These islands might not ring a bell, but they pack a punch.
You’ve certainly heard of Cyprus, Cuba, and Curaçao, but what about the island nation of Kiribati, the only country in the world that’s on all four hemispheres? Or visited Bonaire, the only country that’s a protected marine park in its entirety? After you’ve checked the usual suspects off your bucket list, countless lesser-known islands await for fresh experiences. From underwater post offices to 26-hour music festivals for people with specific names, the following islands have everything going for them—except big crowds. Here are 10 of the world’s tropical best-kept secrets.
Wild. Arid. Flamingo-filled. The Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire is a dreamy escape for beach lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and anyone that loves truly one-of-a-kind experiences. It’s the world’s first Blue Destination where you can go landsailing in blokarts with Caribbean winds blowing in your hair, taste the first cactus vodka in the world, and dive in warm, pristine waters—which are particularly crystal clear since the entire island is a protected marine park. Plus, if your name is Juan or Pedro (or any derivative like Juana, Johanna, Peter, or Petra), every June, there’s an all-day all-night music and fire jumping festival in your honor.
Cayos Cochinos (Hog Cays) is an untouched real-life paradise in Honduras consisting of two small islands—Cayo Grande and Cayo Mayor—as well as over a dozen cays that should certainly make their way onto your lust list. You can rent your own private uninhabited palm tree island for less than $200 a night, learn from resident scientists, and emulate the cast of the Spanish version of Survivor who regularly films there. This deliciously remote and protected marine park is accessible by boat from La Ceiba, Honduras’ adventure playground.
You’ll feel like celebrating once you touch down on Champagne Beach or Ratua Private Island, which are both fabulous destinations in Vanuatu. This republic of 83 islands sprinkled like gems in the cerulean Pacific is one of the least visited countries in the world. It’s also multicultural and multilingual—people in the capital city of Port Vila speak English, French, and Bislama, a Creole dialect. Unlike nowhere else in the world, villagers on the Vanuatuan island of Tanna idolized the late Prince Philip and believed him to be a god-like reincarnation of an ancient warrior. Another unique feat in Vanuatu? The world’s first underwater post office.
Dhidhdhoofinolhu is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a marvelous Maldives island that’s home to the Lux* South Ari Atoll resort. There are 1,192 islands in the Maldives, but this slender dreamboat is special due to its unique location for year-round whale shark spotting. The resort occupies the entire island, which is in a protected marine area with 50 nearby dive sites to peep at dolphins, manta rays, and sea turtles. Picture-perfect Dhidhdhoofinolhu is 200 meters wide and almost two kilometers long, with dreamy sand bars, slanted palm trees, and pure white sand wherever you turn.
Even the most dedicated geography buffs might be hard pressed to pinpoint Kiribati on a map. You’re probably saying it wrong too. Kiribati is pronounced as ki-ree-bas in Gilbertese, the local language. This little-visited island nation is the only country on the planet to fall on all four hemispheres. Its 32 atolls are spread over a whopping 3.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. Come for fishing, bird watching, surfing, diving, doing sweet nothing on un-busy beaches, or for a festive time on Christmas Island (also known as Kiritimati), the largest atoll in the archipelago.
Sidestep the crowds with a visit to Tuvalu, which received just 3,600 visitors in 2019. Located between Australia and Hawaii, it’s one of the smallest and most remote countries in the world. You’ll arrive by plane from Fiji or Kiribati at the airport in the capital city, Funafuti, which has quite a charming ring to it. Spend your days sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling on powdery soft beaches, and tour the pristine islands of which there are nine.
Coiba’s claim to fame is that it was a penal colony for almost 100 years. The island in Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí on the Pacific Coast once housed as many as 3,000 political prisoners and dangerous criminals. This menacing reputation meant that developers and tourists stayed at bay, resulting in an almost untouched, isolated, and biodiverse territory. It’s now a world-class diving destination—on the same corridor as Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands—and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Comoros is an archipelagic nation in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa between Madagascar and Mozambique. Go there if you wish for an isolated, back-to-basics adventure or perhaps a detox—alcohol isn’t widely sold on the islands. Grand Comore (Ngazidja) is the largest island and home to the capital, Moroni, which feels more like a village than a city. Pack your flip-flops and brush up on your French, Arabic, or Comorian for a trip to this unconventional paradise.
This pear-shaped island in the heart of the Caribbean Sea receives much less fanfare than its closest neighbors, making it attractive for serenity and solitude seekers. Its landscapes are both dramatic and epic. Visit the volcanic-buried ghost town of Plymouth, head to Jack boy Hill or the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) to gaze at the Soufrière Hills Volcano (which is off limits), and spot curious endemic animals like the part-lizard part snake galliwasp, and the giant frogs known as mountain chickens.
São Tomé & Príncipe
Located off the coast of Gabon in West Africa, São Tomé & Príncipe has been described as heaven on earth. The “African Galapagos” is another moniker. This Portuguese-speaking two-island nation teems with pristine, remote beaches, prolific waterfalls, and lush rainforests. The natural attractions list goes on. Few travelers make the journey to this mountainous oasis which deserves its moment in the spotlight once and for all.