World's Best Islands 2014
Deciding whether to watch the sunset from a hammock between coconut palms or from the infinity pool on a hilltop village sounds like a dream dilemma. But when you're overdue for a vacation, even that choice can feel overwhelming.
One surefire place to start: Santorini, Greece, whose blue-domed churches, blanched villages, and picture-perfect sunsets catapulted it to the No. 1 island in the latest T+L World's Best reader survey. The results are your shortcut to planning an easy, breezy beach getaway.
Turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and tropical settings fill travelers' daydreams and Pinterest boards. And many of this year's winners indulge those fantasies; notably, four Hawaiian Islands (Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Kauai) made the top 10. But T+L readers took the meaning of island life a little further, beyond thatched-roof bungalows and coconut palms.
Car-free Mackinac Island in northern Michigan—where horse-drawn carriages and a 127-year-old hotel pull visitors back in time—came in at No. 18, while the natural splendor of the San Juan Islands off Washington State earned the No. 10 spot. After all, untouched wilderness and a pervasive adventurist spirit hold a certain fascination, too.
Whatever your fancy, there's something about being completely surrounded by water that puts you at ease and sets you loose from the daily grind.
Here are 20 ways to plot your next escape.
No. 1 Santorini, Greece
With its white villages atop lava rock cliffs and blue-domed churches overlooking a sunken caldera, this postcard-perfect Aegean island feels a thousand miles from modern civilization. Visit the black-sand beaches of Perissa and Kamari, or take a small caiki (a typical fishing boat) to the Red Beach from the prehistoric village of Akrotiri. The bungalow-style rooms of the Astra Suites hotel are a scenic 1.2-mile meander from the town of Fira and feature infinity pools and views of Santorini’s famous sunsets.
No. 2 Maui, HI
On Maui, you can begin the day by watching a sunrise atop a 10,023-foot volcano, then bike (with a guide) 26 miles down to the former hippie habitat and current surf capital of Paia, often called Maui’s coolest little town. It’s where you’ll find Mama’s Fish House & Inn, where lunch is whatever’s fresh and beachfront cottages make romantic pieds-à-terre. Fuel up here before you set out on the winding, white-knuckle drive to Hana.
No. 3 Kauai, HI
With miles of hiking and biking trails, golf courses, and ziplines, Kauai is more than just a pretty place. You can wander the art galleries and shops of laid-back Hanalei (not far from the spectacular Na Pali Coast) and take surf lessons on its crescent-shaped beach with views to Makana Mountain—a.k.a. Bali Hai from the 1957 film South Paciﬁc. Don’t leave without stopping at Puka Dog for Hawaiian-style sausages smothered in homemade fruit relish and wrapped in sweet bread.
No. 4 Big Island, HI
The largest in Hawaii’s island chain counts 80 diverse stretches of sand, along with a lava-oozing volcano, lush valleys, and so much more, including the one-of-a-kind Green Sand Beach on the south shore. The numerous and interconnecting Kapoho Tide Pools are deep enough for snorkeling, and some are even volcanically heated. Historic Hawi town has art galleries and Sushi Rock, which has won regulars for using fresh Hawaiian catch.
No. 5 Bali, Indonesia
Whether you choose to hang on the beach, hike through the rice paddies, or explore mystical temples, Bali intrigues at every turn. (The holiest of Bali’s temples, Besakih, is located on the slopes of Mount Agung.) It’s worth heading inland to view the Jatiluwih rice terraces, a sprawling, lush UNESCO site. Stay at One Eleven, a collection of nine private villas with individual pools and in-room yoga—an oasis in bustling Seminyak, Bali’s backdrop for beach parties.
No. 6 Oahu, HI
Beach urbanites will dig the Modern Honolulu, not far from the retro glamour of Waikiki as well as downtown boutiques like Tin Can Mailman, where hula girl bobble dolls and retro aloha shirts are popular souvenirs. Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong cooks up island-style breakfasts at Koko Head Café. At Hanauma Bay Beach, the water’s fine for snorkeling. But to supersize your waves, join the surfers along the north shore.
No. 7 Galápagos, Ecuador
Blue-footed boobies, short-feathered penguins, and marine iguanas lure travelers to these islands 600 miles west of Ecuador. When you’re ready to make the trip, consider an outfitter like Geo Expeditions, whose naturalist-led tours combine island hopping on a 16-passenger catamaran with a stay in a tented camp on a 135-acre farm atop Santa Cruz Island. It’s the ideal approach, enabling you to view the fascinating array of land and sea creatures that call the storied Galápagos home.
No. 8 Virgin Gorda, BVI
Seclusion and superb sailing are two of the many reasons to visit Virgin Gorda, where only one road connects the North Sound with Spanish Town, called The Valley by in-the-know types. Devil’s Bay—just below the famous Baths beach—is popular for snorkeling around the caves and boulders. Make your way to Mine Shaft Café in time to catch the sunset. In the North Sound, the eight-room Saba Rock is big on charm and out-of-the-way appeal.
No. 9 Vancouver Island
An easy ferry ride from urban Vancouver gives way to rainforests, wild coastline, and picturesque harbor towns. Hop on a bike with The Pedaler in Victoria for a guided tour around the capital city. Family-run vineyards lure visitors to the Cowichan Valley for tastings. And if you’re craving a stretch of unspoiled beach, Wya Point Resort satisfies with three levels of accommodation: campground, yurts, and luxurious lodges.
