Quiet nights . . . lazy walks . . . spectacular sunsets to view à deux . . . genuine interaction with folks who actually live there . . . off-the-beaten-path islands offer secret spots and stunning surprises in every corner of the world. There are hundreds of possibilities. Here are 10 of the best:
Tobago, British West Indies
For Eco-Rich Vacations
The tiny island of Tobago—unlike its boisterous cousin, Trinidad— is a Caribbean island made for travelers seeking peace, quiet, and time spent with pristine nature. Visitors can hire a guide and hike through the western hemisphere’s oldest protected rain forest, accompanied by song from some 58 different species of birds. The island is also ringed by shallow-water reefs, giving snorkelers, divers, or passengers in glass-bottomed boats the chance to spot some 300 types of coral, plus giant tube sponges, massive rays, graceful sea fans, and fish sporting more colors than Crayola.
Hike the trail along Tobago’s North Coast for great photos. Kids love to swim in the Nylon Pool, a fish-rich shallow area in the Lagoon. The hotels, including the award-winning Coco Reef Resort & Spa, have a delightfully local feel. It is said that Tobago cooks have “a sweet hand,” creating dishes that magically blend Creole, African and West Indian flavors, often complemented by good local rum. Best of all, Tobago is very eco-friendly. In 2007, the island won the “World’s Leading Green Destination” honor at the World Travel Awards.
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
For a New Definition of Pristine
Tourism is developing in Vietnam so quickly that last year’s great island “find” swiftly becomes this year’s overcrowded destination. Pretty Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s largest island, currently remains pristine and affordable. There’s a betting chance that that may last, since 70-80 percent of the mountainous island is protected as the Phu Quoc National Forest. The island‘s close proximity to Cambodia also means that there is an almost-invisible military presence on the north coast.
This still-affordable destination is home to plantations and fish-sauce factories and miles of deserted beaches, including the aptly named Long Beach. Nights are so dark that constellation spotting becomes a competitive sport. Rent motorcycles (and drivers too if you want) to visit camera-worthy fishing villages. Take out a sea kayak or dive the reef. The Sea Star Resort, one of many fine beach hotels, is close to good restaurants. Don’t expect a wild bar scene. Do expect to cherish the extraordinary quiet—at least for now. If Vietnam is smart, it will help keep this beach-rich island green and pristine.
Mnemba Island, Tanzania
For Ultimate Privacy
It is so quiet on Mnemba Island, just off Tanzania’s larger island of Zanzibar, that you can hear the silence. This very private African island, managed by &Beyond Africa, consists of only 10 luxurious bandas – cottages hand-woven from palm matting. Sit on your spacious front porch and watch adorable, dog-sized miniature deer amble by. Scuba dive, deep-sea fish, or snorkel to your heart’s delight, or simply enjoy a massage for two in the cool of your banda. Dinner is served on the beach by candlelight.
The tab here is high: $1,500 per person, per night in peak season (all meals and activities, including multiple dives, are included) and $1,155 per person, per night at other times. The high price tag is justified by the level of laid-back luxury, privacy, and service. Guests also typically tour Zanzibar, home to historic mansions built by Arab traders and visit gardens rich with the scent of spices. While in the capital, Stone Town, shop for colorful local crafts and snap photos of the statue of Freddy Mercury, the late Queen lead singer who grew up there.
Guernsey, Channel Islands
For Book Lovers
A few years back, it seemed like every second person was galloping through the pages of The Guernsey Potato Peel and Literary Society, set on the Channel Island of Guernsey during World War II. Fans of that novel will find that Guernsey—far sunnier and warmer than England, and just two-and-a-half hours away by boat—has changed little since the 1940s. While the island remains “loyal to the British crown,” it is, in fact, much closer to France than England. It is also a major off-shore tax haven, which means that it is both prosperous and pretty (as in well kept).
The tourist board happily provides maps for fans of the novel, enabling them to visit off-the-beaten path places that they’ve read about. Less bookish visitors can hike nearly 30 miles of cliff paths above the sea, stroll past fields filled with Guernsey cows, and explore gardens bright with flowers. If you can’t actually make the trip, you needn’t worry. The film version of the novel, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Kate Winslet, will debut next year. Best advice: If you do go, try to add on a visit to the tiny island of Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands— totally car free, and rich with fields of wild flowers.
For Finding the “Old Hawaii”
Love the climate? Love the gentle breeze from the trade winds? Hate the high rises and freeways of Waikiki? Pack your camping gear, or book a room at the classic Hotel Molokai (now the island’s only hotel, though condo rentals are available). Book well in advance if you wish to visit Kalaupapa National Historical Park, where the Belgian priest Father Damien ministered to victims of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) and ultimately died from the disease. Choices to get to this sad but scenic site include riding a mule down and back up a 2.9-mile trail, with 26 switchbacks, along the world’s highest sea cliffs; hiking down; or flying in aboard a six-seat plane.
