Who doesn’t love the island life? Whether you want to lounge poolside with a coconut in hand, lose yourself in a book, or head inland for a rugged adventure, our oceans are occupied by a near-endless list of best islands to visit.
If you’re like me – an island addict with restless feet – you’ll be looking for entertainment after your stint soaking in the sun, and I don’t mean animation in the hotel bar.
Think unique island stays where ‘the other guests’ are thousands of penguins. Hiking atop dramatic jagged peaks which crown volcanic interiors. Or even just delving deeper into a culture by attending a carnival. Let’s be honest; these are experiences it’s rare to find on your typical luxury island escape – but who said the best islands to visit had to focus on lazy days topping up your tan?
So, join me on a journey to some of the most beautiful islands in the world, all offering that little something extra. While you won’t see the likes of Bora Bora and Tahiti in French Polynesia here, you’ll find plenty of islands ripe for adventures, wildlife, culture, history and food.
Oh, amore mio. Sicily is hands-down the best island to visit in Italy – but perhaps not for the reasons you think.
Why visit? The White Lotus has recently put the Mediterranean’s largest island on many a bucket list. The luxurious resort (it’s bookable, by the way), alluring soft sands, and obsession with ceramic heads did the sales pitch, sending sofa detectives worldwide into a spin about Sicily island vacations.
Yet, while we all still have that theme tune raving in our heads, let’s look at what else is available on this unique island. Sicily isn’t only sun, sand and sex – although the cast certainly showed us all three. It’s both one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and also a living time capsule for human civilisations.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines – and all the others who have been and gone; Sicily has been seducing seafarers for millennia. Their stories, flavours, architectural styles and sects have stacked high, creating something of an open-air museum.
In Syracuse, the remains of both Roman and Greek Amphitheaters coexist. At Villa Romana del Casale, you’ll find what UNESCO call “the finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world”. And, as you traverse atop the Valley of the Temples, ancient Greek architecture transports you to some six centuries before Christ himself.
Then you’ll meet the two main cities, both boasting distinctive dispositions. Capital Palermo is the sexy, sassy and sometimes overwhelming brother. On its boisterous backstreets, Ballaro Market will introduce you to the island’s finest flavours. Street food staples include arancini and pani câ meusa. On the flip side, sister Catania is a little more ‘classical Italian’ in demeanour. That is, of course, until you glimpse UNESCO-listed Mount Etna – one of the world’s most active volcanoes – providing a bellowing backdrop to her Baroque.
Just like those myth-laden ceramic heads, be prepared to start a passionate love affair with Sicily. Hopefully, with just your mind-blown rather than total decapitation.
Europe hidden gems
Best experiences: Relax on the silver-screen-worthy sands of Cefalù, a magnificent medieval coastal spot packed with beach clubs. Hike to the top of Mount Etna. Party all night in Palermo after exploring the city’s iconic architecture, such as the golden glitz of the Norman Palace. Then, get your UNESCO fix at Villa Romana del Casale, the Valley of the Temples or any of the 7 World Heritage Sites on the menu. Speaking of menus, it’s always time to eat another signature Sicilian dish. Caponata, cannoli and Pasta alla Norma are solid starting points.
If you’re craving a Caribbean vacation full of relaxing beaches, rum punches and luxury resorts – you’re in the wrong place. Well, not precisely; Dominica has those too. But here, in what has been nicknamed ‘The Nature Island’, days are much more about spine-tingling canyoning, epic hikes, exotic bird watching and black sand beaches.
Why visit? Firstly, to avoid any confusion, this is not the Dominican Republic. This magnificent nation is The Commonwealth of Dominica, one of the Caribbean’s best islands to visit for an adventure-ripe rugged escape. Secondly, why not?
With a distinct lack of luxury resorts – although some high-end eco-minded options are appearing – it’s all about palm-fringed beach bungalows and low-impact stays. There are even some camping spots for those tackling multi-day hikes. This leads the island to organically invite a more laid-back crowd, where the untouched terrain speaks louder than resort amenities.
Jungle-shrouded roads wind through the waterfall-strewn interior. Cyan waters lap on sparkling slate-coloured shores. High above, lofty lakes reach – and meet – the clouds. At every turn, fresh fruit and laughter are abundant, but there’s a noticeable absence of tourists. That is, until cruise season when seemingly every local turns guide-cum-driver for 8 hours and day trippers can drown the main attractions.
Another must-visit in Dominica is the Kalinago Territory. This area of the island is reserved and owned by the Indigenous Kalinago people, who were the country’s residents prior to colonisation. Here, you’ll learn about the traditions and culture of the Kalinago people and their home – Waitukubuli – as the beautiful island was called before the European invasion.
With the return of festivals in 2023 and the launch of the first ever direct flight from the USA (Miami), it’s shaping up to be a good year for Dominica. Previously, and still, for people from elsewhere, the only way to arrive at the tiny adrenaline-inducing airport is with a connection through a neighbouring island such as Antigua – the runway is that short.
