The 9 Best Islands To Visit & Stay
There are thousands of beautiful islands across the world. Many people travel to islands only for their beaches, but they have much more to explore. Culture, history, natural beauty (and not just beaches), activities, food and serenity are just some of the many things islands have to offer. Islands can be tropical, temperate, or arctic – and their scenic beauty can make one feel far removed from the bustle of the modern world.
The list below only includes smaller sized islands, so places such as Honshu in Japan and Ireland, which are both fantastic destinations, do not make this list. The list also excludes islands you can visit but has no accommodation to stay overnight, such as the incredible Padar Island in Indonesia.
Here is the list of the 9 best islands from across Africa, Asia, Oceania (South Pacific), Europe and the Caribbean. I hope this page inspires you to explore some of them!
ZanzibarOozing with history, Zanzibar is one of the best destinations for those who want a genuinely different island experience. Zanzibar was the launching place for Stanley’s famous journey to find Livingstone, and also for Burton and Speke’s expedition to find the source of the Nile. In more recent times, it was the birthplace of Farrokh Bulsara, otherwise known as Freddie Mercury, the original singer from the rock band Queen.
Most visits to the island commence in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Stone Town – a maze of narrow alleys that is the heart of the island – but try to avoid the very touristy streets filled with souvenirs. There are only a couple of these, so they are easy to avoid. Ensure you visit the evening food stalls in Forodhani Garden in Stone Town – a very popular place for locals with food at very affordable prices.
The food on Zanzibar is a highlight of any visit, with influences from India, the Middle East and Africa all blending beautifully. The fish meals are particularly good. One can take a tour of the spice plantation to learn more about the plants that make such an incredible difference to the cuisine on the island.
Moving away from Stone Town, there are plenty of mostly deserted beaches with varying standards of accommodation – from budget to lavish resorts. These are fantastic places to adjust to the relaxed pace of life on this island, and to watch the traditional boats with billowing sails ply these tropical waters. Be aware that the population of Zanzibar is 98% Muslim, and as such, walking around only in your swimming costume in non-beach or resort areas is disrespectful.
Top Tip: Adjust to the slower pace of life on Zanzibar – remember to go with the flow.
Waterfront of the Historical Lamu Town – KenyaAnother UNESCO World Heritage site is the location for an island seldom seem by international visitors to Kenya. Lamu is located in the north-east of the country, and it is best reached by plane from Nairobi. Reportedly, there are only two motorised vehicles on the island – one for the police and the other for the hospital. The most common transport options are by boat, to go on foot, ride a bicycle, or by the ubiquitous donkey that populate the island in high numbers – but these are mostly used to transport goods.
The buildings of Lamu Town show the historic Swahili coastal architecture – with some of them even being decorated with coral and shells. The streets of Lamu Town are narrow, and one can easily get lost – but don’t worry – it’s a small town so it won’t take you long to sight the ocean and get your bearings. Take the time to visit the Lamu Museum that gives an insight into Swahili culture and the history of Lamu. The vast majority of accommodation is in traditional Swahili houses either renovated or built specially for visitors.
Nearby to Lamu Town is the beautiful and nearly deserted white sand of the long Shela Beach. There are a few activities you can do on this beach, including camel rides, but walking along this deserted beach is, of itself, a fantastic reason to visit.
Lamu Island is less touristy than Zanzibar, and as a result, it feels more conservative. Again, this is an overwhelmingly Muslim area, so walking anywhere away from beach areas in only your swimming costume is disrespectful.
Top Tip: This is an excellent place to learn about Swahili culture.
LangkawiA collection of 99 islands make Langkawi one of the gorgeous places that you are likely to see. An island blessed with immense natural beauty – lush rainforests, natural lakes, an abundance of mangroves, and birdlife galore. This is an island that is not on many traveller’s itineraries, but it should be because Langkawi is one of the world’s great destinations.
Malaysia has some of the best food you will ever savour, with influences from Thailand, South India, China, Europe and of course, traditional Malay cuisine. If you like spicy food, you will absolutely love Langkawi! Ensure you try the Nasi Lemak – it is a truly magnificent meal.
