Top 10 Essential Island Skills

July 28, 2010

You know how to pack two weeks’ worth of clothing into a 22-inch suitcase, how to pick the fast lane through airport security and tie your shoes back on as you sprint to the gate, how to say “beer” in Dutch, Tahitian and Spanish. You’ve got skills. But can you pick out the berry notes in a Tasmanian pinot noir? Or spot the bristlehead parrot in the Borneo rainforest? Here we present the 10 essential skills for getting the most from your travel.

1. Stand-up Paddle Boarding, Maui
We firmly believe the No. 1 most important island skill is getting yourself out on the water that defines the island. And there’s no better way to do that than stand-up paddling the beautiful bays and waves of Maui, gliding over reefs, viewing fish undisturbed by your silent, non-motorized passage. A first lesson with Maria Souza’s Stand-up Paddle Boarding School teaches the basics: Stand squarely over the balance line; face forward; position the paddle for maximum thrust. Designed for stability, a paddle board, from your first stroke, just goes. Easier than surfing or kiteboarding, stand-up paddling also promises endless room to grow, in fitness, ocean-reading, wave-riding and flat-out speed. Paddle offshore of Olowalu near Lahaina, pictured here. Standing tall, in control on the open sea with nothing between you and the far reaches of Oceania, you feel the power. The islands of the world await! Sea turtles glide beneath you as the swell lifts your board and your spirits. The smile on your face? That’s not skill; that’s instinct. And there’s lots more where that came from.

2. Diving, Andros Island, Bahamas
It’s simple: Until you learn to dive, you’re missing half the island, in some cases the better half. Snorkeling is fantastic, but when you can breathe underwater, you stop merely seeing the sea creatures; you enter their world. So when you want to learn to dive, go to Andros. With 162 miles of pristine reef, 160-plus blue holes and year-round visibility exceeding 100 feet, this doesn’t feel like school. “When you dive the Andros Barrier Reef,” says islands contributor Jad Davenport, “you’re diving one of the last great blue wilderness areas on the planet.” Small Hope Bay Lodge has been hosting and guiding divers since 1960. Trumpet Reef and dozens of other shallow dives welcome first-timers. At the Stargate Blue Hole, more experienced divers descend through sulfur layers past stalactites and flowing stone formations. Jad’s advice: “Do two dives in the morning, hit the hot tub and spend the afternoon under a coconut palm.” Eight-day dive packages from $2,245.


3. Wine Tasting, Tasmania
Don’t drink heavily. Drink well, with an appreciation for the subtleties of a perfect glass of wine. A trip to Tasmania’s wine regions will give you new respect for the island’s pinot noir, ­riesling, chardonnay, cabernet and sparkling varieties. Tasmania’s long autumn days and mild summers allow grapes to ripen slowly and achieve distinctive flavor. Start in the Tamar Valley in the north, where red basalt soil and cool temperatures add sweetness to Jansz Tasmania sparkling wines and rieslings from Moores Hill winery. After a seasonal lunch at Strathlynn Restaurant at Ninth Island Vineyard, contrast a Pirie Estate pinot with Velo’s cab-merlot. Now that’s a skill. Taste of Tamar tours from $440.

4. Sailing, Tortola, BVI
Trade, fishing, warfare — the history of sailing is the history of islands, especially Tortola. Most locals will tell you they learned to sail even as they learned to walk. Constant 10- to 20-knot trade winds blow from the northeast, with average temperatures of 78 degrees — perfect conditions. “The crystal-clear waters are so clearly marked,” says Doug Sparks, COO of Offshore Sailing School. “It’s all line-of-sight sailing. You can even be at two or three BVI anchorages each day: White Bay in the morning, North Sound in the afternoon and a full-moon party at night.” Excited newbies can circumnavigate Tortola, keeping the sheer green volcanic cliffs comfortingly in sight, while seasoned sailors can head to the “drowned island” of Anegada. Three-day “Learn to Sail” classes from $795.

5. Hiking, Kauai
Ninety percent of Kauai is inaccessible by car, so to see the best of the island, hiking is a necessity. And what a beautiful necessity it is. Reduce your carbon footprint and get a workout at the same time. It’s a win-win situation. The sere gorges of Waimea Canyon contrast the giant Cook Island pines of Nounou Mountain and the 17 iconic miles of the emerald-green Na Pali Coast, which took millions of years to form. Kauai is the oldest Hawaiian Island, and it proves that with age comes beauty. It’s almost impossible to choose a favorite trail. “On the Nualolo,” says Micco Godinez, co-owner of Kayak Kauai, “I love going beyond the end of the trail and looking up the Na Pali Coast to Ke’e Beach in the distance. And the Awa’awapuhi has some of the most precipitous fluted ridges. It will give you a case of ­vertigo.” Tours from $81.


