The Opening Ceremony on Saturday 6th July will take place at the new state of the art Europa Point Sports Complex, where hosts Gibraltar will warmly welcome over 2,000 athletes representing 23 island communities to the games. Most of the competing islands will be well known and loved, like the Isle of Man, where the inaugural games were first held in 1985 and who topped the gold medal-winning table at the last games in Gotland with 39, the lovely Isle of Wight where I’ve been spending summer family vacations over decades, the Channel Islands, Guernsey and Jersey, although I must confess that my knowledge of the latter has been gleaned mainly from watching episodes of the wonderful Bergerac TV series. Other competitors are a tad more obscure, such as Åland, Froya, Hitra, Gotland and Saaremaa, add in the history-steeped duo of the Falklands and St Helena and the tantalizing mixture of mystery and history is irresistible to this inquisitive travel-obsessed rambler, so please come with me and spend a few moments exploring these modern-day love islands.
Located in the Baltic Sea and belonging to Finland, Åland Islands consists of a staggering 6,700 islands, many just large rocks jutting out of the sea, with just 80 habitable, a population of just under 30,000, ninety percent of whom live on Fasta Åland and, not surprisingly, are engaged in fishing, farming and shipping. The capital Mariehamn is a popular tourist destination, a nature paradise famed for the beautiful butterflies that inhabit the thousands of flowering meadows surrounding it – a postcard destination that I’ve added to my soon-to-visit list and I’ll be looking to get first hand information from the natives this month when the Viking invaders come calling for the games.
Froya and Hitra islands, both with a population of just under 5,000, are linked to each other and to mainland Norway by tunnel. Fishing is the primary source of employment on both islands with Froya famous for its heather and plant life while Hitra boasts enormous herds of wild red deer. Both islands enthusiastically embrace the games but, alas, the tiny populations have meant that since 1985 a total of just four gold medals have been won, three for Hitra and just one for Froya.
Also located in the Baltic Sea lies the 2017 Games hosts Gotland, Sweden’s largest island with a population of almost 60,000, most of them engaged in tourism and agriculture, many of whom will be travelling to the Rock brimming with confidence of adding to their impressive all-time haul of 243 golds.
The Estonian island of Saaremaa, a member of the games since 1991, has roughly the same population as Gibraltar, is an idyllic land where time appears to have somewhat stood still, villages with thatched houses and windmills where the men fish the sea and the women till the land, another addition to my must-visit list.
The South Atlantic is home to two members steeped in centuries of history – The Falklands, where Maggie went to war to expel an invading “neighbour from hell”, and St Helena, one of the most isolated islands in the world, where Napoleon was exiled to and died a few years later. Neither of the sparsely populated islands will be confident of striding on to the winners’ rostrum, but the Port Stanley contingent will be hopeful of at least topping the solitary bronze medal reward of 2017.
It’s nearly time, the expectation and excitement is bubbling as the Games Mascot, a lovable cheeky, cheery dolphin called Hope, gets ready to greet the thousands of athletes and their supporters as they arrive from many exotic faraway places. I’ve just been down to the Post Office on Main Street and been shown a stunning series of stamps, each one beautifully depicting one of the Games’ 14 sports – an absolute stamp collectors’ must-have dream for their album. Be quick, I can see stocks vanish pronto!
Casemates Square is where the medals will be presented each evening and how nice it would be to see Gibraltar add to the 26, six of them gold, won at the last games in 2017. Summer Nights-style entertainment follows the medal-awards ceremony, so the Square is most definitely the place to be for the twilight hours. The weather forecast is fine, the sun will have its hat on, the pubs are double stocked, the visitors are on the way – let the Friendly Games commence – I can’t wait!