The World’s Best Island Beaches 2015
“I find it difficult to disconnect from life, so I love how isolated the Maldives are,” says Nick Porfilio, CEO of social savings website Saveful.com. “It takes a long time to get there—about 24 hours from the U.S.—but you truly feel like you're in paradise, unplugged from the rest of the world.” Once there, the San Franciscan adds, “if you want to go snorkeling or diving, one of the world’s best reefs is literally outside your villa's door.”
That mix of seclusion and convenience was a big reason why Travel + Leisure readers placed the Indian Ocean archipelago near the top of the World’s Best awards. As part of the annual survey, readers ranked islands around the globe for such enticements as their dining, value, and romantic appeal, but none of those features would be worth much without one other category: their beaches.
Related: 10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches
Granted, not every island in the beachy top 20 got there thanks to powdery white sand alone. One winner has an array of sand colors—including red and black—while others are known as much for their underwater coral and colorful fish as their pristine stretches of sand. And some winners offer easy ways to play in the waves, whether you want to snorkel, paddleboard, or dive off a cliff.
And still some other readers preferred island beaches where there was precious little to do. When Faye Nulman traveled in 2010 to Moorea, she loved the “natural air of peace and quiet,” says the New Jersey massage therapist. One day, she rented a dune buggy and drove to the top of a mountain for views. “The sounds of the birds were wonderful, along with even more silence,” she says. “It was as if the entire island was ours alone.”
No. 20 Captiva Island, Florida
This island off southwestern Florida is best known for its seemingly endless inventory of pastel seashells—250 different varieties—covering the sand. But unlike its more bustling sister island—where seashellers do the “Sanibel Stoop”—Captiva visitors do the “Captiva Crouch.” Prime shelling season runs from May through September, but year-round, the sunsets are fabulous from Alison Hagerup Beach. Perhaps because shelling is not terribly strenuous or sociable, the island did not rank highly for its wealth of activities or friendly locals. To boost your chances of having the most pristine sand to yourself, stay at the South Seas Island Resort, where you can take a quick boat ride to the even quieter beach of Cayo Costa State Park.
No. 19 Bermuda
Despite its bevy of green diversions—namely, golf— this classic British island still dazzled readers with its pink sand, found on beaches like John Smith’s Bay or Elbow Beach. Readers also raved about The Reefs Resort, set among limestone cliffs, ranking it at No. 3 among all Caribbean hotels. Going underwater exposes even more of the islands’ beauty—like the snorkeling at Church Bay, or peering at the dramatic formations at Crystal Caves. And while the upper-crust reputation may have contributed to its so-so standing in the value category, it’s hard to argue with the island’s easy access, off the coast of North Carolina.
No. 18 Turks and Caicos
This archipelago southeast of the Bahamas no doubt secured its spot thanks the snowy white sands like those on Grace Bay Beach—and indeed the nearby Grace Bay Club made readers’ top 10 of Caribbean resorts. And while these 40 coral islands did not make the survey’s top 20 for romance, it does offer a wealth of family-friendly options, like the condo-style Ocean Club resorts. Turks and Caicos also ranked at No. 6 for dining in the Caribbean: For a lunch-and-beach experience away from the tourists, take a seat at the picnic tables of Da Conch Shack and Rum Bar, off scenic Blue Hills Beach in Providenciales.
No. 17 Nantucket
Many readers might be forgiven for thinking that the most beautiful things on Nantucket come on a plate: it ranked at No. 1 in the world for island cuisine—like the lobster with carrot-truffle dumplings at elegant Topper’s, the spicy fried oysters at The Proprietors Bar and Table or the “deconstructed clam bake” at Straight Wharf Restaurant. To work up an appetite, try hanging ten at Surfside, Cisco or Miacomet beaches, or taking a jeep out to Great Point, where you can fully appreciate the island's wild side—marsh grasses and seemingly untouched sand dunes. Such well-preserved beauty comes at a price, of course: Nantucket ranked in the top 5 for feeling expensive.
No. 16 Kiawah Island, South Carolina
A 20-mile drive from Charleston, this barrier island offers a consistently uncrowded experience, since most of its starfish-dotted beaches are reserved for private owners or resort guests (and there’s just one resort, Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which features the plush Sanctuary Hotel). The island does offer one public beach: the Kiawah Beachwalker Park, which has 10 miles of sand overlooking both the Atlantic and the Kiawah River, and which is edged by pine trees, live oaks and magnolias. From mid-May through October, you might also see one of the island’s nearly 300 loggerhead-sea-turtle nests along the dunes. The island ranked at No. 15 for romance, apparently for both reptiles and mammals.