Best experiences: Take a boat trip to spot the resident sperm whale population mingling with dolphins. Hike through the almost never-ending rainforest to spot rare endemic birds. Launch yourself from a questionable crevice into a tumbling waterfall on a Caribbean canyoning adventure. Then, take a lazy and rickety boat tour inland down the Indian River to sip on bush-rums in a tranquil setting. Your captain might even have been an extra on Pirates of the Caribbean – which was filmed here – providing a potential serenade of silver screen secrets as you glide. 11/10 would recommend it – hands down one of the best islands to visit.
The Falkland Islands
If you are seeking a remote, rugged, penguin-peppered escape, look no further than the hauntingly beautiful Falkland Islands. On these unique islands, it’s just you, your thoughts, and thousands of flightless birds.
Why visit? Located at the bottom of South America, a regular stop by vessels en route to Antarctica further south, The Falkland Islands are home to some 500,000 pairs of breeding penguins. Five species can be found across the archipelago; they are all quite the sight to behold.
The penguins are not the only wildlife credential worth photographing in The Falkland Islands; albatrosses, gulls, pintails, dolphins, seals, sea lions, whales, and more vying for your attention.
With a barren landscape – there’s barely a single tree down here – and the reminders of war, at first glance, it appears a bleak place to visit. Yet, the almost untouched way of life, vast expanses of shrub and sand decorated by wildlife, and the alluring, if chilly, waters paint an isolated canvas of calm. If you don’t do well with your own company, you’ll undoubtedly want to bring a mate, as I discovered after spending two weeks in The Falkland Islands.
Last year saw the re-launch of a commercial LATAM flight connection with Chile, meaning it will be much easier to arrive in 2023. Until this route was inaugurated, you’d either dock on an expedition sailing ship or touch-down courtesy of an army flight from an English airbase, as I did. Trust me; it’s not as exciting as it sounds.
Why visit The Falkland Islands
Best experiences: On these isolated outposts, it’s all about the wildlife. Book a couple of nights at Saunders Island’s rural cabin, where it’s just you, two other guests, and penguins for days. Hop on a helicopter – or overland – to Volunteer Point, where the magnificent cerulean-hued views are only topped by the vast King Penguin colony. Slow down in Stanley, the archipelago’s capital, and get a flavour of British life in bygone days. Then, kayak alongside seals, stroll sugar-like beautiful beaches free from footprints, and round it all off with a decent pie and pint.
São Miguel, Azores, Portugal
Black sand beaches grown for surfing, geothermal hot springs begging to be bathed in, lofty hikes overlooking crater lakes, and whale watching aplenty – São Miguel is a real-life Eden and one of the best islands to visit in the Azores.
Why visit? São Miguel, the capital and largest of Portugal’s nine-strong Azores archipelago, is a true adventure playground. Imagine, if you will, a kind of Switzerland meets New Zealand – on a much smaller scale – shaped by volcanic activity, aggressive Atlantic swells, and rock-chiselling waterfalls.
Not only are the Azores some of the best islands to visit in Europe – and often compared but also the continent’s most remote, isolated as good as halfway between Portugal and Canada. The first transatlantic flights were inaugurated last year from Boston and New York, making – what some call the ‘Hawaii of Europe’ – far more accessible in 2023. Throw in a new range of group hiking tours, and it’s even perfect for a solo adventure break.
Of course, this is somewhat bittersweet news for a pristine and sustainable destination reliant on jets for access. But, for the most part, Azoreans take their green credentials seriously, and ferries in summer will help you do the same and avoid internal flights. São Miguel does provide a pretty neat summary of nearly all the archipelago’s treasures, though, so island-hopping adventures are a bonus, not essential.
Best experiences: São Miguel delivers the goods for lovers of the great outside. Trek to the top of the Boca do Inferno viewpoint for panoramas over a glistening two-colour volcanic lake. Ride the swell on the surfer’s favourite Praia de Santa Bárbara. Snorkel in the crystal-clear waters of the Vila Franca do Campo islet. Experience the geothermal activity of Furnas. Then, tackle the towering waterfalls on a canyoning adventure.
Things to do in The Azores
It’s not all about the adrenaline, though, and it’s equally as easy to just sit back and let the Azores’ magic roll over you. Whether it’s spotting dolphins and whales on a marine-biologist-led boat tour, soothing in the serene geothermal pools, or wandering through the Gorreana Tea Factory – one of the only plantations in Europe – São Miguel is as equally zen as heart-thumping.
Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Take your typical pristine Southeast Asia sands, and make it a little more dramatic. How? By adding some sunbathing dragons into the mix.
Why visit? Indonesia lauds many of the most beautiful islands in the world – around 17,000 in total. But, this corner of the country’s sizable archipelago is home to some extraordinary inhabitants.
For the most part, uninhabited, a few of the islands within the park provide the endemic Komodo Dragon – a giant monitor lizard – with a protected home, creating some of the best islands to visit for unique wildlife encounters. This mind-boggling species can grow to three metres in length and would have no qualms about eating a human for dinner if provoked.
This provoked danger means visits to witness the largest lizards in the world require a guide, and in recent years there has been a tightening of restrictions with the aim of helping preserve the species. In reality, that means an enormous hike in entry permits to the park. Since January 2023, the price has rocketed 20-fold to around $250.However, the increase has been pushed back numerous times, and the debate is ongoing about whether it’s for protection or simply profit, so let’s see if the new price sticks.
