The Best Secret Islands on Earth
Vietnam: Con Dao
Originally published by Travel + Leisure
Phu Quoc might be hailed as the next Phuket, but those looking to get far off the grid head to this undiscovered archipelago just 110 miles off Vietnam’s southeastern coast. A 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City brings you to Con Son, the largest (and only inhabited) member of the 16-island chain. Here, sheer granite cliffs border deserted beaches and crystal-blue water—imagine a tropical Amalfi Coast without the crowds. Up until now, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a decent place to stay, but the arrival of the Six Senses Con Dao (Dat Doc Beach; 84-64/383-1222; sixsenses.com; villas from $685) has brought a welcome dose of luxury to the island. Standing along a stretch of golden sand are 50 airy villas (some with private pools) that look out onto the South China Sea. Food is a highlight here. In classic Six Senses style, the hotel’s Vietnamese restaurant is set up to resemble a market; there are separate stalls “hawking” noodles and rolls, while made-to-order dishes are cooked outside in charcoal-fueled woks. You may be tempted to never leave the resort, but the 20-square-mile island is well worth exploring. Hire a private guide from the hotel, who will bring you via motorbike to the area’s most remote spots, including a 19th-century hilltop lighthouse and the spectacular Dam Tre Bay lagoon.
Indonesia: Gili Trawangan
Related: 12 Affordable Private Island Resorts
Searching for the Bali of, say, 1970? Head to Gili Trawangan, a tiny island near Lombok dotted with countless waterside cafés. No motorized traffic is allowed here—the best way to get around is to rent a bicycle or use your own two feet. The daily agenda involves nothing more than fishing, diving, or kicking back with a cold beer at Scallywag (South Beach; 62-370/645-301; lunch for two $30). On the southern coast, Hotel Vila Ombak (hotelombak.com; doubles from $150) has 115 airy oceanfront rooms.
When Columbus made his expedition in 1492, Pico was considered a last outpost before you, well, fell off the earth—and it remains virtually unknown. It’s a shame, what with wines unlike anywhere else, and footpaths that weave through beautifully eerie landscapes of lava. In the middle of a Unesco-designated vineyard is the Pocinhobay (Pocinho-Monte; 351/292-629-135; pocinhobay.com; doubles from $238), where six basalt bungalows take in views of the Atlantic.
There’s a reason mystery writer Stieg Larsson chose Sandön as a setting for his popular Millennium thriller trilogy: the island is covered in a forest of moss and pine trees, and a light fog shrouds the windblown beaches. Check in to the modern Sands Hotell (46-8/5715-3020; sandshotell.se; doubles from $298), just steps from the harbor in Sandön’s only town, Sandhamn. At Sandhamns Värdshus (46-8/5715-3051; dinner for two $100), chef Henrik Lepistö whips up classic Swedish dishes such as house-marinated herring and pytt i panna, a traditional hash with fried egg and beets.
British Virgin Islands: Scrub Island
The name may suggest otherwise, but a trip here hardly constitutes roughing it. Once a pit stop for explorers, it’s been virtually uninhabited for decades—until last year, when the luxe Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina (877/890-7444; scrubisland.com; doubles from $375) opened its doors. What to expect? Spacious hillside villas, guided trips to nearby Norman Island, and sunset nature hikes.
A one-hour ferry ride from Skiathos, the island of Skopelos is so picture-perfect (hidden coves; blue-roofed tavernas; hundreds of Byzantine-era churches) that Hollywood chose its Kastani Beach as a set for Mamma Mia. At the just-renovated Adrina Beach Hotel (Panormos; 34-24240/23371; adrina.gr; doubles from $98), the 49 pastel-colored rooms face the pine-tree-studded coastline, strewn with daybeds. Later this year, the same owners will debut the more upscale Adrina Resort & Spa (Panormos; 30-24240/23371; theresort.gr; doubles from $110), with 16 terraced rooms and 22 villas that look out onto the turquoise Aegean.
