The world's 15 best island holidays: Find the perfect one for you

Like the irrepressible twang of ukuleles in the Pacific, it's hard to get away from the stereotypes when thinking of islands. They fall mango-ripe from the pages of travel brochures, juicy with images of sunlight and surfing, hip-swaying girls and bare-chested boys, pina coladas and lurid sunsets. Their ultimate symbol is the tropical beach, where white sand squeaks, blue lagoons ripple and palm trees are splashed against outrageous sunsets.

Who hasn't been seduced? Islands are a place of escape, of sun-kissed sand and simplicity, removed from the travails of our busy urban lives, maybe even from conventional morality. They offer pirate adventure, and castaway dreams, and perhaps the hope of Shirley Valentine-style renewal. We fantasise about resigning our jobs, and spending the rest of our life on a beach, living off crabmeat, pickling ourselves in rum and shacking up with an island beauty like a character in a Somerset Maugham story.

Yet islands are much more than this, of course. Their strategic locations and opportunities for trade have made them hotpots of curiosities and cuisines, stirred together over centuries. Their isolation has created distinctive cultures and creatures found nowhere else. The best islands are never monocultures, but are rich mixes of outside influences and hybrid inventions.

Islands are seldom simple and, beyond the obvious stereotypes, that's what makes these mini-destinations such rich pickings for the inquisitive traveller.

And so, in the spirit of the famous festival at Cannes and its hallowed Palme D'or (Golden Palm) for best film, we would like to present Traveller's similarly illustrious Golden Palms. Ours are awarded to the best islands and beaches in the world, across a range of categories, from fantasy to action, history to (swimming) costumes.

THE ISLAND ... FOR SHOWING OFF

THE NOMINEES

British Virgin Islands; Bora Bora, French Polynesia; Palmalican, Philippines; Capri, Italy.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

An aerial view of Hvar Beach, Hvar Town, Croatia.

Photo: Alamy

Advertisement

Hvar, Croatia's answer to Saint-Tropez. Arrive in your yacht, sporting a tan, nautical-themed designer duds and Ferragamo sunglasses. Haunt the galleries and fancy craft shops in back streets before repairing for an Aperol Spritz as you lounge on Moroccan cushions at a quayside bar.

WHY GO

More hours of sunshine than anywhere else in Croatia, a mountainous island draped in vineyards and lavender fields, and outstanding swimming and sailing. Hvar town is a Renaissance gem with a stunning main piazza, streets flag-stoned in marble and the occasional ancient monastery.

DON'T MISS

Views from the fortress atop the town, from which you can peer down onto marble piazzas filled with beautiful people nibbling on swordfish and Instagramming their perfect lives. See tzhvar.hr

See also: 28 great reasons why you should visit Croatia

THE ISLAND ... FOR THE LAIDBACK

THE NOMINEES

Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia; La Digue, Seychelles; Out Islands, Bahamas; Samoa.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Supplied by Cook Islands Tourism

Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, which makes main island Rarotonga feel like the big smoke. The only crowd consists of scuttling hermit crabs on the beach. Cast off your shoes, stick a hibiscus flower behind your ear and hope to stay forever, sitting on a verandah drinking from a coconut shell.

WHY GO

Aitutaki has quite simply the world's best lagoon, a vast, shimmering, peacock-hued astonishment fringed by white sandbanks and barely marked by a single building. There is blissfully nothing to do except swimming, snorkelling, sailing and dreaming of calling your boss with the news you'll never be back.

DON'T MISS

One Foot Island, the lagoon's quintessential corner, where coconut trees form a ragged fringe above pristine beaches and swirling blue waters. See cookislands.travel

See also: The word paradise really applies to this patch of the Cook Islands

THE ISLAND ... FOR EXILES

THE NOMINEES

Sado Island, Japan; Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile; Devils' Island, French Guyana; St Helena.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Portoferraio in Elba Island, view from the fortress walls, Tuscany, Italy
satjun29coverstory
SHUTTERSTOCK
TRAVELLER GLOSSY islands beaches cover story

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Elba, the Italian island where Napoleon went into exile before escaping in 1815 for his "Hundred Days" restoration that ended at Waterloo. He had a nice time living in two mansions with a Polish mistress and his party-loving sister Pauline. For an island in the Mediterranean (and in Tuscany) it flies under the radar.

