JC Cuellar/Tony Rath Photography
Pelican Beach Resort
Price: Doubles from $258, including meals.
What to Expect: Location, location, location: 15-acre South Water Caye is one of the few islands directly on top of the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere. The resort’s five wooden Belizean-style cottages—on stilts, with verandas on the east and west sides to capture the trade winds—and five large lodge guest rooms are designed with lots of windows for views of the waves breaking over the massive reef.
What to Do: Snorkel, dive, kayak, or take one of the resort’s boat tours to nearby islands, other snorkeling sites, or the Frigate Bird Sanctuary. Don’t miss the guided nighttime snorkel in the protected cove off the south beach; it’s a chance to see corals (closed in daylight) open their delicate polyps. Or book a day trip to the ancient Mayan sites of Xunantunich and Cahal Pech (two-hour drive, $98) or to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s first jaguar reserve (45-minute drive, $82), through the resort’s annex on the mainland.
Getting There: The resort arranges transportation by boat to and from the island for guests.
Insider Tip: Heron’s Hideaway and Kingfisher are the more private single-room cottages. If you like to see the sunrise, opt for Heron’s Hideaway, with its large east-facing over-water veranda. If you prefer sunsets, choose west-facing Kingfisher.
Price: Doubles from $125.
What to Expect: On this two-and-a-half-acre island in the San Blas archipelago on the northeast side of Panama, hammocks swing gently on the verandas of 13 thatched-roofed bungalows set on stilts over the clear Caribbean. Inside, bamboo walls complement simple but colorful furnishings. The lodge restaurant serves local in-season seafood (including lobster and crab), as well as traditional Kuna Indian dishes such as tulemasi, a soup made with plantains, coconut, fish, hot peppers, and lime. Guests dine by candlelight under the stars.
What to Do: Hike along the coast to the traditional Kuna village of Kolebir. In the main square, look for handmade molas, colorful embroidered cloth panels made by local women that are used for clothing, purses, and wall decorations.
Getting There: Fly from Panama City to Playon Chico. There, a guide from the lodge takes guests by motor canoe on the eight-minute trip to the island.
Insider Tip: Sign up for an eco-tour to the mainland rainforest, where a Kuna healer will share hidden knowledge about the jungle.
Courtesy of www.malaysia-islands.com
Gem Wellness Spa & Island Resort
Price: Doubles from $190, including meals (two-night minimum).
What to Expect: Set within a marine wildlife sanctuary off the central-eastern coast of the Malay Peninsula, rocky eight-acre Gemia Island has golden beaches as well as a turtle hatchery, where baby turtles—green, hawksbills, and even rare leatherbacks—are helped along until they’re big enough to survive in the South China Sea. The 52 “water-villa” rooms, with clean lines and simple rattan furnishings, face the sea and nearby Kapas Island. From the veranda, watch for sea eagles and reef herons before heading to the bar and restaurant for lobster and local fish.
What to Do: Snorkel over natural undersea gardens teeming with colorful corals, parrot fish, and sea anemones. Later, rinse off in the pool and indulge in a Thai mint foot massage, herbal sauna bath, or Asian herbal compress treatment at the spa.
Getting There: Ask the hotel to arrange the 15-minute boat ride from Marang to the island, or look for your own water taxi at the dock.
Insider Tip: If you enjoy walks on a beach or poking in tidal pools, head to the northeastern side of the island at low tide. Warning: take shoes with good soles, because the rocks are sharp.
Courtesy of Caye Chapel
Price: Doubles from $200 (three-night minimum stay).
What to Expect: With only seven luxury villas, 12 smaller casita suites, and a maximum of 50 guests at the 250-acre resort, visitors will find plenty of privacy on the island’s more than two miles of soft sand beaches. Casitas have white wicker furniture and chaise lounges, plus all the modern conveniences: satellite TV’s, DVD players, ceiling fans, and even stocked refrigerators. There’s also a fitness center, spa, computer center, and a restaurant specializing in creative Belizean and Caribbean cuisine. For dessert, order the broiled fresh pineapple, served over white-chocolate shavings and sprinkled with a “macadamia nut halo.”
