World's 10 best archipelagos: Islands that make outstanding travel destinations

If islands have always entranced explorers, travellers and dreamers, then archipelagos provide the ultimate travel seduction. Some such as the Canadian Arctic, Malay Archipelago and Caribbean come on a grand geographical scale. Others such as Japan, New Zealand and the British Isles are more often thought of as nations, but provide ample island-hopping possibilities; the British Isles actually encompass more than 6000 islands. Yet other archipelagos are small, seemingly inconsequential outcrops of islets and rocks, numbered in the tens of thousands in places such as Finland and Sweden.

The islands of archipelagos lie in chain or clusters or are carelessly scattered across vast oceanic spaces. What makes them special is that isolation often bequeaths them not just distinctive landscapes and endemic plants and animals, but distinctive cultures, cuisines and curious histories too. What's more, they're seldom single, simple entities. Each of their islands can be different as well: consider Japan, where northern island Hokkaido has snowy mountains, indigenous Ainu and dancing cranes, while balmy Kyushu is packed with people, history and sub-tropical beaches.

The peculiarities that set archipelagos apart create outstanding travel destinations. They're fine places to trace the history of explorers, pirates and spice traders; to ponder theories of evolution, or how isolated cultures develop. If you think of Fiji as single destination or French Polynesia just as Tahiti, then you're missing out on the many nuances that archipelagos provide. And while main islands might bag the limelight, minor islands can sometimes be even better.

THE GROUP Galapagos, Ecuador

THE NUMBER 18 main volcanic islands occupy 45,000 square kilometres of Pacific Ocean straddling the equator, 900 kilometres west of South America.

SEE AND DO These volcanic islands helped Darwin formulate his evolutionary theory, and the intimacy of the wildlife experience gobsmacks visitors. Get close enough to hear iguanas chomp seaweed, photograph penguins and admire dancing boobies. Isla Isabela has tortoises, Santa Cruz the Charles Darwin Research Centre, Isla Bartolome fabulous scenery.

DON'T MISS Snorkelling. Most archipelagos are great underwater, but here you can swim with seals, manta rays and marine iguanas. Playa Mansa on Santa Cruz Island is a top spot.

ESSENTIALS Visit December-May for calmer seas and lower temperatures. You can fly (latam.com) and stay on one of four islands, but a cruise with a company such as Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.com) is a far superior and easier experience. See ecuador.travel

THE GROUP Society Islands, French Polynesia

THE NUMBER 14 main islands make up just 1590 square kilometres of land in the South Pacific and are divided into Leeward and Windward island groups.

SEE AND DO Early European visitors to Tahiti created the romantic image of tropical islands as sensual paradises, and these islands remain unsurpassed for sheer beauty. Moorea and seldom-visited Huahine have gorgeous lagoons and rugged mountains, while Bora Bora is the honeymoon cliche.

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DON'T MISS Sunset on the lagoon at Bora Bora. It's a tourist cliche for good reason as the lagoon turns from impossibly electric blue to orange and pink, and knobbly volcanic peaks are silhouetted against the darkening sky.

ESSENTIALS Visit year-around, though November-April has more rain and humidity. Flights (airtahitinui.com) take you there and around islands. Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com) is among cruise lines with dedicated French Polynesia itineraries. See tahititourisme.com

THE GROUP Spice Islands, Indonesia

THE NUMBER More than a thousand islands, more properly the Maluku Islands or Moluccas, occupy 700,000 square kilometres of Banda Sea.

SEE AND DO In the 15th century, the European race for cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg supplies here was the spur for discovery and colonialism. Today the islands are remote and charming. The Banda Islands in particular have plenty of colonial and World War II historical sites, great coral snorkelling and superb scenery. Ternate and Ambon have the main population centres.

DON'T MISS The white-sand beaches of the Kei Islands, particularly at Ohoidertawun, a bay cupped in limestone cliffs riddled with caves, carved with petroglyphs and flanked by coconut trees in the ultimate tropical-island fantasy.