WHY GO

Elba's mini-mountains provide abundant plunging vistas of cliffs, olive groves and sparkling sea. Main town Portoferraio has Renaissance harbour fortifications and hilly old streets topped by Napoleon's holiday home. Why would you want to flee?

DON'T MISS

The hair-raising journey up Monte Capanne in a cage-like contraption suspended on wires. From the summit, you can brood on the entirety of Napoleon's shrunken empire. See visitelba.com

THE ISLAND ... FOR ADVENTURE

THE NOMINEES

Wrangel Island, Russia; Greenland; South Island, New Zealand; Azores, Portugal.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

The Mentawai Islands.

The Mentawai Islands off Sumatra. Photo: Shutterstock

Sumatra in Indonesia, our very under-explored neighbour. The world's sixth-largest island challenges with muddy rivers, swamps, a backbone of active volcanoes, dense rainforest and the humidity of the equator. Travel the legendary Trans-Sumatran Highway for added boasting rights.

WHY GO

The scenery is gobsmacking, featuring cloud-wreathed volcanoes and emerald rainforest where orang-utans and elephants lurk. The matriarchal Minangkabau ethnic group provides a vibrant cultural life centred on Bukittinggi. Maninjau, a lakeside village in an ancient volcanic crater, is reached via 44 improbably scenic hairpin bends.

DON'T MISS

The Mentawai Islands off the west coast, one of the most consistently great surf destinations, powered by the south-east trade winds that blow in from the Indian Ocean. Every serious surfer dreams of hitting the waves here. See indonesia.travel

THE ISLAND ... FOR HEDONISM

THE NOMINEES

Mykonos, Greece; Pag, Croatia; Ilha de Santa Catarina, Brazil; Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

 

Photo: Shutterstock

Ibiza, the Spanish jet-set getaway famed for its summer party scene, tolerance and bohemianism. Don't forget to pack your rapper bling for the nightclubs and your itsy-bitsy bikini for the suave beach clubs by day.

WHY GO

Party, party, party to the sounds of the world's best DJs in one of the world's clubbing capitals. Mind you, the island also has a World Heritage old town, masterpiece gothic cathedral, fine art museums, rugged coastline and picturesque inland draped in olive trees and whitewashed villages.

DON'T MISS

Superclub Amnesia, where you can cram in with 5000 other revellers and enjoy superb sound and lighting, banging beats, the odd explosion of confetti and (depending on the night) sequins, leather or feathers. See tourism.eivissa.es

THE ISLAND ... FOR WILD THINGS

THE NOMINEES

Molokai Island, USA; South Georgia Islands; Svalbard, Norway; Sub-Antarctic Islands, New Zealand.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Commune with marine iguanas on the Galapagos Islands.

Commune with marine iguanas on the Galapagos Islands. Photo: Shutterstock

Isla Espanola in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. If you've ever fantasised about the mating dance of the blue-footed booby (and who hasn't) you'll be rewarded. You can also commune with marine iguanas, giant tortoises and sea lions.

WHY GO

One of the Galapagos' most southern islands, Isla Espanola isn't as frequented as some others, yet has spectacular bird life that includes an indigenous mockingbird, swallow-tailed gulls and spectacular waved albatrosses with long, bright-yellow bills. You can hike, kayak, snorkel and hit the beach at lovely Gardner Bay.

DON'T MISS

The walk – or rather scramble – over volcanic boulders at Punta Suarez, accompanied by lava lizards and red crabs, and watched by grumbling sea lions with bristling whiskers. See ecuador.travel

See also: The heavenly island which could unleash hell on Earth

THE ISLAND ... FOR COLD BEAUTY

THE NOMINEES

Prince Edward Island, Canada; Skelligs, Ireland; Nantucket, USA; Chiloe, Chile.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Kilt Rock waterfall on the Isle of Skye.

