World's Best Islands 2010
From wild natural sanctuaries to ultra-glamorous hideaways, these islands get top marks from seasoned travelers.
Traveling to islands makes us feel like we’ve really traveled. It doesn’t matter whether they’re tropical or glacial, trammeled by thousands of other visitors or just by birds and sand crabs; by definition, islands are more remote, more challenging to get to than mainland destinations, and therefore that much further from our everyday lives.
It’s almost a no-brainer, then, that islands hold a special compass point in most travelers’ hearts. And when Travel + Leisure asked its readers to weigh in on the best islands around the globe, we weren’t surprised to be deluged with responses.
Readers were asked to rank their top picks according to several criteria: the islands’ natural attractions, activities and sights, and restaurants and cuisine; also, the friendliness of the resident islanders and the overall value of taking a vacation there.
The results, as our list reveals, are literally and figuratively all over the map. This year’s top-rated islands include some that can be accessed with a single domestic air transfer and others that require crossing a half-dozen time zones using several forms of transport. Some on the list are oases of quiet and unspoiled nature; others draw hordes of party-minded fashionistas. And some are as tiny as confetti scraps, while others would take months to properly explore.
Still, when compared to 2009’s “Best Islands” survey results, this year’s list does reveal a few particular trends. For starters, Travel + Leisure readers seemed slightly less enamored with extremely far-flung islands in 2010 (two distant tropical Asian destinations slipped in the rankings). They also seemed far more interested in Mediterranean and Adriatic isles (4 of the top 10 slots were taken by newcomers in Greece, Italy, and Croatia).
The most marked change, however, is that this year’s top two spots were both nabbed by islands prized for their extraordinarily riotous, untamed natural environments. One is close by (right here in the U.S., in fact); the other is about as far-off as a place can be without being totally inaccessible. Want to find out where they are? Check out the list and see.
No. 10: Big Island, Hawaii
2009 ranking: No. 9. The sheer size of Hawaii’s southernmost island, which dropped one rating point in this year’s survey, is staggering: not only is the wedge-shaped landmass the biggest island in the U.S., it’s also bigger than plenty of entire countries. The island’s attractions run the gamut from zip-lining through rainforests to sunning on volcanic black beaches, and from diving with manta rays to snowboarding (yes, snowboarding). But its truly singular destination is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—where you can watch Kilauea, one of the planet’s most active volcanoes, pumping out prodigious spreads of fiery molten lava.
No. 9: Maldives
2009 ranking: No. 8. Sprinkled along a 34,750-square-mile stretch of Arabian Sea off the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, the Maldives’ vast collection of tiny islands (there are 1,190, though only about 200 are inhabited) is a seemingly limitless paradise of azure reef-fringed lagoons and sugary palm-shaded beaches. Some of the world’s most opulent private-island resorts are here, too—including the off-the-charts luxurious Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa and the One&Only Reethi Rah. The only downside? As the world’s lowest-lying country, the Maldives can be hard hit by southern-sea tsunamis, as it was in 2009. (Perhaps that’s why it fell one rating point since last year’s survey.)
No. 8: Maui
2009 ranking: No. 6. Verdant, gorgeous, and far more manageably sized than its southerly Big Island sister, Maui makes for a perfect weeklong Hawaiian holiday. You’ll be able to hit all the high points, like the flower fields and pastures of the up-country, the cliff-hugging drive to the historic north-coast village of Hana, and the trails around Haleakala—the world’s largest dormant volcano, which peaks at over 10,000 feet. A particular experience you shouldn’t miss in winter, though, is humpback whale–watching in the protected Auʻau Channel, between Maui and Lanai; each year, pods of whales migrate all the way from Alaska to feed and calve in the warm waters.
No. 7: Sicily
New to the list. Boldly flavorful cuisine, robust wines, crumblingly beautiful Baroque cities, and vibrant seaside villages have all helped Sicily nab a spot on our list of top-rated islands. But while you may already be familiar with its famous dishes and varietals (spicy eggplant caponata, earthy Nero d’Avola)—not to mention its infamous status as the birthplace of the Mafia—Sicily has plenty of surprises. For example, the twin south-coast cities of Agrigento and Taormina, which together are home to some of the most extensive and well-preserved ancient Greek ruins outside of Greece.
