Saturday, March 16, 2013

Isle find my Bali Ha'i

An azure ocean is a must for an island paradise (Porto Da Cruz, Madeira) 

‘Wonder how I'd feel, living on a hillside/Looking on an ocean, beautiful and still,’ American nurse Nellie Forbush wondered out loud in the film, South Pacific.

Well, it was a musical so she actually sang them, but as the long-term implications of her romance with wealthy French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, hit home, there was something she needed to know. Could she make a small pacific island her home?

South Pacific ignited my passion for islands
I was six or seven and living in a dirty, industrial south Wales town (this was in the days when Llanwern actually made steel) when I first saw the film, a hopeless romantic even at that tender age. South Pacific, with its island setting (and vivid colour filters), had an immediate impact on me. I was captivated by the idea of living on a tropical island, where the ocean stretched out as far as you could see, everyday life was relaxed, where you were surrounded by palm trees, vibrant flowers and bananas and the preferred mode of travel was boat.

In the film, the mystical ‘foggy’ island of Bali Ha'i loomed on the horizon, luring the unsuspecting to its shores and changing them forever.

‘Bali Ha'i will whisper, in the wind of the sea:“Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!"'

Unreal it might have been, but I pinpoint my life-long obsession with islands to that very first viewing of South Pacific with the wonderful Mitzi Gaynor (amazingly not first choice for the part) stomping around singing about washing men out of her hair and being a cockeyed optimist.

'Real' islands have lots of banana plantations
Unfortunately, islands didn’t feature largely in my childhood, well not unless you count Barry Island (of Gavin and Stacey fame), the destination of choice for our annual street outings. With its gaudy boardings, noisy funfair and pots of tea on the beach, Barry didn’t quite fit into my idea of what an island should be.

Then, when I was nearly 20, something amazing happened. My sister, Gail, went to work at Smugglers Ride, a guest house on the Isles of Scilly. Within weeks she was loving island living and writing letters home in which she raved about her new home. Then, out of the blue, she phoned me. There was a job going, they needed another chambermaid at the Atlantic Hotel. Was I interested?

Was I…? I handed in my notice as a cashier/clerk at Harris Queensway and was on the helicopter to St Mary’s within days. Like Gail before me, I fell in love with the Scillies and the simplicity of a life where everything – work, leisure, shops, and friends – was within walking distance and nowhere was more than a stone’s throw from a turquoise ocean.

Gai and I enjoying the white sands of St Martin's, Isles of Scilly in the 1980s 
It was while on Scilly that I first became acquainted with Rachel Lyman Field’s poem ‘If Once You Have Slept On An  Island’.

My favourite stanza warns, ‘You may bustle about in street and shop/You may sit at home and sew/But you’ll see blue water and wheeling gulls/Wherever your feet may go.’

Enjoying an ice-cold dip on the Scillies 
Needless to say I adored Scilly and spent two happy summers there working first at the Atlantic and then, in 1983, as a silver-service waitress at Tregarthen’s Hotel.  There was only one downside. Though considerably milder than the mainland, the Scillies were still in the UK and although they boasted the amazing tropical Abbey Garden on Tresco, they still got their fair share of cold, blustery weather, grey skies and drizzle, even in the summer months.

The years passed and still I dreamed of my island paradise.

On the shelves of the Carnegie library on Corporation Road, I found a copy of We Bought An Island by Evelyn Atkins and marvelled that anyone could actually own their own island, albeit the tiny Looe Island in Cornwall.

I was filled with even more envy when I read Lucy Irving’s Castaway (which was later made into a film starring the late Oliver Reed). A few years later, and with her children in tow, Lucy followed up with another South Pacific adventure and wrote about it in her even more enjoyable sequel, Faraway.

The problem was that travelling to islands on the other side of the world took time and money – as a working mother of three I had neither. 

Over the years, I returned to Scilly for several holidays and even flew to the Greek island of Cephalonia (famous for being the location for the film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), but my heart still yearned for my very own Bali Ha'i (the actual location is the Hawaiian Island of Kauai).

Madeira: as idyllic an island setting as the mythical Bali Ha'i
And then, in 2007, Harri’s parents suggested Madeira for our first foreign holiday together. My first instinct was to dismiss it as a destination for ageing retirees, people who usually arrived by cruise ship and enjoyed afternoon tea at the exclusive Reid’s Palace. The toboggan ride at Monte was probably the nearest thing to excitement that Madeira had to offer. I can’t even remember what made me agree to go – something to do with Tenerife package holidays being very expensive over the Christmas period and mainland Europe being too cold.

Essential for island living - a waterfall to bathe in
How wrong I was about Madeira’s appeal! On that very first holiday, as we strolled high above the banana plantations on a rather vertiginous levada path and looked down at the glittering azure ocean, I turned to Harri and announced rather dramatically that I thought I’d finally found my tropical island.

We’ve just returned from our fifth holiday on Madeira and its appeal hasn’t dulled one iota – for either of us.

Madeira may not be situated in the South Pacific, but the memorable lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II could equally have been written about our magical, real-life Bali Ha'i. 

More on Madeira in future posts.

A Madeiran sunset - the perfect end to a perfect day

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