World's Best Islands 2013
You know you’ve escaped civilization when you’re swimming through a coral garden, with only green sea turtles and tropical fish for company. That’s the enticing promise of a trip to Palawan, a chain of white-sand islands in the Philippines.
Palawan is the latest far-flung beach destination to capture the imagination of travelers, specifically, discerning T+L readers who voted it the No. 1 island in the latest World’s Best survey. It’s a reminder that sometimes, the greater the distance traveled, the greater the rewards.
Related: Best Places to Travel in 2014
That said, readers recognized worthy getaways all over the map, from the sultry island of Sicily (No. 8)—where vineyards and ancient ruins vie with beaches for your attention—to the heart-shaped paradise of Moorea, a French Polynesian island known for its blue lagoons and luxurious hideaways.
You can also take your pick from notable islands near America’s East and West coasts: Prince Edward Island, with its seaside cottages and red sand dunes, and Maui, which trumped the other Hawaiian islands, coming in at No. 3 overall.
Whether you prefer a quiet sliver of sand a few time zones from home, or a more accessible and bustling local scene, you’ll find inspiration among these top-rated islands.
No. 1 Palawan, Philippines
This lightly populated archipelago of 1,780 islands makes a splashy debut on the World’s Best Islands list by nabbing the No. 1 title thanks to its unspoiled beauty, abundant wildlife, and seascapes, which T+L readers deemed second to none. Seek out the serenity of the beaches of El Nido, where Bacuit Bay’s coral reefs teem with tropical fish, or, for bragging rights, the world’s longest underground navigable river.
Where to Stay: On the edge of a tropical rainforest, the palm-thatched villas of new luxury hideaway El Nido Pangulasian Island front a sandy cove where you can dive with sea turtles. elnidoresorts.com
No. 2 Boracay, Philippines
Boracay, which ranked No. 1 last year, has made room for up-and-coming Palawan, yet the island continues to exert its own powerful appeal on travelers. Boracay is smaller and more accessible, with more nightlife. White Beach boasts of the world’s softest sand, while Puka Beach offers beautiful seashells and the romance of seclusion.
No. 3 Maui, HI
Maui has won over T+L readers once again as the most sought-after Hawaiian island. Can you blame it? Just consider the evidence: the surfer haven of Paia; the heart-stopping scenic drive past secret waterfalls to Hana; miles of perfect coastline like Napili Beach; lush valleys; and otherworldly trails along Haleakala volcano.
Where to Stay: Favored celebrity hideout Four Seasons Resort at Wailea caters to every whim with three stellar restaurants, Pacific and volcano views, and customized spa packages.
No. 4 Santorini, Greece
Gleaming white houses and blue-domed buildings perched on soaring cliffs above the sparkling Aegean Sea—it must be Santorini, a distinctly picturesque island among the many-splendored Greek Isles. Roam the palapa-shaded black sands of Perissa Beach or ogle the dramatic sunsets of cliff-top village Oia, one of the most photographed spots in the world.
Where to Stay: Oia’s Katikies Hotel overlooks the sweeping caldera basin with 27 whitewashed cubist cottages situated around two infinity pools.
No. 5 Prince Edward Island, Canada
While it’s known as the setting of the much-loved children’s series Anne of Green Gables, Canada’s smallest and least populous province also attracts visitors with its cobalt blue seas, vibrant emerald pastures, and red sands. Head to Thunder Cove beach and prepare to be wowed by the rust-colored dunes and crashing waves.
Where to Stay: Dalvay-by-the-Sea, Tudor-style cottages on the edge of picturesque Prince Edward Island National Park, with Adirondack chairs dotting the expansive lawn and water views.
No. 6 Bali, Indonesia
Sugary beach landscapes, jewel-green rice paddies, and ancient temples: the physical and spiritual beauty of Bali was enthralling travelers well before the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon—and continues to do so. Start your quest for inner peace by watching the sunrise on Sanur beach’s sweeping sands, then experiencing a Balinese massage along the promenade.