No. 6: Santorini, Greece
New to the list. The most iconic travel-poster images of the Greek isles—the ones showing igloo-white, domed buildings perched high above a sapphire-colored sea—are actually images of Santorini. The southernmost island in the Cyclades group has long drawn photographers—as well as yachties, trendy hotel–hoppers, and assorted other hedonists—with its dramatic beauty. Those stunning panoramic vistas have come at a price, though: Santorini’s soaring cliffs are actually the remains of an enormous collapsed volcano that erupted some 3,600 years ago. But even periodic seismic activity, including an earthquake in 2009, isn’t enough to keep the island off the list.
No. 5: Hvar, Croatia
New to the list. Hvar, set off Croatia’s ruggedly striking Dalmatian Coast, is well known among European jet-setters, and this year T+L readers voted it onto the list of top-ranked islands. Long and crocodile-shaped, the island is carpeted in aromatic fields of lavender, olive groves, and pine forests; craggy bluffs drop down to meet the shimmering Adriatic, where fabulous luxury yachts idle at anchor. The main port city of Hvar Town is a bustling mix of old and new: elegant, seven-century-old Venetian buildings and promenades house chic boutiques and sybaritic nightclubs, where a tanned, expensively clad young crowd comes to frolic.
No. 4: Bali
2009 ranking: No. 1. Eat Pray Love notwithstanding, Bali dropped four ranking points in this year’s survey (it was last year’s top pick). Still, the jewel of the Indonesian archipelago continues to enchant. Equal parts spiritual retreat and decadent hideaway, the island’s thick tropical forests, emerald-green rice paddies, and sweeping white beaches are home to thousands of centuries-old shrines and temples—and dozens of five-star spa resorts, where healing treatments are administered with the same reverence as prayer. If you’re looking for inner peace along with your sensory bliss, this is an excellent place to start.
No. 3: Cyclades, Greece (excluding Santorini)
New to the list. Santorini has historically gotten the hype, but according to our reader rankings, the rest of Greece’s Cyclades island group is finally stealing the spotlight. Of the 220 islands, most are uninhabited—and one, Mykonos, is nearly as glitzy a tourist destination as Santorini. But several other, lower-key islands have lately been dazzling travelers with their traditional whitewashed villages, rough-hewn landscapes, pristine Aegean beaches, and lively harbor towns filled with rollicking tavernas and sublime seafood restaurants. New hot spots include archaeologically rich Milos and Naxos, and the sailing and windsurfing havens of Paros and Antiparos.
No. 2: Kauai, Hawaii
2009 ranking: No. 4. The wildest and greenest of Hawaii’s islands (it’s nicknamed “the Garden Island”) jumped two points in this year’s rankings. Kauai has long appealed to nature lovers; more than half of the island is designated as preserve, and its lush mountainous landscapes, punctuated by waterfalls and choked with vines and cascading bougainvillea, are so primeval looking that they were used as film locations for Jurassic Park. Much of the island is inaccessible by car, so the best way to explore is under your own power—by hiking the cliffs and gorges of Na Pali Coast in the north, kayaking the serene Wailua River in the east, or—for a real change of scenery—trekking through the arid red-rock Waimea Canyon in the west.
No. 1: Galápagos, Ecuador
2009 ranking: No. 2. The far-flung archipelago that sparked one of the fundamental scientific premises of our time (Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, inspired by his visit in 1835) has drawn an ever-larger cohort of amateur naturalists in recent years. The challenges of traveling here (the islands lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and can be visited only via boat in the company of a national park guide) hardly deter wildlife-enthusiast tourists; the remoteness seems to be part of the fun. It’s certainly what’s kept the islands’ myriad indigenous species—including marine iguanas, penguins, sea lions, and giant tortoises—unfazed by humans. Unique face-time with wild creatures: that’s what has put these islands at the top of our list.