Usually one of my New Year’s resolutions is to travel somewhere new, but I’ve put road trips and continent hopping on hold at the moment. Luckily, it’s still possible to learn about new places through travel documentaries, or travelogues as they are sometimes called. I recently checked out Martin Clunes’ Islands of America on popular streaming platform Acorn TV.
Martin Clunes is perhaps best known to American audiences for his portrayal of curmudgeonly Martin Ellingham in Doc Martin. However, Clunes always comes across as quite nice, relaxed, and funny in the behind-the-scenes clips for Doc Martin. That good cheer is evident in his travelogues, making them a delight to watch.
Released in 2019, Islands of America is a follow-up to Clunes’ widely successful programs Islands of Britain and Islands of Australia. The focus is on the United States this time, highlighting the diversity of America and showcasing places away from the mainland. In this series, viewers learn about the islands in these states:
- Alaska and Hawaii
- Washington, California, and Louisiana
- Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and the territory Puerto Rico
- New York, Massachusetts, and Maine
Each bullet point above represents one episode’s worth of content. A forty-five minute episode is ample time to cover Alaska’s snowy peaks and Hawaii’s volcanoes. Likewise the time allotted in the second episode fits the content presented about the West and Gulf Coasts.
Content distribution on the third and fourth episodes is what I would consider slightly problematic for being a little tight. The New York episode probably didn’t need the segments about Manhattan and Coney Island, but the part about Ellis Island was definitely vibrant and illuminating. I think the series would have benefited from moving a couple of locations to a fifth episode. Again, I consider this issue to be minor.
It’s always interesting to see documentaries about the U.S. made by people from other countries. It’s an opportunity to get a glimpse of what our international friends think of us. That can be particularly amusing whenever the Brits, like Clunes, can’t resist bringing up the American Revolution in conversations.
Even though I’ve crisscrossed the U.S. for family trips over the years, I haven’t experienced a lot of the places Clunes explores in the travelogue. I grew up in Los Angeles, California, but I never heard of the nearby Channel Islands teeming with great wildlife. Cue the footage of cute little foxes and local conservation efforts. Reading about Chincoteague ponies in elementary school is one thing, but I loved seeing Clunes’ day at an annual pony swim in Virginia. Likewise, you can fill in the gaps of what you know or what you thought you knew about America.
It’s reassuring to have common interests, such as Clunes’ fascination with the film Jaws when his journey takes him to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. There’s plenty of suspense when he joins Dr. Greg Skomal’s team on a day to photograph great white sharks swimming near the beaches. The largest shark during their adventures was a whopping 13 feet!
I mentioned Clunes and his sense of humor earlier. In each episode, he delivers hilarious lines to break the ice and cultivate friendly conversations. One of my favorite moments is during his trek along a beach. When he finally reaches a point where he can see the seals, he cheekily mentions to the guide, “It’s nice to put a face to the bark!”
The documentary invites viewers to engage with fun and difficult aspects about American history and culture. Island life has its high points of remoteness and independence. At the same time, communities increasingly face challenges when it comes to preserving their traditions and way of life. Clunes does an excellent job at explaining both angles with his inquisitiveness and probing questions, especially in Puerto Rico, Avery Island in Louisiana, and the Sea Islands on the Atlantic Coast. It would be lovely to see him return to America for another documentary series.
Overall, Martin Clunes’ Islands of America is an engrossing and informative documentary. Every episode is crafted with great care in the cinematography of the American landscapes. The colors and textures appear bright and sharp on a smartphone or an HD television screen. But most importantly, the show serves as a good reminder of the personal connections we form when we travel and learn about others.