Of course that question is a bit broad in that islands come in all shapes and sizes. England is an island with many, many miles of roads, as is New Zealand (actually 2 islands), but I’m talking about small islands, islands with land masses measured in the tens of square miles and not thousands.
A couple of weeks ago we were visiting one of our favourite Caribbean islands – Saint Martin/Sint Maarten. One of the leeward islands it’s pretty much hung out there in the Atlantic, but it has some of the most spectacular beaches we’ve found and fabulous restaurants in which to wind down after a hard day of sun, sand, and surf (and Heineken – available everywhere at $2 a pop).
It’s the very definition of a small island, covering a total of 35 square miles with a permanent population of around 80,000 and probably near that number of tourists during the winter season. There is one main loop road that connects all the major centres and it’s about 28 miles long. The road is so narrow and generally busy that a round trip will take anywhere from an hour to two hours or more, with frequent stops for goats, chickens, buses, dogs, and conversations between friends held while the driver just stops in the road for a minute or two to catch up on the latest gossip, triggering a blaring of horns which, for the most part, go ignored.
All roads have an unmarked “third lane”, usually down the centre strip along which motorcycles, scooters, and even bicycles travel at speeds well above the main traffic flow. This is where loud pipes really do save lives as you will hear them coming 4 or 5 cars back before they speed past, often with front wheels in the air, threading the needle between you and the oncoming traffic, around corners and over hills. Even the scooters run with open exhausts. Surprisingly there seem to be few fatalities, a testament no doubt to the slower traffic speeds and local driver awareness.
I’m not sure I could survive for more than a few weeks at a time on such a small piece of real estate but I got to thinking that if I were magically transported here two wheels would be the preferred mode of travel. That triggered the question: What would I ride?
There are certainly plenty of options to choose from. All major brands of two-wheelers are represented on the island, including Harley-Davidson. I did see a couple of full dressers but why a touring bike? Where are you going to tour to when the most distant spot in your immediate universe is an hour away? But then I saw a few Hummers and high-end Range Rovers as well, so who knows? But muscling 900 pounds of iron around in those crowded towns and villages and on frequent gravel roads would be a no-go for me.
The main roads are twisty and hilly and would be great for a sports bike or cafe racer, but the constant heavy traffic would be an endless source of frustration. Lost tourists driving small SUVs gawking at the scenery and generally behaving as if they just got their license last week would make letting the ponies out near-suicide. Of course the same could be said, I suppose, for the couple of ‘Vettes I saw slowly crawling over the ubiquitous speed bumps.
A scooter might be a good choice. Probably the most popular form of two-wheeling, so lots of dealers and repair shops – none of which, it seems, sell mufflers. They’re convenient, maneuverable, inexpensive to operate (with gas at about $4 a gallon that’s a consideration), and very utilitarian, but lacking any fun factor. (Cue the outraged comments from scooterists.)
No, I think the best would be a mid-sized dual purpose bike. Plenty of power for the road, great traction on gravel and sand, and maneuverable in traffic. A dual purpose will take you anywhere you want to go and, when the traffic miraculously clears for a few minutes, do so with vigour. Definitely my choice.
Or I could just bolt a motor on a bicycle like this young lad.