Blaze a trail to these tiny and tough-to-reach islands, to discover the unique culture and wildlife that thrive in the world's furthest-flung corners
When your nearest inhabited neighbour is almost equally remote Pitcairn, you know you’re far from home. Despite its Polynesian roots and its mid-Pacific location some 3,500km west of mainland South America, Easter Island belongs to Chile – it was annexed by the country in 1888. However, by that time, the traditional society of the local Rapa Nui people had already collapsed, due to deforestation, slave raiders and outbreaks of disease brought by foreign explorers. Thus little is known about the island’s most remarkable attraction: its mysterious moai.
No one quite knows why the Rapa Nui carved more than 800 of these huge stone heads, which weigh up to 86,000kg. Theories abound; some think they’re the work of aliens. But they remain one of the world’s greatest wonders.
Much of the island is a national park. You can follow trails that lead up to the extinct volcano of Rano Kau to look into the wide, reed-dotted crater lagoon, and you can hike up Mount Terevaka (507m), the island’s highest point. You can wander around the lush bowl of Rano Raraku crater, where most of the statues were carved (and many still remain). And you can visit magnificent moai sites such as Ahu Tongariki, where 15 huge heads gaze out from atop their ceremonial platform.
Good for: Strange and intriguing statues 2,000km from anywhere.
Getting there: LATAM Airlines flies six times a week from Santiago (mainland Chile) to Easter Island; flight time is from around 5.5 hours.
As a former pirate stronghold, surrounded by shark-infested waters and rumoured to hide a fortune in buried gold, Cocos seems like the kind of island a giddy eight-year-old might conjure up. Today, Costa Rica’s eccentric outpost, located 550km off its Pacific coast, is favoured mostly by divers; overnight stays on land are prohibited so liveaboard boat trips are the only way to visit.
The tiny UNESCO-listed speck is home to just a few park rangers. Access is limited and a guide is mandatory if you want to explore – a legacy of over-eager treasure seekers. A handful of trails lead over the hills, through wonderfully vibrant rainforests a-whistle with endemic finches, cuckoos and other species, and via some of the island’s 200 waterfalls.
However, the real treasure is found beneath the waves. The seas here are teeming: you might spot huge schools of hammerhead sharks, white-tip reef sharks, graceful manta rays, dolphin pods, whale sharks, orca and humpbacks. If you’re not confident in scuba gear, opt for a trip that includes dives in a submersible for widescreen views of this unforgettable underwater world.
Good for: Underwater adventures.
Getting there: A handful of tour companies run liveaboard boat trips to Cocos Island from Puntarenas (two hours’ drive from San José). The boat journey takes around 36 hours.
Adrift between Greenland and Norway, Jan Mayen is often passed over for the icy charms of Svalbard further east or Iceland’s explosive delights to the south. Also, it’s not that easy to reach. There is no commercial airport and only a handful of cruises visit its shores, restricted to certain sites after the island was designated a nature reserve in 2010. But travellers who do make it here will find a volcanic wonder quite unlike anywhere else.
Streaked with glaciers, Jan Mayen’s most striking sight is Mt Beerenberg (2,277m), the world’s northernmost active volcano, which looms large as you sail by. Landings can be made at the weather station, where vital Arctic research is carried out, and at Kvalrossbutka for treks to the old 17th-century Dutch whaling station, where rusting remains merge into the moss and rock. There’s wildlife a plenty too, from slopes dotted with Atlantic puffins to waters inhabited by minke whales and orca. A frozen delight.
Good for: Unsung Arctic scenery.
Getting there: Expedition cruises to Jan Mayen usually depart from Scotland, Norway or Iceland, often including stops at Fair Isle (Scotland) and Svalbard (Norway); trips usually take from around ten days.
Visiting Russia’s UNESCO-listed Wrangel Island requires precision planning. There’s only a narrow window each year during which ships can reach this outpost, located 500km north of the Arctic Circle in the ice-prone Chukchi Sea. And, since the island’s native Chukchi people were relocated some 50 years ago, few people bother to make the effort these days, except for a handful of researchers and hardy cruisers. Yet the rewards are worth it.
The sea ice can only be safely passed in late summer. At this time, with luck, Zodiacs can ferry you ashore to land on this wildlife wonderland. Some 500 polar bears roam the biodiverse steppe, not to mention reindeer and musk-oxen, squadrons of dive-bombing seabirds and cheeky Arctic foxes.