ESSENTIALS The dry season is November-March. Avoid the June-August monsoon. Garuda (garuda-indonesia.com) flies to Ambon and Ternate. Australian cruise company Coral Expeditions (coralexpeditions.com) has Spice Islands itineraries. See indonesia.travel

THE GROUP Cyclades, Greece

THE NUMBER More than 200 islands, many uninhabited, with a land area of 2572 square kilometres in the Aegean Sea, named for their circular formation centred on Delos.

SEE AND DO The quintessential Greek islands unite whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches, olive groves and ancient ruins. Mykonos is a party centre of the Mediterranean, Santorini for honeymooners. Naxos features a Venetian castle and Byzantine chapels, off-the-beaten-track Tinos is favoured by Orthodox pilgrims.

DON'T MISS Oia on Santorini (santorini.gr), a town of blue and white fisherman's houses and a marble-lined main street tempting with souvenir-shopping and strolling. It's quieter that Fira and has spectacular views over the island's ancient volcanic caldera of plunging, red-banded cliffs.

ESSENTIALS Visit May-June for lower temperatures, spring wildflowers and fewer crowds. High-speed ferries (seajets.gr) and planes (olympicair.com) link many islands. Star Clippers (starclippers.com) has several Cycladic cruise itineraries. See visitgreece.gr

THE GROUP Florida Keys, US

THE NUMBER About 1700 coral cays (356 square kilometres of land) running 350 kilometres into the Gulf of Mexico from Florida's tip towards Cuba.

SEE AND DO Drive the highway that links many of the keys across more than 40 sea-sparkled bridges above improbably turquoise water. Shipwrecks, sailing, big-game fishing and shallow waters abundant with marine life are the lure; hurricanes provide the occasional alarm.

DON'T MISS Sunset with buskers on Mallory Square in Key West, followed by a boozy time on Duval Street. Yes, it's touristy, but sometimes on islands you just have to give in to the sway of music and the lure of fruit cocktails.

ESSENTIALS Winter is high season, summer rainy and humid. Visit March-May. Fly (delta.com) into Key West. Drive US Highway 1, charter a yacht (calypsosailing.com) or take a shuttle bus (keysshuttle.com). See fla-keys.com

THE GROUP Channel Islands, English Channel

THE NUMBER Eight inhabited islands (Jersey is the largest) and several rocks constitute 198 square kilometres of land in the English Channel, close to France's Normandy coastline.

SEE AND DO If you want proof that archipelago isolation provides quirky history, head to these crown dependencies, with a status quite separate from Britain and yet retaining a very English, old-fashioned atmosphere. Guernsey and Jersey are top destinations, but little Sark, free of motor traffic, is like stepping into an Enid Blyton story.

DON'T MISS Fans of Gerald Durrell should head to Jersey Zoo (durrell.org), a leader in the conservation of endangered species such as gorillas, orang-utans and lemurs. A "keeper for a day" experience gets you up close to the creatures.

ESSENTIALS Visit September-October for good weather, warm seas and shoulder-season prices. Flights (flybe.com) and ferries (condorferries.co.uk) get you there from Britain. See visitchannelislands.com

THE GROUP Balearic Islands, Spain

THE NUMBER Four large islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera) and many smaller ones create 4992 square kilometres of land in the Mediterranean.

SEE AND DO Islands are coveted places, as Greek, Roman, Moorish and other remains here attest. Today it's tourists that invade: Ibiza is a notorious summer jet-setting party capital, though remains beautiful inland. Majorca has great beaches, a rugged interior perfect for hiking, and an impressive cathedral and Arab-influenced old-town architecture. Less-visited Minorca has perhaps the most gorgeous landscape.

DON'T MISS Driving Majorca's World Heritage-listed Serra de Tramuntana mountain range (serradetramuntana.net), where extraordinary hairpin bends reveal glorious scenery of mountains, dry-stone terraces and medieval villages.

