12 Islands

A native New Orleanian travel writer discovers a dozen intriguing islands - and a drink to go with each

Isla Mujeres. Xtabentun (ish-ta-ben-toon) and cenotes
Always refuse if offered a flaming drink, and definitely decline if this flaming drink comes with a straw. Trust me. I’m from New Orleans. That is why I was a little surprised one Mexican evening when my friend Prisca and I found ourselves – two New Orleanians – inadvertently warming our chins over a glassful of a concoction that had just been set afire by a man named Nacho.
The liqueur in question was xtabentun, made from honey that comes from a type of flower grown only in the Yucatan. Nacho, who was hosting the seafood dinner on Isla Mujeres’ Playa Norte (all the stops featured tiki torches dug in the sand, a glittering slice of moon and waiters with silver trays), wanted us to try something Mayan. We did – in abundance. So it was with great thanks the next morning that I slung back a drink made from chaya at a café called Element of the Island. Cesar, the owner, told me the spinach-like vegetable is cultivated by the Maya, and because of its high vitamin C and amino acids, it had become a hangover godsend for a New Orleans girl who should have known better.
The chaya was effective enough, at least to get us to our next Yucatan destination, Ik Kil. A stone staircase led us away from the steamy jungle and deep into the cenote, or sinkhole, where after a few minutes we found ourselves alone and near a delicious pool of water. Sunlight, filtering through a large hole in the ground about 80 feet above us, acted like a spotlight and lit the water a deep blue. Tree roots twisted into the cenote. Water dripped off limestone walls. I stepped in, using the wooden ladder. Prisca swooshed in after me. The water was chilly, refreshing – a nice road stop on our way to Isla Holbox. Memories of flaming drinks washed away.

 Isla Holbox (whole-bosh) The undiscovered Piña Colada
Isla Holbox is an island where not many go. First off, it’s complicated to get there. You have to fly to Cancun (more than likely that’ll mean a stop in Miami), then drive three hours to the port town of Chiquila, where a man pedaling a triciclos, a three wheeled bike with a cart, will tote your luggage to the ferry. Then you’ll motor an hour north into a mangrove that is a thriving metropolis for mosquitoes (that’s the second reason many don’t come there). Now for the reasons you should. It is an island of flamingos and whale sharks that you can snorkel with, if you’re lucky. When you disembark on Isla Holbox, the only transportation, at least the only transportation you should consider, is the golf cart. The other reason to come to Holbox is you could go barefoot for at least four days here (the streets are sand) and no one would notice. Not even a restaurateur, of which there are a few. Like the person who owns the rickety La Isla del Colibri on the corner of calles Porfirio and Tiburon Ballena (Whale Shark), which serves a mean piña colada. If you’ve ever said, “I wish I could find a place before it gets ‘discovered,’” then Isla Holbox might be your place. Before discovery, there isn’t much. But that which isn’t, is charming.

Cayo Espanto, Belize. Pool margaritas
Forgive these indulgent words. This happened before we were all in trouble. But before then, one sea salted fall evening, I was on a small island in Belize, west of the bigger Belizian splatter of Ambergris Caye. I was drinking a frozen margarita in the pool at my casa, Casa Aurora to be precise (aurora meaning dawn in Spanish). Then Eddie the houseman came in to announce the chef’s arrival. The chef had come to recite the dinner specials as I floated in a pool right next to the Caribbean Sea, not far from Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, where I had snorkeled just that afternoon. For some odd reason, as I sat in the midst of fish, I opted for the achiote-rubbed flank steak. Steak, no problem. This is Cayo Espanto, a palm-studded islet that is 223 of my steps across. There is nothing else like it and its nightly price tag reflects that. It is $1,395 per night, although that includes meals, including the chunky banana pancakes and aforementioned achiote-rubbed flank steak, plus a lot of other stuff; basically it’s the price tag of having just about anything you want, like ceviche, freshly prepared for you on a desert island, with a little lobster thrown in. Hell, the houseman would probably play harmonica for you if you asked nicely. It is, if I can say it, a touch “Fantasy Island,” minus having to come to terms with the fallouts of your fantasies.

