Okinawa, Sardinia, Singapore, Guernsey — islands where people live the longest typically offer healthy lifestyles, clean air, healthy diets and sweet water. Geography by itself can’t extend your life if you don’t share the native culture and genetics. You, for example, may not be Japanese. So where on Earth can you go for rejuvenation? The seven islands that follow have the atmospheric perfection, the elixirs and cure-alls, the mystery and beauty and inspiration to add years to your life — and to help make the most of the years you’ve got. See you at 100!
Bahrain – Believe: Eden in the Desert
Some scholars posit Bahrain — a persian Gulf island off the east coast of Saudi Arabia — as the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. And indeed, there stands in the desert outside the capital city of Manama an acacia tree known as the Tree of Life . One-time Bahrain resident Amy Vance (who might live to be 110) described the tree as “a big-ass, super-healthy tree in the middle of endless, sandy desert.” In one interpretation, Eve ate from the forbidden tree as a bid for eternal life, and only God’s wrath thwarted her. Alas.
Receiving little rainfall, Bahrain gets much of its water from artesian springs. The tree has no visible surface water source, so its roots may tap into those springs deep underground. Still, the tree’s planting in this arid place and its survival over an estimated 400 years remain a mystery . One tree of life more or less may not help you live longer, but researchers believe that both curiosity (about mysteries) and faith (in life itself ) will. And for whatever reason, people have inhabited this island for 50,000 years.
Liberal by Middle Eastern standards, Bahrain makes a good introduction to Arab culture. It also has the third-lowest death rate among island nations after the Solomon Islands and Brunei. (Low death rate doesn’t guarantee high life expectancy, but it doesn’t hurt.) Summer temperatures here can reach 120 degrees. Visit during January.
Tonga – Relax: Accent on Pacific
There’s island time — slowed, easygoing, better marked by sun phase than by wristwatch — and then there’s Tonga time. The capital, Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu, seems sleepy until you reach the outer island groups of Ha’apai and Vava’u. The stunning natural harbor Port of Refuge, on Vava’u, seems not to mark time at all. Adjustment to stress this low can take days, and the quiet-averse may actually go through a period of anxiety. But even imposed relaxation — nowhere to be but the sandy edge of the island, nothing to do there but study the blue edge of the world — has measurable effects on blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other longevity factors.
Tonga is cooler than other parts of Polynesia, and Pacific breezes replenish the pure air. The healthful traditional Tongan diet of taro, coconuts, fish and occasional festive pork (plus a sea plant called limu moui with antioxidant properties) has modernized with fattier imported meats, white flour and sugar.So far, Tongans have good life- expectancy rates despite increasing body-mass indexes. Low stress may outweigh even low fat for promoting longevity, as long as it doesn’t outweigh it by 300 pounds.
Madeira – Move: Pathways, Streams and Vines
Warmed by gulf stream waters off the coast of Morocco and cooled by ocean breezes, Portugal’s island of Madeira may have the perfect subtropical climate for longevity. Perhaps consistently mild temperatures — averaging 68 degrees year-round here — promote moderation in diet and brisk exercise. An ancient system of aqueducts called levadas crisscrosses the islands. Some of them more than 400 years old, they carry water from the rainier north to the drier south to irrigate Madeira’s signature crops of bananas, flowers and wine grapes. The walkable maintenance trails that follow these stone streambeds range from moderate to vertiginously steep and from several hours’ worth of hiking to several days. Open to the public, the trails lead to views of the island’s dramatic landscapes: waterfalls, including the magical Vinte e Cinco Fontes ; terraced farm fields; and mountainsides that descend straight down into the Atlantic.
As for the wine, it lives a long time too. Heated and oxidized in the barrel — a modern process that emulates tropical voyages in the holds of ships — sweet, fortified Madeira wine ages well in the bottle for 100, 150, even 200 years. Oxidation has the opposite effect on people. Slow that process with a glass of Malmsey on the flower-lined Rua do Aljube. O vinho é coisa santa! (Wine is a holy thing.)
New Zealand – Behold: High-Energy Landscape
The geothermal zone between Lake Taupo and the “Spa City” of Rotorua in the center of the North Island showcases nature’s magnificent power, and the power smells like sulfur. The landscape bubbles with it. Waimangu Cauldron boils day and night. The Waikato River, flowing north from Lake Taupo , narrows from 100 meters wide (people live longer in the metric system) to 20 and forces more than 200,000 liters of white, foaming water through Huka Falls every second . (Kayakers also occasionally shoot through and usually live.) The region also has some of the world’s best trout fishing. Can witnessing the magnificent power of nature extend your life? Yes, if it a) doubles your will to live and b) triples your respect for the magnificent power of nature, which otherwise could kill you dead in a fiery blip of geologic time.
