8 Ultimate Islands
This year, T+L casts a wide net in our never-ending quest for lush landscapes and sybaritic seclusion. The timing is right for these tropical wonderlands, so get ready to kick off your flip-flops and sink your toes into the sand.
Great For Barefoot Elegance
Floating in azure seas just out of reach of Lombok’s lush Sire Peninsula, you’ll find the first of Indonesia’s three palm-dappled, sugar-white sanded Gili Islands. When the migrating Bugis fishermen came calling from Sulawesi decades ago, they settled here first. Less sedate than Gili Meno and not as popular as rapidly developing Gili Trawangan, Air combines both space and vibrancy as increasing numbers of vacationing families, hippie chic nomads and chilled-out backpackers seek the island’s penny-wise international sophistication delivered with a distinctly Indonesian spice. The Aussie-owned franchise Scallywags (scallywagsresort.com) was a game changer when they built a beach club worthy of Air’s widest, whitest beach, with cushy rattan seating, plush lounges, a killer sound system and an extensive menu. It’s hardly the only newcomer. Stroll the island and you’ll discover a tasty Italian bistro here, a world-class yoga studio there and alluring local greasy spoon kitchens where delectable, fiery meals cost less than US$2. Though tourism numbers are rising, Air has so far retained its village heritage and still feels like rural Indo. Cows and goats roam the island undisturbed, and vast tracts of powdery beach remain empty and ready for exploring. T+L TIP When the sun drops at the end of the day, head for one of the beach bars on the northwest coast where the sunsets are Technicolor and the archipelago views are truly sublime.—Adam Skolnick
Great For Biodiversity
Asia’s newest nation is emerging as a destination that rewards the determined traveler. Bad roads, uninspiring hotels and a lack of tourist infrastructure can make Timor-Leste a challenge for traditional tourists, but perfect for those with a pioneering spirit. The human fossil record on the island dates back 40,000 years, and since that time there has been almost no industry, major fisheries or use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, making Timor a leader in organic agriculture.
What this means to the traveler is biodiversity.
Marine biologists suggest that Timor could have some of the most biodiverse reefs on the planet, great news for snorkelers and divers. Timor also has one of the highest concentrations of marine mammals in the world and boasts a whale super-highway passing its shores from October to December. And with 261 identified avian species, including six species that can only be seen on Timor, it’s a birdwatcher’s paradise. T+L TIP Eco Discovery Tours (+670 332 2454; ecodiscovery-easttimor.com) offers a weeklong Sparrow Trail tour, which walks in the footsteps of the famous Australian commandos known as the Sparrow Force who fought Japanese troops here during the Second World War.—Daniel J. Groshong
Great For Hanging ten
If you’re going to Siargao, you’d best bring a surfboard. Curls of white foam are what lure most visitors to this southeast corner of the Philippines, to an island that defines laid-back. And if you want to fit into that crowd, know that it’s the heavy right-hand barrel reef break called Cloud 9—named after a popular Filipino chocolate bar that makes the visit worthwhile. Between August and November, the habagat, or southwest monsoon, makes this a surfing paradise. Maybe it’s the type of visitor, or just as likely it’s the teardrop shaped island itself, but Siargao defines raw charm. Its sweep of quiet beaches and a forested interior aren’t home to much in the way of development, unless you consider palm roofs and dirt floors an intrusion. So don’t be surprised if the most crowded spot is that curling wave lined with surfers. On this lazy island, it might be the only time your heart will race during a visit. T+L TIP If you want to brave the waves, but don't have the skills, check out Surf Camp Siargao (surfcampsiargao.com) for lessons on riding barrels and getting in the green room.—Christopher Kucway
Great For Balance and flow
It’s not fair to say that Koh Phangan isn’t just for full moon partiers anymore, because it never really was in the first place. The island’s sheer size and abundant beauty has always made for ample opportunity to find secluded-beach bliss. That’s not to say the party vibe emanating from Haad Rin doesn’t have ripple effects, but it’s like the concentrate used to make a Thai lime soda—too intense in itself, but a welcome flavoring when diluted. The flavor is just right on Thong Nai Pan Yai and Noi, twin coves of a double bay on the northeast corner of the island with a great range of accommodation and restaurants. The most comfortable options include Santiya Resort & Spa (+66 77428 999; santhiya.com) and Anantara Rasananda Phangan (+66 77239 555; phangan-rasananda.anantara.com), but the spot is at a stage in its development where good options at almost any budget is available. The beach at Yai is best for swimming, while Noi feels more peaceful because many of its establishments are set back in a small village. They include a new incarnation of local institution Flip-Flop Pharmacy bar; Better Than Sex, a restaurant serving tasty pizzas and Burmese dishes; and the classic Handsome Burger shack. T+L TIP If you’re going with friends, rent a villa. Perched on the hills behind the bay, most offer inspiring sea views with amenities like fully stocked kitchens and maid service, at per-room rates that often beat what you’d pay at your average resort. —Richard Hermes
Great For Living like the locals
