Island holidays with culture and history: Top 14 islands with more than just beaches

Islands are magical places that have long had an irresistible allure to explorers and travellers alike. You sail – or these days, more likely fly – across vast expanses of unpromising blue, and then an island appears from nowhere in a looming of cliffs or an effervescence of reefs. Their remoteness is appealing, even if more often in the mind than in 21st-century reality. Chances are an island will be a special place, with its own microclimate and endemic creatures, its own particular history. Islands are coveted for their strategic locations, and the result of their often contested ownership is distinct cuisines, cultures and ethnic mixes.

Strange, then, that holidays islands are all too often associated with coconut palms and cocktails. Islands at their best are surely more than just scenic locations with warm weather. Frankly, the appeal of sunburn and sand can only last so long. Besides, don't tropical islands give you cabin fever? If you don't want to end up like those horrible schoolkids in Lord of the Flies or the backpackers in The Beach, you'll soon need a change of scenery.

There are many islands whose beaches simply aren't the point, yet are still worth visiting. Beyond the tropical island cliche, islands have fired our imaginations for centuries in all manner of ways. They're notorious prisons, like Alcatraz or Marseilles' Chateau d'If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. They're floating fortresses like the stunning Dry Tortugas in the Caribbean or delightful Fort Denison in the middle of Sydney Harbour. Islands are trading posts like colonial-era Shamian Island on the river in Guangzhou; places of escape and adventure, like Prospero's Island in The Tempest or the pirate island in that ultimate rollicking novel, Treasure Island.

In short, if you have to be a Robinson Crusoe, there are far more interesting places to be castaway than on a deserted beach. Here's your guide to interesting islands with enough history, culture and curiosities to keep you satisfied.

SUOMENLINNA, FINLAND

CO-ORDINATES This series of islands, linked by footbridges, are among 300 that lie off Helsinki. Suomenlinna is easily reached by a 15-minute ferry ride from Market Square.

THE ALLURE Suomenlinna means "fortress of Finland". Established as a naval base in 1748, it's now occupied by one of the world's largest maritime fortresses and also scattered with the cottages of some 800 inhabitants. Long summer days that last until near midnight provide ample time for walks on this leafy island with its wildflower-filled meadows, with views back towards Helsinki and its prominent white cathedral dome.

TREASURE HUNTING Clamber around the walls, inspect a decommissioned submarine and take a guided tour of the dry docks, which supply a fine example of 18th-century naval technology. Small museums include an officer's house with period furnishings. Make your way as far as a monumental 1754 gateway with fine outlooks to passing cargo and cruise ships.

MORE www.suomenlinna.fi

See also: Scandinavia: Why Australians are flocking to Europe's deep north

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OAHU, USA

CO-ORDINATES Hawaii's third-largest island sits towards the north of the archipelago. Getting there is easy: airlines fly into the international airport at Honolulu.

THE ALLURE Most other Hawaiian islands conform to the sleepy tropical stereotype, but Oahu is different, home to a third of the state's population and its largest city, Honolulu. Away from the tourist traps the island has a thriving arts and culture scene, good dining and nightlife and a remarkable mix of cultures, customs and languages – not to mention a cuisine which blends American, Chinese and Japanese influences.

TREASURE HUNTING Top sights are Waikiki Beach, the WWII memorials at Pearl Harbour (visitpearlharbor.org) and Chinatown (chinatownnow.com). Bishop Museum (bishopmuseum.org) is an excellent introduction to native Hawaiian culture. Stray into residential areas of Honolulu such as Windward to admire old plantation-style homes and eat at folksy restaurants where locals are always ready for a chat.

MORE www.gohawaii.com

See also: The island paradise where Obama spent his last holiday as president

RHODES, GREECE

CO-ORDINATES Rhodes sits north-west of Crete close to the Turkish coast. It has an international airport and ferry links to Turkey, Cyprus and Israel as well as the Greek mainland and islands.

