Best Secret Islands on Earth 2010
Thirty under-the-radar islands, from Oregon to the Greek Aegean, where you can kick back and let yourself go.
Warm blue water, pristine white sand, swaying coconut palms: Belize’s South Water Caye is a tropical paradise pared down to the alluring basics. Some 30 years ago, only fishermen inhabited this 15-acre islet; today, because it lies distinctly off the Caribbean’s beaten path, frankly, not too much has changed. You can still enjoy the surf’s rhythmic, soporific whush-shhh over sunset drinks at a sandy-bottomed bar.
There’s something magnetic—almost primevally compelling—about a fleck of land bounded by endless sea. And having to share the space with a crowd of tourists can ruin the magic. Fortunately, secret islands like South Water Caye still exist. And for those willing to search for solitude, the reward may be your own maritime Shangri-la.
“People rarely follow the road less traveled,” says Kelly Shea, a Travel + Leisure A-List agent who organizes journeys in Greece. “They have their minds set on Mykonos and Santorini.” But Alonissos—in the country’s Northern Sporades archipelago, in the Aegean Sea—is tougher to access. “Americans have never heard of it,” she says, “and there are no luxury hotels. But it has isolated coves where you won’t see another person all day.”
Alonissos’s primary lure is its marine park—at 875 square miles, Europe’s largest—where striped dolphins and endangered monk seals abound. The isle also features hiking trails that meander through fields of ruby-red blooms, olive groves, and pebble beaches. In the cobblestone streets of the old town of Chora, cheery, Venetian-designed tavernas grill up the catch of the day while live Greek music drifts out of open pub windows.
Ferries make the trip to this 14-mile-long ribbon of flowering rock in a couple of hours from nearby Skiathos, where there’s a small regional airport. But Alonissos remains comparatively remote, so—unlike in Mykonos—the beaches and restaurants and bars have space to spare.
While seclusion has helped hide places such as Alonissos, it’s neither a guarantee (think St. Bart’s) nor a necessity. Just 10 miles from Portland, OR, sprawls a 24,000-acre stretch of river-encircled farmland called Sauvie Island. Known among foodies as the epicenter of the Northwest’s locavore movement, the place bursts with fresh, pick-your-own harvests: plum-colored marionberries, sweet corn, plump pumpkins. And with Stumptown only a 15-minute drive away, Sauvie also represents that rare find: a weekend getaway that’s easy and affordable.
So whether you’re looking for a secluded atoll renowned for its beauty or a little-known enclave just around the corner, T+L’s list of 30 secret islands is sure to reveal a dream destination you’ve been craving. —Catesby Holmes
Great Value: Denotes a hotel with a rack rate of $250 or less.
Belize: South Water Caye
Great Value Unlike the busy beach scene on Ambergris, South Water Caye is still an unknown escape. The island—just 14 miles east of the town of Dangriga—is the ideal place to explore the Western Hemisphere’s longest living barrier reefs. Swim right off the south end’s beach and snorkel or dive amid spotted eagle rays, rainbow parrot fish, moray eels, and dolphins. The Blue Marlin Lodge (from $223 per person, all-inclusive, three-night minimum) has its own dive shop, while Pelican Pouch (doubles from $295), with eight cottages, is set on the prettiest stretch of sand on the island. Entertainment here is of your own making—bring a book and settle back with a cold Belikin beer.
T+L Tip: Avoid July and August, when sand flies are fierce.
Colombia: San Andrés
This English-speaking island 140 miles east of Nicaragua is rightfully on our radar for its adventurous diving and protected wildlife and coral reefs. Book one of the five rooms at Casa Harb (doubles from $400) for its custom-made bamboo and teak South Asian furniture and impressive collection of art (including two pieces by Keith Haring). The local dish rondón, a coconut, yuca, and fish stew, is especially good at Miss Celia Taste (dinner for two $47). Hop on a puddle jumper or catamaran to the Unesco-designated Seaflower Biosphere Reserve to see barracudas and sea snails.
T+L Tip: Take the obligatory ride around the island—private boats are available for rent (hoteldeepblue.com; from $175)—before a dinner of grilled fish speared by your guide and served on Santa Catalina island.
