World's Best Islands 2011
Travel + Leisure readers pick the world’s best islands for your next warm-weather getaway.
After a long flight and a steep hike, you finally reach your own slice of paradise: Kauai’s private white-sand Pali Ke Kua Beach, where the only other living creature is a sea turtle laying her eggs.
Islands naturally ignite wanderlust, and the Hawaiian island of Kauai (ranked No. 8) is a longtime favorite among Travel + Leisure readers. Maybe it’s the frisson that comes from leaving the mainland—and your everyday cares—behind as you cross that watery barrier, a physical reminder that you are, indeed, cut off from the rest of the world. Whether your journey is a short ferry ride or oceans away, the extra effort it takes to get to that island seems to heighten the experience exponentially.
But which islands are most worthy of the trip? We asked readers to cast their votes in T+L’s 16th annual World’s Best survey, and the results reveal one universal truth: a predilection for islands with astonishing natural beauty. Bali continues to hold on to its ranking in the top five, but there are also surprises. Two of last year’s European islands fell off the list, while a desire for the far-flung raised the profile of destinations in the South Pacific and Asia.
One such newcomer, Boracay in the Philippines, may be one of the last undiscovered Asian beach getaways. The sandy-shored speck is accessible via a frequent hour-long flight from Manila to Caticlan, followed by a 10-minute ferry ride. Now is the moment to go, as the openings of five-star properties like the Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa and Discovery Shores will only spur on tourism.
Even if islands get you dreaming of remote places, you don’t need to abandon North America to find an unspoiled shoreline. On Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, rugged beaches and forested headlands set the scene for a rich local culture that blends Scottish, Acadian, Irish, African, and native Mi’kmaq influences. Take them all in at a ceilidh (kay-lee) dance gathering.
North America, Europe, Asia—every continent except for Antarctica is accounted for among the World’s Best Islands. Read on to find out which island nabbed the No. 1 spot and whether your favorite island escape made the cut.
No. 1 Santorini, Greece
An ancient island that endured one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history, Santorini, 120 miles southwest of mainland Greece, feels like no other place on earth. Here, everything is brighter: the whitewashed cube-shaped houses, the lapis lazuli sea, and the sunsets that light up the caldera. So it seems about time that Santorini captured the No. 1 island title for the first time in World’s Best Awards history—beating out Maui, Bali, and the Galápagos. For the ultimate trip, base yourself in picturesque Oia, on the island’s northern tip, where hotels are set on cliffs above the glittering Aegean Sea.
No. 2 Bali, Indonesia
Lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Bali is but one of 17,500 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, yet even among its colorful neighbors—and even after decades of tourism development—it stands alone in its lushness and incomparable beauty. Perhaps that’s the reason it’s been ranked the No. 1 island in Asia every year since 1998. Why go now? Resorts are making cultural relevance a priority, promising unique entrée into local art and architecture, cuisine, and traditional medicine.
No. 3 Cape Breton, Canada
Readers love Cape Breton for its captivating vistas—cliff-backed beaches; forested headlands studded with lighthouses—which is why the island, in Nova Scotia, hasn’t dropped below the No. 2 ranking in the Continental U.S. and Canada since 2005. Local culture commingles Scottish, Acadian, Irish, African, and native Mi’kmaq influences, and is fueled by music, from Celtic-style fiddling played in parish halls to the popular Thursday night ceilidh (kay-lee) dance gathering.
No. 4 Boracay, Philippines
Now that even tiny islands such as Koh Samui are becoming mainstream, Boracay, in the Philippines, may be one of the last little-known Asian beach getaways. The sandy-shored speck is accessible via a hour-long flight from Manila to Caticlan, followed by a 10-minute ferry ride. Go now, before the crowds arrive. Already a growing number of travelers are lured by five-star properties, from the Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa to Discovery Shores. As proof of its rising profile, 2011 is the first year Boracay has ranked in the World’s Best Awards.
