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 midstep.
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 buttress-rooted 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.