THE ALLURE Not all Greek islands are just holiday hotspots for sun-seeking northern Europeans. Rhodes' location has given it a tumultuous history influenced by ancient Greeks, Romans, crusaders, Ottomans and (briefly) Italians. Rhodes town is a fantastic castle-topped citadel ringed by fortifications that create one of Europe's best medieval towns, encrusted with historical layers and pretty with flowerboxes and whitewashed houses.

TREASURE HUNTING The town has numerous inns built by the crusading Knight of St John as well as a (recreated) Palace of the Knights, but the whole town is crammed with wonderful buildings. The Modern Greek Art Museum (mgamuseum.gr) provides a change of era, while the ancient acropolis on the north end of the island is an evocative ruin.

MORE www.rodosisland.gr

See also: Greece's most beautiful island

PENANG, MALAYSIA

CO-ORDINATES This island sits just off the north-west coast of peninsula Malaysia in the Malacca Strait. There are frequent 20-minute ferry rides from the mainland, and an airport.

THE ALLURE Penang has its share of palm-fringed beach resorts but dollops of history too, especially in Georgetown, founded by the British in 1786 and dotted with handsome colonial buildings and Chinese- and Indian-run shops and restaurants. The cultural blend (and proximity to Thailand) creates fabulous street food, ornate architecture and a delightful fusion culture.

TREASURE HUNTING The magnificent Khoo Kongsi (khookongsi.com.my), a Chinese clan house, is adorned with scrolls, gold leaf and snaking dragons. The Penang Museum (penangmuseum.gov.my) has idiosyncratic displays that include a bullet-ridden Rolls-Royce and the skull of an elephant that derailed a train. Beyond town, enormous Kek Lok Temple (kekloksitemple.com) houses thousands of Buddhas in halls topped by a seven-tiered pagoda.

MORE www.tourismpenang.net.my

See also: Twenty reasons to visit Penang, Malaysia

KIZHI ISLAND, RUSSIA

CO-ORDINATES Kizhi sits at the northern end of vast, peaty Lake Onega east of St Petersburg. A long, complicated train and hydrofoil journeys will get you there, but most people visit on a river cruise.

THE ALLURE Russia both old and new is often about bling and monumental size. Kizhi provides a simpler, more homely counterpart that will have you believing in Russian folk legends. The island is dotted with rural buildings, the highlight of which is the ancient wooden Church of the Transfiguration with its 22 bulging domes. Aim for autumn, when the explosion of lime, aspen and elm trees is stunning.

TREASURE HUNTING The island's historic buildings, many relocated from other parts of Russia, form an open-air museum (kizhi.karelia.ru) and include churches, barns, windmills and venerable farmhouses. Yamka nearby is a lived-in village that demonstrates the timelessness of Russian peasant life.

MORE www.visitrussia.org.uk

See also: Europe's most baffling country

CYPRUS

CO-ORDINATES The Mediterranean's third-largest island, divided into Turkish and Greek sectors, sits strategically between Turkey and Lebanon and has abundant international links by both air and sea.

THE ALLURE A who's who of eastern Mediterranean civilisations has controlled Cyprus, leaving it with a collision of European and Middle Eastern cultures, scattered archaeological sites, brooding tombs, Byzantine chapels and crumbling Venetian fortresses. The Greek (southern) interior is rich in medieval monasteries amid rugged mountain scenery; a well-developed agri-tourism program allows farm stays for an up-close encounter with living culture.

TREASURE HUNTING The Greco-Roman ruins at Kourion (mcw.gov.cy), once an important religious centre, have a well-preserved temple, stadium, Roman villa and the added bonus of a scenic cliff-top location. There are more ruins and a magnificent Roman theatre at Paphos (pafos.org.cy), and a Neolithic settlement at Choirokoitia (larnakaregion.com), among others.