India: Lakshadweep Islands
Beachgoers seeking a simple paradise in India will find it in Lakshadweep, a chain of coral atolls where tourism is carefully limited by government decree. Take a 75-minute flight from the mainland city of Kochi to Agatti, an oar-shaped isle surrounded by shallow turquoise lagoons. Agatti Island Beach Resort (doubles from $200) serves as a base for travelers who want to spend time in the village and on coconut farms. Ferry to Bangaram Island Beach Resort (doubles from $409) and practice yoga amid the palms.
T+L Tip: Take an evening boat excursion to tiny Tinnakara Island, 45 minutes from Bangaram, where phosphorescent plankton bathe the shore in a bluish glow.
Philippines: Siargao Island
Great Value Siargao, a teardrop-shaped, 169-square-mile getaway an hour’s flight from Cebu, was discovered by surfers for its right-breaking wave known as Cloud 9. But surf shacks are giving way to hotels. The eight Javanese-inspired villas at Pansukian Tropical Resort (doubles from $174) are located on the island’s southernmost tip. Kalinaw Resort (doubles from $152) has five cottages on Cloud 9 beach. Surfing is still a draw, and most resorts arrange lessons; or rent mountain bikes from Island Bike and pedal through rice patties.
T+L Tip: Visit Pansukian’s shell museum to see the hotel owners’ collection.
Mauritius: Ile des Deux Cocos
If you’re headed to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, bypass such popular destinations as Grand Baie and Port Louis in favor of Ile des Deux Cocos, a 12-acre isle covered in filaos and palm trees. The only place to stay is Petite Folie (doubles from $2,869), a Moorish-style two-bedroom villa built a century ago by British governor Hesketh Bell. Play castaway on deserted beaches, go for a ride in the crewed speedboat, ask the 24-hour butler for a poolside lobster lunch or tandoori chicken and grilled marlin served in the marble dining room. Be sure to make time for a soak in the hot tub.
T+L Tip: Arrange in advance with a staffer for a trio of musicians to perform a traditional serenade during dinner.
California: East Brother Island
On this one-acre islet, East Brother Light Station (doubles from $315), a restored Victorian lighthouse that once guided ships from the San Pablo Strait to the San Francisco stockyards, has been transformed into an all-inclusive five-room inn—it’s the only place to stay on the island. After arriving via a 10-minute motorboat ride from Point San Pablo, guests are welcomed with a flute of Domaine Chandon champagne. Climb to the third-story platform, which looks out over Mount Tamalpais State Park. In the morning, innkeepers Ed and Anne Witts (both experts on harbor lore) serve a hearty breakfast: pain au chocolat, herbed eggs, and fresh-roasted coffee.
T+L Tip: Ask for either the West Brother room (with a four-poster bed and views of Marin County) or Two Sisters, for a private fireplace.
Oregon: Sauvie Island
Great Value Sauvie Island is the perfect destination for foodies looking for a day trip from Portland. Set between the Willamette and Columbia rivers, this 24,000-acre stretch of farmland is known among insiders as the epicenter of the Northwest’s locavore movement—and it’s just a 15-minute drive from Stumptown. In summer, stop at Sauvie Island Farms to pick plum-colored marionberries; on Thursdays in July and August, Kruger’s Farm Market hosts live outdoor music festivals. The single overnight option is a campsite booked through Island Cove Park (from $17 per tent per night).
T+L Tip: For Sauvie Island–grown produce and bottles from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, try Wildwood Restaurant & Bar (dinner for two $90), in Portland.
Maine: Little Cranberry Island
Great Value Little Cranberry Island has only 80 year-round residents—mostly lobstermen and artists—a post office, one restaurant, and a small museum. Otherwise, the less than one-square-mile expanse is uninhabited—and ideal for cyclists. The main road, lined with wildflowers, takes you from the port to a rocky beach well situated for launching your kayak. Lobster rolls are a specialty at the wood-paneled Islesford Dock Restaurant (lunch for two $45). Rent a private cottage (islesford.com) or head back to the mainland and stay at the eight-room Kingsleigh Inn (doubles from $150), which overlooks the water.
