Doug and I had been to this port a few years ago when we took our Amazon River cruise. It is the only port that required Yellow Fever shots. (Fortunately they are good for 10 years so we didn’t need to get another one before this trip!) I remember really liking this island for its beauty and history. I was much more excited about going ashore than Doug, so we decided to split up – Doug went with Charlie later in the morning and Barb and I went together and were on the first tender!
A few quick facts about this port: First, when people refer to Devil’s Island, it really is a group of three islands called the Iles Du Salut. The three islands are Devil’s Island, Ile Royale and St. Joseph. They are about 9 miles off the coast of French Guiana in S. America. We actually were tendered to Ile Royale, the most developed of the three.
The islands were part of the notorious French penal colony until 1952. They opened under Emperor Napoleon’ III’s government in 1852. The inmates were an array of political prisoners, thieves, and murderers. The harsh conditions, rampant spread of diseases , and impossible escape due to treacherous shark-infested waters around these islands were the reasons only 30,000 of the 80,000 prisoners sent there survived. The most famous “resident” was Captain Dreyfuss, a political prisoner who was falsely accused of espionage (his real “crime” was probably being Jewish during an anti-Sematic era) and was sent to Devil’s Island in 1894 where he lived in total isolation until he was pardoned in 1906. And finally, the book/movie Papillon is the story of one convict who after several attempts did actually escape.
I was up early so that Barb and I could meet at 7:30 a.m. Before arriving, I was able to watch the sun rise – and it was a spectacular sunrise this morning. I don’t get up early enough most mornings to be out of deck for this, so I really enjoyed this morning’s beauty. Here is a picture of how the three islands looked as we sailed toward them.
I think what surprises many people (it did me on my first visit) is how beautiful and tropically lush the islands are. When Barb and I arrived, we began our hike along the coastal trail. This was our view St. Joseph island which was also used for solitary confinement and was the burial ground for prison wardens (inmates were unceremoniously tossed out to sea.)
As we approached our first building (now mainly in ruins) we heard this loud noise that sounded like someone working inside the building. Imagine our surprise to find out it was a group of monkeys, one of which was hitting a coconut on the stones trying to break it open. It was a great beginning to an even greater day!
As we walked on, we saw some more crumbling walls, and I took this picture because it not only showed how thick some of these walls were, but how they were constructed using stones and rocks. I imagine the convicts who were not in solitary confinement spent much of their time in this type of construction.
Here is our first view of Devil’s Island with warning signs. I’m including the sign and then a picture that pretty much captures the mindset of some of our passengers (“the rules don’t apply to me!”) Take a close look at the rocks where you can see one lone figure. I wonder if he ever made it back to the ship!!! [Doug later told me he heard one of our passengers bragging to someone else how he didn’t follow any of the rules on the signs because most of them were in French and it’s not his language! Ah, the truly “ugly American” at his finest!]
As I said, I found this island to be beautiful. Here is a picture of the coastline that Barb and I were walking along on Ile Royale. It seems a waste that in the middle of such beauty there was such suffering. There were cautionary signs about falling rocks, dangerous falls, and great heights. This picture shows that, but also if you look carefully, you can see hundreds of coconuts floating in the water. These were what Papillon used to make his floating raft to escape the island.
As we continued, we came to what remains of the Insane Asylum. After that we walked up the hillside to what is now the Information Center. We ran into Doug and Charlie who had just gotten there, having come up a different path, bypassing the eastern section of the island. Outside the building we saw this beautiful bird and lots of monkeys (who seemed to enjoy all the attention!) Some were in trees and others were on the walls and ground – begging for food. It was fun to watch them. Inside the Info center, we were given signed certificates for having visited Devil’s Island.
It was getting really warm by now, and the heat was getting to Charlie, so he went back to the tender/ship and Doug went with us for a little bit (until we took too long taking pictures!) We climbed the last steep set of stone stairs to the top, flat open area where most of the main sites were. Barb and I decided to try the Devil’s rum punch that is served in the now hotel/restaurant (formerly the guard’s mess hall) before continuing to see the sites. When I say hotel, it is just a few rooms, not luxurious at all, for a low overnight fee. We took our drinks outside to enjoy the scenery and great view of Devil’s Island. It only took one sip to realize this was a very strong drink. Barb did better than I did – I could only take a sip or two. But, at least we tried the local drink! We checked out the very small gift shop trying to find postcards and local stamps, but they don’t have a stamp of Devil’s Island and the postcards were weak at best!