MORE www.visitcyprus.com

See also: The 10 most underrated European Islands

ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA

CO-ORDINATES Two large islands and a host of smaller ones make up this semi-autonomous region. Zanzibar town on Unguja has an airport and ferry links (2½ hours) to Dar es Salaam.

THE ALLURE History, culture and commerce seem almost inevitable on islands influenced by Africa, Arabia and Europe. Sultans and slavers, missionaries, explorers and traders have all left their mark on Zanzibar. Today, veiled Islamic women still drift through the narrow streets of Stone Town, Indian ladies adjust glittering saris in marketplaces, and Tanzanians from the mainland show off their sunnies on the promenades.

TREASURE HUNTING Zanzibar Town is all about shipping, street markets and can-do attitudes. At its heart, World Heritage-listed Stone Town oozes history in a tangle of alleyways, wooden balconies, Persian bathhouses and the ruins of slave markets. Visit the Palace Museum, Old Fort and ornate House of Wonders.

MORE www.zanzibartourism.net

See also: The restaurant which has its own island

MALTA

CO-ORDINATES This small group of islands – whose main island is also called Malta – lies in the central Mediterranean south of Sicily and can be reached by ferry from Italy. It's also well connected by air to Europe.

THE ALLURE One the world's smallest and most densely populated countries also packs in the history from several millennia of major conquering cultures. The language has Arabic roots, the food is Italian-influenced, streets are named after grand old British dukes. Its highlight is Valletta, a fortified Renaissance harbour city of splendid honey-coloured architecture and sweeping sea views.

TREASURE HUNTING Start with the ancient, monumental ruins at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra (heritagemalta.org), explore the Roman catacombs beneath Rabat and stroll the medieval streets of Mdina (mdinacouncil.com), a Islamic-baroque hybrid town perched on a hilltop. In Valletta, the Grand Master's Palace (heritagemalta.org) and Cathedral of St John (stjohnscocathedral.com) are highlights.

MORE www.visitmalta.com

See also: The Mediterranean's secret hot spot

SHIKOKU, JAPAN

CO-ORDINATES Shikoku is wedged between big-island Honshu and Kyushu in southern Japan and is open to the Pacific Ocean to the south. It has three bridges and also has domestic ferry and air connections.

THE ALLURE The smallest and least populous of Japan's four main islands is scarcely visited by overseas tourists despite its balmy climate and rugged beauty. The mainly rural community is hospitable, festivals are frequent and many traditions (from noodle-making to martial arts) are maintained. If you want a taste of a Japan that has sidestepped fast-paced development, this is it.

TREASURE HUNTING Shikoku's renowned pilgrim route links a series of 88 Buddhist temples across the island. Dogo Onsen (dogokan.co.jp), the oldest hot-springs resort in the country, dates back three millennia. The island also has top feudal-era sight Matsuyama Castle (enjoymatsuyama.com) and one of the best classical gardens in Japan, Ritsurin-en (ritsuringarden.jp).

MORE www.tourismshikoku.org

See also: Shikoku: What to see and do on Japan's island of art

THE GREAT ESCAPE

Nothing says castaway more than an island hotel, but it doesn't have to be surrounded by coconut trees and tropical waters to provide the ultimate escape. Here are five superb island hideaways beyond the reach of ukuleles and cocktail umbrellas.

HOTEL NAKANOSHIMA

This island retreat on the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka in Japan is like a James Bond lair from Sean Connery days, half-dug into the cliffs of its own island and with tunnelled corridors connecting its various wings. Its hot-spring baths overlook the bay. Fabulous multi-course seafood meals are served in your guestroom by kimono-clad ladies. See hotel-nakanoshima.jp

HOTEL CALA DI VOLPE

Understated Mediterranean style gives the impression of an rustic Italian village at this actually very sophisticated Sardinian hotel. The utterly gorgeous, three-bedroom suite has its own private terrace, wine cellar, outdoor gym and swimming pool, and bags the best views across terracotta roof tiles to a blindingly blue Mediterranean. See caladivolpe.com

