by Karen Hastings: Islands conjure dreams of paradise: an escape from the rat race and a perfect patch of sand where you can relax under rustling palms and gaze at a serene blue sea…
But not all islands are created the same. The beauty of some is defined more by the sea that surrounds them, which can captivate connoisseurs with its crystalline clarity and thriving coral kingdoms.
Other islands feature luxuriant jungles and velvety peaks, and some enchant travelers with their cultural jewels. Whether it’s sublime beaches, stunning topography, or exotic cultures you seek, these islands lie far from the workaday clamor but close to creature comforts.
From the Seychelles to Santorini and the Caribbean to Capri, find your very own Shangri-la in this list of the most beautiful islands in the world.
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The Maldives are home to some of the world’s most ravishing islands, but it’s the sea, which truly makes these islands shine. Luminous aquamarine waters with a crystal clarity lap upon these dazzling white shores, which barely peek above the Indian Ocean.
Consisting of 26 natural atolls, the Maldives archipelago is the planet’s lowest lying nation, rising no more than three meters above the sea at its highest point, a measurement that shrinks every year.
Beneath the mesmerizing waters, coral reefs flourish, luring divers and snorkelers from around the world. Surfers also flock here to ride the uncrowded breaks.
Back on land, luxury resorts provide the perfect launching points for adventures focused upon the sea, the archipelago’s greatest asset, but also, as the planet’s climate changes, its single greatest threat.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Maldives
2. Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Shaped like a giant sombrero, this lush volcanic island stars in countless South Pacific fantasies. The focal point and best asset of this tropical beauty is its ravishing lagoon in technicolor turquoise. Fish, turtles, sharks, and rays swim in the clear waters, and tiny islets or motus dot the lagoon.
The island, of course, is distinctly French, with mouthwatering cuisine to match. Diving and snorkeling are excellent in the surrounding reefs, and hiking trails weave through the palm-studded forests.
If you can afford it, hide out here in a luxurious over-the-water bungalow and bask in your good fortune as you fall asleep to the gentle slosh of the sea.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Tahiti
3. Palawan, Philippines
Palawan is the Philippine’s answer to paradise. This island province stretches southwest to Borneo, with lush limestone peaks rising from a jewel-like sea so clear, that you can almost see the expressions on the fish from above the surface.
Slivers of gleaming white-sand beaches fringed with rustling palms rim many of these jungle-clad islands, while under the water, coral reefs teem with an impressive diversity of tropical fish, offering some of the best diving in the world.
Other attractions include the islands’ unique wildlife, emerald lakes, and quaint fishing villages. Coron is home to plush resorts, and El Nido drips with natural beauty and is one of the most alluring islands in the chain. From here, you can island hop around the spectacular Bacuit archipelago.
One of Palawan’s top attractions is the World Heritage-listed Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, an impressive limestone cave system with a long underground river.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Palawan Island
Pristine and picture-perfect, the Seychelles are worth traveling for. East of Kenya, this relatively unspoiled archipelago of 115 coral and granite islands is packed with attractions, from UNESCO-listed jungles and thriving coral reefs to palm-lined, powdery beaches flanked by giant boulders.
Almost half the total land area of these equatorial isles is protected, and many of the islands lie within fish-rich marine sanctuaries with excellent diving and snorkeling.
The Seychelles also feature some of the planet’s richest fishing grounds, making this a top destination for anglers. Add some spicy Créole cuisine into the mix, as well as the plush resorts of Mahé, Praslin, and La Digue, and it’s easy to understand the Seychelles’ allure.
5. Santorini, Greece
Encircling a sea-filled caldera, spectacular Santorini scores top points for its dramatic beauty. Bleached white villas tumble down volcanic cliffs. Blue-domed churches rise against the sparkling sea, and bright sprays of bougainvillea add to the eye-popping palette of color.
Perched atop the black lava cliffs, the settlements of Firá and Oia are the island’s most picturesque — and pricey, destinations — and Oia ranks among the most photographed locations in the world.
Other highlights of Santorini include Akrotíri Archaeological Site, Ancient Thira, the black sand beach of Perissa, and of course, the sublime sunsets. Sailing into this stunning caldera surrounded by soaring sea cliffs makes an unforgettable first impression.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Santorini: Best Areas & Hotels
6. The Cook Islands
If you’ve ever dreamed of being a castaway in the South Pacific, the Cook Islands are for you. Strung between French Polynesia and Samoa but with strong ties to New Zealand, the archipelago’s 15 islands are among the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific.
