Coconut palms and aquamarine waters are only the beginning – Lonely Planet Traveller magazine takes you to five very different island escapes, from diving adventures to luxury on a lagoon.
The Seychelles: the one for pristine beaches
The beaches of the Seychelles really do live up to the superlatives that are heaped upon their fine, porcelain-white sands. The Seychelles is a tiny nation, a scattered collection of granite islands and coral atolls 1000 miles off the East African coast.
One of the finest beaches is Anse Source d’Argent, a bay of fine white sand and surreal sculpted boulders on the island of La Digue that has starred in several films as the tropical landing-place of washed-up Crusoes.
A short boat trip away, Mahé, the largest of the Seychelles’ 115 islands, also has more than its fair share of picture-perfect beaches. Beau Vallon in the northwest is a dazzling arc of sands fringed by palms and takamaka trees, and in the jungle-covered west, green hills slope into soft sandy crescents. Meanwhile, Praslin is the last natural habitat for the coco de mer – a palm famous for its large, buttock-shaped cocounts.
Palawan: the one for diving
The island of Palawan is stretched out thin over nearly 300 miles, as if caught in a tug-of-war between its larger neighbour Borneo and the main islands of the Philippines, to which it belongs. Not yet in the celebrity league of tropical islands, Palawan still has plenty of undeveloped corners, and the pristine waters off its coast and countless outlying islets conceal a submerged world of reefs, wildlife and wrecks that offers exceptional snorkelling and diving.
Five hours north from the main city of Puerto Princesa is El Nido, the port gateway to the clear waters and dramatic rock formations of the Bacuit Archipelago, which offers great snorkelling opportunities over shallow coral gardens and more than two-dozen dive sites to suit all abilities. Beyond the tip of Palawan, Busuanga Island offers a different type of seabed scenery – Japanese warships and merchant ships, sunk here during the Second World War, make a world-class location for wreck diving (ddivers.com and seadiveresort.com).
Bora Bora: the one for luxury
If there is any place on Earth to surrender to lazy days of snorkelling and tropical cocktails on a terrace at sundown, this is surely it. Bora Bora is just one of the 118 islands of French Polynesia. Yet this one stands out for the sheer beauty of its lagoon, which encircles a lushly forested and mountainous island, and is in turn surrounded by a necklace of palm-fringed islets, called motu.
The island, lagoon and motu are a snapshot in time – the remains of a volcano slowly disappearing into the sea. In a couple of hundred thousand years, the central island will be gone, and all that will be left is a coral atoll like countless others across the Pacific – so enjoy Bora Bora while you can.
A lagoon setting is the prerequisite for every luxury hotel on the main island or the surrounding motu. Many sport palm-thatched bungalows built out on stilts over the water, so there is no excuse not to bring out snorkel and fins each morning, and float among shoals of colourful fish.
Zanzibar: the one for history
Is there any island with a name more evocative and tantalising than Zanzibar? The white-sand beaches of its eastern coast watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean, while the western side of the island faces the African mainland. For centuries, this position made Zanzibar rich and coveted by both Arabs and Europeans. Today the island is part of Tanzania but keeps a strong sense of its own distinct heritage.
The dhow is one of the most enduring symbols of Zanzibar. Together with the smaller ngalawa (outrigger canoe), these sailing ships can still be seen in the waters around the island, and a sunset dhow cruise is a popular activity for many visitors (try safariblue.net).
Stone Town is the heart of old Zanzibar. The houses that line its dusty streets show Arabic and Indian influences, and some 500 of them still preserve the huge, ornately carved wooden front doors that are the most famous feature of Zanzibari architecture. Zanzibar’s wealth was partly built on the spice trade. In the early 20th century, the island supplied more than 90 per cent of the world’s cloves, and although the industry is no longer dominant, many plantations remain. Eco & Culture Tours is one of many companies that can arrange spice tours (ecoculture-zanzibar.org).
Kaua’i: the one for activities
Deep canyons snake up from Kaua’i’s Pacific shores into the uninhabited and thickly forested interior of the island. It was an obvious choice for Steven Spielberg when he wanted to recreate the age of the dinosaurs in his film Jurassic Park. Grandest of all Kaua’i’s natural wonders is Waimea Canyon.
To truly get to grips with this and other hidden corners of Kaua’i, take one of the island’s many hiking trails. The Na Pali Coast is another corner of Kaua’i that tends to the vertical and inaccessible, bar hiking trails of various levels of difficulty.
East of Na Pali, the coast settles down enough to become the delight of surfers, and crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay is a sight on its own. Newcomers to wave-riding can take lessons with outfits such as Kauai Island Experience (kauaiexperience.com). Just remember not to put too much on your plate – Kaua’i’s landscape may be intense, but its tempo is the opposite.