Of course, this is terrible news for those on a budget and raises the question of if it’s worth visiting Komodo over some of Indonesia’s many other islands. Still, it’s one of the most unique islands in the world, and one of the best things to do in Indonesia. So, for those with money to spare, the answer is likely a resounding yes.
Indonesia travel guide
Best experiences: Undoubtedly, the highlight is getting close – but not too close – to study the Komodo Dragons in all their dominating glory. But, they are far from the only reason to venture to Komodo National Park. Some other nearby beautiful islands are well worth a visit and easily hopped between on a day or multi-night tour. Padar Island provides panoramic vistas, Pink Beach (though it’s more of a tinge) delivers a dose of tanning, and – if you’re fortunate – you might even be able to jump overboard to snorkel with circling Manta Rays.
Wadjemup (Rottnest Island), Australia
Off the coast of Perth, the capital of Western Australia, you’ll find an island of smiles – and not just from the humans. Wadjemup – commonly known as Rottnest Island – is home to countless Quokkas, known as the world’s happiest animal. Their grinning faces are infectious, making it one of the best islands to visit for a feel-good vacation.
Why visit? Well, those free-roaming charming critters are reason enough, surely? But seriously, this island is almost a heaven on earth.
Fringed by salt-white soft sands, which are lapped by almost unbelievably clear waters, the shallow bays are as picturesque as they are inviting. Dive in, snorkel, SUP and kayak, or just pack a great book and bask in the sun. The Basin is one of the most popular spots to relax, but there are plenty more secluded shores to hunt out.
As a car-free island, slow jaunts on foot or by bike are the only way to explore the island’s four corners. Seafood is fresh and plentiful, the beers are chilled and refreshing, and if you sleep overnight, the sunsets add the final sparkle to this paradisiacal escape. With the recent launch of an online booking system for accommodation in 2023, it will be even easier to secure one of those elusive stays.
It’s also worth reading up about the history of Wadjemup – the original name as given by the Whadjuk Noongar people, the traditional owners of the land – before a visit. You’ll learn how the isle was connected to the mainland more than 6000 years ago and more recent history, such as the Aboriginal leaders who were imprisoned here from the 19th century.
Perth and Rottnest Island
Best experiences: Getting that selfie with the Quokka would be many people’s answer. But don’t get too close, and don’t feed them. If caught, you will be fined as it’s a danger to their health. With the increase in tourism numbers, it’s become even more important to protect the species, so swat up on the rules for island preservation on the way over.
Sado Island, Japan
If you’re in Tokyo and find yourself craving the absolute opposite of the nation’s turbo-charged metropolis, Sado Island will oblige. Here, traditions rule supreme, temples dot the interior, and the rugged coast is a far cry from the capital’s urban sprawl.
Why visit? A Shinkansen train – a Japanese experience in itself – will deliver you to Niigata port in just over two hours. From there, a hydrofoil will whisk you away from the highrises and back to simpler times.
Once a hive of gold mining activity – a fair chunk of Japan’s wealth originated from here – Sado’s industrial glory days dwindled quickly following the mine closures. Now, they are a weird place open for visitors. Deep underground, mechanical models of workers turn and stare as you learn about their history. In 2023, they are up for consideration by UNESCO for world heritage status.
Due to the end of production and an ageing population, Sado entered what feels like a time warp. This is especially true in the museum, where eerie displays of school desks which are no longer needed paint a picture of the past. Wooden temples have been reclaimed by nature, ancient sea lava punctures the coastline, and shaded forests provide reflective trails.
With new cruises calling here from later in 2023, tourism will undoubtedly increase as the best islands to visit in Japan see extra foot traffic. Get in early and celebrate Japan’s long-awaited re-opening to tourism.
Escape to Sado Island
Best experiences: Visit the real-life time capsule of the historic wooden fishing villages. Take a ride in a traditional round tub boat. Stop by the Taiko Centro – home to the world-acclaimed historical drumming practice – and have a lesson with a master. Head deep into the dense-verdant interior to spot hidden shrines, and then reflect on it all in the warm waters of an onsen. Although there are many things to do on Sado Island, it’s more about slowing down; frankly, it’s impossible not to.
The island nation of Mauritius, tucked away off the southeastern African coast, might conjure up ideas of untouched beaches and honeymoon destinations, but there is much more to discover. If you want a sun-kissed luxury break with a side of soft adventure, this is one of the best islands to visit to have it all.
Why visit? Mauritius was indeed one of the most surprising destinations for me. I knew the sands would be snow-white, the near-constant soundtrack of gentle waves would be calling, and the resorts impeccable. Yet, when it came time for my tearful goodbye, my highlight list didn’t include any of those things to do in Mauritius.
With a cyclone coming in and oh-so-grey skies, it’s fair to say my Mauritius trip didn’t go to plan. Luckily, the island packs a punch – not just from her rum distilleries – and my days away from the shoreline were fantastic. Unlike some other resort-style destinations where there’s not much to do beyond the compound walls, Mauritius has more than enough to fill a holiday with – if you want it to. Of course, tearing yourself away from those dreamy beaches in the first place is going to be a challenge.
In recent years, a small choice of private rentals and more affordable accommodation options have opened, meaning a 2023 visit to Mauritius might be more affordable than you think.
