Sarah Baxter | 23 July 2023
7 unique island-hopping destinations
From whale-watching in the Azores to hiking volcanic landscapes in the Aegean Sea, these island archipelagos offer a different kind of isolation and adventure...
From whale-watching in the Azores to hiking volcanic landscapes in the Aegean Sea, these island archipelagos offer a different kind of isolation and adventure...
The allure of the island starts early. The image of a remote speck in the ocean, frilled by palm trees, lapped by deep-blue waves and (probably) concealing pirates, parrots and buried treasure is the stuff of childhood fantasy. And, for many of us, that enchantment spills over into adulthood. There's something about an island's sense of escape and isolation, the feeling of entering a separate world, the potential for adventure.
So, no wonder island-hopping is such an appealing prospect. What could be more romantic than a journey to not one, but multiple isles, linking a string of wildlife-rich, culturally diverse or geologically dramatic outposts?
But how to pick your archipelago? Do you want short, easy crossings by creaky old boats or are you happy to hop by plane? Do you want typical tropical or wonderfully wild and windy? Do you want to cast away on uninhabited atolls or bed down somewhere more sophisticated where you can order a Michelin-starred meal? Islands are not all the sand-and-sunshine pictures of our six-year-old imaginations – there's far more variety than that. But somewhere out there, there are a cluster of islands where you can find your own type of treasure...
Where? Mid Atlantic, 1,500km west of Lisbon, Portugal
For... A whale of a time
The lowdown: Nine volcanic islands, in three clusters, strung out over 600km
Fly out across the Atlantic Ocean, and back about 70 years .... That's the Azores, which feel removed from both the rest of Europe and the modern world. There's a pleasingly old-school vibe here: outside capital Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel, life is largely rural, slowpaced, governed by Mother Nature.
While Sao Miguel is a good gateway, and has an array of lakes, craters, guesthouses and attractions, it's the busiest of the bunch, so best to hotfoot it elsewhere. Its closest neighbour is sunny Santa Maria, home to talented artisans (visit the cooperative in Santo Espfrito) and the excellent four-day Grande Trilho hiking trail, which circumnavigates the island. On rugged Terceira, the next-closest, visit the historic town of Angra do Herofsmo before planning plenty of trekking, cycling, kayaking and diving adventures.
The central trio of islands – Pico, Faial and Sao Jorge – are tightly packed and easily combined. On Pico, climb Portugal's highest peak (2,351m), swig your way around UNESCO-listed vineyards and learn about the archipelago's old whaling industry before enjoying its current one: whale-watching tours search for sperm and pilot whales (year-round) and blues, fins and seis (spring). Whalewatching is excellent from neighbouring Faial too – base yourself in the lively harbour town of Horta. Sao Jorge is serene, with quiet villages perched on distinctive fajas (coastal plateaus) and good canyoning and hiking around the cliffs and peaks.
Among the north-westerly islands you'll find Flores – a real looker with lush hills, lakes, waterfalls, whitewashed villages and abundant hydrangeas (the national flower). Tiny Corvo, the remnants of a collapsed caldera, is a birder's delight, especially when autumn migrants pass by. Which leaves Graciosa, where sleepy hamlets meet the explosive Furna do Enxofre, one of Europe's largest volcanic caverns.
Need to know: The archipelago's main airport is on Sao Miguel. Prop planes service each island; journeys take 15-50 minutes. Ferries also connect the islands. A quick, cheap, reliable service runs between Faial, Pico and Sao Jorge year-round. In summer, ferries run to all nine islands, but crossings can be long and prone to delays.
Like that? Try this... The Canary Islands, in the more southerly Atlantic, are linked by ferries and flights. Consider linking diverse Gran Canaria, rugged Tenerife (to ascend Spain's highest peak, 3,718m-tall Mount Teide), quiet La Gomera and hiker's heaven La Palma.
Where? Lesser Antilles arc of the Windward Islands, southern Caribbean
For... Lower-cost paradise
The lowdown: A tadpole-like archipelago, with St Vincent at the head and the 30-odd islands of the Grenadines trailing south
The Caribbean has a reputation for being resort-y and expensive. And turning up on the uber-luxe isle of Mustique will confirm that view. But use the local ferries to hop between other outposts within the Grenadines and you'll find a more authentic, and far less budget-blowing, side to the region.