No. 10 San Juan Islands, WA
In a palette of granite and green, surrounded by the sapphire Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands feature quirky hamlets, wildlife galore—and that contagious northwest sense of adventure. You can explore the sea and spot a few orca whales on a kayak trip departing from Friday Harbor on the main island of San Juan. It’s about a 10-minute drive to Duck Soup Inn, located in a cabin and known for its locavore cooking. Further afield, on Lummi Island, Willows Inn is a destination restaurant run by chef Blaine Wetzel, who earned his forager’s badge under René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen.
No. 11 Capri, Italy
On this rocky island off Italy’s Amalfi Coast, well-heeled tourists shop for bespoke sandals at Canfora on Via Camerelle and dine at the Capri Palace Hotel in Anacapri, site of the island’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. The Gardens of Augustus afford dizzying views of the famous Il Faraglioni rocks. From that vantage point, it’s easy to see why Capri has charmed visitors since Augustus Caesar vacationed here.
No. 12 Fiji
Favored by honeymooners, this beach-studded chain of islands in the South Pacific is big on private island retreats. Turtle Island, for instance, welcomes 14 couples at a time to stay in traditional, eco-friendly “bures,” each with a personal staff member to indulge whims and arrange candlelight dinners on the sand. A few times a year, the resort breaks tradition with “Family Time,” inviting kids, parents, and grandparents to reconnect in paradise.
No. 13 Great Barrier Reef Islands, Australia
More than 900 islands scattered along the largest coral reef in the world are full of sea life, private retreats, tranquil lagoons, and perfect beaches. You can also choose among a wealth of resorts. Heron Island Resort offers 20 dive sites within minutes of the island. One&Only Hayman Island combines luxury and nature from well-appointed rooms with expansive Coral Sea views. The palm-fringed Catseye Beach on Hamilton Island in the iconic Whitsundays is a haven for beach lovers and water sporting.
No. 14 Moorea, French Polynesia
With jagged mountain peaks and roughly 39 miles of coastline speckled with some of the bluest lagoons you’ll ever see, this Polynesian outpost will convince even the pickiest travelers that fantasy islands do exist. Explore the beaches along the gorgeous bays of Cook and Opunohu, formed, legend says, by the tail of a giant yellow lizard. The Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort has views to Tahiti, just 11 miles away, and bungalows perched above the turquoise waters that are part of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem.
No. 15 Crete, Greece
Remnants of ancient civilizations linger alongside powdery beaches and quaint seaside towns on Crete, the largest Greek island. Start with a visit to the Palace of Knossos, built by the Minoans. Stroll the small streets of Chania, with its lively café culture and central market. A Venetian palace turned boutique hotel, Casa Leone is situated in the heart of the port town. Hikers will want to head inland to tackle the Samariá Gorge.
No. 16 Prince Edward Island, Canada
Canada’s tiniest province celebrates big in 2014, hosting events to mark the 150 years since the idea of Canada’s nationhood was hatched in Charlottetown. Check out the historic town and then hightail it to Singing Sands, one of more than 90 beaches on P.E.I. and named for the squeaky sound made when your feet hit the sand. Panmure Island on the eastern edge of P.E.I. (about an hour’s drive from Charlottetown) draws families to its white-sand beaches and old-time lighthouse. Stop at any one of the dozens of dairy bars dotting the island, like Captain Kidd’s, for milkshakes or soft-serve ice cream.
No. 17 Sicily, Italy
With its ruins, sun-kissed beaches, and plentiful food and wine, Sicily presents island life, Italian style. To the west, you’ll find wine country and the town of Marsala, known for its eponymous sweet vintage. Tucked into the green rolling hills, Baglio Oneto Resort and Restaurant is run by a family that has been producing Sicilian vino for generations. Get your history fix a few hours south at the Valley of the Temples, a collection of well-preserved Greek temples outside of Agrigento.
No. 18 Mackinac Island, MI
This car-free island is America’s second national park, found in the straits of Mackinac, between lakes Michigan and Huron. Biking the trail around the island is a fine way to spend an afternoon. You might break to visit Fort Mackinac or sample local brews at Draught House, open this summer. Take a horse-drawn carriage to the all-inclusive Grand Hotel, with a fabulous 660-foot geranium-lined porch.
No. 19 The Exumas, Bahamas
Two hours from Miami, this constellation of 360 islands and cays is an obligatory port of call for seekers of the unspoiled Caribbean. The water swirls every shade of turquoise, and in it swims sharks, stingrays, dolphins, turtles, and pigs (yes, pigs) on Big Major Cay. You can spend a week kayaking, exploring, and camping on isolated and uninhabited islands with the family-owned Out-Island Explorers. If four walls are more your travel style, the pastel-hued Hideaways in George Town is the place to sleep, and listen to local rake ‘n’ scrape music.
No. 20 St. John, USVI
Americans don’t need a passport to vacation on St. John among tropical flora and fauna, miles of sandy beaches and trails, and historical sites from the laid-back island’s European days. The Annaberg Sugar Plantation ruins offer expansive views over turquoise bays. Hike the Reef Bay Trail, which starts 900 feet above sea level at Centerline Road, five miles east of Cruz Bay, and descend toward the sea through a tropical forest. In Virgin Islands National Park, accessible only by boat or ferry, Caneel Bay Resort remains the place to unwind and unplug.