Listen to this story
Humanity’s earliest origins can be traced to tropical environments. The same beaches and sun-basked climes where we like to vacation are also where ancient people created some of earth’s earliest settlements and communities. After civilization-making, tropic dwellers turned to another perennial human practice: the search for meaning, specifically in the personification of gods, weaving of myths, and setting of taboos.
Many traditional belief systems and legends endure — and govern serious dos and don’ts when visiting your favorite getaways. In other cases, folklore and superstitions simply remind us to step carefully — there is always a snake in the garden of paradise.
Here are ten vacation destinations where your flip-flops may get tangled up with the supernatural.
1. Hawaiian Taboo.
It isn’t just the Brady Bunch who learned the hard way not to pocket native artifacts — each year tourists send back literally thousands of pounds of sand and rock to the islands, sometimes begging park rangers and guides to restore them to the natural environment. Why? “Pele’s Curse.” The volcano goddess smites anyone who makes off with a piece of her beloved islands. There are numerous reports of financial reversals, breakups, health problems, and other troubles suffered by innocent souvenir hunters.
2. The Bali Breakup?
The island paradise of Bali is a favorite spot for honeymooners — but the island has long been associated with a curse that fractures lovers and newlyweds, delivering them to the same fate suffered by an ancient Brahman princess who, legend tells, was cruelly jilted by her lover on the island Eden. Is it true? I cannot venture, and firmly believe that love and marriage are sustained by mutual hard work. But I do have friends who honeymooned on Bali and later divorced.
3. Little Men.
The Macal River in the highlands of Belize is a prime destination for eco-tourists. My wife and I visited — we stayed next to Brooke Shields, no less (who was very nice) — and I went out to investigate serious, detailed stories of mysterious “little men” who occupy the hills. Aside from the neck-twisting sounds of twigs snapping, I came up cold — until the following day. During a canoe trip down a strangely quiet strip of the normally wildlife-teeming river valley, I started talking about “them” with my wife — when suddenly a boulder came tumbling down a hill and crashed into the water about ten or twelve feet in front of our canoe. I know the name of the little men — but cannot say it. It summons them.
4. The Gray Man.
Pawleys Island, South Carolina, is one of the most pristine and untouched vacation spots along the Carolina coast. But with a bit of baggage — a “Gray Man” sometimes appears at dusk warning locals, with eerie accuracy, about impending storms. There have been numerous sightings, yet no one has been able to identify him. Some residents say he’s the ghost of a young suitor who died in quicksand on the beach in 1822. He saves others from the same fate at the hands of natural forces.
5. Curse of the Cook Islands.
The Cook Islands in the South Pacific would seem an ideal vacation destination, but one development project after another has gone bust. The troubles began in 1913, when the daughter of a local Island landowner put a curse on the place after a belligerent foreign developer feuded with her father, and shot him dead. In 1990, the slain man’s great-grandson, wearing the ceremonial garb of a Cook Island high priest, reinstated the curse, using a ritual spear to strike at a commemorative plaque that marked the development of a new Sheraton resort. Soon after, the resort, which was 80% finished, got mired in financial trouble and construction halted. The project now sits abandoned.
6. Ghost Resort.
An isolated, once chi-chi nature resort on Molokai Beach now stands in ghostly ruins — abandoned in 2004 by a developer who was plagued by zoning problems, and perhaps something more ethereal. In 1300–1500 AD, the area was a haven for pirates and criminals whose ghosts are said to make trouble. Before the developer left, it hacked off the tops of the palm trees, ostensibly for insurance reasons so that meddling Scooby kids wouldn’t get hit by falling coconuts. Locals see darker intent behind the parting act: they associate it with an ancient Hawaiian war custom, and see the abandoned resort as payback for abusing the land.
7. The Terrible Triangle.
The term “Bermuda Triangle” will never be free of occult speculations. President Woodrow Wilson assured as much in 1918 when he lamented the truly mysterious disappearance of the USS Cyclops and its 300+ crew: “Only God and the sea know what happened to the great ship.” It remains the Navy’s largest loss of life outside of combat. Right up to this summer, there have been truly tragic news reports of missing small planes in the area.
8. Hex Island.
Starting in the 1920s, the idyllic island of Gaiola in Naples, Italy passed through the hands of a series of Gatsby-like industrialists and financiers. Each one died mysteriously, or met with financial disaster. Today, the stunning island and its once-pristine villas stand abandoned and falling into ruin. Locals consider the place a beautiful but cursed no-man’s land.
9. The Headless Ghoul of Santa Monica Beach.
Okay, this may sound like the most obvious advice you’ll ever get: Do not hang around the bathrooms of Santa Monica beach around midnight. There are reports of a headless apparition lurking by the public restrooms. That may be one of the lesser frights you’ll find at the public facilities at night — but if you get too close or try to talk to him, he attempts to strangle you. There are many stories of California beach creepers. Modern legends with a practical bent?
10. Haunted Gold Coast.
Australia’s “Gold Coast” is one of the most beautiful stretches of beach anywhere in the world. But the place is crawling with ghost stories of people who perished in shipwrecks, shark attacks, surfing accidents, drownings — anything that can go wrong in paradise. Further south, the Central Coast also runs rife with creepy tales of haunted hitchhikers and ghostly women who menace and chase away campers.
There is one good thing about all this trouble in paradise — and it’s a fact: It’s cheaper to fly on Friday the 13th.