What to Do: When you’re tired of the spa, water sports, tennis, bicycling, and swimming in the pool or ocean, head to the 18-hole golf course; greens fees, cart usage, and club rentals are included in the room rates. Or try “coconut bowling,” where the sloshing milk inside the coconuts makes them wobble wildly on their way to the pins.
Getting There: Round-trip flights from Belize International to the island’s airstrip run about $110 per person.
Insider Tip: May—a delightful month, when travelers are almost guaranteed perfect weather—is still the dry season and Belize resort rates are normally high, but here rates drop even lower than usual. Bonus: May in Belize is also known for its vibrant sunrises and sunsets.
Courtesy of Robinson Crusoe Island
Price: Doubles from $150 (with bath).
What to Expect: Located in an estuary along the Coral Coast of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, 26-acre, palm-covered Likuri Island caters to intrepid party-loving travelers, with basic dormitories and small private thatched-roofed bures, or huts. The five bures have lots of windows, but the décor, though colorful, is sparse, with only the essentials. Note: Island Lodge is the only bure with a private bathroom. Meals are inspired by local ingredients, leaning heavily on curries, seafood, and tropical fruit, like payapaya, breadfruit, and noni; Happy hour starts each evening at 5:30 p.m. in the open-sided Wreck Bar.
What to Do: The options are endless: borrow a sea kayak and paddle around the island or explore the estuary; walk one mile around the island on its long white-sand beach; learn how to paddle a six-person outrigger canoe; take a class in Fijian, Polynesian, and Melanesian dance—or watch the local villagers’ own dance show, which includes a thrilling fire dance. End your day with a traditional Polynesian massage.
Getting There: The boat trip to the island near Natadola Beach includes a 30-minute jungle journey on the Tuva River and a 10-minute lagoon crossing.
Insider Tip: There is a local medicine man on the island who will take you for a jungle bush walk to a nearby ancient archaeological site.
Nicholas Pitt / Alamy
Nangyuan Island Dive Resort
Price: Doubles from $100.
What to Expect: Near Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, three small lush islands linked by white sandbar beaches make for a great dive—and resort—setting. All 56 guest rooms have simple wooden furniture, refrigerators, and porches for gazing at clear waters, but the most luxurious accommodations (read: with air-conditioning) are on the Southern Island. More secluded cottages are located on the Northern Island, but there the terrain is rougher and the stairs more difficult to navigate. In the center of it all—on the Middle Island—are reception and a barefoot-casual restaurant with sea views.
What to Do: Snorkel or dive. If you’re not certified, take the PADI dive shop’s five-minute diving test to find out what it’s like to breathe underwater. If you’re intrigued, choose from a variety of courses and explore one of the 15 dive sites located nearby; keep your eyes peeled for sea turtles and whale sharks.
Getting There: High-speed catamaran ferries regularly depart from Bangkok, Koh Samui, and several other islands.
Insider Tip: Rooms on the flatter Middle Island are the best option for families with small children and visitors with restricted mobility.
Courtesy of Whipray Caye Lodge
Whipray Caye Lodge
Price: From $608 for two-night minimum stays; all-inclusive rates include accommodations, meals, and private ferry to and from the island.
What to Expect: While this three-acre, palm-covered island 11 miles from mainland Belize attracts hard-core anglers seeking tarpon, bonefish, yellowtail, barracuda, and king mackerel, it also pulls in visitors who just want to swing in a hammock, read mystery novels, play darts, or relax in the thatched-roof bar. Accommodations are simple: two cabanas with two guest rooms each; rooms have ceiling fans, cross-ventilation from windows, and a pair of double beds. This is one of only three Belizean lodges in the World Heritage Alliance, which promotes sustainable tourism in communities around UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System.
What to Do: Borrow a mask and fins from the lodge and snorkel offshore along the coral reef; ogle an array of sea life: spotted eagle rays (called whiprays), nurse sharks, octopus, and fluorescent queen angelfish. For a fee, sign up for an expert fly-fishing excursion with Yellow Dog Adventures (888-777-5060; yellowdogflyfishing.com). Early booking recommended.
Getting There: The lodge’s own ferry takes guests to and from the island.
Insider Tip: Come for the fish, stay for the pizza: lobster pizza. It’s highly recommended by guests, as is the curried coconut shrimp.
