I have always loved islands. Maybe it was reading just too much Robinson Crusoe, Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ and other stories about islands that inspired me, but I always knew that one day I would live on an island.
Maybe it was that first glimpse of the magical and mysterious Brownsea Island pointed out to me by my elderly great aunt. We could only view it through binoculars from Poole Harbour in Dorset, because, in those days, as my great aunt explained, it was inhabited by an old witch and her elderly manservant, and they cooked and ate all newcomers to the island. Animals, birds and insects that lived there were special and unique to that special place. Indeed, the giant ants could eat people alive. As I discovered many years later whilst accompanying classes of schoolchildren to the island, she was partly right about the giant ants! Great Aunt Gertie did have a vivid imagination, but it was the stuff of inspiration.
For many years I thought that my eventual island destination would be the Isle of Wight. Career opportunities often seemed to lead me there, and on one occasion it was the dreadful realisation that I was about to be offered a job that I didn't really want, that made me flee the island at 5.00am one morning and well before the final interview, and I didn't return for many years.
We visited the Scilly Islands - a delightful destination, but I soon realised that the rusting bath tub, which the islanders call a ferry, was a nightmare, and after one terrible voyage with myself and other passengers vomiting for most of the journey, I flew back to the mainland by helicopter realising that I could never attempt that journey by boat ever again, let alone live there.
We spent many glorious summers exploring islands around the UK and beyond. We tasted delicious malt whiskies on the Isles of Skye and Islay, exploring the Outer Hebrides, avoiding tweed jackets in Harris and Lewis, as well as tasting the relative decadence of Orkney and Shetland.
Islands as diverse as Majorca, Cyprus, Ibiza and Madeira were also visited, but although wonderful in their own unique ways, none seemed to inspire me as a possible home for the future. That is until we visited the Canary Islands in general, and Gran Canaria in particular. I knew then that this would be home and found myself gripping the handrail and forcing myself up the steps of the plane going home at the end of our first visit. I was determined to return again one day.
So what is so special about islands? It is a difficult one to answer, because people are inspired in many different ways. Maybe it is the feeling of being part of a small community, never being far from the sea, or the reminder of a primitive form of survival instinct. Maybe it is just that feeling of “Getting away from it all”, although critics of this view will quickly point out that this can be difficult to achieve on islands such as Tenerife, and parts of Gran Canaria and Lanzarote! If you really do want to get away from it all, I suggest heading to El Hierro, La Gomera or La Palma instead!
An elderly friend visited a few days ago. “I could never live on an island,” she declared loudly after critically peering out to sea. What do you do for shopping? You have only got one small shop,” she asked.
“We have many good local shops nearby, and you can get anything in Las Palmas, the seventh largest city in Spain,” I replied.
“It must be so difficult to get off the island in an emergency?” she frowned.
“Not really, after all Las Palmas airport is the third largest in Spain. Flights are always available, but the fares vary depending upon demand.”
“I would need still need to be in Europe, because of the health service”.
“The Canary Islands are part of Europe and offer some of the best medical treatment available anyway. Indeed, patients are often flown to Las Palmas from the Peninsular for specialist treatment.”
“Hmm, well, I still wouldn't like to live in an island...” she mumbled.
Great, I thought. I am so pleased you are not going to move here. Intending islanders need to be committed to island life and be aware of the disadvantages, as well as the advantages. Islands are rather like Marmite, Blackpool or Benidorm. You either love them or hate them.
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167