Nevis. Plantation drinks and Killer Bees

On the right spring evening when the tropical Caribbean breeze has kicked in a bit, it can be downright chilly on Nevis’ hilltop Montpelier Plantation Inn. If you walk through the entrance to Montpelier’s great house, framed by a weeping fig tree, it’ll lead to the patio, where the server takes drink orders and the lights of sister island, St. Kitts, twinkle 750 feet below. Fanny Nisbet and Lord Horatio Nelson were married near here. You could also throw back a rum punch at Fanny’s family’s house, The Nisbet Plantation, which is directly on the Atlantic and offers more bathing suit rather than sweater weather. A personal favorite is the Hermitage Plantation Inn, built around 1670, which has one of those cozy-up bars, a library and historic cottages with wooden shingled roofs. Don’t leave Nevis though, without a killer bee, a you’ll-be-sorry-if-you-have-two type of rum drink. The only place to drink it: On Pinney’s Beach at the open-air Sunshine’s Bar. Even if you’ve had a few, those really are vervet monkeys running around pilfering fruit.

St. Vincent and The Grenadines. Bay of Hairoun
The following events took place over the course of 16 years, but I’m going to condense it, pinpointing the prime bays in the Southern Caribbean for drinking the local Hairoun beer. First, there’s Wallilabou Bay on St. Vincent’s leeward coast, well before Trinity Waterfalls that everyone hikes to. At Wallilabou, the Pirates of the Caribbean set still remains, and within the set is the Wallilabou Anchorage, a bar and restaurant. How cool is that, Orlando Bloom?
Skip the plane and take the hour ferry ride to the island south of St. Vincent, Bequia. Walk along the sea path, past the bookstore and the Port Hole restaurant, until you hear the sound of a blender. The Frangipani, an inn, a restaurant, a bar and a yachtie gathering spot. White Adirondack-style chairs positioned under coconut palms face a jetty full of dinghys and a bay of sailboats. Thursday nights, the happy sound of steel drums echoes while the smell of grilling meat and bowls of breadfruit salad beckon. The Hairoun is cold, at least for the first 10 minutes out of the cooler. The mailboat sails up and down the Grenadines chain, delivering goods, perhaps even Hairoun. Stop at Mayreau’s Saltwhistle Bay. Electricity is relatively new on this island and the novelty of it is still felt.

Aruba Ariba, Ariba Aruba

Try this phrase: Mi tin sed – Papiamento for “I’m thirsty.” The language is alive and well on Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Order pastechi (deep-fried, crescent-shaped filled pastries), which are even better with a hot sauce made from Madam Jeanette pepper. Eat it under a watapana, the wind-beaten looking divi-divi tree. Swig it all down on this aloe- and acacia-choked desert in the middle of the ocean just a touch off Venezuela, with an Ariba Aruba made with the aloe-derived coecoei liqueur. Or you could do what everyone else does on Aruba: Play the slots, sleep in a high-rise hotel and drink Budweiser. Your choice.

Azores. The islands of wine and cheese
I somehow want Pico and Sao Jorge, two islands part of the Azores chain, to merge so I can have a proper picnic. With the highest peak in its home country of Portugal, the young black-lava-strewn island of Pico has UNESCO-designated vineyards and trails where you can still see the wheel marks of where ox pulled wine-laden carts many centuries ago. The white wine here is pretty damn good. Five miles away from it is “cow island” – there really are more cows than people on Sao Jorge – and the cheese pairs nicely with Pico’s wines. Then, there are fairytale hikes through thick green grass and abandoned stone cottages, the faja, level valleys formed by lava flowing in the sea, and the swimming holes.

