Beyond the iconic beaches of Santorini, Bali, and Bora Bora lies a collection of islands where aspiring castaways go to play.
With over 2,000 islands in the world’s oceans and thousands more in various lakes, getting (happily) marooned is as easy as picking a random point on a map (and then figuring out how to get there). Not all islands are created equal though; some boasts miles of pristine beaches while others are home to ancient artisanal traditions. Although many of these atolls are cherished among locals, few have popped up on the standard traveler’s radar, giving intrepid explorers all the more reason to hop on a plane and adjust their clock to island time.
The Island of Two Families
WHERE: Stóra Dímun, Faroe Islands
Bursting with dramatic fjords, grass-roofed houses, and adorable puffins, the mysterious Faroe Islands have become a hotspot for adventurers and photographers. While the country’s clandestine location in the North Atlantic Ocean appears far-flung, the 18-island archipelago is surprisingly accessible via a short flight from Iceland, Denmark, or Scotland. But fear not, there are still a few spots that haven’t been Instagrammed to death. Take Stóra Dímun, the country’s smallest inhabited island, where only two families reside. Surviving off of sheep farming, hunting, and, now, tourism, the self-sufficient clan welcomes visitors via private helicopter. At less than one square mile large, the island doesn’t take long to explore but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in anthropological fascination.
The Island of Contemporary Art
WHERE: Naoshima, Japan
A few decades ago, Naoshima was a forgotten fishing village in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Now, it’s a 5-square-mile oasis of contemporary art installations, museums, and architecture. The extreme transformation can be credited to a wealthy Japanese publishing mogul who wanted to create a special home for his art collection (including paintings by Claude Monet and Andy Warhol). After purchasing a giant plot on Naoshima in the 1990s, he hired architect Tadao Ando to design a series of museums, complemented by luxury lodgings and the town’s “Art Houses.” Fast forward to today and you’ll find an island teeming with contemporary works from site-specific installations like Yayoi Kusama’s signature polka-dotted pumpkin to Art Setouchi, a Triennale festival extending to all 12 islands in the region (which is easily reachable thanks to Japan’s handy bullet train).
The Island of Black Pearls
WHERE: Manihiki, Cook Islands
The sought-after black pearls of the Cook Islands are born and cultured in one place: the lagoon of Manihiki, one of the most secluded inhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean. Few tourists make the trek 655 miles north of the main island Rarotonga, but those that do are treated like royalty. Rent a bungalow and you’ll be greeted by friendly locals eager to show you the art of pearl farming or invite you in for a seafood feast. Planes only arrive and depart from the coral-paved runway twice a month, so prepare to ease into the slow life. With white-sand beaches, active coral reefs, and swaying coconut trees at your doorstep, there’s no better place to be temporarily stranded.
The Island of Protected Nature
WHERE: Isla Palenque, Panama
Dubbed “the Galapagos of Central America,” Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí is one of the few places where you can have a beach all to yourself, spot whales in the wild, sip Panamanian rum, and dine on sustainably caught seafood—all in one day. Among its storied islands is Isla Palenque, a biodiverse oasis with over 400 acres of protected jungle and only one eco-lodge boasting eight luxurious oceanfront casitas. The island was once home to a pre-Columbian farming community (you can still spot 500-year-old shards of pottery on the hiking trails) and was later a refuge for indigenous tribes. Accessible from Panama City via a one-hour flight to David (Copa Airlines offers twice-daily flights) followed by a one-hour drive and 15-minute boat ride, Isla Palenque isn’t exactly easy to get to. Nonetheless, its remote location only adds to its mystique and, perhaps, its preservation.
