It might be unlucky for some but anyone who gets to visit these 13 incredible island destinations is winning in our book. From remote Arctic wildernesses to tropical paradises, these are some of the finest destinations on Earth, made all the better for being a little off the beaten track and away from the tourist masses.
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The Faroe Islands
Part of Denmark, the Faroe Islands are a remote archipelago in the North Sea between Iceland and Norway. Home to around 50,000 people and many more sheep and puffins, the islands are a perfect blend of relaxed Scandi attitude and stunningly dramatic scenery.
Torshavn is the capital of the islands, although in most other parts of the world it would barely qualify as a small town. You’ll find the remains of one of the oldest parliaments in the world and a thriving arts scene. Check out the Hoyma festival in October where acoustic performances are put on in living rooms, with audiences walking in-between the houses to take in the different acts.
The main attraction of the islands is undoubtedly the natural environment. Hike up an old postal path to the stunning Gasadalur waterfall or take a helicopter tour out to some of the remote outlying islands. The Faroes are a haven for wildlife and the huge seabird colonies that populate the steep cliffs and sea stacks will impress even the most apathetic birdwatcher.
Next stop is the tropical paradise of French Polynesia. All visitors fly to the main island of Tahiti before catching a ferry or local flight to the surrounding islands. Tahiti itself is home to the island’s capital Papeete, which has a cool French vibe, a fun local market and a great food scene; check out the “roulotte” food trucks that open at sunset and party well into the night.
Moorea is the nearest island to Tahiti and has all the desert island postcard views you would expect. White sand beaches lead to shallow lagoons populated with rays and reef sharks. If you need an overwater bungalow to complete your island experience, head over to Bora Bora. Some of the most luxurious resorts in the word are situated here, with price tags to match.
More adventurous travelers might like Huahine, which is less touristy than some of the other islands but still has incredible beaches, a pearl farm and ancient ruins to explore. Divers should head to the Tuamotus, which surround a lagoon filled with corals, sharks, rays and a wealth of fish species. Paul Gauguin famously spent his last years in Polynesia, so if culture and history is your thing then the Marquesa group of islands will tick your boxes. As well as a museum about Gauguin, you can also find tiki statues and mysterious prehistoric rock carvings.
With over 2000 islands scattered around its coastline, Greece is spoilt for choice when it comes to coastal getaways. Mykonos is a great all-rounder, combining many of the attractions found on other islands with world class hotels and nightlife.
Mykonos has some incredible beaches – where else can you find Paradise beach next to Super Paradise beach? Many of the beaches are fringed by high end bars and clubs, perfect for people watching over sundowner cocktails. If you tire of sunbathing, Mykonos’ nickname is the “Island of the Winds”. Try out kitesurfing, windsurfing and sailing on the consistent Aegean breezes that cross the Cyclades.
For a more cultural experience, Mykonos has some fantastic restaurants, with spectacularly fresh fish and delicious local wines. If you are a serious foodie, book on to a cookery course to learn how to recreate your favourite dishes at home. Another cultural highlight is the nearby island of Delos. Here you’ll find the remains of a temple to Apollo, who was supposedly born on the island, as well as several other well-preserved ancient structures that are very historically important.
Also known as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) due to its boat-like silhouette, this tiny island off the coast of Nagasaki has a big impact. You might already recognise it as Javier Bardem’s hideout from Skyfall and until recently tourists were banned from visiting.
Hashima was once home to around miners working in a coal mine beneath the island and their families; at its peak almost 5000 people lived here. The mine closed in the 1970s and the residents left soon after. The island has been abandoned ever since.
The only way to get to the island is to go on a guided tour. Several boat companies operate tours from Nagasaki in multiple languages. On the island visitors are restricted to certain areas due to the threat of collapsing buildings and tours are frequently cancelled at short notice due to violent seas making the journey there too dangerous. If you do make it there successfully, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible insight into Meiji era Japan and some unique photo opportunities.
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Next we’re off to the group of 115 islands off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean that form the Seychelles. The islands are stunningly beautiful, so much so that early explorers thought they had managed to find the Garden of Eden. The islands were colonised by both France and Britain, giving them a curious mish-mash of European, Indian and East African culture.
As well as fabulous beaches and luxury resorts, the Seychelles has beautiful scenery both on the land and the sea. Hike through Morne Seychellois National Park just outside of the capital Victoria to get amazing views over the island on the Morne Blanc trail. If you are lucky you might also catch a glimpse of some rare wildlife, such as flying foxes and black parrots.
