World's Best Islands 2012
No. 1 Boracay, Philippines
This tiny tropical island in the Philippines is making a big splash. After debuting at No. 4 in the World’s Best Awards last year, it has taken the top prize, appealing to travelers with its natural beauty and still-under-the-radar status—chances are you haven’t “been there, done that.”
Best Beach: White Beach, a 2.5-mile stretch of powder-white sand—often cited as the world’s softest—lapped by the translucent Sulu Sea.
Where to Stay: Discovery Shores for modern suites with huge windows, an infinity pool, and the full-service Terra Spa.
No. 2 Bali, Indonesia
It may be one of 17,500 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, but this paradise known for its temples is the country’s crown jewel, offering travelers glimpses into Balinese Hindu history thanks to a vibrant cultural scene filled with music and dance.
Best Beach: To watch the sun come up over the water, head to Sanur. For gorgeous sunsets, upscale resorts, and lively nightlife, stay along Seminyak.
Where to Stay: Amandari, the only Indonesian resort ranked in the 2012 T+L 500, is near a sacred river outside Ubud and arranged like a local village—albeit one with 30 suites that feature private plunge pools and rice-paddy views.
No. 3 Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
T+L readers prove once again that this exotic chain of isolated Pacific islands 600 miles off of South America is one of the ultimate dream trips. Where else can you spy a blue-footed booby or short-feathered penguins?
Best Beach: Here, the best beach is where sea lions catch some rays. Snap hordes of them on Santa Fe Island’s white-sand beach.
Where to Stay: The ideal way to see these islands is on a ship, such as the 90-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, which sails seven- and 10-night cruises year-round.
No. 4 Maui, HI
This year, T+L readers chose Maui as the golden child among Hawaii’s island siblings (up from No. 9 in 2011). After all, there’s always something new to explore, from the resort-lined stretches of Kaanapali and Wailea to Haleakala’s volcanic crater to the funky surf town of Paia.
Best Beach: Napili Beach, a crescent of golden sand lapped by blue-green sea, is slightly out of the way, but well worth the detour.
Where to Stay: Fairmont Kea Lani, a 22-acre oasis of white-washed Moorish architecture, right on Wailea Beach.
No. 5 Great Barrier Reef Islands, Australia
Pure white sand and coral reefs teeming with fish are the hallmarks of these castaway islands off of Australia’s northeastern coastline. More familiar islands, including Lizard, Hayman, and Bedarra, are havens for divers, as they provide easy access to potato cod fish and gaping giant clams—and they’re home to ultra-chic hideaway hotels.
Best Beach: Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is the reef’s most photogenic beach: a 4.5-mile stretch of sand that seems to go on forever.
Where to Stay: Lizard Island Resort, a five-star enclave that counts 40 contemporary suites and 24 private beaches.
No. 6 Santorini, Greece
The cliff-top village of Oia, with its blue-domed churches, sugar-cube houses, and stone pathways leading to caldera vistas, is one of the most idyllic—and photographed—spots in the Greek Isles.
Best Beach: For drama, you can’t beat the black sand and palapa-shaded chaises at Perissa Beach, where cafés are perfect for people-watching.
Where to Stay: The 27 white-washed rooms and suites of Oia’s Katikies Hotel are situated in a free-form style around two infinity pools.
No. 7 Kauai, Hawaii
Sleepy Kauai’s old-school charms and serene landscape will soothe even the most frantic urbanite. Two must-see sights: the dramatic Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon, both layered with scenic hiking trails.
Best Beach: If you crave sun and fun, stay on Poipu Beach in the south; for an untamed panorama, stroll Lumahai Beach, between Princeville and Hanalei.
Where to Stay: Koa Kea Hotel & Resort is Poipu’s newest boutique property. Its 121 rooms and suites have a relaxed vibe that’s in line with Kauai’s less-is-more mantra.
No. 8 Big Island, Hawaii
Hawaii’s wild child is an adventure zone, with invigorating lava treks (its volcano, Kilauea, is still active), stargazing atop 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, and night dives with manta rays.
Best Beach: The Big Island has 80 beaches, but there’s no reason to settle for ivory and blue when you can unwind at black-sand Punaluu Beach or green-hued Papakolea Beach.
Where to Stay: Four Seasons Resort, Hualalai—voted the No. 1 resort in Hawaii in 2012’s World’s Best Awards survey—is even more indulgent after a multiyear renovation that added an adults-only pool and expanded the Hawaiian-centric spa.