Wrangel was the last redoubt of the woolly mammoth, which survived here until around 2000 BC. These days, though, the local tuskers are Pacific walrus. The island boasts the world’s largest population of these creatures, with up to 100,000 gathered at any given time, barracking on the shores. For raw, untamed wilderness, this really is the edge of the world.
Good for: An astonishing abundance of walruses and polar bears.
Getting there: The ice-strengthened Spirit of Enderby sails to Wrangel Island, typically departing from Anadyr, Russia, in August; trips last from 15 days.
Flung out into the Bering Sea, around 320km off the coast of Alaska, the Pribilof archipelago consists of four specks of wild, craggy, treeless tundra. Sounds unpromising, but no – Pribilof is a wildlife haven, with a fascinating history.
The islands were uninhabited when the Russians arrived in the late 18th century and forcibly relocated Native American Aleut people to hunt the archipelago’s fur seals. Today, the two main islands, St Paul and St George, are home to the world’s largest community of Aleut; visitors typically stay on the larger, St Paul, where a small town numbering some 450 thrives. The richly decorated Russian Orthodox church still recalls the islands’ turbulent past.
However, the main draw of the Pribilof Islands is the wildlife. More than 2.5 million seabirds – puffins, murres, auklets, fulmars – nest on the cliffs, coming together in a cacophony of feathered chaos. Meanwhile, summer sees up to one million northern fur seals (around 70% of the world’s population) lollop onto the black sands to breed, along with Steller sea lions, walruses and sea otters. Rough roads and hiking trails will help you explore.
Good for: Native American culture and a bevy of birds.
Getting there: PenAir runs a scheduled service from Anchorage to St Paul and St George; flights take 3.5 hours.
Quiet is the word that springs to mind. Just 400 visitors at a time are allowed on tiny Lord Howe Island, which sits 600km off the east coast of Australia and measures just 10km long by as little as 300m wide. That makes its rainforest-cloaked peaks, twinkling lagoons and dazzling coral reefs (the world’s southernmost) seem all the more precious. It also more than doubles the island’s population – just 350 people live here. Needless to say, the pace is rather laid-back, with walking and swimming the main ways to fill the day.
Around three-quarters of Lord Howe lies within a protected park preserve. Highlights include hiking up island high-point Mount Gower (875m) for the finest views, and visiting Malabar Hill, where the dramatic cliffs are home to the world’s largest nesting ground for red-tailed tropicbirds.
But perhaps even better lies offshore. Lord Howe sits within a protected marine park, and pristine reefs stretch along the island’s west coast, sustained by the warm currents from eastern Australia. Around 500 fish species and 90 types of coral can be found in the clear, calm waters, making the diving and snorkelling spectacular.
Good for: A peaceful escape.
Getting there: Qantas runs year-round scheduled flights to Lord Howe from Sydney (almost daily) and Brisbane (weekends). Flight time from Sydney is around two hours.
Life on the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago is not fast-paced. But therein lies the joy of Tristan da Cunha, where the only way on or off the island is via a six-day sail on an infrequent ship from Cape Town – albatross trailing in your wake for much of the 2,800km journey – or as part of a longer expedition cruise. Just reaching this far-flung British Overseas Territory – the ‘Edinburgh of the South Seas’ – is an achievement.
Tristan is tiny (just 254 people live here), but there’s plenty to explore. You could hike up volcanically active Queen Mary’s Peak (2,062m) to stare into the heart-shaped crater lake. You could visit the rockhopper penguin rookery (best in January). Or you could pop into the Thatched Museum, join a guided walk or even have a game of golf.
The equally remote ‘nearby’ islands of St Helena and Ascension complete this British southern Atlantic territory. The former was the site of Napoleon’s exile, while Ascension has bubbling fumaroles and nesting green sea turtles (December-July). Also, nearer Tristan is the UNESCO-listed outcrop of Gough Island, home to more than eight million seabirds from at least 23 different species.
Good for: Volcanic hikes and off-grid island-hopping.
Getting there: Visitors to Tristan need prior permission from the Island Council, which can take 40 days. The MFV Edinburgh, MVF Geosearcher, MV Baltic Trader and SA Agulhas II sail between Cape Town and Tristan; advance booking essential.