The Seychelles was an important stop on the spice trading routes, and you can relive some of this heritage at the Jardin du Roi on Mahe island. This plantation grows many of the spices the islands became famous for. Spend a morning walking through groves of vanilla plants, nutmegs and cloves before sampling the homegrown spices in the dishes and snacks on offer in the garden restaurant. The islands are also home of the infamous Coco De Mer. The largest seed pod on the planet, they resemble a rather curvaceous female bottom. No wonder sailors often collected them as an aphrodisiac!
Now to one of the most remote places on Earth: Easter Island. Known as Rapa Nui by locals, it’s 1289 miles across the Pacific to somewhere else that is inhabited and over 2000 miles to the South American mainland. Despite its remoteness, Rapa Nui is instantly recognisable for the iconic and mysterious Moai statues.
The huge moai were carved from volcanic rock on the slopes of Rano Raraku volcano, in the middle of the island. Made around between 1100 and 1680AD, the enormous statues took a team of people over a year each to carve using stone chisels. It is not known exactly why the statues were carved and the best theory is that they represent deceased ancestors. The statues are dotted all over the island, with some standing in rows on specially constructed platforms known as an ahu. Others were left in the quarry or abandoned along the route of paths around the island. It is not known how the islanders moved the statues, with some estimates suggesting it would take around 150 people to drag them with ropes.
The moai aren’t the only mystery on Easter Island. South of Hanga Roa, the main town on the island, is Orongo Ceremonial Village. Built into the side of a volcano, these strange cave-like houses are surrounded by stone carvings of birds and Polynesian gods made in the 16th and 17th centuries. These were part of a “Birdman” cult that involved swimming to a nearby island, collecting a bird’s egg and then climbing back up the cliffs while carrying the egg. The winners of the race were afforded sacred status.
Next stop is Madeira, an independent region of Portugal in the Atlantic off the coast of North Africa. The islands are formed from huge volcanoes rising up from the ocean floor, which gives them dramatically beautiful scenery. The year-round warm weather makes it an ideal short break destination and the islands are rapidly becoming a favourite destination for travellers in the know.
The hilly and rugged scenery makes the islands perfect for outdoors enthusiasts. The island is criss-crossed by a unique irrigation system called levadas, which nowadays make great routes for hiking or horse riding. Some of the levadas skirt steep cliffs and peaks and need climbing gear to tackle safely. For those after bigger thrills, the island is also great for mountain biking, canyoning, diving and paragliding. The location in the Atlantic also means Madeira is ideal for spotting several species of whales and dolphins.
Food and drink is another huge attraction. The climate is perfect for growing a huge array of fruit and vegetables giving even the most low-key restaurants some of the freshest ingredients to work with. It’s not unusual to spot exotic items such as avocadoes growing by the roadside. Madeira has its own fortified wine and several vineyards producing a huge range of wines. Book on to a tour to see how the wines are made as well as sampling the end results.
The Cook Islands
Sometimes called the “Hawaii of Down Under” the Cook Islands are a scattering of 15 inhabited islands in the South Pacific, roughly halfway between New Zealand and South America. The Cook Islands have significantly less infrastructure and have suffered less impact from mass tourism than their northern neighbours, leading many older Polynesians to suggest that the Cook Islands are the most unspoilt islands in the region. Like many islands, the main attraction is the crystal clear waters in the lagoons and reefs that comprise the Cook Islands. The sand cays of Muri form what must surely be one of the most beautiful and idyllic beachfronts on Earth. There’s stunning beaches almost everywhere, but Aitutaki lagoon and Vai Nauri cave pools are some of the more impressive places to take a dip. The Cook Islanders have also taken care to protect and preserve their cultural history. There are regular displays of fire dancing around the islands, but head to the local markets to discover great local handicrafts like hand carved ukeleles or brightly coloured quilts. If you are on the islands in August don’t miss the Te Maeva Nui festival. Expect dance, music and dramatic performances from some of the most experienced and talented artists in Polynesia
The last piece of “real” land before reaching the pack ice of the North Pole, Svalbard is a once in a lifetime destination. The island has only one real town – Longyearbyen and spends half the year in almost total darkness, with the other half spent in 24 hour sunshine. Explore the barren mountains and huge glaciers, but watch out for the polar bears.
There are estimated to be around 3000 polar bears on Svalbard, which makes it one of the best places to spot these elusive creatures. The bears are protected so there are no specific tours that track them but they are often spotted from boat cruises or while hiking around the island. Bears can be extremely dangerous and consider humans prey so don’t leave town without an experienced guide.
