ESCAPING COLUMN Exploring magical islands near and far.
Big or small, islands are full of charm and each one has its own magical experiences to o er
For the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there,” wrote JM Barrie in Peter Pan. What is it about exploring an island that feels so magical, so special? For me, it’s the pleasure of life simpli ed – on smaller patches of land you’ll often nd just one road, one post o ce, one pub. It’s also the joy of easy navigation; knowing exactly where I am, being able to walk or cycle from shore to shore in an hour or two, truly understanding a neat and de ned landscape. And there’s the charm of island communities; friendly, slow-paced, supplies shipped from a far-o mainland, stories and legends that de ne them.
I’ve collected islands on my travels like charms on a bracelet, and they range in size. The biggest is Cuba. More a heady immersive experience than a destination, this bizarre and beautiful Caribbean land mass still feels caught in a post-colonial and post-communist fog. Wandering in Havana is like jumping into the pages of a book by Gabriel García Márquez – beautiful old buildings crumble in shady squares where old men play chess, peeking through doorways reveals couples dancing passionate tangos in courtyards, classic Cadillacs with paint jobs so shiny you can see your face in them tour the roads. Cuba is proudly and de antly nothing but itself.
My favourite short-haul islands are in Greece and Sweden. Chios in the Aegean is not your stereotypical white and blue Greek island – it’s all warm colours, with ancient abandoned villages tumbling down the cli s, groves of leafy mastica bushes that produce a liquoriceesque gum you can chew, incredible cave-like houses under the shade of lemon and clementine trees. The ocean here is a sparkling deep blue, where at night, if you’re lucky, you might see bioluminescence, like bright stars lapping on the beach. A completely di erent experience is found in Scandinavian archipelagos – from Stockholm you can catch a boat to some 30,000 islands. The nicest, in my opinion, is tiny Grinda; a perfect little place with small jetties reaching out over the sea, red gingerbread-like houses, sun dappled woodlands to wander in and one very friendly cat, named Bjorn.
But the best place to collect quirky islands? Britain. Start your island collecting trip in the very north and catch a ferry across to one of the smaller of the emerald green Hebridean islands. I love friendly Colonsay, home to Britain’s smallest brewery, and Sta a, whose ancient volcanic columns inspired visitors as illustrious as Queen Victoria and William Wordsworth before me. The most charming is tiny, uninhabited Lunga – the only residents on this patch of land, nicknamed ‘a green jewel in a peacock sea’, are a colony of pu ns, who arrive in spring to lay their eggs on its cli edges.
And the loveliest islands of all, the ones I could go back to forever, are right down the other end of Britain, 28 miles o the Cornish coast. You can’t help but fall in love with the Isles of Scilly, a paradise of white sand beaches and sub-tropical plants that you’d be hard-pressed to believe is in England. The largest, St Mary’s, has roads, pubs and a thriving community. The rest are car-free, and each is di erent – tiny Tresco has a glorious Abbey garden, St Martin’s beachside campsite is the prettiest in Britain, o the coast of the Eastern Isles you’ll nd a colony of friendly seals to snorkel with. You can catch the ferry to the Scillies, but I like to y over from Land’s End airport in their small Twin Otter plane – as you approach the archipelago, it spreads out before you like a treasure map. It looks exactly as I imagine Neverland to be, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there.