@NatGeoTravel Staff Picks: Best Islands

On the lookout for a great escape? There’s nothing quite like an island to transport you to an alternate reality—one where days seem to stretch on forever and troubles fall away like an ebbing tide.

Here are a few of the @NatGeoTravel team’s favorite islands to get you in that dreaming mood:

“As Heather C. mentions in “Reader Recs: Island Getaways,” Malta presents an incredible island getaway experience. After a world-traveler friend assured me that Malta was the most amazing place she’d ever visited, I knew I had to unearth what she meant. So from the beauty of the Blue Lagoon and fascinating streets of Valletta, to the range of history displayed in the Hypogeum and the Mosta Rotunda, to the painted eyes on the fishing boats in the harbor Marsaxlokk and the uniqueness of the island buses, Malta demonstrates its contrasts. Go for the Mediterranean sunshine, but discover the island.” —Caroline Hickey, National Geographic Travel Books

“When I was studying abroad in the Czech Republic back in 2001, I met a Kiwi named Paul and we struck up a friendship that was to last for years. Periodically he would mention a place called Rarotonga, a stand-in for heaven on Earth, it would seem. So when I had the chance to travel there this summer, I wasn’t about to say no. Three musts: Devouring a mahi mahi sandwich from The Mooring Cafe at Muri Beach (grab extra napkins!), a cross-island trek into Rarotonga’s rugged interior with pro-surfer-turned-herbalist Pa, and an epic, five-hour “progressive dining tour” where visitors mingle with native Maoris (including tribal elders) at their homes, learning about their family life and culture while sampling delectable island staples such as coconut-curry ceviche, fried taro, and tropical fruit galore. Rarotonga may be a focal point in “the Cooks”—home to its only international airport, more than 70 percent of its population, and capital city Avarua—but there are more than a dozen other islands to explore. My favorite was naturalist’s dream Atiu. You won’t find arcing white-sand beaches here (head to Aitutaki if shore time is your priority), but you will be introduced to a unique echo-locating bird that makes its home in an enormous limestone cave, a passionate local known as Birdman George, the fascinating social ritual of the tumunu, and island life as it should be: simple and satisfying.” —Leslie Trew Magraw, Editor/Producer, Intelligent Travel

  • Travelers can take a ferry to Lopez Island from Anacortes in Washington State. (Photograph by Tyler Metcalfe)
    Travelers can take a ferry to Lopez Island from Anacortes, Washington. (Photograph by Tyler Metcalfe)

    Lopez Island, San Juan Islands

“Having grown up in the land-locked state of Oklahoma, I didn’t make it to many islands in the early years of my life. But after moving to Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, I discovered the benefits of living so close to the sea. I was lucky enough to have a good friend whose parents owned a house on Lopez Island, one of the islets that make up the San Juans in Washington State. Fourth of July weekend, a few friends and I took the short ferry ride from Seattle to Lopez Island, and spent three days kayaking, biking, slack-lining, and hiking around their property. On the night of the Fourth, we gathered near a boat dock with a small crowd, waiting for the sun to set and the fireworks to begin. As they exploded over the bay accompanied by faint cheers from unseen people in the distance, I knew the experience would rank as one of the most memorable Independence Days of my lifetime.” —Tyler Metcalfe, Associate Photo Producer, National Geographic Travel

“One of my favorite trips ever was to Mainland, the primary island in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago. It crams an amazing number of diverse sites into its 200 square miles—Viking burial chambers, Stone-Age-era villages, medieval castle ruins, skies filled with hovering seabirds, neolithic stone circles, dramatic cliff-side ocean scenery, the world’s most northerly whisky distillery, the almost-midnight sun, and toe-tapping Celtic music—combine to make this one of the most eclectic and entertaining destinations I’ve ever visited.” —Larry Porges, National Geographic Travel Books

“Every year on Christmas Day my family would make the drive from downtown San Diego over the bright blue Coronado Bridge. The ride offers top-notch views of my home city, as well as the coastline north and south of it. Once on the island, we strolled around and through the decked-out Hotel del Coronado. The island is great for bike rides or a round of golf and also boasts some local favorite bars and restaurants, including the Coronado Brewing Company.” —Carolyn Fox, Digital Director, National Geographic Travel

“Frankly, I first thought the entire place was in need of a good watering. Bone-dry and flapjack flat, this tiny island in the Dutch Caribbean lacked the fertility and slaying beauty of some of its neighbors. But then I took a scuba-gear-laden giant stride—my first dive ever—off the edge of the island (whose entire perimeter is a protected national park) and fell right into Bonaire’s submerged soul: a water world filled with fish and coral of discombobulating hues. When I came up for air a half hour later, the world was significantly changed.” —Norie Quintos, Executive Editor, National Geographic Traveler

“Sure, there may be better diving in Bonaire and more haute resorts in Aruba, but Curaçao—the “C” in the Caribbean’s ABC Islands, all floating off Venezuela’s northern coast—offers something its neighbors don’t: infectious spirit. Of the many Caribbean islands I’ve visited, locals far outweighed tourists at the more than three dozen public beaches, like postcard-perfect Kenepa Grandi. And beaches are just the most obvious attraction. Christoffelpark sits on the northwestern tip of the island, offering miles of jungle hiking, while oceanfront Shete Boka National Park is a veritable maze of tiny coves nestled against the azure water. The World Heritage-listed, candy-colored capital Willemstad, where fresh fish is sold alongside artwork and a cornucopia of duty-free products that lure cruise ship passengers, speaks to the island’s history of Dutch colonization, while the gently sloping ocean floor (along with dozens of hard and soft coral species) promises hours of deep- and shallow-water distraction. Best of all, live music plays every night—also frequented by locals more than tourists.” —Nathan Borchelt, Senior Product Manager, Travel and Adventure

