The Best Secret Islands on Earth
Hollywood scouts were on to something when they skipped over Mykonos and chose a secret island in Greece as the location for Mamma Mia. The movie was a $600-million hit, in part because it fueled peoples’ fantasies of escaping to a secluded island (and yes, those catchy ABBA tunes didn’t hurt).
Surprisingly, that picture-perfect movie location, Skopelos, has stayed under the radar. When you hop off the ferry, you’ll be wowed by the view of the shimmering Aegean Sea, the island’s tile-roofed tavernas, and a decided lack of travelers.
Related: 12 Affordable Private Island Resorts
There are still gems like Skopelos hidden all around the globe, if you know where to look. T+L editors have done the hunting for you to uncover secret islands where you can truly unwind, from the rugged Chilean spot that inspired the novel Robinson Crusoe to a tiny island in the Caribbean that was virtually deserted for decades until a luxe resort opened in 2010.
Similar high-end resorts have been popping up across Southeast Asia, where many islands are vying to be the next Phuket. So those looking to get far off the grid head to Con Dao, an archipelago 110 miles off Vietnam’s southeastern coast. Sheer granite cliffs border deserted beaches and crystal-blue water, and a private guide can lead you by motorbike to remote spots like the spectacular Dam Tre Bay lagoon.
Diving enthusiasts should opt instead for the secret island of Mabul, off the northeastern coast of Malaysia, where the marine life is on a par with the Galapagos. Even better, the native sea moths, bobtail squids, and elusive paintpot cuttlefish are some of the only inhabitants.
Travelers looking to commune with nature can also find solitude on Nicaragua’s acre-wide Jicaro Island on freshwater Lake Nicaragua. The nine casitas at Jicaro Island Ecolodge were built from storm-felled trees, and all the food is locally sourced; you can sip a passion-fruit-banana cocktail as you sit by the infinity pool.
Prefer something closer to home? On Washington’s Lummi Island, a nine-square-mile oasis on Puget Sound, you can sample the region’s bounty (net-caught salmon, spot prawns) while watching orcas ply the waters.
Whatever your daydream, you’ll find a destination to match by checking out our slideshow of secret islands around the world.
Vietnam: Con Dao
Phu Quoc might be hailed as the next Phuket, but those looking to get far off the grid head to this undiscovered archipelago just 110 miles off Vietnam’s southeastern coast. A 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City brings you to Con Son, the largest (and only inhabited) member of the 16-island chain. Here, sheer granite cliffs border deserted beaches and crystal-blue water—imagine a tropical Amalfi Coast without the crowds. Up until now, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a decent place to stay, but the arrival of the Six Senses Con Dao (Dat Doc Beach; 84-64/383-1222; sixsenses.com; villas from $685) has brought a welcome dose of luxury to the island. Standing along a stretch of golden sand are 50 airy villas (some with private pools) that look out onto the South China Sea. Food is a highlight here. In classic Six Senses style, the hotel’s Vietnamese restaurant is set up to resemble a market; there are separate stalls “hawking” noodles and rolls, while made-to-order dishes are cooked outside in charcoal-fueled woks. You may be tempted to never leave the resort, but the 20-square-mile island is well worth exploring. Hire a private guide from the hotel, who will bring you via motorbike to the area’s most remote spots, including a 19th-century hilltop lighthouse and the spectacular Dam Tre Bay lagoon.
T+L Tip: Take a boat trip to Bay Canh Island to view endangered hawksbill turtles during nesting season (May through September), arranged by the hotel. —Jennifer Chen
Indonesia: Gili Trawangan
Searching for the Bali of, say, 1970? Head to Gili Trawangan, a tiny island near Lombok dotted with countless waterside cafés. No motorized traffic is allowed here—the best way to get around is to rent a bicycle or use your own two feet. The daily agenda involves nothing more than fishing, diving, or kicking back with a cold beer at Scallywag (South Beach; 62-370/645-301; lunch for two $30). On the southern coast, Hotel Vila Ombak (hotelombak.com; doubles from $150) has 115 airy oceanfront rooms.
