Oliver Cross: The strange things you discover on small islands

Visiting small islands reveals some very strange behaviour among the inhabittants.
Visiting small islands reveals some very strange behaviour among the inhabittants.
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I’M VERY fond of islands, especially smallish ones. If you spend long enough on a small island and visit most of its shores and settlements, you begin to think – or to delude yourself – that in some sense, you own it, or at least have honorary citizenship of it.

My partner Lynne and I once spent an off-season week on Pag island off Croatia, noted for its distinctive salty cheese and (though probably only in Pag) a rather commodious bus station.

While were eating in a small restaurant there, a violent storm broke out and we were faced with either walking back through raindrops as hard as pebbles or staying awake with the restaurant owner, who had already put all his efforts into entertaining his only two guests of the evening and now wanted to go to bed.

Then to the rescue came the owner of our humble (in the sense of small) hotel to take us back in his car.

I asked him how he knew where we would be and he shrugged and gave me a look to indicate that only an idiot would ask such a stupid question.

In Pag, evidently, every one knows everything about everybody else. I was pleased to find that we’d joined the club.

Similarly, in Bermuda, an isolated north Atlantic island which sounds more glamorous than it is, our very voluble taxi driver suddenly braked and stared silently at an ordinary-looking passer-by and then said, ‘I’ve never seen her before,’ he said. ‘I’ll need to find out more.’

It was one of those moments which makes you stop and think, because it’s not something that would ordinarily cross your mind.

Bermuda, once a great centre for shipbuilding and repairs, is one of the many islands which have had to find a new use since the end of wooden-hulled shipping in the early 20th Century.

It’s turned to the financial services sector and seems to be doing very well by it.

Thousands of miles away, Luing, one of the slate islands south of Oban in Scotland, has been severely depleted by the end of slate quarrying but survives by cultivating lobsters, beef and tourists like me.

When I went there many years ago, there was, I think, only one cafe on the island, but there were sea-otters, washed-up fishing boats, wrens crowding the hedgerows and a postman driving his van, which also served as the island’s only bus, while singing, very softly, mournful Scottish ballads.

Some things, while not making headlines in the tourist brochures, are unforgettable.

Another island which has found a new use for itself is Ille de Nigor, off Dakar, Senegal.

It’s an utterly charming, in a very odd way, place now used by surfers and other pleasure-seekers but was once one of the darkest places on earth.

It was a slaving station, where thousands of captive Africans had their last sight their homeland before being transported (if they survived) to the new world.

The still-standing slave compounds are well-built and elegant, although I think this makes things worse rather than better.

If anybody were to ask me, which is unlikely, to name the best island I’ve ever visited, I would not go for Majorca, Minorca, Madeira, Malta or even the obvious candidate, Bali; I would go for an uninhabited island somewhere off the coast of Turkey.

This has been entirely taken over by rabbits and when we visited it on a boating excursion, we sat next to a grouchy little girl who moaned that she was scared of water and would not go into the sea under any circumstances.

Until she saw the rabbits, when she threw out her arms and jumped straight into the sea for the chance of a cuddle with them.

This is a fine example of the curative power of islands.

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