ESSENTIALS Visit March-May for pleasant weather and fewer visitors. Ferries (balearia.com) or flights (iberia.com) get you there from mainland Spain. See illesbalears.travel

THE GROUP Lofoten Islands, Norway

THE NUMBER Six main islands and hundreds of skerries provide about 1227 square kilometres of land off the north-west coast of Norway, within the Arctic Circle.

SEE AND DO Deep fjords, snow-capped mountains, wild coastlines and pale Arctic light make every outlook magnificent, so get walking. Bird life is abundant. You'll find plenty of Viking history at the excellent Lofotr Viking Museum, plus many contemporary cod-fishing villages.

DON'T MISS Anything. This is without question one of the world's most beautiful places, and no matter where you drive or walk, the scenery is stupendous. Reine on Moskenesøy island is considered by Norwegians to be their most scenically sited village.

ESSENTIALS Visit May-October and avoid permanently dark December-January. Flights (norwegian.com) only get you near, car ferries (torghattennord.no) do better but driving is superbly scenic. Bridge and tunnels connect with the mainland. See lofoten.info

THE GROUP Tierra del Fuego, Chile/Argentina

THE NUMBER Isla Grande is large at 48,100 square kilometres, but countless islands stud South America's southern tip and the Chilean coast further north.

SEE AND DO Patagonia has challenged explorers and travellers for 500 years. It's a legendary land of fierce winds, ragged mountains, marvellous beech forests and glaciers such as gigantic Perito Moreno. Fishing port Punta Arenas is the gateway to Torres del Paine, a stunning national park.

DON'T MISS The jagged Dientes de Navarino mountain range and its many alpine lakes near Puerto Williams in Chile, which are splendid. If you care to tackle a gruelling, five-day walking route, the rewards are spectacular.

ESSENTIALS Visit in summer (November-February) for the clearest, most pleasant weather. Fly (latam.com) into Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. Roads only go so far, however, so consider local cruise company Australis (australis.com). See chile.travel and argentina.travel

THE GROUP Lesser Antilles, Caribbean

THE NUMBER 50-odd islands and innumerable islets totalling 14,364 square kilometres of outcrops between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

SEE AND DO The discovery of the Americas and buccaneering adventures provide a startling history, the collision of European and African cultures a potpourri of cuisines, music, festivals, architecture and lilting accents. Eight island nations such as Barbados and St Kitts and 16 assorted territories including Martinique, the US Virgin Islands and Curacao provide abundant variety. Lovers of shipwrecks and Nemo have outstanding dive options.

DON'T MISS St Lucia (stlucia.org) has unadulterated loveliness, superb beaches and a lively music scene. Trinidad (tourism.gov.tt) has one of the world's best Mardi Gras carnivals in February, with steel bands and sequins galore.

ESSENTIALS Go December-April and avoid September-October rains and hurricanes. Plane-hopping or cruising will get you around. See ivisitanguilla.commartinique.org and visitusvi.com

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

If you think these places are single islands, you'll be pleasantly surprised to discover more to explore.

MALTA

One of the world's smallest and most-densely populated countries nonetheless has nearly 20 uninhabited offshore islands and two quieter, interesting alternatives to Malta main island. Gozo features hilltop villages built of honey-coloured limestone, clustered around opulent, gold-laden churches. Ramparts provide glorious views over patchwork tomato and watermelon fields. Clifftop Dwerja and San Lawrenz are magnificent at sunset. Meanwhile tiddly Comino, just three square kilometres in size, is noted for its Blue Lagoon, frequently used as a movie location. See visitmalta.com

MAURITIUS

The nation of Mauritius encompasses main island Mauritius, outlying islands, the uninhabited archipelago of St Brandon, and Rodrigues some 560 kilometres east. This tiny autonomous outpost depends on fishing, farming and tourism, but eschews glitz resorts for modest hotels and guesthouses. A mostly African and Creole population cling to the mountainsides, which are planted with vegetables and banana trees. Its huge surrounding lagoon and reefs provide excellent scuba-diving, windsurfing and kitesurfing, plus some of the world's best big-game fishing. See tourism-mauritius.mu

