2014 is the International Year of Small Island Developing States: tiny, remote and environmentally vulnerable spots. Here are 10 that need you – and are glorious too!
The Micronesian nation of Palau isn’t formed so much of islands as giant green mushrooms. Certainly that’s how its Rock Archipelago appears: a bloom of over 200 lush limestone islets undercut by azure seas and fringed by sugary sand. It’s ideal kayaking territory, though if you tire of paddling, you can always flop overboard to float above some of the world’s best subaqua action (according to famed diver Jacques Cousteau). For added weirdness, save your snorkel for Jellyfish Lake, where millions of gelatinous zooplankton – which have lost the ability to sting – perform a benignly beautiful underwater ballet.
Palau International Airport, on Babeldaob island, has flights from Taipei (4hr 55min), Guam (1hr 45min) and Manila (2hr 35min).
Tonga is not your common or garden paradise. Yes, its 170-odd isles are idyllically sprinkled across the bluest South Pacific; its flawless sands are tickled by palms and want-to-dive-into seas. But it’s also the region’s only remaining kingdom, where globalisation has yet to entirely erode its Polynesian traditions: locals still weave mats, wear tupenu skirts and gossip over intoxicating kava. Ha’apai is the place for empty beaches and super snorkelling; Niuas is even more perfect and remote. Vava’u is preferred by the South Pacific’s humpbacks – each year, these whales come here to breed, and travellers come to jump in with them.
Humpbacks migrate to Tonga from around early July to late October; strict guidelines apply to swimming and watching the whales.
Middle of the world but not middle of the road, the equator-hovering outcrops of São Tomé and Príncipe form Africa’s smallest, and perhaps least-known, state. Part of a chain of extinct volcanoes, they hide in the Gulf of Guinea, west of Gabon, which explains why so few tourists manage to find them. Those that do are richly rewarded, though: there are miles of sandy beaches trodden only by fishermen; a jungly interior with a 2024m peak to climb; turtles and humpbacks splashing in the waters; and hotels set in crumbly colonial plantation houses, which offer an atmospheric cool-breezed base.
The dry season is June to September, wet is from October to May; humpbacks visit the waters off São Tomé from July to October.
Bountiful birds, steel-pan bands, street food, rainforest, multiculture and a raucous Carnival – that’s what Trinidad’s made of. This is the Caribbean at its most exhilarating, least contrived and, strangely, most beach-free. There are nice strands, but Trinidad isn’t about lolling in paradise: it’s about living it. Besides, sister-isle Tobago fills all the basic sand-nirvana needs. Its west is edged with unspoiled palmy shores, where tourism remains low-key. Its east, however, is that bit wilder: South American–style flora blooms in abundance; caiman and other critters lurk in the forest; and the coast is notched with secret coves, perfect for that castaway feel.
Dry season is December to May, wet is June to November. The islands sit just outside the hurricane belt (hurricanes do occur at times).
Captain Cook would be proud. The 15-island archipelago that bears the explorer’s name is a beaut, incorporating some of the South Pacific’s best sand-palm-sea paradises (it’s impossible not to drool into Aitutaki’s cerulean lagoon). Better still, it’s accessible. Of course, when you’re talking specks in an 165-million-sq-km ocean, accessibility is relative. But with many an Oz-to-USA flight touching down on the main island, Rarotonga, visiting the Cooks isn’t just a pipe dream. Be warned, though: those that do stop-off – to hike through jungle, kayak to a private atoll or do nothing much at all – find it hard to leave.
Seasonal weather variations are slight: temperatures are from 18°C to 28°C May to October or 21°C to 29°C November to April.
PNG is about the size of California. But within its broiling, savage and spectacular confines you’ll find, for example, more than 190 species of mammals, 650 species of (often bonkers) birds, 160 types of frogs and 820 different languages. Simply, it’s one of the wildest, most mega-diverse and most singular places on the planet. For tribal encounters, head to the Highlands (to Tari to meet the Wigmen, to Mt Hagen for its festival). But don’t ignore the coast, where reef walls drop to inky depths just metres from magnificent beaches to provide some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world.
Transport in PNG is challenging; its few roads are in poor condition. Internal flights and tours are the easiest ways to travel.
First colonised by the Portuguese, geographically closest to West Africa and with a Latin vibe that feels a bit like Brazil, the Cape Verde archipelago is hard to pigeonhole. It’s pretty hard to place on a map, too, lurking some 500km off the coast of Senegal amid a whole lot of Atlantic Ocean. There are 10 islands, from lava-streaked Fogo to the luxuriant valleys of Santo Antão. But the best beaches belong to Boa Vista, an island virtually subsumed by sand: Sahara-style dunes ripple the interior, while miles of gorgeous graininess edge the breezy shores, perfect for windsurfing off into the blue beyond.
Boa Vista is an important nesting site for loggerhead turtles; the best time to see them is June to September.
You could come to the Caribbean’s lush-n-lovely Spice Island, plonk down on Grand Anse (its 3km-long beach) and be more than satisfied: the sand’s fine, the beach bars lively, the restaurants well stocked with seafood and nutmeg ice cream. But that would be a waste, for the mountainous innards of this Windward Isle have created coves and inlets ideal for secluded swims and snorkels. Even more intimate and a ferry-hop west is Carriacou, with wild sands only reached by hiking or sailing, and a thriving African culture that ensures a soundtrack of big drums and captivating calypso.
Up to three flights a day link Grenada and Carriacou; a crossing by ferry takes from 90 minutes.
Nary a ‘world’s best beach’ list is compiled without the Seychelles getting a mention. This clutch of 115 islands sprinkled in the Indian Ocean got all the good genes: its waters are clear and teeming with life; its sands are sensuously soft; its interiors are wild and luscious; even its coconuts – the buttocky coco-de-mer – are sort of sexy. The three main islands (Praslin, Mahé and La Digue) are perfectly pretty. Even better are Curieuse, where giant tortoises lumber, and the coral atoll of Aldabra, uninhabited but for more tortoises (the world’s largest population), plus turtles, sharks, coconut crabs and a wealth of species besides.
Seychelles International Airport is 8km south of Victoria, on Mahé. Regular ferry services run between Praslin, Mahé and La Digue.
Know your budget, choose your boat – that’s the key to unlocking this lovely island chain in the southeast Caribbean. If your wallet’s well-endowed, travel by private yacht, from large, green and gorgeous St Vincent down the tail of the unblemished Grenadines – small specks, big on charm. Those without an oligarch’s income should hop by fun ferries. Join the locals (and their luggage/mail/chickens) making their way from St Vincent to Bequia’s lively waterfront, the fine sands of Canouan, rugged Union and languid Mayreau; from here, the deserted Tobago Cays (where one Jack Sparrow was once cast away) beckon beautifully just to the east.
The MV Barracuda and MV Gem Star ferries operate regular services between Kingstown (St Vincent) and the southern Grenadines.