10 Extraordinary Islands To Visit On Your Next Vacation

vacation islands

Summer is the time of island vacations. It is time to put as much distance between you and the real world as possible. It is time to stand outside of your everyday life and to see how it all looks from a paradise perspective. Here is a collection of islands for escape – places to recharge, gain perspective and explore. From an island in the land of the gods to a tropical Amsterdam at the edge of an ocean trench, each of these ten destinations provides something extraordinary.

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vacation islands

Santorini (Greece)
Abstract: As legends change hands, the stories transform. Storytellers take liberties, moving to impress wide-eyed audiences with tales of glorious antiquity. With each telling, they speak of monsters that grow stronger, of men who grow bolder, of explosions that tear apart the earth and take along with them civilizations that grow greater. These stories come from places like Santorini – a Greek paradise perched on the thin edge of a circular archipelago where the earth once swallowed a city whole.

Maybe that city was Plato’s Atlantis and maybe it was not, but what it is today is one of the most stunningly gorgeous and unique places on earth. Whitewashed villas adorned with oceanic blue domes cling to volcanic rock mountainsides in the most romantic of settings. Greece is the land of old gods, and Santorini is where those gods likely vacationed.

Highlights: Sailing to Volcano Island, hiking from Fira to Oia, and visiting Red Beach
High end lodging: Oia Castle Hotel
Mid-range lodging: Zorzis Hotel
Get there: Fly to Santorini for cheap on Easyjet from London or Milan. Flying from Athens is also a simple and inexpensive way to reach Santorini.


vacation islands

Gili Trawanagan (Indonesia)
Abstract: Gili T feels like the last party at the edge of the world. And it could be so, perched on the precipice of a trench that tears over 5 miles into the ocean floor, the Gilis are an outpost at the edge of a tectonic plate that tore away from Asia eons ago.

Gili Trawanagan is one of three islands in the Gili island chain. Gili T is known for dawdling sea turtles, plush white sand beaches, reggae jams, and mushroom shakes. Reached by just a short boat ride from the eastern coast of Bali, each island is governed by village elders substituting for a proper Indonesian Police force. An Amsterdamian party scene has developed and thrived in the absence of these formal police forces. The Tropical Amsterdam is like an upstart Ibiza with all-night parties and hung-over beach rehab. After partying all night, catch a ride home via horse taxi as no motorized vehicles are allowed on the islands.

High end lodging: Luce d’Alma or Marta’s
Mid-range lodging: Rumah Kundun
Get there: Take a boat from the eastern coast of Bali over across the Lombok strait with Gili Cat or one of the other transfer services.

vacation islands

Borneo
Abstract: Borneo is an ancient land of wild beasts and peculiar flora. It is one of the largest islands in the world and stocked with mysteries hidden deep within its ancient rain forests. It covers three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and tiny Brunei. There are mysterious cultures like the ex-headhunting Dayak, massive orangutans and some of the best dive sites in the world. It is also one of Asia’s top budget destinations.

Beyond dusk boat rides in search of Proboscis monkeys or long jeep safaris into the heart of the lost world, Borneo also has some unexpectedly nice beaches. Off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, several islands bask in tropical waters with great reefs and nice sandy shores. For orangutan sightings, head to Sepilok nature reserve near Sandakan. The orangutans in Borneo grow to much larger sizes than their Sumatran brethren. This is supposedly due to the evolutionary effect of an absence of tigers in Borneo. In Sumatra, the orangs must take to the trees to stay safe, but in Borneo, the “orange men of the forest” have no need for tree-dwelling. Sadly, nothing can protect them from encroaching humanity.

Highlights: Climbing Mt Kinabalu, diving Sipidan, exploring the lost world of Danum Valley
High end lodging: Bunga Raya Island Resort near Kota Kinabalu
Mid-range lodging: Hotel Eden 54 in Kota Kinabalu
Get there: Flights to Kota Kinabalu are cheap from Hong Kong, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia.

vacation islands

Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)
Abstract: These sun soaked islands in Malaysia once served as a stopping off point for Malaysian traders bound for Thailand. Today, The Perhentians are a jewel in the crown of otherworldly Malaysian beaches. It is the kind of place where you could misplace an entire lifetime, bound to the gravity of simple island life.

The islands are surrounded by seas rich with biodiversity and corals, and it is one of the least expensive places to learn how to scuba dive. The snorkeling here is also top notch and some attest to its superiority over diving. Be sure to visit between April and October, when the monsoons are away. Accommodation is pretty inexpensive across the board, and it is easy to get a room for under $25 a night.

