The World’s Best Islands

Choosing the world’s best islands is like choosing the best songs of the 20th century.   There are so many hits, and there are so many incredible islands, blessed with fine white powder sand, turquoise water, pin-up palm trees.   Many are unoccupied or scarcely visited, while others, jammed with tourists, hold an unforgettable charm in our memories.  I selected these islands because they’re exquisite, unique, popular, and would do in any Greatest Island Hits compilation.    Post-Covid, it will be interesting to see how these destinations recover, and what other islands will make it onto the list.

Bali, Indonesia

It’s a small island with a big reputation for beauty, atmosphere, beaches, and cultural ceremonies.   Incredibly popular until the tragic terrorist attacks in 2002, Bali has thankfully recovered (2008 saw record numbers of visitors) because its people are optimistic, and you just can’t keep a good island down.   Blessed with terrific weather and a history that goes back 4000 years, the temples and rituals of the islands predominantly Hindu population are intoxicatingly exotic.   Beaches throughout the island, like the long stretch of Sanur located just minutes from the capital of Denpasar, offer a true glimpse of paradise.

Santorini, Greece

Greece presents many images, but none stay so firmly in my mind as the view over the nearby sunken volcanic island from my small, chalky-white hotel.  The most famed and most beautiful of the Greek Islands,  a big sky radiates off blue-domed churches and narrow streets, the smell of olive oil, wine, lavender and mint in the air. With a cheap bottle of good wine, I’d sit on my little deck and watch a perfect sunset every evening, a bouzouki playing in the distance, the wind warm and nourishing.  Crammed into the steep volcanic hills, there are thousands of such decks and tiny, excellent hotels in Santorini, and somehow privacy and romance is perfectly maintained.  Never mind its history, cuisine or beaches.  You come to Santorini for the views, and your heart stays for a lifetime. 

Kauai

Kauai, Hawaii

Those who love Hawaii will argue for their personal favourites, the less discovered isles, those that might be more dynamic.   Either way you cannot exclude Hawaii on this list, and according the various polls, Kauai beats out Maui, but only just.   Whenever I meet someone from Hawaii, there’s this twang of jealousy.   I grew up watching Magnum PI, and figured everyone must drive a red Ferarri, have hairy chests, and jet around in helicopters.    Not so the case, but the oldest of Hawaii’s islands does have an unparalleled reputation for lifestyle and beauty.  Striking canyons and mountains in the interior, surrounded with soft sandy beaches, the island might not have the bustle of Maui, but even Higgins would approve. 

New Caledonia

The South Pacific is littered with paradise islands.   Palm trees and squeaky white beaches, turquoise water, feasts of seafood – the only real difference between one or the other is where you’ve actually been, and the experience you’ve had.  I spent a week in New Caledonia, which is governed out of Paris as a department of France, and is therefore uniquely French.   Something about coupling freshly baked baguettes and Bordeaux wine (cheap, given the transport costs) with reggae-inspired views and tropical island beauty made me wonder:   If you can live in paradise (where everything works), earn a strong currency pegged to the euro (for freedom to travel), and live a lifestyle pegged to Robinson Crusoe (because we all need 18 hours of sleep a day), isn’t that epitome of island life?

Galapagos

How could I not include the Galapagos Islands, 1000km west of Ecuador, in a list such as this?   The entire chain, straddling the equator, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, heaving with animal and marine life you’ll find nowhere else on the planet.  It’s famously said that animals in the Galapagos have not evolved a natural fear of man, and the approachability of its natural species – from giant tortoises to hammerhead sharks – suggests a world where nature and man are finally in harmony.   Only one of the 14 islands allows is open to human habitation, and the preservation and protection of Darwin’s playground has ensured that anyone who visits, especially children, will leave inspired and profoundly connected to the natural world. 

Easter Island

As islands go, few hold the mystery and fascination of Rapa Nui, an island in the southeast Pacific, once home to a rich and prosperous civilization of the same name.   The monuments of their decline are the massive stone statues (moai) that peer eerily across the barren landscape, a landscape that was once lush and fertile.   As Jared Diamond argues in his excellent book Collapse, if we paid heed to the lessons of Easter Island, we can see how a society disintegrates due to greed, war, superstition, and most importantly, misuse of abundant natural resources.  For those lucky enough to visit the island, a territory of Chile, standing amongst the spooky, eternal moai is not only brazenly exotic, it forces us to think about the very traits that shape our humanity.  

