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Mediterranean islands lost in time, by Tristan Rutherford

Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I, February 2019

Cabrera Island, Balearics


Cabrera is the Balearic Island you’ve never heard of. The fifth largest of Spain’s Mediterranean chain, it boasts a coastline as long and crystalline as Formentera. Although that’s where the similarity ends. There is no Hendrick’s gin on Cabrera. Nor Clinique sunscreen or salt-tinged copies of Paris-Match. The five-mile isle is fragrant timewarp where the only entertainment is cave diving in an azure grotto. Indeed, the sole residents are 12 Spanish militars who reside in a 14th-century castle. The island has only one TV. 


A curious mix of piracy and papacy kept Cabrera as pristine as a nun’s habit. In 600 AD, an order of Catholic monks settled on the island. The group flocklicked as flamboyantly as any guest on a private paradise would, until their lewd behaviour was upbraided by Pope Gregory in Rome. When the monks sailed off, pirates sailed in from the Ottoman Empire in the east. They had as much interest in the island’s 30 endemic species as teenage Brits in Magaluf, a purgatorial resort 25 nautical miles west. Thus Balearic blackthorn, wild fennel and lemon-scented thyme were left to run riot. Centuries later a Spanish garrison foraged the feral botanicals to distill hierbas, an aromatic Mallorcan digestif. 


In 1991 the Edenic scene was granted National Park status. The 100km2 protected zone included Cabrera and its 19 little brother islands. Plus a surrounding seabed that has never been spearfished, trawled or otherwise mauled. Thalassophiles may checklist a cornucopia of marine variety: humpbacks, pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins, loggerhead turtles. Ornithologists should ask the captain to pass the Zeiss binoculars. Balearic shearwaters and storm petrels rank among the 150 bird species that glide above the seas, along with ospreys and falcons that patrol on land. 


There’s just one challenge in holidaying on a barely inhabited paradise. It requires a private yacht. Guests with a flotilla to rival Barbarossa, the red-bearded pirate who once frequented Cabrera, can unhoist their sea scooters, kayaks and submersibles into a private aquarium. Parties with a one-day scuba license from the National Park authorities are in for a rare treat. Marine species look upon divers as a rare if ungainly interlopers. Marching troops of damselfish seem entirely unafraid of humans. Amberjacks shoal with the precision of silver gunships in a naval parade. 


As one might expect, park rules are enforced with military rigour. In July and August, a 48-hour limit is imposed on the maximum of 50 vessels allowed to anchor in two designated spots. Stepping ashore is even more regulated. Only one natural harbour can be used to disembark tenders. From here footpaths meander through a prehistoric land that pairs the dusky steppe of Anatolia with a perfumed Balearic breeze. 


Maddalena Archipelago, Sardinia


The Maddalena Archipelago’s endowment of beaches is laughably excessive. Where northern Sardinia fractures into 62 tiny islands, there’s enough sand to make a Brazilian weep with envy. Cala Sorayi offers a fine example. The beach is a swoosh of icing sugar on uninhabited Spargi Island. The only shadows are those imparted by RIBs on the sandy seabed. Or take Cala Coticcio on Caprera Island. The aquamarine shallows surrounding the postcard-perfect cove are so alluring they've been nicknamed 'Tahiti'. On Razzoli Island, another uninhabited speck, Cala Lunga is hidden behind a rocky promontory. It’s as if the Almighty has played a trick by creating one of world’s cutest beaches, then hiding it from mankind. 


In fact, heavenly help wasn’t required to protect the Maddalena from human interference. Global politics managed that all by itself. That’s because when the Treaty of the Hague concluded the War of the Spanish Succession in 1720, the signatories forgot to award the archipelago to the Kingdom of Sardinia. Thus the seven main islands and 55 isolotti became sandy pirate hangouts. The island chain was even useless as a prison. Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi was exiled here in 1849, but became so taken by the scented samphire and yellow-horned poppies that he returned voluntarily a decade later. Garibaldi spent the final third of his life on Caprera Island hiking, writing and fishing for seabass. Luxury yacht guests frequently request a similar experience today. 


