The A to Z of islands
If you're still searching for inspiration, Rhiannon Batten presents an alphabet of insular ideas
Saturday 08 January 2005
Bleached sand, cobalt water...the pint-sized Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba is a honeymooning honeypot. Travellers with a penchant for letting their hair down might want to be there at the time of the dandee - the New Year shindig which first kicked off in the late 19th century, as a response to William III deigning to give the island's slaves their freedom. These days it's become a kind of Caribbean equivalent to first-footing, only with singers and tamba players rather than brooding strangers and lumps of coal.
Bleached sand, cobalt water ... no, you're not imagining things. This tiny Hebridean island may look like something that's worked its way loose and drifted over from the Caribbean but the stormy skies and frosty temperatures mean you're never likely to confuse its spectacular beaches with the bikini-scattered, cocktail-sozzled crescents of sand across the ocean. What really sets Barra apart, however, is its beach airfield - no more than a strip of sand - which forces BA's schedulers to get to grips with the local tides.
This cute tropical island off the coast of Belize has long been popular with British adventurers. Once settled by Scottish pirates, it's now more commonly visited by backpackers doing the "Ruta Maya". Seen Palenque's ancient temples? Tick. Chichicastenango's market? Ditto. Then it must be Belize next ... Don't go expecting high glamour. The poshest B&B on the island boasts scary-looking compost toilets and, with Carnation Milk and 1950s style fry-ups the culinary norm, the closest you'll get to a gourmet dinner is lobster barbecued on smouldering coconut husks.
The biggest thrill you can get around Disko island may involve skin-tight rubber but it has nothing to do with nightclubs. Still ,you might need it for a wild trip spotting marine mammals on an ice-diving expedition or paddling out to sea in a kayak to look for migrating birds. According to local Inuit tradition, Disko was formed when Greenland mainlanders took a dislike to a piece of land that was cutting them off from the sea. Two locals came to the rescue, towing the land behind their kayaks with the aid of a single strand of hair until it was safely moored in its current position, 60km away, among the gazillion icebergs that lie offshore from the historic fishing town of Ilulissat.
With more than 2,000 miles separating the Easter Islanders, or Rapanui, from their Chilean countrymen, it's no wonder their ancestors felt a need to construct a few - well, 800 or so - Moai (pictured left) to keep them company. The sculptures weren't their only party pieces - it's thought that from around AD400 such a sophisticated culture emerged on the South Pacific island that its 10,000 or so inhabitants even managed to devise the Rongorongo script, Oceania's only written language. The booming population, however, sucked the island's ecosystem dry and social and ecological meltdown ensued, though rumour had it this was caused by the moving of the Moai. Europeans arrived on Easter Sunday 1722, and happily, since archaeologists resurrected the statues, the population has once again risen, to around 2,000.
A blip of wind-bashed rock stranded between the Orkney and Shetland islands, this tiny British outpost is usually known either for its eponymous patterned jumpers or for being on the shipping forecast's roll call. With only 70 modern-day inhabitants, it's now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and, aside from the often-stormy weather, is finally starting to live up to the name given to it by the early Norse settlers - the island of peace. Though many ships have been wrecked in the surrounding waters over the centuries, these days intrepid travellers are likely to have an easier ride when arriving by mail boat or plane from Shetland. Visitors are still few in number since there are no hotels, pubs or restaurants on Fair Isle.
When the American Revolution kicked off, George Washington ordered Governor's Island, a 172-acre bundle of greenery off the southern tip of Manhattan, to be fortified against future occupation of the city. To that end, Fort Jay and Castle Williams were duly constructed. In 2001, after serving as the East Coast's answer to Alcatraz, the headquarters of the United States First Army and a US Coast Guard base, the island became a national monument. Now run by the National Park Service, Governor's Island is being opened up to the public for tours.
Islands don't get much more glam than this celeb-dripping, boutique-hotel lined, coral edged hideaway in the Bahamas. From the antique-filled India Hicks-designed retreat The Landing to the cool Rock House Hotel, owned by Gianni Versace's former builder J Wallace Tutt, Harbour Island does a good line in upscale Caribbean chic. The island's main town, Dunmore, also boasts photogenic pastel-painted cottages and white picket fences. Still need convincing? How about the fact that you arrive by water taxi? Or that you can swim off beaches the colour of candyfloss? Is there a downside? That depends on how you feel about getting around by golf buggy.
The name says it all. As a paid-up member of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote island group in the world, Inaccessible is well over 2,000km from its nearest neighbour, St Helena. The South Atlantic island group was discovered in the 16th century by a Portuguese navigator who stopped long enough to give the islands his name but not actually to land.
Jamaica is one of the few Caribbean islands big enough to offer a variety of scenery - from lush coconut plantations to rolling fields and elegant Georgian squares. And with Cinchona, the most spectacular botanical gardens in the Caribbean, Ian Fleming's hipster hangout Goldeneye (better know these days as a touch-down for the likes of Zoe Ball and Kate Moss) and music maestro Chris Blackwell's bevvy of boutique hotels, there's far more to this lively country than reggae, Rastas and rum.
With its shingle beaches, pine-covered hills and literary associations, this Greek isle seems the perfect destination for a week of sun-ripened passion. Be warned though, Kefalonia not only provided the backdrop to ill-fated romance in Captain Corelli's Mandolin; it was also where two love-struck British teenagers made headlines last summer having met on the island and then run away together - the police finally found the latter day Romeo and Juliet in a Milton Keynes record shop.
A mini metropolis, Lauttasaari, is home both to 20,000 residents of the Finnish capital, Helsinki, and to the steamy HQ of the Finnish Sauna Society. Membership gives you access to wood-heated saunas, traditional smoke saunas and an invitation to take a bracing dip in the sea. But remember, as the famous Finnish saying goes, "share your tobacco and tinderbox, but not your sauna or your woman".
