The ocean doesn't have the monopoly on islands. Some of the world's loveliest and most culturally significant islands are actually surrounded by freshwater. Formed by sedimentation, erosion or volcanic activity, these islands can be huge (Manitoulin Island in Canada's Lake Huron is over 1000 square miles) or teeny (Phantom Ship, a craggy rock column in Crater Lake that's a mere 500 feet across and resembles a ghostly schooner in the fog).

From fairy tale-esque formations to old-world waterfront wonders, each lake island comes with its own unique culture, spectacular wildlife and water-based adventures. So ditch your notions of tropical slices of sand floating in the ocean and explore these nine intriguing lake islands instead.

Santo Domingo beach looking up to the volcano Concepcion
Santo Domingo beach looking up to the volcano Concepcion © Rafal Cichawa / Shutterstock

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

This barbell-shaped island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is home to two enormous volcanoes (one dead and one very alive), luscious hillside coffee plantations and small native villages. Both volcanoes are hikeable; on the southeast side there’s dormant Maderas which last erupted in the Pleistocene epoch, its gentle slope shrouded in cloud forest; and to the northwest is Concepción, which still regularly belches out smoke and ash. Though seemingly not the most enticing, it makes for the more exciting hike: a full-day climb through dry tropical forest, alive with the screeches of howler monkeys, to a barren summit cloaked in hot, sulphurous steam.

People cycling down the old-timey main street on Mackinac Island
The old-worldly main street on Mackinac Island © Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock

Mackinac Island, Michigan, USA

Mackinac Island, in Michigan's Lake Huron, has been a vacation destination since Victorian times, and still maintains a 19th-century charm, with grand hotels, a pedestrian main street lined with fudge shops, and summer sailing regattas. Hop the ferry and spend a few days cycling around – no cars allowed! Fuel up on flapjacks at one of the local diners then ride the eight-mile loop of Lake Shore Road. Check out historic sites like the 1780-built Fort Mackinac and the iconic red and white Round Island Lighthouse. The classic stay is the aptly-named Grand Hotel – a striking white structure with a 660ft porch (purportedly the longest in the world!) overlooking manicured English gardens that has hosted a number of US presidents.

Toronto Islands' Centreville Amusement Park
Toronto Islands' Centreville Amusement Park © Kiev.Victor / Shutterstock

Toronto Islands, Toronto, Canada

A 10-minute ferry from downtown Toronto lies this utterly charming chain of little islands, separating Toronto Harbour from the rest of Lake Ontario. A summer afternoon getaway might involve a chilly dip at one of the grey sand beaches, a spin in a rented canoe and a stroll up to the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in the Great Lakes. Kids will delight in a ride on the swan boats or the turn-of-the-century carousel at the Centreville children’s amusement park. The main islands are connected by boardwalks and bridges, and most visitors travel by bike. Bring a picnic.

Rustic wooden rafts on Lake Montebello, Chiapas, Mexico
A rustic wooden raft is the only way to travel around these idyllic isles in Chiapas © David Enriquez Lopez / Shutterstock

Isla Orquídea, Chiapas, Mexico

In the cool piney highlands on the border of Mexico and Guatemala lies Lagos de Montebello National Park, with 59 lakes in such striking and varied shades of blue and green they could make their own crayon palate. One, Laguna Pojoj, is home to a small island sometimes called Isla Orquídea (Orchid Island) for the bright flowers cultivated there. Hire a rustic wooden raft and paddle out to the island for an hour or two of admiring the blooms, then take a bracing dip in the lake – the water is some of the cleanest in the country.

A bison on Antelope Island
The golden light of Antelope Island is a dream for photographers © Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock

Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Utah, USA

Bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes and bobcats roam Antelope Island, the largest of 10 in the Great Salt Lake. It’s a mecca for nature photographers, with a syrupy golden light warming its sandy hills and grasslands. At certain times of day it’s hard to tell where the surrounding water ends and the sky begins. Hike, cycle or ride horses, or visit the island’s preserved 19th-century ranch (allegedly haunted!). Alternatively, cool down with a swim; the lake’s high salt content means you’ll bob around like a cork and be left with a white film of salt on your skin. At night, set up camp beneath a canopy of stars – the island is a designated International Dark Sky Park.

Traditional Batak houses on the shore of Samosir Island
The graceful architecture of the Batak houses only adds to the beauty of Samosir Island © The World Traveller / Shutterstock

Samosir Island, Sumatra, Indonesia

Samosir takes the prize for the largest island in a lake on an island (still with us?). It’s a dreamy landscape of rice paddies and palms surrounded by commanding volcanic mountains, dotted all over with the dramatic peaked roofs of traditional Batak houses. Swim in the deep cool waters of Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake on earth, or hitch a ride on a bamboo raft. Hike Pusuk Buhit Mountain for panoramic views of the island and the waters beyond, then soothe your feet in a local hot spring before dining on Batak favourites like spicy freshwater carp.

Fisherman's Island on Lake Maggiore
Don't be fooled by its understated name, Fisherman's Island is one of the most stunning spots on Lake Maggiore © StevanZZ / Shutterstock

Islands of Lake Maggiore, Italy and Switzerland

Visitors have been pouring into this northern Italian and Southern Swiss lake region since the 19th century, when a new mountain pass made traversing the Alps less of a challenge. The lake, and its many islands, retains the splendour of bygone days. Spend your time island-hopping by ferry, visiting a Renaissance palace on one island, early Christian ruins on another, grand botanical gardens on yet another. Isola dei Pescatori (Fisherman’s Island) is, appropriately, the spot for a fresh fish lunch.

Looking out to Mokoia Island from Holdens Bay, Rotorua
Looking out to Mokoia Island from Holdens Bay, Rotorua © TTONN / Shutterstock

Mokoia Island, New Zealand

Bounce across Lake Rotorua on a jetboat to visit this fertile volcanic island, sacred to the Maori for many generations. In Maori legend, highborn maiden Hinemoa swam across the lake to join her lover Tutanekai on the island after her father forbade her to marry him. Today, the Mokoia is owned by local tribes, and can only be accessed by tour. For bird-watchers, it’s a true bucket list spot, home to rare birds such as kiwi, weka, kokako and saddlebacks. Spot one hopping through the steam rising from the island’s geothermal pools in the cool morning air.

The Versailles-inspired Herrenchiemsee palace on Herreninsel Island, with a statue in the foreground
The Versailles-inspired Herrenchiemsee palace on Herreninsel Island © footageclips / Shutterstock

Herreninsel and Fraueninsel, Germany

This chilly blue glacier-carved lake in Bavaria’s Alpine Foreland has two inhabited islands – Herreninsel (Gentlemen's Island) and Fraueninsel (Ladies' Island), each with marvellous and unique histories. Gentlemen’s Island is home to Herrenchiemsee, a palace complex built in the late 1800s by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Inspired by Versailles, it was never finished. Today you can tour the palace and its romantic gardens, as well as the older Benedictine monastery. Ladies’ Island is known for its many ceramic artisans, and for the active 1300-year-old Benedictine convent. Stop by the convent’s Klosterladen (cloister shop) to buy the nuns’ handmade herbal liqueur and marzipan shaped like fish.

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