There are plenty of activities to do on the island. The two prime attractions are the Langkawi Sky Bridge and the Langkawi Cable Car – they both commands incredible views over the countryside. For nature lovers, one can take a tour of the mangroves to admire flora and fauna on offer.
For those was wish an adventure, consider a jet ski tour with Mega Water Sports. My recommendation is to take the Dayang Bunting Island Tour – this is one of the best day trips I’ve done anywhere in the world. Even if you have limited or no experience in riding a jet ski, you can still do this trip. Remember to bring small bottles of water and sunscreen as these are not provided. Each person carries a sealed bag to store things such as phones, wallets and purses – but avoid bringing any advanced camera equipment (such as a DSLR) as bumping across the water is likely to damage the glass elements.
Top Tip: Explore the numerous quality food options away from your hotel.
BoholOne of the southernmost islands in the Philippines is Bohol, and it is another Asian island of incredible natural beauty. The main hotel and tourist area are found in Tagbilaran City, but there are far less populated and touristy areas on other parts of the island. The island is very relaxed, very friendly and is worthy of many days of your time.
The most famous attraction on the island is the Chocolate Hills, huge hills that look like upturned bowls that derive their name from the brown colour of these hills in summer. However, there are plenty of other natural attractions, such as the Loboc River, and the incredible coral reefs that are fantastic for snorkelling.
A fascinating stop is to see the world’s smallest primate – the tarsier. With its overly large eyes, symbols of tarsiers are found around the island. However, the only place you can see them in the wild is the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella – it is run by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation. It is easy to identify if you have arrived in the correct place because they only have tarsiers and no other animals.
Bohol has been subjected to a number of natural disasters in recent years – such as an earthquake in 2013 and typhoons at other times. The 2013 earthquake was particularly bad, with many buildings damaged or destroyed. For example, the San Vicente Ferrer Church in Calape (shown below) was restored after the quake and is now dark grey, orange and red, instead of the pale colours in the photo.
Top Tip: Bohol is a large island, so if you want to explore it more fully, give yourself at least a week here.
TannaIf you want an island to awe you with its power, then Tanna Island in Vanuatu should be top of your list. The prime attraction on Vanuatu is what is reported to be the world’s second most active volcano – Mt Yasur. The volcano has levels numbered from 0 (low) to 4 (extreme). Level 2 is the highest level that still permits you to visit the volcano. This volcano is easily accessible from the parking lot – but be aware that there is no fencing around the volcano rim – so be cautious where you step and be mindful of the lava bombs flying over your head.
This is a gorgeous tropical island, with some roads made of dark, volcanic soil. The people of the island are called the Ni-Vanuatu, and they are some of the world’s best conversationalists. If you walk anywhere, someone is going to approach you to talk, and it is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the people and culture of Tanna Island. There is a rich culture to be explored by those who are willing to listen.
Be aware that there are a lot of rats on this island, so ensure that any food you have is stored in plastic or metal containers otherwise it may go missing at some time during the day or night.
The island is not that large, but due to quality of the roads, getting anywhere will take you time. The main town on the island is called Lénakel, and it is where you arrive and depart by plane. However, there are many small villages on the island that offer a various standard of accommodation – and if you stay in one of these, you will have a better opportunity to immerse yourself in all the wonders that this island holds.
Top Tip: Visit Mt Yasur volcano more than once – especially visit late afternoon to early evening because the volcano is more active at this time.
Norfolk IslandNorfolk Island is a speck of emerald on vast sapphire waters that lies between Australia and New Zealand. Though it is a small island of only 35 square kilometres (14 square miles) and with approximately 1750 inhabitants, there is still plenty to do. Norfolk Island exhibits many influences – from the original Polynesian inhabitants, the brutal penal colony late from the 1700s to the mid-1850s, and most recently from the descendants of the 1789 mutineers of the ship the Bounty, that resettled from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island.
For those who love learning about history, a stop at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed The Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area is essential. There are a number of museums and historic buildings on and around the street known as Quality Row. For a creative perspective on the retelling of the Mutiny on the Bounty story, head to the Cyclorama. Further afield, a visit to St Barnabas’ Chapel is worthwhile to admire the ceiling resembles the keel of a boat.
