It’s the ultimate fantasy: abandon the stresses and disappointments of the Western world and flee to some remote, exotic island. Replace the white noise of a humdrum life in Britain for the balmy, swooshing sound of Pacific waves breaking on gleaming white sands.

Who hasn’t yearned for that at some stage in their lives? Oxford-based writer Peter Rudiak-Gould admits that a ‘touch of utopianism’ was embedded in his desire to head to the Marshall Islands one month after his 21st birthday. “I’d love to give some noble, self-sacrificing reason, but the truth is I was just fascinated with faraway places and wanted to satisfy that curiosity. I wanted to find Shangri-La in the Pacific. On some level I knew that was impossible, but it was a motivation nonetheless.”

He spent a year on Ujae, a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, a peppering of some 1,000 islets and coral reefs between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii, set in turquoise sea — not to lounge on the beach, gazing at their postcard-perfect sunsets (or not only for that reason), but to spend time with the Micronesian population, teaching English, while he observed their way of life.

He is now completing a doctorate in anthropology, examining how Marshall Islanders react to the scientific prediction that their country is doomed from climate change. His 12 months in this beautiful, far-flung place also supplied handsome material for a less academic account, in a travel memoir called Surviving Paradise.

He wanted to tell a different story: “The tale of a rocky romantic relationship between myself and a culture.” He paints a vivid picture of life in this idyllic place, out of step with the modern world: fishing on pristine coral reefs, joining children in games on the beach and riding with the men on an outrigger canoe all sounds wonderful. But there was poverty and a dawning realisation that global warming could be the death knell for this remote corner of the globe. Teaching English also threw up challenges — “my students started with virtually no English, and I started with virtually no Marshallese, so it’s not too surprising that teaching was difficult”. He became a ‘celebrity’ on the tiny island (population 450). “Along with all the privileges of fame, you also lose much of your privacy and all of your anonymity.”

The islands’ chief claim to fame is as a US nuclear weapons test site at the height of the Cold War. Despite this, Rudiak-Gould, an American by birth, insists that he never encountered animosity. “You might expect some hostility towards Americans like myself in a country where American nuclear testing displaced hundreds of people, irradiated hundreds more, destroyed entire islands, made others uninhabitable, and caused cancer and birth defects. But Marshallese people love Americans.”

He speculates that their warmth to Americans might be because the first missionaries were Americans (the islanders are Christian now) or because American forces liberated them from a harsh Japanese occupation during the Second World War — and because American aid still keeps the country’s economy afloat.

He has been back to the Marshall Islands since his original year-long visit, but home is now Oxford. It sounds ridiculous, but I ask all the same: How do the Marshall Islands compare with Oxford?

His answer takes me by surprise. “The first thing I always notice when coming back to the West after being in the Marshall Islands is how quiet things are here. A Marshallese village is many things, but tranquil is not one of them. A place like Oxford, or even Honolulu, is incredibly peaceful in comparison. It may have something to do with the absence of threatening dogs, roosters crowing at dawn, and prodigious numbers of boisterous children — seven per Marshallese woman.”

He has always admired academics like Margaret Mead or Jared Diamond who engage with a wide audience. “My hunch is that good writing breaks down the barrier between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ books.”

Where is he more at home: the Marshall Islands or Oxford? Another surprising answer.

“The Marshall Islands made me what I am. It’s my muse, the subject of my research and career, and a place I care about very much. But it is not my paradise. Oxford is my paradise.”

l Surviving Paradise is published by Union Square press (