(Lonelyplanet)-Across the globe, thousands of idyllic isles wait to be discovered – some quiet and uninhabited, others busy with snorkelers, hikers and travellers in search of Instagram-worthy sunsets.
From a tropical paradise in Brazil to a snorkeller’s haven in Thailand to a wine lover’s getaway in New Zealand, here eight islands you won’t want to miss.
An outrigger canoe on picturesque Hanalei Bay on the North Shore of the island of Kaua‘i, Hawaii
Picturesque Hanalei Bay on Kaua‘i’s North Shore © M Swiet Productions / Getty Images
You might recognize Kaua‘i’s scenery from the big screen: dozens of movies have been filmed on Hawaii’s fourth-largest island, from Jurassic Park to Blue Island to The Descendants. Nonetheless, quiet Kaua‘i, nicknamed ‘the Garden Island,’ isn’t as popular as Maui or Oʻahu – which makes it possible to explore its tropical rainforests and waterfalls in relative peace.
Highlights include swimming in picture-perfect Hanalei Bay, trekking around massive Waimea Canyon, known as the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific,’ and hiking the Kalalau Trail along the Nā Pali Coast, considered one of the most beautiful (and dangerous) hikes in the world.
Morro de São Paulo’s Segunda Praia (Second Beach), the most popular beach on Ilha de Tinharé (Island of Tinharé) Bahia, Brazil
Segunda Praia (Second Beach), Morro de São Paulo © Lelia Valduga / Getty Images
Ilha de Tinharé, Brazil
Snorkel with tropical fish, hike to a 17th-century fortress and eat açaí on the sand on idyllic Tinharé Island. The car-free village of Morro de São Paulo, located on the northeast tip of the island, is a two-hour boat ride from the Afro-Brazilian capital of Salvador da Bahia – it’s close enough to the city to be a weekend destination for locals, but its palm-fringed beaches and clear waters are popular with travellers from all over the world.
Sandy lanes open onto wide beaches where you can swim, sunbathe or board a speedboat for a ride out to the coral reef. At night, candlelight illuminates the waterfront and cocktail vendors set up their stands on the sand, serving up fresh fruit caipirinhas (a Brazilian classic made with cachaça, a sugar-cane spirit) into the wee hours.
A wave crashing on a serene bay on Ko Raya Island (also known as Ko Racha), Thailand. A series of boats can be spotted in the distance
Ko Raya lies just off the coast of Phuket © filipe_lopes / Getty Images
Ko Raya, Thailand
If you’ve ever dreamt of swimming with giant starfish or seeing a puffer fish close-up, consider a trip to the far-flung island of Ko Raya. Off the coast of Phuket, Ko Raya (also known as Ko Racha) is a mecca for outdoor adventurers. Go snorkelling in Lah Bay, then hike or rent a mountain bike to explore the surrounding hills. There are several resorts and budget hotels on the island, so you can take your time here instead of visiting on a quick day trip.
An underwater view of a snorkeler swimming with a whale shark off the coast of Mexico. The island of Holbox offers tons of excursions.
Whale sharks congregate near Isla Holbox between May and September © Ken Kiefer 2 / Getty Images
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Many travellers visiting Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula head straight for popular island destinations like Cozumel or Isla Mujeres. A smaller number make it to car-free Isla Holbox, part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, where a unique attraction brings in thrill-seeking snorkelers and divers: the chance to swim with the largest fish in the sea.
Whale sharks, which can grow up to 12 metres long and weigh up to 20 tonnes, congregate in the waters around Holbox every summer (between mid-May and mid-September) during breeding season. Reserve your tour well ahead of time, if possible, and look for flamingos and dolphins on your journey through the mangroves. Your guide will give instructions on when and how to get into the water and see the whale sharks up close as they feed on tiny plankton. Floating alongside such a giant and gentle fish is a moment you’ll likely never forget.
Tropical fish swim around a coral reef
Isla Catalinita’s shallow waters teem with tropical fish © valio84sl / Getty Images
Isla Catalinita, Dominican Republic
Not to be confused with the much larger island and cruise ship destination of Isla Catalina, tiny Isla Catalinita is an uninhabited island that’s only accessible by small boats. Located on the eastern edge of Parque Nacional Cotubanamá, it’s a dream destination for divers and snorkellers.
A coral reef just offshore is the colourful home of several varieties of tropical fish, while the aptly named Shark Point, a nearby dive site, attracts more underwater adventurers.
A small boat sailing around the dramatic limestone rock formations of Lan Ha Bay, Cát Bà Island, Vietnam
Lan Ha Bay has a more isolated appeal than Halong Bay © Morten Byskov © 5050 Travelog / Getty Images
Cát Bà Island, Vietnam
As the largest of 367 islands, Cát Bà Island is the king of Vietnam’s Cát Bà archipelago, which means, unsurprisingly, that Cát Bà Town is crowded with hotels and travel agencies. To see what this island has to offer, you have to leave civilization behind and get out into its natural landscape.
Characterized by a rugged coastline dotted with quiet bays and virgin forests, Cát Bà is particularly wonderful to explore on a motorbike, which you can easily rent in town. Afterward, go for a hike in the dense jungle of Cát Bà National Park, a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve or a boat cruise around the dramatic limestone rock formations of Lan Ha Bay.
A field of lavender with a view of rolling vineyards leading to the coast on Waiheke Island, New Zealand
Rolling vineyards meet the coast on Waiheke Island © Dawn Marie Morris / Getty Images
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
A mere 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is an easily accessible getaway. There’s something here for everyone: white sandy beaches along the Hauraki Gulf, ideal for swimming and kayaking; cliff-top hiking trails lined with native forest; and vineyards producing Bordeaux-style reds and crisp Chardonnay. Since the island is fairly compact, it’s wonderful to explore on a bicycle.
Visitors on a white sandy cove on Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island), Costa Rica
Isla Tortuga consists of two uninhabited islands © Kryssia Campos / Getty Images
Isla Tortuga, Costa Rica
With velvety white sand and clear aquamarine waters, Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island) is widely considered Costa Rica’s most beautiful island. Located offshore from the wildlife refuge of Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Curú, it’s a postcard-perfect paradise that’s just as good for swimming and kayaking as it is for relaxing with a picnic under the towering palm trees heavy with coconuts. You can’t stay overnight, but Isla Tortuga is easily accessible on a day trip – and you might spot dolphins on the boat ride over.
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