Lake Taupo itself, New Zealand’s largest lake at 616 square kilometers , sits in the caldera of a supervolcano (like a volcano, only bigger), which has erupted roughly once per millennium on average for the last 27,000 years . Its last major eruption, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history — larger than the eruptions of Krakatau and Mount St. Helens combined — took place almost 2,000 years (two millenniums) ago, long before the Maoris inhabited the island , back when the world was new . The eruption at once destroyed and remade much of the North Island. It altered sunsets in Rome. See above about respect for nature. It could save your life. The Taupo supervolcano will erupt again. Visit Corsica that day.
Martinique – Dream: A Poet’s Caribbean
World-renowned Martiniquean poet Aimé Césaire — whose Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, published in 1947 , became a standard of Caribbean literature — died this year at the age of 94. Also a politician, philosopher and activist, Césaire pushed the limits in his long life of what it means to be Caribbean, to be black, to be a poet — what it means to live.
One man’s death, even if that man lived five lives in one, may seem an odd recommendation for an island to extend life, but consider the vital landscapes, seascapes and culture that inspired him to write this especially deathless verse: conjured by the warmth of triumphant life in compliance with the operculated mouth of your silence and the lofty amnesty of seashells — from “Tomb of Paul Eluard ,” translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith
A list of islands to extend life must include those that extend life not only upward into the low three figures, but outward into new modes of human interaction, new ways of seeing. Proved by the example of Aimé Césaire, that list must include Martinique. And as it happens, studies suggest this attitude extends life in years as well. An open mind predisposes for longer life than a closed mind. So push the limits. Reckon a better way to live. Find out what operculated means and use it in a poem. Learn French. Go everywhere. Dream in green hills and blue water.
Iceland – Soak: Eccentric Nature
Here atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth, steam heat rises through the surface rock and water to form an assortment of pools fuming with goodness. Located close to Keflavík International Airport, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa attracts well over 100,000 visitors per year. They come for the positive effects on their health and worldview. The algae that give the lagoon its opaque blue-green color benefit the skin. And it’s hard not to smile while bobbing in a hot, milky pond. The lagoon lies in a formation of volcanic rock adjacent to a geothermal plant that helps power Reykjavík. The superheated spring water passes through heat exchangers that cool it to tolerable bathing temperatures. In winter, challenge prune-skinned gentlemen of Viking descent to snowball fights between soaks, and feel like a kid again.
Meanwhile, the NFLI Clinic at Hveragerdi, a town in the middle of a geothermal area 28 miles east of Reykjavík, treats arthritis, obesity, heart problems and a suite of other afflictions, mostly with mud. If one dizzyingly hot mud bath isn’t rejuvenating enough, you can move into the clinic and take the life-extending cures indefinitely.
To buffer the effects of runaway good health in the traditional Icelandic manner, eat shark meat aged for seven months and do shots of brennivin, a caraway-flavored potato liquor known as Black Death. Then to reverse the effects of these delicacies, make the pilgrimage east to Vatnajokull glacier, which Icelanders consider a holy place. The area features the Grand Geysir — namesake of geysers everywhere — which spouts boiling water 60-plus meters high many times per hour. The nearby river Hvíta flows over Gullfoss waterfall, which in winter freezes into breath- taking shapes. Patricia Schultz’s best-selling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die includes Iceland’s geysers and the Blue Lagoon, as well as sites in New Zealand, Tonga, Madeira and Martinique. Make your own pre-death to-do list, but do not complete it.
Queen Charlotte Islands – Grow: Kingdom of the Ancients
Also known as Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands comprise the larger, more populous Graham Island to the north, wilder Moresby Island to the south and hundreds of smaller islands. Canada’s most active seismic zone, this quaking, misty archipelago across from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, enjoys mild temperatures (mild for 54 degrees north latitude, that is), but it rains a lot.
The mega-giant Sitka spruce trees that thrive in this environment grow to 16 feet across and more than 200 feet high, and they can live 800 years if no one chops them down. (Be like the Sitka spruce.) Old-growth forest, rarer now than supercentenarians, survives in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on Moresby Island and surrounding islands. Whatever trade secrets life-loving human beings may learn from them, these towering ancient trees are a hypnotizing inspiration to behold.
So before it is too late, here is the very simple secret of eternal youth: In a beautiful place, do what you love — paint, sail, climb. When you look away from the canvas back at glacial fjords plunging into black water at Masset Inlet, or down from the horizon as a zephyr fills the mainsheet, or up at the still-distant peak of Mount Moresby, how much time has passed? If you cannot judge for the beauty that you find there, you’re on the right path. The world has more than 18,000 islands. Start with one. The longest life will be too brief. Stop wasting time.