Seven Under-The-Radar Islands That Feel Like Local Secrets
Saba Island, Caribbean Netherlands. Photograph by Mr Kai Wulf, courtesy of Saba Tourism
Mykonos, Santorini, Capri. We’ve all seen the highly curated pictures on social media, but behind every sunset and spritz, there’s usually a less glamorous story – especially if you visit these iconic islands during peak season. Long waits for tables, streets clogged with tourists, and insultingly overpriced cocktails are just a few of the IRL burdens that typically don’t make it onto the feed. There’s nothing like the sweaty, unrelenting crush of over-tourism to ruin your holiday buzz.
Luckily, the world is full of magical islands that fly refreshingly under the global radar. From literal hotspots fiercely protected by clued-in locals to hard-to-reach isles that subvert all expectations, these destinations deliver unique island vibes without the crowds.
Lamu Island, Kenya
Peponi Hotel on Shela Beach, Lamu. Photograph courtesy of Peponi Hotel
Cresting the warm waves off the North Kenyan coast, the sandy, Swahili settlement of Lamu is one of those if-you-know-you-know hotspots – and those who know include Ms Kate Moss, Sir Mick Jagger, Madonna and the Obamas. A staple since the 1960s, when the island was a favourite playground for bohemians and arty hippies, the place to stay is (still) the legendary family-run, blissed-out boutique hotel Peponi, sitting seafront in the village of Shela. It’s not fancy because that’s not the point. This is a destination designed for old-time delights, where late lunches of barbequed reef fish and naps in hammocks under the tamarind trees drift into sunset sails on regal wooden dhows.
What to pack
Secluded terrace at Villa Itha, Ithaca. Photograph courtesy of Villa Collective
View into a dining area at Villa Itha, Ithaca. Photograph courtesy of Villa Collective
Anyone who studied classics will tell you that Ithaca – the kingdom of the mythical Greek hero Odysseus – isn’t exactly a secret. However, despite its long literary lineage, the real-life island of Ithaca has managed to evade the crowds, with most sun-seeking tourists opting to visit the neighbouring Ionian island of Kefalonia instead (it does have an airport, after all). But those who make the short ferry trip over to Odysseus’ homeland will be rewarded with cinematic hillscapes, pretty ports, empty beach coves and plenty of peace and quiet – especially if you’re staying at the nine-bedroom Villa Itha, above the white-pebbled Aspros Gialos Beach (one of the island’s loveliest). Sometimes used for yoga retreats, the villa is not lacking in good vibes, with sunny verandas surrounded by stone walls and flickering lanterns, four-poster beds swathed in swishy mosquito nets and even a library of well-worn classics.
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Nay Palad Hideaway, Siargao
Nay Palad pagoda in the mangroves, Siargao. Photographs by Mr Stevie Mann, courtesy of Nay Palad Hideaway
Follow the die-hard surfers to these jewel-bright waters. After being almost completely wrecked by a typhoon in 2021, this prelapsarian paradise of green lagoons, mangroves and barrelling waves has risen again. It’s thanks in part to the team at Nay Palad Hideaway, whose post-disaster focus was first to rebuild homes and install a water purifying system for the local Surigaonon community; and second to rebuild the hotel. In June 2023, the all-inclusive resort finally reopened with a swish new style, making now the perfect time to visit – and perhaps also to have a go at the Pacific Ocean swells in the famed surf spot, Cloud 9, which is just a 15-minute drive from Nay Palad Hideaway.
What to pack
Saba, Caribbean Netherlands
Haiku House, Saba. Photograph courtesy of Saba Villas
Spanning just 13sq km with almost 2,000 residents (and a single road), the volcanic Dutch-Caribbean island of Saba – a 90-minute ferry from Sint Maarten – is the kind of place you go when you need a holiday from your holiday. There’s little to do save tackle the web of rainforest hikes, explore tide pools, dive for rainbow coral, or sip homemade spiced rum – just don’t plan to do it on the beach. Saba only has one: the black-sanded so-called “disappearing beach” at Well’s Bay, which disappears with the swell. Bed down in this pint-size Eden at the castaway-chic Haiku House, a shockingly affordable, treehouse-like private villa made up of three bedrooms, sun-bleached wood decks and head-spinning treetop views.
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St George Island, Florida, US
The Gibson Inn, St. George Island
Oysters at Franklin Café, St. George Island. Photographs by Ms Alicia Osborne, courtesy of The Gibson Inn
A quiet barrier island off Florida’s so-called Forgotten Coast (for its unspoiled state), St George Island is made up of little more than sand dunes, sea oats grass and slash pines. Strict planning rules protect the small beach community and attract only laid-back visitors, happy with simple summer pleasures like bike paths, beach cottages and fresh oysters. At 45km long and 2km wide, with Apalachicola Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, uncrowded beaches are the main attraction here. Loggerhead sea turtles have been known to nest in the soft sands, and fishing is possible all year round. Dating back to 1907, the historic Gibson Inn is one of the most famous hotels in the Florida Panhandle. White rocking chairs on the porch, live blues music and American flags fluttering off the balcony make it the picture of Southern, small-town charm.
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Ad Dimaniyat Islands, Oman
Lounge and dining area on the Ibra Dhow. Photograph courtesy of Hud Hud Travels
Ad Dimaniyat Island in Oman. Photograph by Getty Images
A zippy, a 40-minute boat ride from the Omani capital of Muscat, the topaz-blue waters of the Dimaniyat Islands were only explored by scientific researchers and marine conservationists up until 2013 when they opened for the public. Since then, the coral-rich archipelago has developed a reputation as one of the best scuba-diving and snorkelling spots in the Middle East. However, its Unesco- and government-protected status as the sole marine reserve in the Sultanate of Oman keeps crowds in check. There are no hotels on the islands and beaches have limited accessibility over bird and turtle-nesting season (usually May to November). Get a deeper perspective by booking a “liveaboard” boat, like the new 30m Ibra Dhow via F&P Travel (a call or email to enquire will do the trick). The modern, sleek wood-accented dhow has four bedrooms (sleeping eight) and is available for two-night trips to the archipelago, starting September 2023, which is a very good time for spotting whale sharks.
What to pack
Lord Howe Island, Australia
View of Blinky Beach looking towards Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower, Lord Howe Island. Photograph by Mr James Vodicka, courtesy of Capella Lodge
Lord Howe Island, a two-hour flight from Sydney across the Tasman Sea, is like the private members’ club of islands: it’s luxurious, with five-star accommodations; super exclusive, with just 400 visitors allowed at any one time; and ultra-private – thanks to the lack of internet or phone signal. Here, the marbled green-blue waters could be confused with the Maldives, while the mist-wrapped subtropical jungles look straight out of Avatar. There are only around 380 people living on the World Heritage-listed island, most of whom are located in the north. However, the south is home to Lord Howe Island’s highest point, the flat-topped, 875m Mount Gower, as well as the island’s top hotel, the eco-smart and very chic Capella Lodge. With just nine light-filled suites (some with private pools, including the flagship Lidgbird Pavilion), the vibe here is intimate, low-key luxe and local with line-caught fish and sea greens on the table and frosty pale ales by the Lord Howe Island Brewing Co. in hand. With few cars on the island, the hotel’s fleet of bikes is the best way to get in some sightseeing.