Paul Theroux, the celebrated travel writer and author, wrote this about islands: “My love for traveling to ISLANDS amounts to a pathological condition…This craze seems reasonable to me, because islands are small self-contained worlds that can help us understand larger ones.”
I have that same fascination with islands and have been wondering if that is a universally human condition.
In my case it has definitely been stimulated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island, but it predates the time of that reading. Growing up in the utmost Northern part of the Netherlands, I was frequently visiting on foot and by bike the Waddenzee, the body of water that separates the Dutch Northern coast from a series of buffer islands, protecting the coast from the fierce onslaught by the North Sea. These buffer islands, called Wadden Islands or Frisian Islands, extend across the German border. On the Dutch side of the border there are five inhabited and two uninhabited islands and all of them are wondrous worlds of tranquility, dunes, surf and mud-flats. They are sanctuaries for all kinds of seals and sea birds. One of these islands, Ameland, is situated no more than 6-7 miles off shore and can (for aficionado of mud-flats) be reached, on low tide, by foot. Islands like these are a boy’s dream of unexplored shores and inland mysteries. Beach combing in these places is fun and full of surprises.
Islands that can be reached by a bridge or a causeway don’t have the same intrigue that attracts me to islands that can only be reached by boat or by plane and small islands are much more appealing than large islands. There is something to finding the high spot of an island, a hill, a dune or a light tower, from where you can see the whole expanse of the island.
Islands attract tourism. In our own backyard we see that in the popularity of the Lake Erie islands with boaters and weekend revelers. Top global tourist attractions include the Caribbean Islands, the Seychelles, the Maldives, Hawaii, Tahiti and the Greek Isles. Not to forget about the isle of Manhattan.
Islands, because of their isolation, have the capacity to develop their unique biosphere. This is why Darwin went all the way to the Galapagos Islands to find confirmation of his theories about evolution. It is no coincidence that the first thing I did upon my retirement was flying to New Zealand to get the island experience there. The country is far removed from other land masses and has numerous species of plant and animal life that are unique to New Zealand. There is something to Island countries, because they are so naturally contained and you can see the whole contour of them by following the coastline. No doubt this makes New Zealand, Ireland and the Hawaiian Island such popular travel destinations.
On our Atlantic coast, we have jewels of island getaways like Isle au Haut, ME; Nantucket, MA; Assateague Island, MD; Tangier Island, VA; Bald Head Island, NC; Daufuskie Island, SC; and Cumberland Island, GA. I am particularly fond of Daufuskie Island, SC where we have spent numerous family vacations in splendid isolation from the hustle and bustle of the daily working life. While living in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, we enjoyed weekend time on Anna Maria Island, Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island.
There is something special about being on an island as opposed to being on the main land. It creates the feeling of “being away from it all”. It is like arriving on foreign shores even if the destination is safely state side. It has the connotation of adventure like in Gulliver’s Island or in Robinson Crusoe’s Island of Despair.
Thank God for islands. I wish I had spent more time in my life exploring more islands. The more remote the better. I don’t know how many I will still get too. But I can dream of the Aleutians, the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, the Hebrides, the Svalbard Archipelago, Nova Zembla or the uninhabited parts of Iceland and Greenland. I’m never more at peace than when I’m in my own insular paradise, surrounded by nature, where I can oversee my world. I agree with Paul Theroux that to understand the world at large you may have to start looking at the small self-contained world of an island.