The best aspect of Norfolk Island is the outdoors. There are many gorgeous places of natural beauty such as the Norfolk Island National Park, the beautiful Anson Bay, and watching the sunset at Emily Bay. You will often see the distinctive Norfolk Pine that is the symbol of the island, and it appears on the island’s flag. While outside, take time to enjoy breathing the freshest air, you are likely to inhale.
Top Tip: Brings snacks and other similar permitted foods from Australia and New Zealand because food is very expensive. The main places to shop on the island are the capital of Kingston or the town of Burnt Pine.
Isle of ManAnother favourite island is the Isle of Man. For lovers of history and for those who appreciate idyllic rural beauty, this is the island for you. With rolling hills, content cattle, and surprisingly good quality of historic buildings, there is more than enough to keep one occupied here for a few days and possibly longer.
A good starting point for any visit is the Manx Museum in the capital city of Douglas. It explains in some details the history of the island – starting from the original inhabitants 10,000 years ago, right up to the modern Isle of Man Time Trials – one of the world’s most famous and prestigious motorcycle events.
Some of the historical highlights include Castle Rushen that dominates the aptly named Castletown, and the very impressive Peel Castle located adjacent to Peel on the western part of the Isle. Some historians claim that the small island on which Peel Castle rests was the inspiration for the famed place of Avalon in the King Arthur stories.
The highlight of the island is a trip on the Isle of Man Steam Railway. A steam train that still uses original coaches travels the 60-minute journey between Douglas and Port Erin in the south – this is my favourite train journey anywhere in the world. This train is more than a tourist attraction because you will also see many locals boarding the train. Once in Port Erin, take some time to visit the Steam Railway Museum.
Top Tip: Ensure you try the famous locally made ice-cream found throughout the island – it has a quality that is rarely found elsewhere.
Saint LuciaOne of the world’s most beautiful islands is St Lucia – with its breathtaking lush tropical landscape that is dominated the by dramatic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Pitons (the Gros and Petit). This is an island with gorgeous natural beauty everywhere you look. The obvious highlight of the island is the Pitons – and you can either visit by boat, or if you want to gaze upon this natural wonder for longer, stay in the area around Soufriere. Some places command incredible views of the Pitons, or if you want something extraordinary, stay at one of the exclusive resorts on Sugar Beach that sits between the Gros and Petit Pitons.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to do on the island, including nature walks, ATV rides, ziplining, snorkelling, scuba diving, and cruises. For those who like something less adventurous, why not stroll through the markets, shops and attractions of the capital Castries, where you can also visit the historic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
If you speak with the locals, they will proudly tell you that this island with a population of less than 200,000 is the birthplace for two Nobel Laureates. Sir Derek Walcott (who was awarded the prize for Literature in 1992) and Sir W. Arthur Lewis (who was awarded the prize for Economics in 1979).
Top Tip: Try to learn more about the culture of the island; it’s easy to get distracted by all that natural beauty!
Saint Kitts and NevisThe nation of St Kitts and Nevis can often be overlooked when compared to its more glamorous neighbours, but this is one of the unique places in the Caribbean. An essential visit for any traveller to St Kitts is to visit the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. It is an excellent example of 17th and 18th-century military architecture. It ranks as one of my favourite UNESCO World Heritage sites and as with most historical sites, it is best appreciated by embracing the principles of slow travel and taking time to absorb the ambience of the place. If you get tired of wandering around these well-preserved ruins, relax and gaze upon the gorgeous views across the island and the Caribbean Sea.
There is plenty of things to discover that are not related to major attractions or sites, and these usually take time to uncover and explore. As mentioned at the top of this page, islands have more to offer than just beaches, and this is very true of St Kitts. A good starting place is the capital of Basseterre, where one can delve into the history, culture and food of this island. As is usual with Caribbean islands, there are many outdoor activities to try, including diving, snorkelling, ATV rides and tours on horseback.
While in Basseterre, wander along the streets lined with palm trees and admire the classic architecture of the town – especially the religious buildings of the St. George’s Anglican Church and the Basseterre Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.
Top Tip: St Nevis is the smaller and less visited than its larger and more populous neighbour, and its natural beauty makes it worthy of a visit.