Belize: Caye Caulker
There’s nary a traffic light on this laid-back island—a five-mile strip of land that’s a 15-minute flight from Belize’s main airport. Head to Shark Ray Alley to snorkel among nurse sharks and stingrays or go scuba diving at the underwater caves of Blue Hole. Aboveground, try the curried lobster at the roadside Jolly Roger’s Grill (Ave. Hicaco; 011-501/664-3382; dinner for two $25). On the eastern side of the Caye, Seaside Cabanas (501/226-0498; seasidecabanas.com; doubles from $105) has 10 rooms and six colorful cabins, each with its own roof terrace for taking in those amazing Caribbean views.
Bahamas: Sampson Cay and Exuma Cays
Partially protected from commercial activity since 1959, the Exuma Cays are normally the domain of cruisers—and a few privileged landowners such as Johnny Depp. But guests at Sampson Cay have access to the area’s thriving patch reefs and isolated islets. At the Sampson Cay Club (877/633-0305; sampsoncayclub.com; doubles from $275), the five modest villas include wide patios that are perfect for watching the sunset. While the limestone karst terrain may be rugged, every path ends on a stretch of secluded white sand.
Don’t expect to see much night sky here: in summer, daylight shines for up to 21 hours on this rocky one-mile hideaway in Breiðafjörður Bay. Lush meadows and multicolored timber houses dot the scenery, and the mainland’s Snæfellsjökull volcano is always within eyeshot. In town, Hotel Flatey (354/555-7788; hotelflatey.is; doubles from $180) stays true to simple Scandinavian design (blond-wood furniture; whitewashed walls), and the downstairs restaurant turns into a live-concert venue for local talent at night.
This tiny Mediterranean island is where Odysseus was “held captive” by Calypso after the Trojan War. Take one look at the landscape, and it’s no wonder he stayed seven years. Rolling hills, crumbling castle walls, and a Bronze Age fortress are some of the most endearing features. Check in to Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa (Cenc St., Sanat; 356/2219-1000; tacenchotel.com; doubles from $260), with 85 stone bungalows overlooking the sea. From there, it’s a short drive to Dwejra Bay, where you can take a dip, then munch on pastizzi (ricotta-filled pastries) at Tapie’s Bar (St. Francis Square; lunch for two $20).
India: Andaman Islands
These 550 atolls in the Bay of Bengal have all the prerequisites for an idyllic getaway—with an added dose of culture. You can still see a few ancient indigenous tribes. The island of Havelock, a two-hour ferry ride from Port Blair, is arguably the most appealing, thanks to its bone-white beaches. Book a sea-facing villa at the new SilverSand Beach Resort (91-3192/282-493; silversandhavelock.com; doubles from $130) and ask the staff to take you on a trek to the Kala Pather forest.
Locked in a shallow lagoon, this fish-shaped island has served as a paparazzi-free bolt-hole for Prince William in years past. With its verdant valleys and numerous islets, it’s a haven for hikers and kite-surfers, too. Stay at the beachfront Mourouk Ebony Hotel (011-230/832-3351; mouroukebonyhotel.com; doubles from $205), with 34 Creole-style rooms. For freshly caught seafood, don’t miss Coralie la Diffe’rence (Countour Oblasse; 230/832-1071; dinner for two $40).
New Zealand: Great Barrier Island
At 104 square miles, “The Barrier” is the largest island off the Kiwi coast, but it’s also the most untouched. Spend your days hiking through dense kauri woods or exploring jagged inlets. Then refuel over mussel fritters at Tipi & Bobs (38 Puriri Bay Rd., Puriri Bay; 64-9/429-0550; dinner for two $45). The four modern rooms at the glass-walled Oruawharo Beach House (5 Ringwood St., Torbay; 64-9/473-6031; ihu.co.nz; doubles from $450) are designed by New Zealand architecture firm Fearon Hay and have spectacular views of Oruawharo Bay.