However you get there, Damien Tours’ excellent guides tell the rich story of this spectacularly beautiful and bitterly poignant place. In winter, hoards of humpback whales pass by the island. Whale-watching trips are available, but the giant mammals also glide right past Hotel Molokai. Shop for the locally grown (and really strong) coffee at Molokai Coffee Company on the Farrington Highway, and go back on Saturday evening to enjoy some live jazz.
For Diving Away from the Crowds
The water surrounding the truly off-the-radar, 2-by-40-mile island of Roatán is so clear that as the plane circles over the Caribbean Sea before landing, it is possible to spot, and even to identify, dozens upon dozens of tropical fish in every color imaginable. Even many veteran Caribbean travelers couldn’t find Roatán, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, on a map. Yet it abuts the second-largest barrier reef in the world, letting snorkelers see hundreds of different fish in rainbow colors, and offering divers the adventure of a lifetime, including tackling a couple of challenging wreck dives.
An added incentive: It’s much less expensive to take diving lessons on Roatán than almost anywhere else in the Caribbean. Non-divers go just to enjoy sand and sea, and to catch the glorious (some say the world’s best) sunset from West End Beach. The recent addition of a cruise terminal, as well as condo developments targeted toward American retirees, may be changing the scene a bit. Best advice: Go now, while this long and skinny island remains cheap and serene.
For Celebrity Seekers
Hvar, a beach-rich island off Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, has long been a favorite of the celebrity set, but was off most average Americans’ radar screens. Frequent sightings of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Stephen Spielberg, and Gerard Depardieu – not to mention King Abdullah of Jordan, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Bill Gates – add a certain allure to this very understated, very green island that shelters the rich and fabulous. Even England’s Prince Harry stopped by in the summer of 2011, venturing into an open-air nightclub called Veranda, where he famously dived backwards, fully clothed, into a swimming pool.
The addition of more hotel rooms has made it easier for less fabulous folks to vacation on the island now. Visitors can stroll past sweet-smelling fields of lavender, sip glasses of plavac (the local island-brewed red wine) under the stars, hike to rural villages, bask on quiet beaches, swim in a sea as clear as a glass of vodka, or climb up to the historic Spanjol Fortess to get great photos of Hvar’s harbor.
Fraser Island, Queensland, Australia
For Roughing It
Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, is a mecca for the backpackers who roam Australia’s East Coast. Rent a 4x4 vehicle on the mainland, being sure to get a special permit to drive on Fraser. Stock up on groceries too, before boarding the ferry at Hervey Bay. It’s worth the trouble. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed island offers rich rewards. Dense rainforest trees tower over the sand dunes below, endless ocean beaches offer abundant privacy, and more than 100 freshwater lakes (some too murky for swimming) add to the mix.
Hike to see the colored sand cliffs, some 800 feet high, and explore part of the longest coastal dune system in the world. Start a “life list” to record sighting of rare shorebirds. Spot the occasional saltwater crocodile, and perhaps see a wild dingo. One popular overnight walk takes hikers from Kingfisher Bay, where the ferry lands, to Lake McKenzie, returning the next day. Also for the to-do-list: A guided tour of 5,000-year-old Aboriginal campsites and the wreck of the S.S. Maheno, which served as a World War I hospital ship. Accommodations on the island range from the somewhat luxurious resorts to rental apartments to campgrounds.
St. Pierre and Miquelon
For Serious Francophiles
Dying for a perfect baguette? No need to book a flight to Paris. Just zip up to the tiny French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon—the last remaining bit of colonial New France—not far from Canada’s cod-rich Grand Banks. That location explains the islands’ abiding French-ness. Under the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France signed off on all North American possessions, except Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, ensuring their fishing rights. During Prohibition in the United States, however, bootlegging actually beat out fishing, with nearly 2 million gallons of illegal booze passing through the tiny islands.
Go in summer, to catch the local Basque Festival (watch, but don’t attempt to compete in, the stone heaving or lumberjacking competitions), or try to catch Miquelon’s luscious Seafood Festival in August. Snap photos of the lighthouse. Take a boat tour to the Grand Banks. See wild horses and alpaca. Visit the small museum and local craft shops. Hike through rugged landscapes, relishing the quiet. Book rooms at the cozy Nuits Saint-Pierre, and try tiny local restaurants for fresh lobster, or cod cooked with French flair.
Pretty little Kefalonia, in the Ionian Sea, was largely off tourist’s radar screens until the 2001 release of the ultra-romantic film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, based on Louis de Bernières novel, and starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz. The filmmakers chose their location well, since Kefalonia was, and actually still is, an old-fashioned, unspoiled Greek island – rich with romantic vistas.
The island remains pretty and pristine because it lacks major tourism, and because many of its buildings are relatively new (the result of a serious earthquake in 1953).Visitors tend to rent villas high up in the hills to catch the cooling breezes, and use rental cars to explore the island’s winding roads and catch the many-miles-away vistas. True romantics can rent speed boats and cruise to isolated beaches (Myrtos on the island’s west coast is a gorgeous one), or can even zoom across the sea to Ithaca—the legendary island where Homer’s Odysseus ruled. Back in Kefalonia, nightlife revolves around the local tavernas, and is fun, but not overly raucous.