A Small Isle with a Large History
by Julian Putley
Saba Rock is a small tropical island resort in the midst of North Sound, Virgin Gorda's yachtsmen playground. Fun and with a fascinating history, Saba Rock started from small beginnings. It was originally the island home and scuba diving headquarters of legendary scuba pioneer Bert Kilbride. In the 1960s Bert dived and conducted research on the famous BVI shipwreck the RMS Rhone which sank in a hurricane off Salt Island in 1867. He became the official Receiver of Wrecks for the BVI in 1967 giving him the responsibility of recording and documenting all wrecks in British Virgin Island waters. He was instrumental in getting the producers of the film The Deep to use the dive site of the RMS Rhone and he assisted greatly with tech support for the Hollywood blockbuster. Later he introduced the "resort course," an introductory scuba diving course now used worldwide.
It was partly because of his fame, and partly because visitors tended to "rubber-neck" as they sailed past the island, that the first bar and restaurant came into being on Saba Rock. Bert and wife Gayla were becoming so irritated with a continuous flow of tourists swimming out to their private island and wandering around or just sitting on their docks that eventually they threw their hands in the air and declared, "if you can't beat'em, join 'em." They built a bohemian style bar and restaurant and called it the Pirates' Pub. It became an instant success.
There was nothing fancy about the Pirates' Pub. You dinghied over to the rickety dock, tied up and stepped into the bar. But what the bar lacked in "fancy" it made up for in ambiance. Just inside the entrance was a small cascading waterfall providing water for a pool; a natural aquarium with fish and various sea life. Swinging on a perch over the water was a blue and yellow macaw and on various shelves and empty spaces was displayed memorabilia from many of Bert's wreck dives; antique bottles, musket balls, pottery shards and old coins.
It could well have been this unique atmosphere that grabbed the imagination of John McManus, a restaurateur and lover of the maritime environment, sea stories and associated artifacts. He bought the island in 1997 and with the help of local architect, Paul Wattley, created the Shangri-La it is today. As Saba Rock developed so did the North Sound, which now includes such popular resorts as Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island; the world famous Bitter End Yacht Club; the charming Leverick Bay Resort; Biras Creek, a Relais Chateau resort and restaurant; and the new luxury development, Oil Nut Bay. Now, over thirteen years later, hardly a yacht passing through the islands does not have Saba Rock on its agenda.
Saba Rock is primarily a bar and restaurant. The wrap-around setting ensures all diners a fantastic view, especially at sunset when happy hour offers great drink specials. The menu is extensive and varied and a bar menu is available for those wanting more casual fare. Others with a hearty appetite may enjoy the All You Can Eat buffet and salad bar with a roast, usually lamb or beef.
But Saba Rock has more to offer than food and drinks. In a tribute to Bert Kilbride many of the artifacts he salvaged from the RMS Rhone are displayed in the mini museum/gift shop. In keeping with Kilbride's love of wrecks, including their treasure and memorabilia, the gift shop highlights gold and silver salvaged from one of Spain's flotillas wrecked off the coast of Florida. In 1985 Mel Fisher, a friend of Kilbride's, found and salvaged the Atocha, a hugely rich Spanish galleon, which sank in a violent hurricane in 1622. Gold chains, elaborately mounted gold and silver coins, emeralds and even an authentic 60lb silver bar are all on display and most are for sale.
A more modern theme is the interesting exhibit of outboard engines through the decades. And just outside is a small aquarium that contains the last anchor of the Rhone, desperately deployed as a last ditch effort to save the foundering ship. There are also a couple of cannons, one from the Rhone and the other believed to be from the San Ignacio, wrecked on the Anegada reefs and never salvaged. Swimming amongst these nautical treasures are moray eels, lobsters and colorful fish all at home amid waving sea fans and gorgonians, a delight to watch. "It's exciting at our 5pm feeding time," says David Brick, Saba Rock's General Manager, who adds that happy hour guests are encouraged to feed the tarpon, which often jump out of the water.
Close to the small marina and up a short staircase brings you to the latest Saba Rock attraction; a family of toucans. Since there are three of them they are fondly referred to as Three-Cans: Pepe, Paco and Paz, two boys and a girl. They live in a large enclosure and Chrissann, their human sister and caregiver adores them. She adopted them in June 2011 and in a short 18 months there appears to be a loving symbiosis. These birds are fascinating to watch – they have vibrant coloring, comical movements and a loud screeching vocabulary. Apparently their favorite food is papaya and you should try to catch them at feeding time. Chrissann keeps a detailed blog and there are short video clips on You Tube. Check it out on www.adventuresintoucanland.com.
The manicured gardens at the back of Saba Rock are carefully tended with flower beds surrounded by grassy slopes. One side leads down to the water's edge overlooking Eustatia Island, where piles of conch shells lie abandoned, proof of a skin diver's catch from days gone by. The other side slopes down to a sandy beach with hammocks carefully positioned to catch the trade wind breezes and the delightful view of the Bitter End's beachfront accommodations just across the channel. It is on this side of the island where access to the resort's rooms is to be found. There is a room to suit almost every desire and the offer of plenty of hot water, the large flat screen TV coupled with a panoramic view of Virgin Gorda's North Sound should be enough to entice even the most pampered yachtsman to come ashore for the night.
After dusk and a memorable sunset, underwater lights are switched on and soon an invasion of fish appears. Attracted by the lights, schools of tarpon dart back and forth, their beady orange eyes looking somehow menacing as they twist and turn in the shallow water. Perhaps it's time for a Mai Tai, the resort's signature drink, and a moment to relax and watch the show. One thing is certain; a visit to Saba Rock will be time well spent; enlightening, enjoyable and entertaining.
Julian Putley is the author of the Virgins' Treasure Isle, the story of treasure buried on Norman Island. He also wrote Sunfun Calypso and the Drinking Man's Guide to the B.V.I.