No. 9 Sicily, Italy
The sun shines on Sicily 300 days per year, illuminating an island rich in history (Greek and Roman ruins in Agrigento, for starters) and culinary traditions. Cannoli are made here, as are arancini, decadently golden fried rice balls, and all kinds of dishes showcasing the day’s fresh catch of fish.
Best Beach: San Vito Lo Capo, near Trapani on the northwestern coast, is on a curved bay flanked by photogenic rock formations along the Mediterranean.
Where to Stay: One of the rooms overlooking Mount Etna at Grand Hotel Timeo, convenient for exploring the ancient city of Taormina and surrounding vineyards.
No. 10 Vancouver Island, British Columbia
A playground for kayakers, hikers, and whale-watchers, Vancouver Island is covered in stately pine forests that shelter endangered birds and surrounded by waters filled with oysters, crabs, and other shellfish. It’s a short ferry (or seaplane) ride over from the city of Vancouver.
Best Beach: Chesterman Beach in Tofino is ideal for quiet strolls in summer and big-wave-watching in winter. No matter the season, brave surfers can’t stay away from those chilly Pacific swells.
Where to Stay: Wickaninnish Inn is all about rustic luxury, with 75 rooms, a restaurant with 360-degree water views, and a nature-inspired spa.
No. 11 Vieques, Puerto Rico
This island eight miles from Puerto Rico’s southeast coast is an increasingly sought-after Caribbean destination. And no wonder: its beaches are blissfully crowd-free, one of its bays has so many microscopic bioluminescent organisms that it glows in the dark, and luxurious hotels are cropping up.
Best Beach: Playa Caracas (a.k.a. Red Beach) for the soft, white sand and warm, gentle surf.
Where to Stay: The upscale, beachfront W Retreat & Spa, ranked among the top Caribbean resorts by T+L readers in 2012 and outfitted with an Alain Ducasse restaurant.
No. 12 Mount Desert Island, ME
In the midst of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island has been a Vacationland favorite for generations. Coastal beauty, outdoorsy activities, and plenty of dining options suit every appetite—especially if you love lobster and fried clams.
Best Beach: Acadia is known for its hiking trails, and the best way to cool off is at 290-yard-long Sand Beach—just be forewarned that the water rarely gets above 55 degrees.
Where to Stay: The Kingsleigh Inn overlooking Southwest Harbor; its Penthouse Turret Suite is especially inviting with its king-size bed, fireplace, and panoramic turret deck.
No. 13 Fiji Islands
The natural splendor of the South Pacific paired with the innate hospitality of the Fijian people will win over the most jaded traveler. Private-island resorts are perfect for couples, while larger properties on the main island of Viti Levu are best for families and golfers.
Best Beach: Ask your resort to drop you off on a tiny sandbar islet (of which there are many among Fiji’s 333 islands) with a gourmet picnic basket and snorkel gear.
Where to Stay: Likuliku Lagoon Resort, which offers both beachfront and garden bures (thatched-roof bungalows) as well as Fiji’s only overwater bungalows.
No. 14 Capri, Italy
Augustus Caesar vacationed here two millennia ago, and this tiny island off of the Amalfi Coast has enthralled travelers ever since. While away your vacation among the flower-lined pathways, upscale resorts, boutiques, and cliff-top restaurants serving two of its famous creations—Caprese salad and Limoncello liqueur.
Best Beach: Pools with a view outnumber beaches on rocky Capri, where to swim you’ll have to brave pebbles rather than sand. One of the most scenic swim spots is located down a few hundred stairs next to Da Luigi at the base of Il Faraglioni rocks.
Where to Stay: Grand Hotel Quisisana, a glamorous 19th-century property with an enviably central location.
No. 15 Oahu, HI
Oahu boasts Hawaii’s largest city, Honolulu, and biggest waves—luring champion surfers to the island’s North Shore beaches. Begin or end your Aloha vacation here for the most cosmopolitan shopping and dining.
Best Beach: Waikiki is tough to beat for people-watching and surf lessons, but if you crave snorkeling, head 30 minutes east to Hanauma Bay Beach, where the clear, calm waters of its horseshoe bay harbor dozens of colorful species.
Where to Stay: Halekulani occupies prime Waikiki real estate; some of its 453 newly renovated rooms and suites have Diamond Head views.
No. 16 Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Honeymooners flock to Bora Bora, where the overwater bungalow concept was born in the 1960s and the lagoon is so brilliantly blue that you can’t take a bad picture.
