Islands you Didn't Know Existed: Atlantic Edition
Updated: Aug 4
In theory, I hate the beach.
I don't like getting dirty from the sand. I don't like salt water. I don't like getting sunburns, and for some reason I am utterly incapable of leaving a beach day without burn blisters all over my body. I don't like lying around all day (unless I'm in my bed cuddling, naturally), and I don't like being in a bathing suit. Bathing suits = the worst. Frankly, the ocean scares me. The immensity and the power of the thing. I saw a girl drown in the ocean once. That sort of ruins the ocean for you, you know?
Despite all my various distastes that converge in a generally anti-ocean lifestyle, I am fascinated by islands. Islands and, to a certain extent, seaside towns. I think I am drawn to their isolation. There is something mysterious and lonesome in the way they tend to face outward into the nothingness of the sea. They speak to my omnipresent melancholy.
I learned in my cultural geography classes in college that pre-colonial Polynesian cultures developed extensive trade networks with other islands thousands of miles away (revealed by decorative objects specific to one island’s culture being excavated during an archeological dig on another island), but it was rare that an island village would be in contact with a village on the other side of the same island. Geographers hypothesize that these cultures’ cosmogonies situated their gods deep in the tropical forest on top of the island’s mountain. You didn’t want to fuck with the gods, so you stayed the hell out of the island’s inland areas.
Take this information with a grain of salt – I was never 100% convinced that my cultural geography professor knew what he was talking about. Nevertheless, generations of Polynesians were so much more comfortable exploring the sea than exploring the land. This is fascinating to me. I would love to know if islands around the world feel more deeply connected to the mainland that claims them or with other islands in faraway oceans.
Perhaps I can find funding to study that question and some research institution will be my ticket to exploring my island bucket list. We’ll start with the islands of the Atlantic:
Ilha Fernando de Noronha
220 miles off the shores of Northeastern Brazil, this 7-mile wide archipelago is home to 2,700 islanders. Fernando de Noronha was a deserted island when Amerigo Vespucci added to the map of the New World in 1503. It was one of the first landmarks that he recorded, and he wrote about it saying, “Paradise is here.” Fernando de Noronha was also the landmark that started my mild obsession with islands. I “discovered” it during my meanderings on Google Earth and said to myself, “What the heck is that island doing there in the middle of the ocean?”
It’s being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that’s what. Noronha (as the locals say) is home to the largest concentration of tropical seabirds in the Western Atlantic, it is home to the only oceanic mangrove in the South Atlantic, Dolphin Bay (Baía dos Golfinhos) hosts the largest population of resident dolphins in the world, and its tidal pools teem with sea life. Because of its environmental importance, tourists are asked to pay an environmental impact fee when they arrive on the island.
Indeed, the island depends on tourism. It’s isolated, but not underdeveloped. There are over 70 pousadas – the lovechild of a hostel and a B+B – concentrated primarily in the main town of Vila dos Remédios. Some of them feel like you are staying at a local’s house; others are pretty fancy. Fine dining restaurants serve fresh seafood and typical Brazilian dishes. There is a Santander bank. Nights tend to be tranquil on Noronha, but the few bars on the island are animated by forró bands, music typical of northeastern Brazil. My Noronha bucket list includes staying in one of the cheaper pousadas, dancing to forró music with locals at the Bar do Cachorro by night, and watching the resident dolphins dance in the bay by day. If you are interested in seeing the island for yourself – the whole place is on Google Street View.
St. Pierre et Miquelon
A stone’s throw away from the coast of Newfoundland, Canada is a crumb of an island left over from the days of New France. As their own tourism website states, St. Pierre and Miquelon is North America's often forgotten French enclave and France's oldest overseas territory. Its 6,500 residents are just as French as any Parisian you may encounter – they use the same postal service, pay for baguettes with euros, and speak Metropolitan French, not Quebecois. That said, the islanders are descendants of Basque, Norman, and Breton fishermen who came to North America to take advantage of the plentiful cod populations. Life on the islands is inflected with linguistic and cultural elements of the original Basque, Norman, and Breton colonists – cultures that are struggling to survive in mainland France.
The warm hospitality of the islanders contrasts the savage landscape much like their brightly colored buildings stand starkly against the winter snow. A Canadian journalist remarked that upon arrival in Saint-Pierre, you are seduced by the island’s fresh air, its colorful houses decorated with lace curtains, and the charm of the resident. At dinner, she was quickly invited to join a table of locals who told her about life on the island: young people leave to study in France and less than a third return; they are trying to build their tourism sector, but it is cheaper for Canadians to go to Paris than it is for them to travel to St. Pierre; and it feels like the French government has forgotten about them since the fishing industry dried up 15 years ago.
I am fascinated by the interface of identities on St. Pierre et Miquelon. I want to visit to experience the desolate landscape, the insular isolation, and the local generosity, but I also simply want to witness how the people here live in their world. Do they feel primarily French? Mostly North American? Are they simply from and of their pebble in the Atlantic? How does your identity shift with distance, with history, and with isolation? These are the questions I would like to explore while I stuff my face with French bread on the ocean pier.
Tristan de Cunha
Who the heck lives here? No, really, who decided this tiny volcanic island smack in the middle of the South Atlantic was a great place to settle? To be fair, only 293 people have come to that decision, but that is nearly 300 more than I would have guessed. For the most part, they all live in one town, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, known on the island simply as “the Settlement,” which is disappointing because Edinburgh of the Seven Seas is the baddest town name ever. The Tristan da Cunha archipelago is the most remote inhabited place in the world – it is 1,200 miles from the nearest inhabited land, Saint Helena, which is also a ridiculous island in the South Atlantic that no one should actually be living on.
Here’s the thing, though. Tristan’s population loves this place. There seems to be no amount of crushing isolation, economic struggle, nor natural disaster that can turn Tristanians away from their island. In 1909, the British government wanted to evacuate the island. Residents of Tristan decided to refuse. After that the island saw no visiting ship for a decade. In 1961, the island’s volcano erupted and the entire population evacuated to Britain. In 1963, they all returned. In 2008, a fire destroyed the fishing factory that is integral to the island’s economy. A new facility was ready in July 2009. What is it about Tristan that roots generations in the middle of the ocean? Is it the stunning landscape? The exemplary communism (the entire island is community owned and residents all pitch in to farm it)? All the penguins? Maybe it’s just the supreme special-ness of living together far away from everything else.
It is not easy to get to Tristan, and not just because of its remoteness. All visitors need the prior approval of the Island Council, and your request must include proof of a return trip. The islanders, though extremely friendly and open to visitors, value their privacy, and they charge film makers £5,000 to record their island and their community. Those who do get approval to visit must schedule their trip carefully – there is no way to reach the island except taking one of the 12 fishing boats that leave Cape Town for Tristan each year. If you can rise to the challenge of actually getting to the island, when is the best time to go? People stay for varying lengths of time (from a couple days to several months), but I would not miss mid-December when the entire population heads to Patches Plain to celebrate the beginning of summer with Sheep Shearing Day. I suspect they all head to the Albatross Bar afterward – the only bar/restaurant in 3,000 miles – to cheers to the beautiful community they built at the end of the world.
PS – Tristan da Cunha is currently hiring an English teacher and a math teacher for the coming school year. It’s a two-year post with free accommodation and travel. You should apply.