Island Stories

220px-FiveOnATreasureIslandNicola here. Since the time I first picked up a book I’ve been fascinated by islands, both in real life and as the setting for stories. Whether it's Five on a Treasure Island or The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, or Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies (well not so much that one, perhaps) there is something magical about an island.

Islands offer the idea of escape and retreat and also the opportunity to start afresh. They are places set apart where you can take time and space to think. They appear solitary and pure in some ways, an earthly paradise. But they can also be too isolated, even savage, which is perhaps they make such great settings for crime novels. An island, if you can’t get off it easily, is the perfect “locked room” mystery as Agatha Christie proved and countless other crime and thriller authors have used the setting.

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Snowdrift 2Nicola here, talking about the unexpected delights of being stranded in a remote community. It’s a familiar and popular trope in books, whether it’s being marooned in the snow with a handsome hero or, in crime novels, stuck in an eerie house with a bunch of suspects, but I’ve always wondered what it would really be like to be stranded somewhere. When I was a small child, we went on a family trip to the Lake District at Christmas time and did get stuck in the snow. We all ended up rattling around in an empty hotel – they opened it up specially for us – and it felt like a great adventure to me but then I didn’t have to work out the logistics of how we were going to get home! I suspect that Wench readers in countries with more extreme weather than the UK are used to that sort of thing!

Last month, on our holiday in Alaska, we got stranded again. Our trip was heavily dependent on 0033 IMG_5089
the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry system that takes you all the way along the coast. We started out in Juneau on the MV Columbia and travelled up to Skagway, Sitka and various other intriguing ports along the coast. It was fabulous – along with admiring the stunning scenery we met and chatted to some very interesting people; locals who used the ferry system for their work, holiday-makers like us, a big family on their way to a wedding, lots of other very interesting people doing very interesting things. We disembarked on Wrangell Island to stay for 5 days with the plan of hopping back on another ferry after that to take us down to Prince Rupert in BC.

0028 IMG_5080However, we’d been only a day in Wrangell when we heard that the ferries were on strike. There was no way we were going to be able to get the ferry out of Wrangell, which, of course, had implications for all of the rest of our trip. We weren’t the only ones by any means. There were stories of towns along the coast where they were putting stranded travellers up in school and church halls because there wasn’t enough accommodation for everyone. Alaska Airways put on a special flight to help a stranded school party get home. We hoped that the wedding guests we’d met along the way had all made it in time for the ceremony even if they couldn’t get home afterwards! For all these villages and towns along the coast, especially those with no road access, the ferry is literally a lifeline, and necessary for food supplies to be delivered and businesses to run and all sorts of other communications.

We were very lucky. We were staying in a lovely float house on the harbour and the owner very kindly told us we could stay as long 0218 IMG_5927as we needed. Our neighbours, living on the other boats, generously shared their freshly-caught prawns with us so there was no danger of us starving! The shops and museum in Wrangell provided plenty of things to do and we got to know people far better than we would have done if we’d just been passing through. Meanwhile we tried to find some options that would enable us to stick to our itinerary as best we could. The scheduled flights were all fully booked as there was only one a day and they went in the wrong direction; we realised it would take us four more flights to get back to where we were supposed to be! We couldn’t drive since we were on an island… There weren’t any other boats going south to Prince Rupert. Then one of our new friends came up with a suggestion: The local air charter company could squeeze us in to their schedule as a favour if we were prepared to be flexible in terms of when we could go.

0227 IMG_5958As the ferry company had very kindly refunded us our costs, chartering a light aircraft was possible but then we hit the next problem. The weather was awful and a small plane couldn’t fly in it. We’d have to wait, which didn’t help my “nervous flyer” stress! Finally a clear day arrived. We chartered our very own aeroplane complete with standard-issue hero-style pilot to take us to Prince Rupert. Once I’d got over my nerves I almost enjoyed it. The views were amazing and there was a lot less queuing than on a scheduled flight but for lots of reasons I can’t see it becoming a regular thing!