T+L Tip: Hop the ferry to Mount Rinjani (lombokmarine.com; tours from $225), an active volcano on Lombok. —Hui Fang
When Columbus made his expedition in 1492, Pico was considered a last outpost before you, well, fell off the earth—and it remains virtually unknown. It’s a shame, what with wines unlike anywhere else, and footpaths that weave through beautifully eerie landscapes of lava. In the middle of a Unesco-designated vineyard is the Pocinhobay (Pocinho-Monte; 351/292-629-135; pocinhobay.com; doubles from $238), where six basalt bungalows take in views of the Atlantic.
T+L Tip: For dinner, head to Ancoradouro (Areia Larga; 351/292-623-490; dinner for two $45) to sample regional specialties such as polvo guisado (stewed octopus). —Christine Ciarmello
There’s a reason mystery writer Stieg Larsson chose Sandön as a setting for his popular Millennium thriller trilogy: the island is covered in a forest of moss and pine trees, and a light fog shrouds the windblown beaches. Check in to the modern Sands Hotell (46-8/5715-3020; sandshotell.se; doubles from $298), just steps from the harbor in Sandön’s only town, Sandhamn. At Sandhamns Värdshus (46-8/5715-3051; dinner for two $100), chef Henrik Lepistö whips up classic Swedish dishes such as house-marinated herring and pytt i panna, a traditional hash with fried egg and beets.
T+L Tip: Rent a mountain bike from Sandhamnsguiderna (46-8/640-8040; sandhamnsguiderna.se; bikes for two $60) and pedal through the forest to Trouville, Sandön’s best stretch of sand. —Ingrid K. Williams
British Virgin Islands: Scrub Island
The name may suggest otherwise, but a trip here hardly constitutes roughing it. Once a pit stop for explorers, it’s been virtually uninhabited for decades—until last year, when the luxe Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina (877/890-7444; scrubisland.com; doubles from $375) opened its doors. What to expect? Spacious hillside villas, guided trips to nearby Norman Island, and sunset nature hikes.
T+L Tip: Reserve Honeymoon Beach (accessible only by boat) for a picnic à deux. —Elena North-Kelly
A one-hour ferry ride from Skiathos, the island of Skopelos is so picture-perfect (hidden coves; blue-roofed tavernas; hundreds of Byzantine-era churches) that Hollywood chose its Kastani Beach as a set for Mamma Mia. At the just-renovated Adrina Beach Hotel (Panormos; 34-24240/23371; adrina.gr; doubles from $98), the 49 pastel-colored rooms face the pine-tree-studded coastline, strewn with daybeds. Later this year, the same owners will debut the more upscale Adrina Resort & Spa (Panormos; 30-24240/23371; theresort.gr; doubles from $110), with 16 terraced rooms and 22 villas that look out onto the turquoise Aegean.
T+L Tip: After a dinner of grilled lamb at garden-side Perivoli (Skopelos Town; 30-24240/23758; dinner for two $60), walk to open-air Mercurius Bar & Café (Skopelos Town; 30-24240/24593; drinks for two $12), or the hillside Ouzeri Anatoli (Skopelos Town; 30-24240/22851; drinks for two $12), for live rebetika music. —Christine Ciarmello
Belize: Caye Caulker
There’s nary a traffic light on this laid-back island—a five-mile strip of land that’s a 15-minute flight from Belize’s main airport. Head to Shark Ray Alley to snorkel among nurse sharks and stingrays or go scuba diving at the underwater caves of Blue Hole. Aboveground, try the curried lobster at the roadside Jolly Roger’s Grill (Ave. Hicaco; 011-501/664-3382; dinner for two $25). On the eastern side of the Caye, Seaside Cabanas (501/226-0498; seasidecabanas.com; doubles from $105) has 10 rooms and six colorful cabins, each with its own roof terrace for taking in those amazing Caribbean views.
T+L Tip: Visit during the annual Lobster Festival (July 1–3), when the main road turns into a street party. —Josh Krist
Bahamas: Sampson Cay and Exuma Cays
Partially protected from commercial activity since 1959, the Exuma Cays are normally the domain of cruisers—and a few privileged landowners such as Johnny Depp. But guests at Sampson Cay have access to the area’s thriving patch reefs and isolated islets. At the Sampson Cay Club (877/633-0305; sampsoncayclub.com; doubles from $275), the five modest villas include wide patios that are perfect for watching the sunset. While the limestone karst terrain may be rugged, every path ends on a stretch of secluded white sand.
T+L Tip: Rent a Boston Whaler from the hotel (from $250 per day) to tour the surrounding islands. —Dave Herndon
Don’t expect to see much night sky here: in summer, daylight shines for up to 21 hours on this rocky one-mile hideaway in Breiðafjörður Bay. Lush meadows and multicolored timber houses dot the scenery, and the mainland’s Snæfellsjökull volcano is always within eyeshot. In town, Hotel Flatey (354/555-7788; hotelflatey.is; doubles from $180) stays true to simple Scandinavian design (blond-wood furniture; whitewashed walls), and the downstairs restaurant turns into a live-concert venue for local talent at night.
T+L Tip: Swing by Iceland’s oldest (and smallest) library, built in 1864. —Jennifer Coogan
This tiny Mediterranean island is where Odysseus was “held captive” by Calypso after the Trojan War. Take one look at the landscape, and it’s no wonder he stayed seven years. Rolling hills, crumbling castle walls, and a Bronze Age fortress are some of the most endearing features. Check in to Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa (Cenc St., Sanat; 356/2219-1000; tacenchotel.com; doubles from $260), with 85 stone bungalows overlooking the sea. From there, it’s a short drive to Dwejra Bay, where you can take a dip, then munch on pastizzi (ricotta-filled pastries) at Tapie’s Bar (St. Francis Square; lunch for two $20).
T+L Tip: Bring home handblown objéts d’art from Gozo Glass (Ta Dbiegi Crafts Village, Gharb; 356-21/561-974). —Claudia Caruana
India: Andaman Islands
These 550 atolls in the Bay of Bengal have all the prerequisites for an idyllic getaway—with an added dose of culture. You can still see a few ancient indigenous tribes. The island of Havelock, a two-hour ferry ride from Port Blair, is arguably the most appealing, thanks to its bone-white beaches. Book a sea-facing villa at the new SilverSand Beach Resort (91-3192/282-493; silversandhavelock.com; doubles from $130) and ask the staff to take you on a trek to the Kala Pather forest.
T+L Tip: Get to know the area’s historic villages on an excursion with Island Vinnie’s (islandvinnie.com; tours from $11). —Tanvi Chheda
Locked in a shallow lagoon, this fish-shaped island has served as a paparazzi-free bolt-hole for Prince William in years past. With its verdant valleys and numerous islets, it’s a haven for hikers and kite-surfers, too. Stay at the beachfront Mourouk Ebony Hotel (011-230/832-3351; mouroukebonyhotel.com; doubles from $205), with 34 Creole-style rooms. For freshly caught seafood, don’t miss Coralie la Diffe’rence (Countour Oblasse; 230/832-1071; dinner for two $40).
T+L Tip: Spot giant Aldabra tortoises at the François Leguat Tortoise & Cave Reserve (tortoisecavereserve-rodrigues.com). —Katerina Roberts
New Zealand: Great Barrier Island
At 104 square miles, “The Barrier” is the largest island off the Kiwi coast, but it’s also the most untouched. Spend your days hiking through dense kauri woods or exploring jagged inlets. Then refuel over mussel fritters at Tipi & Bobs (38 Puriri Bay Rd., Puriri Bay; 64-9/429-0550; dinner for two $45). The four modern rooms at the glass-walled Oruawharo Beach House (5 Ringwood St., Torbay; 64-9/473-6031; ihu.co.nz; doubles from $450) are designed by New Zealand architecture firm Fearon Hay and have spectacular views of Oruawharo Bay.