Kilt Rock waterfall on the Isle of Skye. Photo: Shutterstock

Skye, largest of the Scottish Hebrides islands. If you like your islands haunting, windswept and invigoratingly chilly then look no further. Skye's name is Old Norse for "cloud island" and, when the wind howls, waterfalls are blown back up cliffs. The tempestuous moods of the weather are dramatically beautiful and entirely suit the brooding landscape.

WHY GO

Valleys covered in purple heather and huddled sheep, great cliffs and jagged mountains provide a wild, haunting Highlands landscape. There are prehistoric sites, castles, a rich Gaelic history of rebellion and emigration, and magnificent walks in the Cuillin Hills.

DON'T MISS

The drive on the A855 around the Trotternish Peninsula beneath the jagged rock pinnacles of the Quiraing, where the landscape reaches its crescendo. See visitscotland.com

THE ISLAND ... FOR TROPICAL FANTASIES

THE NOMINEES

Biyadhoo, Maldives; Isla de Margarita, Venezuela; Palawan, Philippines; San Blas, Panama.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

sunjune10tahiti Tahiti ; text by Paul Chai credit:?Shutterstock Split image above and below water surface, landscape of Huahine island with coral and tropical fish underwater, Pacific ocean, French Polynesia Huahine

Photo: Shutterstock

Huahine. Bora Bora and Moorea might be more famous, but this French Polynesian island is flamboyantly beautiful and yet scarcely visited. Troubles peel away and, by the time you get to your bungalow, the TV will seem like a strange artefact from an alien civilisation.

WHY GO

Everything moves to an island rhythm. There's barely a car, bridges are made of wooden planking and dusty dogs doze on verandahs. You can eat papayas straight from the tree, and mahi-mahi pulled fresh out of the ocean. Maroe Bay is magnificent, ringed by lush peaks and dotted with archaeological remains.

DON'T MISS

A boat excursion accompanied by ukulele-playing locals onto the island's fringing lagoon, filled with tropical fish and coral. See tahititourisme.com.au

THE ISLAND ... FOR HISTORY

THE NOMINEES

Malta; Zanzibar, Tanzania; Sicily, Italy; Shikoku, Japan.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

A blue old-timer taxi drives through Habana Vieja.

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Cuba, a time-warp country only just catching up with the 21st century, with a rollicking history that runs from colonists and buccaneers through to communist revolutionaries. Its culture combines Spanish, American, African and Caribbean influences.

WHY GO

A wonderfully dishevelled atmosphere, fantastic colonial fortifications, handsome churches and lively, gossipy, music-filled street life in cities such as Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Former wealthy sugar-trading town Trinidad de Cuba is one of the Americas' best-preserved historical towns.

DON'T MISS

Isla de la Juventud, once a buccaneer base, and reputedly Robert Louis Stevenson's inspiration for Treasure Island. The string of gorgeous islets that runs eastwards includes Cayo Largo del Sur, home to flamingos, iguanas and turtles, and uninhabited Cayo Rico, a castaway's fantasy. See cubatravel.cu

THE ISLAND ... FOR THE HUNGRY

THE NOMINEES

Sicily, Italy; Taiwan; Vancouver Island, Canada; Sri Lanka.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

World Heritage-listed capital George Town.

World Heritage-listed capital George Town, Penang. Photo: Shutterstock

Penang in Malaysia, where Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnic groups – with a dash of British colonial and neighbourly Thai influence – have created a fabulously rich, spicy and eclectic cuisine sure to tingle your tastebuds and swell your waistline.

WHY GO

For noodles 50 ways, whether flat or thin, stir-fried or boiled, Chinese or Malay, or in a surprising Penang-style laksa with a sour fish soup. For spicy rojak salad, fresh roti with curry, beef rendang, skewered satay, fresh popiah spring rolls, oyster omelette … oh, forget it. Just try everything.

DON'T MISS

World Heritage-listed capital George Town, with its handsome colonial buildings, colour-splattered Hindu temples, mosques, magnificent Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan house and outstanding street food – and street art. See tourismpenang.net.my

THE ISLAND ... FOR DIVING

THE NOMINEES

St Lucia; Bonaire, Caribbean Netherlands; Darwin Island, Ecuador; Fakarava, French Polynesia.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Guadalcanal, or indeed many other locations in the Solomon Islands such as Ghizo, which also have the requisite above-water tropical beauty. Stay at a dive resort or on a live-aboard dive boat.

