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Postcards from Devil’s Island, French Guyana

On board Rotterdam.

More than a week after leaving the mainland of Africa, we touched our first port in the Western Hemisphere. The destination was the infamous and storied island penal colony of Alfred Dreyfus and Papillion — Devil’s Island.

The Island is actually a very close group of three islands that sits just off the coast of the South American nation of French Guyana. The islands have no large pier, so it was a tender day for the ship, meaning that guests went ashore via our larger lifeboats. The seas and the docking area were such that it was a slow and challenging project for the crew to get all the guests off and back on safely and securely, which they did.

As crew, we always defer to our guests so we are always the last ones off and the first ones back on during tender ports. The result was that most of the crew only got to spend about one very intense hour on this very mystical and mysterious Island.

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Once ashore, one finds stone paths that lead all around the island. There are many ruins of the former colony, which stand and haunt it’s jungle landscape. A few of the buildings in better repair offered a history of the island with period photos of prisoners being led through the streets of France to the ships that would take them to this devils’ island and shots of them arriving.

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A chapel.

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An office building in decay.

History doesn’t seem to affect the local fauna, however.

Pheasants have free and fearless run of the island. They sit on roofs, walk across your path and strut like they belong there.

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We found two different kinds of monkey, also lacking fear of humans, as well as a very curious large rodent.

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Denise and the critter!

This rodent — about the size of a cat — moved like a deer and perhaps because of that and its size, one could have imagined it to have been a miniature dik-dik. The dik-dik is an animal we encountered in Kenya. It is the smallest member of the deer family and about the size of a miniature poodle, and this specimen was about half that size.

There is a small Inn on the island that serves food and beverages. It was set on a cliff that overlooked the island that housed the prisoners.

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The island that housed the prisoners.

Refreshments offered a glimpse of an insight into what life in a penal colony may have been like.

While the beer was cold and refreshing, it was the wine that provided the insight. Upon sipping, one immediately was struck by the thought that part of the hard life of a Frenchman exiled to a penal colony halfway across the world was to face a life with bad wine. The vintage served seems to have been aged on the docks in a brutally hot and direct sunlight — “Mon Dieu!”

As the photos show, this is a very special, rich and thoroughly enjoyable destination – now. There was much to see, do and enjoy. Just remember to be cautious about the wine and don’t go swimming — this colony never needed a fence — the local shark population kept the inmates and keeps the residents securely on shore.

Mike and Denise are future cruise consultants on Rotterdam.

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