So, this January, for the first time in many years, it wasn’t southern Africa for winter break. Instead, we headed for one of the world’s iconic bucket list destinations: Australia. We were smitten from the very moment we had made the decision and still are now after we returned home to the grey and grisly European winter. Australia didn’t disappoint. Picture-perfect beaches, towering mountains, amazing cities, the jaw-dropping Sydney Opera House, a mad foodie culture. However, the most vivid and oft-recounted stories of our road trip are not those of mainland Oz but of Tasmania, the country’s island state roughly the size of Ireland. Despite it being neither more exciting nor more beautiful than the rest of Australia, we keep on raving about Tasmania to the extent that we’ve come to ask ourselves why. My theory is, it’s because it is an island that, like all islands, affords us to travel on a more human scale. Islands take complexity out of a world that can seem overwhelmingly huge and impossible to grasp.
Islands are isolation
I always felt that islands are a world away from real life, even if they are just off the coast, still visible from the shore, or a short ferry ride from the centre of the city. They are not part and parcel of the mundane, everyday world of business and offices and highways and retail pollution. Global trends that spread between economic and cultural centres only trickle down to the world’s islands with some delay and give many of them a refreshingly old-fashioned look and feel. From the bustling centre of Istanbul graceful, old ships take people on a scenic ride to the gorgeous Princess Islands. Here, amidst the pine forests and timber mansions from a bygone era, one of the fastest growing cities in the world is but a mere twinkle in the evening sky.
Every time I set my feet onto an island, the worries and problems of the world seem to miraculously disappear. Once the last evening service has departed, the sea keeps all evil at bay at least until the next morning when the ferries resume their duty. When I was 20, I worked in nature conservation on a small island off the German coast for about a year and we made a point of only travelling to other, nearby islands and tried to avoid the mainland whenever possible. For a summer, the world was reduced to ferries and islands and everything else faded into nothingness.
Islands are simplicity
Even islands as big as Tasmania make it an effortless endeavour to travel. They have clear boundaries to frame your itinerary. Where the land dips into the sea is where the road ends. Full stop. Islands fit onto a small map in their entirety with all major roads and towns and landmarks and sights. When in Australia, there’s Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane and Perth and Adelaide and many more cities to choose from, all hundreds and thousands of kilometres apart. On Tasmania, Hobart is the only urban setting that justifies to be called a city, so it’s a natural starting point. In turn, that translates into blissful peace of mind. You want to go to Tasmania and see a city? Well, there’s only one, so no choices to be made here.
At the same time, this limited stock of sights means you discover and rediscover more things that are seemingly insignificant. You climb mountains that hardly qualify as hills elsewhere. You hike for ages to small waterfalls that you would otherwise never visit even if they had a car park attached to them. You pop in to country bakeries and old-school cafés you would normally give a clear miss in favour of that hot-and-happening new eatery down the road, because you know it’s not likely that there is one. This lack of choice can be incredibly soothing.
Islands are diversity
Despite their size, islands are habitats of natural bounty and diversity. They combine marine life with coastal zones and wetlands that merge into forests and eventually hills and mountains (well, sometimes a dune will have to do) from where one can look out to sea, all within an hour’s drive. For us as travellers this means we can have a swim in the morning, see snow during midday and wander through vineyards in the afternoon. For inhabitants and visiting foodies alike, islands provide not only the bounty of the oceans but, quite often, also offer the potential to grow agricultural produce at the same time. It’s surf and turf heaven. If you want to source your food locally, an island the size of Tasmania is your natural choice to settle. No wonder Tasmania has quietly built a reputation as one of the most exciting epicurean destinations of Australasia over the past years. Chefs and restaurateurs attracted by the island’s availability of produce, dairy, honey and seafood, coupled with said isolation and simplicity (see above), are now adding another layer of diversity. The must-see Agrarian Kitchen is a case in point…
Islands are authenticity
All this adds up to islands being very distinct destinations of great authenticity. Their remoteness in past centuries (and still today to an extent) means people on these islands could develop their very own traditions, rituals, vernacular architectural styles and cuisines. Even on nearby islands, these might all be vastly different depending on the extent of isolation. And what was being frowned upon by mainland city-slickers for a long time as backwards and uncouth is now regarded as a unique selling point in an age where travellers seek bespoke experiences rather than run-of-the-mill packages. One might even argue that Melbourne is just another great city just like Berlin, Cape Town and Rio, all of which are rapidly equalizing to eventually become copies of each other. And while that might be slightly over-exaggerated and not do justice to either of the above cities, let’s hope all the many islands around the world keep their authenticity a little longer in this increasingly unauthentic world.
For if they disappeared, what could replace the comforting nature of islands?