Best Beach: Hire a boat or Jet Ski and set off for one of the undeveloped, palm-fringed motus that encircle Bora Bora’s lagoon like a necklace.
Where to Stay: Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora features contemporary Polynesian design in 100 overwater bungalows,15 villas, and in its soaring, cathedral-like spa.
No. 17 San Juan Islands, WA
Rising like giant turtle shells from the sapphire-blue waters of the Salish Sea, this placid island group is a natural choice for travelers eager to hike, bike, kayak, or bird-watch. Add whale-watching to the itinerary from May through September, when orcas are plentiful.
Best Beach: Rosario Beach on Orcas Island is known for its colorful beach glass, sun-bleached driftwood, and shallow tide pools.
Where to Stay: Friday Harbor House, a 23-room inn with a contemporary décor in plush neutrals, offers a convenient bluff-top location in San Juan’s largest and liveliest town.
No. 18 Mykonos, Greece
Some come for the infamous summer party scene on this arid island of boxy white Cycladic architecture and distinctive windmills. Other travelers relish the more low-key spring and autumn seasons, when bougainvillea-draped Mykonos Town casts a romantic spell and hotel rates are more affordable.
Best Beach: Psarou Beach offers the best of both worlds: soft, golden sand and shallow sea for relaxing and Nammos restaurant/lounge, a place to see and be seen.
Where to Stay: Santa Marina Mykonos, a Luxury Collection Resort, beckons with two large pools, a private beach with a Greek taverna, and 96 bright rooms.
No. 19 Moorea, French Polynesia
Bora Bora has its lagoon, and sister island Moorea has a pair of bays between soaring green spires and valleys, where French Polynesia’s sweetest pineapples grow. This is one island that needs to be explored both by land and water to be truly appreciated.
Best Beach: Moorea’s resorts are on some of the island’s best sand; for public access there’s slender, half-mile-long Opunohu Beach.
Where to Stay: At Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, 104 overwater and garden bungalows harness solar energy to power air-conditioning.
No. 20 Huahine, French Polynesia
Lesser known than its fellow Society Islands (Bora Bora and Moorea), sleepy Huahine can surprise visitors with its “old Polynesia” ambience, dramatic landscape, and eight small villages. It’s also home to several Tahitian marae (traditional temples).
Best Beach: Among the abundance of white-sand beaches, Huahine Iti is especially appealing for snorkeling.
Where to Stay: Te Tiare Beach Resort, set on a shallow lagoon near the main village of Fare, offers 41 overwater and garden bungalows (some with views of neighboring Raiatea) and a small Polynesian-inspired spa.
No. 21 Harbour Island, Bahamas
Golf carts are the preferred transportation, making this tiny (3.5 miles by 1.5 miles) sister island to Eleuthera in the Out Islands of the Bahamas feel like a country club by the sea. Pastel cottages, accented by white picket fences, cluster around Dunmore Town, where galleries, boutiques, and a few cafés provide diversion for those who’ve had enough sun.
Best Beach: Pink Sands Beach, a three-mile stretch that’s ideal for relaxing, swimming, and strolling—and then enjoying conch fritters washed down with Kalik beer.
Where to Stay: Pink Sands Resort on 20 acres at the edge of a photogenic beach offers 25 cottages with island-elegant décor.
No. 22 Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
The third largest of the British Virgin Islands is renowned for its rolling hills, secluded coves, and acres of national parks—the most famous of which, The Baths, is one of the Caribbean’s most photographed spots.
Best Beach: For pure wow factor, it’s a toss-up between the drama of the craggy boulder-strewn sands at The Baths and the serenity of the white-sand crescent that curls along Little Dix Bay.
Where to Stay: RosewoodLittle Dix Bay, one of the original luxurious resorts created by land conservationist Laurance Rockefeller in the 1960s.
No. 23 Grenadines, St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Sailing enthusiasts have long appreciated the beauty of the 32 beach-fringed islands that make up the Grenadines in the southern Caribbean—only nine of which are inhabited and three of which are private-island resorts. From Mustique’s celebrity-owned villas to the Tobago Cays’ turtle-studded lagoons, each island offers a variation on laid-back luxury.
Best Beach: Mopion Island, a tiny spit of sand with a single palm-thatch umbrella, upon which you can ask to be dropped off for a few hours of castaway fun in the sun.