Among the islands’ top attractions are enticing aquamarine lagoons, palm-fringed beaches, and volcanic peaks. Best of all, the locals are among the friendliest in the South Pacific.
Rarotonga is the main tourist hub, with its many resorts, lush peaks, and plentiful beaches. Aitutaki is one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific. Hibiscus-laced villages snuggle on the hillsides, and 21 motus or small islets lie along its heavenly lagoon, many within kayak distance of the resorts.
Ensconce yourself here in an over-the-water bungalow or hole up in a rustic beach shack on a remote out island and live your Robinson Crusoe fantasies.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Cook Islands
7. Bali, Indonesia
Bali’s intoxicating culture is a feast for the senses. Incense wafts from Hindu temples, rice paddies glow in electric greens, and the food jolts the taste buds. Surfing, swimming, and sunbathing are popular activities at the island’s beautiful beaches, and tourists will find so many other things to do on this exotic isle, from temple hopping and sightseeing in the lush countryside to spa treatments, shopping, and hiking.
Soak up the spiritual side of Bali in Ubud, see Seminyak, and family-friendly Sanur, feel the pumping pulse of touristy Kuta, or explore the attractions on the neighboring volcanic island of Lombok.
One thing’s for sure: Bali’s enchanting spirit will wash over you like a warm, tropical wave.
8. The Dalmatian Islands, Croatia
In the Adriatic sea off the coast of Croatia, the Dalmatian Islands are an enchanting mix of relaxed charm and rich history. Quaint villages and boutique hotels and restaurants dot these gorgeous isles, which are surrounded by sparkling seas and some of the Croatia’s best beaches.
Top on the list is Brac with the famous beach strip of Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn). Hvar is also beautiful with its Gothic churches, car-free old town, and picturesque fishing harbor. From here, you can zip across to the beautiful Pakleni Islands, known for their crystal-clear water and secluded coves.
Other must-see Dalmatian islands include Korcula, with its red-roofed, white-washed buildings; Mljet with its two inland saltwater lakes; and relatively uncrowded Vis.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Beach Resorts in Croatia
One of Australia’s go-to tropical escapes, Fiji ticks all the fantasy island boxes. White-sand beaches, translucent turquoise waters, and teeming coral reefs are all found here in abundance. And the Fijian people welcome visitors with warm, friendly smiles.
Diving, snorkeling, fishing, and, in some areas, surfing are all popular things to do in Fiji, but sprawling under a palm tree and slipping into the silky warm seas can be equally rewarding. With more than 300 islands, it’s easy to find the best island for your vacation, from luxurious celebrity hideaways and family-friendly resorts to the sublime Yasawa and Mamanuca group.
Fijians love young children, so this a fabulous destination for families looking to relax.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Fiji
Kaua’i is called “the Garden Isle” for good reason: rainforests cloak much of the interior, waterfalls tumble from lava cliffs, and the intoxicating fragrance of tropical blooms hangs heavy on the sultry air.
But the island’s beauty lies not just in its luxuriant flora; its spectacular coastline will take your breath away. Lava sculpted this stunning island, thrusting up from the ocean floor to form velvety ridges and vertiginous cliffs rimmed by gorgeous beaches.
Beneath its cobalt-blue seas, turtles and tropical fish swim along coral reefs, delighting divers and snorkelers from around the globe. Compared to its popular sister islands, Maui and Oahu, Kaua’i exudes a low-key vibe and tends to move at a more relaxed pace.
Don’t miss Kauai’s top attractions: the breathtaking Na Pali Coast, 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon, and the cloud-capped vistas from the cliffs above Hanalei Bay.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Kaua’i
11. St. Lucia
St. Lucia exudes a dark and brooding beauty. Unlike other Caribbean islands, its best assets are not necessarily its beaches, though with their golden sands and graceful palms, they are popular with those who visit. Rather, the island itself is drenched in topographic drama. The towering Pitons, twin volcanic peaks, preside over the luxuriant landscapes, rising more than 700 meters from the sea, and providing a breathtaking backdrop to the stunning scenery.
Bristling forests of coconut palms, waterfalls, quaint fishing villages, coral reefs, nature trails, and healing hot springs are just some of the sights to explore on St. Lucia. Pretty Marigot Bay and Anse Chastanet Marine Park are highlights. The island’s French influences also add to its exotic appeal.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in St. Lucia
12. Capri, Italy
Glamorous Capri, about 20 kilometers off the Amalfi Coast, lives up to all the hype. Sea stacks and soaring cliffs rise from the teal-hued Tyrrhenian Sea, framed by sprays of colorful flowers.
