Islands capture the imagination with their promise of privacy and seclusion but those qualities can also mean isolation.
Islands are the ideal site for cemeteries, quarantine zones, or prisons. With only a causeway or a boat for access, getting off the island depends on tides or ferry crossings. An ideal setting for mystery …
Let’s look at 9 unusual islands that offer visitors more than sunshine and sandy beaches.
1. Alcatraz, San Francisco
Immortalized on film in The Rock, Alcatraz is perhaps best known as a prison island. It’s also been a lighthouse, a Civil War fortress, and a bird sanctuary.
The prison started life in 1868 as a jail for military personnel. The military jailhouse closed in 1933 and reopened as a federal prison in 1934. Famous prisoners include Al Capone and Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz only operated until 1963. In its 29-year history, 36 inmates made 14 escape attempts. All but two prisoners were killed or recaptured.
The island became a National History Landmark in 1986. Now, you can take a boat trip out to Alcatraz when you visit San Francisco.
Find the small morgue near the main entrance. The clinic, psych ward, and operating room are on the second floor beyond the main cell blocks. They’re all eerie places to visit.
Alcatraz appears in Valley of Dry Bones.
2. Oak Island, Canada
Few islands capture the imagination like Oak Island. Boasting tales of hidden treasure, it lies off the coast of Nova Scotia.
The legend of treasure dates to 1795, when a teenager found a strange dip in the ground. He started digging and soon began hitting wooden planks. Their regular appearance every ten feet led people to assume the pit had manmade origins.
Wild theories abound about what might lie in the pit. Pirate treasure? Marie Antoinette’s jewels? The Ark of the Covenant?
No one has ever found any treasure. Even the stone inscriptions found 90 feet underground have since disappeared. The lack of firm evidence and the deaths of six people haven’t deterred people from continuing to dig. The 2010 Oak Island Act banned commercial treasure hunts. But the Oak Island Treasure Act in 2011 started the hunts up again.
The island is now privately owned and not open to the public. But the Friends of Oak Island Society offer escorted tours one weekend a year.
3. Easter Island, Chile
The island of Rapa Nui is one of the most isolated islands on earth. Its mysteries keep visitors heading to this small Pacific Ocean island.
The most obvious draw is the Easter Island statues. They’re called moai, and many stand on platforms called ahu around the island. Most of the statues face inland as guardians of the people. Others litter the landscape near the quarry where they were made.
No one quite knows who or what the moai represent. Theories are rife about how the islanders moved these vast statues and got them in place. One theory suggests the moai walked, which is now a common idea when the moai pop up in comics and cartoons.
Elsewhere, the birdman cult and the mysterious rongorongo tablets keep scholars guessing. You start reading from the bottom left corner. When you get to the end of the line, you turn the tablet 180 degrees and read the next line. But no one has translated the language on the wooden tablets.
4. The Plague Islands of Venice, Italy
Venice is a phenomenal city to visit. One of its attractions is the many islands scattered throughout the lagoon. Murano offers tourists a glimpse into Venice’s history of glass making. While Burano puts its history of lace on display.
But Venice offers plenty to the dark tourist too. Taphophiles will love the cemetery island, Isola di San Michele. Or visit Isola di San Servolo, visible across the lagoon from Riva dei Sette Martiri. The whitewashed buildings are now a luxury hotel. But they once housed mental patients in an asylum. A small museum tells the asylum’s story, though the old medical equipment shows unsettling signs of use.
But Venice’s plague islands offer a unique draw. The most famous is Poveglia. City officials ran a plague quarantine station on the island from 1793 until 1814. In the 1920s, a mental hospital opened on the island. It closed in the 1960s and its ruins remain on the island.
Poveglia is off-limits to visitors. Despite this, firemen rescued five people in 2016 after trying to spend the night on the island. Whatever lurks on the island made them scream for help. Poveglia also appears in Map of Shadows.
Lazzaretto Vecchio is Venice’s oldest plague island, having opened in 1423. You can book visits as part of a guided tour.
Lazzaretto Nuovo opened in 1468 to keep the plague from reaching the medieval city. Workers discovered an unusual skeleton in 2005 while excavating a mass grave. The woman’s skull had a brick jammed into its mouth. Many believed this prevented the return of a particular vampire, the Shroud Eater.
5. Lindisfarne, England
Also known as Holy Island, Lindisfarne lies in the North Sea off the coast of Northumberland. It suffered from Viking raids over the years. Nowadays, it’s famous for mead and its causeway. Only accessible at low tide, visitors flock to Lindisfarne for the peaceful atmosphere.