T+L Tip: Indulge in a soak at Kaitoke Hot Springs (greatbarrier.aucklandnz.com). —Erin Florio
Diving enthusiasts flock to Mabul, off the northeastern coast of Malaysia, where the exotic marine life is on a par with the Galápagos—native sea moths, bobtail squids, and the elusive paintpot cuttlefish are just a few of the inhabitants. At Sipadan Water Village Resort (6-089/784-227; swvresort.com; doubles from $365), the 45 stilted bungalows are cooled by constant sea breezes.
T+L Tip: For local souvenirs, head to Tawau village’s Sunday market (6 a.m.–noon), in nearby Sabah. —Hui Fang
Nicaragua: Jicaro Island
You’ll get a dose of cognitive dissonance arriving at Jicaro Island. There are palm trees and thatched roofs, even a shadowy volcano in the distance, but the air has none of the tropical tang you’d expect, and there are no waves or powdery shores. That’s because Jicaro is located on Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake 10 minutes by boat from the colonial town of Granada. The island’s single acre is occupied by Jicaro Island Ecolodge (505/8403-1236; jicarolodge.com; doubles from $480, including meals), a hotel as sensitive to the environment as it is easy on the eyes. Its nine casitas, stylish with their slatted façades and mosquito-netted beds, are crafted entirely from Nicaraguan timber, salvaged from storm-felled trees. The food is locally sourced, all organic; solar power heats the water; and there’s a freshwater infinity pool. As you sip a passion-fruit-banana cocktail and watch the cormorants dive into the lake, you’ll marvel at how you managed to find such a smart hotel in such an unexpected location.
T+L Tip: Spend an afternoon hiking around the cloud forest on the upper slopes of the nearby volcano, Mombacho. —Peter J. Frank
Chile: Robinson Crusoe
A two-hour flight west of Santiago, this rugged isle earned its fame from the 18th-century sailor Alexander Selkirk, whose wild spell as a castaway here inspired the novel Robinson Crusoe. The aura of adventure still endures (there’s even a rumor of buried treasure). Travelers arrive on a seven-seater plane, then take a 30-minute speedboat ride to the town of San Juan Bautista. At the new Crusoe Island Lodge (Bahía Pangal; 56-23/460-103; crusoeislandlodge.com; doubles from $330, all-inclusive), all 15 rooms are made with recycled materials and wood from the nearby forest. Hire guide Michelangel Trezza from the hotel to organize a scuba dive (from $150), on which you’ll see a centuries-old shipwreck.
T+L Tip: Try El Mirador (dinner for two $100) for piping-hot lobster empanadas. —Kristina Schreck
Argentina: San Alonso
Flocks of ibis and egrets fill the sky at this 25,000-acre hideaway in northeastern Argentina’s Paraná Lake. Owner Douglas Tompkins—the founder of fashion label Esprit—transformed a former cattle ranch into Estancia San Alonso (54-3782/497-172; sanalonso.com; doubles from $160, all-inclusive), with five rustic-chic suites. Guests arrive by aircraft from the city of Posadas (arranged by the hotel; $770 round-trip for up to three people), on the mainland, and head out on twice-daily fauna-spotting forays—if you’re lucky, you’ll see caimans and the endangered pampas deer. After, return to the lodge for a fireside barbecue.