T+L Tip: Pick up colorful glass jewelry at Island Girl Seaglass.
Florida: Pigeon Key, Seabird Key, and East Sister Rock
For the ultimate dropout Keys experience, board the ferry to a cluster of unassuming islands off Marathon, including Pigeon Key, a three-acre green that housed the railroad builders who constructed the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West in 1912. Today it’s a charming museum complex surrounded by grassy fields and shady palm trees. Take refuge on a nearby private island. The 10-acre Seabird Key ($5,595 a week for four) is set up with a canoe, bikes, and a sailboat. Nearby, East Sister Rock ($5,000 a week) has a three-bedroom house with a wraparound veranda and a small dock.
T+L Tip: In Marathon, lunch at the Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (lunch for two $31). Regulars order stone crab claws and Key lime pie.
British Columbia: Langara Island
On 8,000-acre Langara, the northernmost spot in the Haida Gwaii—formerly Queen Charlotte—archipelago (reachable via a two-hour flight from Vancouver), sea lions crowd rocky inlets, ravens soar over moss-covered cedars, and orcas and humpback whales migrate within the Pacific. Get close to the wildlife with the West Coast Fishing Club (four days from $5,570 per person, all-inclusive), an outfitter that arranges four-day guided tours with stays in a hilltop timber lodge. The best dinner option is the hotel’s cliff-top Solarium, where chef Ryan Stone cooks with a decidedly Pacific Northwest flair; prawns with anise-liqueur espuma are a specialty.
T+L Tip: For a lesson in Canadian history, visit the Haida Indian cultural center—with dugout canoes and burial caves on display—on neighboring Graham Island.
British Columbia: North and South Pender Islands
All eyes were on Vancouver this winter, but the cold kept visitors from opting for the two-hour ferry ride south to British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands. On North and South Pender—actually two islets united by a one-lane bridge—temperate rain forest abuts a scalloped coastline that was once the stomping ground of rumrunners during Prohibition. For panoramas of the rocky shore and snowcapped mountains, reserve one of the three rooms at Sahhali Luxury Oceanfront Bed & Breakfast (Update: this property has since closed), set atop a 400-foot bluff. On the less populated south island, there’s Poet’s Cove Resort & Spa (doubles from $290), a 46-guest-room resort with en suite soaking tubs and fireplaces and a 110-slip marina.
T+L Tip: Join up-at-dawn locals at the Sunday farmers’ market for just-baked cinnamon buns and focaccia bread.
Quebec: Îles de la Madeleine
Great Value Were it not for the gusty winds that sweep along the beaches of Îles de la Madeleine, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 130 miles by plane from mainland Quebec, the dozen-island atoll may have remained isolated forever. But now a growing sailing and windsurfing community books far in advance for one of the 10 renovated rooms at the convent turned hotel Domaine du Vieux Couvent (doubles from $190, including breakfast). For an experience that’s even farther off the beaten path, take a 50-minute ferry ride to L’Île-d’Entrée, a favorite fishing spot.
T+L Tip: Adventure seekers should arrange an afternoon of windsurfing through Aerosport, the most experienced local outfitter.
France: Île d’Ouessant
Great Value Also known as “L’Île des Femmes” after the women who lived here while their fishermen husbands were at sea, this island is Europe’s westernmost outpost and one of the Continent’s most overlooked hideaways. Rent a bike or hop a shuttle to the town of Lampaul, where you’ll find crafts shops and crêpes, a specialty in Brittany. Ti Jan Ar C’hafé guesthouse (doubles from $107), half a mile inland, has eight spare rooms. Open the windows to hear the sounds of the Siberian birds that nest nearby each spring.
T+L Tip: Tour two of the island’s five lighthouses, all located near the port of Stiff, then return to France’s mainland on a ferry to Brest or Le Conquet.
On this butterfly-shaped island five miles off Sicily’s western coast, the breeze is scented with jasmine, and locals still catch bluefin tuna with large nets and spears. The 46-room Hotel Tempo di Mare (doubles from $312), a tidy property with private balconies, overlooks nearby Levanzo Island. Trattoria Due Colonne (dinner for two $60) doubles as the town hall and serves caponata, a Sicilian staple of eggplant, olives, capers, and tomatoes.