No. 15 St. Bart's
This French-speaking Caribbean island is famous for its A-list (and rather pricey) ambiance: it ranked last in the survey for feeling like a bargain. But the beaches—all public—act as the great equalizer. St. Jean Beach is where you go to see and be seen, but for fewer crowds, try Grande Saline, the cliff-ringed Anse de Gouverneur or Colombier, which is reached only by boat or scenic goat path. For well-rendered cuisine—the island took the silver medal for dining—tuck into the Creole menu at Le Grain de Sel, or the Provencal-influenced L’Esprit Salines, helmed by Jean-Claude Dufour and overlooking Saline Beach.
No. 14 Santorini
Set against the bright blue waters of Aegean Sea, the beaches of this Greek island offer a variety of colorful contrasts: the red-rock formations of Red Beach, the black sands of Perissa Beach and the white stones (and nude sunbathers) of Vlychada. The island also ranked at No. 3 for activities—like scuba diving, snorkeling, or tasting the white and dessert wines from vineyards like Koutsoyannopoulos Winery and Wine Museum, near black-pebbled Kamari Beach. For great sea views, stay at Katikies Hotel in Oia, which overlooks the Caldera cliffs, or the adults-only Perivolas, built into three-century-old cliff dwellings. As a testament to the gorgeous sunsets, the island also ranked at No. 5 for romance.
No. 13 Great Barrier Reef Islands
Home to the world's largest coral reef, these islands off the northeastern coast of Queensland also made the top 10 for attractions, even if many of those sights—green sea turtles, baleen whales, and 400 species of fish and coral—lurk below the water’s surface. For natural sights on land, however, beach lovers will love the pearly-white silica sand of Whitehaven Beach, part of Whitsunday Islands National Park. To get your own stretch of sand, stay at the 60-bungalor Qualia, on Hamilton Island, with views of the Coral Sea, or Lizard Island, which has 24 small beaches and accommodations for just 40 couples. Despite the privacy, the Great Barrier Reef Islands ranked at No. 6 for feeling friendly.
No. 12 Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
The little island named after a Dutch pirate got big points from readers for its low-key culture. Measuring just three-by-four miles, it has scarcely 300 year-round residents. That best-kept-secret vibe may be why it was readers’ favorite island in the BVI, and the silver-medal winner among all Caribbean islands. Granted, there is not a huge amount to do here, beyond sailing, snorkeling or just staring across the blue water; all of those are easy to do at White Bay Villas & Seaside Cottages, set on a beach known for its white sand and wealth of hammocks.
No. 11 Virgin Gorda
Either despite of or because of its name (which translates to “fat virgin”), this pretty island in the BVI was a shoo-in for the romantic top 20. Its most iconic spot is The Baths, the popular beach with tiny pools and grottoes formed by the enormous granite boulders. For even more secluded snorkeling, take the 15-minute hike (or a boat ride) from the top of the Baths to Devil’s Bay, a horseshoe-shaped bay with shade umbrellas. To bring home a piece of the island's romantic past, shop at spots like Thee Artistic Gallery, in the yacht harbor, or Saba Rock Resort’s gift shop, known to sell coins and trinkets found in shipwrecks.
No. 10 Moorea
This mountainous but mellow island was readers’ No. 1 pick in French Polynesia, and ranked at No. 5 overall for islands around the world. Tamae is the most popular beach in Moorea, but you can secure your own piece of it when you stay at nearby Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort (for even fewer crowds, go to the slender beach at the end of Hauru Point). Readers may have also appreciated the island’s literary and cinematic street cred: part of Mutiny on the Bounty was filmed here, and the island reportedly inspired the magical Bali Hai from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Despite the long trip to get there, Moorea also made the survey’s top 15 for good value.
No. 9 St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Readers ranked St. John at No. 4 among all Caribbean islands, loving it perhaps because it’s just far enough out of reach—a short ferry ride from St. Thomas—to feel secluded, but without being remote. Plus, it has stayed fairly pristine, since two thirds of the island is a national park, including popular Trunk Beach and Honeymoon Beach. If you’re the type who’s always seeking shade, go to Maho Bay Beach, lined with coconut trees. To fully embrace the verdant personality of the island, stay at Concordia Eco-Resort, which offers tents, treehouse-style units, and condos next to the white-sanded Salt Pond Beach.
No. 8 Exumas, Bahamas
This archipelago didn't rank very highly in the survey for either affable locals or restaurants—maybe because, relatively speaking, there aren’t that many people or eateries among the Exumas’ 365 cays (at least one of them is just inhabited by lizards). If you stay on Great Exuma, however, you can walk from several hotels to Georgetown’s Jolly Hall Beach, known for its shallow turquoise waters. On Little Exuma, go to Tropic of Cancer Beach, which intersects the meridian line and is the longest beach on the little island. The Exumas’ other natural charmers are the famed Swimming Pigs, the wild porcine residents who can be seen doggy-paddling around Emerald Bay, near Great Exuma’s Grand Isle Resort.
