The World’s Friendliest Islands 2015
As part of Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards survey, readers were asked to evaluate islands around the world, ranking individual characteristics like romance, food—and even how friendly they are. It’s no surprise that far-flung destinations like Fiji, the Maldives, Bali, and Tasmania took the top spots. We get it: what’s not to be happy about when there’s a beautiful beach everywhere you turn? They’re all known for their tropical surroundings, aquamarine waters ideal for a swim, and abundance of hotels that take the idea of getting away from it all to another level.
Yet over and over, voters made it clear how much local culture impacts their experience. “[The] most friendly and kind people I have ever encountered,” said one T+L voter about the Fijians they encountered on their trip. “Beautiful islands, beautiful people.”
But in the world of travel, friendliness also equates to standout service, and on each of these islands, our readers found that the people working at the hotels and resorts where they stayed played an integral part in making their experience a memorable one.
On a trip to the luxurious Katikies Hotel in Santorini, Greece, one voter said, “The people are the best on the planet, and Katikies Hotel in Oia is one of my favorites on earth.” It’s hard not to smile when you spend your day on a cliff overlooking the Santorini caldera basin, with views of the Aegean in the background. For many—visitors and residents alike—Santorini is heaven on earth. And even in the face of economic distress, locals remain “warm, friendly, and hospitable,” said Ed Hall, a T+L subscriber.
A handful of winners are closer to home, including Washington State’s San Juan Islands; Hilton Head, South Carolina; and Mackinac Island, Michigan—proof that you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to find a getaway where the locals are warm and inviting.
We hear it all the time from people who travel to this archipelago in the South Pacific: the locals—especially those who work in hospitality—are always willing and eager to go above and beyond the call of duty. “The staff members were so friendly that I cried when we had to leave,” said one voter about their experience at Matangi Island Resort. That standout service is on full display at other world-class resorts, including Laucala, which is set on a private island.
In this collection of islands—the world’s lowest-lying nation, where no land is more than six feet above sea level—many hotels are built directly over the sparkling azure waters. Readers praise it not only for being friendly, but also for its stunning white-sand beaches, coral nurseries that are ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving, and luxurious properties like the recently opened Amilla Fushi, set on a private island in the western Maldives.
23. Bali, Indonesia
This tropical Indonesian island is about more than its breathtaking beaches—though it has those in spades. There’s a strong emphasis on celebrating its culture, which means visitors have the opportunity to really interact with locals, whether in a cooking class or a traditional blessing ceremony. But if the sand and surf call, don’t miss Canggu, one of our top places to visit this year.
22. Tasmania, Australia
Readers raved about the remote Australian state, calling it a little known treasure, and we can see why—it’s on our list of Best Places to Travel in 2016. It’s got a top-notch culinary scene, thanks in part to its access to local ingredients, from both land and sea, and a celebrated art museum (Museum of Old and New Art) that’s made headlines for its boundary-pushing exhibits. Let’s not forget about the rugged landscape, where adventurers can commune with Tasmanian devils, wallabies, and the duckbill platypus. With all of this to be happy about, it’s no wonder Tasmanians are some of the friendliest people in the world.
21. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
We would be delighted, too, if our everyday life included encounters with scores of wildlife, from sea lions and flightless cormorants to short-feathered penguins and the world’s only seafaring lizards. Volcanic landscapes and beaches relatively untouched by tourism are best seen by sea—truly a trip of a lifetime. Among the new cruise ship options is the MV Origin, a 20-passenger yacht from Ecoventura. There’s also the ultra-luxurious Pikaia Lodge, which was the first to offer a combination land-and-sea stay when it debuted a few years ago.