Where to Stay: The new Regent Bali is the ultimate place to meditate, with 94 ultra-luxe beachfront suites on 10 acres of tropical gardens. regenthotels.com
No. 7 Kauai, HI
A playground for nature enthusiasts, laid-back Kauai is covered with verdant mountainous landscapes, plunging waterfalls, scenic hiking trails (layered along the dramatic Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon), and more than 60 beaches. The South Shore’s Poipu Beach or Princeville’s Hanalei Bay beach will put you in instant vacation mode—especially if you have a mai tai in hand.
Where to Stay: Poipu’s Koa Kea Hotel & Resort provides a more intimate escape than nearby mega-resorts, while St. Regis Princeville is carved into a cliff with an 11,000-square-foot spa and 5,000-square-foot infinity pool.
No. 8 Sicily, Italy
Sicily puts its own enigmatic spin on what it means to be Italian, with its fusion of culinary traditions, east-meets-west architecture, and layered history. Ancient ruins and vineyards vie with crumbling seaside villages for your attention. One place to start: the beach at San Vito Lo Capo near Trapani, where you can soak up the island’s intense sunshine.
No. 9 Koh Samui, Thailand
Serenity-seekers, beach lovers, golf enthusiasts, backpackers, and jet-setting partiers all descend on this 13-mile-wide, coconut-grove-laden island, a longtime Thai fishing community. Chaweng Beach has glistening turquoise waters with the best nightlife, while palm-lined Bophut offers a quieter slice of paradise.
Where to Stay: Banyan Tree for its 88 private-pool, hillside villas occupying a secluded peninsula on idyllic Lamai Beach. banyantree.com
No. 10 Galápagos, Ecuador
The payoff for traveling to this archipelago 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast? For starters, face time with prehistoric marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and red-pouched frigate birds. At Puerto Ayora’s Tortuga Bay, you can snorkel and sunbathe with indigenous tortoises, sea lions, and lava gulls.
Where to Stay: A stay on Quasar Expedition’s recently revamped 32-passenger M/V Evolution luxury yacht comes with expert naturalist guides and glass-bottomed kayaks for underwater sightseeing. galapagosexpeditions.com
No. 11 Oahu, HI
Split your time between Oahu’s 112 miles of coastline and the shopping, dining, and nightlife of Honolulu, Hawaii’s most cosmopolitan and easily accessible city. (It’s also where to pay your respects at Pearl Harbor or take a free hula lesson at the Royal Hawaiian Center.) The finest pro and amateur surfers come for the epic waves of the North Shore, while calm Hanauma Bay Beach is nicely suited to snorkeling.
Where to Stay: Trump International Hotel Waikiki Beach Walk is 38 stories high with floor-to-ceiling views of the Pacific, Ko‘olau Mountains, Diamond Head, and Honolulu skyline. trumphotelcollection.com
No. 12 Big Island, HI
You can check numerous items off your bucket list on the aptly named Big Island, which clocks in at 4,028 square miles. Zipline through rainforests, night dive with manta rays, witness Kilauea’s hot magma pouring into the Pacific, and sunbathe on more than 80 beaches, including black-sand Punaluu Beach and green-hued Papakolea Beach.
Where to Stay: Voted the No. 1 resort in Hawaii in 2013’s World’s Best Awards survey, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai has 10 outdoor spa treatment rooms, and ocean-view suites that come with a concierge and private beach cabana.
No. 13 Vancouver Island, British Columbia
A magnet for off-the-grid adventurists, Vancouver Island is all about rugged beauty, with old-growth rainforests, wilderness coastlines, and rare wildlife spotting—within easy reach of charming coastal towns and the city of Vancouver. For quiet strolls and big-wave-watching, Chesterman Beach in Tofino delivers the ideal toes-in-the-sand experience.
Where to Stay: Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn for its panoramic ocean and forest vistas, deep soaking tubs, and rustic luxury.
