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
What you'll find in this story: Island escapes, secluded vacations, unique vacation ideas, island getaways, islands in Australia, Panama, Scotland, the Azores, France, Mexico, Fiji, Croatia, Brazil and Japan
Australia, Kangaroo Island
When white men first set foot on the 1,738-square-mile island off the south coast of Australia, they were able to stroll up to kangaroos and club them for food (hence the island's name). Because there were no natural predators, the kangaroos didn't have the instinct to flee. Today, Kangaroo Island remains free of foxes and dingoes and serves as a sanctuary for hundreds of species of animals and birds. Koalas, kangaroos, sea lions, penguins, and wallabies can all be seen at close range. The wildlife is so spectacular that the unspoiled beaches, craggy rock formations, and eucalyptus forests get second billing.
Kangaroo Island is a 30-minute flight from Adelaide (011-61/2-6393-5550, regionalexpress.com.au, $90 round trip), or 45 minutes by ferry from Cape Jervis (011-61/8-8202-8688, sealink.com.au, $41). Rather than booking transportation and exploring on your own, it's smarter to buy a package that includes lodging and a tour. Many animal habitats aren't marked, and even from a moving vehicle a good guide can point out echidnas--small porcupine-like creatures--and other animals that you'd probably never see. Adventure Charters, one of the best operators, charges $610 for air from Adelaide, a full day of touring, one night and dinner at a top B&B, and a classic "barbie in the bush," with grilled fish under a canopy (011-61/8-8553-9119, adventurecharters.com.au). Or try the Wayward Bus, which is geared more to backpackers and includes one night in a motel, meals, and two days of touring for $234 (011-61/8-8410-8833, waywardbus.com.au). --Margaret Borden
Panama, Isla Bastimentos
Blissfully lost in the Bocas del Toro region of northwestern Panama, Bastimentos comprises almost everything that's not underwater in a 51-square-mile marine preserve speckled with reefs. Just off adjacent Zapatilla Cay, ribbons of light ripple over 30-foot walls of coral. The four-mile stretch of Playa Larga serves as a critical nesting site for four species of sea turtles. Monkeys gambol in the rain forest, to a sound track of toucans and oropendolas. The region is particularly known for the tiny scarlet-vested poison dart frogs that hop around the forest floor. (They're harmless as long as you don't ingest the venom or allow it to enter an open wound.)
Daily one-hour flights from Panama City land in Bocas, a funky seaside town that blends Caribe creole with Afro-Cuban patois (Aeroperlas, 011-507/315-7500, aeroperlas.com, from $60 each way). From there, grab a water taxi ($5) for the 10-minute trip to Bastimentos. Beaches and snorkeling sites are everywhere, and boatmen will take you to countless reefs for a couple of hours for around $15. Or negotiate for a ride to the Ngobe village, where curious children swarm visitors, local artisans sell tribal carvings, and guides lead hikes through the forest. At the end of the island opposite the pier is the ecoresort Al Natural, where a boat ride transfer, three meals a day, use of kayaks and snorkel gear, and a private cabana start at $75 a night per person (011-507/757-9004, bocas.com/alnatura.htm, no credit cards). On a tiny island just off of Bastimentos, Coral Cay Cabins offers a similar package but with two meals a day and use of a wooden canoe (011-507/626-1919, bocas.com/coralcay.htm, from $75 per person). --Jeff Hull
Scotland, Isle of Harris
The isles of Harris and Lewis--one landmass divided by a narrow isthmus and the vagaries of clan history--sit on the edge of the Atlantic abyss. Tip to tip, the land measures 60 miles, but driving from one end to the other on its twisting one-lane roads while dodging wayward sheep can take the better part of a day. The rugged granite ridges, humped green mountains, fishing villages, mysterious ancient ruins, and serene lochs are all somewhat de rigueur in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. It's Harris's sparkling sands and a sea as cobalt as the Caribbean that come as a brilliant surprise.
The ferry ride from Skye takes about two hours (Caledonian MacBrayne, calmac.co.uk, round trip from $30, $148 with a car). Five miles south of the port at Tarbert, the Sandview House B&B stands above a long crescent of soft, sandy beach (6 Scarista, 011-44/1859-550212, from $96 double). The hosts' first language is Gaelic, as it is for most people in the area. All bedrooms have a view of the sea, and corncrakes--among the world's rarest, most secretive birds--occasionally strut by the window during breakfast. Wrap yourself in thick tweed and make way to the south of Harris, where the mountains and empty moorlands invite hikers. Stop in for tea, a plate of risotto, or a crock of scallops at the luxurious Rodel Hotel, built at land's end in the shadows of the 500-year-old St. Clement's Church (011-44/1859-520210, rodelhotel.co.uk, rooms from $200, full meals about $50). Over on Lewis, the Standing Stones of Callanish--huge slabs arranged in the shape of a cross--would probably be as famous as Stonehenge if they were on the mainland. --J.H.
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.
To get to Holbox from the port of Chiquila, catch the 9 Hermanos Ferry for the half-hour ride (travelyucatan.com, $4). Depending on the season, $80 to $130 scores a thatched-roof palapa, with beds made of rough-hewn logs, and a breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit, at the Xaloc Resort (011-52/984-87-52160, holbox-xalocresort.com). --Melinda Page
From 1852 to 1882, Levuka, a rowdy outpost for sailors and traders on the island of Ovalau, served as Fiji's capital. Today, the Fijian government and most tourists do their business on Viti Levu, leaving Ovalau quiet and empty. The clapboard storefronts along Levuka's main drag have survived largely intact from the colonial days. Instead of the rollicking saloons of yesteryear, they now house quiet dry-goods stores and a few restaurants, such as Whale's Tale (011-679/344-0235, fresh fish or pasta entrées $6). Another relic is the Royal Hotel, which opened in 1852 and is Fiji's oldest hotel (011-679/344-0024, firstname.lastname@example.org, doubles from $18). The old South Pacific comes to life in the lounge, which has creaking rattan furniture, a snooker table, and giant tortoise shells hanging on the walls. Rooms are furnished simply, with a couple of cots, toilet, and shower. The four guest rooms at Levuka Homestay offer better accommodations, including air-conditioning, a shady deck, and a full breakfast (011-679/344-0777, levukahomestay.com, doubles from $65). Round trips from Suva, on Viti Levu, to Levuka start at $72 (Air Fiji, 011-679/331-3666, airfiji.net).