One of its most popular tourist attractions is the blue grotto, a glowing sea cave, where locals row tourists in on tiny boats and sing opera to demonstrate the acoustics.
Once you arrive at the port of Marina Grande, catch the funicular up to the main town of Capri, which feels like a movie set. The piazza here buzzes with impeccably dressed locals and tourists toting shopping bags filled with designer clothes and the island’s perfumes.
While you’re here, be sure to also visit the highest town, Anacapri, and take the chair lift up to Monte Solaro for spectacular views across the island and sea.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Capri
13. Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
In Ko Phi Phi, a small archipelago in the Krabi Province of Thailand, lush limestone peaks rise from the tropical sea, and warm waters lap on palm-lined sugary beaches.
Slammed by the tsunami in 2004, Ko Phi Phi has now recovered. Its natural beauty still recalls the tropical island dream evoked in the famous Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach, which was filmed here at Maya Beach on the smaller neighboring island of Ko Phi Phi Leh.
Ko Phi Phi Don is the only inhabited island and offers day trips to the surrounding islands. Other popular activities include swimming, snorkeling, and superb diving. Don’t miss Monkey Beach, famous for its cheeky namesake residents.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Beach Resorts in Krabi, Thailand
14. Whitsunday Islands, Australia
Sprinkled along the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands are Australia’s version of the classic tropical island fantasy. These 74 lush islands are the peaks of drowned hills rising above the strikingly blue Coral Sea.
Sailing is one of the popular things to do in the Whitsundays, and diving is excellent along the fish-rich coral reefs. This is an extremely fragile ecosystem protected by six national parks, and you can explore some of the islands on hiking trails.
Accommodation ranges from beachfront campsites, eco-retreats, and family resorts to luxury escapes like Hayman Island and Qualia on Hamilton Island.
Don’t miss the radiant silica sands of Whitehaven Beach, one of Australia’s best beaches, on Whitsunday Island.
Airlie Beach is the main launching point for Whitsunday adventures.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Whitsunday Islands
15. Sardinia, Italy
Blissful white-sand beaches, rugged coastal peaks, mouthwatering cuisine, a unique blend of cultures, and ancient archeological treasures: What’s not to love about this saucy Italian isle?
Most travelers have heard of the glamorous Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast, with its craggy coves and clear green seas, but this large and diverse Mediterranean isle also lays claim to many other attractions. Sardinia is home to the largest canyon in Europe, Gola su Gorropu; prehistoric archaeological sites; the captivating Catalan-tinged town of Alghero; and the medieval streets of Cagliari, the capital.
Stay awhile at one of the many pampering hotels and resorts, and while you’re here, be sure to cruise along some of the scenic coastal drives and soak up the spectacular views.
16. St. Barts
Stunningly beautiful, yet understated, St. Barts lures movie stars and moguls from around the world, and for good reason. This pretty island offers a luscious taste of France in the tropics, with a relaxed charm that discerning travelers love.
One of St. Barts’ top attractions are its glamorous blond beaches, which curve around its coastline, backed by rolling green hills. Privacy and seclusion are the island’s other top selling points, but of course all this comes at a price. This alluring island is one of the Caribbean’s most expensive, but if money’s no object, you can ensconce yourself in a private villa or boutique hotel, dine on gourmet French cuisine until your heart’s content, and live the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on St. Barts
17. The Bahamas
With 700 islands and more than 2,000 tiny cayes, it’s easy to find your dream Caribbean hideaway in The Bahamas. The top attractions of these stunningly beautiful islands range from idyllic beaches and thriving coral reefs to fantastic shopping and dining.
Seeking duty-free shops, mega-resorts, and entertainment? Head to the capital of Nassau, a popular cruise ship port on the island of New Providence, or book a stay on Grand Bahama. Is big game fishing your favorite thing to do? Bimini is the best choice. Maybe you want to explore the underwater world: Long Island and Andros have fantastic diving and world-class bonefishing.
And if you just want to bask on sublime white-sand beaches washed by eye-popping blue water, head to the Out Islands, like the Exumas, Abacos, and Eleuthera. Are pink-sand beaches more your thing? Harbor Island should be top on your list.