You might spot a bear while traveling to visit Pyramiden, a fascinating ghost town that was abandoned by the Russians in 1998. There are still cups on the tables, posters on the walls and skis by the door; the town was home to miners working nearby and when the mine closed there was no reason for them to stay. The Soviet architecture and statue of Lenin overlooking the town centre makes this an eerie and evocative day trip.
Known as the ‘spice island’, Grenada is one of the world’s largest producers of nutmeg and mace. Nestled in the south of the Caribbean sea near to the coast with Latin America, the islands were colonised by several European powers before gaining independence in 1974.
You can find out more about Grenada’s produce by visiting some of the factories and workshops around the islands. The Nutmeg Processing Cooperative takes its pods from some of the first nutmeg trees planted on the island and tours explaining how the spice is obtained run several times a day. Another interesting place to visit is the Diamond Chocolate Factory. Call ahead to book a factory or farm tour, complete with chocolate tasting. Otherwise drop in anytime to sample the treats on offer in the cafe and onsite shop.
For diving enthusiasts there is an underwater art gallery. Nearly 100 sculptures have been installed on the seabed and are now home to coral formations and sealife, allowing you to get your cultural and wildlife fixes in one trip. To catch a glimpse of some of the aquatic life without scuba gear, try some of the more remote beaches such as Levera. As well as sunbathing and swimming, explore the mangroves and ponds around the beach to see a good variety of birds and possibly sea turtles.
The fourth biggest island in the world and home to some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet, Madagascar is a must-see for nature lovers. With influences from both Africa and other Indian Ocean islands the Malagasy culture is also unique.
Undoubtedly Madagascar’s most famous inhabitant is the ring-tailed lemur. There are several species of lemur on the island, as well many species of chameleons, birds and tenrecs – a hedgehog-like mammal which is actually more closely related to elephants. Head to one of the many national parks on the eastern side of the island to spot these incredible creatures. Analamazaotra park has several easy walking trails including one aimed at children. Go in the morning for the best chance of spotting lemurs.
On the western side of Madagascar the forests thin out to become a desert studded with alien looking baobab trees and spiky rock pinnacles. At Tsingy de Bemaraha national park you can explore these weird rock formations up close with specially constructed bridges, ladders and walkways. Created by years of erosion by wind and water, some of the jagged peaks are hundreds of metres high.
Just off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea lies the islands of Phuket. The west coast of the island is home to some of the best beaches in Thailand, while the east coast has dramatic scenery and offers visitors a more “authentic” experience of Thai culture. Phuket has a hilly inland area, so it’s also possible to go hiking through the jungle. As such, Phuket really does have something to suit every type of visitor.
Those looking to check out some uniquely Thai sights and experiences should head to Phuket Town on the east coast. The island has always been a stop for traders but the biggest influx came from Chinese tin miners in the 19th century. As they integrated with the locals, a strange “baba” culture was developed that mixed Thai traditions with Chinese customs. It’s visible in the Sino-European architecture, fabulous food and annual vegetarian festival.
For a more relaxing experience, there are resorts and spas for every budget. Patong is the main hub for days on the beach and nights at the bar, but there are more family friendly beaches at Karon and high end boutique spas such as the Sri Panwa, where you’ll find several pools, a private beach and a floating yoga deck.
Fernando De Noroha
Surrounded by crystal clear tropical waters, a trip to Fernando de Noroha is a desert island getaway with a difference. The archipelago of 21 islands lies just below the equator off the coast of Brazil and has World Heritage status for its environmental diversity. The combination of year-round sunshine and frequent rain makes the islands incredibly lush and verdant with plenty of wildlife on the land as well as in the sea.
Only the main island is inhabited and there are strict limits on the number of tourists allowed on the islands at one time so it’s never crowded or overwhelming. There are also no big hotels but accommodation is far from limited. If you are on a budget there are simple bed and breakfasts or luxury villas with private pools if money is not an issue.
Wherever you end up, it’s hard to beat watching the sun go down over the sea from your hammock. Fernando de Noroha is particularly special for its beaches and diving. The warm water means wetsuits aren’t needed and visibility can be up to 50 metres giving you a fantastic view of the local sea life. Expect to see turtles, manta rays, barracuda and huge pods of wild dolphins. Some of the best beaches in Brazil are here, but even the more secluded beaches are well worth a visit. Take a picnic and a bottle of something special for the ultimate romantic lunch.