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Cruise Diary: First Stop in Amazon – Devil’s Island, French Guiana

HAL blogger Gary Frink currently is sailing on board Prinsendam’s 24-day Amazon River and Caribbean adventure and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout his time on board. Enjoy!

Jeanne with Devil's Island in the background.

Jeanne with Devil's Island in the background.

The three Iles de Salut (ironically, islands of health or salvation, depending on your interpretation) were part of the French Guiana prison system France maintained for a century ending in the 1950s. Devil’s Island was the most notorious of the three (Royale and St. Joseph are the others.) The criminal courts of metropolitan France sent approximately 80,000 prisoners to the island prisons; 50,000 of them perished there. When the agony of a prisoner’s earthly existence came to an end on Devil’s Island, guards unceremoniously tossed his body into the ocean to feed the sharks, constantly prowling through the Atlantic waters below the tiny (3,900 feet long by 1,320 feet wide) island. The sharks and strong currents made escape from Devil’s Island possible only in the delirium of its desperate inmates.

Yesterday, as we each prepared to enter a diesel powered Prinsendam lifeboat to be conveyed to the Ile Royale, passengers were exposed to the force of the local currents. The tenders were briskly swept up and down to the extent that passengers had to time their leaps onto the small boats. Sharks neglected to make an appearance.

Devil's Island monkey

Upon landing on Ile Royale, some passengers set out to make a 45-minute circumferential sea-level tour of the island. After pausing to watch and photograph monkeys playing in a grove of trees, Jeanne and I began a climb over a series of uneven stone steps to the top of the island. At the summit is a grand view of the abandoned, and now palm tree overgrown, Devil’s Island, across a 650-foot channel. Also at the summit is a drab concrete structure, once the guard mess hall, now a spartan, hotel, restaurant and anachronistic gift shop. At one end of the lobby a perspiring French bartender sold Heineken beer and sodas to Prinsendam passengers who had mastered the stone-step climb as fast as he could shove out the canned liquid and take in dollars. At the other end a dark-toned woman incongruously pounded a baby grand piano. Jeanne and I drank our beverages in an al fresco dining area in order to view Devil’s Island and its waving palm trees.

Devil's Island

On the way up to the mess hall-cum-hotel, I stopped briefly to attempt an inter-lingual chat with an 80-year-old French Ile Royale resident. He appeared to be in the business of selling small, blue t-shirts from an inventory of only 10 to 15. I took away from our brief encounter that he was proud to be still working at his age.

The walk down, over the uneven stone steps, was easier but we had to be cautious about picking up speed and ending up rolling to the bottom. The ride back to the mother ship was smoother that the outgoing one.

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