Lush, mountainous St Vincent is the main island, where you'll find black-sand beaches, good birding and low-key tourism (try the community-based trips and homestay around Richmond Vale and Rose Hall). But better are the outlying islands. Bequia, only an hour away by fast ferry, is steeped in maritime history: amble along the Belmont Walkway in tiny capital Port Elizabeth for views of boat-bobbing Admiralty Bay and learn about the island's seafaring heritage at the Bequia Maritime Museum.
Further south, Canouan is gorgeous, with great snorkelling, but it's a little billionaire-orientated; there is one mid-range hotel, so budget travellers might want to opt for a day trip. More accessible is tiny, walkable Mayreau, where you can stay by glorious Saltwhistle Bay and arrange boat trips to the dazzling and uninhabited Tobago Cays Marine Park. This can also be done from Union Island, the southernmost outpost of 'SVG' and a lively isle with lots of activity potential: take walks around the dramatic peaks and jagged Pinnacles, learn to dive, kitesurf or sail, or loll about on the beautiful beaches and in the laidback beach bars.
Need to know: Local ferries connect St Vincent, Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau and Union Island. Journeys are slow but fun, and a great way to meet people: much local life and commerce in SVG is centred around the decks, docks and jetties. Boat trips to the Tobago Cays can be organised from multiple islands. Ferries also run south from Union to Carriacou (part of Grenada); from here you can catch ferries to Grenada itself.
Like that? Try this... Further north, the British Virgin Islands have some of the finest sailing waters in the Caribbean. Use ferries and water taxis to link main island Tortola with lively Jost Van Dyke, nature haven Virgin Gorda and the coral isle of Anegada; ferries also link to the neighbouring US Virgin Islands.
Where? Far west coast, Scotland
For... Wild Gaelic gallivanting
The lowdown: 210km-long chain of interconnected islands at Europe's Atlantic edge
The Outer Hebrides lie at a distance from the rest of the UK, both physically and culturally. These remote islands are a Gaelic heartland, with the language widely spoken and traditions widely practised. They are also scenically magnificent, an archipelago that stretches from peat bog and rugged peaks to white-sand beaches that look pinched from the Caribbean.
The fit and keen could hop mostly on foot: starting on Vatersay and finishing in Stornoway, the 252km Hebridean Way connects ten islands, via six causeways and two ferry journeys; there is a slightly longer version for cyclists too (just be warned: the wind can be brutal). Alternatively, use local buses or bring your car to explore.
Highlights include sea kayaking amid the bays and sparklingly clear waters of Barra; striding across empty beaches (including muchlauded Luskentyre Sands); watching traditional tweed weavers at work on Harris; visiting the restored crofting village of Gearrannan (where you can stay overnight in a thatched blackhouse); mulling over the prehistoric Callanish Standing Stones and taking an extra boat trip to even remoter St Kilda, abandoned by its residents in 1930 and home to almost a million seabirds. Foodies could follow the Eat Drink Hebrides Trail, a gastro tour linking restaurants, smokehouses, distilleries, farm shops, markets and even mustard makers throughout the archipelago.
If you have the time, you could tag on a trip to the Isle of Skye – ferries connect the Outer Hebrides to Uig, on Skye's dramatic Trotternish Peninsula, where you can marvel at the mighty basalt formations of the Quiraing.
Need to know: Ferries run across The Minch to the Outer Hebrides from the mainland ports of Ullapool, Mallaig and Oban. Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMal) offers a range of island-hopping Hopscotch tickets; for instance, its Hopscotch 25 covers ferry travel from Oban to Barra, Barra to Eriskay, North Uist to Uig (Skye), Uig to Harris and Lewis to Ulla pool. It's also possible to fly in – landing on Barra is particularly thrilling, as the landing is on Traigh Mhor beach, the only scheduled flight beach runway in the world.
Like that? Try this... Equally continent-edging, Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way is speckled with islands that can be incorporated into a mainland road trip, from Achill in the north to Cape Clear in the south. More than 20 ferry operators serve these outposts.
