Slip onto island time and let the lapping blue sea calm your mind in a tropical locale. These luscious beaches and seaside settings are the perfect place to get your tan on and unwind admist one-of-a-kind, picturesque beauty. Palm-fringed lagoons, overwater bungalows, boulder-strewn shores, and pink-sand coves are calling.
The overwater bungalow — considered the height of tropical island luxury accommodation — began as the solution to a real-estate problem. The Maldives, a nation of 1,192 coral islands lying southwest of India and Sri Lanka, spans only 120 square miles in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As local fishing villages became more and more invested in tourism, the solution to a need for land was to build on stilts over the sea, as Tahiti had done.
The first resort in the Maldives to offer this novelty was Vadoo Diving Paradise, opened in 1986. Today, the world’s lowest-lying country is home to some 5,200 overwater bungalows — two-thirds of all in existence. Tourism is the biggest industry, with travelers coming for the beaches, clear water, and reefs teeming with wildlife. The Maldives attracts the world’s largest aggregation of manta rays at the Baa Atoll June through November. This area, just north of the Ari Atoll, is so famous for mantas and whale sharks that it’s been awarded UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve status. Farther south, just past the equator, the Addu Atoll’s mangroves and marshes support 28 bird species at the 1,408-acre Eedhigali Kilhi & Kottey Protected Area, the Maldives islands’ largest avian sanctuary.
For culture, the best touring is in Malé, the capital city, which receives the majority of international flights. One of the most popular attractions is Old Friday Mosque. It dates to 1656 and is treasured for its intricate coral stone carvings. A full day can also include the city’s fish market and the National Museum’s collection of artifacts for a look into what life looked like before these islands began receiving around 1.3 million tourists a year.
To determine when to go, travelers must prioritize. For example, November to April brings the sunniest, most reliable beach weather. However, this is precisely when mantas at Baa Atoll and whale sharks at South Ari Atoll are not seen in big numbers. Year-round, a snorkeling trip will likely yield sightings of 20 or more sea turtles, so there’s always something to see. Malé’s Sultan Park, at the site of a former royal palace, is a great place to enjoy a picnic and take in some greenery. Soak in the infinity pool of your two-story overwater villa at LUX* North Malé Atoll Resort & Villas.
Located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles from North Carolina, Bermuda often gets lumped in with its distant neighbor, the Caribbean. However, this British Overseas Territory has a vibe all its own. Cobbled alleyways, merry pubs, and 500 years of history mingle with turquoise water, lush tropical foliage, and pristine coves that redefine gorgeous. Sun worshipers start their pilgrimage in South Shore Park, where a 1.25-mile string of pink-sand beaches spans from Warwick Long Bay to Horseshoe Bay Beach (the rosy tint comes courtesy of foraminifera, microscopic marine creatures with pink shells). Active types can hike the whole distance, pausing intermittently to scramble up limestone rock formations, watch longtail birds swoop, and greet locals with a friendly “how do you do?” Just before the end, Jobson’s Cove feels like a revelation, where rock walls — one etched with a stone staircase — cradle a perfect slice of sand.
Bermuda’s distinctive culture only adds to the appeal. Visitors step back in time in the historic town of St. George, a UNESCO World Heritage site that conserves the oldest English colonial town in the New World. Here, visitors climb the 26 steps leading up to St. Peter’s Church, grab a photo op in the stocks in King’s Square, and watch a “wench” in colonial attire get dunked into the harbor on a replica ducking stool. Dive sites, caves, and copious golf courses also keep travelers busy. But as dusk descends, the blush-hued beach is once again the place to be, sipping sweet but potent rum swizzles as the sun sinks behind the boulders.
Stay at The Reefs Resort & Club, whose clifftop infinity pool exudes romance. Indulge in the resort’s award-winning La Serena Spa for some blissful relaxation. Take traditional afternoon tea in the Crown & Anchor at Fairmont Hamilton Princess. Munch fish and chips at The Frog & Onion Pub. There are no rental cars in Bermuda; get around by taxi, rental scooter, or electric Twizy, a two-seat, tandem-style microcar. Bermuda has pleasant weather year-round, but it’s really only warm enough to swim July through September.
3. Caladesi Island (Florida)
The advent of the railroad in the 1920s ushered in a wave of tourism to sunny Florida. Today, luxury homes, hotels, and condos crowd its 825 miles of sandy beach. Happily, a few undeveloped strands remain. Caladesi Island stands out for its secluded feel, abundant seashells, fantastic birding, and unspoiled scenery.
Situated on the Gulf Coast just north of Clearwater Beach, Caladesi Island was once home to the Tocobago people. In the 1880s, Henry Scharrer established a homestead here. The island became a state park in 1968. Today, about 200,000 people come each year to sink their toes into the fine white quartz sand. Eagle-eyed visitors watch for armadillos and gopher tortoises on land. The calm water teems with crabs, rays, live shells, and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Birders scan for species like frigates, pelicans, egrets, herons, eagles, ospreys, and pink roseate spoonbills. Paddlers take advantage of the mangrove channels on the island’s bay side, while hikers explore the 3-mile nature trail.