6. Salsa Dancing, Puerto Rico
Salsa may be Puerto Rico’s proudest gift to the world. The music starts. The bass line, half a beat ahead of the down beat, makes your head bob and your foot tap. People get up and move toward the dance floor. The energy starts to get crazy. But you sit, intimidated, because you don’t know how to dance salsa. Don’t worry — Puerto Rico is here to teach you. You can learn anywhere, from bowling alleys in Naguabo to the Courtyard Marriott in San Juan. For the whole package — a plate of mofongo, dance classes taught by professional ­salseros and a live band — head to Latin Roots in Old San Juan. Like Puerto Rico itself, this club rarely sleeps, open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., featuring local bands like Salsa City and Michael Stuart y su Orquesta. Two instructors teach every day from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. You won’t be able to stay in your seat for long. Classes are free; drinks cost extra.

7. Eating, Martha’s Vineyard
Why isn’t this No. 1? It could be. But after learning skills 1 through 6, you’ll have worked up an appetite only the bounty of Martha’s Vineyard can satisfy. Bay scallops, oysters, New England lobster, black sea bass, Vineyard clams — the ocean is Martha’s refrigerator. Forget “Fresh shipments flown in daily.” Try fresh from the boat right now. A biweekly farmers market in West Tisbury complements the catch of the moment with fresh, island-grown fruits and vegetables. (There’s even a stall that sells Vietnamese egg rolls and another selling wool.) “I don’t want to sound arrogant about the island,” says Louie Larsen, owner of the Net Result Fish Market, “but we just have an abundance of great seafood, chefs and restaurants.” Vineyarders know their seafood is good by itself, and they do little to screw it up. “My favorite way to cook scallops?” says Larsen. “As little as possible. Maybe sautéed with a tiny bit of butter.” L’Étoile’s, a favorite island restaurant, offers cooking classes with chef/owner Michael Brisson. Learning never tasted so good.

8. Biking, Bali
You learned to ride a bike a while ago. The trick here is learning to pedal on a full stomach while also gawking at the amazing scenery. On your left, the lava flow from 9,888-foot Mount Agung’s 1963 eruption. On your right, sacred waringin trees and playful gray monkeys. And the best part? No windows or diesel engines to undermine your experience. “Bali is our favorite island to ride across,” says Christian Chumbley, manager of Backroads bike-travel company. “On a bicycle, it’s easy to leave the tourist centers and explore this exotic culture steeped in true Hindu spirituality and colorful mythology.” Follow Wayan Narta and Paul Smith, who’ve been cycling through Bali for a combined 35-plus years. Crane your neck gently to see the slowly passing rice terraces, Ubud’s street artists, the Pura Taman Ayun temple and gamelan orchestras in village squares. Propelling yourself with just the power from your quads, listen to the tranquility and preserved culture around you. Stay in some of the island’s most luxurious resorts and visit every spa in between. Don’t forget to pack your helmet. Seven-day trips from $1,899.


9. Fly-Fishing, Turneffe Atoll, Belize
Island life revolves around the sea — and the deliciousness that comes from it. But fishing is more than a means to acquire food. It’s also fun. If you’re interested in catch-and-release sport fishing, there’s no better place than Belize’s Turneffe Atoll, just 25 miles from Belize City. Use your beginner’s luck to go for a rare fly-fishing grand slam: Land a bonefish, a tarpon and a permit all in one day. “Not many places offer the opportunity for a grand slam,” says Mike Mazur, editor of Fly Fishing in Salt Waters magazine, “but it’s very possible here. These fish are actually protected by law, which was enacted fairly recently — and Turneffe is just a beautiful place to fish, period!” Learn the waters with local guide Winston “Pops” Cabral, who has been fishing Turneffe’s waters for more than 23 years. You might also try one of Pops’ Bonefish Bitters. It’s a winning fly pattern around these parts. Weeklong fishing packages at Turneffe Flats Lodge from $3,140.

10. Bird-Watching, Borneo
“Why do people like watching birds?” you might hear an exasperated non-birder complain. Know the feeling? You won’t understand the appeal of bird-watching until you observe bird-watchers. Notice the focus as they spot some scrubby-looking jay and hold their heads perfectly still as they raise the binoculars to their eyes. Every other skill on this list involves moving, and that’s great, but by remaining still and observing, as you must to ID birds, you can appreciate the world around you at its finest scale. As you do that, you’ll notice the world becoming a more beautiful place right before your eyes. Birds let us grasp nature’s subtlety and power. They can fly! Choose a bird-watching destination based on the number of endemic species you’ll see, the beauty of the island or the adventure it provides. Or go to Borneo and have it all. On the banks of the Kinabatangan River, look for eight species of hornbill and the Bornean ground cuckoo. In rainforests, up mountains and down into caves, learn to spot the blue-headed pitta, Bornean barbet, buffy fish-owl, red-breasted partridge and fruit-hunter. And if you still don’t care about birds, maybe you’ll spot an orangutan and a pygmy elephant. Mammals are pretty cool too. Two-week tours from $3,610.


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