Where? East China Sea, south of Kyushu, Japan
For... An alternative take on Japan
The lowdown: A far-flung Japanese prefecture encompassing over 160 islands of the Ryukyu Arc, stretched out over around 700km
Okinawa is Japan, but not as you know it. Far from the high-tech, highly populated chaos of Tokyo, this chain of islands – some of which are inhabited, others barely more than a speck of rock – shows off Japan's slower, subtropical side. Think white sand, sunshine, turquoise waters, wonderful diving. Also, the culture here is unlike that found to the north; Okinawa (previously the independent Ryukyu Kingdom) only became part of Japan in the late 19th century and Ryukyuan architecture, cuisine, crafts and customs are still in evidence.
Several island groups make up the prefecture. From the main island of Okinawa you can explore by ferry or flight. The Kerama Islands are closest. Akajima, a short ferry trip from Okinawa, is a beaut, with unspoilt beaches, old-growth forests and great diving. Nearby Tokashiki and Zamami are great, laid-back getaways where you can beach-loll, explore by bike or scooter or go whale-watching – humpbacks gather hereabouts to breed from January to April.
It's worth heading further afield, to the Yaeyama Islands group, to visit lriomote, Japan's southernmost national park. Here, go jungle hiking (eyes peeled for the rare yamaneko wild cat), kayaking up the Urauchi River or diving through the aptly named Manta Way. On tiny, rural Taketomi, a short boat ride away, you can walk amid water buffalo carts, lion-dog shisa figures (said to bring good luck) and traditional red-tiled Ryukyu houses (some of which are B&Bs). On lshigaki you'll find some of Okinawa's best beaches plus the chance to dive with manta rays at Kabira Bay and hike up Mount Omoto.
Need to know: Flights from Tokyo to Okinawa's Naha Airport take around three hours; the ferry from Kagoshima (Kyushu) takes about 26 hours. From Naha, fast ferries serve the Kerama Islands. Access to the Yaeyamas is via a flight from Naha to lshigaki (around one hour); ferries run between islands, including remote Yonaguni (home to great diving).
Like that? Try this... There are more than 7,000 islands to choose from in the Philippines. Try lively white-sand Boracay, Bohol and jungly Palawan.
Where? Aegean Sea, southeast of mainland Greece
For... A curveball on classic island-hopping
The lowdown: A clutch of 56 islands, 24 inhabited, including popular honeypots and more offbeat outposts
The Cyclades are the Greek islands of your imagination, awash with tumbling whitewashed houses, blue-domed churches, shady tavernas and draping bougainvillea. Well-known spots such as Santorini and Mykonos can be over-run with tourists, but because this island group is so extensive, it's not hard to find that picture-perfect Greekness without the masses.
Consider sticking to the Cyclades' lesser-visited western edge. Kythnos, close to Athens, is popular, but largely with Greeks who flock to its pretty capital and natural hot springs. Further south lies Serifos, which has a main town beloved by artists, lengthy beaches and excellent restaurants. Then there's hilly Sifnos, which is even foodier, and has archaeological ruins and an extensive network of waymarked hiking trails. From here you can reach Folegandros, which has some of the volcanic drama of Santorini but sees far fewer tourists. There's good wild walking here, as well as great photographic potential, an interesting Ecomuseum and a flower-draped main town.
Just east sits peaceful Sikinos, where you can really escape the crowds – fishing and agriculture remain the chief industries here. Or go smaller scale still – just off Naxos is tiny Koufonisia (actually a trio of islands), home to around 300 people, at least that many fishing boats and some incredible beaches, which you can reach on foot or by little launch. Ferries from here make for the small, rugged island of Amorgos, where walking trails lead between the bays, beaches and the 11th-century cliff-edge monastery of Hozoviotissa.
Need to know: There are regular ferries from Piraeus (the main port of Athens) to Kythnos; the crossing takes from around three hours, depending on the boat. This route connects to other islands of the Western Cyclades such as Sifnos, Serifos and Folegandros. Timetables vary year-round; the summer schedule runs June-September. There are no ferry passes – buy individual tickets for each journey or use a travel agent.
Like that? Try this... Greece's Dodecanese group, further east, encompasses busy Rhodes and Kos but also quiet gems such as eco-friendly Tilos, untouched Karpathos (don't miss the mountain village of Olympos) and tiny, car-free Telendos.