No. 7 Bora Bora
With its hibiscus flowers, black pearls and shallow, fish-rich waters, this honeymoon magnet ranked at No. 2 for lovebirds in the island survey. Indeed, the home of iconic Mount Otemanu offers a number of never-need-to-leave-the-hotel options, likes the St. Regis Bora Bora, with its 79 thatched-roof, overwater bungalows, a private snorkeling lagoon, and an on-site restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. To sleep near the island’s iconic public beach, Matira, stay at the Intercontinental Le Moana Bora Bora on Matira Point, which has two private beaches.
No. 6 Maui
With its 30 miles of public beaches, Maui was the readers’ favorite Hawaiian island in the overall survey. Lovely Wailea and Kaanapali are the best-known beaches for good reason, but your ideal beach may depend on what you want to do on the No. 5 island for activities. For bodysurfing, go to reliable Makena State Park or Honokahua Bay, which neighbors the Ritz-Carlton Kapaula. For snorkeling (as well as dramatic cliff-jumping), go to Pu’u Keka’a, near Kaananapali. If you'd rather watch sunsets than sunbathe, go to Keawakapu Beach, which tends to stay uncrowded and offers a great view of the late-day show. Not surprisingly, the Hawaiian island also ranked at No. 6 for romance.
No. 5 Anguilla
If you like long sightlines, you’ll love this British West Indian island, which has both a pretty flat terrain and a nicely undeveloped ambience (as in, no cruise ships or casinos). Shoal Bay and Rendezvous Bay are the most popular beaches, but if you stay at the recently renovated Malliouhana, you can walk to three other options: Turtle Cove, Bobbing Cove, or Mead’s Beach, which has long stretches of unpopulated white sand. Or, stay at the Moroccan-style Cap Juluca, where you see the mountains of St. Maarten or windsurf in the trade winds of Maundays Bay. Either way, there’s no need to exert yourself too much: the island also ranked in the bottom 10 for activity levels.
No. 4 Kauai
This Hawaiian island, lined with red-walled canyons, rainforests and waterfalls, took the silver medal for attractions and active endeavors—like hiking along the Na Pali coast’s Kalalau Trail, which takes you to the gorgeously remote (but too rough for swimming) Hanakapi ai Beach. To make the most of the water, you can find classic surfing waves at beaches like Hanalei Bay; if you want to snorkel, go to the nearby, cave-lined Tunnels Beach. If you can’t stand to be too far from the water, stay at Hanalei Colony Resort where some of the suites are just 10 feet from the beach (and they’re nicely unplugged, with no TV or phone, but obligatory Wi-Fi).
No. 3 Harbour Island, Bahamas
Plenty of destinations boast of their pinkish sands, but this three-mile-long island off Eleuthra may have the strongest claim: Tiny red-shelled foraminifera creatures have literally left their mark all over the otherwise white sands of Pink Sands Beach, and have inspired such thematically consistent resorts as the cottage-style Pink Sands Resort and the 38-room (and also anti-shoe) Coral Sands Hotel (“leave your Louboutins at home,” reads the site). Harbour ranked as the favorite Bahamian island in the overall survey, and also made the top 10 for cuisine, with options ranging from the elegant The Landing, known for its local fish and long wine list, or the homey Ma Ruby’s, which claims to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
No. 2 Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
This archipelago 600 miles off Ecuador actually won as readers’ overall favorite in the island survey—even if it doesn't conjure images of lounge chairs on pristine white sand. Rather, you come to the Galápagos to watch iguanas and blue-foot boobies skitter across the surf. If you want to play yourself, the long beach at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz offers excellent surfing as well as the chance to see pelicans, flamingos and turtles (hence the name). For dedicated wildlife viewing, it's hard to beat Bahia Gardner, on Española Island, where you can see red lava lizards, Española mockingbirds and sea lions. Stay at the carbon-neutral Pikaia Lodge on Santa Cruz Island and you can cover even more ground in the 61-island chain, using the resort’s private yacht.
No. 1 The Maldives
This year, the winning islands offer a lost-in-paradise magic. Since there are 1,102 islands and 26 atolls in this Indian Ocean archipelago—and some resorts take up entire islands—picking your beach is often just about choosing a place to sleep. At Soneva Fushi, on Kunfunadhoo Island, staffers confiscate your shoes when you check in, to encourage you to keep your toes in the sand (and making it that much easier to pack): the 65 villas have direct beach access, and the resort has an outdoor movie theater. While the Maldives also ranked at No. 1 in the survey for island romance, it likewise ranked at No. 2 for friendly locals: One of the more social resorts is Niyama Maldives, which encompasses two small islands and features SubSix, an underground nightclub and restaurant.