The roots of Christianity in England lie in the northeast. St Aidan established a monastery on Lindisfarne in 635 AD. St Cuthbert, now buried in Durham Cathedral, was also a prior on the island. He spent his final years in solitude on nearby Inner Farne, now famous for its puffin colony.
Visit the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory to grasp the history of this tumultuous period. Stones from the priory went to build Lindisfarne Castle in the 1550s. In 1902, Sir Edwin Lutyens converted the castle into an Edwardian country home.
Lindisfarne appears in Day of the Vikings.
6. Ganvié Island, Benin
Ganvié is less of an island and more of a lake village on Lake Nokoué in Benin. It’s the largest lake village in Africa. Some call Ganvié the Venice of Africa, where locals travel by boat.
Around 3000 buildings make up the village, perched on stilts in the middle of the lake. Its location helped keep the Tofinu people safe from the Fon tribe, who sold slaves to the Portuguese.
Visitors can take a boat from the city of Cotonou.
Ganvié Island appears in Map of Plagues.
7. Island of the Dolls, Mexico
Head south of Mexico City and you’ll find the Xochimilco district. The islands here are artificial, lying among the canals. One of them has become a tourist destination for macabre reasons.
People call it the Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls). Hundreds of dolls, both whole and dismembered, hang from the trees.
One legend claims a little girl drowned in the canal, and her body ended up on the island. Her spirit now possesses the dolls, and ‘witnesses’ claim to have heard them talking to each other.
Another legend says Julian Santana Barrera was the island’s caretaker. He found the little girl’s body and a doll floating in the canal. In this tale, he hung the doll in a tree to help the little girl’s spirit. Apparently, the gesture wasn’t enough, and he kept hanging more dolls to keep her happy.
Barrera died in 2001. Visitors continue bringing dolls to add to the collection.
8. Hashima Island, Japan
If you’ve seen the James Bond movie, Skyfall, you’ll recognize Hashima as the lair of Javier Bardem’s villain. Between 1887 and 1974, the island was the site of an undersea coal mine.
People also call Hashima ‘Gunkanjima’, which translates to Battleship Island. Viewed from one side, it looks like a battleship. Even this small detail reveals the island’s darker history.
Its population peaked at 5,259 in 1959. That gave the island 216,264 people per square mile. Hashima became the world’s most densely populated island. But during World War II, the mine used Chinese and Korean prisoners of war as forced laborers. None of the tourist literature on the island acknowledges this side of Hashima’s history.
The population abandoned Hashima once Japan stopped using coal in the 1970s. Boat tours from nearby Nagasaki began in 2009 but tourists can only access around 5% of the island. The buildings are too dangerous from years of neglect to get too close to them.
Hashima got World Heritage status in 2015. UNESCO is leaning on Japan to open up about the darker history of the island.
Iona lies in the Inner Hebrides. It’s only 3 miles long, but what Iona lacks in square acres, it makes up for in history.
Its reported 130,000 yearly visitors come to see Scotland’s birthplace of Christianity.
There’s plenty to see during a visit to Iona. Start with the ruins of Iona Abbey or head to the Marble Quarry for a spot of industrial heritage. Sìthean Mòr is a popular spot of prayer at sunrise and sunset. Many believe St Columba landed on the island in St Columba’s Bay.
Iona also appears in Day of the Vikings.
No matter which island you visit, remember the Urban Explorers’ motto. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Many of these places have dark histories and it’s good to be mindful of that.
If you’re interested in islands, how about 8 unusual things to see on Mallorca?
Recommended books set on islands
The Island – Victoria Hislop. The Petrakis family lives in the small Greek seaside village of Plaka. Just off the coast is the tiny island of Spinalonga, where the nation’s leper colony once was located—a place that has haunted four generations of Petrakis women.
Pig Island – Mo Hayder. Journalist Joe Oakes makes a living exposing supernatural hoaxes, but when he visits a secretive religious community on a remote Scottish island, everything he thought he knew is overturned.
Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane. In the year 1954, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate an unexplained disappearance.
Holy Island – L.J.Ross. Detective Chief Inspector Ryan retreats to Holy Island seeking sanctuary when he is forced to take sabbatical leave from his duties as a homicide detective. A few days before Christmas, his peace is shattered and he is thrust back into the murky world of murder when a young woman is found dead amongst the ancient ruins of the nearby Priory.
Duma Key – Stephen King. Edgar leaves Minnesota for a rented house on Duma Key, a stunningly beautiful, eerily undeveloped splinter of the Florida coast. The sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico and the tidal rattling of shells on the beach call out to him, and Edgar draws.
Day of the Vikings – J.F.Penn. A ritual murder on a remote island under the shifting skies of the aurora borealis. A staff of power that can summon Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse.