With Valentine’s Day approaching, Alix Norman heads around the world to find competing destinations because, contrary to what you’ve been told, Cyprus isn’t the only one!
Cyprus is the Island of Love, right? The claims are everywhere, from the deputy ministry of tourism’s Love Cyprus slogan to countless expat blogs whose titles play on this very theme. Every hotel website references (with varying degrees of sophistication and success) ‘Aphrodite-goddess-of-love-birthplace-Cyprus’. And how many local businesses capitalise on this same premise with a heart logo?
But Cyprus isn’t the only Island of Love. It’s just, thanks to excellent marketing, the best-known! At the last count, there are at least four other ‘Islands of Love’ around the world. Granted, they’re all considerably smaller than Cyprus, and none are the birthplace of a deity. But each has a fascinating back-story, and a pretty solid reason for its claim to the name.
Our first Island of Love is Lokrum, found just off the coast of Dubrovnik. A nature reserve, it’s known for its botanical diversity – 400 species of plants live on this 0.7 square-kilometre island, including the evergreen oak, which can grow up to 20 metres high and live for a millennium or more. To protect Lokrum’s unique flora, the island remains uninhabited: no overnight stays are allowed; fires and smoking are prohibited; and dogs are banned.
Interestingly, Lokrum shares more than a moniker with Cyprus: there’s also a common character! Apparently, Richard the Lion-Heart was shipwrecked here in 1192 while returning from the Crusades. Like every other visitor, he too fell in love with the island’s singular beauty, and vowed to construct a church on the site of his safe landing.
Today, Lokrum is known locally as The Island of Love because its beauty is said to inspire love in all who visit. But even those who have never set foot on the island may well recognise it: the island’s Benedictine monastery, founded in 1023, was the setting for the city of Qarth in Game of Thrones!
We’re off to the South Pacific for our second alternative, Mo’orea, a tiny outpost of the Windward Islands 17 kilometres north-west of Tahiti. With a population of roughly 17,000 and an area of 134 square kilometres, Mo’orea is considerably larger than Lokrum – but still just as beautiful in its own way.
White sand beaches, turquoise seas, and dense jungle make this island a Polynesian paradise; a jewel that’s said to rival Tahiti itself. But it’s not the sights that make this the Island of Love – although countless travel guides have described it as the most beautiful island in the world, and it’s become an incredibly popular a honeymoon destination. Nor is it the translation of its name: Mo’orea actually means Yellow Lizard in the local language! Instead, it’s the island’s shape that makes it so lovely…
Seen from above, Mo’orea is heart-shaped. (Which suggests the Island of Love moniker may be rather recent given the history of aerial photography.) A large bay on one side creates the top of the heart, while the island draws to a rough point at the other. Sadly, climate change is already wreaking havoc with the island’s outline, and the name may soon have to change. Before long, Mo’orea might well be known as The Island of One Large Hill and Little Else.
Our third island is the tiniest and most ephemeral of all – at times, it doesn’t even exist! And yet it’s among the most visited Islands of Love thanks to its proximity to the town of Watamu.
Found on the coast of Kenya, Watamu is located on a headland stretching out into the Indian Ocean. It’s a haven for tourists, close to the site of the Gedi ruins, an ancient walled town that’s said to be cursed by evil spirits! The entire area is also a Marine National Park: coral reefs abound, and Watamu Bay is considered the third-best beach in Africa thanks to its crystal waters and silver beaches. And just off the coast lies the Island of Love, a small strip of sand that comes and goes with the tide…
When it’s there, the isle is a popular excursion for visitors. Like Mo’orea, it takes its name from its shape: when the tide is fully out, you’re left with a perfectly heart-shaped sand strip in the midst of the ocean. More an excellent marketing ploy than anything else, the island still receives thousands of visitors each year: who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours drinking cocktails on and snorkelling around the tiny, transient Island of Love?
We’re back to Croatia for our final island, located in the Pašman Canal of the Adriatic close to the town of Turanj. And again, it’s the outline that’s important here – Galesnjak is perhaps the most flawlessly heart-shaped isle of them all!
In 2009, Google Earth revealed an island that, from above, was a perfect heart. And from that moment on, Galesnjak became known as The Isle of Love. Just 0.132 square kilometres in size, and with a shoreline of 1,550 metres, the island has been privately owned by the Jureško family for the last few decades. Once, people lived here (the remains of an ancient stone building and a couple of Illyrian burial mounds can be found between the island’s two peaks). But nowadays, this Croatian Island of Love is entirely uninhabited – home only to lush vegetation, a few trees, and a colony of wild rabbits.
Still, Galesnjak does get more than its fair share of visitors – especially of the romantic type! A popular proposal spot, the island is believed to grant question-poppers a lasting, happy marriage. Get down on one knee here, and lifelong love is guaranteed! Can the Island of Aphrodite really say the same?