For people who spend most of their time on the mainland, islands can be inherently interesting places. While some lie just off the coast, many can be found dotting the remote regions of the world's great oceans like tiny homesteads on a vast, empty plain. Island scenery is often very picturesque, with prevalent ocean views, and weather can be as unpredictable as it can be beautiful. Given the isolation and allure of such locations, it's no coincidence that some of the world's most famous getaways are on islands.
What some islands lack in charm, however, they make up for in peculiarity. Sometimes these strange qualities are natural, like the presence of plants, animals and geologic formations unlike any others on Earth. Other times the curiosity is man-made. Abandoned cities, haunted buildings, eccentric rituals and unexplained relics are just a few things that make many islands more bizarre than they are beautiful. Read on to discover more about Earth's most abnormal atolls.
Palm Islands, Dubai
It makes sense that one of the strangest man-made islands in the world is located in Dubai, a city whose extravagance also includes an indoor ski hill and a 160-story skyscraper. Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago off the coast of Dubai, boasts sixteen 0.62-mile-long (1 kilometers) fronds surrounded by a circular barrier island 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) long. It measures 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) from tip to mainland and is 12 square miles (31 square kilometers) in total area [source: The Daily Mail]. It was constructed in the Persian Gulf using boulders excavated from a nearby mountain range and more than 120 million cubic yards (92 million cubic meters) of sand dredged from the sea floor [source: Nakheel]. Commissioned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and constructed by the state-owned developer Nakheel, Palm Jumeirah doubled the natural 42-mile (68 kilometers) coastline of Dubai [source: Booth].
Amazingly, Palm Jumeirah is just one of four artificial-island developments currently underway in Dubai. Nearly complete, Palm Jebel Ali will be more than twice the size of Palm Jumeirah, while the final development, Palm Deira, will be the largest of the three artificial islands. A fourth project called "The World" is a cluster of 300 islands grouped in the shape of a world map. Unfortunately, Dubai's 2008 debt crisis nearly brought construction to a halt and cast doubt on the future success of these developments.
La Isla de las Munecas (The Island of the Dolls), Mexico
Anyone who has seen one of the Chucky movies will agree: Dolls are creepy. This is especially true when they are hanging from trees, wrapped in spider webs, with bugs crawling out of their empty eye sockets. Are these the horrors of the latest Hollywood thriller? Actually, such scenes are what you can expect to see when visiting La Isla de las Munecas, or The Island of the Dolls, just outside of Mexico City.
The story behind this eerie place is just as bizarre as any tale that Tim Burton or M. Night Shyamalan might dream up. A grieving man named Don Julian came to live on the island in the canals of Xochimilco after the tragic deaths of his entire family. Then, one day he heard the distant screams of a young woman drowning in a nearby canal. He ran to the water's edge, leaped in, and pulled the girl to shore, but despite his brave efforts, she soon died. Alone again, Don Julian began to hear the girl's voice on a nightly basis, and in an attempt to ward off her spirit he began to hang dolls from the trees. Pretty soon he became a local legend, and people began to bring him more dolls to add to his collection. Don Julian died in 2005 at the age of eighty-six, but not before amassing a ghostly collection of dolls -- and parts of dolls -- numbering in the thousands.
Socotra Island, Yemen
Rising from the Indian Ocean off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia is the Yemeni island of Socotra, a place that's just about as strange as its neighboring countries are violent. Dominated by the Haghier Mountains, which reach a height of 5,000 feet (1525 meters), the Socotran landscape is extremely arid and looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The distinctive flora and fauna are a result of a high level of endemism on the island, which has been isolated since it broke off of Africa more than 250 million years ago [source: Edwards].
Among the 300 plants, 24 reptiles and six birds that are unique to Socotra is the dragon's blood tree, an odd plant that is named for its bright red sap [source: SCDP]. From this tree's thick central trunk, sturdy, gnarled branches fan out in a round umbrella shape and are topped with palm-like leaves. Another peculiar part of the island's flora is the Socotran desert rose, a beige plant with pink flowers that's best described as a giant rutabaga-like tree.
If it weren't for its unfortunate location in one of the world's most unstable regions, this 1,400-square-mile (3,625 square kilometers) "Galapagos of the East" would be an ideal destination for ecotourists from across the planet. However, until its home country becomes friendlier to foreigners, Socotra's 44,000 residents will be forced to endure the isolation that made the island so biologically unique in the first place [source: SCDP].
