I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).
Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember the buzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.
On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest
island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.
Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!
With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialised but it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there. I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.
A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory, should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.
Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.
So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.
Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet. Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish
for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!
I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time and used only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearly a week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!
A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei. I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!
And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?
Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s
southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.
Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.
Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!
Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981. Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!
I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.
I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!
The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.
Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rums(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.
From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.
Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.
Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia, Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..
Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.
Macau casinos held no
attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.
Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to be oyster omelettes!
Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.
In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.
So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.
1 Islands in the Sun – Harry Belafonte
2 Dalkey Island Photos – Niki McGrath
3 Simple man, simple dreams – Linda Ronstadt‘s Asylum album released in September, 1977.