Lles du Salut–Salvation Islands

Most passengers now seem to have got themselves into a routine that they usually follow, depending on their own particular likes and interests. There is much happening on board to amuse those that don’t wish just to sunbathe, eat, listen to music in one of the bars and wait for a port to provide some distraction. The active have the gym, keep fit classes (in and out of the pool), dance classes, table tennis and the ‘Walk a mile’ club. The intellectual have lectures, regular quizzes, chess, Bridge and an extensive library. Then there is the evening show, casino, karaoke, deck shuffle board, a whole host of silly game activities, Interdenominational Fellowship meetings, Solo clubs, craft making classes and a book club. Not forgetting several on board shops for those that enjoy retail therapy. For those that enjoy a spot of pampering there is the Spa where you can indulge yourself with a facial, massage or any number of weird beauty treatments.

Each evening the ship’s magazine called  ‘The Explorer’ arrives in our cabin and it contains all the following days activities and their times, including notification of any special events and what is happening in the Show Time Theatre. There is also information on where we will be, either in port or at sea. This determines our day and depending on what we choose to do, we usually arrange to meet back in the cabin just before mealtimes and decide where to eat.

When is a spicy chicken wrap not a chicken wrap? During lunch one day both Sue and I ordered a spicy chicken wrap for our main course. I thought it was delicious and Sue thought it rather dry, as there was two on each plate she kindly offered me one of hers, I gratefully accepted thanking her for her generous offer. As the wrap was being handed over she deftly whipped out the inner chicken core and placed the wrap devoid of its central theme onto my plate. Yes, I did scoff the denuded wrap and what was left of its spicy contents and I did to some extent enjoy it, but valuable lesson learnt: Don’t put your trust in those bearing empty gifts!

The Magellan dropped anchor off the Salvation Islands; Devil’s Island, Royale Island and Saint-Joseph Island. Just after breakfast we took the short tender boat ride to the tiny pier on Royale Island. The Salvation Islands get their name from missionaries who went there to escape the plague on the mainland of French Guiana, just under 9 miles away. The islands were part of the of the notorious French penal colony from 1852 and made famous in the film Papillion. Dreyfus was imprisoned there until he was pardoned. Today, it is a tourist attraction with a small hotel and restaurant.

From the sea the three little islands look idyllic, a picture post card of tropical heaven. However, they hide a dark secret of cruelty and brutality. Harsh conditions, disease, heat and humidity affected all that lived their, prisoners and warders alike, but those that were incarcerated suffered the worst. The worst criminals and those that contracted leprosy would be transported to Devil’s island, where unlike the other two islands there was no buildings for shelter and though left free to roam, the shark infested waters and strong currents ensured that they remained there, most often to die. Dead prisoners were fed to the sharks, only warders were buried.

It was a hot start to the day, bright sun and a welcoming breeze, but where the cooling air didn’t reach, the temperature was in the high 30’s. We began our exploration of the island by climbing one of the many paths up to the prison compound itself. Beautiful views of the sea and other islands all the way, even the mainland could be seen through the heat haze. Thankfully, the  island that had been denuded of its trees by those prisoners of long ago, had recovered and there was shade and sanctuary from the sun in plenty.

Part of the prison complex had now been turned into a small hotel, shop and restaurant with many of the building once used as living quarters by the warder’s families, now being used to accommodate tourists. It would be a very peaceful vacation, unless 1500 cruise ship passengers happen to visit!

The cell blocks, though now in various stages of ruin can still be entered and a feel for the harsh conditions suffered by their inmates can easily be imagined. They were France’s worst criminals so you could say that they got what they deserved, but some of them were political prisoners, Dreyfus being one. You had to be extremely tough to survive the conditions here as a prisoner and few were.

Today, there sweet looking little coati in their 100’s running in and around the buildings, searching for fruit falling from the many trees competing with the small troops of capuchin monkeys that swing in from the forests edge, neither seem afraid of the presence of so many humans.  Indeed, when I produced two small bananas from my rucksack I immediately had a monkey at my side with out stretched hand, squeaking his plea for food. As reached down he delicately took them and then  proceeded to scoff both before the rest of his troop noticed.

We took our time wandering through the surprisingly large complex of buildings, some with boards explaining what they were, both in French and English. Some had been completely renovated, such as the church and lighthouse, but the hospital was looking quite dilapidated though still salvageable if the effort was made. It was sad to come across a small cemetery dedicated to the burial of children of the warders who had succumbed to the harsh conditions in one way or another.

Now thoroughly sweating and starting to feel the exhaustion of our efforts, we retired to the restaurant where we sat on the veranda sipping beer and orangeade in a cooling breeze. The view of the nearby Devil’s Island below, was as perfect an advert for some new party-time cocktail drink as you could get. Enticing you  to dive into that blue, gentle foam washed sea and swim, cocktail glass in hand on to that idyllic palm tree fringed atoll. Just a shame that the sharks don’t drink cocktails, more used to in the past of enjoying a bit of lean prisoner, a nice fat tourist would go down very well.

Refreshed and cooled, we descended the hill and set off following the path that circumnavigated the island closely hugging the shore line. Now we were on the lookout for sea turtles and they were there, close in, feeding around the wave splashed rocks. Annoyingly (as ever), by the time my camera clicked, they had dived. Frustrating, particularly as turtles continued to pop up everywhere along our route. They are nowhere near as quick as dolphins, but they have the same knack of appearing where your camera isn’t pointing.

We rested awhile next to a small man made lagoon in which a couple of fellow cruisers were enjoying and took a few snaps, admiring the view neither of us contemplated joining them, it was far too hot to further exert myself and attempt to take off a T-shirt that now seemed to have been permanently stuck to my skin with superglue.

Moving on, we passed a great number of crew (probably on their way to that lagoon) who had been given a rare afternoon off to enjoy this anchorage. I looked for our cabin steward Margarita, as she was one of the lucky ones, but we didn’t see her.

As we returned to the ship and I looked back towards our Salvation for the day, I could see why some of our fellow passengers who had been here before described it as being one of the nicest places that they have been to. Given the opportunity and with nothing in particular to do other than enjoy the solitude and scenery with a good stack of books, I would come back and stay for longer. But I would check and make sure there would be no cruise ship arrivals to spoil my peace!

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