Now that we are leaving our little house on the prairie of St. Eustatius, we take a look at Statia’s gateways to the world: port and airport. Even though the access to the island changed over the years, they kept their very own charm. Last summer, Statians responsible for these gateways shared developments and information for visitors and locals alike. We added our impressions and experiences to the story, spiced it with island history and links to plan your travel and stay.
Welcome to Statia!
No matter which of the gateways to St. Eustatius — port or airport — you use, this Dutch Caribbean island puts a smile on your face (Why we love Statia). Everybody is waving and greeting one another. Yes, honking the horn is only meant as a way to say hello. In general, traffic is pretty relaxed and so is the rest of the island also known as ‚The historic gem‘.
The story of Statia started on the water. The first settlers, same as the Dutch, English, French and US-Americans, came and went by boats. You can learn about the pre-Columbian times as well as how the political and economic heydays of the island came to an end in the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation Museum in Upper Town, Oranjestad. We know it is hard to believe. But in the 18th century, Sint Eustatius was the most important trading centre in the world. That’s when the island got the nickname The Golden Rock. The name still refers to the island as a whole and is proudly used by many local businesses.
These days, the Directorate of Transport is responsible for the transport of people and goods to and from St. Eustatius. Vishal Oedjaghir, the commercial manager of the Directorate of Transport at public entity St. Eustatius, described the vision: Creating economic opportunities through commercial port development. After all, the ports are the lifelines of the island. Just like back in the day.
St. Eustatius Port Authority & Charles Austin Woodley Pier
Still, the vast majority of goods enter Statia via the harbour. Without security, 10 people are working at the port. Just like all the other islanders, Yoeri and I were awaiting the container ships delivering goods for the supermarkets as well as personal orders with great anticipation. Don’t be surprised to find many shelves empty from Monday on — sometimes and with certain goods even earlier.
The regular arrival time of the ships bringing the main supplies of food to the island is Wednesday (No fruits in paradise!? Water to green St. Eustatius). Muttys Pride comes via Saba from Saint Martin, while the Orion originates in the Dutch part of the island. From Sint Maarten, the container ship heads out to Saba and then St. Kitts. On its return to St. Maarten, it stops at St. Eustatius and St. Barth. Either Tropic Opal or Tropic Palm arrive every week directly from Florida. Last but not least, the Midnight Dream brings supplies to the island, too.
Inter-island travel and practical island information
Since 2022, there has been a major add-on expanding the role of Statia Harbour as a gateway to the island. Thanks to the support of the government, the Makana Ferry Service was installed successfully. There are six connections per week from and to Sint Maarten. Another five from/to Saba and two from/to St. Kitts allow the local population as well as island hoppers to explore the region.
For the connections arriving at Statia in the evening, all custom services take place on Saba. On Statia, you will be greeted by a sign when exciting the harbour. That’s where the official service ends. St. Eustatius Tourism Development Foundation put together an overview of practical island information, incl. car rental and taxis. Check for any updates and changes in travel regulations for all the BES islands here. Visitors can stay up to 90 days without registering at Immigration and Naturalization
Note: The port authority is neither in charge of the service nor the schedule of the ferry or container ships. Their role is to provide the facilities for third-party operators to do business and provide services. Goods can be stored for up to three days in the harbour warehouse. After that time, a storage fee will be charged. All cargo payment is handled by the cargo agents. Only blocks, cement, and vehicles will be paid at the port office by the consignee.
In April 2023, Johnny van Nek became Harbour Master. After being a captain of ocean vessels for more than 20 years, he brought in a lot of experience to handle the big boys. Regarding citizens and visitors using the harbour, he asked for help.
