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]

Labor Day island getaways from Wanderfly

labor day islandLabor Day is fast approaching along with the official end of summer. If you haven’t had enough sun yet, maybe it’s time for one more weekend of lying on the beach, fruity cocktail and fun book in hand? We asked our friends at Wanderfly.com, a web travel tool that helps you choose a vacation spot, for some Labor Day island getaways offering deals for the long weekend.

Domestic: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head is a 45-minute drive from Savannah, Georgia (one of our favorite romantic destinations), with miles of public Atlantic beaches, dolphin cruises, and renowned golf courses. Not bringing your private yacht? ResortQuest will pay for your gas ($150 credit card) on Labor Day stays of 3 nights or more, plus free tennis and discounted golf.

Caribbean: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Feeling decisive? If you can book by tomorrow, you can save 35% on stays at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas. They’ll also throw in a free sunset sail and cocktails at their beach bar. Summer is the low season for most Caribbean islands, but a tropical weekend knows no season. Check out more of Wanderfly’s picks for St. Thomas here.

Europe: Iceland
So Iceland might not be known for sandy beaches or fruity cocktails, but relaxing in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon works pretty well too. Iceland Air is offering a free stopover in Iceland on flights booked to European cities such as Stockholm and Amsterdam. Just have time for one destination? Reykjavik is only about 5 hours from the East Coast with direct flights from New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Orlando, as well as Minneapolis and Seattle.

If you’ve had enough sun, Wanderfly has plenty of other travel ideas. Visit their site and tell them what you’re looking for (with interests from art to extreme adventure) and how much you want to spend and they’ll give you personalized recommendations. Stay tuned for more Labor Day travel ideas on Gadling.

Hilton Head Island photo courtesy Flickr user Lee Coursey.

10 great romantic destinations

Some people like to travel for food. Others prefer to travel for sun. Still others enjoy traveling so they can share a secluded destination with a loved one. Here are ten romantic destinations for couples of all ages to enjoy… together.

Verona, Italy
Located in the northeast part of Italy near the Swiss border, Verona is most famously known as the setting of William Shakespeare’s passionate Romeo and Juliet. Many tourists and lovers travel to Verona simply to see the balcony that has a historical connection to the fictional characters of that famous play. The covered passageway that leads to the balcony is covered in graffiti and letters from visitors asking Juliet for luck in love.

Visitors may also go googly-eyed with a romantic stroll over the Castelvecchio Bridge, along Verona’s winding Adige River. Be sure to walk all the way to St. Peter’s Castle for an awe-inspiring view of the city shrouded in sunset.

St John, USVI
There are numerous secretive retreats in the Virgin Islands, but Moon Cottage is said to be the Caribbean’s “most romantic villa.” Located on the island of St. John, Moon Cottage offers lovers a hidden getaway and is the perfect place for couples to expand their relationship. Amenities include a private heated pool, walking distance to the beach, and complete seclusion.

For those seeking to mix some adventure with their passion, consider a day-trip to Jost van Dyke, the “New York of the Virgin Islands,” and home to (quite possibly) the world’s most amazing bar.
Kauai, Hawaii, USA
Routinely selected as among the world’s best beaches, Kauai is the oldest and the most northern of all the Hawaiian Islands; it’s also the least populated of the islands. Kauai was given the nickname of the “Garden Isle” because of its lush tropical forests. This is ideal for couples because lovers can spend time together in a quieter, more secluded setting, unlike other, busier islands in Hawaii.

Though dining options on Kauai may be a bit unromantic, there are countless ways to wile away serene hours in Kauai with a loved one.

Los Roques, Venezuela

Los Roques is great for lovers, because the secluded beaches offer the chance for couples to enjoy the sun… and each other.

Los Roques is Venezuela’s archipelago in the Caribbean. It’s most famous for its beautiful beaches — and even more beautiful water. This is a great place for lovers to visit because of the limitless secluded beaches offer the chance for couples to enjoy the sun… and each other.

In fact, the most popular activity on Los Roques is to be dropped off in the morning with a cooler filled with food and drink, and just spend the day exploring the uninhabited island on which you (and your partner) find yourself.

