Six of the best: European Islands

Crete, Greece

Of all the Greek Islands, Crete is both the largest and most varied. Historical sights are topped by the ruins of the Knossos Palace, the pinnacle of the Minoan civilisation. It's just to the south of Crete's capital, Iraklio (also called Heraklion). There are also some tremendous beaches – particularly Elafonisi in the south-western corner – while Samaria Gorge offers one of the continent's great canyon hikes. The island's also large enough to have substantial mountains, dotted with picturesque monasteries such as the culturally symbolic Moni Arkadiou. Stay at Casa Delfino (casadelfino.com), a 17th-century mansion in Hania, Crete's most attractive city. Doubles cost from 137 euros.

See incrediblecrete.gr.

Ibiza, Spain

The brand often supersedes the island itself. Ibiza is so well known as the home of superclubs and globetrotting star DJs that the original appeal is forgotten. Go beyond the beach resorts – some are upmarket, others massively insalubrious – and there's a fabulous cliff and cove-lined coast. Ibiza Mundo Activo (Ibizamundoactivo.com) runs kayaking trips along it. In the east, converted farmhouse accommodation and the Las Dalias alternative markets (lasdalias.es) hint at the long-standing hippy culture. The fortified Ibiza City, however, is a much-underrated star in its own right. Stay in a huge spa complex at the Aguas de Ibiza resort (aguasdeibiza.com), from 189 euros.

See Ibiza.travel.

Malta

A unique history sets Malta far apart from other holiday islands. The capital, Valletta, may be tiny, but the astonishingly complete fortifications built along its clifftops make it look like the world's largest castle. It was built by the Knights of St John – who have plenty of audio-visual and slightly hokey walk-through attractions devoted to them within the city. Elsewhere, the megalithic Hagar Qim temple, Hal Saflieni Hypogeum prehistoric necropolis and medieval streets of walled city Mdina all evoke different eras. Stay at the classic grand dame Hotel Phoenicia (phoeniciamalta.com), just outside Valletta, from 150 euros.

See visitmalta.com.

Skye, Scotland

Skye is Scotland 101; a startlingly gorgeous compromise for those who can't quite choose between Scotland's highlands and islands. Dunvegan (dunvegancastle.com) ticks the imposing castle box, while the Cuillin Hills have razor-toothed peaks and testing trails to loch and moorland views for determined hikers. The Talisker whisky distillery (discovering-distilleries.com/talisker) should suit less active types, while the MV Stardust (skyeboat-trips.co.uk) shows off the cliff-lined coastline – and hopefully a few seals, porpoises and sea eagles. Stay in pretty Portree, where the Rosedale Hotel (rosedalehotelskye.co.uk) has bags of old-fashioned charm. Doubles cost from £70.

See skye.co.uk.

Hvar, Croatia

The dreamy lavender fields and photogenic abandoned villages of the island's interior have virtually nothing in common with the swaggering, well-heeled glamour of Hvar Town. The latter is all gothic palaces, handsome 13th-century city walls, high-energy bars and eye-wateringly expensive hotels. But hire a scooter for a day, or head out on a day tour, and it's suddenly all about old-school, slow-paced Mediterranean romance and jealousy-inducing cove beaches. The clear waters make for great diving too – Viking Diving (viking-diving.com) runs PADI courses and day trips. Aparthotel Pharia (orvas-hotels.com) offers a rarity – affordable peak season double rooms from 78 euros.

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See tzhvar.hr.

Sicily, Italy

Cities rarely contrast as much as feisty, Godfather melodrama-packed Palermo and refined, Greek theatre-loving Siracusa (Syracuse). But variety has always been Sicily's strong point. Ancient history, whether Greek, Roman, Phoenician or Carthaginian, crops up continually – with the high point being the Doric column overdose in Agrigento's Valley of the Temples. There are also image-conscious high swank resort towns, such as Taormina, but go inland and it's all rustic wineries and family-owned cheesemakers.

Looming over all this is Etna, Europe's most notorious volcano and home to exceptional lava field trekking when it's not erupting. Stay at Siracusa's waterfront palazzo B&B, L'Approdo delle Sirene (apprododellesirene.com), from 130 euros.

See pti.regione.sicilia.it

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