The Mystery Of Sandy Island

Sandy Island as recently un-discoveredA team of explorers traveling to a remote island off the coast of Australia has made an unusual discovery. Or perhaps in this case, it is more accurate to say that they made an “un-discovery.” It turns out the tiny piece of land known as Sandy Island doesn’t actually exist despite the fact that it appears on nearly every map and atlas in the world.

The research ship RV Southern Surveyor was sailing in the South Pacific when the crew noticed an interesting discrepancy between their navigational maps and other atlases that were aboard. Almost every source they checked, including Google Maps, showed a small speck called Sandy Island halfway between Australia and New Caledonia. But the ship’s navigational charts showed no such island, so the crew decided that while they were in the neighborhood they would go and investigate. What they discovered was nothing but empty ocean.

The Surveyor actually arrived at the site of Sandy Island in the middle of the night, which left some of the crew, including the captain, a bit concerned that they might run aground on a piece of land just beneath the surface. But their depth sounding equipment showed that the ocean floor was thousands of feet below. This indicated that the island wasn’t a victim of recent volcanic activity and probably never existed in the first place.So now the real question is, why does nearly every map and atlas show a place called Sandy Island? Those sources indicated that Sandy was approximately 60 square miles in size – roughly the same area as Manhattan – which means that it wouldn’t have been an insignificant piece of land. But how it managed to get on to all of those maps remains a mystery. One theory is that the island was placed there on purpose by a cartographer who was looking to prevent the copying of his maps. In the past it wasn’t unusual for mapmakers to put a deliberate mark on their works so that they could identify copies by the less scrupulous. It is possible that Sandy Island was just such a mark, but over the years it somehow simply became accepted that it existed.

Now it seems Sandy Island will go down as just a footnote in history – a place that never existed, but still managed to stay on most maps for hundreds of years. I wonder how many other places like that are still out there waiting to be un-discovered.

[Photo credit: Google Maps]

Overseas France: Or Where You Can Find France Outside Of France

The days of colonial empires may be long over, though the United States, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Denmark continue each to administer a smattering of overseas territories.

Among these, France has arguably the most interesting and wide-ranging set of territories. Overseas France includes tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland (population around 6,000), the Caribbean overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the smaller Caribbean “overseas collectivities” of St. Martin and St. Barts, the South American overseas department of French Guiana, the Indian Ocean overseas departments of Réunion and Mayotte, and French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis & Futuna in the South Pacific.

Officially, overseas France is divided into “overseas departments” (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion), “overseas collectivities” (French Polynesia, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna), and New Caledonia, which has a special status unto itself.

There are also two uninhabited French territories – a vast, noncontiguous territory with the grand name of Territory of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, inhabited only by researchers, and, most curious of all, the uninhabited island of Clipperton, which sits off Mexico and is administered directly by the Minister of Overseas France.

Tourism is a huge economic driver in many of these territories. St. Martin, St. Barts, and French Polynesia are particularly well known to Americans. Francophone tourists are also familiar with the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, and Réunion.

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[Flickr image via Rayced]

Reflections on a round-the-world journey

Several nights into our journey, as we were speeding along dark roads en route to our guest house on the island of Lifou in New Caledonia, I felt a bolt of irrepressible excitement of the sort familiar, no doubt, to most travel enthusiasts. We’d just spent several nights in big, bold Sydney, a bona fide world city, well-organized and self-evident. Sydney was exciting, but, truth be told, not unlike many places I knew well. The quiet island of Lifou, with its hybrid French-Melanesian culture, provided a novel contrast. There were few people around, and few streetlights. The air smelled sweet. Occasionally a car overtook us during our 40-minute journey, and headlights once or twice revealed women in bright clothing walking along the side of the road.

We had made it to an unknown place. I felt myself caught up with that familiar emotion known to all who love travel: teeming excitement, tied to a lack of knowledge of what was to come.

Taking stock of a five-week trip after the fact is perhaps unavoidable, but it’s also fraught. You don’t want to put too much energy into second-guessing what you did on your journey, perhaps in particular because a specific round-the-world itinerary is unlikely to be repeated. Simultaneously, you also want to learn from the experience.