Where? North of Gothenburg, west Sweden
For... Seaside charm, Scandi style
The lowdown: 8,000 islands and islets dotting the Kattegat and Skagerrak seas, right up to the Norwegian border
The Bohusliin coast couldn't be much more idyllic, or more Swedish. The palette is all natural Nordic tones popped with colourful red-yellow fishing villages; the vibe is fresh-aired and outdoorsy; the infrastructure is excellent. Some of the islands are little more than an outcrop of pink-grey granite, some are home to restaurants serving world-class seafood, some are quiet and traffic-free.
Heading north from Gothenburg, one of the first islands you reach is elegant Marstrand, popular with yachties and royals but also home to quiet coves and bathing spots – take in the view from Carlsten Fortress then pick up the trail around the island. Artsy Tjorn is home to the Nordic Watercolour Museum and Pilane Sculpture Park; just off it are car-free Astol and Dyron, two slow-paced islands where fishing and farming still rule, and where you can stroll, sauna and eat well. Handsome Kliidesholmen, also just off Tjorn, is known as the 'herring island' – learn all about the fish, and spend a night in a floating hotel.
On the large island of Orust, stop off at cute old fishing villages such as Mollosund and Gullholmen, and visit Hiirmano, one of Bohusliin's largest nature reserves. Car-free Kiiringon is good for hiking and swimming. Smogen has a lively boardwalk and fish market and is the access point for the pink-granite isle of Hallo, a haven for birds and home to the coast's oldest lighthouse. Further north still is Kosterhavet National Park, a protected marine reserve of magnificent isles, huge seal colonies, hiking trails, cycling routes, snorkelling and kayaking.
Need to know: Multiple companies operate regular ferry services along the coast; some islands can also be reached by bus. Multi-ticket passes are available on some routes – for instance, Viisttrafik offers 24-hour and 72-hour tickets, valid on its trains, buses, trams and ferries. Transporting bikes on ferries is usually free.
Like that? Try this... Finland – there are more than 40,000 islands spattered along the Finnish coast. Perhaps try the Pellinge archipelago, a cluster of 200-odd small islands, 50km east of Helsinki, ideal for casting away.
Where? Pacific Northwest, USA
For... North America at a different pace
The lowdown: Around 400 islands – only 172 of which are named – peppering the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and northern Washington state
Expect time to slow as your ferry approaches San Juan, the most populous island of this eponymous archipelago, floating where the USA and Canada meet. There's a pleasingly bygone vibe here - strangers say hi, cars are seldom locked, shops and cafes are local-owned (there's nary a chain in sight). You don't come for nightlife and glitz; rather, for hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, spotting wildlife and watching the world go by.
Friday Harbor, San Juan's tiny main town, will likely be your first stop, and the place to browse book and antique stores and visit the Whale Museum. This is a good primer before taking a boat tour: area congregate off the island (peak season is May-September), while humpbacks, seals, sea lions, otters and porpoises might also be seen.
Laidback Orcas – the largest island – is home to 734m-high Mount Constitution, the archipelago's highest point, as well as little villages dotted with good restaurants and artists' studios, and a network of hiking trails. Rural Lopez island is flatter, and a good place to cycle between wineries, fruit farms and driftwood-strewn beaches. Shaw, the only other island served by ferry, is quiet in the extreme, with only one store and no hotels, but ample opportunities for wilderness escapes.
Beyond these lie hundreds more, a delicious smorgasbord for boaters and kayakers. A few highlights include: Jones Island, a designated Marine State Park with numerous campsites; tiny Doe, once a gathering place for the Salish peoples; and remote Sucia, where there are sea caves to explore.
Need to know: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw are served by ferries from the mainland town of Anacortes. The seasonal San Juan Clipper runs to San Juan Island from Seattle. Kenmore Air light aircraft and seaplanes also fly to San Juan. To reach other islands in the archipelago you'll need to join a tour or rent a vessel; the Cascadia Marine Trail, suitable for non-motorised boats, passes through the region. Note, there are no facilities beyond basic campsites on islands other than San Juan, Orcas and Lopez.
Like that? Try this... Haida Gwaii, a chain of 150-odd islands off the northern British Columbia coast, is home to the Haida Nation and one of Canada's most culturally fascinating regions. Explore Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve to spot a wealth of wildlife.
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