WHY GO

Dozens of eerie World War II navy ships and fighter planes lie on the seabed and have become encrusted with enormous sea fans, sponges and bright coral. You'll see dozens of species of tropical fish, as well as manta rays and sharks. You might even spot dugongs and turtles.

DON'T MISS

The two Japanese transport ships that lie on the seabed near Mbonegi Beach outside Honiara – snorkellers can visit them, too. You can still see their anti-aircraft guns, and the trucks and heavy machinery stored in their holds. See visitsolomons.com.sb

THE ISLAND ... FOR WINTER

THE NOMINEES

South Island, New Zealand; Vancouver Island, Canada; Iceland; Lofoten Islands, Norway.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Hokkaido, Japan's second-largest but least-populated island.

Hokkaido, Japan's second-largest but least-populated island. Photo: Shutterstock

Hokkaido, Japan's second-largest but least-populated island. Few people think of islands as winter destinations, but Hokkaido has ski-fields, national parks, snowy mountains, and volcanoes that produce thermally heated waterfalls. Endure Jack Frost and you're amply rewarded.

WHY GO

Niseko and Furano are among notable ski resorts that feature Japan's legendary champagne powder snow. When Lake Shikaribetsu freezes over, a temporary village of bars, with concert hall and onsen bath, appears. Cities such as Hakodate, Kushiro and Otaru provide urban pleasures – the combination of snow and illuminations at Goryokaku Fortress in Hakodate is wonderful.

DON'T MISS

Sapporo Snow Festival in February features hundreds of ice sculptures and snow statues illuminated at night. Visitors warm themselves by eating, drinking and dancing under frosty skies. See visit-hokkaido.jp

THE ISLAND ... FOR THE BEEN-THERE BRIGADE

THE NOMINEES

Anjouan, Comoros Islands; Timor Leste; Tongatapu, Tonga; Eil Malk Island, Palau.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Rainforest of Sao Tome, with great mountain cao grande view Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Sao Tome & Principe, a tiny, two-island West African nation that popped up on Lonely Planet's list of top 10 countries this year. If you can find it on a map, let alone visit, you're already ahead of the crowd.

WHY GO

This Portuguese-speaking nation is safe, it's eco-friendly, it has natural attractions and a fascinating history – plus some of the world's best coffee. It produces cocoa and has a great chocolate factory. Sao Tome town has decaying charm – think Havana without the crowds.

DON'T MISS

Principe, which has everything you want from island escapism, including a tiny population, great snorkelling, fishing, rainforest alive with birds, and fang-like rock pinnacles like something from a Lost World. See turismo.gov.st

THE ISLAND ... FOR A LITTLE OF EVERYTHING

THE NOMINEES

Kyushu, Japan; Florida Keys, USA; Mallorca, Spain; Cyprus.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Delicious Mauritius.

Delicious Mauritius. Photo: Shutterstock

Mauritius, that Goldilocks of islands that has luxury resorts but not overdevelopment, both water sports and jungle hiking, French flair and Hindu culture, plus the world's most confused cuisine. Ideal for those not satisfied with a one-theme holiday.

WHY GO

"Mauritius was made first and then heaven, heaven being copied after Mauritius" – and who would argue with Mark Twain? The beaches are powder white, the reefs fish-filled, the landscape a spectacle of jagged, jungle-clad mountains. The cultural mix is extraordinary and the curries fabulous.

DON'T MISS

Take a hop 600 kilometres north-west to satellite island Rodriguez, where volcanic peaks rise from a turquoise lagoon fringed by pink-hued beaches. It's all about fishing, Creole cuisine, local life and the feeling you've fallen off the map. See tourism-mauritius.mu

THE ISLAND ... FOR LANDLUBBERS

THE NOMINEES

Bled Island, Slovenia; Kizhi Island, Russia; Brissago Islands, Switzerland; Thousand Islands, Canada.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

Isla del Sol, Bolivia. For those who prefer their islands lake bound, this corker is 3812 metres up the Andes on Lake Titicaca. It's the birthplace of the sun, according to Inca legend – something for which all island lovers should be grateful.