T+L Tip: Stock up on picnic supplies including cured tuna bresaola at La Casa del Tonno, then head out to Cala Rossa, a secluded cove framed by white, craggy cliffs.
Great Value Fourteen-mile-long Alónnisos, in Greece’s Northern Sporades, is the setting of one of the country’s two marine parks (established to protect the area’s biodiversity), which is home to the endangered Mediterranean monk seal. The island is awash with color: fields of ruby-red flowers, pale yellow cliffs, and green olive groves. There are also ancient villages, pebble beaches, and walking trails to explore. Five minutes by car from the harbor, the Atrium Hotel (doubles from $205) has 29 rooms recently updated with mosaic tiling and cheery curtains, chairs, and bedspreads. Dine at Tassia Taverna (dinner for two $123), in Steni-Vala, for chef-owner Tassia Dendrinou’s lobster spaghetti.
T+L Tip: Alónnisos is home to more than 25 churches, some dating back to the 16th century. Take a tour, available through the Alónnisos Walking Club (alonnisoswalks.co.uk).
Turkey: Bozcaada Island
With its Ottoman-Greek whitewashed houses clustered around the harbor and its lack of tourism, Bozcaada, one of Turkey’s two Aegean islands, is an insider’s secret. The other attraction? Its 2,000-year-old wine-making tradition, currently experiencing a renaissance. At the Corvus winery, former architect Resit Soley is producing the country’s most sought-after bottles. Where to stay? Try Kaikias (doubles from $156), with 22 rustic-chic rooms in the shadow of a Byzantine fortress. Don’t miss the red mullet and smoked octopus at the 110-year-old Lodos (dinner for two $30).
T+L Tip: Bring home a jar of house-made poppy jam, sold at Salto, the town market.
Mexico: Espíritu Santo
Great Value It’s not easy to find an undiscovered Mexican beach getaway, but a collection of islotes off Baja California Sur’s eastern shore remain pristine desert-island paradises. Instead of miles of resorts, you’ll find white-sand coasts and crimson peaks filled with Unesco-protected wildlife. The most inviting is Espíritu Santo, a volcanic speck with shallow inlets that lies 15 miles from La Paz. To get there, sign up for a one- to five-day cruise with the eco-minded Baja Expeditions (from $260 per person per night). There are no hotels, but travelers can sleep in the small vessel’s eight tents or opt for a night back in La Paz at Posada de las Flores (doubles from $180).
T+L Tip: Round out the Baja Expeditions trip with a Mexican cooking class on the beach. Chef Antonio Orozco teaches you to make carne asada on a charcoal grill.
Galápagos, Ecuador: Isabela Island
Don’t tell the thousands of visitors that descend upon Santa Cruz each year, but rocky Isabela (known for its five active volcanic calderas) is the best place to see the giant tortoise and marine iguana. The sheer size of Isabela—it’s bigger than all the other Galápagos Islands combined—and its hard-to-traverse volcanes have contributed to the continued evolution of more than 2,546 species (for example, there are five types of endemic tortoise). Check out Isabela’s wildlife aboard Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Islander (800/397-3984; expeditions.com; 10-day cruise from $5,380 per person, double), a 48-guest, eco-friendly twin-hulled ship that navigates the island’s western coast.
T+L Tip: Scale the active Sierra Nevada volcano with onboard naturalist Carlos Romero Franco.
The Bahamas: Eleuthera
Great Value Regulars rejoice in the fact that this 110-mile-long island, with its peaceful pink-sand beaches, has played second fiddle to its smaller celebrity-filled neighbor, Harbour Island, for decades. On the island’s northern end, all 26 rooms at Cove Eleuthera (doubles from $205) open onto expansive porches; to the south, the 32-room Pineapple Fields (doubles from $160) has a restaurant and lounge called Tippy’s (it’s one of the best in the Bahamas). The fast ferry from Nassau takes 2 1/2 hours.
