Fantasy islands can sometimes be a reality

04.04.2011 In: Travel destinations

An advanced city submerged under sea; an ancient garden paradise bearing a tree of knowledge; an island of bird-women seductresses -- the stuff of pure fiction. Or perhaps not?
Far-off, mysterious islands provide the setting for some of our favorite myths and folklore. But more often than not, they have their roots in real-life locations.
From the Caribbean cove of Treasure Island to the sunken city of Atlantis, here's a travel guide for those who fancy a sailing holiday with an allegorical twist.

Treasure Island
The definitive swash-buckling tale of one-legged pirates, treasure maps and talking parrots centers around a tiny island somewhere in the Caribbean. Starring the rum-swigging buccaneer Long John Silver, the story was penned by 19th century Scottish author Robert Lewis Stevenson - who never set foot in the Caribbean. However, it's said that the young Stevenson was enthralled by a mariner uncle's tale of his voyage to Norman Island - a small reefy spot that forms part of the British Virgin Islands, located just by a rocky formation known fittingly as Dead Man's Chest. Now a prime snorkeling spot, the island is a popular destination for cruisers and tourists, who can be found knocking back rum cocktails at the aptly-named Pirates Bight Bar and Restaurant.

The legendary island in the middle of the Atlantic, first popularized by Plato, has become synonymous with the idea of a lost civilization. The Greek philosopher's account of a prosperous and cultured city disappearing into the ocean has captured the popular imagination and prompted many theories about its real-life location. While many Atlantis-hunters have directed their attentions beneath the sea, one of the strongest contenders is only partially submerged. According to some archaeologists, the volcanic Greek island of Santorini, in the Aegean sea, was half sunk following an eruption thousands of years ago. The island is also thought to have been a home of the Minoans, a super-advanced race who predate the ancient Greeks and are argued to have provided the basis for Plato's description. Today, the arid but wonderfully scenic island retains the ancient Greek penchant for wine making and is a popular stop-off destination for sailors seeking a tipple on their way back to the mainland.

The Garden of Eden
There are more theories about the real-life location of the biblical garden paradise than you could shake at with a stick from the tree of knowledge. From Tabriz in Iran to Jackson County, Missouri, Eden is alleged to have existed on almost every continent. In most cases, however, the sites look more like a neglected allotment than God's botanical masterpiece. Except, that is, for the Vallee de Mai on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles. A primeval rainforest whose efflorescent blooms have earned it a place on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites, the Vallee de Mai is home to the legendary Coco de Mer tree. Known for its erotic fruits, the female Coco de Mer produces a huge seed shaped like a lady's belly and thighs, while the taller male specimen has a blush-inducing phallic-shaped catkin. They may as well have written "Adam and Eve woz 'ere."

Sirenum scopuli
Their seductive songs were rumored to lure passing sailors into an abrupt, rocky demise. Part woman, part bird - and some say part fish - the Sirens are the femme fatales of ancient Greek mythology. The deadly seductresses were rumored to inhabit a small craggy island known as the "Sirenum scopuli." According to 18th century English essayist and playwright Joseph Addison, the rocks form part of Capri, a picture-perfect island off the coast of southern Italy. "The Sirenum scopuli are sharp rocks that stand about a stone's throw from the south side of the island" he wrote. To lend further support to this theory, situated on the island's Piccola Marina is the Scoglio delle Sirene, or "Siren's Rock." One of Capri's most alluring suntraps, it has become home to a series of striking sea-edge restaurants and a range of bathing establishments that we can only assume would satisfy the most demanding of modern-day mermaids.

Isle of Sodor
It sounds like a secluded backwater from Lord of the Rings, but the Isle of Sodor is in fact the setting for popular children's TV series "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends." Originally created by English reverend and railway enthusiast Wilbert Awdry as a bed-time story for his then-ill son, the tales of a cheeky blue steam locomotive today enjoy global popularity. The long-running TV series has been narrated by the likes of former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr and James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan - not bad for an unassuming kid's show whose setting is based on the windy and remote Isle of Man, which floats between Scotland and Northern Ireland in the middle of the Irish Sea. Admittedly, if you're in search of a sunny garden paradise or picturesque beach cove, then this ancient Gaelic island is probably not for you. However, those with a penchant for folktales and fairies should look no further. Having been inhabited for over 8,000 years, the Isle of Man has a rich culture of legends. Beware the Buggane - a mischievous spirit who blows the roofs off buildings, or the ghostly Moddey Dhoo - a nocturnal black dog associated with electrical storms. Or forget all that and just head to the Isle of Man railway station for a special Thomas the Tank Engine tour.