Best experiences: Given this is one of the most beautiful islands in the world, it would be rude not to start with some lazy beach days sipping a local Phoenix Beer – Grand Baie and Tamarin Bay are solid choices. Then, venture to the capital of Port Louis for some street food tasting courtesy of the market.
Places to visit in Mauritius
In the mountains, monkey-ridden hikes await, and the Bois Cheri Tea Factory is the perfect place for a cuppa. For some culture, head down to the Grand Bassin, a sacred lake with Hindu statues on its banks. Then squeeze in a few waterfalls, marvel at magnificent Le Morne Brabant – the island’s towering mountain – and by then, I reckon it will be time for another cold one back on the sands. Enjoy!
The Chinampas, Mexico City
I can hear you screaming the question from here: how can there be islands in landlocked Mexico City? Well, I did say there would be some unique islands, so please indulge me for a moment…
Why visit? These artificial farming islands in Mexico City are an engineering feat. The first to be built pre-date the Aztec empire, likely constructed around 1200 CE. But this isn’t the only lake-based building work in the city.
In fact, nearly all of Mexico City is constructed atop Lake Texcoco – or rather, where it used to be. Drained by the Spanish following their invasion, it was their way of tackling flooding and giving more land for settlement. However, before the colonisation period, the Aztecs had advanced the original artificial and controlled the water levels by canals, ridges and embankments.
So impressive are the Mesoamerican Chinampas that they form part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site-listing of the city. Once inside the gates protecting the natural zone of migratory birds and age-old farming practices, you’ll be able to witness how these timeless techniques continue until this day. The nutrient-rich mud is still scraped from the canals and used to fertilise the island’s soil. While these artificial islands don’t feed nearly the whole city as they once did, they still produce a decent crop under their new domain as community-owned farming grounds.
After Covid left a devastating effect on the city’s community tourism, 2023 is the time to embrace the many local and sustainable travel experiences now on offer again.
Mexico City’s Chinampas
Best experiences: For the best Xochimilco experience, either skip – or do in addition – the more typical colourful boats which ply the canals serving up good vibes, cold beers and Mariachi bands. It’s not that it’s touristy as some will say, because plenty of locals are enjoying their weekends on these waterways, but it’s not going to get you to the heart of the ancient farming traditions which should be centre stage here. Go inside the protected area, meet the multi-generation farmers who keep this practice alive, and learn a little more about Mexico City’s incredible contribution to civilisation.
Nisyros Island, Greece
Nisyros, one of Greece’s Dodecanese Islands, is an Aegean-enveloped active volcano escape. Here, you’ll find the typical Greek island essentials: whitewashed houses, blue tile work, and tavernas dishing out staples, but you’ll also have the chance to walk inside a hulking caldera.
Why visit? What makes this hidden gem of Europe particularly impressive is Stefanos – one of the world’s largest hydrothermal craters. While there are five craters on the island, Stefanos stands out.
The whole island is essentially an active volcano. Thankfully, the last activity was a steam eruption in 1888. While there’s plenty of surface bubbling to gawk at once you’re inside the caldera, in terms of eruption terms, it’s remained relatively calm for many years.
If you stay a while, you can explore the island’s coastal villages and lounge on the dark sand and pebble beaches. Nisyros is a solid pick for that laid-back Greek lifestyle without the overwhelming crowds of some of the other best islands to visit nearby, such as Santorini.
Visit Nisyros Island
Best experiences: The main reason to visit Nisyros Island is to witness – and walk atop – the Stefanos crater. As you descend into the caldera, you’ll find a unique landscape – and scent – of bubbling sulphur, and it’s certainly a bucket list experience for many. Of course, you’ll also want to soak up the island’s other more expected Greek treasures; tavernas dish out the staples, white and blue set the scene, and the photogenic bright bougainvillaea framed streets.
Isle of Skye, Scotland
While Scotland is home to some of the best islands to visit globally, there is more than one reason why the jaw-dropping Isle of Skye has become Scotland’s star for UK outdoor adventures.
Why visit? Chiselled and dramatic landscapes straight from a movie scene, medieval castles and bridges ranging from preserved to disrepair, tumbling waterfalls, epic hiking trails, and myths of fairies make the Isle of Skye one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Easily accessed from the mainland by bridge or ferry, it’s also one of the easiest – and the largest – of the Inner Hebrides to explore. This has led to some serve overtourism issues in the peak summer months, so it’s undoubtedly better to head here for an out-of-season adventure and seek out some more unusual places to stay in Scotland.
Climbing, hiking, walking and water sports provide the main outdoor reasons to visit the Isle of Skye, but it’s also a great destination even if you want a less active trip. There are plenty of easy loops and trails to get you connected with nature, you can easily enjoy a Scotland road trip here, and local legends add plenty of mystical intrigues.
Scotland road trip guide
Best experiences: Take a dip in the Fairy Pools, one of Scotland’s most special wild swimming spots. Hike the Quaraing or the Old Man of Storr viewpoint to witness the island’s most impressive landscapes. Spot waterfalls in all directions, both inland and tumbling off the island’s edge. Visit one of the island’s castles, such as Dunvegan Castle. And, of course, round it all off with a dram of whisky.
The ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, Sri Lanka, has had plenty of news coverage in recent years – from being tourism’s new darling to the political and economic crisis. Beyond the headlines, however, remains a verdant interior of hilltop villages, an ocean-calling coastline, and plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities.
Why visit? Sri Lanka is one of the best islands to visit if you want a mix of everything; culture, cuisine, wildlife and nature. This means a visit can be different for everyone, whether you want a lazy week of shoreline serenity or an adventurous tour of the interior.
A ‘standard’ route around Sri Lanka will take you from the misunderstood capital of Colombo to a cultural triangle of ancient ruins, citadels on towering rocks and national parks offering elephant safaris. From here, you’ll likely venture to the city of Kandy – home to the Buddha tooth relic – before boarding a train into the tea plantations of the hill country. For a perfect finale, the laid-back beach resorts of the south await/
Of course, there are numerous reasons to visit Sri Lanka, but let’s talk about visiting in 2023. It’s hard to avoid the fact that there have been some substantial political, social and economic crises in recent years. However, with the UK government’s ‘do not travel’ ban lifted, it’s deemed a safe time to return to one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Fuel is still scarce, but creative new options, such as this Cycling Sri Lanka tour from Intrepid, show there are ways to help the tourism economy recover without depleting much-needed resources. Still, shortages continue – consider medicine needs and the like – and disruption could return, so keep this in mind when planning your Sri Lanka travels.
Reasons to visit Sri Lanka
Best experiences: Witness the elephant migration from July to October. Hop onboard the now iconic blue train which links Kandy to Ella before visiting tea-laden hill towns. Head inside the Dambulla Caves, where ancient paintings decorate the walls and ceilings. Climb to the top of Sigiriya to admire the ruins of a 1500-year-old citadel. Relax on the south coast beaches, spot dolphins in the wild, and then delve deeper into Sri Lanka’s UNESCO attractions. This small island has plenty to keep you entertained.
Aruba may be best known for its resort and palm-fringed beaches, bustling casinos and sometimes chaotic cruise port, but drive five minutes away from these, and you’ll find an untouched landscape ripe for adventures in the heart of this beautiful island.
Why visit? Aruba isn’t a vast island, but it certainly packs a punch regarding outside activities. From the rugged beaches and incredible snorkelling to the slightly deeper scuba diving adventures around shipwrecks and sunken aeroplanes, the water life here ticks all the boxes.
Inland, you’ll find the much more rugged and arid landscape of The Arikok National Park. Inside these boundaries are numerous activities, from historical cave paintings to a cacti-stewed landscape with roaming goats and donkeys and off-roading adventures – making it one of the best islands to visit in the Caribbean if you’re also seeking adrenaline alongside sandy shores.
Culturally, the Aruba Carnival, which runs from January to March each year, is the big draw. As the streets come alive with colourful and bejewelled outfits and steel drums and brass bands ring out through the streets, the passion and hospitality of the locals shine.
Fear not though, for if you visit outside of these months, the Thursday festivals in San Nicolas, the second city which is being revived through incredible street art and colourful facades, will give you a taster that will leave you wanting to return.
Why visit Aruba?
Best experiences: Bathe in the crystal-clear waters of the Conchi Natual Pool. Take a 4WD or buggy adventure through Arikok National Park. Lounge on the pristine beaches, such as Mangel Halto, and then dive in for some snorkelling sightings of turtles. Head up to the California Lighthouse for breathtaking panoramas, and then end the night with an Aruba Ariba cocktail crafted from the island’s own rum.
The rugged and mountainous island of Madeira, Portugal, is undoubtedly having its moment in the spotlight. Once seen as a year-round sun destination for retired vacationers, the epic hikes, natural pools and verdant landscape are calling out to a new type of adventurer.
Why visit? One of the best islands to visit in the world for trails and ocean dips, Madeira’s landscapes vary depending on which part of the island you visit. Whether it’s dark sand and stone coves surrounded by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, terraces of banana plantations rising to epic viewpoints, or the dramatic fern-covered, waterfall-tumbling north with its own micro-climate – every corner is a beauty.
If you’re craving a more typical golden sand experience, neighbouring Porto Santo – a reached in a few hours by ferry – provides it. Here, nine kilometres of golden sands stretch out, providing a dreamy Atlantic Ocean beach getaway. Combine both beautiful islands for an ideal adventure-cum-relaxing multi-island break and are one of the warmest places to visit in Europe in winter.
2023 is seeing even more remote-work-focused hotels and villages, but even if you don’t want to see laptop-wielders by your pool, there’s also a flurry of new and more remote holiday spots to enjoy. Add in the flurry of new flights – and hopefully the return of the mainland island ferry later this year (TBC) – and it’s never been easier to access the archipelago.
Madeira in Photos
Best experiences: Trek along the Levada walks (old irrigation channels, now turned popular trails). Disappear into cloud-clad forests to reconnect with nature. Sample the local rum punch drinks. Admire the year-round flowers of the island – it’s nearly always spring here – especially during the annual flower parade or carnival. Hike to Pico Ruivo for a breathtaking view above the clouds. Lounge on the black sand beaches or in the naturally carved swimming pools. Then, explore the cultural highlights, gardens and palaces of the Funchal, one of Europe’s most underrated cities. Trust me, for an active outdoor holiday, Madeira is a winner.