ZANZIBAR

Two large islands (Unjuga and Pemba) and a host of smaller ones make up this semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. Pemba is scarcely developed for tourism, providing a true getaway and local life among clove plantations. The lush, palm-shaded island is surrounded by outstanding coral reefs frequented by giant rays and turtles, especially around outlying islets Misali and Panza. Its coast is littered with old Islamic and Portuguese ruins. Other visit-worthy islands are marine national park Chumbe and Changu, home to giant tortoises. See zanzibartourism.net

OKINAWA

Okinawa Island is the largest of the Okinawa Islands, part of the balmy, whale-haunted, 7000-odd Ryukyu Archipelago that runs almost 1000 kilometres south-west from Japan nearly to Taiwan. You'll find a laidback lifestyle and famously healthy cuisine: Okinawans live longer than anyone else. Miyako Island has good scuba-diving, and manta rays float with snorkellers off Ishigaki Island, which also has World War II sites, a hilltop observatory and Shinto shrine. The national park of Iriomote Island has good kayaking and hiking. See visitokinawa.jp

CORFU

Few visitors to north-western Greece have horizons beyond this gorgeous, scimitar-shaped island. Corfu is, however, just one of seven large (and many smaller) Ionian Islands such as Cephalonia, Ithaca and Lefkada, the latter connected by bridge to the mainland. Flying under the mass-tourism radar, you'll find a slower pace, handsome countryside, scattered archaeological remains and some of the world's best windsurfing. The islands have a distinctive shared history influenced by Venetian, Italian and British occupation. The latter bequeathed a penchant for cricket and afternoon tea. See ionianislands-tourism.com

IF YOU MUST SETTLE FOR JUST ONE ISLAND…

Some islands are gems all alone in the middle of a watery nowhere. Here are five fascinating ocean outposts every intrepid traveller should visit.

LORD HOWE ISLAND

Though this stunning island 600 kilometres east of Port Macquarie and part of NSW is just two kilometres wide and 11 long, it's a World Heritage destination with twin volcanic peaks, the world's most southerly coral reef and remarkable bird life. With only 400 visitors at any one time, a getaway provides adventure and exclusivity. See lordhoweisland.info

LA REUNION

French island La Reunion rises from the Indian Ocean south-west of Mauritius in a staggering display of rearing mountain peaks topping 3000 metres. Vanilla and sugar, plus geraniums and vetiver for the perfume industry, make this an aromatic place. Orchids and waterfalls stud rainforest in a landscape sultry with ancient volcanoes, like a miniature version of Hawaii. See reunion.fr

EASTER ISLAND

Easter Island lies 3500 kilometres off South America's coastline and is scattered with nearly 900 monolithic moai sculptures, huge guardians over a rugged landscape. The largest weighs 82 tons and is nearly 10 metres high. No one knows what purpose these statues once served, but few are left unmoved by their brooding and majestic presence. See chile.travel

ST HELENA

The South Atlantic, British-controlled island finally got an airport in 2016, though is mostly visited by occasional cruise ships. It has a mountainous landscape of spectacular views and green inland valleys and is most famously associated with Napoleon, exiled here from 1815 until his death in 1821. Capital Jamestown has many handsome Georgian-era buildings and military fortifications. See sthelenatourism.com

MACQUARIE ISLAND

This far-flung, windswept Tasmanian toehold in the Pacific Ocean on the way to Antarctica is home to a few hardy Australian Antarctic Division researchers and visited by expedition cruise companies. World Heritage listed mainly for its geology, it's most interesting to visitors for abundant wildlife, including 80,000 elephant seals, 3.5 million seabirds and millions of penguins. See parks.tas.gov.au

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