I guess the lessons we learned from a real-life stranded situation was how friendly, helpful and kind people were and also how interesting it was to have time to get to know a place better than we might have done on a shorter visit. These days, with improved communication links it’s a lot more unlikely people are going to be castaway on an island for years, or stranded in a remote wilderness for months at a time although it is still possible.

Coach in fogIn the past it was often poor weather that would maroon our ancestors somewhere isolated. Fog as well as snow was a particular hazard. As early as the 13th century, the government records show concerns over air pollution in London from the burning of sea coal and by the mid 17th century the combination of natural mist and fog in the Thames Valley plus the industrial smoke had given rise to the term “London Particular.” In the Regency the term “pea soup” was coined to describe “a fog as thick and as yellow as the pea-soup of the eating house.” In December 1813 the Prince Regent set out from Hatfield House to visit the Marquis of Salisbury but the fog was too thick for him to proceed. One of his outriders fell in a ditch and he was obliged to turn back. Meanwhile, the Maidenhead coach overturned in the fog and various other carriages drove off the road, ending up down alleyways and in gardens. Coachmen ended up leading their horses.

0170 IMG_5352I used the pea soup fog idea to inspire a short story set in Bath, and the idea of being stranded by snow in another Regency short story. It’s definitely a trope that I enjoy reading and writing!

Have you ever been stranded anywhere, and if so how did you cope? Is it a theme you enjoy reading about in a book?

New England Islands

  Block Island Bluffs 1

by Mary Jo

This is definitely my year for islands! In July, I visited Orkney  and Shetland , and now we're back from a shorter, more low key New England cruise.  (I took the picture above on Block Island.)

We were traveling on American Cruise Lines, a small ship cruising company that specializes in American waters, from the coast of New England to Southern rivers, the Mississippi, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. We've cruised on ACL once before, traveling from Baltimore to Charleston, SC on the IntraCoastal Waterway, and we had a fine time.

IMG_3563Our ship, the American Star, held fewer than a hundred passengers, which was great. The food is also very good, and on the New England cruises, ACL heavily emphasizes lobster. This one is from the New England boiled dinner served on the first night. I'm not particularly fond of lobster–this one belonged to the Mayhem Consultant. Wait staff went around breaking open the lobsters so people could actually eat them. <G>

But this was only the beginning! Over the week, there were lobster soups, lobster rolls, both Maine and Connecticut, lobster mac and cheese, and even lobster bread pudding. By the end of the cruise, even the most devout lobster lovers were sated. <G Newenglandislands_700x700


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No Man Is An Island . . .

Bodleian_Libraries ElbaAndrea/Cara here, I’ve recently started working on a new Lady Arianna mystery novel, and after having sent her and Lord Saybrook to Scotland in the last adventure, I decided to head south to the Mediterranean.

More specifically, to a certain island in the Mediterranean—one that will likely ring a bell with aficionados of Regency-era history. (Though there’s a little unexpected excitement along the way.) Elba was home to Napoleon during his first exile from the world stage. But I knew little else about the rugged speck of land in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Which of course meant I needed to do some research.

Aerial_view_of_Elba_2Oh, joy. Now in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll confess that I have a thing for islands. I love the sense of their being a little world unto themselves. The closeness of water seems to bathe them in a special aura—things always feel calmer and more relaxed on an island. (Yes, yes, I know—an oxymoron when it comes to Napoleon!)

Elba didn’t disappoint. I found it to be a fascinating place, rich in history and natural beauty. Allow me to share some of the highlights of my research . . .

Tuscan_archipelagoFirst let’s place it a little more exactly. It’s a mere 6 miles off the coast of Italy, which raised concerns from the start among the Allied leaders at the Congress of Vienna when Napoleon requested it as his place of exile. As the Emperor of Austria wrote to his foreign minister, Prince Metternich, “The important thing is to remove Napoleon from France, and God grant that he may be sent very far away. I do not approve of the choice of the Island of Elba as a residence for Napoleon; they take it from Tuscany, they dispose of what belongs to my family, in favour of foreigners. Besides, Napoleon remains too near to France and to Europe.” Lord Castlereagh of Britain agreed, but Tsar Alexander harped on the need to get Napoleon to abdicate quickly, and so he was grudgingly given the island as his new empire.

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