Highlights: Snorkeling with sharks, jungle trekking, and finding an appropriate stretch of white sand to waste a day or three
High end lodging: Perhentian Tuna Bay Island Resort
Mid-range lodging: Abdul’s Chalet (book early as they fill up way in advance)
Get there: Take a speed boat from Kuala Besut, which can be reached by bus from Kuala Lumpur


vacation islands

Tasmania (Australia)
Abstract: One of the last stops before Antarctica, Tassie is Australia’s wild frontier island. With about 40 percent of land being national parkland, Tasmania is a well-protected gem boasting fascinating wine regions, gigantic kelp forests and some of the most perfect beaches in the world.

While visiting, rent a car and explore the Tasmanian countryside. Be sure to spend a few days checking out the Bay of Fires on Tasmania’s northeastern coast. While it is winter down under from June to August, it is possible to enjoy off-season rates. But, if you really want to enjoy the beaches, wait until winter hits the northern hemisphere. After all, the Bay of Fires sandy curves have recently been named one of the best beaches in the world. The crystalline turquoise waters and pillow-soft sand beaches welcome travelers with their unencumbered magnificence and laid back vibe. Inland, waterfalls, mountains and Tasmanian devils await intrepid travelers.

Highlights: Bay of Fires, Tasmanian Devils, and road trips through old forests
High end lodging: Islington Hotel (Hobart) or Saffire Freycinet (Wineglass bay)
Mid-range lodging: Fountainside Hotel (Hobart)
Get there: Fly to Hobart non-stop from Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane


vacation islands

The Maldives
Abstract:
An ethereal water-nation where the highest point is less than 8 feet, the Maldives defy imagination, budgets and reality with their perfect islands and hyper-luxury resorts equipped with private yachts and planes. The islands are the kind of place where work seems unimaginable, and the “real world” feels as though it must, too, be on hold somewhere out there thousands of miles from these sun-bathed atolls.

Few places deserve a distinguished “The” prior to their name, and the Maldives are almost never uttered without the obligatory distinction. This is because they are a place unlike anywhere else. They are THE Maldives.

Highlights: Snorkeling with sea turtles, diving with Manta Rays, exploring Maldivian villages and finding the perfect beach
High end lodging: Cocoa Island Resort
Mid-range lodging: Kurumba Maldives
Get there: Flights are possible from Dubai, Colombo, Kuala Lumpur and London (Gatwick)

Galapagos (Ecuador)
Abstract: Great thinkers and artists throughout time have all had their muses. Darwin had these islands in the Pacific Ocean. Filled with giant tortoises, swimming iguanas and warm weather penguins, the Galapagos are a last bastion of wilderness smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

With new restrictions year after year, the Galapagos will continue to become less accessible and more expensive. As one of the top eco-locations globally, these wild islands hold natural treasures that can be found nowhere else on earth.

Highlights: Cruising around the islands, swimming with sea lions and bird watching
High end lodging: Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge or book a live-aboard tour with Cheeseman’s
Mid-range lodging: Book a cheap live-aboard cruise by arranging a tour locally, though the available boats are generally sub par. Organizing a trip through tour companies in Quito is a good middle ground for value.
Get there: Flights can be arranged from Quito or Guayaquil

vacation islands

Corsica (France)
Abstract: This French island is Europe’s sleeper destination. With snow-capped mountains, white sand beaches, old world citadels and the legendary GR 20 hiking trail, Corsica does many things at once and does them all incredibly well. Known as the island of beauty, it holds up this moniker with particular strength from its sandy shores to the almost 9,000-foot-high Monte Cinto.

The GR 20 hiking trail is a 15-day-long distance trail that takes travelers through some of Europe’s most stunning vistas. Walk through clouds along the backbone of Corsica, passing small refuges and bonding with other travelers. At the seaside, Corsica’s aquamarine waters do not disappoint and boast some of the best shores in Europe, including the beaches of Plage de Saleccia, Palombaggia and Santa Giulia.

Highlights: Calanche Cliffs, the perfect little island of Iles Lavezzi, trekking the island’s interior, and beaches – lots of beaches
High end lodging: Demeure Loredana
Mid-range lodging: Rocca Rossa
Get there: Take a ferry from Nice or Marseilles. In the air, Easyjet flies to Corsica from Geneva, London and Paris.

vacation islands

Palau
Abstract: With more than 250 islands and roughly 20,000 inhabitants, Palau is a sparsely populated gem of an island chain. While places like Bora Bora and Fiji get all the airtime, Palau idles by humbly, welcoming well-informed travelers to its cerulean waters and sandy beaches perched under dark limestone outcroppings.