T+L Tip: Take a fly-fishing tour (arranged by the hotel) to catch a 15-pound golden dorado. —Colin Barraclough
A 2 1/2-hour ferry ride from the west-coast whisky town of Oban takes you to this remote Hebridean island. Sheep far outnumber people, and those who have made the wildflower-carpeted island home are the sort of characters who would have inspired Robert Burns. There’s the naturalist Kevin Byrne (44-1951/200-320; colonsayguide.co.uk; walks for two from $32), who can name every buzzard flying near the mile-long sands of Kiloran Bay, or proprietor Mike McNicholl of the General Store (44-1951/200-265; colonsayshop.net), who’ll tell you about the dolphins he just saw and sell you a bottle of Laphroaig. The Howard family owns the Colonsay Hotel (44-1951/200-316; colonsayestate.co.uk; doubles from $160), a nine-room Georgian inn built in 1750, with white pebble-dashed walls, sloping slate roofs, and spare furnishings. You can meet all the locals at the village hall for Saturday’s weekly ceilidh dance, as authentic a gathering as you’ll find in the British Isles.
T+L Tip: For a customized tour of neighboring Jura’s legendary whisky distillery, contact David Tobin of Dream Escape (dreamescape.co.uk). —Heidi Mitchell
Ireland: Inis Meáin
The pleasures of Inis Meáin are simple: a walk along the coast to the thunder of Atlantic swells; a tableau of fissured limestone that glimmers in the mist; the best potatoes you’ll ever taste. At the stone-walled Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites (353-86/826-6026; inismeain.com; suites from $350; dinner for two $125), owners Marie-Thérèse and Ruairí de Blacam have equipped the five suites with bicycles and fishing rods; oversize beds come with alpaca throws, and 30-foot-wide windows look out onto Galway Bay and Connemara. The real allure is the 30-seat glass-walled restaurant, known for its deceptively basic fish dishes and homegrown vegetables. For dessert, try the seaweed pudding in wild-berry sauce at An Dún B&B (353-87/680-6251; inismeainaccommodation.com; doubles from $98; dinner for two $50; dessert for two $15).
T+L Tip: Hike the 1 1/2-mile Cliff Walk, with the Cliffs of Moher as your backdrop. —Laura Read
Italy: La Maddalena
An unassuming understudy to Capri, La Maddalena, off the coast of Sardinia, is getting some well-deserved attention. It’s now the site of La Maddalena Hotel & Yacht Club (39-78/979-4273; lamaddalenahyc.com; doubles from $340), which now has some 200 slips for the yachts that will find their way here soon. Stefano Boeri Architects designed the angular, 96-room hotel, whose biggest draw is its glass-and-travertine spa. Beyond the resort, there are pristine beaches, hidden coves, and rare birds to discover.
T+L Tip: Tour the Garibaldi House & Museum (Casa Bianca), on nearby Caprera, where the 19th-century politico Giuseppe Garibaldi lived. —Maria Shollenbarger
United Arab Emirates: Desert Islands
The roaring traffic sounds of Abu Dhabi, 150 miles to the east, is replaced by the sound of lapping waves on this cluster of Arabian Gulf islands. Sir Bani Yas—with its wadis (dry riverbeds), mangroves, and Christian monastery excavation site—has the only hotel. Luckily, you’re in for a treat: Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara (971-2/801-5400; anantara.com; doubles from $383) includes 64 Arabian-chic rooms; the hotel will plan everything from kayaking trips to game drives through the nearby wildlife park.
T+L Tip: For dinner, try the steamed crabs in an oyster-mushroom sauce at the hotel’s restaurant. —Vinita Bharadwaj
Newfoundland: Fogo Island
This may be the last place you’d expect to find an artistic awakening—it’s a fishing community off Newfoundland’s northeastern coast marked by craggy shores and miles of blissful nothingness. But thanks to residents Elísabet Gunnarsdóttir and Zita Cobb and architect Todd Saunders, the secluded island is becoming a cultural destination. The creative trio are behind Fogo Island Studios, a series of six cutting-edge artists’ ateliers that perch over the Atlantic. Rent a car to tour the modern buildings or consider a hike along the five-mile Turpin’s Trail; a partridgeberry-picking excursion (fogoislandpartridgeberryfestival.com); or a bowl of seafood chowder at Nicole’s Café (159 Main Rd., Joe Batt’s Arm; 709/658-3663; lunch for two $40). The Fogo Island Inn is set to open next year, but for now there’s Foley’s Place (709/658-7244; foleysplace.ca; doubles from $87), a historic B&B that dates back a century.