No. 14 Great Barrier Reef Islands, Queensland, Australia
The largest coral reef in the world stretches for 1,240 miles off the northeastern coast of Queensland, supporting giant green sea turtles, baleen whales, and another 400-odd species, as well as private island resorts and picture-perfect beaches. One notable example: Whitehaven Beach’s 4.5-mile blinding-white stretch in the Whitsunday Islands.
Where to Stay: Maximum luxury meets minimal design at Qualia, a 60-bungalow waterfront retreat in Hamilton Island, with expansive Coral Sea views.
No. 15 Phuket, Thailand
In the midst of the Andaman Sea, Thailand’s largest and most developed island pleases the crowds with stellar deep-sea diving, dining options at all budgets, glitzy resorts, and a rising arts scene. Slip away to spectacular Phang Nga Bay, where sheer limestone karsts rise dramatically out of the water, or to near-deserted Mai Khao Beach.
Where to Stay: The 56 thatched-roof villas at Six Senses Yao Noi come with private infinity pools and the beauty of being removed without being entirely off the grid (45 minutes from Phuket by boat).
No. 16 Crete, Greece
The birthplace of Zeus is an island of myth and history, with ancient Minoan palaces and Venetian fortresses. The landscapes range widely, from snowcapped mountains with hidden caves to deep gorges, olive groves, vineyards, and the translucent shallows and pinkish sands of secret beaches like Elafonisi Beach.
Where to Stay: Blue Palace Resort & Spa in Elounda, a 251-room hillside hideaway overlooking the island of Spinalonga and the Aegean Sea. bluepalace.gr
No. 17 Moorea, French Polynesia
This heart-shaped French Polynesian paradise, Bora-Bora’s less-visited sister island, satisfies every South Seas fantasy. Travelers can snorkel in the crystalline blue lagoons, horseback ride along the deep bays, or just laze on coconut-strewn beaches like half-mile-long Opunohu Beach.
Where to Stay: At Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort, thatched-roof overwater bungalows float on stilts over a coral reef, with views of Tahiti in the distance. sofitel.com
No. 18 Mallorca, Spain
The Balearic archipelago’s largest and most-visited island—attracting European royalty and Hollywood celebs—is arguably the most beautiful as well. For the ultimate escape, trek by boat to the east coast’s secluded Cala Varques beach, with its bathlike water and golden-hued sands ringed by pine forests.
Where to Stay: Near the quiet fishing village of Port de Sóller, newcomer Jumeirah Port Soller Hotel outfitted each of the 120 cliff-side rooms with a terrace overlooking the glimmering Balearic Sea.
No. 19 Culebra, Puerto Rico
Situated just 20 miles east of Puerto Rico, but sans high-rise hotels and flashy tourist spots, Culebra is beloved for its low-key Caribbean vibe. The island’s Playa Flamenco, cited as one of the world’s best white-sand beaches, is just the place to kick back and sip a rum punch cocktail.
Where to Stay: Tamarindo Estates, set on a private 60-acre estate where the cottages have roofed verandas with Culebra coastline views. tamarindoestates.com
No. 20 Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
Privacy and seclusion are the hallmarks of this tiny untamed Caribbean island, accessible only by boat or prop plane and sprinkled with ultra-chic hideaway hotels. Serenity reigns supreme in Virgin Gorda’s isolated coves, rolling hills, and awe-inspiring beaches—like The Baths’ boulder-strewn sands and Little Dix Bay’s long swath of untainted seafront.
Where to Stay: The 500-acre Little Dix Bay resort has secluded cottages tucked along a private beach and is said to be the most expensive hotel of its size ever built.
No. 21 Capri, Italy
This tiny island off of the Amalfi Coast is a jet-set favorite for its luxurious resorts, boutiques, flower-lined paths, and cliff-top restaurants serving two of its famous creations—Caprese salad and Limoncello liqueur. One caveat: beaches here are rocky, meaning you’ll have to brave pebbles to go for a swim. One of the most scenic spots is down a few hundred stairs next to Da Luigi at the base of Il Faraglioni rocks.
Where to Stay: J.K. Place, where the design is nautical with a twist: round porthole-style interior windows, sea-blue walls, crisp white sofas, imitation Greek statues, and houndstooth-print stools.