The Island Down Under
WHERE: Bruny Island, Tasmania
With boundless nature and a vibrant artisanal scene, Australia’s wild island state of “Tassie” has become famous for its rugged landscapes and forward-thinking food producers. On Bruny Island—which is essentially two islands joined by a spit known as “The Neck”—visitors can spot penguins, wallabies or muttonbirds and explore the region’s buzzing farm-to-table culinary scene. The island feels distant, but it’s only a 20-minute ferry ride away from the mainland of Tasmania, making it a great option for a day trip. After a hike through the South Bruny National Park, grab a glass of wine at Bruny Island Premium Wines (Australia’s most southern vineyard) or head straight to the Get Shucked Oyster Bar and Bruny Island Cheese Company for a taste of Tassie’s grassroots gastronomy.
The Island of Longevity
WHERE: Ikaria, Greece
On the mountainous Greek island of Ikaria, one in three locals live to the age of 90 and almost all are free from dementia and chronic diseases. Perhaps their secret is enjoying local wine, olives, fresh seafood, and a rugged terrain surrounded by the Aegean Sea. As one of the five original Blue Zones (regions where people live longer than average), Ikaria is full of wellness draws but doesn’t receive the same flood of tourists as nearby islands (we’re looking at you, Mykonos). In-the-know travelers come to soak in its slower pace of life, which can be savored on the coast of Seychelles Beach, at the Afianes vineyard, or within the island’s many hot springs.
The Island of Painted Houses
WHERE: Timerdlit, Greenland
It doesn’t get much more secluded than Timerdlit, an island off the coast of Western Greenland, where thousand-year-old glaciers and hillsides dotted with colorful houses and wildflowers leave travelers awe-struck. Just when you thought you’ve reached the end of civilization, you’ll stumble upon Kangaamiut, a small fishing village where regional traditions like crafting mukluks and carving tupilak sculptures still thrive. What the tiny community lacks in size (its current population is around 300 people), it makes up for in charm. The best way to reach it, and other isolated destinations in Western Greenland, is by traveling with a small-ship cruise company, such as Adventure Canada, which specializes in ethical and sustainable expeditions to Arctic communities.
The Island of Coral
WHERE: Magong, Taiwan
Despite being only a 50-minute flight west of Taipei, the Penghu Islands feel like a world away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Taiwan. Magong, the capital of the 90-island archipelago, is a perfect base for exploring the region’s charms including otherworldly basaltic rock formations, ancient temples, and uninhabited islands. A mix of Fujian and Japanese architectural styles can be spotted in the Erkan Village, which is famous for its walls made of coral. The best way to experience Penghu’s treasures is to get out on the water, where kitesurfers and drift divers enjoy the benefits of Penghu’s strong wind and ocean currents. With its laid-back atmosphere, expansive vistas, and iced tea vendors to quench that 100-degree thirst, Penghu feels like Taiwan’s version of a tropical paradise.
The Island of Arctic Art
WHERE: Baffin Island, Canada
Canada’s largest island, Baffin Island, is cherished among locals for its Inuit traditions and majestic wildlife (hello, polar bears!) but is rarely visited due to its remote location in the Arctic province of Nunavut. Fly into the capital of Iqaluit and you’ll be ready to explore nearby wonders like the Sirmilik National Park—which is home to walruses, ringed seals, narwhal, and beluga whales—or cruise through the Northwest Passage, a historic trade route. Along the way, artistic hamlets like Pangnirtung (or “Pang,” as the locals call it) and Cape Dorset will win you over. After all, Nunavut has the most artists per capita in the world and its friendly residents are always willing to welcome visitors into their studios filled with soapstone carvings, woven tapestries, and prints that depict the stunning natural surroundings.
The Island of Male Knitters and Women Weavers
WHERE: Taquile Island, Peru
Located on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water, Taquile is locally-renowned for preserving textile traditions as old as the Incas. On the tiny 2.2-square-mile island, you’ll find men who knit colorful hats (and wear them in certain ways according to their mood and marital status) and women who weave narratives into belts. These rituals have helped the island build its own community-driven sustainable tourism model and earn it a UNESCO World Heritage Site status. A two-hour boat ride from the city of Puno will bring you to the island’s shores, where there’s an option to stay overnight with a local family or head back to the mainland with some woven mementoes—and the stories of lifelong islanders—in tow.