WHY GO

Lake Titicaca's waters are blue as a kingfisher's wings and overlooked by the glaciated summits of the Cordillera Real. Isla del Sol has a mystical quality thanks to Inca legends and 80-odd ruins of Inca civilisation. A lack of motorised traffic and only a few villages provide tranquil charm. The hiking is excellent.

DON'T MISS

The floating reed villages of the local people, who dress colourfully in blue, yellow and red striped clothes. Most easily visited from the Peruvian side of the lake. See visitbolivia.org

FIVE BEST REMOTE BEACHES

If you want a beach that caters to your castaway fantasies, then work out a way to get to these obscurely located but fabulously beautiful island beaches.

SHIPWRECK COVE, ZAKYNTHOS, GREECE

You can only get to this beach by boat, but it's a stunner cupped between glittering white cliffs and flanked by water in many shades of peacock blue. A rusting ship tossed up on the beach gives it its name and adds a surreal element. A clifftop viewing platform provides the perfect Instagram shot. See visitgreece.gr

PINK BEACH, KOMODO, INDONESIA

There are only a handful of pink-sand beaches in the world, and here the colour clashes superbly with pale blue tropical waters. Wade in and you can swim among a kaleidoscope of reef fish. Take the short hike up the headland to be rewarded with a multi-hued view. See indonesia.travel

SANCHO BAY, FERNANDO DE NORONHA, BRAZIL

This beach in a lovely archipelago off north-eastern Brazil isn't on the beaten track, and made even more inaccessible thanks to steep cliffs that require a descent by ladder. The UNESCO protected site rewards with fabulous scenery and water full of manta rays and dolphins. See visitbrasil.com

HONOPU BEACH, HAWAII, USA

This dark-brown beach on Kauai is accessible only from the ocean thanks to surrounding 360-metre cliffs. A rock arch makes an eerie sound when the north wind blows. The setting is spectacular enough to have provided the backdrop to numerous movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and King Kong. See gohawaii.com

VESTRAHORN BEACH, STOKKSNES PENINSULA, ICELAND

And now for something completely different, a beach with frigid waters and stormy skies, but well worth visiting for its otherworldly landscape of humped green mounds, black sand and backdrop of rocky peaks. An abandoned Viking village film set adds an extra bit of slightly surreal quirkiness. See inspiredbyiceland.com

FIVE GREAT URBAN BEACHES

COPACABANA BEACH, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

When it comes to urban beaches, this is surely the best, and certainly the sexiest. Gorgeous people stroll the mosaic-decorated promenades, eat prawns from skewers and play volleyball in microscopic swimwear. A wild party and fireworks erupt on the beach on New Year's Eve. See visitbrasil.com

LIEPAJA BEACH, LIEPAJA, LATVIA

If you like beaches to be bracing, then this former retreat of Russian czars is lapped by the Baltic Sea and caressed by invigorating breezes. Walk the near-pristine sands and you can sometimes find amber washed up by storms. A legendary summer music festival provides a party atmosphere. See latvia.travel

PARIS PLAGE, PARIS, FRANCE

It might be a fake beach that appears along the banks of the Seine River only in summer but, with its parasols, potted palms and deckchairs, it looks almost like the real deal. You can play boules, borrow a book and cool off at a misting station, all within sight of Notre Dame. See parisinfo.com

BOULDERS BEACH, CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

One of the world's most Instragrammed beaches is dotted with granite boulders, edged by rock pools and graced with pale powdery sand, but it's the resident African penguins that make it exceptional. Summer is best for penguin action, especially when chicks lurch along the beach in January. See capetown.travel

BARCELONETA, BARCELONA, SPAIN

The suburb that started as a shabby fisherman's town and was transformed by the 1992 Olympic Games has a four-kilometre sweep of sand that provides a playground for the city, and is lined by seafood restaurants and raucous tapas bars – and all just a short walk from downtown. See barcelonaturisme.com

See also: The 10 best places in the world to go island-hopping

Comments