The Best Islands You’ve Never Heard Of (according to the World’s Most Traveled Man)
This spring I had the good fortune of meeting with the world’s most traveled man, Charles Veley, for a wee Q&A. I imagined that such a title must exist, but I hadn’t given much thought to it until I read Ken Jennings’ Maphead, a study of geography geeks in all their quirky forms. (Yes this is the same Ken Jennings who won 74 consecutive rounds of Jeopardy.) In Maphead, Jennings makes reference to the Traveler’s Century Club, an eccentric group of vagabonds who have each visited a minimum of 100 countries.
For one Charles Veley, the TCC’s criteria for designating separate countries and territories simply wasn’t strict enough. How could someone say that he had visited France when he had only been to French Polynesia? And for that matter, French Polynesia itself sprawls over 2.5 million square kilometers, so a visit to Tahiti alone could hardly represent French Polynesia as a whole. Dissatisfied with the TCC’s and other organizations’ criteria for distinguishing geographical entities, Veley set about formulating stricter rules. Armed with a more robust list, he founded the Most Traveled People club, an online community for people who travel “everywhere.” Today the club’s master list designates 873 destinations. Veley has been to 827.
What do you ask the World’s Most Traveled Man?
When the most traveled man agreed to meet with me, I began preparing general fill-in-the-blank superlatives like “most gut-busting bout of food poisoning,” “most abominable corner of the earth,” and “most thrilling moment on the road.” Generic stuff. But when I read in his Most Traveled People bio that Lord Howe Island ranked among his favorite places on earth – a place I visited this past February – I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to pick away at the brain of a fellow island lover. Besides, everybody and their grandmother had already interviewed him about his vision and general travel prowess. I was more concerned with confirming whether my ongoing list of dream islands was worth tackling, and if there were any gaping holes that needed to be addressed.
The islands he confirmed were well worth the effort:
(* = UNESCO World Heritage site)
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.* With a “physical beauty that rivals [Kauai’s] North Shore,” another Veley favorite, this crescent shaped volcanic paradise 220 miles off the coast of Brazil is a top destination amongst Brazilian beach lovers and ecotourists alike. Swarms of tuna, sharks, sea turtles, whales, and dolphins feed and breed in the waters around the archipelago. As if that isn’t impressive enough, the island’s Baía dos Golfinhos (Bay of Dolphins) accommodates the highest population of resident dolphins in the world. The surrounding coral reef invites world class diving while exposed reef tidal pools offer a unique glimpse at marine life for the landlubbing set. When it comes time to sleep, Veley recommends the upscale Pousada Maravilha replete with the most goddamn beautiful infinity pool and view.
Socotra, Yemen.* This windswept island off the coast of Yemen, famous for its Dr. Seussian assortment of endemic flora and fauna, has earned itself the title of Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, but with even more biodiversity. Its crowning jewel is probably the Dragon Blood tree, so-called for its oozy red sap. Veley was lucky to travel here in 2004 when Yemen was more politically stable. While it was difficult enough then to access this remote wonder, today it’s next to impossible. In fact the Department of State “warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.” That didn’t stop a National Geographic writer/photographer team from traveling there and documenting the island’s peculiar and otherworldly wonders for an article in the June 2012 edition.
Ile Rodrigues, Republic of Mauritius. This tiny island off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean first caught my attention while reading passages from Le Clézio’s Voyage à Rodrigues for a French class. Le Clézio traveled to the island, home of his ancestors, and discovered a “savage,” untamed, unforgiving, and utterly pristine terrain. Besides the unspoiled appeal, little sister islands have a charmingly plucky way about them, like Nantucket’s Tuckernuck, or Malta’s Gozo. What’s more, Veley confirms that the people here are very friendly.