Minorca has seen a few invaders - Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Moors, to name a few. Now it's the tour operators' turn, but you can still find your own finca (a traditional Spanish farmhouse) if you book ahead. Then a car is all you'll need to explore the quietest of the Balearic Islands, from the Spanish mansions and Georgian squares of Mahon in the south-east, to the windswept coves of the north-east.
This Pacific Island nation, only 21sq km in total and the smallest republic in the world, hit the headlines three years ago when it agreed to a request from Australia to accommodate 800 asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq. Descended from seafaring Polynesians and Melanesians, Nauru's native inhabitants traditionally believed in a female deity, Eijebong, and a spirit island called Buitani.
The second largest island in France after Corsica, this sunny, if windswept, hideaway in the Bay of Biscay deserves to be better known. It boasts vast, rolling beaches, mimosa-covered fields, pine forests, fishing villages, an "oyster road" and the kind of upmarket spa hotels and promenades that hark back to Oléron's days as a 19th-century sea-bathing resort.
Palm Jebel Ali
A million will buy you a slice of Dubai's latest man-made island. Shaped like a computer-generated palm tree, buyers can choose from a villa, a house, an apartment or anything their vulgar heart desires on one of the tree's luxurious, shop-lined, fronds. If that doesn't appeal, you can always try France, or New York or - if Halliburton doesn't beat you to it - Iraq. The World is a collection of 300 islands shaped like a world map currently being built in Dubai. You'll have to rush though - Australia has already gone.
Queen Charlotte islands
This archipelago of around 150 islands off the west coast of British Columbia does a good line in eco-tourism thanks to vast forests, clear ocean water, unique wildlife and accessible wilderness. Hiking, biking, bird-watching, kayaking or yoga retreating - whatever your wholesome bag, Queen Charlotte can provide it. About 2,000 of the local population are Haida, a tribe that now exists only here and on Prince of Wales island off Alaska, and evidence of traditional culture is found in carved totem poles and Haida song and dance performances.
Dunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Reunion is technically still part of France. If you like your croissants served with papaya and a diving instructor who goes by the name of Jean-Pierre, this is the island for you - although incomers from Africa, China and India have all added to the island's spicy mix. Reunion grew rich on vanilla cultivation and although most of the world's supply is now met by vanillin, a synthetic version extracted from coal, there is still enough demand for the real thing (mostly from Coca-Cola, oddly enough) to keep at least some of the locals busy.
The capture of this slip of an island by US forces in June 1944 may have been a significant step towards the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, but these days Saipan has a reputation as a party island. The largest island in the Northern Marianas, it's a Pacific version of Ibiza and is usually packed with bohemian Japanese holidaymakers and cocktail-fuelled Americans letting their hair down.
A British colony until 1978, for the time being the island nation of Tuvalu is a veritable South Sea paradise, awash with palm-fringed beaches, sunny skies, grilled coconut crabs and a thriving local culture. The trouble is, it may not exist at all in the near future. Nowhere in Tuvalu's 16sq miles does the land stretch to more than around 15ft above sea level. If predictions of global warming-triggered rises in sea levels prove right, Tuvalu could be assigned to history by 2080.
New Utopia is the grand plan of an improbably named American, Lazarus Long (previously one Howard Turney of Oklahoma). He wants to build a new city state - an independent, tax-free principality modelled on Monaco - on man-made islands above the currently submerged Misteriosa Banks, 120 miles west of the Cayman Islands. Mr Long is thought to be getting into the spirit of the venture by calling himself Prince and his wife Princess.
They take their responsibilities seriously on Vestmannaeyjar, a small group of islands off Iceland's southern coast. In August, parent puffins leave their nests to encourage the baby pufflings to stand on their own two (webbed) feet. The trouble is, when they take their f first flight, many are drawn by the lights of the nearby town and lose their way. Local children go out and gather up the birds, care for them overnight in cardboard boxes and then set them free by the shore the following morning.
In the early 1920s, 23-year-old Ada Blackjack became the heroine of an ill-fated expedition to colonise Wrangel Island in Arctic Russia. Four men and Ada signed up for the trip, but as winter set in their rations ran out. Three went for help and were never seen again. Ada remained, surrounded by polar bears, to care for a sick man (who died soon afterwards) and was eventually picked up by a rescue boat. The island is now a wildlife refuge.
This Chinese island city (also known as Amoy) was once a haven for both foreign merchants and pirates. Many Chinese words used in English today boast an Amoy heritage (tea and ketchup among them). Home to egrets, snakes and, until the 1940s, tigers, Xiamen became an urban powerhouse in the 1950s, when road and rail connections to the mainland were built.
(Isle of) Youth
Shaped like a comma, this former US colony turned revolutionary showpiece is Cuba's biggest offshore island. It boasts great diving and an exotic history. "Discovered" by Columbus, it was used to house Fidel Castro after the failed storming of the Moncada Barracks in 1953. Robert Louis Stevenson is also said to have used the Isle of Youth as a model for Treasure Island (though to be fair, the Virgin Islands and Fidra, off the coast near North Berwick, both say the same).
Denmark's largest island sits at the collision of the North and Baltic Seas and boasts the westernmost foot of the Oresund Bridge, which links Denmark to Sweden. Within its 7,000 or so sq km are fjords, forests and rolling pasture as well as the capital, Copenhagen, the country's largest lake, Arreso, and several smaller towns, including Elsinore, immortalised by Shakespeare in Hamlet. These days visitors come for the island's beaches - with its oodles of windswept sand, the Oresund coast has been dubbed the Danish Riviera.
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