Thousands of years ago, a bay on the island of Eil Malk slowly closed off to the surrounding ocean. As a result, the jellyfish in the lake changed. Due to a lack of natural predators in their paradisiacal enclave, the golden and moon Jellyfish of the “fifth lake” abandoned millennia of evolutionary adaptation. The translucent beings lost their ability to sting and as a result, you can swim through armies of bobbing jellyfish as though you just ate an invincibility star.

Highlights: Swimming with friendly jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake, basking on a sun soaked beach, and buying ornately carved wooden storyboards
High end lodging: Palau Pacific Resort
Mid-range lodging: Caroline’s Resort
Get there: Reach Koror, Palau by plane from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul and Guam

vacation islands

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Abstract: The largest of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix beckons travelers with tales of swashbucklers, golden beaches and old, Dutch charms. Since St. Croix is part of the United States, there is no need for a U.S. passport, and getting in is as simple as flying into Christiansted and finding the nearest beach, in which there are plenty. Beaches along Cane Bay and Buck Island are prototypes for paradise.

St. Croix has a number of old world Dutch Forts and much of the Christiansted area is stocked with preserved colonial gems and abandoned sugar mills. At dusk, take to Salt River Bay in clear kayaks not far from where the Columbus expedition ran ashore in 1493. Due to bioluminescent sea creatures, the clear kayaks become fringed with color as the water glows beneath. It feels like rowing through a microgalaxy. Dive into the dark waters and your entire body glows in the dark.

Highlights: Night swimming in the Bioluminescence of Salt River, visiting Buck Island, and exploring abandoned Dutch forts
High end lodging: Palms at Pelican Cove and The Buccaneer
Mid-range lodging: Hibiscus Beach Resort
Get there: Fly in from Puerto Rico, Miami and Atlanta

[All unattributed photos by the author]

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 4

Arthur Jones came to St. John from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to be a Caribbean kayak guide. He thought it would last a season, maybe two. Seventeen years later he’s still here and helping me explore the island’s rugged coast. “I never thought I would stay this long but … look around.” The island national park of St. John rises behind and St. Thomas – capital of the USVI — is just three miles to the west. The low hills of Tortola and the rest of the British Virgin Islands spread to the north and east, silhouetted in the morning light, appearing to go on forever. “Why would I leave?”

Pushing kayaks off Maho Beach we head out and around Whistling Cay. Winds are calm today; they can often blow 10 to 20 knots, making for challenging kayaking. Tiny, silvery baitfish jump in packs of hundreds, suggesting predators are nearby. Sure enough, just below the surface swim a dozen 30-pound tarpon and above circles a gang of pelicans.

I ask Arthur if he can explain a mystery of nature I’ve long wondered about: Why don’t pelicans break their necks when they slam beak-first onto the hard surface of the water? “Surprisingly, they do, but not for the reasons you might think. A scientist once explained that all those years of impacting eventually affect their eyes, which go bad. And then they die misjudging the water because they can’t see so well anymore. They hit a rock or hit the water too early or too late, and snap their necks. Hard to believe, but true.”

As we paddle we hear the green turtle break the surface before we see it. “There are lots of turtles out here, both in and out of the national park boundaries, but especially inside the park. Somehow I think they’ve figured out it’s a good place not to get hunted.”

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On Whistling Cay the hills are steep, spiked with cactus. A solitary beach is accessible through the breaking surf, perfect for resting the kayaks and snorkeling among the coral. On the far side of the island is the shell of an old Danish custom’s house; a similar one is on Great Thatch Island, in the BVI, just a couple miles away. “Apparently the guys manning the signal fires used to get bored and just signal each other,” says Arthur.

It’s changing though. “See those houses there, on the hill?” he asks, pointing back towards the main land of St. John. “None of those was here when I came.” Fortunately the natural world here is less changed.

The next day with a rented 4×4, necessary due to the steep hills and muddy paths that take over when the roads run out, I visit all of the island that is accessible by road. From East End to Saltpond Bay and on to Great Lameshur Bay, all surrounding the big Coral Bay; this is the less populated, more rugged, wilder side of the wild island.

Where the main town of Cruz Bay’s streets are narrow and tightly packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, the road that winds through the island’s only other town of any substance — Coral Bay — is pocked with a couple small commercial developments and a handful of roadside shacks selling fish and vegetables.

My research into what makes this end of the island tick begins – and ends, much later in the day — at the bar at Skinny Legs, just past the Emmaus Moravian Church and on the road to the village of Palestina. The bar on weekday afternoon is amazingly packed. Named for the identifying mark of its two Boston-based founders, the open-air room boasts a half-dozen TV’s turned to sports and tables for 50 burger munchers and beer swillers. Jimmy Buffet is on the stereo; this is clearly the stop for both expats who’ve already made their escape to the island and visitors desirous of doing exactly the same one-day. Lots of big-sunburned guys with ponytails who long ago opted for the easier pace of island life. One weak coffee, a club soda and one very good Kamikaze later, I’m back on the road, promising to return for the baseball playoffs (available only in Spanish) later that night.

