogue walls are recycled ballast stones from trading vessels.
I'd seen those bricks before. But the ones I saw had gone down with the ship and were lying 60 feet underwater.
Although the scuba dive site is called the Double Wreck, the only traces of the two wooden ships that went down there are the ballast stones. As I approach with Kayley Birdsall, of Golden Rock Dive Center, I'm blown away by what the sea can do with the stone soup of a rock pile. The coral blankets the stones so densely that you can barely see them at all. I pass over the largest, healthiest barrel sponge I've ever seen - it seems plausible that I could fit inside it, like a mini-Quill. Large stingrays array themselves like parked aircraft in the sand a few yards from the coral. New rays come in for a landing, drop to the floor, and with one subtle flap bury themselves in the sand.
In addition to the parks that protect the Quill and the northern wilderness, which together cover a full quarter of Statia's land area, the island has a marine park that surrounds the entire coastline, guarding everything down to 100 feet. Altogether, the national park system protects an area 11/2 times the size of the island itself. No anchors can be dropped on coral, and all scuba divers must go with guides from one of the two dive shops in the harbor.
"The area's been protected for 16 years, so you really get to see what reef can hold in the Caribbean," says Glenn Faires, the American expat owner of Golden Rock. Then he examines the heavy, half-broken wine bottle I've brought back to the shop, confirms that it's from the 18th century and politely explains that anything found in the marine park must stay there. "We'll repatriate this," he says. The no-independent-diving rule was needed to stop outside divers from pillaging the many old wrecks in the harbor.
There is, however, one loophole in the prohibition against taking artifacts: blue beads. Apparently, a ship crammed full of them sank in the harbor. Dirk, my friend from the Quill, found one on his first dive.
St. Eustatius National Parks Foundation
Although a guide isn't required, a guided hike is the best way to explore the island's natural beauty, including the Quill volcano. Guided hikes (two-person minimum) cost $20 per person for the first two people, $15 for each additional person. Call or e-mail one or two days in advance.
St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum
A historical walking tour is a fascinating introduction to the island's history and culture. The free tour, which usually starts at 9 a.m. and lasts about two hours, is scheduled according to visitor interest, generally no more than once per week. Call ahead or visit the museum to make arrangements.
Golden Rock Dive Center
$50 per dive, $95 for two in a single day, plus a daily $1 harbor fee. The marine park also charges a fee of $6 for each dive, or you can get a yearlong pass for $30.
Scubaqua Dive Center
$49 per dive, plus marine park fee.