“Although I grew up by beaches in Florida, my family preferred to vacation an 11-hour flight away in Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island. Here you’ll find lush, Jurassic Park-esque mountains and Hawaiian monk seals snoozing on the sand of the many public beaches. Poipu Beach is an ideal surf spot for beginners, and is only a short drive away from Waimea Canyon, a Polynesian version of the Grand Canyon, with a lookout spot that takes visitors above the clouds. While in Waimea, order a sweet, syrupy treat at Jo Jo’s Shave Ice, and always ask for a snow cap (a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk) for the ultimate tropical treat hybrid. The historic town of Hanapepe, the inspiration behind Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, hosts a weekly art night with open galleries, live ukulele music, and local foodie favorites like taro tortilla tacos. When it comes to Kauai, the jet lag’s always worth it.” —Hannah Sheinberg, Assistant Editor, National Geographic Traveler

“While living in New Zealand, I wanted to get (even more) away from it all, and headed south to Stewart Island. Stepping off the boat on the island, New Zealand’s third largest, is like stepping back in time. Eighty five percent national park (fewer than 400 people call the island “home”), Stewart Island’s natural beauties—and rare birds, like the kiwi—abound. Take a ten-minute boat to Ulva Island, a wildlife sanctuary, for an even better chance at catching a glimpse of the flightless bird.” —Jeannette Kimmel, Editorial Business Manager, National Geographic Traveler

“I washed ashore on Nantucket Island decades ago as a college student with a job scooping ice cream. Since then, I’ve returned nearly every summer, often with kids in tow. I come back for the beaches, the open moorland, the gray cedar cottages, and the outdoor showers. I am lured by the sameness of our summer experiences, simple pleasures like clamming for quahogs in the afternoon and tossing them in pasta for dinner under a star-filled sky. After completing our morning ritual of a walk around town, stopping for a cuppa at Handlebar Coffee and blueberry muffins at Petticoat Row Bakery, we’re at the beach by noon—Miacomet if it’s calm and sunny, Jetties sandbar on overcast days. If it rains, we duck into the Atheneum library to sit and read in large Windsor chairs on Persian carpets or ponder the lives of 18th-century captains out at sea for years at a time at the Whaling Museum. In the evening, we may watch the sun set at Madaket beach, line up for ice cream at the Juice Bar, or try our luck at squid fishing at the town pier. There are a few other must-dos, too: dinner at the Lobster Trap, a bike ride to Sconset, and, our kids’ favorite, a visit to the secret candy room at Force Five. At the end of our two weeks, we load our car onto the ferry bound for Cape Cod and run up to the deck to wave to the onlookers at Brant Point lighthouse. The kids toss a penny into the water as we round the point, an honored tradition that is said to ensure a trip back to the island. So far, it’s worked every time.” —Susan O’Keefe, Associate Editor, National Geographic Traveler

“I know St. Thomas is one of the most visited islands in the Caribbean, with its casinos and malls and cruise ships, but my memories of the place bring up only idyllic beaches that feel like my own off-the-beaten-path finds. I honeymooned at supposedly super-popular Magens Bay, but I only recall its nearly vacant perfect crescent of porcelain sand. Another visit had us at equally low-key Sapphire Beach with my three-month-old son, where gentle waves gave him his first kiss of clear tropical waters.” —Amy Alipio, Associate Editor, National Geographic Traveler 

“My family took a trip to St. John a couple years back, and my siblings and I have been planning a return visit ever since. The island is relatively small (about 19 square miles) but rich in its offerings: from hiking trails through the ruins of 19th-century sugar factories to opportunities for swimming and snorkeling around a stunning three-mile-wide coral reef. More than a third of the island is a protected national park, including Trunk Bay, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Tip: Save on the daily park entrance fee to Trunk Bay by opting for an annual family pass for $15.” —Ben Fitch, Associate Photo Editor, National Geographic Traveler 

“One of my favorite islands is Hydra in Greece, about a 90-minute ferry ride from Piraeus. Cars are banned, so all you hear are the sounds of donkeys braying, sheep bells tinkling, waves crashing, people talking, church bells ringing. The streets are narrow, winding stairs, the houses whitewashed a blinding white with thick wooden shutters. Excellent food, fresh from the sea and island gardens, abounds at any little outdoor taverna you choose. I rented a house with some friends one summer and our big activity was sitting on the flat roof drinking ouzo and watching the sun sink into the Aegean.” —Marilyn Terrell, Chief Researcher, National Geographic Traveler

“Palm Island’s two-mile stretch was a favorite spot for family getaways and girls weekends. Equidistant from Tampa Bay, where I grew up, and Cape Coral, the ferry ride out to the island (there are no cars—only golf carts) allows for a mental and physical break from the everyday, a chance to disconnect and recharge. The “old Florida” architecture of Palm Island’s beach villas and cottages adds to serene views of the Gulf of Mexico. The island prides itself on its efforts to protect the variety of endangered sea turtles that nest there. If you time your visit right, you can watch newly hatched babies making their primal journey back to the sea.” —Rebecca Davis, Production Assistant, National Geographic Travel