Milos. Venus de Milo’s arms
Every day, after a morning of exploring on the Greek island of Milos, my aunt and I ate very, very long lunches in the Greek style. We order too much food from the taverna’s kitchen. We also order a large carafe of wine. We do it because everyone else is doing it. And they’re Greek. And when in Greece… We point to the fish we want and wait for the cook to grill it with lemon, olive oil and sea salt. Meanwhile, over appetizers of dolmades, feta and tomato salad and peltes, the most delicious tomato spread I’ve ever eaten, we talk about what we’ve seen: the whipped-cream-looking formations of Sarakiniko Beach. (Truly, the shoreline is hard, marshmallow-looking stone.) The fiery red beach of Tsigrado. The ruins of a Roman amphitheater near Klima, near where the Venus de Milo was discovered. The unique architecture of Firopotamos, known as syrmata, dwellings carved into rocks. Forget Santorini – this is Cyclades unknown.

Langkawi. Bon Ton drinks
Along the paved road on the island of Langkawi grows a forest of coconut palms, rubber trees, mangos and frangipani. Macaques monkeys climb through the jungle. The karsts of Thailand, in the distance, appear around unassuming coastal corners. Not far is the Chin Chin bar, a rubber house converted into a barnlike look, part of the Bon Ton Resort. From here, I can see reeds of grass that are camouflaging a lotus lagoon. It is a warm Asian evening on Langkawi. Truth is, all the nights here all warm, and the ice in my Bon Ton drink, the lychee fizz, has melted. Good times though.

Pangkor Laut. A shot of jet lag

As we approached the private island by boat, Pangkor Laut emerged like a floating kingdom from the turquoise straits of Malacca with its stilted, dark-wood, Malay-style bungalows. Granite boulders tumble along the shore. I was happy to arrive here and was greeted with a sweet fruit drink and a cool wet cloth. I walked the raised, wooden plank walkway to my sea villa where, jet lagged, I drew a bath in the deepest of stone tubs, pushed open the frosted glass windows and let the steamy Malaysian air hypnotize me. I opened my heavy eyelids and saw a teakwood tongkong boat glide by, and I lifted my drink to the driver.

Moorea. Becoming Hinano
Life is good when you’re going to the South Seas island of Moorea for lunch and biking. Why not? I took the 30-minute ferry from Papeete, Tahiti, kept company by schoolchildren plucking ukuleles and singing in French. On the other side, I rented a bike and pedaled the brilliant green, ambitiously fecund road, passing big bouquets of tiare, ylang-ylang, hibiscus, jasmine and giant pamplemousse. I came to an untamed coconut-palm snarl of a beach; my tourist map marks this spot as the one where Mutiny on the Bounty beach scenes were filmed. It isn’t much of a shore. I jumped back on my bike, riding to a shop with tchotchkes: monoi, Tahitian Monopoly boards, floral-print dresses, black pearls and the local vanilla extract for cooking. I followed the road that circles the island to a waterfront café for poisson cru and a Hinano. There was a lady on the beach collecting sea riff-raff and weaving them together into a head wreath. She looked up to me, came over and placed it on my head; I looked like the girl on the Hinano bottle, without the Polynesian sarong. I considered a ride back to the shop but settled into my wreath just fine. Bien.
 
Maui. Swimming in champagne

Usually when people fly to Maui, they head to the well-known west coast. But it’s the east side of the island that’s really solid. Solid, solid; like the Western saloon, old sugar cane vibe of Paia. The 76 Gas Station is the “home of Maui fried chicken,” and if it hadn’t been 7 a.m., I would’ve tested this theory. Ferns cover the sides of the gulch and roads seem slick even though it isn’t raining. Not far along begins the famous 68-mile Road to Hana. It was here that I swam in champagne. They say the road to Hana has 54 one-lane bridges and about the same amount of waterfalls. I am sure they’re right, but there’s only one swimming hole that’s so ice cold and fizzy that I’m convinced it’s champagne. If you can’t find it I still recommend the drive (go early, before the tourist vans), the Venus pools, the honor fruit stands and definitely the banana bread that’s sold still-hot in the saran wrap in front of the home where, on the porch, hang wild pig heads. Solid.

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