The world's ultimate... desert islands
It’s not easy to choose the world’s best desert islands when there’s such a multitude of beautiful beached, pristine panoramas to pick from. However, after much inner debate, island expert Alastair Bonnet has narrowed down his personal favourites. They’re all places with rich histories and incredible landscapes – perfect for your next secluded escape. Let’s take a look
Lantau Island, Hong Kong
GREAT FOR: SUNRISES
Hong Kong’s largest island is an oasis of green hills. A glass-bottomed cable car trundles you all the way to one of its many peaks and a vast seated Buddha. Lantau is an island for nature lovers. A 70km hiking trail curls round its shore, taking in forest glades, waterfalls and uncrowded beaches. The contrast between this quiet, wooded island and the spectacular background of downtown Hong Kong is part of the attraction. If you come at night, the city pulses with light, like a giant fairground, but all you can hear is the wind in the trees and the lapping of waves.
San Blas islands
GREAT FOR: ADVENTURE
There are so many beautiful islands in the Caribbean it’s tough to choose between them. For a truly out-of-the-way experience, try approaching from the east. Just 70km but a cultural planet away from Panama City, the San Blas Islands are tropical, palm-fringed and flung across warm, shallow waters. These islands are home of the Kuna, a thriving indigenous community. The most common form of transport is the dug-out canoe. Many of the San Blas’s 365 islands are literally ‘off the map’: they don’t even show up on Google Earth. But they are worth discovering: if you’re looking for an unforgettable island adventure, the San Blas Islands may be for you.
GREAT FOR: HISTORY
Tongatapu is Tonga’s main island. Like all South Pacific islands, there are plenty of coconut trees and white beaches but it’s Tonga’s 3,000-year old history and culture that make it unique. If you drive out from the capital, Nuku‘alofa, and head east you soon come across overgrown ancient graveyards chiselled out of colossal slabs of coral rock. Tongan royals and commoners have been buried here for hundreds of years. A bit further down the coast is a six-metre-high ‘stone henge’ called Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui that’s said to have once been a kingly throne. Tonga’s aristocratic history is very much alive and Tongatapu is dotted with the palaces of today’s royal court.
Isla Espíritu Santo
GREAT FOR: WILD ISOLATION
The Gulf of California, cradled by the long arm of Baja California, has been called the ‘Aquarium of the World’. Its most beautiful island is Isla Espíritu Santo. The island is uninhabited but there are frequent boat trips and a number of camping sites, giving visitors plenty of time to see and even swim with dolphins and turtles as well as the island’s famous sea lions. Espíritu Santo is a big, mountainous island, and its hiking trails can be a serious work-out. Inland, it feels as if you have the whole island to yourself and you might, just maybe, spy a black jackrabbit, a species unique to this spot.
GREAT FOR: ECO-TOURISM
Many island resorts in the Maldives are going green. Leading the way is Soneva Fushi, a 30-minute seaplane ride from the capital, Malé. Soneva Fushi is one of 75 tiny islands that make up Baa Atoll, a huge Unesco Biosphere Reserve, where the warm seas are alive with hundreds of species of corals and reef fish, as well as a population of marine turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. Although just 400m wide, Soneva Fushi shows how natural beauty can co-exist with tourism. It was one of the first Maldives resorts to start desalinating its own water and to have an on-site plastic recycling facility. As well as being carbon neutral, it is now almost completely waste-free.
GREAT FOR: EXOTIC WILDLIFE
The emerald of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius is surrounded by coral reefs and dominated by thickly wooded volcanic peaks that are home to numerous species of plants and birds found nowhere else in the world. The island’s history is just as fascinating. Colonised by the Arabs, French, Dutch and British, Mauritian culture is a heady potpourri of influences, with distinct food traditions based on richly spiced local ingredients. This island is a rare wonder, where the modern skyscrapers of City Louis coexist alongside the Unesco World Heritage site of La Morne and its breath-taking lagoon.