No. 22 Cook Islands
This South Pacific island group’s low-key resorts make an affordable alternative to its five-star neighbors Tahiti and Bora-Bora. Snorkeling, kayaking, and motu walking—the local pastime of wading in the shallow waters between islets—add to the appeal. For a secluded beach, head to One Foot Island; drumbeats at sundown signal the last boat back to neighboring Aitutaki Island.
Where to Stay: In one of the overwater bungalows at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, on a private island at the edge of the lagoon.
No. 23 Nantucket, MA
Sea- and scene-loving urbanites descend on Nantucket, which has plenty of swanky retailers and restaurants as well as old-time traditions. But outside of town, the island's windblown, starkly beautiful dunes and moors still have the power to make you feel far removed. Bring your picnic lunch to Great Point beach.
Where to Stay: Wade Cottages, a 1920s estate in ’Sconset with cottages and five apartments for rent.
No. 24 Fiji Islands
Lush rain forest, beaches, and blue lagoons mark this remote South Pacific chain of volcanic islands—one of the last untrammeled places. Private-island resorts cater to couples, while larger properties on the main island of Viti Levu are best for families and golfers.
Where to Stay: Nukubati Island, Fijian-born hotelier Jenny Leewai Bourke’s ecofriendly resort with seven rooms.
No. 25 Mount Desert Island, ME
Acadia National Park’s Mount Desert Island is the largest island off the coast of Maine, with scenic routes for hiking, cycling, and kayaking. Fjords carved by glaciers define the rugged salt-licked coastline. But in the southwestern interior, the beach at Echo Lake (about 20 minutes from Bar Harbor) slopes gently into deep blue fresh water. It's a milder place to go for a swim—compared to the 55-degree temperatures common along the northern Atlantic beaches.
Where to Stay: The 19th-century Claremont Hotel has a wraparound porch, and some rooms overlook Somes Sound (considered America’s only fjord).
No. 26 Maldives
The Maldives’ vast collection of low-lying islands offers a seemingly limitless paradise of azure reef-fringed lagoons, palm-shaded beaches, and lavish private-island resorts—many built directly over the Indian Ocean.
Where to Stay: One&Only Reethi Rah, a resort on one of the largest islands in the North Male Atoll, with 130 villas, many with private pools.
No. 27 Bora-Bora, French Polynesia
Turquoise water stretches to the horizon and the jagged silhouette of Mount Otemanu looms 2,385 feet above the powdery white sands of Vairou Bay—one of the world’s most beautiful sunset spots. It’s no wonder honeymooners flock to Bora-Bora, staying in its overwater bungalows and swimming in the brilliantly blue lagoon.
Where to Stay: In one of the thatched-roof bungalows at Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa, built on the white-sand beach of the Motu Tevairoa islet.
No. 28 Anguilla
You’ll find both beachfront barbecue joints and chic hotel eateries on this 16-mile-long Caribbean island, which moves to the sound of calypso beats and has a carefree vibe. Shoal and Rendezvous bays are standouts among 33 glistening white beaches.
Where to Stay: One of the most buzzed-about hotels is the beachfront Viceroy Anguilla, where amenities include private oceanview pools, gourmet kitchens, a two-story spa, and three restaurants.
No. 29 Mykonos, Greece
This Greek island of sun-bleached churches, windmills, and throbbing nightlife attracts both club kids and those seeking a quieter sophistication and romantic sunsets. Mykonos also happens to be a great value at the moment.
Where to Stay: Mykonos Villa, carved into the rocky hillside of Mykonos island, about 25 minutes from the town (and only five from the beach).
No. 30 Harbour Island, Bahamas
On the small sister island to Eleuthera in the Out Islands of the Bahamas, pastel cottages with white picket fences cluster around Dunmore Town. But the beaches are the main attraction, particularly the famous Pink Sands Beach, pristine and colored a soft rosy hue.
Where to Stay: Choose Pink Sands Resort for its beach location and 25 comfy sea-themed villas set among winding, palm-shaded gardens.