Even the Cold War subdued the Maddalena’s sub-tropical seas. In the early 1970s the United States Navy created a vast facility to service nuclear submarines on Santa Stefano, the fourth-largest island. The American base discouraged casual visitors. It also unwittingly preserved the life-giving Poseidon grass that thrives under the waves. It’s a shame the Soviets didn’t show up. They’d have spied a sun-kissed capitalist paradise from their periscope and known their cause was lost. 


Such pristineness is doubly shocking when one considers the archipelago’s location. A Wahoo Ribs tender could skip from Porto Cervo to the Maddalena in ten minutes flat. From Phi Beach Club on Sardinia’s northern tip, which serves tuna tartare to Italy's bella gente, one could conceivably swim the mile across. The speediest mode of transport is the HelItaly service from Porto Cervo Helipad. Bank on seven minutes, give or take. 


Taking the chopper has a dual use. Surveying the island chain from the air proves its final appeal. Imagine a Bahamas-like scatter of sand-haloed specks on a cerulean blue sea. That’s because the archipelago rests upon a Caribbean-depth sandbank, which permits visitors to literally leap from island to island. More sedate souls can play Jacques Cousteau with a glass-bottomed kayak, although a floppy straw hat and waterproof iPhone cover are a must. Bored of paradise? France’s Lavezzi Islands sparkle 5km west near the coast of Corsica. They have a similarly piratical backstory paired with an abundance of gorgonia coral and dusky grouper. One can sail across in 30 minutes. Although kiteboarders can do it in ten. 


Sazan Island, Albania 


Last year Sazan opened to visitors for the first time in two millennia. Occupying a choice position midway between Italy, Greece and Croatia, it was used as a naval bastion by the Roman, Venetian and Ottoman fleets. In 1920 the Capri-sized isle was seized by Italy’s Regia Marina. Italian naval chiefs built art deco villas and a watchtower, from where Puglia’s golden coastline can still be spied across a topaz Ionian Sea. As the island’s microclimate mirrors Sicily, a half-hearted attempt was made to grow Nero d’Avola grapes. Sazan even appeared on Italian postage stamps. 


The unlikely story gets stranger still. Under the madcap socialism of Albanian ruler Enver Hoxha, Sazan was turned into a Soviet nuclear submarine base. As the rest of the Adriatic became beset by tourism, the island’s 400 species - including Hermann's tortoises and Balkan whip snakes - remained remarkably preserved. That is, as long as they avoided occasional forays by Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces. As years passed, Hoxha’s questionable sanity was clouded by delusional behaviour. He severed ties with the USSR and communist China as both nations flirted with the bourgeois West. By the 1980s Albania was Europe’s North Korea. A hermit kingdom where satellite images showed neither streetlights or vapour trails, nor pollution or mechanised farming. The nation’s most isolated quarter? That would be Sazan. 


In the 1990s the islands of Corfu and Hvar welcomed five star hotels. On Sazan, a day sail from both destinations, army barracks were reclaimed by butterflies and geckos. Today visiting sailors may tie up at a Soviet-era marina, then hike through wind-whistled forests of Aleppo pines. As the dictator Hoxha predicted, the 3,000 concrete bunkers that dot Sazan’s interior have finally been overrun - not by invading soldiers but by holm oak and maquis herbs. The Instagram must is a selfie inside the rock tubes that puncture the island’s 15km coastline. These once housed surface-to-sea torpedoes, lest the running dogs of NATO attempt to turn Sazan into the next Mykonos or Vis. 