T+L Tip: Catch the hourly boat from Jean’s Bay dock to Spanish Wells, a diehard fisherman’s island, for a lesson in crawfish hunting and a stroll past harborfront houses covered in blooming bougainvillea.
British Virgin Islands: Anegada
Great Value The only coral island in the volcanic BVI chain, Anegada is also one of the largest—10 by 2 1/2 miles—and, unexpectedly, one of the most sparsely populated. An 80-minute ferry ride from Tortola (via Virgin Gorda), it is known for powdery beaches and a large flamingo population. Accommodations are simple: the Anegada Reef Hotel (doubles from $175) is a modest 17-room property that often schedules soca music during cocktail hour. Cow Wreck Beach Resort (doubles from $250) has three waterfront cottages; head to the outdoor bar for Wreck punch, made with rum—and bartender Alex Warren won’t tell you what else.
T+L Tip: While snorkeling Horseshoe Reef, the largest continuous barrier and patch reef in the Caribbean, look out for remnants of the 1859 cargo ship Parramatta.
Puerto Rico: Culebra
Sleepy Culebra—20 miles east of Puerto Rico—makes Vieques, its sister island, seem downright rowdy by comparison. The hilly landscape and abundance of wildlife preserves mean that development is minimal and the tiny airport will never see much more than an 18-seat twin-prop plane. Ten beaches ring the shore; discerning travelers claim that crescent-shaped Playa Flamenco is the Caribbean’s most perfect swath of sand. The one town, Dewey, is dotted with lagoon-side cafés framed in strings of lights. Stay at Club Seabourne (doubles from $199), where the lemon-yellow cottages have private verandas on a slope facing Fulladoza Bay.
T+L Tip: Butiki sells landscape paintings by local artist Evan Schwarze and colorful, sought-after bracelets.
Australia: Rottnest Island
Great Value When Dutch mariners arrived on this antipodean island, they encountered the rare quokka, a marsupial that they mistook for a rodent (hence the name Rat Nest, or Rottnest). Since that unfortunate beginning, the sun-drenched reserve and its friendly, kangaroo-like inhabitants have welcomed Western Australians who take day trips via a 90-minute ferry from Perth (or 25 minutes from Fremantle) to surf and lounge on the sand. No private cars are allowed, and the residents will happily tell you that plans for a luxury resort are progressing slowly. For now, the best place to stay is Hotel Rottnest (doubles from $208), set in the former governor’s mansion overlooking Thomson Bay.
T+L Tip: Buy your ferry ticket in advance, especially during the Aussie summer months. Once there, the spit is easily navigable on foot.
Fiji: Laucala Island
Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz—CEO of Red Bull—is the force behind the new Laucala Island (doubles from $3,800, all-inclusive), a 3,000-acre private getaway that was previously owned by business tycoon Malcolm Forbes. The resort’s staff greets guests at a tiny airstrip and delivers them to one of 25 villas set in a coconut plantation. The 3,220-square-foot villas, made of mahogany and Fijian vesi woods, are outfitted with outdoor showers, private pools, and spa pavilions. The mainly organic, Fijian restaurant dishes up yuca ravioli and Pacific king prawn kokoda (the local take on ceviche).
T+L Tip: Bring hiking gear and comfortable clothes. There are more than three miles of trails for outdoorsmen to explore by foot or on one of the island’s seven trained horses.
Tonga: Vava’u Islands
Great Value In July some 12,000 humpback whales finish their migration in the aquamarine waters of the 50 beach idylls that make up Tonga’s northernmost state. Book a tour with Mounu Island Resort (tours from $150 per person; doubles from $250) to watch the seafaring giants, then overnight in one of four traditional fales—round, thatched-roof huts decorated with woven mats. The ’Ene’io Botanical Garden & Visitor Center (admission $18, including guided tour), in the village of Tu’anekivale, serves a traditional feast of roast suckling pig and beef wrapped in taro leaves on Fridays—and staffers perform a Polynesian dance show.
T+L Tip: Dolphin Pacific Diving (day trips from $95, including lunch) takes groups to Mariner’s Cave, which is an hour by speedboat from Mounu Island Lodge.