20. Great Barrier Reef Islands, Australia
It’s been a tough run for Australia’s 1,600-mile sweep of coral reef, what with the one-two punch of Cyclones Ita and Nathan in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But its residents manage to keep their heads up with smiles on their faces, which didn’t go unnoticed by our readers. “Wonderful” and “helpful” were words used to describe the locals and guides our readers encountered. Late last year, Lizard Island finally reopened after suffering extensive damage from both storms. Today, guests can expect 40 serene suites decorated in white and calming hues, 24 beaches, and ample opportunity to explore the reef.
19. Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Friendly locals are just one of the many things readers love about this French Polynesian island, which also ranked number two in our World’s Best Island for Romance survey. You can’t go wrong booking an overwater bungalow at the Four Seasons Bora Bora or the InterContinental Resort & Thalasso Spa, both of which scored high in the survey.
18. Moorea, French Polynesia
If Bora-Bora is where you go to relax on the beach, its less-visited sister island is the place for some outdoor adventure, from horseback riding to Jeep tours (plus the requisite water sports). Want to make your experience in Moorea truly meaningful? Strike up a conversation with an affable Tahitian. “The sites were beautiful,” said one voter. “But the love the people had for the island and traditions was wonderful to see.” Friendly residents may share that the volcano-framed beaches were the inspiration behind the island in Tales of the South Pacific, by James Michener.
17. Raiatea, French Polynesia
The former religious capital of the Society Islands—believed to be the original birthplace of Polynesia—is home to ancient temples and shrines, and dozens of islets (or motus), where you can spend the day relaxing on the sand. You won’t find the grand-dame hotels of Bora Bora or Tahiti here, but rather smaller, cottage-style properties like the Opoa Beach Hotel.
16. Harbour Island, Bahamas
Bahamians’ infectious smiles and laughter seem to have had an effect on our readers. This stylish, three-mile-long island is best known for its pink sand beaches—not to mention the celebrity set that frequently visits (including Uma Thurman, Elle Macpherson, and Harrison Ford). Book a room at the plantation-style Landing, designed by India Hicks, who also owns the local boutique Sugar Mill Trading Co., and explore by foot, by bike, or by golf cart.
15. Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
Part of the British Virgin Islands, this speck of an island is named after a Dutch pirate. There aren’t many locals—only about 300 year-round—but the ones you’ll find are always willing to discuss the merits of their home. Among them: white-sand beaches, stellar snorkeling, and the Soggy Dollar Bar, the ideal spot for a sunset rum cocktail and “true Caribbean hospitality.”
14. Kauai, Hawaii
Some would say that Hawaii’s oldest island is also its most adventurous, with ample opportunity for surfing, hiking, helicopter rides, and other outdoor pursuits. (Don’t miss the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast). Its elders are staunchly proud of the island, which has managed to avoid the development that has befallen its neighbors—though you’ll still find swoon-worthy resorts like Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort on Poipu Beach and the St. Regis Princeville.
13. Big Island, Hawaii
Larger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the aptly named Big Island is known for its multi-color beaches (which include black and green sand), tropical rainforests, lava-covered Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and its abundance of rainbows (the last of which would give anyone reason to be friendly). Among the top hotels: the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai—it’s even beloved by designer Michael Kors.
12. Maui, Hawaii
On this ever-popular Hawaiian island, you can take your pick between buzzy beaches and high-end resorts like the Andaz Maui, and a more laid-back vibe, found on the more rugged eastern coast. The best way to see it all (and to meet as many friendly, laid-back locals as you can) is to drive the 52-mile Hana Highway and stop along the way. “We were struck by the fact that people were so warm,” said a WBA respondent. “Must have something to do with the climate.”
Last year was an exciting one for this picturesque Mediterranean island, known as much for its history (in the form of baroque churches, castle walls, and fortresses) as its limestone cliffs. The 540,000-square-foot Fort Saint Elmo reopened to the public, allowing visitors to stroll ramparts that were crucial during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, and the capital of Valletta debuted a new open-air theater by Renzo Piano. What this means? Locals are welcoming eager, newly interested tourists with open arms.