For yachtsmen 2,000 years of maritime seclusion means just one thing. The seas around Sazan are a naval graveyard for triremes, galleons, xebecs and battleships. Yet they have never welcomed a pair of Cressi fins. Even novice divers can stumble across a Byzantine amphorae or an Austro-Hungarian gun turret. The abundance of short-beaked dolphins, and the occasional sperm whale, is testament to the paranoiac intransigence of Enver Hoxha. To prevent his citizens escaping from a socialist paradise, he relocated Albania’s seafaring families to the Alpine uplands, replacing them with mountain folk. The art of fishing had to be literally relearned, to the extent that Albanian society forgot that the juicy langoustines familiar to any Adriatic sailor were edible. They were fed to pigs instead.


In 2010 Sazan was declared a National Park. That’s fortunate, as it’s a priceless example of a Mediterranean island barely changed since biblical times. Development has been allayed for a second reason. The Albanian government are genuinely stumped by what do to with a watery Elysium that has never been farmed, fished or sunbathed upon. A parasol and a cellphone signal might be a start.


Brijuni Island, Croatia 


When Hvar was scratching a living from its olive orchards, the island of Brijuni was the Adriatic’s celebrity go-to. In 1893 it was purchased by Viennese industrialist Paul Kupelwieser. His masterplan was to create a Monte-Carlo on the Austro-Hungarian Riviera. Croatia’s first golf links lured the jeunesse dorée across from Venice, just 65 nautical miles west. Bottlenose dolphins would accompany luxury vessels into the new marina. Among them was radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s steam-drived yacht Elettra, which bristled with the latest communication technology. 


European conflict didn’t stop the fun. Nor did a switch in suzerainty from Austro-Hungarian to Italian. By the 1920s English Milords and German Freiherrs were competing for the Brijuni tennis trophy, while sporting mirrored sun goggles and natty whites. The curtain call for this urbane outpost was drawn by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. When the money stopped the tennis balls ceased to bounce, and the golf course reverted to rough. Kupelwieser was transformed almost overnight from magnate to bankrupt. His hedonistic retreat reverted to the Italian state, then to eventual Yugoslav control. 


Yugoslavia’s socialist leader Marshall Tito could have shared the tycoon’s spoils with his comrades. Instead he simply moved in. The island went from being the most cosmopolitan of Croatia’s 1,200 islands to its most closed. To be fair to Tito, Brujuni was an inspired choice for a presidential retreat. It was defensible, distinctive and has a microclimate that nourishes strawberry trees and laurel forest. The ruler became fast enamoured by Kupelwieser’s dandified trappings. He even refitted an ex-Italian armed merchantman as a presidential yacht so he could sail to his weekend retreat in style. (The 117m Galeb could top 17 knots using twin FIAT diesels. In the 1950s Tito sailed it up the Thames to meet Sir Winston Churchill, and later entertained personalities as diverse as Richard Burton and Muammar Gaddafi on board.)


The Brujuni now open to visitors is a product of Tito’s 35-year tenure. On the Sark-sized island he indulged his Arcadian fantasies, pairing sub-tropical banana trees with giant sequoia. The 100 world leaders entertained on Brijuni knew how to tickle Tito’s naturalist streak. Indira Gandhi gifted him two Indian elephants. Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda proferred an entire herd of antelope. This Noah’s Ark of wildlife can be toured by golf buggy or mountain bike today. Hazards on Kupelwieser’s still functioning golf course include zebra and chital deer. Tito himself preferred to ride in a 1953 Cadillac given to him by US President Dwight Eisenhower. For many years the Cadillac was the only automobile in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with an electric roof and power steering.  


The most alluring legacy from the reigns of Kupelwieser and Tito are the island’s gin clear waters. A restored boathouse hosts a subaquatic exhibition detailing the pristine seabeds around Brijuni and its 13 surrounding islets. Nearby, a 500m-long snorkel trail calls upon sponges, crabs and the endemic pen muscle. Island politics are equally unique. A seafront gallery shows photos of every global leader that sailed in. Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh looks terrified as he rides shotgun on Tito’s Riva speedboat. It’s as if the cultural clash between east and west was too much to bear.  

Click here to read yachting stories about other secret Mediterranean islands.

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