Indonesia: Cubadak Island
Great Value On this jungle-covered island in West Sumatra, you’ll find monkeys, monitor lizards, pangolins, and—most surprisingly—a taste of Italian culture at Paradiso Village (doubles from $240, all-inclusive). The hotel, run by a couple from Turin, has 15 thatched-roof bungalows with loft bedrooms and a restaurant where multicourse meals include heaping plates of prawn and tomato pasta, jackfruit drizzled with palm oil, and coconut flan. The wine list features bottles from Emiglia Romana, and, as is the way in Tuscany, all meals end with a frothy espresso.
T+L Tip: Ask the hoteliers for a tour in their speedboat; you’ll snorkel in nearby lagoons before visiting the fishing village of Kapo-Kapo.
Japan: Ogasawara Islands
More than 600 miles off the coast of Tokyo are the remote Ogasawara Islands. Reached via the once-weekly overnight ferry from Takeshiba, the 30 mostly uninhabited islands are a mecca for scuba divers—the clear waters are dotted with World War II shipwrecks (Iwo Jima is located within Ogasawara). Make your base on Chichijima, the main island, at Sakaiura Family Inn (doubles from $163, including breakfast and dinner), a secluded house with three rooms, or take the local bus to Tetuya (doubles from $261, including breakfast and dinner), a five-room inn owned by a sushi chef.
T+L Tip: Feed sea turtles at the Ogasawara Marine Center. From July through October, get up close to the just-hatched babies in the breeding tank.
Malaysia: Redang Island
Great Value Dedicated divers, snorkelers, and beach bums make pilgrimages to this island just an hour by air from Kuala Lumpur. Most visitors book all-inclusive packages at the hotels since there aren’t many restaurants here, but what Redang lacks in culinary options it makes up for in tropical bliss. Lodging ranges from luxe—the Berjaya Redang Beach Resort (doubles from $201), with minimalist rooms and an ayurvedic spa—to simple: the Redang Holiday Beach Villa (doubles from $116, all-inclusive) has 26 wooden chalets on Pasir Panjang, the island’s longest stretch of sand.
T+L Tip: Avoid trips from November to February, when hotels close for monsoon season.
Thailand: Ko Phra Thong Island
Great Value Travelers who make the four-hour boat journey from Phuket are rewarded with a solitude that’s hard to find in the rest of Thailand. On Ko Phra Thong, a congenial resident known as Mr. Chuoi rents eight palm-leaf huts on the sand, but the best place to stay is Golden Buddha Beach Resort (doubles from $95), a collection of houses ranging from unfussy bungalows on stilts to family-size villas with shaded porches.Your only interruption will be the sound of birds (more than 100 species call this island home).
T+L Tip: Start the morning with yoga in the resort’s open-air pavilion, then take a 10-minute stroll to the island’s interior grasslands, where you’re likely to spot hornbills and sea eagles.
Seychelles: La Digue
Great Value Though this spot is often overlooked by island-hoppers, it may seem familiar because in-the-know photographers and Hollywood location scouts love La Digue and its jagged, towering granite boulders that jut into the sea at Anse Source d’Argent. Explore the rugged landscape before a night at La Digue Island Lodge (doubles from $204), either in a thatched-roof bungalow or in one of 69 rooms set in the Yellow House (a 19th-century colonial building that’s now a national monument).
T+L Tip: The best sunset views are at Veuve Restaurant (dinner for two $87), which serves local Creole dishes, including saffron-dusted tuna.
Great Value Not only is this isle south of Stockholm impossibly picturesque (imagine bright cottages planted among birch and elm trees); it’s also an up-and-coming culinary destination, thanks to chef Magnus Ek. At his minimalist restaurant Oaxen Krog (four-course prix fixe dinner for two $538), Ek prepares regionally sourced dishes like wild salmon and cockle tartare. Spend the night at Prince van Orangiën (doubles from $239), the restaurant’s seven-cabin 1930’s Dutch riverboat-hotel docked steps from the restaurant.
T+L Tip: In nearby Södertälje, check out the Swedish royal family’s Tullgarn palace, famous for its Rococo interiors and English gardens.