Mont St Michel, France
Once a monastery, and then a convent, and now one of the most famous tourist attractions in Normandy, and indeed France, the island of Mont St Michel is undoubtedly one of the world’s most unique islands.
Why visit? Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims who have been visiting this high-tide-Island since the 8th century when it was home to a tiny chapel. While much has changed since those days, the magic and charm of Mont St Michel – especially the Gothic Abbey which crowns the island – remain the same.
Popular as a day trip for those visiting the north of France or even from Paris, it’s also possible to spend a night or two on this unique island. By night, with footfall much lower, it takes on a whole other magical experience.
While the rocky islet was once an island linked only by a footpath visible at low tide, creating the strategic defence location, a newer permanent road means that access is now much easier. That said, this location is home to the highest tides in Europe – and in St Malo, you’ll find some of the highest house-battering waves – so the occasional cut-off can occur, although now it’s only in the days after a full moon.
With a spotlight on flight-free travel from the UK in 2023, reaching Mont St Michel from England is a breeze thanks to Brittany Ferries’s multiple connections to ports in Brittany and Normandy, making it an ideal weekend break in France. For something close to home, there’s a similar island defence system, St Michael’s Mount, one of the best attractions in Cornwall.
Visit Mont St Michel
Best experiences: Tour the imposing Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, which sits atop the isle. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the interior is mesmerising, from the cloisters to the marble floors. Then you have the walkable ramparts and fortifications, such as La Tour Gabriel and Tour du Nord. Below, shops, hotels, and gardens provide relaxed strolls in the off-season – though expect intense crowds on peak weekends and summer days.
Bali may be one of the most touristy islands these days, but there are plenty of reasons this remains one of the best islands to visit in 2023.
Why visit? The ‘Island of the Gods’ has been captivating travellers for many years, long before ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ put it on the radar of even more visitors. This has led the island to lose some of its traditions and charm in parts, although they very much remain if you know where to look.
Having visited numerous times, including an extended stay in 2014 when I nearly became a permit-holding resident, I’ve spent many months scouting the island. When I hear people say how disappointed they were with Bali, the reasons are usually the same – and it’s a far cry from my memories of one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
So, when planning your trip, remember that the rainy season between November and March is not the best time to visit. While many websites state it’s a popular time, that’s more due to the Aussie Christmas holidays than any other reason. Not only do these downpours potentially dampen spirits, but they also lead to the beaches being coated in trash, which is sadly washed from the interior rivers and rubbish heaps onto the shoreline. Bali’s beaches aren’t like this year-round – though it’s not a bad time for a cultural visit.
Secondly, it’s knowing where to go. For many Australians, this is a cheap and cheerful getaway for sun, sand, beach and partying. So, do visit Kuta, where the revelry is loudest, Seminyak for a slightly more upscale party, or Canggu for the ever-growing digital nomad and trendy-crowd spaces, but keep in mind that these places aren’t really Bali anymore, but holiday resorts. For the real magic, venture to Ubud for the palaces and traditional dancing, the rice fields further afield where photogenic swings haven’t taken over, and the coastal spots with a little more character, such as Uluwatu, Lovina, and Amed.
With 2023 bringing new hotels – there always are in Bali, perhaps too many – but also a new law which criminalised sex outside of marriages (supposedly this won’t apply in Bali, but it’s unclear if that’s tourism speak or legally defined) it’s going to be interesting to see if this changes the tourism landscape of the island and if it remains one of the best islands to visit for a laid-back and fun cultural escape.
Where to stay in Bali
Best experiences: Experience the Hindu culture of the island at the many temples, from the lakeside Ulun Danu Beratan Temple to the cliff-crowning Uluwatu Temple, known for its traditional Kecak fire dance. Hike at sunrise for some fantastic views of Mount Batur, an active volcano. Visit the cultural hub of Ubud for temples and dense jungles inhabited by monkeys. Head to the black rocky beaches in the north for shipwreck scuba diving, dolphin spotting or just some R&R without the crowds. Then, for a more idyllic beach escape, venture to the Nusa or Gili Islands.
K’gari (Fraser Island), Australia
One of the best islands to visit in Australia, K’gari – perhaps more commonly known as Fraser Island – fascinates me. As the world’s largest island wholly made of sand – all 120 kilometres of it – it’s certainly a unique island and one of the Australia’s best experiences.
Why visit? Driving on K’gari (Fraser Island) isn’t your everyday experience. On the clear stretches of beautiful beach, you’ll find not only sunbathers but also the ‘island’s highway’ and runway. Nearly everything is sand here, and it makes for an unusual setting when exploring Queensland.
While this means beach days are always calling, the coastline is also complimented by freshwater pools in the middle of the island, such as Lake McKenzie, a crystal-clear body of water underlaid by snow-white sands.
Then there is the wildlife, from dingos to dolphin spotting, turtles and rays in the surrounding waters, and even the potential to spot humpback whales during the migratory period. While you could do K’gari (Fraser Island) as a day trip, it’s one of the best eco-tourism destinations in Australia to escape and recharge, so staying a few nights is a must.
In recent years, it’s also looked like K’gari – the original Aboriginal name for Fraser Island – may be posed to make a return. In 2017, the UNESCO listing of the island returned to its original name. Now, a consultation is underway, with results expected in 2023, which may lead to a formal return to the name given by the traditional owners of the land, the Butchulla People.