Napa Valley, California, USA
Famous for its wineries and cozy bed and breakfasts, Napa is the perfect couple’s getaway.

Lovers can visit local wineries, take tours, have dinner in various restaurants with cuisine ranging from French to Italian, then cozy up next to each other in front of a fire at one of the many local bed and breakfasts.

Venice, Italy
Located in northern Italy, this city is best known for its gondolas and canals. Lovers can take a tour of the city while sitting on velvet seats and Persian rugs. Though not the quickest way around the city, a gondola ride is certainly the most romantic.

An estimated 20 million people visit the sinking city every year, but Conde Nast has an excellent overview of the city, which includes details about disappearing within Venice’s ancient walls with your lover.

San Luis Obispo, California, USA

San Luis Obispo, along the Central Coast of California, is home to the famous Madonna Inn. The Madonna Inn has 110 rooms, each decorated with a different theme; there’s also a European style pool and a beautiful day spa, and it’s all located just minutes from San Luis Obispo. Couples can enjoy unique food, art and culture in town, or they can visit the Hearst Castle.

Paris, France
Paris offers couples seemingly endless options: Lovers can visit the Eiffel Tower, see a ballet or opera show, dine on fine French cuisine by candle light, take photographs to share later, or visit the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.

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New York City, New York, USA
This is the ideal romantic getaway for the couple that likes to be active. Lovers can catch a show on Broadway, take a carriage ride through Central Park, and then grab a coffee in Rockefeller Center. The city is full of restaurants and fabulous hotels for couples as well, including many romantic places and bars.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
All-Inclusive is the way to go. Many resorts in Cabo San Lucas offer an all-inclusive package. This is great for couples because not only do you get a room for two, but food and beverages are all included. Lovers can enjoy the beaches and night-life without any hassle.

If you’re thinking about Cabo as a destination, be sure to remember that at least one Cabo hotel offers in-room aphrodisiacs to help couples set the mood.

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Of course, romance is what you make it. You don’t need to be in one of these cities to enjoy a romantic weekend with your lover. While these destinations help set the mood, nothing coos romance like simply paying unending attention to your significant other.

Maho Bay Camps: A true eco-resort in St John, USVI

If waking to the sounds of thrumping tree frogs and the gentle sloshing of waves kissing a sugary beach — not to mention one of the most amazing sunrise views in the hemisphere — appeals to you, you need to move Maho Bay Camps to the top of your travel short list immediately. All this, and it’s a truly “green” resort, too.

Roughly 1100 miles southeast of Miami sits one of America’s most precious resources: the United States Virgin Islands. Named by Christopher Columbus for Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, the former mouthful “Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes” has mercifully been shortened to the Virgin Islands, but it still casts the same kind of mythical charm over both first-time and regular visitors alike.

Today, the US Virgin Islands consist of three main islands: St. Thomas, known for its cruise-ship-friendly mega-port, Charlotte Amalie; St Croix, a (largely) working-class island boasting some excellent scuba diving; and St John, 75% of which is national park and therefore: pristine, lush, verdant. Think: America’s jungle.

Considering how untouched St John is, it makes sense for the island to host “green” hotels. In 1976 — long before the phrase “eco-resort” even existed — a visionary named Stanley Selengut decided untrammeled St John needed a self-sufficient hotel integrated seamlessly into the natural vegetation. To that end, he set about creating Maho Bay Camps. Today, Maho’s resort shines as perhaps the single finest example of an ecologically-friendly, low-impact resort in the world. Moreover, given its unspoiled, undeveloped location, this place is truly a hidden gem.

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On the northwest edge of St John, overlooking idyllic Maho Bay — and the widest stretch of beach on the entire island — Maho Bay Camps are essentially numerous canvas-sided tent-cabins framed with composite lumber. In order to harmonize with the environment — rather than simply replace it — Maho’s tent-cabins are built onto raised 16′ x16′ platforms, and all the buildings, from the admin offices to the restaurant (at right), are connected by nearly three miles of raised walkways to prevent vegetation from being trampled. In fact, ground cover and other plant and animal life flourish beneath the raised walkways and tent-cabins, and the trees and shrubs grow emphatically around both, making the camp feel like a natural extension of the hillside.

