The Isle of Skye and Maui (above) are among the most beautiful and memorable islands in the world. // © 2014 Thinkstock
There is nothing wrong with the collective image we have of an island vacation — colorful cocktails, white sand, bright sun and clear blue beaches have been pleasing vacation-goers for years. But when it comes to the world’s selection of water-surrounded landmasses, there’s actually a surprising amount of variety.
Some islands are their own small countries, with locals who practice the traditions of their ancestors without much disturbance from mainlanders. Others just feel like their own countries — they’re major cities, where the majority of the action takes place miles away from the coast. Most islands, though, offer some of the most gorgeous views of nature — and at some of the most luxurious properties in the world. They’re also full of geological wonders, cultural artifacts, unique food and drink, endemic wildlife and, yes, some of the world’s best beaches, too.
Secluded, busy, tropical, urban — we like it all in our islands. Following are the TravelAge West staff picks for some of the top islands worth visiting.
Bora Bora (French Polynesia)
With thatched-roof overwater bungalows, a crystal-clear lagoon and Mount Otemanu as a constant backdrop, it’s hard not to fall head over heels for Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Feed the friendly black-tip reef sharks, take a jet ski for a spin or, better yet, relax in your private infinity pool with a glass of French bubbly. — Skye Mayring
Barely touched by mega-tourism and mega-yachts due to the 1986 Coast Law, the French island of Corsica offers truly unspoiled views of the Mediterranean. Spend the afternoon walking along the French island’s fortress in Bonifacio for unreal views of dramatic limestone cliffs jutting over rich cobalt waters. For those who prefer to eat crepes and drink Pietra, Corsica’s own beer, the island offers several impeccable white-sand beaches and plenty of open-air cafes. — Mindy L. Poder
Easter Island (Chile)
An island steeped in mystery, Easter Island intrigues travelers and historians alike. There is nothing more awe-inspiring than visiting the immense stone statues that the Rapa Nui, the island’s original settlers, carried across the island to their current positions. Debates abound over what led the Rapa Nui to undertake such a difficult task as well as what led to the downfall of their civilization. — Megan Brickwood
Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
Squatting down next to a century-old Galapagos tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz brings your 7th grade science textbook to life. Block out a few hours of a day to simply observe the creatures as they lumber about, then trek to Tortuga Bay later for more animal spotting. Marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and blue-footed boobies love this pristine spot, and people are forbidden from swimming here in order to protect the waters for the animals. — Chelsee Lowe
There’s more to Great Britain than soccer and fish and chips. Whether you sample whiskies in the Scottish Highlands, walk in the footsteps of The Beatles in Liverpool, tour ancient Welsh castles or enjoy a “cream tea” the Cornish way, Great Britain offers something for the connoisseur in all of us. — S.M.
Hawaii Island (U.S.)
Nicknamed the Big Island, this is a land of superlatives. As the largest Hawaiian isle, Hawaii Island boasts the world’s tallest sea mountain and one of the most active volcanoes. Adventure abounds, whether it's during a manta ray dive or a lava trail hike in the footsteps of ancient royalty. Accommodations are equally diverse, from rustic lodges to luxurious resorts. — Marty Wentzel
High tea and driving on the left side of the street? No, this isn’t Old Blighty, but rather a Special Administrative Region of China, which was under British Colonial rule for 156 years. Head to Hong Kong for delectable dim sum, stunning skylines, night markets, horse racing, unbeatable shopping and cultural celebrations that take place all year long. — S.M.
Iles des Saintes (France)
In the French Antilles near Guadeloupe, Iles des Saintes is a scrap of Normandy and Brittany, populated by Viking look-alikes. Drystone walls divide the little fields, and the well-fed goats wander through the stony lanes, begging for potato chips on the little beaches. Serene, mellow and seemingly straight out of a van Gogh painting, Iles des Saintes is far from the usual Caribbean island. — Marilyn Green
Visitors to the Emerald Isle will be amazed by the country’s seemingly infinite greenery. From its rocky bluffs and historic castles to rolling hills dotted with sheep, Ireland’s landscape makes a stunning backdrop. After a journey through the countryside, Dublin offers a warm welcome at its many friendly local pubs — but anyone committed to a taste of classic Irish culture must head to the Guinness Storehouse, which offers stunning panoramic views of the city in addition to its signature brew. — M.B.
Isla Mujeres (Mexico)
Isla Mujeres is a small island about eight miles from Cancun, Mexico, in the Caribbean Sea. Despite its relatively close proximity to the excitement of Cancun, a visit to Isla Mujeres makes visitors feel like they are worlds away in a remote Caribbean paradise. Travelers can visit Isla Mujeres via ferry as a day-trip from Cancun and enjoy the island’s many watersports before heading back, or they can to stay on Isla Mujeres and get a true taste of the island’s easy-going pace. Whatever travelers choose, they will not regret experiencing where the Caribbean meets Mexico. — Kenneth Shapiro
Isle of Skye (Scotland)
Scotland’s Isle of Skye in the Hebrides is shaped like a bird on the wing, with its mist-covered hills and beautiful lochs, but what defines it most is magic: Skye is where myth and everyday reality come together. The island is mysterious, moody and permeated with magical stories and sacred stones. — M.G.
