10 Great Islands You've Never Heard Of!
You escape to an island for that splendid sense of isolation. The problem is, lots of other travelers have the exact same idea. These days, getting away from it all requires some creativity
The Azores, Faial
For hundreds of years, ships have stopped in Horta, the main port of Faial, on their way between the New and Old Worlds. The seafarers left their mark, creating a giant collage of inscriptions and colorful paintings on the walls and sidewalks of the marina's jetty. (Bad luck reputedly follows any sailor who doesn't leave a mark in the port.) Yachts and fishing boats still pull into Faial regularly, but the nine islands of the Azores--an autonomous region of Portugal, in a warm climate 900 miles west of the mainland--also bring in Europeans attracted to the volcanic landscapes, black sand beaches, and peaceful vibe.
Simple rooms with marina views and air-conditioning are usually less than $100 a night at Residencial São Francisco in Horta (Rua Conselheiro Medeiros, 011-351/292-200-980, residencialsaofrancisco.com). SATA International flies direct from Boston to the island of São Miguel in the Azores, with continuing flights to Horta (800/762-9995, azores-express.com, from $908). The Peter Café Sport, serving sailors since 1918, is big on nautical memorabilia (Rua Tenente Valadim, 011-351/292-292-327, grilled ham, cheese, and pineapple sandwich $2). The cafe's museum houses a fascinating scrimshaw collection ($2). Faial's western end is a moonscape formed by a volcano eruption in the 1950s, where roofs still peek out from mounds of ash. The nearby Forest Park of Capelo is a nice swath of green with tables and chairs made of volcanic stone. It's perfect for picnics.
After exploring Faial, try neighboring isles Pico and São Jorge, connected by ferries; they're known for their wine and cheese respectively (transmacor.pt, $4--$17 each way). --Jeanine Barone
France, Ile de la Barthelasse
When Avignon's medieval popes needed a break from the hubbub of their walled city, they crossed a bridge to a bucolic retreat in the middle of the Rhone River. Centuries later, Ile de la Barthelasse and adjoining Ile de Piot--whose vineyards, vegetable gardens, and pear, apple, and cherry orchards cover more than half of their nearly three total square miles--still make for a wonderful getaway. The two river islands are crisscrossed by cobbled walkways, woodsy hiking trails, and rambling country roads. An old path along the river provides spectacular views of Avignon's ramparts and the St. Bénézet Bridge, both the subjects of Impressionist paintings.
To reach the islands, pedal across the Daladier Bridge on a rental from Provence Bike (011-33/4-90-27-92-61, provence-bike.com, from $13.50 per day) or hop on the free bus from Avignon's Porte de l'Oulle. Once there, you'll feel truly out in the country by mounting a horse at Centre Equestre d'Avignon (011-33/4-90-85-83-48, cheval-avignon.com, from $3 per hour, reservations required). While away the hours in the riverfront bar/cafés or on the leafy terrace at Le Bercail (Chemin des Canotiers, 011-33/4-90-82-20-22, pizzas from $6), which looks straight across to Avignon's bluffs. Bed down in elegance at Auberge de la Treille (011-33/4-90-16-46-20, latreille.net, rooms from $104), an 18th-century mansion. Splurge on the evening menu for the full glory of Provençal cuisine--foie gras, fish, cheeses, truffles, fresh fruit, and chocolates (prix fixe from $30). --David Lyon
Mexico, Isla Holbox
Less than 100 miles north of the giant resorts and rowdy revelers in Cancún lies an island that feels like it's on another continent. On Isla Holbox, the village square, or El Parque, consists of a basketball court where locals play pickup games and a few basic stores that would never be considered boutiques. Instead of cars, golf cart taxis quietly motor along sandy streets. The island has no nightclubs, high-rise hotels, cell phone service, or ATMs (bring pesos). The lack of distractions leaves you with plenty of time for walking on the beach, feasting on the freshest seviche, taking siestas, swimming in calm waters, and collecting seashells. Peek into the doorway of a sand-floored home and you're likely to catch someone napping in a hammock. It's hard not to succumb to the slow life.
In the afternoons, amble over to the beachside cantina Discoteca Carioca's (no address or phone; like everything else on the island, it's easy to find) for guacamole and a michelada--a specialty that mixes lots of lime with beer and a shot of chili sauce. A kiosk in the square serves a perfectly crisp chicken torta (sandwich) for about $1.50. If you're feeling ambitious, rent a sea kayak or try to reel in a few yellowtail or bonitos on a deep-sea fishing excursion. There aren't outfitters per se, so arrange an outing through your hotel, or simply head down to the waterfront and haggle. During the summer months, a local skipper can also take you out to swim with 50-foot whale sharks. It may sound dangerous, but the sharks are actually harmless and friendly.