In 2008, Dr. Beach named Caladesi the best beach in America, and the barrier island has appeared on the list so many times that it’s now retired. Perhaps it’s for the best that this pristine destination receives less attention, so it can remain an idyllic vestige of Old Florida for years to come.
The easiest way to reach the park is to ride the Caladesi Connection ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park (there is a fee to park at Honeymoon Island, as well as ferry fees). Stays are limited to four hours. It is possible to walk to Caladesi Island from Clearwater Beach (about 3 miles) and to reach the island by boat or kayak. Concessions on Caladesi include a café, bathrooms, and beach rentals. Clearwater offers a host of vacation homes, as well as hotels such as Opal Sands Resort.
An archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles extends sugar beaches, crystal- clear water, and brilliant sunsets that are as stunning in real life as they are in screensavers. Island-hopping allows travelers to make the most of this far-flung destination, set more than a thousand miles off the coast of East Africa. Idyllic escapes begin with flying into Seychelles International Airport on Mahé, the country’s main hub. While the most populous of the Seychelles, Mahé still maintains its remote vibe with preserved natural beauty. The National Botanical Gardens showcase the country’s rare species of flora all in one place, as well as centuries-old, giant land tortoises. To the south are some of Mahé’s world-famous beaches, including Anse Royale and Petite Anse. Throughout the island, breezy seaside restaurants serve traditional Seychellois Creole cuisine.
On Praslin, Seychelles’ second-largest island, the UNESCO-listed Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve is home to an ancient forest of palm trees that bear the famous coco de mer (the world’s largest seed), as well as scenic strands, from Anse Lazio to Cote D’Or Beach. La Digue is loved for Anse Source d’Argent, with its iconic granite boulders and dense lines of palms that frame the shore. Equally charming, bicycling is a main means of transportation. Beyond the sand, many adventurous trails lead through lush rain forests and across verdant mountains. Mahé, Praslin, La Digue, and Silhouette offer some of the best nature walks and hikes to round out the trip.
To travel between these stunning islands, take a scenic ferry ride or a quick domestic flight. On Mahé, stay at the Mango House on Anse aux Poules Bleues bay, which offers 41 sea-facing villas and suites. While there, be sure to book a personalized treatment at the hotel’s wellness spa. Book tours through a travel operator such as Mason’s Travel or Creole Travel Services. They offer expert guides who can fill you in on the islands’ landmarks and history.
5. St. John (US Virgin Islands)
The smallest of the three US Virgin Islands, St. John boasts the destination’s greatest claim to fame: US Virgin Islands National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that spans almost two-thirds of the island. Beachgoers have no shortage of options within this 7,000-acre oasis. Drawing the biggest crowds is Trunk Bay on the north shore. Here, the 300-foot-long Underwater Trail invites snorkelers to drift past identification plaques and marine life like barracudas, blue tangs, sea turtles, triggerfish, wrasses, and yellowtail snappers. Just next door, Cinnamon Bay is equally scenic but sees only a fraction of Trunk Bay’s traffic.
To the south, Reef Bay is perhaps St. John’s most adventurous cove. Hikers who complete the Reef Bay Trail (3 miles one way) pass sugar-plantation ruins, funky kapok trees, and ancient Taino petroglyphs before reaching the bay’s remote beach.
A stop into the park visitor center in Cruz Bay offers a good introduction to the island’s complex past, including the enslavement of Africans on more than 100 sugar plantations, and Laurance Rockefeller’s 1952 move to buy and donate much of St. John’s land for the enjoyment of future generations. About 700,000 people a year take advantage of this gift, and travelers in search of tranquility, seclusion, and profound natural beauty can be next among them.
There is no airport on St. John. To reach it, most travelers fly into St. Thomas and take the ferry from Red Hook to Cruz Bay. Access is easy for Americans. US citizens do not need a passport to travel to the USVI. A plush private villa is the way to go here, but if you prefer a hotel, there are currently only two: The Westin St. John Resort Villas and Gallows Point Resort. Rent a Jeep from Lionel Jeep Rental, and book a snorkel sail with Cruz Bay Watersports.
6. Zanzibar (Tanzania)
The name Zanzibar sounds so fanciful, it almost seems fictitious. Of Arabic and Persian origin, it means “the land of the Black people,” and this erstwhile trading port is still every bit the melting pot of Swahili, Arabic, European, Persian, and Indian cultures that it has been for centuries. Valuable spices such as cloves, turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg — originally imported from other fertile regions — still grow here, and traditional dhow boats ply the tropical waters offshore. But while the island’s main hub of Stone Town continues to bustle with activity, today’s Zanzibar is quieter and more reflective, especially on its quintessential white-sand beaches.