Bermuda

Tropical islands attract the mega-rich, and the mega rich have long been attracted to Bermuda.   St John, St Lucia, Nevis, Anguilla, and other islands in the Caribbean island don’t slack in the wealth department either, but Bermuda’s history, offshore financial havens, and influx of tourism gives it one of the highest gross national incomes in the world. With no taxes, the cost of living here is amongst the highest in the world too.  But they did give us Bermuda shorts!    Home to numerous celebrities, the island offers the pre-requisite stunning pink-sand beaches, fine diving, fine dining, hotels , fishing and golf, with the old school colonial charm in the Town of St George. Is Bermuda better than other islands in the Caribbean?  Probably not, but it certainly aspires to be. 

Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada

With all these tropical islands, it’s telling that our own Vancouver Island and Cape Breton Island repeatedly make it into high-end travel magazines.  Conde Nast Traveler readers have ranked Vancouver Island as the top North American island since 2000, and it’s not because all their readers live in Victoria.   The size, remoteness, pristine tranquility and infrastructure of Canada’s best known islands set them apart, so while there’s always room for white sandy stretches, you’ll be hard pressed to find something as incredible as storm watching on Tofino’s Long Beach. Not to be outdone, Cape Breton topped Travel + Leisure’s Best Island to Visit in the USA/Canada in 2008, drawn to its natural character, wealth of outdoors activities, and unmistakable local colour.

Zanzibar

I stood outside the modest stone apartment where Freddie Mercury was born, and Stone Town, like the island itself, had rocked me indeed.   Located off the coast of Tanzania, this large island has a turbulent history, including the world’s shortest war, and being the centre of the spice and slave trade.  Ruled by Sultans from their magnificent House of Wonders, the lush tropical islands offer the modern visitor gorgeous beaches, spices, fruits, and more than a pepper shaker of African chaos.  Stone Town’s narrow streets feel like a movie set, the grime of a sordid yet rich history adding to the adventure. Before hotels and resorts took hold, I was able to camp in the northern powder beach of Nungwi, spending hours in the bath warm Indian Ocean, soaking up its unique spice-infused atmosphere. 

El Nido

Not so much an island as a chain of 45 limestone jewels, El Nido sits at the north of the province of Palawan, the largest island in the island nation known as the Philippines.  This is the region that inspired the movie and book “The Beach” even though both were set in Thailand.   With some of the world’s best diving, crystal water ,and environmentally friendly hotels, El Nido is an affordable paradise.  Best of all, you can sea kayak or get dropped off by traditional boat at your own island for a day.   Your own island?  Surely that’s one that will quickly race to the top of your own list of the World’s Best Islands. 

A big Esrock shout out to  to:  Bora Bora, Langkawi (Malaysia), Borneo, Hvar (Croatia), the Seychelles, Roatan (Honduras), Sicily (Italy), Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef Islands (Australia), Phi Phi (Thailand), and the Maldives!

Bucket List Caves

For millennia, mankind took shelter in caves, so perhaps it’s no accident that we continue to be drawn to these dark, silent spaces. Underground caverns offer a foreboding and mysterious beauty.  From major attractions to truly offbeat adventures, here’s our round-up of bucket list caves.  

 

  1. Matyeshegy Caves, Budapest, Hungary

Millions of years ago, a sea flowed beneath the Hungarian capital, creating a vast network of underground caverns. In Buda, split from Pest by the mighty Danube, it is possible to explore these caves, protected by overalls and guided by a gas-lamp helmet. The Matyeshegy Caves were used as a bomb shelter for citizens in World War II, and while closed to the general public, a company named Barlangaszhat Budapest does take tourists deep into the system. With no wooden boardwalks and few large caverns, prepare to get dirty as you slip through the cracks, and crawl through insanely tight passages.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch, Belize

This jungle lodge offers thrilling caving tours beneath and around its 50,000-acre property, sitting atop a foundation of soft limestone perfect for spelunkers. Mayan artefacts have been found deep in the system, and evidence suggests they have been used for centuries. Guests can choose from a variety of caves to explore. The Big Hole lets you abseil 200ft into a sinkhole where you can camp overnight. I opted for the Waterfall Cave, which involves a one-hour hike through stunning caverns to a series of underground waterfalls. Here you can take rock jumping to a whole new subterranean level.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Cango Caves, South Africa

Only about a quarter of Africa’s best-known show cave is open to tourists, but that’s more than enough. You can choose a Standard tour, or the more challenging Adventure tour, with an exit just under 30cm high. Some of the caverns are massive, eerily lit up with gel spotlights. Expect to encounter spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and huge limestone formations. Walk through the Grand Hall, along The Avenue into Lumbago Alley, which stretches 85m. As in many show caves, names have been given to the most striking rooms and formations, such as Lots Chamber and King Arthur’s Throne. The Cango Caves are located 29km from Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo region.  Don’t miss out on the crocodile cage diving nearby.