10. Santorini, Greece
Life just seems better on this Greek island, and why wouldn’t it, with its drop-dead-gorgeous oceanfront vistas—complete with whitewashed houses and blue-domed churches—top-notch wineries, and its Instagram-worthy sunsets? For the best views, stay in the cliff-top village of Oia, and join the outgoing residents who congregate for meze in the town center.
9. Vancouver Island, British Columbia
This island west of mainland Canada is the place to go for a taste of rugged wilderness—and to meet “the nicest people in Canada,” according to one T+L voter. Make your base The Wickaninnish Inn, set within a UNESCO biosphere reserve on a remote stretch of the cape. From here, you can walk along Chesterman Beach and watch the enormous waves, hike to hot springs, or just cozy up by the hotel’s fireplace.
8. Eleuthera, Bahamas
Fifty miles east of Nassau, this Bahamian island is home to everything from rocky bluffs and low-lying wetlands to large coral reefs. You’ll want to stay at the Cove—a T+L It List Winner for 2014—which reopened a few years ago after a head-to-toe redo. The property has two private beaches, rooms done up in white with wood and marble accents, and an open-air bar—the place to be for cocktails as the sun goes down.
7. Lanai, Hawaii
Travelers have more reasons than ever to visit the least inhabited of the Hawaiian islands, which is owned by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison and is one of our top places to travel in 2016. The Four Seasons Lanai just reopened after extensive renovations, with new restaurants (including one overseen by master chef Nobu Matsuhisa), two pools, and 217 rooms decorated with woodcuts by local artist Dietrich Varez.
6. Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Though it’s only a short ferry ride from Cancun, this serene, five-mile-long island—a former fishing village—is the anti-party town. Most of the residents have been here for generations, and are incredibly welcoming to the laid-back travelers that arrive here. What you’ll find: incredible snorkeling, a sea turtle protection center, and the opportunity to swim with dolphins.
You’ll feel the warm hospitality immediately upon stepping foot on this British West Indian Island, whose flat, limestone landscape gives way to some incredible beaches, including Shoal Bay and the wild Junks Hole. The only thing better than those pristine stretches of sand? The locals. “The friendliest and most honest people I’ve ever met,” said one person in the WBA survey. Book a room at the classic, 20-acre Malliouhana—the view of Meads Bay beach is worth it alone.
4. Hilton Head, South Carolina
This South Carolina island, about 30 miles from Savannah, Georgia, offers Southern hospitality at its finest—so it should come as no surprise that our readers praise it for friendliness. Golfers especially love it for the world-class courses, including the Harbour Town Golf Links and the Pete Dye-designed Heron Point, both at Sea Pines Resort.
Even Mark Twain—who called this British territory his second home at the end of his life—was a fan of the people here, an island he called “that happy little paradise.” (Before he died, he said, “You go to heaven if you want to—I’d rather stay right here in Bermuda.”) You can’t go wrong staying at the flamingo-pink Fairmont Hamilton Princess, where afternoon tea is served in the Heritage Court.
2. San Juan Islands, Washington
This archipelago in Washington State is made up of 172 islands—though only four are accessible by ferry and home to most of the restaurants and accommodations: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Those who live here full-time are best described as easygoing hippy types, from artists to successful businesspeople who appreciate a place where there’s no cellphone signal. Read on for more details about the best way to tackle the islands.
1. Mackinac Island, Michigan
Summer is the best time to visit this charming, four-square-mile island located on Michigan’s Lake Huron. A vacation here is like stepping back in time: Cars have been illegal since the late 1800’s, which is why the preferred mode of transport is a horse (or horse-drawn carriage). Most of the island is protected and remains undeveloped, meaning there are caves and rock formations to explore. To add to the charm, the locals even have a term of endearment for out-of-towners: "fudgie," so named because no tourist leaves the island without sampling some of its specialty. Is it any wonder this island snagged the No. 1 spot?