Islands Without Cars: 5 Places Time Hasn't Touched

There are a few glorious places in the world that remain so unspoiled by the ravages of modernity and that are so quiet that the only sounds are the wind at night and the birds chirping in the morning. Places where houses are built with the indentured aid of donkeys rather than flatbed trucks, where sacks of potatoes are wheeled from garden to kitchen on bicycle handlebars, where kids ride horses to school, and where ancient fishermen's widows will happily serve you octopus and share the secrets to a long life.

For the past seven years, I have been fortunate to live out my idyllic career as the host of a television travel series called Islands Without Cars. My mother is a Chicago-based filmmaker who always loved to share her craft with me. When I was 9, I traveled with her on a documentary shoot to London, where we first cooked up our dream to create a travel series together. Fifteen years later, she and executive producer Melissa Sage Fadim invited me to host the pilot episode of their very first travel series. The idea? A glimpse into life on islands that time forgot. How so? No modern transport.
Photo: Courtesy of Kira Hesser.
The writer with her mother.

At the time, I had just moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, a childhood career which I had paused for academia (you might remember me from being thrown in the Chokey as Hortensia in Matilda). I was more than thrilled at the prospect of mimicking the career of my childhood role model, Rick Steves. The day I saw "Islands Without Cars With Kira" listed in the Chicago TV guide immediately after a Rick Steves episode was a defining day in my life — and one that overwhelmed me with the heady, sweaty joy of gratitude.

Ahead, I'm sharing five of my favorite places for which time stopped ticking long ago. Do yourself a favor and add them to your travel bucket list.

Photo: Kira Hesser.
Sark, England
When we visited Sark in 2008, it was the last remaining feudal state in the Western World. Every landowner still had to pay a tithe to the “seigneur” of the island — a kind, modern overlord of sorts who hadn’t adjusted his income for inflation in generations and was thus beloved by all, as far as we could tell. The entire tiny island was a community effort, as each inhabitant fulfilled three to six jobs (the jail-keeper was also the bartender, who was also the hardware store owner, etc.) The signposts give directions in terms of minutes it takes to walk there. We stayed at Stocks Hotel Sark, run by a John Cleese lookalike, where it quickly became impossible to distinguish between real life and a Fawlty Towers episode. I ate hot scones with clotted cream and jam about three times a day. It is bucolic British heaven.

Photo: Travel Library/REX Shutterstock.
Hydra, Greece
Hydra is a hot, colorful, aggressively beautiful Greek island in the Saronic Gulf that you access via a hydrofoil called a Flying Dolphin. Donkeys greet you at the harbor, unimpressed, swatting their tails in tandem with the craggy-faced sailors’ calls to one another. Off to the side of the port, there is a rocky diving cliff for foolhardy bronzed teens to impress one another (and the girls lounging nearby in neon threads masquerading as bikinis). There is a church for every day of the year and a monastery at the achingly high tip-top of the island. Squid and tzatziki tantalize tastebuds from every restaurant menu. Hydra also boasts a thriving artistic community of painters, musicians, and poets, as well as a storied expatriate collection including Leonard Cohen (about whom everyone on the island has a personal story). There is a quieter port on the other side of the island where the locals prefer to hang out, paint, and gab. There is some pretty excellent shopping in tiny stores stuffed with hand-made wares. And there are cats: so many cats.

Photo: Courtesy of Kira Hesser.
Aeolian Islands, Italy
The seven islands of the Aeolian archipelago form a smile above Sicily for good reason — it's basically what everyone who lives there is doing at all times. While each island has its own distinct characteristics (the continuously erupting yet otherwise calm volcanic island of Stromboli, the luxe getaway isle of Panarea, the quiet garden isle of Salina, etc.), each boasts unbelievably, stupidly incredible food, and the laid-back, sun-kissed island attitude of Sicily. It was here that an English expat who fell in love with an Italian fisherman told us that in the Sicilian dialect of Italian, there is no future tense of “will be.” The here and now is The Thing, and it’s a beautiful, utterly un-modern mode of living to drop in on.

Photo: Amanda Booth.
Krapanj, Croatia
In Krapanj, the secret to a long life was loudly professed by a 95-year-old Croatian woman whose ebullient attitude belied her head-to-toe widow’s black clothes, which she wore decades after her husband’s death. She confided in me that fish, wine, and sex are the secret to a long life — in that order. Then, she gently held my breasts and affirmed that I’d easily find someone to love me. Soothsayer she was — I found my husband on that very island! (Just kidding, there were no men under 83 on that island.) Krapanj is a perfect place to relax, scuba dive, and snorkel away any memories of the mainland and its quick pace. Also, incredible squid ink pasta everywhere! Bonus points? The old city of Dubrovnik is also technically one of Croatia’s islands without cars (it used to be surrounded by water), and is one of the main filming locations for Game of Thrones.

Photo: Courtesy of Kira Hesser.
Southern Goteborg Archipelago, Sweden
Sweden’s western coast boasts a chain of wind-hewn islands, many of which are car-free. We visited Marstrand, Styrsö, and Vrångö: minutes apart by ferry, yet worlds apart in personality. We landed on Marstrand just in time for Midsummer, arguably the biggest Swedish holiday, which celebrates the arrival of summer and fertility of both land and young, flower-crown-clad maidens. The storybook image of blonde, red-cheeked Swedish children holding hands and dancing ‘round a Maypole is STARTLINGLY ACCURATE, at least on these remote islands. I helped cover the island’s maypole in green leaves and white wildflowers and then held hands with strangers as we churned around an enormous green phallic symbol, petals drooping into our eyes as a Swedish mom held my hands, translating each song into English for me.
Photo: Tyler Cook.
Styrsö was an island used as a famous tuberculosis clinic in the early part of the 20th century and its fresh, unmarred air and quiet back-lanes are the perfect escape for anyone, romantically inclined or not. Vrångö just opened its first cafe/restaurant two years ago and its first hotel mere months ago. We were rewarded with seaside views of fiery orange sunsets, views that rivaled any Dutch Golden Age Mannerist painting, and danishes so melty and buttery that I ate three in one sitting and felt great about it.
Photo: Tyler Cook.
I’ve always been drawn to old things, old places, and old people. This job has afforded me my dream opportunity: to drop into antiquity under the hot summer sun and ask questions. To press those who have specifically opted out of the rat race as to why and to bear witness to the life they chose instead. The most fervid lesson from my seven years hopping in and out of these remote island communities is the notion of independent choice in the pace of one’s life. Most are born into these communities, but many chose the island life. Almost all of the expatriates we met had decided that this way of living just felt better, more right — and that the rat race no longer appealed to them once they saw that there was another way.

It’s always a startling transition back to the urban American pace of life when I return — but I hold the secret of these islands in my back pocket like a rainy day life decision. Immigration papers pending, I could throw this (and every other) towel in and head to a place where I could literally live in muumuus with the island heat and storms. A place where people sit for every meal and take slow walks and have slow conversations. Where the slow, but sturdy, growth of gardens is built into the fabric of daily life. Where Instagram follower counts don’t matter. Where photographs aren’t constantly etched into iCloud memories, but collected along with artifacts like seashells, garden herbs, and family heirlooms. What’s to stop me, anyway? Ambition is malleable, and sometimes it takes the perspective of embedding yourself in a new community to see that. Maybe you’d like to eat food unmarred by pollution, too. Maybe you’d like to trade your car for a bicycle or a trusty steed. Either way, it might be time to hop on a plane, take off your watch, and find out.
Follow Kira's adventures on Instagram and Tumblr @flamelikeme.

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