  1. Cenotes, Mexico

Any visit to the Yucatan Peninsula should take in the cenotes, the spectacular crystal clear cave pools found outside the colonial city of Merida. Sparklingly clean, the cenotes offer amazing swimming, snorkelling and rock jumping. Tour operators offer daily trips to several caves, located about an hour’s drive outside town. At one cenote, a wooden platform lets you dive into blue water with colour as bright as paint.   I swam in three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling. Giant roots from trees above descend through the limestone. One cave has a small opening for a thrilling 12m-rock jump into the dark water below.

  1. Rimarua, Cook Islands

The Burial Cave of Rimarua, on the island of Atiu, is unusual for a number of reasons.   Firstly, Atiu is one of the Cook Islands – a postcard perfect island paradise in the South Pacific more associated with honeymoons, hammocks and dreamy turquoise water. Second, Rimarua contains the bones and skulls of dozens of ancient Maori warriors, dumped into the ground, only to rediscovered many years later, and now curiously gazed upon by tourists. Although it has never been formerly excavated, landowners have given permission for Marshall Humphries, a local operator, to lead small groups into to explore the dark, spooky caves. Here you can literally tread on the skeletons of the past while minding your head on the sharp overhangs.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List. 

  1. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Philippines

It takes a few hours to drive the potholed road from the city of Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan, to the Subterranean River National Park.   A rich ecosystem packed with birds, flora and fauna, the park is one of the island’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is also home to the world’s longest navigable underground river, an 8.2km waterway that creeps into a limestone cave. Tourists don hard hats and flashlights, rowing the first kilometre to enjoy the bats and various cave formations.   As the cave mouth slowly disappeared, the acrid smell of guano accompanied a sensation that a beast, complete with rows of stalagmite teeth, was swallowing me.   I reached the cut-off point and gladly turned the boat around. Caves are fun, but not as much fun as seeing light at the end of the tunnel.  Find out more from The Great Global Bucket List.

  1. Batu Caves, Malaysia

The Batu Caves contain a sacred Hindu temple in a large limestone cave on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.   It is guarded by an enormous golden statue of Murugan, the second son of Shiva, which happens to be the largest freestanding Hindu statue in the world.   Every year, during the festival of Thaipoosam, up to a million people come here to make personal vows of devotion.   Climbing up the 272 steps, past curious monkeys, I entered the cave to the sound of Hindi music and the smell of incense. Once inside, I stood beneath a massive ceiling of rock with a round opening towards the back.   The sun was directly overhead, beaming its light through the hole like a spotlight in a theatre.

  1. Abismo Anhumas, Brazil

Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which offers a spectacular cave excursion from the region’s adventure capital, Bonito. Tourists must first prove they can physically partake in the activity since they’ll be required to manually climb up a 72m high cave shaft on the way out.   Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. Spectacular stalactites drip from above, and some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall.   Using a belay device, it’s tough work climbing out, but totally worth it.

  1. Gorome, Turkey

Medieval troglodytes carved churches alongside their homes into the soft tufi rock of central Turkey’s Cappadocia, and ducking into a few rooms, I could smell they carved out toilets too. It’s fascinating to explore the Kaymakli underground city, originally used by the Hittites 2000 years ago, and later by persecuted Christians in the Dark Ages.   I was sceptical about the word “city”, but then I found out that 5000 people lived underground in these vast, man-made caverns.   There were eight levels, with at least one room for every family, linked by low, narrow tunnels and carved out steps.  As a museum, only a small portion is open to the public, but it’s fascinating stepping into the dark, and into the past.

  1. Waitomo, New Zealand

I’m deep in a cave, floating on a rubber tube, my headlamp turned off.   A milky way of glowworms covers the rocks above my head.  It is quiet save for the soft patter of water.   Legs linked in a chain of human doughnuts, we float down the underground river.   Located about an hour from Rotorua, the Waitomo region has over 300 caves, and Blackwater rafting is its most popular guided commercial offering.   Lighting up the dark tunnels, floating beneath thousands of twinkling, green glowworms is one of the most romantic sights I’ve ever seen.  It’s life in space, deep in the earth. Then it was time to leave my tube for the next explorer, climb up the narrow waterfalls, squeeze through the rocky gaps, and experience a rebirth into the light of the day.