Islands conjure dreams of paradise; an escape from the rat race, 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, you can find your very own Shangri-la in this list.
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.
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.
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 fringed with rustling palms rim many of these jungle-clad islands, while under the water, coral reefs flourish 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.
Pristine and picture-perfect, the Seychelles are worth traveling for. East of Kenya, this relatively unspoiled archipelago of 115 coral and granite islands feature UNESCO-listed jungles; thriving coral reefs; and 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Seychelles
5 Santorini, Greece
Encircling a sea-filled caldera, spectacular Santorini scores top points for 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 canvas of color. Perched atop the black lava cliffs, the settlements of Firá and Oiaare the island's most picturesque, and pricey, destinations, and Oia ranks among the most photographed locations in the world. Other highlights of the island 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.
6 The Cook Islands
If you've ever dreamed of being a castaway in the South Pacific, the Cook Islandsare for you. Strung between French Polynesia and Samoa but with strong ties to New Zealand, the archipelago's 15 islands are known for their 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 boasts the beauty of Bora Bora, without the price tag. Hibiscus-laced villages snuggle on the hillsides, and along its heavenly lagoon lie 21 motus or small islets, 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.
8 The Dalmatian Islands, 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 fantastic, 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 perfect match, 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.
Kauaʻi 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 and abundant rain; 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, Mauiand Oahu, Kauaʻi exudes a low-key vibe and tends to move at a more relaxed pace. Don't miss the breathtaking Nā Pali Coast, 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon, and the cloud-capped vistas from the cliffs above Hanalei Bay.
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 provide 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 here. Pretty Marigot Bay and Anse Chastanet Marine Park are highlights. The island's French influences also add to its exotic appeal.
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. A popular attraction 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.
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 shores. 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.
14 Whitsunday Islands, Australia
Sprinkled along the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islandsare 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 a popular pastime here, 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 on Whitsunday Island. Airlie Beach and Shute Harbour are the main launching points for Whitsunday adventures.
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. 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. Glamorous blond beaches curve around its coastline, backed by rolling green hills. Privacy and seclusion are its 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.