TAJ LAKE PALACE

This marble palace turned hotel, built by a Rajasthani maharana as a summer retreat, appears to float in Lake Pichola, where it takes advantages of both breezes and tranquillity away from the bustle of Udaipur across the water. Mango-shaded courtyards, gurgling fountains and antique furnishings provide a gorgeous fairytale ambience. See tajhotels.com

REID'S PALACE

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was looking for "flowers, sunshine, bathing and no theatres" in 1924 when he chose the Portuguese island of Madeira. He stayed in the vast Reid's Palace for two months. Guests can stay in the same room, with its tranquil views over the ocean, framed in silk curtains and hand-printed Chinese wallpaper. See belmond.com

WICKANINNISH INN

Holidaymakers hope for bad weather at Tofino on Vancouver Island: this is a storm-watching destination. Yet the moody majesty of nature doesn't mean sacrificing comfort. The Wick Inn is one of Canada's most lauded hotels, with a fine-dining restaurant, spa and fire-warmed rooms. Bad weather never looked so beautiful. See wickinn.com

ISLANDS WHERE WATER RULES

MAGNETIC ISLAND, AUSTRALIA

This Great Barrier Reef island is easily accessible from Townsville, and the underwater sights are easily accessible by wading in off gently sloping beaches. At Alma Bay, coral gardens are busy with batfish, angelfish and coral trout. The outstanding 1911 wreck of the SS Yongala is a trip down the coast, but the island itself has several minor wrecks, including the coral-encrusted Moltke suitable for night diving. See queensland.com

BORA BORA, FRENCH POLYNESIA

Bora Bora is a wonderland of voluptuous emerald peaks gaudily flaunting themselves in necklaces of turquoise lagoons and frothing palm trees. Vivid fish, turtles and manta rays float within arm's length in the lagoon, and you can hear the hungry chomp-chomp of butterfly fish on the coral, as they dart in black-and-white stripes with a vivid yellow tail. Humpback whales migrate past between August and October, and you can even scuba dive with black-fin reef sharks. See tahiti-tourisme.com

GUADALCANAL, SOLOMON ISLANDS

The almost 1000-strong Solomon islands have been making considerable effort to lure visitors of late. One good reason to go is the exceptional diving, with terrific marine life and numerous Word War II wrecks to explore, especially off the islands of Ghizo and Guadalcanal. Fierce battles here have left hundreds of ships and fighter planes lying on the sea floor, spectacular and eerie not only in themselves, but because they provide shelter for all manner of marine life. See visitsolomons.com.sb

EIL ISLAND, PALAU

Palau is a tiny Pacific republic, and its uninhabited Eil Island has become one of the world's most renowned snorkelling sites thanks to its lake, traversed twice daily by millions of migrating golden jellyfish. The jellyfish move east with the rising sun and return westwards in the afternoon. Their stings cause no harm, which is just as well. Swimming here brings you in close proximity to these improbable creatures, hundreds of which brush past your arms and legs. See pristineparadisepalau.com

SAINT LUCIA, CARIBBEAN

STR2COVER-ISLANDS Photo credit: ? Saint Lucia Tourist Board ***No archiving! ***1 time use print/online only Diving in St Lucia in the Caribbean. .

Photo: Saint Lucia Tourist Board

Saint Lucia surely takes the crown. Its Soufrière Marine Reserve is among the world's finest scuba-diving spots, with an abundance of tropical marine life in incredibly clear waters that make photography easy. Even in shallow areas you can admire octopus, turtles and peacock flounders, while below you may spot lobster, seahorses, moray eels and parrotfish. Sunken ships also provide artificial reefs for coral, vast sponges and families of tropical fish. See stlucia.org

See also: The solo traveller's guide to island getaways

See also: Australia's best islands for a holiday

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