No. 5 Great BarrierReef, Australia
Though the competition for No. 1 island in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific is steep (consider Bora-Bora, Fiji, and Tasmania), the Great Barrier Reef, which unfurls from Australia’s northeastern coast, has taken the No. 1 spot seven times since 1998. The area’s spectacularly cerulean water and vast sweep of coral teems with sea life—baleen whales, leatherback turtles, giant clams, and 400-odd other species. Above the surface, it’s a menagerie of a different kind: a collection of hotels and island resorts, each with its own oceanfront appeal.
No. 6 Sicily, Italy
A historical feast with 300 days of sun per year, spectacular landscapes, and a vibrant culinary scene, Sicily is becoming one of Italy’s buzziest destinations, and received its highest score yet in the 2011 World’s Best Awards. On this Italian island, there’s a new respect for heritage, and the hotel sector is on the upswing. The most trumpeted debut, the Verdura Golf & Spa Resort—part of the Rocco Forte Collection—has focused the spotlight on a handsome swath of the southern coast. And Orient-Express recently renovated two classic hotels in Taormina, the Grand Hotel Timeo and the Villa Sant’Andrea.
No. 7 Big Island, Hawaii
The Big Island of Hawaii is a little bit country and a whole lot of lava rock and roll—especially whenever Kilauea is pouring hot magma into the Pacific at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the eastern shore. (Check with the park service for eruption updates.) Far from urban Honolulu, this mostly rural island has its own cowboy culture, farmers’ markets, tropical rainforests, and black-, green-, and white-sand beaches. It’s this local flavor that resonates with travelers now: this year was the first that the Big Island surged past Maui and Kauai to capture the No. 1 island in the region.
No. 8 Kauai, Hawaii
It may be the most dramatic vista anywhere in Hawaii: from the bluffs above the eastern tip of Hanalei Bay, on the north shore of Kauai, you look out on a crescent-shaped beach. Tireless waterfalls spill from jagged cliffs in deep green valleys. A rain shower rolls across the far side of the bay while the sun blazes down on you. Though the island’s World’s Best ranking fell slightly this year, the recently renovated St. Regis Princeville Resort, 252 spacious rooms carved into a cliff, is a slice of paradise. Don’t miss the private Pali Ke Kua Beach, where the only other living creature might be a sea turtle laying her eggs.
No. 9 Maui, Hawaii
Within the Hawaiian-island family, Maui is the celebrity sibling: radiantly beautiful, a bit rebellious, and with glamour to spare. The island has attracted “seekers” for its healing energy since the 1960s and, more recently, Internet millionaires and Hollywood A-listers who want to rejuvenate in five-star spas. Readers love it for its natural attractions and sights and activities, such as the Maui Film Festival every June—your best bet to hobnob barefoot with Kristen Bell or Zac Efron.
No. 10 Galápagos, Ecuador
The wild islands of the Galápagos continue to lure travelers 600 miles west of Ecuador. Where else can you watch a marine iguana dive for seaweed beneath a circling blue-footed booby? To better protect the landscape, cruises are now capped at 15 days with no repeated ports, though they remain the best way to see this perennial World’s Best Awards winner (in 2010 it was ranked No. 1 island overall). Which itinerary to choose? GalaOdyssey’s new 16-passenger Galápagos Grand Odyssey luxury yacht pampers guests with Jacuzzis and a spa while en route to a stop at sea-lion central Mosquera.
No. 11 Capri, Italy
Though this is the first year since 2002 that Capri has broken into the top 5 in Europe, this Italian island just south of Naples may be the Mediterranean at its most fabulous. There’s a serious sense of style here—designer boutiques line the traffic-free streets—and the best time to people-watch is during the nightly ritual of the passeggiata (stroll). There are simple pleasures too, like hiking the dramatic cliffs or enjoying a glass of wine at a café overlooking the Bay of Naples.
No. 12 Vancouver Island, Canada
The city of Vancouver offers a winning combination of urban delights (neighborhoods with personality, a serious food scene) and expansive natural beauty. It’s also a jumping-off point for exploring greater Vancouver Island, which hasn’t dropped below No. 3 in the Continental U.S. and Canada since 2001. With its rugged coastline and national parks, it’s an ideal place for wildlife spotting. Don’t miss the annual Pacific gray whale migration.