Divers should pinpoint Matemwe Beach on the northeast coast. Dotted with fishing villages, the longest beach in Zanzibar fronts the Mnemba Atoll, a thriving reef frequented by angelfish, blue spotted rays, dolphins, garden eels, groupers, octopuses, sergeant fish, snappers, and more. For those wanting to be closer to the action, the northern beaches of Nungwi and Kendwa thrum with hotels, bars, and lively full-moon parties.
Spice tours and sightings of red colobus monkeys in Jozani Forest punctuate beach days. A visit to UNESCO-listed Stone Town, with its winding alleys and elaborately carved wooden doors, is a must. Midway through, guides elucidate the island’s somber past at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral. It was built on the site of the world’s largest and last slave market. After a poignant day of touring, visitors can while away the evening on The Swahili House’s open-air rooftop terrace. Here, the bold flavors of local spices naturally complement lofty views of this ancient city and the glittering Indian Ocean beyond.
Stay in one of Matemwe Lodge’s 12 breezy chalets, constructed with local materials (closed in April and May). The lodge, which boasts two inviting swimming pools, overlooks a picture-perfect coral-fringed lagoon. Souvenir shopping is plentiful in Stone Town. Pick up spices at Darajani Bazaar, leather sandals at Surti & Sons, and handmade crafts created by local artists and artisans at the Cultural Arts Centre.
7. The Islands of Tahiti
Ask someone to define“tropical paradise,” and they’ll probably describe Tahiti — lush, mountainous islands with endless palm-fringed beaches, aquamarine lagoons, and, yes, those iconic thatched-roof overwater bungalows. Spread across a 1,600-square-mile expanse of the South Pacific, the islands are divided into five archipelagos: the (most-visited) Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Marquesas, and the (remote) Gambier and Austral Islands.
Most know the big names — Bora Bora, Moorea, Tahiti island. However, the possibilities for exploring the islands are vast, from vanilla-farm-dotted Taha’a to the magnificent diving sites off the coast of Rangiroa. Travelers can punctuate beach time with water sports (from Jet-Skiing to snorkeling with reef tip sharks), spa days (the traditional taurumi massage is a must), adrenaline-fueled hikes, to inland waterfalls, sailing excursions, and more.
Of course, many of the best memories are the ones that come courtesy of the locals.
The Polynesian people hold a strong reverence for the mana, or spiritual life force, of their land. Whether it’s learning about local flora with a guide or shopping for black pearls in town, the islands’ welcoming spirit leaves an indelible mark on travelers long after they’ve returned home.
Peak season here is from May to October. All international travelers arrive in Papeete, which is an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles. The islands are well connected via Air Tahiti. Prepare to splurge for an overwater bungalow, but modest guesthouses on less-popular islands do offer more wallet-friendly budget rates. For easy island-hopping, consider a cruise with Aranui or Paul Gauguin Cruises. The latter boasts its own private islet, Motu Mahana, that is sure to soothe the soul with its quiet beauty.
8. Kauai (Hawaii)
Categorizing Kauai as a beach destination is a serious oversimplification. This 552-square-mile isle, Hawaii’s oldest and most lush, has been a sacred home to Native Hawaiians for 1,500 years and encompasses spectacular natural wonders like the 4,000-foot-high Napali cliffs and the Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the South Pacific. Still, the beaches here truly are outstanding.
On the south shore, serene Poipu Beach is the most well-known. Both the Travel Channel and Dr. Beach have named the strand the best in the country. Here, endangered Hawaiian monk seals stretch out in the sun, and sea turtles, butterflyfish, flounder, parrotfish, triggerfish, and wrasses surround snorkelers just offshore.
Scenic coves like Lydgate Beach and Salt Pond Beach offer bathrooms, lifeguards, and safe swimming for families. Surfers flock to the breaks at Kealia, Kalapaki, and Kekaha beaches. The winter swells on the island’s north shore draw experienced surfers in droves. Spectators can watch the action at Tunnels Beach from November through February, when waves reach heights of up to 20 feet.
For the Garden Isle’s most remote beach experience, robust hikers head to Ke’e Beach. This is the starting point of the Napali Coast’s 11-mile Kalalau Trail. At the end of this strenuous trek is the pristine Kalalau Beach. Here, camping under the stars on an isolated stretch of sand truly makes for one of the world’s most once-in-a-lifetime adventures.
To hike the full Kalalau Trail, you must obtain a valid overnight camping permit. Munch island burgers at Kōkeʻe Lodge, which donates all proceeds to Hale Puna, a nonprofit committed to preserving Kauai’s history and culture. Buy tickets for the Smith Family Garden Luau, which has been going strong for 50-plus years and today is run by four generations of the original family. Be sure to enjoy a shave ice at one of the shops around picturesque Hanalei Bay, a great place to try stand-up paddleboarding in the summer season.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The World’s Most Amazing Places.