“What do you think about our facilities and services? What is working well? What can we improve? What do you need? Your feedback is highly welcome. We will take it into account as long as the request or suggestion falls under our responsibility.“Answers and suggestions can be handed in via the contact form of Statia government
Precedures for private yachts and boats
Statia Harbour is already equipped to serve private yachts and boats. I asked Gilberto Maduro, for many years the acting Harbour Master, which procedures arriving boats should follow:
Call the harbour on channel 16 (VHS radio), tell the name of your boat and request anchoring. If a longer chat is necessary, you will be asked to switch to channel 14 for a detailed description of where to anchor. The maximum capacity in 2023 is 23 yachts. At the moment, there are no mooring buoys installed for ships visiting the island. Use your anchors, please. Once you are safely secured for the night, come to the harbour to pay the fee [see box below] and fill in your customs information. If you arrive outside of the operating hours, report to security and use the phone installed on the jetty to contact immigration. In the future, hopefully, there will be online payment available.Gilberto Maduro, former acting Harbour Master of Statia
The area from the high water mark down to 30 metres (99 feet) of depth is Statia’s designated Marine Park. There is a Northern and Southern Reserve where no anchoring or fishing activities are allowed. St. Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA) hands out maps and further information regarding the topic. Up to now, captains of small pleasure (non-commercial) and fishing vessels don’t need a special licence to operate around the island. However, boats have to be equipped with life jackets along with a first aid kit, life ring and fire extinguisher. Local boat owners have to register their boats at the harbour office. The annual fee is 60 USD per vessel and another 60 USD yearly for the harbour entry pass per person.
From present to past
This port was finished in 1993. At the moment, the total length of the jetty from one end to the other is 90 metres. This includes 60 metres of RORO section (Roll-on-roll-off). Along the 70 metres inside the jetty the ferry, dive and fishing boats moor up. Gilberto handed me a map showing future projects around the harbour. The area to store containers will be paved. If all goes according to plan, three completely new sections for small boats and dinghies will be constructed. Furthermore, the idea is to extend the main jetty and deepen the area next to it from six to seven metres. This would allow small cruise ships with up to 250 passengers to pull up to the jetty. Until then, they keep shuttling the guests with tenders to the island.
That is the way it used to be for centuries. In the old days, ships were laying at anchor in the bay. Smaller boats, so-called sloops, were going back and forth to the centre of Oranje Bay. Goods were registered and weighed at the old scale house. That building has been renovated and is part of the dive centre Scubaqua. Eventually, a jetty was built to allow the sloops to bring passengers to the island in more comfort. Even without this first construction, the harbour was the economic driving force behind the golden era of Statia.
Already a busy port within the region, Statia’s economy took off in 1756. In that year, the Dutch declared the island a free port. Without any customs duties, Statia turned into a hub for all kinds of goods — legal and illegal. The island offered neutral ground for business in the middle of British (Jamaica, St. Kitts, Barbados, Bermuda), French (Saint-Domingue, Sainte-Lucie, Martinique, Guadeloupe), Spanish (Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico) and Danish (Virgin Islands) territories.
Neutrality and tax-free haven were the man-made reasons for Statia’s golden era. Natural factors gave the island its blessing. Conveniently located between destinations, Statia was favourable as captains could make use of the trade winds bringing ships from the east of the Atlantic Ocean towards the Leeward Islands. Statia was the only island providing a natural harbour protected from these easterly winds and offering sandy anchoring at depths of 10 to 30 meters (33 to 99 feet). This depth provided shelter even for the biggest boats of those times.
With more than 3,000 ships per year, Statia was THE busiest port in the world. Hence, the trade turned the island into ‚The Golden Rock‘. Two rows of about 600 warehouses stretched along the shore. For some time, 9,000 people lived on the island of 21 km² (8 mi²). That number has dropped to 3,300 people since then. In addition to trading, the island’s economy ran on sugar, tobacco, and cotton. With traders, sailors, and slaves, around 20,000 people must have brought quite some life to Statia back in those days.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Airport
On the contrary to the goods, the majority of the visitors arrive by plane. In 2022, 33,861 passengers passed through the airport. At the moment, the average of in- and outbound passengers is approximately 75 per day (June 2023). The number of flights from and to Sint Maarten per day is still below the level of flights that were offered before Covid-19. In spring 2020, all island travels came to a complete hold. Slowly the island opened up again for locals and workers. Since August 2021, tourists are allowed to visit again (How to get here).
These guests were greeted by a completely new airport structure. The terminal features 700 square meters of inner space (1,100 m² roofs) and is constructed in a way that allows future expansions. In total, there are four check-in desks and three airline offices. Luggage and a full body screening are available now. The waiting area with 44 seats at the gate overlooks the runway. The arrival section is separated from this area by the booth of customs welcoming island visitors and returning locals alike.
There is even a baggage conveyor belt!
Due to such developments, people accustomed to the old terminal tend to get a little nostalgic. Granted, it was a special experience how the luggage was handed through a hole in the wall before. This hole served a very special purpose which we will reveal in another story. Some of the guests visiting the island for many years are fondly talking about their travel experiences such as planes flying an additional loop to allow the ground staff to chase goats or sheep off the runway.