Where to Stay: Petit St. Vincent, a private-island enclave fresh from a 2011 renovation that gave its 22 wood-and-stone villas stylish new interiors.
No. 24 Florida Keys, FL
Extending for 120 miles from the southeast tip of Florida, this bridge-linked chain of 1,700 islands is as close as you can get to the Caribbean without leaving America. Famous for Key lime pie, sport fishing (especially on Islamorada), and sunset parties, the Keys are also keen on preservation—from Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home to a refuge on Big Pine Key for adorable, Bambi-like deer.
Best Beach: Mile-long Sandspur Beach in Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key, for its gentle surf and convenient changing facilities and picnic tables.
Where to Stay: Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, a romantic oasis of 30 thatch-roofed suites (each with a gauze-draped canopy bed and hammock for two), an indulgent spa, and an exceptional restaurant—all set on a private island off of Little Torch Key.
No. 25 Canary Islands, Spain
Come winter, tourists, primarily Europeans, flock to these seven islands off the northwest African coast (but a part of Spain) for a beach escape. The two best-known islands are Tenerife and La Palma, each dotted with all-inclusive resorts and fancy spas. Hiking, whale-watching, and golf are popular.
Best Beach: For drama, the black-sand beach at El Bollullo on Tenerife, and for sheer natural beauty, the golden dunes at Corralejo on Fuerteventura.
Where to Stay: Abama Golf & Spa Resort, a sprawling 469-room Ritz-Carlton property in Tenerife overlooking La Gomera island, with a golf course and private beach.
No. 26 Phuket, Thailand
With dozens of resorts, from rowdy backpacker favorites to five-star luxury properties, Thailand’s most popular (and developed) island caters to all comers. It mixes an increasingly creative arts scene with excellent golf and a front-row seat to the romance of the shimmering Andaman Sea.
Best Beach: Bangtao Beach, a four-mile stretch of white sand that’s lively enough—but not too much so—that boredom will never be an option.
Where to Stay: Dusit Thani Laguna Resort, a 226-room property in the Laguna Phuket complex with five restaurants, modern Thai décor, and a prime location on Bangtao Beach.
No. 27 Maldives
With none of its 1,190 islands more than six feet above sea level, this Indian Ocean nation is all about the water. Many of its five-star resorts are built over the water—with several offering subaquatic dining and spa experiences. Visitors can also indulge in excellent scuba diving and savor cuisine influenced by Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Best Beach: An impossible task: almost every island is edged with a white-sand fringe and hundreds of sand bars are ideal spots to sun a bit after a swim or snorkel.
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. 28 St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
The smallest and least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is beloved for its half-moon beaches, scenic hiking trails (60 percent of the island is national park) and snorkeling (there’s an underwater trail at Trunk Bay). Mingle with locals at waterfront bars and restaurants in the small town of Cruz Bay.
Best Beach: Trunk Bay Beach, an Instagram favorite, is a perfect white crescent lapped by aqua surf and backed by green slopes.
Where to Stay: Caneel Bay, A Rosewood Resort, with seven secluded beaches and 166 rooms and suites featuring updated colonial décor against wood-beam ceilings and stone walls.
No. 29 Raiatea, French Polynesia
Pronounced Rye-a-tay-a and known as “the sacred island,” this member of French Polynesia’s Society Islands (along with Bora Bora, Moorea and Huahine) is where to experience the country’s only navigable river at Faaroa Bay as well as its most sacred marae (ancient temple).
Best Beach: Any of the dozens of tiny motus (sandy islets), where you can be dropped off for a half-day picnic and leisurely private snorkel.
Where to Stay: Opoa Beach Hotel, on the island’s south shore, with nine bungalows hand-built by its owners in a breezy cottage style that’s more French than Polynesian but also exceptionally charming.
No. 30 Cook Islands
Imagine Tahiti 30 years ago, before the big luxury resorts. Subtract the French accent (the Cooks are affiliated with New Zealand). Add in passionate drumming and dancing, and you’ve got an approximation of the appeal of these Polynesian islands (namely Rarotonga and Aitutaki). Oh, and the lagoon that surrounds tiny Aitutaki rivals Bora Bora’s.
Best Beach: At Aitutaki, where a necklace of idyllic motus, including One Foot Island, rings the crystalline lagoon with perfect white-sand beaches.
Where to Stay: Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, on a private island at the edge of the sparkling lagoon and offering the Cooks' only overwater bungalows, decorated in classic thatched Polynesian style.