Here’s what we planned well and what we might have executed differently if we had the trip to do over.Good planning.

• Hotels. Our hotels were well chosen, all in the $95-$175 range. In terms of value, we did especially well by scoring a room through Hotwire at the Hilton London Docklands for just under $100 per night. Most of the hotels we chose are well-located, or close enough to secondary attractions to feel central.

• Open-ended approach. Our general lack of planning as far as activities are concerned was also beneficial. This approach gave us time to relax into each destination and pick up inspiration on the spot. Our approach perfectly fit my neighborhood-based strategy of urban exploration. More tourist sight-oriented travelers might find this approach to be less satisfying.

• Variety of destinations. Another plus was the variety of our itinerary’s destinations. By including big vibrant cities and out-of-the-way insular idylls on our itinerary, we were able to enjoy a range of experiences in a relatively short period.

So-so planning.

• Johannesburg. As I detailed in an earlier post, our brief Johannesburg stay suffered from poor planning. In retrospect, it turns out that I’d simply consulted the wrong sources. Several friends and acquaintances popped out of the woodwork following the publication of this blog post with tips. I’ll be better prepared for my next visit to Johannesburg. Lesson: always get feedback from your trusted contacts and carefully contextualize reports of a city’s security situation.

• Tanna Island. I’m a big fan of picking a base and then fanning out to other places. I wish we’d taken greater advantage of this approach to spend a few nights on Vanuatu’s Tanna island. I read about Tanna, an ecological wonder of nature, in Lonely Planet’s Vanuatu & New Caledonia guidebook. It is fairly easy to visit Vanuatu from New Caledonia.

• Rodrigues Island. Nine nights on Mauritius was perhaps two too many. A jaunt to the country’s far flung Rodrigues Island, 350 miles to the east, would have provided a fascinating cultural and physical contrast with the main island.

This is the final Capricorn Route series installment. Check out other stories in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Capricorn Route trip top ten

Later this week I’ll reflect on the ups and downs of our round-the-world trip. I’ll look at what we might have done differently as well as those elements that turned out to be particularly well conceived. In the meantime, here’s a playful top ten list of some of the best things we encountered along the way: best beach; best ice cream; best tourist trap; best breakfast; best market stall; best new subway line; best hotel arrival punch; best rough neighborhood; best flight; and best place to sharpen cupcake decoration skills.

1. Best beach: Châteaubriand Bay Beach, Lifou. The Loyalty Island of Lifou in New Caledonia certainly several incredible beaches. Châteaubriand Bay Beach is the most magnificent of these. The sand is delicate and white, the water is a mesmerizing hue, and there’s plenty of shade for those who burn easily. Locals share the beach with tourists, though in the very pleasant off-season there are few of either around.

2. Best ice cream: violet ice cream at Cutler & Co in Melbourne. The extraordinary tasting menu served at Cutler & Co was devoid of missteps. The parting shot of violet ice cream left a bold final impression. It was also the tastiest serving of ice cream of the trip.

3. Best (that is, worst) tourist trap: Île aux Cerfs, Mauritius. Everyone raves about Île aux Cerfs, an island off the east coast of Mauritius. Visitors pay 1000 rupees ($34) upfront at a tour agency in the coastal town of Trou d’Eau Douce for access to the island plus a barbecue lunch. A boat picks up tourists and deposits them at a jetty on the island, then later ferries them over to another island for a barbecue lunch. The island is packed with tourists and touts selling boat rides and parasailing adventures. Prior to development, this island was no doubt terribly beautiful–and, it must be said, it has no landscape-scarring developments even now–but it’s quite crowded for a destination where it is pretty easy to avoid masses of tourists.

4. Best breakfast: Forbes & Burton, Sydney. A potato cake under poached eggs with smoked salmon and onion jam (AUD$18) was the best breakfast of the trip, hearty and refined at once. Runner-up in the great breakfast stakes: several items on the menu at Il Fornaio in Melbourne’s St. Kilda neighborhood.