Following the bartender’s recommendation, I hike the Drunk Bay Trail to the Salt Pond at the island’s eastern end. During dry season its floor of muddy red algae creates a thick layer of sea salt and locals come daily to collect it for their home tables. At Lameshur Bay the road ends and a long, winding foot trail leads to and joins Reef Bay Trail, where evidence of the early Taino Indians exists in petroglyphs carved into the stone. As I hike, island cats are everywhere and a pair of mongoose sprint across the road on the trail of big lizards that have gone ahead, trundling through big muddy puddles. Land crabs idle along the road.

Back in the car I veer off the road at a sign announcing Concordia Estates. Concordia is the sister resort to Maho Bay Camps, boasting slightly more sophisticated tents with views out over Rams Head Point. The point, formed by tectonic plates grinding together beneath the ocean surface where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea adjoin, looking out over Flanagan’s Passage towards Tortola. To the east, Nanny Point juts into the sea, covered with soon-to-flower barrel cactus, big red buds popping out of the thick-necked cacti. Geologically this is the oldest rock on St. John. “St. John’s gets a tremor each day,” says manager Jennifer Pierce, who left Maine and an organic farming business a decade ago for the ability to swim in a warm ocean every day. “I’ve had the earth move significantly enough that my furniture has been dancing in my room.” Probably not a selling point these days, given the tremblers that seem to be rocking the world corner by corner.

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 3

I spent one rare rainy day in St. John with Jane Johannis, who couldn’t have been happier about the dampness outside her simple house. “When it rains like this I put out every pot and pan I have, in order to keep my plants watered,” she says.

A native of the island, at 80-plus years old her skin as beautiful as fine Italian leather, eyes reduced to slits from years spent tending her garden under a hot sun, she wears a long pink dress and flip-flops. Her hair, remarkably free of gray itself, is pulled back in a tight bun. One of seven children, with nine kids of her own, she has lived most of her life in the small island town of Coral Bay. “You could say I’m surrounded by family all the time, yes,” she says, though she’s not against the occasional off-island foray and has been to New York and LOVES Las Vegas. “I do manage to play the slot machines,” she smiles, “since I’m not a drinker I need to have something to do!” But more than anything she loves her island life and her gardens.
Her expertise is the herbal medicines she finds everywhere in the bush, giving the occasional class but counseling her friends and neighbors for free. “People now they too easily run right to the pharmacy when they need something. They tell me, ‘It’s easier.’ I don’t agree. Me, I never go to the pharmacy. The doctor? He’s the last person I turn to!”

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What does she find in scrub and forests? Black wattle for fighting colds. Aloe for burns. Eye bright, which is – believe it or not – makes your eyes stronger. Sour sop used as a sleeping aid. Bastard okra, boiled and used to relieve burning eyes. Breadfruit leaves, used in an infusion to cure high blood pressure and lime leaves boiled with salt to fight aging. “Those are the ones I rely on most these days,” she laughs.

She’s not wild about some of the changes on her island, like the cost of living and taxes both of which are going up. “Even Coral Bay is changing, with more shops, more people, more everyt’ing,” she says. I’m headed to her small town the next day and ask for a recommendation on a good place to eat, the best places to hike. “Go to Salt Pond, for sure. That’s where we collect the best sea salt. The best restaurant would be Lucy’s, but she died the other day at 93, of a stroke. I’m going to her funeral tomorrow. So that restaurant be closed for a private party. But you might stop by anyway. Probably be the best party of the year!”

Jon Bowermaster: Dispatches from St. John – Day 2

Given its history of wildness, the 114-tent-and-boardwalk resort known as Maho Bay Camps is a perfect fit on St. John, as close to a true eco-resort as any I’ve seen around the world. Which surprises no one more than Stanley Selengut, the camp’s owner who put up the initial 18 tents in 1976. “That phrase – eco-resort – didn’t exist then,” says a longtime Maho Bay manager once explained to me. “Stanley and a bunch of his friends were down here and someone said, ‘This would be a great place for some tent platforms.’ Typical for Stanley, it may not have been his idea, he was the one that figured out how to get things done.”