T+L Tip: Organize an outing with nature writer Roy Dwyer (709/658-3538; email@example.com), who will take you out on his boat and recount tales of Fogo’s storied past. —Karen Burshtein
Washington: Lummi Island
Nature enthusiasts and locavores love this nine-square-mile oasis full of working farms and lush fields on Puget Sound. Stay at Willows Inn (2579 W. Shore Dr.; 888/294-2620; willows-inn.com; doubles from $185), with views of Orcas Island and, for the patient, some actual orcas. Feast on spot prawns, reef-net-caught salmon, and just-picked greens prepared by the hotel’s chef Blaine Wetzel, who recently came over from Copenhagen’s legendary Noma.
T+L Tip: Don’t miss a bike ride (free for guests) to Michael Oppenheimer’s Windy Hill Art sculpture park (windyhillart.com). —Amy Wolfe
British Columbia: Salt Spring Island
Vancouver Island may have the spotlight, but neighboring Salt Spring is impossibly picturesque (imagine rocky shores, rolling pastures, and sky-high oak trees). Cheese makers, vintners, and an eclectic group of artists and craftspeople live here year-round. It’s precisely that eco-artist vibe that lured Michael Abelman and Jeanne-Marie Herman here to open the sustainable Foxglove Farm (1200 Mount Maxwell Rd.; 250/931-5336; foxglovefarmbc.ca; doubles from $175). The wooden cottages have views of Lake Maxwell (book the Log House, with its stone fireplace).
T+L Tip: The Saturday farmers’ market at nearby Centennial Park showcases works by native potters and jewelers. —Nicole Alper
Maine: Southport Island
Boothbay Harbor ranks as one of the busiest tourist havens on Maine’s Mid Coast, but nearby Southport Island, accessed only via a swing bridge, has a more low-key vibe: old Cape Cod–style Colonial houses; small country stores; winding roads. On the way to town, you’ll spot the 40-year-old Robinson’s Wharf (20 Hendricks Hill Rd.; 207/633-3830; lunch for two $65), one of the state’s most revered seafood shacks, serving fresh lobster, shrimp, and oysters. Snag a table on the dock facing Townsend Gut. A 20-minute walk away, Ocean Gate Resort (800/221-5924; oceangateinn.com; doubles from $104) has free canoes for self-paddling tours of the Gut’s sheltered waters. Toward the island’s far end, the 30-room, oceanfront Newagen Seaside Inn (60 Newagen Colony Rd.; newagenseasideinn.com; doubles from $140), with three clapboard cottages, abuts a quaint fishing harbor. This is classic Maine at its best.
T+L Tip: Plan a picnic on Southport Beach, overlooking Hendricks Head lighthouse. —Jeff Wise
Colombia: Islas de Rosario
Cartagena may be the latest Latin American hot spot, but do yourself a favor and venture off the coast to the Islas de Rosario—a chain of 27 mostly uninhabited islands that are home to the country's largest coral reef. With their mangrove-dotted white-sand beaches, they're also known as paradise for in-the-know Colombians. Stay at the tropical-chic San Pedro de Majagua Hotel (57-5/664-6070; hotelmajagua.com; doubles from $290), on Isla Grande. There, you'll find 17 white-on-white rooms with nautical accents (wooden oars, stripped lamps) and panoramic Caribbean views, and a restaurant that serves regional dishes such as fresh-caught snapper, grilled whole and served with coconut rice. Of note: the hotel organizes snorkeling and diving excursions in 45 different locations where you can spot butterfly fish, stone bass, sea turtles, and about 1,300 other tropical species.
T+L Tip: Come nightfall, take a boat to the Enchanted Lagoon, on the other side of the island, to see thousands of luminescent plankton sparkling under the moon. —Stirling Kelso