Fort Boyard, France
What's stranger than a 200-year-old fortress that looks like a floating bathtub and is now the set of a popular game show? The island bastion in question is Fort Boyard, located just off the western coast of France, halfway between the islands of Oleron and Aix. It was first conceived as part of a military buildup in the 1660s during the reign of Louis XIV. The project was scrapped, however, when Vauban, the king's leading engineer, famously said of the endeavor, "Sire, it would be easier to grasp the moon with the teeth than to attempt such a task in this location." Construction on the fort didn't begin in earnest until 1804 under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte. To create the foundation, workers had to dump 98,000 cubic yards (75,000 cubic meters) of rocks onto the sandy floor of the shallow sea [source: Oleron].Work progressed intermittently until 1809 when British attacks interrupted the construction crews. Nearly 30 years later, under the rule of Louis Phillipe, builders once again restarted the project, which was finally completed in 1857. The resulting oval-shaped island fortress measured 105 feet (32 meters) wide and 65 feet (20 meters) high and could support 250 soldiers and 74 guns [source: Oleron].
Almost the minute crews laid the last brick, Fort Boyard was obsolete thanks to advances in gun technology. Since then, it has been used as a military prison, a movie and television backdrop, and, most recently, the set for the French game show "Fort Boyard." Contestants on this popular show, which has aired since 1990, are asked to perform mentally and physically challenging tasks, much like the American show, "Fear Factor."
The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru
They may not technically be islands in the geographic sense, but the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca are one of Peru's strangest attractions. Known by their inhabitants, the Uros, as Islas Flotantes, these "floating islands" are actually mats made of buoyant totora reeds, some of which are half the size of a football field! These mats measure 8 to 12 feet (3 to 4 meters) thick and are tethered to each other and the lake bottom with long ropes [source: Foer].
It's not entirely clear when and why the Uros settled in the middle of Lake Titicaca, but anthropologists believe that in pre-Columbian times they migrated out of the Amazon and into what is now southern Peru. At odds with rival tribes and unable to find land of their own, the Uros decided to make floating cities in the lake's frigid waters where they remained unmolested for centuries. Their reputation as an inferior and subhuman people kept them safe from Incan and Spanish subjugation, though unfortunately the local Aymara still view them as dim-witted.
The Uros lived about 9 miles into the lake until 1986, when a huge storm destroyed many of the islands and forced their residents to rebuild closer to shore. Incredibly, around 1,200 Uros still live on a string of some 60 floating islands off the coast of Lake Titicaca's largest city, Puno. Traditionally, the Uros were fisherman, but in recent years nearby commercial operations have made it difficult for them to make a living that way. Now the Uros are hoping to profit from the approximately 200,000 tourists who visit their islands each year [source: Foer].
Madagascar is the fourth largest island on Earth, but it might as well be on a different planet. Once a French colony, the poverty-stricken country endured a bloody coup in 2009, and its leaders now maintain a tenuous peace. However, those willing to brave the political upheaval will experience firsthand one of the most unique places anywhere. Ever since Madagascar broke away from the African continent 165 million years ago, its plants and animals have evolved independently from those on the mainland. This separation has led to an astonishing level of endemism: About 90 percent of its flora and fauna are unique to the island [source: Draper].
Before the 2009 coup, thousands of ecotourists came to Madagascar to explore its peculiar beauty. One of the country's most famous curiosities is the baobab, a carrot-shaped tree with a thick trunk and high branches that can grow up to 80 feet (24 meters) tall [source: Draper]. Lemurs, which are only found on Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands, also populate the countryside. Unfortunately, the pressures of political instability and poverty have led to widespread poaching of Madagascar's wildlife and illicit harvesting of its trees. The country's colorful chameleons, furry lemurs and rich-colored rosewood are especially popular on the international black market. Conservationists hope that once a reliable government is established, it will again be strong enough to protect the national parks from poachers and loggers, and will restart ambitious conservation projects conceived before the 2009 coup.
Alcatraz Island, United States
Few islands in the United States are as famous -- or infamous -- as Alcatraz, a small, rocky outpost in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Calif. Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala first mapped the island in 1775 and gave it the name "Isla de los Alcatraces" (Island of the Pelicans) because of the large number of the seabirds that roosted there. The rugged crag stood in the bay untouched until 1853, when the U.S. Army constructed a fortress on Alcatraz, which they used both for the defense of San Francisco Bay and as a prison. Then, in 1934, the Army transferred ownership of the island to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which converted the fortress into one of the most legendary penitentiaries in the country's history. The prison housed many violent murders and mobsters -- including Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Basil "The Owl" Banghart and Mickey Cohen -- before closing its doors in 1963.
