Most adventure-hungry travellers wouldn't give these islands a second look - but you'd be silly to do the same
Coordinates: 39°37’N 2°59’E • Area: 3,640 sq km • Population: 869,067
Why go? It’s a case of one naughty schoolboy spoiling things for the whole class. Just because a 30km stretch of Mallorca’s coastline has been ruined by package high-rises, the entire island gets written off. And yet, leave the blighted Bay of Palma and you discover an island of monasteries, mountains, historic ports and untouched coves.
The Sierra de Tramuntana, looming over the Balearic isle’s north-west, is the wildest area. Here you can hike along a network of trails of varying difficulty; maps are available in capital Palma and the pretty town of Sóller, the best base for mountain forays. Also in the north, head to the tiny, tumbling village of Deià, where poet Robert Graves is buried; take your binoculars to the Parc Natural de s’Albufera, a wetland wonderland for birds; and explore the Roman ruins of Pollentia, which date to the first century BC.
When to go: Spring and autumn are best for hiking and quieter beaches. Almond trees bloom late January-early March. Cosmopolitan Palma is open for city breaks year round.
How to go: Many airlines fly from the UK to Palma (from 2.5hrs).
Coordinates: 22°10’N 113°33’E • Area: 29.5 sq km • Population: 591,900
Why go? This formerly Portuguese enclave of Asia – comprising the Macau Peninsula and the islands of Taipa and Coloane – is best known for its casinos. The gambling dens here make more money than Vegas, and are almost as glitzy. But this Special Administrative Region of China isn’t all craps. Though you can daytrip from Hong Kong, it’s worth staying several days.
The centre of Macau is UNESCO-listed, with baroque churches, wide squares and crumbly mansions that nod to its rich colonial history. There’s also a 17th-century fort, Taoist temples, world-class museums and little antique shops. The food’s good too – a fusion of Portuguese and Chinese, so you can follow your crispy fried pork with a pasteis de nata (egg custard tart). To really get away from all the bling, aim for the nine sq km island of Coloane. In Coloane Village, high-rises are swapped for fishing boats, quiet temples and Catholic chapels, while there’s an expanse of green, hilly parkland to roam.
When to go: October-December is the best time – the weather is cool and clear. March-May is also pleasant. July-September is typhoon season.
How to go: There are no direct flights from the UK to Macau International Airport; flights run via hubs such as Hong Kong and Bangkok. Ferries run between Hong Kong and Macau (from 45mins).
Coordinates: 41°44’N 25°40’W • Area: 2,333 sq km • Population: 245,746
Why go? Oh the irony. The Azores archipelago – nine islands castaway in the mid-Atlantic, a long, long way from their Portuguese motherland – was once best known as a whaling base. The industry took off from the 19th century, and continued up until 1984, though even then methods were rather old school. Now, many whaling traditions persist – there are still whaleboat regattas, and vigias (whalers’ lookout towers) have been restored for tourists.
However, the focus is now on watching – not hunting – the leviathans that pass by in such great numbers. In-season excursions have a 95% success rate; it’s not unknown to see six or more species in one outing, ranging from sperm whales to bottlenose dolphins to mighty blues. Most visitors to the Azores stick to São Miguel, but head further afield to Pico and Faial – particular whale hotspots.
When to go: The weather is most settled April-October. Wildflowers bloom April-June. Various species of baleen whales (fin, sei, humpback, blue) migrate past in spring; sperm whales are resident year round.
How to go: From April to October there are direct flights from Gatwick to Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel (4hrs); flights run year-round via Lisbon.
Coordinates: 14°1’N 60°59’W • Area: 617 sq km • Population: 173,765
Why go? Contrary to brochure belief, you don’t have to be a honeymooning couple holding hands on a beach to like St Lucia. This is one of the Caribbean’s lusher, hillier islands, peaking at 950m Mt Gimie – though it’s the two pointy Pitons that feature in more photos. A hike in the island’s rainforested interior will pass waterfalls, giant ferns and wild orchids, plus a bevy of birds.
St Lucia also boasts the world’s only drive-in volcano (Qualibou), cacao estates (where you can go on tasty tours) and a colourful market (head to capital Castries on a Saturday morning). Don’t miss a trip to Pigeon Island, a national park dominated by an 18th-century fort, and a whalewatching trip: sperm whales and various dolphins are common, and humpbacks and orcas swim by from time to time.
When to go: The weather is best mid-December-April; these are also the busiest and priciest months. May-early June will be quieter and cheaper, if muggier. Hurricane season is June-November. The best time for humpbacks is January-April.
How to go: There are non-stop flights from the UK to St Lucia’s Hewanorra International Airport (8.5hrs).
Coordinates: 28°16’N 16°36’W • Area: 2,034 sq km • Population: 908,555
Why go? Yes, Playa de las Américas is your common or garden holiday nightmare, and hunks of the largest Canary Island have been butchered by package resorts. But don’t dismiss all of Tenerife. Get away from the south coast and you’ll discover a surprisingly varied and traditional island, where fiestas are preferred to discotheques and the land has been left to go wild.
Perhaps wildest of the lot is 3,718m Mount Teide, Spain’s highest peak and the pinnacle of a weird, lunar-ish, lava-ed landscape that might see snow, even while ‘lobsters’ are basting on the beaches below. Tenerife has myriad microclimates, best experienced via footpaths hacked by the Guanche (the original islanders); head to the northern valleys of Masca and Güímar for the most splendid isolation.
When to go: Year-round. Best are spring and autumn – balmy, but without the summer crowds. November can be rainy. It’s still shorts-weather in December-January.
How to go: Many airlines fly from the UK to Tenerife Sur airport (from 4.5hrs), which is 20km east of touristy Playa de las Américas.