The grounds around this building were very pretty with lovely flowering trees. Scampering across the lawn, we saw many agouti, the local rodents who call this island home. In one area, there were all kinds of birds – parrots, hens and roosters, and peacocks. We were lucky that this lovely peacock decided to display her feathers while we were there.
As we walked on, we saw these French soldiers/police. When Doug and I were here before, we saw the same thing – only then they were wearing all white and carried large guns. Only the French can get away with short shorts!
Our next stop were the actual prison cells. They were very small quarters and some still had the iron attachment in the wall where the prisoners would have been chained. Across the lawn from these was the chapel and hospital. We could go inside the chapel, but not the hospital. From the outside, the hospital looks like it is in good shape, but looking through the windows, you could see how it was crumbling on the inside.
We were headed toward the lighthouse, but when we came to the helipad we were stopped because a helicopter was coming in – not a usual occurrence. We waited to see it land and guessed that it was for an emergency health issue (given that probably 800 of our passengers were wandering around the island in the heat . . and remembering the man on the slippery rocks!) However, it turned out the helicopter was bringing in officials (we never learned who they were or why they were there.) But it was kind of exciting to see it all unfold before our eyes.
So, we ended up taking the longer, scenic path to the next stop – the children’s cemetery. It is where the children of the wardens were buried. The headstones were in a varying degree of crumbling and decay. On some you could read the names and dates the child lived. On this one, it shows the little girl only lived a few months (born and died in 1905 and at the bottom of most of the stones that were still legible, it said “Regrets.” It was a sad, but peaceful place.
After spending some time here, we went back up to see the lighthouse. It was built in 1934 so it is fairly modern. We could not go in here either. The hospital is next to it (as seen from this side.) That was our last “official site” to visit. We took the most western pathway back to the pier. On the way, there was a wooded area with lots more monkeys. People had brought bananas and were feeding them. They were friendly little guys and it was fun to watch them take the banana, run off to eat it, and then come right back for more. I have a great video of one in a tree eating. They were moving around so quickly, I couldn’t get a picture to show how many there were in this area, but here are a few as a sample. I liked the way the ones in the trees held on with their tails.
The path going back was really beautiful – very lush with tall trees that created a shady walk. This was a view of our ship from the island. We had walked around the island for almost five hours and had such a great time exploring and taking our time without being on a tour that determined how long you spent at each place.
When we got back to the pier area, we went over and checked out the rocks below. We had heard that there were turtles there. While we didn’t see a turtle, we did see this amazing reptile sunning himself on a rock. And I was glad to have a good zoom on my lens so I could see him without getting too close!
We took the tender back to the ship and after getting an iced coffee drink, we headed up to the pool for the sail away (it was early – 3 p.m.) and the passenger “swap meet” where tables were set up so that people could sell or trade anything they had been given or bought during the whole cruise and decided they no longer wanted the items (or could not fit them in their suitcases!) On almost every Formal night, the ship had gifts waiting on our beds for us when we returned to our staterooms after dinner. So, many of these were on the “swap/sell” tables. Most of the gifts were really nice, so I never understood why people didn’t want them. It was a true madhouse and only lasted about 20 minutes before everything was gone. There was also an ice carving demonstration in the middle of all of it plus pool-side games. And then, of course, the sail-away!
We were scheduled to pull up anchor and sail at 3 p.m. However, we didn’t actually leave until after 6 p.m. The captain made several announcements and gave us updates on the situation. It seems that the platform door was stuck and the crew couldn’t get it closed. I don’t know how they fixed it out in the middle of the water, but somehow they did and off we went. It meant that the ship would have to go at a much faster speed to arrive at our next port on time (which we did!)
After dinner, Barb and I wanted to see the movie they were showing on the big screen in the Queen’s Lounge for the night’s entertainment – Papillon. Since neither Doug nor Charlie wanted to see it (again) the “girl’s day” turned into a “girl’s night.” While we had both seen the movie a long, long time ago, we didn’t remember it well. But, more importantly, it took on a very special meaning for us since it showed some of the very places we had walked that day.
It was a really fun day with good weather, good sights, and great company! It made me realize how much I miss my girl friends back home. Only one more port to go . . . and it was nice that this one was so relaxing because we did it the way we chose to do it.