The event that cemented Alcatraz's place in American popular culture was the occupation of the island by American Indians, most notably from Nov. 20, 1969, through June 11, 1971. This was the third and final occupation of the island by activists demanding the deed to the island and at the same time bringing attention to the struggles of the nation's American Indian population. While armed law enforcement forcibly removed the last of the protesters in 1971, their efforts played a key role in the eventual end of the United States' termination policy, which sought to assimilate Indians into mainstream American society.
Hashima Island, Japan
Hashima Island, located some 9 miles (15 kilometers) southwest of Nagasaki, is almost as strange for what isn't there as it is for what is there. Once considered the most densely populated place in the world with 334 people per acre (835 per hectare), this island mining community now stands completely abandoned in the waters of the East China Sea [source: Burke-Gaffney].
The Japanese developed Hashima when coal was discovered in the rock beneath the island and surrounding seafloor. The Fukahori family installed the first mineshaft on the island in 1887 before selling it to the Mitsubishi company for 100,000 yen. The company used tailings from the mine to enlarge the island to 15.6 acres (6.3 hectares) before encircling it with high seawalls [source: Burke-Gaffney]. The increased space allowed Mitsubishi to build housing for their miners, though apartments were cramped and primitive. As the demand for coal increased during WWII, Chinese and South Korean men were forcibly brought to Hashima Island to work the mines.
By 1959, the population of Hashima peaked at 5,259, and the tiny island boasted a primary school, junior high school, playground, gymnasium, pinball parlor, movie theater, bars, restaurants, 25 different retail shops, hospital, hairdresser, Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine and even a brothel [source: Burke-Gaffney]. The island's decline began in the 1960s when petroleum replaced coal as Japan's main energy source, and the mine was ultimately closed on April 20, 1974. Though the island has been unoccupied since the Mitsubishi operation shut down, the buildings remain as an eerie reminder of the mine's prolific past.
Poveglia Island, Italy
Some people believe that Poveglia Island is one of the most haunted places on Earth, and given its history, it's easy to see why. Located in the South Lagoon between the cities of Venice and Lido, the island was first inhabited in 421 by people fleeing invaders on the mainland [source: Travel Channel]. Residents had abandoned the island by 1348 when the Bubonic Plague hit Venice. Like many small, uninhabited islands, Poveglia was used to quarantine the dead and dying victims of the disease, many of whom were eventually burned on the island's giant pyres. More Venetians fell victim to Poveglia's grim fate in 1630, when the Black Death once again sickened many of the city's residents. This gruesome past had already inspired ghostly tales when Napoleon used the location to stash gunpowder and weapons in the early 19th century.
Poveglia only became creepier when, in the late 1800s, the island became an asylum for the mentally ill. Legend suggests that one of the hospital's doctors performed strange experiments on the patients in the 1930s, a task that eventually drove him to leap off of the asylum's bell tower. The last operation housed in the island's old hospital was a nursing home, which closed in 1975. The island has been abandoned since then, but locals claim that they still hear chiming from the bell tower, even though the bell was removed several decades ago.
Giant stone statues, up to three stories tall, don't carve and move themselves. How, then, did the original inhabitants of Easter Island, whose only tools were stone, bone and coral, manage to accomplish such a monumental task? This question has plagued the Western world since the Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggeveen landed on the island on Easter Day, April 5, 1772.
Linguists and archaeologists believe that Easter Island's first residents were Polynesians who arrived by canoe sometime between 400 and 800 A.D. Their numbers flourished between 1000 and 1680, peaking at a high of about 9,000 by 1550 [source: NOVA]. It was during this time of prosperity that these early residents undertook the massive monument-building project that would make the island famous.
The builder's ancestors refer to the massive statues on Easter Island as "moai" and the base on which they sit as "ahu." They average 13 feet (4 meters) in height and weigh in at a whopping 14 tons (12,700 kilograms), and were carved from rock quarried from a volcanic crater on the island's eastern end, known as Rano Raraku. All together, there are 887 moai on Easter Island. Of those, 397 remain in Rano Raraku, and 92 lie in transit outside the quarry. Only 288 were successfully transported to an ahu [source: NOVA]. Numerous methods have been suggested to explain how the early inhabitants moved these stone monuments -- sleds, rolling logs, and even extraterrestrials -- but the exact technique is still unknown.
HowStuffWorks hikes El Caminito del Rey, a very dangerous hiking path in Spain that was closed to the public for 15 years after several deaths.
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