Our roving travel writer Roly Coconut visits this increasingly popular holiday destination, and wishes he hadn't.
If you're looking for clear blue skies, golden sands, spectacular scenery and a thriving nightlife, then you could do worse than come to the tiny Mediterranean island of Piffin - but not much. Still relatively untainted by tacky gift shops, sleazy clubs and fancy modern notions of sanitation, Piffin's unspoilt charm and simple, backward inhabitants are rapidly making it a favourite destination for many holidaymakers who simply don't know any better.
Only a plane ride away...
You will find that many agents are currently offering package deals to the island. If your budget is limited, then you may wish to do what I did and book through Clive's Cash-Up-Front Happytrips, who operate out of a rusty caravan round the back of a multi-storey car park in Reading. The flight will usually take no longer than three hours, although in my case the plane had to divert to Stockholm to pick up a consignment of condemned poultry, which added an extra few hours to the journey. Piffin is far too small to have an airport of its own - apparently they did once experiment with the idea, but the planes just kept falling off the end - so your flight will terminate on nearby Menorca. From here you can catch a ferry to Piffin. They sail every half-hour, and the journey takes about ten minutes, although the fares can be quite expensive during the height of the season. A cheaper alternative is to book passage on one of the many trawlers that regularly make the crossing. Passengers should be aware that the trawlers take, on average, one and a half hours to make the same trip, as they go the long way round. Conditions are cramped and smelly, and you may have to share your cabin with several tons of rotting fish; but it's not entirely intolerable, and the crew are always at pains to ensure that enough buckets are provided.
Where to stay...
You will find that accommodation on the island is limited. I chose to stay at the Al Hambra, which was just as well, since this is the island's only hotel. At the time of my visit it was hosting a conference of Italian scooter manufacturers, and the corridors were chock-full of sales executives zipping up and down on Vespas. This led to a number of near misses and misunderstandings over rights of way, and it was not unusual to go down to breakfast in the morning to find myself sitting opposite someone with a face full of livid tyre marks.
On the subject of food, it seems that the local custom is to begin the day with a light meal, and accordingly each morning the guests are provided with an egg. Tradition notwithstanding, one egg between three hundred people seems hardly sufficient, and it is really no surprise that so many vicious skirmishes break out over the breakfast table as everybody fights to secure their share. The evening meal is usually more generous, with a typical offering consisting of three sausages, a couple of roast potatoes and a Spam fritter. Even so it's really not enough to go around, and there's usually quite a struggle for possession of the fritter. Holidaymakers are therefore best advised to secure either an alternative source of nourishment, or a stick small enough to be carried in their hand luggage, yet sturdy enough to be used as a cudgel.
Lots to see and do...
Of course, the thing that most people want to do when they arrive on the island is to check out its famous golden sands. This is available in small glass bottles from the hotel foyer. Sadly the beaches consist mostly of thick mud strewn with poisonous jellyfish, and are thus considered unsuitable for sunbathing by all but the most bloody-minded of tourists. Nevertheless, because of the unique currents and topography of the island, Piffin's coastline is awash with an extraordinary accumulation of flotsam and jetsam, ranging from condoms and sanitary towels to larger items such as fridge-freezers, dead farm animals and the occasional beached oil tanker. It offers a unique opportunity for those whose passion lies in sifting through detritus, ordure and junk - and it's surprising just how many people are into that sort of thing.
But there's more to Piffin than its beaches - there's one of Europe's largest landfills as well. Three hundred tons of waste from Spain, Italy and France are shipped here every day, and it truly is a remarkable sight to watch the huge flocks of seagulls wheeling and swooping overhead as the mountains of garbage are slowly bulldozed into the earth.
A Rich History...
It may be that such modern attractions aren't really your thing, in which case you can always check out the local Roman ruin - his name is Mario and he runs the late night bar down in the old town. I can personally recommend his fine selection of illegally home-brewed spirits, with which I became most intimate during the course of my stay.
Hard liquor isn't everything, of course, although it has to be acknowledged that it's a bloody good start. It may be genuine history and heritage that you're after. Well good luck to you. A brief glance at any reputable guidebook will tell you that the Ancient Greeks passed this way in 526BC, and kept on going. The Crusaders also dropped in on their way to Palestine, with the intention of liberating the island from its Godless inhabitants. They spent two hours here, decided that its Godless inhabitants were welcome to the place, then pushed off again. The island was then happily ignored until the Napoleonic wars, when Lord Piffin of Marlboro claimed it for England and modestly named it after himself. Twenty years later, sovereignty was ceded to the Spanish, who handed it over to the French shortly afterwards. Down the years it has variously come under the jurisdiction of England, Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, France again, Sweden, the Netherlands and Tonga. In short, its political history resembles a game of pass the parcel, but with the distinction that none of the players particularly want to end up with the prize.
Notably, the island did play an important role during World War II - mainly as a target, succumbing to heavy bombardment from both the Germans and the Allies. Even the Chinese sent a gunboat to take a few pot shots at it. There is presently no nation on the planet that wishes to lay claim to the place, and even the inhabitants want precious little to do with it. Ask a typical islander what he thinks of the notion of independence and he will tell you bluntly that he doesn't really have an opinion, as he's planning on leaving soon anyway.
A Sad Farewell...
And it was soon time for me to leave as well - though not nearly soon enough. Piffin does indeed have much to offer the average tourist, although the average tourist would be best advised to leave it well alone. Nevertheless, I am happy to go on record as saying that my trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I would suggest that most travellers could benefit from a stay on the island. After Piffin, nowhere else seems all that bad.
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