Lord Howe Island, Australia.* There are few places as naturally blessed as Lord Howe, an island with more biodiversity than you can shake a giant stick bug at. (Wouldn’t you know it, after 80 years of obscurity, the giant stick bug (or “tree lobster”) was rediscovered on the rocky stack of Ball’s Pyramid 20 km off the coast of Lord Howe, bringing the little known island to the front pages of science reviews this spring.) Like the Galapagos, mankind did not set foot on Lord Howe until very late in history, 1788 to be precise, which means that the endemic species found here evolved without any relationship to man. Of course, as soon as ships did make landfall, they unintentionally introduced stowaway rats that continue to haunt and hunt the island’s population of land birds and insects. Needless to say, Lord Howe’s numerous endemic and naturalized plant and bird species, in addition to its spectacular coral reef, have earned the island a spot in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Islands he added to the list:
Norfolk Island, Australia. Though similar in its subtropical landscape, Norfolk island lacks the biodiversity of Lord Howe due to its longer history of human occupation. Of course it is exactly that human heritage which makes Norfolk island such a fascinating destination. Originally settled by Polynesians, the island was rediscovered by Captain James Cook, and later became a British penal colony. (The prison recently earned World Heritage status.) Then in the 19th century, the island received a fresh injection of residents in the form of immigrants from Pitcairn island who had been relocated due to overpopulation on tiny Pitcairn. These newcomers were descendants of none other than the famous (or infamous depending on how you look it at) Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian lady-friends. Today, this tight knit community seems to verges on clannishness, boasting that the “Norfolk island phone book is the only one in the world listed by nicknames.” Other cultural peculiarities include the celebration of Thanksgiving due to the islands historical whaling connection to the United States and an endangered language known as Norf’k, a “lilting” blend of Old English and Tahitian.
St. Helena, British Overseas Territory. The word “archipelago” typically conjures up an image of clusters of little islands dappling a sea like spots on the rump of an appaloosa. Not so of the Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, and Ascension island group. Not only is this archipelago the most remote in the world, lying some 1750 miles from the next nearest landmass, but its three main islands are staggered along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at astonishing intervals. 1510 miles of uninterrupted Atlantic ocean separate Tristan da Cunha from St. Helena, and Ascension lies even farther beyond that.
Getting to St. Helena, Britain’s second oldest remaining colony, is no easy feat; visitors must embark on a 5 day sail from Cape Town. To date, ships are the only means of transport to and from the island. It was this extreme remoteness which attracted Napoleon Bonaparte’s persecutors, having failed to thoroughly exile him to Elba. This second attempt proved successful. Napoleon never managed to escape from St. Helena until he was dead, buried, exhumed, and eventually transferred to his gold-tipped resting place in Paris. His original gravesite on St. Helena is one of the island’s top tourist attractions.
Åland Islands, Finland. Though a geographically more typical archipelago than our last entry on the list, the Åland islands are a cultural and political anomaly. Teetering at the convergence of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia, the islands lean simultaneously Swedish and Finnish. While Ålanders carry Finnish passports, they speak exclusively Swedish. Their history is mired with awkward treaties which finally rendered the islands autonomous, demilitarized, and neutral. Recently the archipelago made the news when a 170 year old shipwreck was discovered in Åland waters, revealing the world’s oldest drinkable bottle of bubbly. Talk about potent potables!
Sable Island, Nova Scotia.– This aptly named boomerang of a sandbar off the coast of Halifax has a population of a whopping five people. What it lacks in people it makes up for in wild ponies, herds of which have roamed this treeless sliver of land since the late 18th century. Though the island measures 26 miles long, it has a girth of less than a mile, leaving little room for much in the way of infrastructure. Needless to say, it is still possible to fly here and land in the island’s “aerodrome,” a somewhat misleading term used to describe the wide flat beach on the southern edge of the island. As Veley explained it to me, a guy in a jeep drags a runway in the sand, sticks a windsock on his car antenna, and directs planes to land. Gotta love island ingenuity!
Islands which I was sad to hear weren’t that cool:
St. Pierre and Miquelon, Overseas Collectivity of France. As Veley put it, “just your typical Canadian fishing village.” “But you can get baguette there!” I protested. “You can get baguette in a lot of places.” He quipped. Touché, Mr. Veley, touché.
If you’d like to see how your personal travel map stacks up, you can download the list of TCC designated destinations
For a more thorough account of Veley’s vision and travel prowess, check out a 2010 interview he did for the Guardian.