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#1 Jun 26, 2017 3:38 pm

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Old Johnny Palm of Palm Island

As colourful characters go, they don’t come much more colourful than old John Caldwell, universally known as Johnny Palm, the owner of Palm Island Resort in the Grenadines. To tell his story, as he did in a very successful book and movie called “Desperate Voyage”, we have to go back to the end of the Second World War. In 1947, US Navy seaman John Caldwell was recently demobbed and found himself stuck in Panama. But where he really wanted to be, desperately, was in Australia, where he was due to get married to the sweetheart he’d met on his travels with the Navy. So he decided to invest his few remaining dollars in a tiny wooden sailboat, and sail across the Pacific.

Never mind that he had absolutely no sailing experience whatsoever. He figured: it’s a big ocean, I’ll learn on the way. Needless to say the voyage was a catalogue of disasters, including his yacht getting dismasted in a typhoon and drifting for months in the doldrums. He ran out of food and water and was forced to survive on old leather, shaving cream and engine oil. By the time he was shipwrecked on a Polynesian reef, he was down to skin and bone and close to death. The islanders saved him, nursed him back to health, repaired his boat and sent him on his way again. By this time he’d actually learned how to sail, and made it safely to Australia without further mishap. You might think this was enough seafaring adventure for one lifetime, but after a few years in Australia he bought another yacht and, with his wife, set sail around the world, in search of their personal piece of paradise.

They found it on Prune Island.

In the early 1960s, John and Mary Caldwell were living on their yacht, making a precarious living by taking tourists on sailing trips through the Grenadine Islands, located between Grenada to the south and Saint Vincent to the north. Like most of the smaller Grenadines, Prune Island was uninhabited, mainly because of a swampy, mosquito-infested interior. But Caldwell saw the potential, and somehow convinced the government in Saint Vincent to give him the island on a 99-year lease, promising to build them a first-class resort. He had all the intention, but none of the cash. 

First task was to drain the swamp, and to do this he spent years planting coconut trees all over the island, over two thousand in all. On his spare days he’ load up his yacht with coconut seedlings he’d collected from nearby islands, and plant them in the wet interior, whose roots slowly sucked up the swamp. It became his passion – and his nom de guerre. Having correctly figured that Prune Island wasn’t the best name for a tourist resort, the choice of a new name was obvious, and Palm Island was born (not officially mind you, the charts still show it as Prune Island). Caldwell eventually built a couple of basic stone cottages, and lived in one while occasionally renting out the other.

Then, as he tells it, one day an American millionaire in a mega yacht visited the island, and fell in love with its charming isolation. Did Caldwell want to sell one of the cottages? Sure, he said, how much would you pay? A figure was mentioned, a deal done, and Palm Island Resort was on its way.

Thirty years later, John and Mary Caldwell had their piece of paradise. The island now boasted twenty-four beachfront cottages, swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurant and boutique for passing yachts. The cottages were clean, airy and basic - no TV, no air conditioning, no frills. But don't be fooled, you paid, dearly, for your piece of paradise! Caldwell ran the island as his personal fiefdom, with his wife and children. He proudly introduced me to his son and daughter-in-law:

“She’s my niece, my brother’s daughter. They didn’t meet each other until they were twenty years old, and it was love at first sight – isn’t that great?”

Er…

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#2 Jun 26, 2017 3:55 pm

Real Distwalker
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Re: Old Johnny Palm of Palm Island

I was able to go to Palm Island three times by helicopter.  The owner invited us for R&R.

I scuba dived there and discovered the joy and pain of Rivers Rum.  I remember a cruise ship, topless French tourist babes, sunburn and a rum induced haze.

I knew nothing of what you wrote.  Thanks for more fine writing.

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#3 Jun 26, 2017 4:04 pm

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Re: Old Johnny Palm of Palm Island

Johnny actually helped the US Navy in the invasion, guiding them through the reefs and shallows around the Grenadines to get them safely to their destination. In gratitude, one day he was on Palm Island when a big helicopter hovered into view - with a "little present" slung beneath it, for his services: a standby generator sufficient to power the whole island!

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#4 Jun 26, 2017 4:15 pm

Real Distwalker
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Re: Old Johnny Palm of Palm Island

...and that is why we got to go there and enjoy his beach. smile

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