Exploring Fraser Island
Best experiences: Lounge on the silica sands of Lake McKenzie. Follow the boardwalk through the Central Station Rainforest. Bathe in the naturally formed Champagne Pools with waves crashing over the rocks. Visit the Maheno Shipwreck stranded on the beach. Then, take in a sunset from Indian head, one of the best viewpoints on K’gari. If you’re continuing up the East Coast, be sure to visit another of Australia’s most beautiful spots to visit, the Whitsunday Islands.
Given the horrific and ongoing humanitarian crises in Yemen, I was torn about whether to include the Socotra archipelago. But, as Socotra is some 600 kilometres away from the mainland and isolated in the northwest Indian Ocean, nearer the coast of Somalia than its home nation, its tourism offerings are vastly different.
Why visit? Socotra is one of the most fascinating islands to visit in the whole world. The endemic fauna, flora, paradisiacal beaches, and traditional way of life make it particularly interesting. Still, this isn’t somewhere to come for photoshoots and topping up your tan. The island’s ecosystem is delicate, and Yemen’s recent history is complicated – UAE has a military base here – making it a biodiverse and unique island to visit for those with vested interests in the special offering.
While I haven’t visited personally yet, it has been on my dream list for over a decade, mainly because these are some of the best islands to visit for unique and endemic plant species. My good friend Nicole who visited many years ago, introduced it to me. Many describe it as an alien island, thanks to the unique landscapes, trees, dunes and crystal clear waters: it is one unique island adventure you will never forget.
If you opt to visit Socotra after weighing up the reality, you’ll be rewarded with the chance to see one of the most unexplored and special places on our planet. Check out Nicole’s photo post on Socotra to see more of what I mean, or consider joining one of her tours to Socotra.
In 2023, it’s never been easier to reach Socotra. While previously, connecting flights and likely cancellations made it a challenge, a new weekly flight from Abu Dhabi (and a Cairo connection) now makes it more accessible. The booking process still isn’t online, but it’s a step in the right direction for intrepid travellers eager to visit this paradise.
Jamaica has long been one of the best islands to visit in the Caribbean for sun and sand, but the island’s rich culture, a growing art scene, and evolving eco-tourism projects make this island a feast for all the senses.
Why visit? My visit to Jamaica was unlike any other. I spent a month on the island working with EU Aid to create a video series about social and economic projects, teamed up with a wonderful local, Jeana. Of course, this meant minimal beach time and plenty of deeper diving into the culture and events of the island, allowing me to discover a Jamaica I might have missed as a tourist.
Of course, the pristine resort beaches will always be a major pull to Jamaica, as will the art and music culture. Famed as the birthplace of Bob Marley, the museum in Kingston, and the Trench Town & Culture Yard Museum, draw in the crowds.
But there’s very much a lived culture of the arts, too, thanks to groups such as Kingston Creative, who are bringing new murals and music projects to the downtown area. With cultural events regularly planned to show off musical and creative heritage, you can get a little feel of carnival outside of the main April event.
Then there’s the growing eco-tourism offering, much of which focused around preserving the island’s nature and blocking more tourism developments. In Cockpit County, one of the most critical nature and water sites in the nation, eco-stays and hiking trails are creating new income and preservation projects for the local community.
No visit would be complete without learning about the Jamaican Maroons. Following the Spanish colonisation of the Caribbean and following slavery, the Maroons escaped and fled to the mountains, where they set up independent communities and became a resistance. This continued into British rule when – after the new colonists had agreed to let the Maroons live and control their land freely – they became undefeated in standing up for their rights and community.
Best experiences: Explore the artistic and sometimes chaotic streets of Kingston. Find serenity at the Dunn River Falls. Head out of the resort and experience a local beach for some delicious ackee and saltfish. Enjoy an ice cream at Devon House. Head on a hike in the Blue Mountains or Cockpit County. Take a boat down the Black River, and stay up late drinking local rum or Red Stripe while listening to Jamaica’s long list of musical legends.
Not only do the geological features and windswept rugged terrain make this one of the most unique islands to visit, but also one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Why visit? The island nation of Iceland has certainly not been without its tourism attention in recent years, and that’s all with good reason. As one of the most progressive countries in the world, human rights and environmental concerns are well balanced here alongside plenty of traditions, and then, of course, you have the jaw-dropping natural landscape lifted straight from a cinematic movie.
Yes, this is a destination for lovers of the great outdoors. With a sprinkling of everything; geysers and glaciers, volcanoes and hot springs, and almost never-ending black sand beaches and heat-thumping mountains, those on the hunt for adventures will never be bored. Whether you visit Iceland in winter and find a land of snow and long dark nights, or for near always-light summer, the landscapes remain impeccable even if they vary by season.
2023 brings plenty of new adventures to the land of fire and ice, thanks to a flurry of new openings last year. From new spa lagoons and high-flying zip lines to epic viewpoints and remote resorts, the tourism offering on one of the best islands to visit is continually expanding.
When to visit Iceland?