The Ogasawara (or Bonin) Islands are something of an oddity. Despite lying 1,000km off Japan’s coast, the archipelago is actually administratively part of Tokyo prefecture. Yet the archipelago’s aquamarine shallows, sub-tropical jungles and white-sand beaches couldn’t be more different from the neon flash of the big city. These islands offer a side of Japan that few travellers ever see.
Ogasawara comprises 30-plus islands, but the majority of its 2,400-strong population live on Chichi-jima (Father Island). This is also where humpbacks (January-April) sperm whales (May-November) and dolphins (year-round) might be spotted offshore, and where you can kayak to a succession of glorious coves and beaches. Steep, eroded cliffs serve up fine viewpoints while, in the clear waters below, Second World War relics rust amid kaleidoscopic schools of fish. Inland, trails wind deep into Chichi-jima’s forests, where flying foxes and endemic birds flit between the trees.
Just a kilometre offshore lies a real treasure: the tiny, uninhabited isle of Minami-jima. It’s a key breeding ground for green sea turtles and only 100 visitors are allowed there each day.
Good for: Seeing an alternative side to Japan.
Getting there: Ferries leave from Tokyo for Chichi-jima every six days (every three days in high season); journey time is 24 hours.
You don’t have to be marooned a thousand miles out at sea to feel cut off from the world. Located 300km off the east coast of Mozambique, the former French colony of Comoros lies nearer to mainland Africa than other Indian Ocean tourist hotspots. Yet, unlike the Maldives or Mauritius, few people visit.
Political instability beleaguered the country for decades after it gained independence in 1975. But troubles have subsided, and those who do make their way here are in for a treat. The main trio of islands – Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli – have a distinct culture, with a rich colonial history (evident in the fine old architecture) and a relaxed take on Islam.
Must-dos include a hike to the smouldering crater of Mount Karthala, snorkelling in the pristine waters, wandering amid great baobabs and jungles chittering with rare Livingstone bats, and watching green sea turtles haul onto white-sand beaches.
Good for: An Indian Ocean paradise away from the crowds.
Situated 1,000km east of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia has had an oddly busy history. First sighted in the late 17th century, in 1775 Captain James Cook claimed it for the British. Sealing started soon after, then whaling; a whaling outpost still rusts on the shores at Grytviken. Explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried in the whalers’ cemetery here.
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to reach: South Georgia is increasingly included as a stop on cruises to Antarctica. Once you’ve arrived, get your passport stamped at the island post office. Then retrace the final section of Shackleton’s epic 1916 journey, when he trekked across South Georgia to seek help for the crew of the ice-trapped Endurance.
But it’s the wildlife that you really come for. There are few sights in nature more striking than that of glacier-backed Salisbury Plain, where thousands of handsome king penguins squawk, waddle and huddle. Elephant seals now flop ashore where the old whalers used to operate. And the waters around the islands have seen the return of southern right, humpback and fin whales. Most visitors will continue on to the White Continent on longer cruises, but none forget South Georgia.
Good for: Heroic history and Antarctic wildlife.
Getting there: Several tour companies run cruises that call at South Georgia, typically departing from Ushuaia, southern Argentina, and heading on to Antarctica. Trips are possible from November to mid-March and usually last from 18 days.
A dribble of volcanic islands dot the sub-Antarctic waters south of New Zealand, largely furred by scrub and raucous with the calls of seabirds. Macquarie is a bit different, though. Not only is it the most remote (over 1,000km from Invercargill), but the Australian outpost is actually a rogue piece of oceanic crust, squeezed out of the seabed by colliding tectonic plates.
These days, sea lions, fur seals and penguins can all be spotted on the island – a far cry from the 19th century, when the latter two were hunted almost to oblivion. Today, penguins can even be spotted sheltering in the rusted boilers of the old processing plant, now given over to the wild; the only human inhabitants occupy research huts.
While burrowing rabbits and egg-eating rats (brought centuries ago aboard ships) have taken a toll on the environment, conservation efforts and eagle-eyed skuas keep their numbers down. Which means wildlife is everywhere: king, rockhopper and gentoo penguins waddling around; beaches thick with slumbering fur seals and grumpy elephant seals; and seas alive with cetaceans.
Good for: Rebounding nature, including four million penguins.
Getting there: Cruises to Macquarie typically depart from Invercargill or Dunedin, New Zealand, taking in other sub-Antarctic islands en route to Antarctica; trips last from around 13 days.