These days, only roosters and chickens make it over the fence surrounding the airport. Maybe the nostalgic passengers can be appeased with the bar that opened on the outside next to the check-in. At least, there they can talk about the good old days.
From 1946 to 2023 and beyond
Statia’s second gateway to the world started as Golden Rock Airport in 1946. The building looked very much like the average Caribbean house (see pic below). Shortly thereafter, the airport was renamed after the 32nd President of the United States of America. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first and, so far, only US President to touch Statian soil in 1939. His visit on Statia Day (November 16th) acknowledged the role Statia played in the fight for independence. By saluting the Andrew Doria, an American merchant ship that had been upgraded into a ‘man of war’ ship by the Continental Navy, Statia became the first foreign nation to recognise the newly independent USA in 1776. Though widely unknown to American citizens, this first salute is celebrated on Statia every year to this day.
A second house was added serving as ‚the tower‘ eventually. The terminal itself got extended multiple times over the years. In 1972, the first major upgrade and modernisation took place. The second major renovation was combined with an expansion in 1993. That is when the old terminal got the shape that you still see today. The current plan is to renovate it to use it for cargo operations and office space. The building was damaged by the hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. As the terminal wasn’t in line with international standards any more, a complete development programme to renew the facilities of the airport took off in the very same year.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Airport serves as the base for the emergency helicopter services for St. Eustatius as well as Saba. Further plans for the future of the airport are extending the parking spots for aircrafts parked at the airport. “We’ll look also for hangar space in case an aircraft needs maintenance for a long period,“ explained airport manager Darold Doest.
“We also cater for private charters. They must file a flight plan at the civil aviation authority (CAA) of origin. The CAA sends notes to all the airports based on the flight plan. PJIA informs Statia that the flight is planned.“ SXM Airways, EZAir, Trans Anguilla Airways and ST BARTH COMMUTER offer private charters. For those looking for regular flights, WinAir has daily connections from and to Sint Maarten. In their twin-otter planes with 20 seats, you reach Statia in less than 20 minutes. Two times per week there are connections from St. Eustatius to Bonaire and Curacao, too.
During the official inauguration in August 2021, former Deputy Government Commissioner Claudia Toet acknowledged the new airport as an important milestone in handling more passengers and better connecting Statia to the region. “I am delighted with the result of the new building and also the pictures in the arrival hall that show the beauty of Statian citizens and the environment.“ According to Mrs. Toet, the next step is to arrange more and cheaper connectivity within the Caribbean Region. However, the airport only provides the facilities and isn’t actively involved in extending the air services offered by third parties.
Statia airport: Still a special experience
There are also local voices pointing out that the airport lost its charm with the new terminal. The old one had a window towards the street. Departing passengers could stay in touch with their loved ones outside. It wasn’t particularly uncommon for passengers to leave the exit hall after the security check to say a last goodbye to friends or family. Darold Doest confirmed my suspicion. That procedure, endearing as it may be, was not in line with the current safety and security standards.
Excluding security, 10 people are working at the airport. After I registered and put my yellow reflective vest on, Ashley Vliese, the operations supervisor, gave me a tour to take pictures. I enjoyed the history presented in the old terminal and the outside area the most. However, the best was still to come. A little before 6 pm, we entered the new airport tower. The cabin on the third floor serves as the operational room for flight and airfield safety as well as for communication. In July 2023, a brand new air control system was bound to arrive giving the airport the finishing touch.
As we entered the cabin, the take-off from Sint Maarten was confirmed. Ashley lowered a folding ladder, allowing us to climb onto the roof of the tower. What a view! As I was enthusiastically describing the potential promoting airport tours ending with a sunset drink on the roof of the tower, I realised that this idea most likely wasn’t in line with the safety and security standards either.
Things to do once you make it through one of Statia’s gateways: Port or airport
Luckily, there is a lot more to discover and experience on ‚The Golden Rock‘. Hiking, both in the Quill and Boven National Park, offers stunning views over the island (Discover Statia: Hiking to, up, in and around the Quill). As an elevated sunset spot, I recommend Round Hill with its 360° view. There are historic walking tours organised by the museum, island tours by car and many bars and restaurants to meet locals as well as fellow travellers. No matter which gateway to Statia you choose, take your time. Go hiking in nature and stroll through the neighbourhoods to get a feeling of the land. Make sure to also snorkel, dive or swim. After all, Statia story began on the water.