Best experiences: Snorkel or scuba dive between two tectonic plates – yes, it’s chilly! Marvel at black sand beaches coated in ‘diamonds’ of glacier ice. Take a dip in the warming and healing waters of the blue lagoon. Head off on a road trip to witness remote windswept mountains and breath-stealing waterfalls. Then, of course, in season, you must stay up all night to see the Northern Lights illuminate the sky.
Arriving in Fiji and hearing the first Bula will feel like a welcome from long-lost friends. Of course, this is a dreamy South Pacific beach destination, but there’s plenty more on offer for those craving a side of activities.
Why visit? When you’re on Fiji time, everything just feels better. Whether you’re sipping on a fresh coconut, setting sail to some castaway island, or hiking through one of the four lush national parks, it’s hard to shake the grin.
The main island, Viti Levu, is home to Suva (the main cruise port) and Nadi (the airport), making it the main gateway to the 300-plus island archipelago. Backpacking as a concept is starting to grow and be embraced in Nadi, thanks to more affordable options sprouting up around the airport. A short drive away is Denarau Island, where you’ll find luxury resorts.
With plenty of day trips from Nadi on offer, it’s easy to use the main island as a base. And, once you’ve stepped out of the resorts, Fiji still feels ‘real’, which I think is something you won’t always find on heavily touristed luxury islands.
Explore Fiji from Nadi
Best experiences: Take a Yasawa Island Cruise to explore some of the most pristine and best islands to visit across the archipelago. Bathe in the mud springs for that thermal healing feeling. Experience a traditional Fiji kava ceremony. Explore the trails and peaks of Koroyanitu National Heritage Park. Zipline above the tree canopy. Hunt out waterfalls for bathing. And, of course, snuggle into the warm sands to relax with a book.
Singapore is one of the most futuristic and unique island states in the world. However, with more than 60 beautiful islands forming the nation, there are still plenty of traditions and nature still to be found.
Why visit? Singapore’s reputation may be for high rise tower blocks and modern architecture, but there are some surprises in the abundance of outlying islands off this city-state.
Take Pulau Ubin, one of the best islands to visit away from the more modern downtown. The overgrown, jungle-like vibe of the island feels a world away, making for a great cycling experience. Mangroves, wooden boardwalks and large lizards aren’t just restricted to this isle, though, and there are plenty of ‘day trips’ to enjoy.
While Singapore was long seen as more of a stopover destination – in part thanks to the world’s best airport – that has changed. Now the city holds its own as a holiday destination, and not just for those with deep pockets. Hostels are decent, eating out can be affordable at the excellent quality Hawker Centres, and more nature-focused activities are promoted on the other islands.
2023 also brings a raft of new post-pandemic experiences. While the country remained closed to tourism for a long time, behind the scenes, much was happening. From new tropical gardens and Avatar experiences to ice cream museums and high-flying opportunities, this city doesn’t sleep on reinvention.
Singapore travel guide
Best experiences: Head off to some more rural islands on a Bum Boat. Relax on the beautiful beaches of Sentosa Island. Check-in to my favourite futuristic hotel in the world, Marina Bay Sands, for a rooftop infinity pool like no other. Visit one of the city’s excellent museums, such as the National Museum or Asian Civilisations Museum. Chow down on incredible dishes at the Hawker Centres. Explore Little India and Singapore’s China Town to experience the city’s diverse cultures, and stroll through the Gardens by the Bay and the city’s many green spaces.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
In the far east of Indonesia, off the coast of West Papua, Raja Ampat delivers some of the best islands to visit in the world, with a mesmerising mix of micro-climates, marine life teeming reefs, dazzling sunsets and local traditions.
Why visit? When I visited Raja Ampat nearly a decade ago, it quickly shot to the top of my best experiences list. However, much has changed since then, and – if you ask me – not necessarily for the better.
So, if you are considering a visit, really think about why. For many years, Raja Ampat was a destination for wealthy scuba divers on liveaboard boats. Then, community and local tourism started to flourish, driven by a local co-op of islanders who wanted to protect the pristine nature. In recent years, however, luxury sailings have grown substantially, international investment is seeing large resource-heavy hotels open, and even cruise ships are arriving, damaging the delicate coral reefs at extreme scales.
Of course, it’s easy to see why so many people want to visit – the place is a unique island paradise. But I’m apprehensive the Raja Ampat I remember is being lost.
We only had generator electricity for a few hours a day; we ate repetitive locally caught communal meals with the twenty other visitors staying at this lodge on Kri Island. Our hosts were passionate locals dedicated to conservation. We slept in small wooden huts where animals roamed free and steeped out of the door into waters inhabited by baby sharks. Sunsets were perfect, even if the beer was warm, and the scuba diving was the best you’ll likely ever experience.
These are the joys of Raja Ampat. That slow, laid-back life makes them the best islands to visit, far from the chaos of the modern world. It’s not easy or fast to get there, nor should it be. Yes, the viewpoints are incredible, but that can be said of many of the other most beautiful islands in the world. Here, the real star is scuba diving, the community, and the back-to-basics living.
Raja Ampat Photos
So, if Raja Ampat is on your radar, consider why you want to make the journey and make a commitment to visit in the most sustainable and respectful way. Let’s ensure this pocket of paradise doesn’t become another victim of capitalism. The best place to start is booking with a local homestay and taking the Islander’s tips on how to visit with the least impact possible.