Fiji tops lists in the South Pacific for its diving (with soft corals and pelagics), food (Indian curries in a land of fish and coconuts) and socializing. While every island in this uncommonly blissed out nation won’t disappoint, little-known Kadavu has the edge for having a little bit of everything at its several private beach resorts. Visitors fly into the main village, but beyond that everywhere on the island can be accessed by boat or on foot. Bright red, Kadavu shining parrots squawk along tree-canopied trails that lead through villages where you’re often asked in for a bowl of grog, a drink made from the root of the mildly psychoactive kava plant with an important place in local culture. Children leap into waterfall pools and beckon you to join; nights are spent around the bilo (kava bowl) or with cold beer, listening to the strum of an eclectic mix of songs that somehow everyone knows. Along the southeast coast of the island the Great Astrolabe Reef, one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, is famed for its manta rays and is considered one of the best popping and jigging fishing destinations on the planet; anglers catch giant trevally, wahoo, huge dogtooth tuna and more. Resorts are comfortable and social though not outrageously luxurious, save for the decadent, very private bungalows at Koromakawa Resort (koromakawa.com.fj), fringing Ono Island. For big, bright bungalows and more activities than you’ll likely have time for, stay at the affordable and well-organized Matava Resort (matava.com). T+L TIP The best spot to see manta rays while snorkeling is off of Ono Island, to the north of Kadavu.—Celeste Brash
Great For Fantastical landscapes
Flores dazzles with its natural beauty and frightens at the same time; its mountaintops knife into the sky out of lush green folds, and it is home to 14 volcanoes and a national park where the main attraction is the lethal Komodo dragon. Here is the home of “hobbit” bones and volcanic lakes that change colors, Portuguese churches and green hot springs. After serpentine twists and turns along the single road that links one end with the other, it’s a joy to come across the coral-encircled Kelor Island off the west coast of Flores. There’s nothing here but a handful of trees, a steep grassy mound and a modest beach. The waters are clear, the equatorial sky a deep shade of blue and the only sound is of the breeze along the sea. The parched hills of Rinca Island, part of Komodo National Park, are a reminder that it’s still possible to get away from crowds entirely. Here, time slows down and will make you wonder if you can ever go back to a big city. T+L TIP For some local color take the three-hour hike from Moni village to Kelimutu to check out its polychrome crater lakes: one is aquamarine green, one is blue and one is black.—Christopher Kucway
The Togean Islands Sulawesi
Great For Getting away from it all
However you tackle it, getting to Sulawesi’s Togean Islands is a sweaty, stomach churning voyage involving long bus trips and slow boats. So why make the effort? The world has countless strings of jungle covered islands in aquamarine waters, but there’s something magical about this archipelago that sets it apart. Traditional Bajo “Sea Gypsy” boats putter between mangrove coastlines and sand-rimmed islets, and often meet with frolicking dolphins. Vistors can hike through virgin tropical forests, swim in a saltwater lake filled with stinger free jellyfish or just relax on beaches where at peak hours you may see up to five other people. At night, when the water glows with phosphorescence, it is hard to decide what is more captivating, the star filled sky or the sea. Plus there’s little cell phone reception and no Internet, so disconnection is guaranteed. To really get the feel for the Togeans, rough it at one of about a dozen locally-run places such as the simple but spotless wooden beach bungalows of Poya Lisa Cottages (+62 812 3953 8575) near Bomba. Those wanting more comfort should head to ultra-private, spa-equipped Walea Dive Resort (walea.com). T+L TIP Keen divers should charter a boat to Una Una Island, whose reef hosts gigantic organ pipe sponges and the region’s best corals. Non-divers can spend the day hiking Una Una’s active volcanic cone. —Celeste Brash
Great For Beating the crowds
The inevitable arrival of throngs of tourists has hovered like a dark cloud over Phu Quoc for years. Thankfully, for now, it’s all blue skies and sunshine. The triangular island, less than an hour’s hop from Saigon, still offers secluded white sand beaches fringed with palm trees and dusty red dirt roads. Head south by moped from the semi-developed main town of Duong Dong to experience the island’s bucolic charms. With a map and a bit of luck you will eventually find Bai Sao Beach along the southeastern coast. The isolated spot has postcard-quality scenes of ivory sand under a gradually deepening sea of translucent turquoise water. To venture further offshore book a dive or snorkel trip at Rainbow Divers (11 Tran Hung Dao; +84 913 400 964; divevietnam.com) among the coral playground off the northwest tip or the cluster of An Thoi islands down south.
If you prefer a personal touch in your accommodation opt for Cassia Cottage (Ba Keo beach; +84 4 3928 4973; cassiacottage.com), a beachside boutique resort offering a friendly, intimate atmosphere with just 18 brick cottages. Cassia’s American owner first came to the island to get into the peppercorn business in the late ’90s, and his passion is apparent at the hotel’s Spice House restaurant, which seasons dishes with heady black pepper and vanilla from their farm. T+L TIP Get there soon. An international airport is scheduled to open later this year or early next and the government is planning an all-out push to increase yearly arrivals from the current level of around 280,000 to 2 million by 2020.—Karryn Miller