Courtesy of Lissenung Island Resort
Lissenung Island Resort
Papua New Guinea
Price: Doubles from $190, including meals.
What to Expect: The island nation of Papua New Guinea has some of the world’s greatest oceanic biodiversity; more than 175 species of fish alone surround 10-acre Lissenung Island, located 400 miles northwest of the main island. The resort’s four simple bungalows accommodate no more than 14 and are built in the local traditional style—on stilts, with thatched roofs and bamboo woven walls; each has a large veranda with comfortable chairs. A shallow reef—where guests have reported seeing all manner of sea life, from clown fish and pygmy sea horses to barracuda—spreads out in front of the dive shop. Chile mud crabs, a local specialty made with a savory stew of tomatoes, onion, and of course, chiles, is a popular dish at the restaurant; if you can’t get past the name “mud crab,” try the fresh tuna tataki, seared tuna fillets garnished with spring onions, ginger, soy sauce, and fresh lemon.
What to Do: After diving or snorkeling, grab a deck chair and a glass of wine, and head to the beach for a glorious sunset.
Getting There: Fly from Port Moresby to Kavieng on the island of New Ireland, where a resort staff member takes guests on the 20-minute boat ride to Lissenung Island.
Insider Tip: Rooms 3 and 4 are in the most private bungalow, which also has the biggest veranda and is closest to “sunset beach.”
Chad Hensler/ www.pulaumacan.com
Tiger Islands Village & Eco Resort
Price: Doubles from $141 for first night, from $85 for each additional night; rates include meals and use of equipment.
What to Expect: Forty-five nautical miles north of Jakarta, among the Thousand Islands in the deep-blue Java Sea, two-and-a-half-acre Pulau Macan is a dreamy island oasis with an incredible coral seascape, which guests can enjoy up close from the expansive wooden deck at the clubhouse. Inside, look for a pool table, comfy sofas, and “appropriately light literature.” Accommodations consist of three rustic but comfortable bungalows (two rooms have air-conditioning), and the restaurant features local ingredients—like kemangi, a lemon-flavored Indonesian basil-many of which are organically grown on the island. Sample the herb in karedok, a house specialty also made with Chinese long beans, cabbage, cucumbers, eggplant, and a spicy-sweet peanut sauce.
What to Do: Borrow a rowboat, flat-bottomed canoe, or rubber dinghy, and paddle 150 yards to a deserted island covered in palm trees. There, string up a hammock (the resort has them on hand), snorkel, or comb the white powdery beach for sand dollars.
Getting There: The resort’s fast boat makes the trip from the marina in Ancol, North Jakarta, in 1.5 hours. Or take the ferry from Marina Ancol in North Jakarta to Putri or Sepa (a two-hour trip), and ask resort staff to meet you with their boat.
Insider Tip: At the tip of the island, Bungalow 3 is the most private.
Courtesy of www.chapwaniisland.com
Chapwani Private Island
Price: Doubles from $260, including breakfast and dinner.
What to Expect: A base for spice merchants and explorers for three centuries, the island of Zanzibar lies 30 miles off the coast of Tanzania, and 35-acre Chapwani Island lies a mile to the west. Its craggy baobab trees, fragrant passion-fruit trees, and rich variety of birds and wildlife—including a herd of 60 miniature antelope called dik-diks and a colony of black open-billed storks-capture the natural beauty of Africa. A maximum of 20 guests stay in five two-story bandas along the white-sand beach dotted with tiny coves. Colorful African prints enliven the 10 rooms furnished with four-poster beds and wardrobes; each room is cooled by a ceiling fan and has its own lounge chairs on the beach. The seaside restaurant—sheltered by a traditional makuti roof woven from palm fronds—serves Asian, African, and European cuisine including cigales de mer (small clawless lobsters). Specialties include calamari salad with passion fruit and carrot soup with ginger fresh from the garden.
What to Do: Ask the resort to arrange for a private spice tour or a sailing trip with local fishermen on a N’gelawa, a traditional trimaran.
Getting There: The lodge runs a transfer boat to and from Zanzibar’s Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Room to Book: Room 10 has an unobstructed view of the beach.
Insider Tip: Request a private dinner, preferably in a secluded outdoor spot where you can gaze across the channel at the lights of Stone Town.