No. 13 Majorca, Spain
Though Spanish royals have long been spending their summer holidays on the Balearic island of Majorca, and the island welcomes roughly 8 million visitors annually, 2011 is the first year that T+L readers anointed it a World’s Best Island in Europe. Perhaps that’s because of how easily accessible it is via a quick flight from most of Europe, and the abundance of high-rise hotels. On the horizon: a new generation of locals who are opening vineyards and boutiques and renovating historic properties.
No. 14 Moorea, French Polynesia
With jagged mountains, white-sand beaches, and thatched overwater bungalows, this French Polynesian island is frequently compared to paradise. Resorts there satisfy every South Seas fantasy, from thatched-roof bungalows on stilts over a crystalline lagoon at Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa to 1,290-square-foot bungalows at Legends Resort Moorea. You can snorkel in the lagoons, go horseback riding by the deep bays, golf, fish, or catch a fire-dancing demonstration or a traditional dance show—one reason why the island gets such high scores for the local people. The island even resembles the shape of a heart. What’s not to love?
No. 15 Mykonos, Greece
This year was the first that readers were able to vote on Mykonos as an individual island (and not as part of the Cyclades), and clearly, it was time to make the change—the destination surged directly into the list of top 5 islands of Europe. The Greek island of sun-bleached churches and throbbing nightlife may be a must-visit destination for club kids, but it’s also recapturing some of the low-key sophistication of its 1960s heyday, when Jackie O. and friends would sail into town. Then there are those legendary sunsets, which you can admire from the glamorous hillside spot CBar at the Belvedere Hotel.
No. 16 Bora-Bora, French Polynesia
To the northwest of Moorea—which squeaked ahead at No. 14 in the 2011 World’s Best Awards—Bora-Bora stands out for its two volcanic peaks and a lagoon circled by a coral reef. It’s no surprise that the island’s score for natural beauty is always its top-ranking characteristic. Rouse yourself from the luxurious resorts here to hire a boat and explore the surrounding motus (islets).
No. 17 Fiji
A collection of hundreds of islands, Fiji is on the dividing line between Polynesia and Melanesia, midway between Tahiti and Australia. The payoff for the long journey is that you get to indulge your South Seas fantasies in what feels like one of the last untrammeled places (no skyscrapers, a single two-lane highway, and steamer ferries plying the straits). But here, it’s the warm Fijian people who got the highest scores from voters, helping to keep the island in the top 5 in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific for five years in a row.
No. 18 Cook Islands
This South Pacific island group’s low-key resorts make an affordable alternative to its five-star neighbors Tahiti and Bora-Bora. And there are plenty of other reasons to hang your hammock here: snorkeling, kayaking, and motu walking (the local pastime of wading in the shallow waters between islets). Thanks to improved scores in four out of five categories, the islands made their debut on the World’s Best Awards this year.
No. 19 Corfu, Greece
Centuries of visitors and rulers—among them, Italians, Brits, and Turks—have felt the urge to claim this alluring Greek island for their own. It’s the farthest north of the seven Ionian islands and the greenest, with countless olive groves. And although the Ionian Islands (minus Corfu) made the World’s Best list for three years between 2004 and 2006, Corfu itself has never broken into the top 5. What’s changed? An improved score in the activities and sites category helped lift the destination’s rank in 2011.
No. 20 Ambergris Cay, Belize
Belize’s largest island attracts travelers eager to experience some of the world’s top snorkeling and scuba diving in the Belize Barrier Reef. So it’s no wonder that the island got its highest score for natural sights. Even in San Pedro, the only town, bicycles and golf carts account for most of the traffic. And the beach offers a pleasant mix of dive huts, barefoot bars, and cafés on stilts over the water.
No. 21 Nantucket, MA
On this tradition-rich island, old meets new—from classic hotels to swanky restaurants that cater to the sea- and scene-loving urbanites who’ve flocked to the area over the past decade. But Nantucket maintains its blustery island spirit. The 82 miles of coastline, starkly beautiful dunes, and moors feel almost as remote as they must have a century ago, and its colonial heritage is still more evident than on the mainland, just 30 miles away. For nearly perfect weather and reduced prices, head to the island during the shoulder season in late April, May, or October.