In these days when any hotel that encourages you not to wash your towel every day wraps itself in a green banner, Maho Bay Camps is the real thing. Recycle-reuse-reduce is its watch-phrase. Showers are communal; potable water accessible in just a couple locations in the 14-acre compound; the restaurant is self-serve; urinals water-less; much of the energy needed to run 114 tents, reception, restaurant, internet solar-produced. In its art studios –open to all guests — glass is recycled by the glass-blowing studio, waste paper by the textile-makers and aluminum cans turned into pendants.

There is definitely a hippie-ish feel to the place, from the tie-dyed batiks made in the textile room to the “volunteers” who come for month-long stints, trading work for a free place to stay. During high season the place fills with families who’ve been coming now for two generations.

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I stay in tent-cabin, A-6, anchoring the far end of the boardwalk, closest to the beach at Maho Bay. It’s perfect for me. Through cracks in the deck flooring I can see the jungle below. The stove is propane, the refrigerator an Igloo cooler filled with ice, and table and chairs made of plastic. A box fan whirs, thanks to 24-hour electricity, necessary to keep the mosquitoes at bay. As I write, a frigate bird lands atop a palm just outside my window and white-tailed tropicbirds and brown boobys flit and soar. Inside, small anole lizards — gecko-like, with colorful, leaf-like dewlaps — do push ups in front of me, reminding me that this is their territory.

Letting the screen door bang behind, I find the head of Maho Goat Trail and wander down to the beach. From here it’s a mile-long walk to the start of one of the most beautiful of the park’s 22 official trails (there are countless unofficial ones, the former detailed in a variety of guidebooks and park service handouts, the latter marked with stone cairns and cryptic, handmade signs). I’m open to following any trail here since the only native mammals on the island are bats and there are no venomous snakes. The only surprise in the woods is the occasional wandering deer or donkey.

Later that one I hike down Cinnamon Bay Trail lured by its reputation for having an incredible lookout over Maho Bay. Inside the forest is dark, tropical, intensely green thanks to recent rains. The trail is narrow and steep to the downhill; you don’t want to slip. Strangler figs, kapok, cocoa, mango and bay rum trees are thick and tall, the undergrowth heavy with star-like teyer palms, sweet lime and anthurium. Turpentine trees – what locals have dubbed tourist tree – expose a pink skin beneath peeling bark. Guts, natural rocky drainages criss-cross the trail channeling water downhill; man-made swales – lines of strategically placed rocks across the trail – are angled to divert the rainwater and prevent erosion.

As I walk down, slowly to avoid slipping, a solitary black bat leads me. Small lizards, imported to the island centuries ago to help kill insects, run across the trail; a variety of snails meander. Yellow & black bananaquits dart among the trees, many of which are home to giant termite balls built in the low crotches. Halfway down the 45-minute hike the trees open up, exposing a western view from the island, over Cinnamon Bay to Trunk Bay and beyond.

As I walk I try to make out the stone terraces that once divvied the island into 100 sugarcane plantations. Everything was a clear-cut then, except for the mangoes and cocoa tree. Men, women and children slaved over the farms, in tropical heat.

At the bottom of the trail, just across from the long sand beach at Cinnamon Bay, sit the ruins of a two hundred year old plantation. Buildings, like the terraces, were constructed from stone, brain coral and occasionally imported red and yellow bricks from England and Germany. Tall stone columns, still standing, at one time supported the big room used to store brown sugar, molasses, barrels of rum and crushed and dried sugarcane stalks. There was a boiling and distillery house next door, where they used to make St. John’s Bay Rum (cologne, not alcohol!). Sitting on one of the stonewalls, sweating from the hike, nearly meditating thanks to the quiet of the forest, I can almost see and hear the young children climbing the bay rum trees, carefully stripping the leaves, putting them into sacks and carrying them off to be distilled.

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Hotels in the U.S. Virgin Islands offer 25 cent nightly rate

The U.S. Virgin Islands are going to be featured on a newly designed quarter and to celebrate, hotels around the islands are offering up rooms at 25 cents – yes, just 25 cents! – per night.

Of course, there is some fine print to the offer. Guests will still be responsible for taxes of 7%, resort fees, and government taxes of 8%, so the total ends up being a litte more than the 75 cents you might immediately assume when learning of the offer (packages I checked totaled around $100 in taxes and fees). Nine different hotels are participating in the promotion, including the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort and the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort and Spa.

The offer is valid for travel now through December 15, though each resort may have its own blackout dates. There is a three night limit for the 25 cent rate and air-inclusive packages must be booked through the BookIt website. Guests who book the package do get a few perks – they’ll receive a $25 activities credit, $25 dining credit and a commemorative quarter.

The other caveat: you’ve got to act fast. There are a limited number of rooms available and you must book by November 2.

[via Budget Travel]