Ovalau lacks good swimming beaches, but the soft corals surrounding the island make for fine diving. Ovalau Watersports runs daily dives, as well as tours to Caqalai, a speck of an island with coral sand beaches 40 minutes away (011-679/344-0166, owlfiji.com, two-tank dive $75, Caqalai tour $40). --M.B.
A jewel box that juts like a thumb from the main body of the island, Korcula's Old Town owes much of its architectural heritage to the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was part of the prosperous Republic of Venice. Narrow streets lined with medieval white-stone buildings spread out from the spire of St. Mark's Cathedral at the center of town. Encircling the densely packed city is a 14th-century wall; sapphire-blue waters surround the entire isle.
Korcula is connected by ferry to the more popular towns of Split and Dubrovnik (Jadrolinija Ferries, jadrolinija.hr, from $5). The boat drops you off in Vela Luka, on Korcula's western end. Buses bump along the spine of the island eastbound to Korcula Town, dipping past black cypress trees and terraced olive groves, with some hairpin turns along the way. On the harbor in Old Town is the Hotel Korcula, a Venetian palace with a loggia where you can have breakfast and look across the bay to the hills of the mainland (011-385/20-711-078, doubles from $67). A 10-minute bus ride away, the small fishing village of Lumbarda has the only sandy beaches on the island--at the end of a red dirt path that winds through vineyards that produce a crisp white wine called Grk. Enjoy a glass and dig into fresh grilled fish and octopus back in Korcula Town at Konoba Adio Mare (011-385/20-711-253, dinner for two $35). After dinner, go for a stroll through romantically lit Old Town. Pass by the city walls on the way to the harbor to watch the sky glow and slowly darken over the channel and the hillsides. --Sunshine Flint
Brazil, Ilha Grande
Rio's beaches sizzle, but when Brazilians want the escape that only an island can offer, they go to Ilha Grande. The 119-square-mile slice of paradise is home to 106 beaches, 500 full-time residents, and no cars (they're banned). Bring good walking shoes or be prepared to paddle a kayak, which are the only ways to find some of the best beaches and coves. Surfers are wowed by the waves at Lopes Mendes and other beaches, divers love the caverns and crystal clear waters in every direction, and hikers keep busy with scores of trails, such as the one that ascends 3,200 feet to the island's best lookout, Pico do Papagaio (Parrot's Peak).
Until a decade ago, the only visitors to the island came in shackles. Ilha Grande served as a penal colony until 1994, so tourism is relatively new; there's little chance of finding resort chains renting wave runners. Abraão, the main hub, consists of a few souvenir shops and cafés. Ilhagrande.com.br lists places to stay and covers the basics, including how to get to Angra dos Reis or Mangaratiba, the mainland ports that connect to Ilha Grande by two-hour ferry. The island's edges are dotted with inns, or pousadas--most quite inexpensive thanks to the strong U.S. dollar. The nine suites at Sagu Resort are decorated simply, with exposed wooden beams and white walls, and outside each guest room there's a porch with a hammock (011-55/24-3361-5660, saguresort.com, doubles from $80). The property overlooks the beach, and up a stone path you can kick back in the dreamy ofuro (hot tub). Abraão is a 15-minute walk away, but most everything you want is right at the resort, including kayak rentals, caipirinhas, fresh-caught fish, and tropical fruit picked from the garden. --Jessica Shaw
The Japanese say that their country has three most scenic spots: Amanohashidate, a sandbar that snakes across Miyazu Bay in the northern Kyoto Prefecture; Matsushima Bay, which is dotted with 260 tiny, pine-covered islands; and Miyajima, or "shrine island"--12 square miles dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o-no-Mikoto, the Shinto god of the oceans. The island is so sacred that no one is supposed to give birth or die here; there are no maternity wards or cemeteries. Cutting trees is forbidden, and the forest provides sanctuary for dozens of bird species, as well as deer, which roam all over, and monkeys, which live atop 1,740-foot Mount Misen (reached by a two-hour hike from the pier or a 30-minute cable car ride).
After a 10-minute ferry ride departing near Hiroshima, you're greeted by a 50-foot-tall red Torii gate that soars out of the water majestically, signifying entrance to the spiritual realm. Taira-no-Kiyomori, a 12th-century warlord, funded the construction of the main Itsukushima shrine--a collection of buildings on stilts over a cove--to provide repose for the souls of the war dead. A five-story pagoda, folklore museum, and aquarium are all minutes from the docks. Stop at a shop for momiji-manju--sponge cakes filled with sweet red bean paste, custard, or chocolate--or sit down at a restaurant for eel, oysters, or okonomiyaki, a vegetable and meat pancake. The island has several fine small inns, such as the Miyajima Hotel Makoto, where most rooms are equipped with tatami mats and futons (011-81/829-44-0070, email@example.com, from $125). Or make Miyajima a day trip and stay in Hiroshima at the World Friendship Center, a B&B that arranges tours of the peace park and interviews with A-bomb survivors (8-10 Higashi Kannon-machi, 011-81/82-503-3191, from $34 per person). --Jeanette Hurt