No. 22 Oahu, HI
Travelers enter this happening Hawaiian paradise through Honolulu, a 5.5-hour flight from Los Angeles. Oahu’s biggest city is a favorite in T+L’s annual America’s Favorite Cities survey—ranking No. 1 for romance and No. 2 for families—and Oahu’s fabled North Shore is only 90 minutes by car. This is where pro and amateur surfers head to catch waves of epic proportions during high surf season (October through March). Humpback whale season, when the mammals arrive from Alaska to mate and give birth, is at least as popular.
No. 23 Koh Samui, Thailand
Nearly a million people a year visit this 13-mile-wide island. After all, it’s gorgeous, with a jungle-draped interior and long, sandy beaches. And Koh Samui’s top-tier resorts—the Banyan Tree, the W Retreat, and the Four Seasons—rank among the finest in Southeast Asia. Although you don’t have to leave these resorts’ relaxing confines to enjoy the island’s beauty, more ambitious visitors might venture out to discover the killer snorkeling, or even take in a kickboxing match and browse the stalls at a night market.
No. 24 Cuba
Though direct travel to Cuba from the U.S. is currently limited to Cuban-Americans with family still living there and travelers who book select tour guide–operated packages, it’s easy to see why anyone eligible would want to make the trek. Besides the intrigue that comes with being largely off-limits, Cuba offers miles of beaches, national parks, the crumbling beauty of Havana, and cigar-smoke-filled jazz clubs.
No. 25Raiatea, French Polynesia
Smack-dab in the middle of Tahiti and Bora Bora, this tiny, lesser-known island—completely surrounded by a ring of coral reef like its island neighbor Tahaa—is a hidden gem in French Polynesia. The island stands out for its affordable lodging, but you’ll want to be especially sure to visit its boutiques for a slew of handmade trinkets.
No. 26 TheAbacos, Bahamas
With super-calm waters on all sides, this Bahamian archipelago is a prime spot for avid boating fans looking to do what they love most—with the comforts of tropical weather. Even if you’re not into boating, visitors like to take advantage of the laid-back beach lifestyle that reigns throughout. (If it’s any indication of how wonderfully slow-paced it is, there is just one traffic light on the whole island chain.)
No. 27 San Juan Islands, WA
It’s not only Seattle residents who dream of escaping to these islands just northwest of their city, where the weather is sunnier and the pace slower. Ferries connect the main islands, such as Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, and Shaw—sharing the waterways with sea kayaks. Fill your days with hiking, biking, and whale-watching, and overnight at one of the quaint bed-and-breakfasts.
No. 28 Phuket, Thailand
It’s been almost seven years since the tsunami hit, and Phuket is decidedly back in business. Many resorts renovated, new ones have opened, the arts scene is on the rise—if anything, the island struggles with overdevelopment in certain areas. The beaches still wow, from serene Hat Nai Harn on the island’s southern tip to near-deserted Mai Khao Beach in northwestern Sirinat National Park. Go inland to ride elephants or ATVs through the lush hills or to wander among the Sino-Portuguese architecture of Phuket Town.
No. 29 CanaryIslands, Spain
These Spanish islands off Africa’s northwest coast are overrun with tourists (mostly Europeans) in winter. So you’ll have more sand to yourself from March through October, when the weather is still balmy. Hikers generally choose to visit Tenerife, the largest island and the one with the highest volcanic mountain, the 12,198-foot Pico del Teide; 20 trails wind through the national park that surrounds it. There’s also an archaeological park with pre-Hispanic step pyramids in Güímar.
No. 30 Rhodes,Greece
Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands, combines ancient ruins with a dynamic café and restaurant scene. Anchored by Rhodes Town, the popular destination is also beloved for its outlying villages, such as labyrinthine Lindos. Add ample sunshine, some of Greece’s most pristine beaches, hidden coves, and remnants of an Islamic and Jewish past, and you get a taste of the entire Mediterranean on a single island.