5. Best market stall: Tisanes N. Mootoosamy, Stall 244, Central Market, Port Louis. The owner’s pitch is hilarious: “There’s one herb we sell here that you can’t use until you leave Mauritius. This is the anti-stress herb, because there’s no stress on Mauritius.” The range of ailments addressed by the herbs on offer here, meant to be imbibed as tea, is broad. It includes menopause, insomnia, cellulite, and anemia.

6. Best new subway line: London Overground East London line. Opened for service in May, 2010, this new line provides a new more or less vertical south-to-north link from West Croydon to Dalston Junction. Some stations are pristine and modern and the trains are gleamingly new.

7. Best arrival punch: Oasis De Kiamu, Lifou. To be fair, this was our only welcome punch, but no matter. It’s awfully nice to be welcomed to a hotel in the tropics with a fruity drink, especially one that turns out to foreshadow well the flavorful aperitifs to come.

8. Best supposedly rough-and-tumble neighborhood: Footscray, Melbourne. I loved this neighborhood of cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a market, an excellent community arts center, and countless specialty shops, many oriented to Melbourne’s various ethnic communities. If you find yourself in Melbourne in desperate need of a grocery that sells both Fijian and Sri Lankan products, Footscray would be a safe bet.

9. Best flight: Qantas Business class Los Angeles-Sydney on the Airbus A380. This is, quite simply, one of the best business-class long-haul routes around. The seats recline completely, the food is quite nice, and there is plenty of privacy. Even the bathroom lighting is gentle. Not cheap, though completely worthwhile.

10. Best place to take a lesson in cupcake decoration: Amandine, London. One of many exciting retail venues in Victoria Park Village, Amandine is a beautiful little café that prioritizes delicious homemade cakes. It also offers fresh produce, good coffee, and free wi-fi. Inside, Amandine is bright and cheerful, like a stylish country cottage gone Boho. There’s also a back garden.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.

Round-the-world: Two half-days in Noumea

Coming and going between Australia and Lifou afforded us long layovers in Nouméa in both directions.

The driving force behind my interest in Nouméa is the Centre Culturel Tjibaou. The cultural center was named after Jean-Marie Tjibaou, a leader of the Kanak independence movement, assassinated in 1989. (Kanaks are Melanesian New Caledonians, and they form a plurality of the population in the territory.) The cultural center is the public heart of Kanak cultural life.

The cultural center is housed in a remarkable building above Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. Designed by Renzo Piano, it is worth a visit for its architectural ambition alone, though its showcasing of Kanak culture is fascinating and of great interest. The building consists of several conical structures meant to resemble traditional Kanak houses, though in a form designed to look unfinished. During our visit to the center, a fantastic exhibition on the art of the Torres Strait Islands was on display. Though the art of the Torres Strait Islands has many art world fans, it is very different from Australian Aboriginal art’s better-known conventions.

In light of the ever-brewing sentiment in favor of full independence among many residents of New Caledonia, it is an especially fascinating place to take stock of the development of Kanak culture. New Caledonia will hold a referendum on independence sometime in 2014 at the earliest.

Cultural connections to the surrounding region of Melanesia are prioritized for many in New Caledonia over connections to France. During our visit, the Fourth Melanesian Arts Festival was held in New Caledonia. The festival featured cultural performances by people from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu in addition to New Caledonia. Near the airport in Lifou there is a big spray-painted banner welcoming “Melanesian brothers” to the festival and proclaiming 2014 as the year when Kanaky (the Kanak term for New Caledonia) will be free.

But in central Nouméa, the vibe is French. Blonde fiftysomething matrons sun themselves on the balconies of modern apartment buildings downtown, and many shops are chic and air-conditioned. The city resembles a medium-sized city in the south of France or in another French overseas territory. (It reminded me most of all of Guadeloupe’s Pointe-à-Pitre). In Noumea we ate an outstanding meal at a very French restaurant called La Chaumière (11 bis Rue du Dr. Guégan) : tiny ravioli, fat local shrimp sautéed in garlic, and a bavarois poire for dessert. It was delicious, and quite possibly the best meal we had in New Caledonia, though it felt somewhat imposed and out of place.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route round-the-world series here.