In Korea, locals often refer to the nation's largest island, Jeju-do, as the Hawaii of Korea. While the island is different enough to make Westerners wonder at the comparison, Jeju-do is definitely worth a visit. The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of its most famous attractions is Halla-san, a dormant volcano and Korea's tallest mountain. The island is covered with a number of lava tubes, which form some of the largest caves in the world and are a popular place for visitors to explore. — Monica Poling
Kangaroo Island (Australia)
If Kangaroo Island sounds like the stuff of children’s fairytales, that’s because it is — 20 minutes after landing in the continental island’s small airport, you’re likely to come across koalas, wallabies and, yes, kangaroos. In addition to the bush that the animals live in, there are gorgeous beaches, beautiful geological sites such as the aptly named Remarkable Rocks, a very hospitable local community and a selection of tasty treats, including the island’s signature wine, pure Ligurian honey and Haloumi cheese. — M.L.P.
Name your sport and Kauai delivers. Urban sprawl takes a back seat to lush environs, inviting river and sea kayaking, shoreline hiking, rainforest ziplining, horseback adventures and backroads exploring — for starters. Stay in an upscale resort or pitch a tent. Either way, Hawaii’s self-proclaimed Garden Isle is blooming with adventure. — M.W.
Koh Tao (Thailand)
Less touristy than neighboring islands Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, Koh Tao is a haven for laid-back backpackers and scuba diving junkies looking to swim with speckled stingrays, sharks and sea turtles. With such great diving conditions and a large number of PADI dive shops, Koh Tao is also a popular place to earn certification. But watch out — the crystalline waters might spoil divers for future underwater experiences. — C.L.
Koror Island (Palau)
Say the word ‘Palau,’ and there’s a good chance that most people won't even know that it’s a country, let alone be able to find it on a map. Most of Palau's main resorts are on Koror Island, which is also a jumping off point for the mostly uninhabited Rock Islands, one of the world's best places for diving and snorkeling. Planning a visit? Be sure to visit the Koror Jail, where the inmates are the leading producers of elaborate wooden storyboards, the island's top souvenir item. — M.P.
Most visitors don't get beyond Honshu, the biggest of the country’s four major islands. Kyushu, Japan's southern-most island, however, offers an entirely distinctive experience. The active seismic activity here offers a variety of tourism sites, including the Sakurajima volcano, which can be seen erupting several times daily. Ibusuki, in the western part of the area, features unique hot, black sand, famous for its healing properties. Japanese people flock here to lie in the sand — and be fully covered by it. They follow this with a relaxing soak in a naturally heated hot spring. — M.P.
It’s easy to claim that Lanai is one of the most exclusive Hawaiian Islands — to get there, guests take a small plane from one of the other islands, and there are only three hotels on the entire island, which happen to be some of the best in the world. There are also two championship golf courses. But there is nothing snooty about Lanai. The island has a laid-back, old-Hawaii vibe and feels like a small town where everyone knows everybody. For visitors who think they know Hawaii, a visit to Lanai will show them a side of the islands they can’t find anywhere else. — K.S.
Manhattan may be an island, but with more than 1.6 million residents and infinite iconic sights, most travelers treat it as its own country, staying for one week or more and making return visits. Times Square and the Statue of Liberty may be requisite stops for first-timers, but a second (or third) trip allows guests to experience it more like a local, scarfing down street meat on the way to an off-Broadway play or spending a full day people-watching on The Great Lawn or Sheep Meadow in Central Park. — C.L.
Hawaii's Valley Isle has a split personality. It's cosmopolitan with high-end resorts, nightlife, world-class chefs and designer shops. But it’s also casual with cozy vacation cottages, stargazing spots, mom-and-pop eateries and unspoiled beaches. The constant is its natural richness, from humpback whales just offshore during winter to brilliant sunrises atop Haleakala volcano. – M.W.
Thanks to its natural beauty and accessibility, St. Lucia is one of the most popular wedding and honeymoon destinations for U.S. couples. The island’s iconic volcanic peaks, the Pitons, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most outrageous places to view them is from an open-air “sanctuary” at Jade Mountain Resort. — S.M.
In a nation of more than 300 islands, it's pretty hard to pick a favorite, but Taveuni, Fiji's third-largest island is a clear contender. Nicknamed the Garden Island for its lush greenery and tropical flora, Taveuni is a paradise within a paradise. With only 9,000 residents, the island has a laid-back vibe but still provides some "big city" trappings, including restaurants and shopping. Here, you can literally be in two places at the same time, as the International Date Line cleanly bisects the island with the requisite marker delineating the island's two sides. — M.P.
Vancouver Island (Canada)
Located in British Columbia, Canada, Vancouver Island is one of the largest islands in the world and is home to the capital of British Columbia, Victoria. While much of Vancouver Island is made up of beautiful woods and coastline — which can be experienced in places such as Tofino and Uclelet — most visitors will stick to exploring Victoria’s charming streets, stylish boutiques and homey restaurants. True to its namesake, Victoria is the most British-feeling city in Canada, which gives the city a distinctive and sophisticated ambience. — K.S.