For those who think “eco-resorts” have to be uncomfortable or primitive, let’s dispel that myth right now: Maho’s 114 tent-cabins are, while simple, more than adequate for comfortable, long-term living. In fact, each tent-cabin has —

  • electricity and a fan
  • two beds and a sofa
  • a propane stove and cookware
  • a lock box for securing valuables
  • an ice chest and storage containers for drinking water
  • killer views of a diamond-tipped bay
Need to know:

* Rates in off-season (May 1 – Dec 15) run $80/night. Rates in-season rise to $130-135/night.

* Guests need to bring two padlocks (one for the door to their tent-cabin and one for their room’s lockbox). Guests are also advised to bring: mosquito repellent, beach towels, and a flashlight.

What the tent-cabins do not have is running water or en suite restroom facilities (though their sister properties, Concordia Eco-Tents and Harmony Apartments, both offer this). To shower or use the toilet, guests visit one of several shared washrooms. Cleaned regularly and sprinkled liberally throughout the property, shared facilities are not the inconvenience one might think (though, admittedly, they do get muggy). Other ecologically-sensitive practices the resort has established include:

  1. recycling 100% of aluminum cans, glass, and clear plastic bottles (including using some of the glass in the on-site artists’ studio)
  2. installing rain water catchments that collect 345,000 gallons of rainwater per year, for use in the laundry and restroom facilities
  3. reusing 2000-7000 gallons of “gray water” per day as irrigation for the adjacent terraced orchard
  4. operating aeration tanks to break down wastewater
  5. saving 12,000-15,000 gallons of water per year with waterless urinals
  6. running high-efficiency photovoltaic roof panels provide energy for lights, appliances and other equipment
  7. morphing “trash” as diverse as garbage bags, old automobiles, ketchup bottles and light bulbs
To reach Maho Bay:

Fly into neighboring St Thomas (there are non-stop flights daily out of Ft Lauderdale, New York, and Baltimore). On the ground, take a cab to the ferry at Red Hook ($10/person), and then take the ferry to St John’s Cruz Bay ($5/person). In Cruz Bay, look for Frett’s Taxi, which runs a shuttle service to the camp ($13/person).

But the real reason to visit this resort isn’t to engage in recycling. The real reason, of course, is to relax and enjoy yourself. In addition to stunning views from each tent-cabin, the resort offers a variety of activities, including:

  • various water sports, such as snorkeling (turtles frequent a reef an easy 10 minute swim from the beach); scuba diving; sailing; and sea kayaking (Whistling Cay is an uninhabited island in the bay, perfect for picnics);
  • a variety of art classes, yoga, and massage;
  • land-based excursions, like hiking trips to preserved ruins (both self-guided and, um, guide-guided);
  • and of course, just 118 steps from the main boardwalk, there’s a large white beach spilling onto a sparkling aquamarine bay. If the dozen-or-so folks sunning on the beach seems oppressive, within 10 minutes, you can be sitting on Francis Bay — and probably have that beach exclusively to yourself for the bulk of that day.

In short, Maho Bay’s eco-resort is comfortable and thoughtful, discrete and beautiful. Enjoying one of the tents on this fabulous property will not only allow you to get as close as possible to enjoying nature — it’ll actually help you protect it.

Additional resources:

UPDATE: Maho Bay’s lease expires in 2011, and according to Selengut, “I can’t believe there are only two years remaining [on the lease]. When I signed the lease in 1974 thirty-seven years seemed an eternity. Thirty-five years flew by and now we must close Maho in July of 2011.”

Hope remains that the Trust for Public Land will be successful in their efforts to purchase Maho’s 14 acres from the private owners. However, as the time draws near, we must assume that Maho will close its tent flaps at the stroke of midnight, July 31, 2011.

Fortunately, this means there’s still time for you to visit … but you’d better hurry.