Travel

The 12 best islands you've never heard of

Islands are supposed to be places to get away from it all, but if you limit your vacationing to, say, Hawaii, you'll find yourself surrounded by 8,174,460 tourists you didn't manage to get away from (those are real statistics, btw). We went to the ends of the Earth to bring you 12 stunning islands you never knew existed; these secluded spots range from the film set for the James Bond flick Thunderball to a tiny slip of land where mutineers' descendants drive four-wheelers and produce world-renowned honey. Get yourself to one, quick-like.

Mustique

St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Island appeal: At just over 2sqmi, this sliver of paradise is among the most expensive and exclusive enclaves in the Caribbean. Mick Jagger, Tommy Hilfiger, and Bryan Adams vacation here in what we can only assume leads to awkward karaoke in pastel polos at the local beach bar.
Why it's so secret: Historically, visitors had to be preapproved before entering. If you weren't rich, famous, or royalty, forget it. The island has since loosened the rigorous entry requirements, but the house-payment-worthy accommodation rates still keep us mere mortals out.

Fernando De Noronha

Brazil
Island appeal: Brazilians swear the archipelago boasts the best beach in a country known for beaches (...and Giselle, and soccer, and Giselle). With only one traffic light between them, the 21 islands also boast spectacular snorkeling and scuba sites, pods of trick-performing dolphins. They're so proud of their well-preserved paradise that swimming with sunscreen is actually verboten in some places.
Why it's so secret: The string of islands is a protected marine reserve, and only 420 tourists are permitted on Fernando De Noronha at a time. Plus, it's expensive. 

Pitcairn Island

South Pacific
Island appeal: Travel via supply ship to one of the world's remotest populated islands, where the inhabitants are descended from a band of British mutineers and their Tahitian lovers. Four wheelers are the main mode of transport here, and Seventh-day Adventism is the only religion (though others are welcomed). The 45 (presumably all related) residents even speak their own language, Pitkern. The island is recruiting immigrants due to dwindling numbers, so you can even extend your stay indefinitely. Or just order their honey, which won praise from one of the world's sweetest ladies, the Queen of England.
Why it's so secret: The closest airport is 330mi away on Mangareva island. From there, this weird mini-world is a three-day ocean voyage.

North Sentinel Island

Bay of Bengal
Island appeal: Despite its cerulean shores and stunning coral reefs, this dot of land in the Indian Ocean is the holy grail of inaccessible islands. In fact, the hunter-gatherer inhabitants have resisted contact with the outside world for 60,000 years and continue to drive away governments, researchers, and movie directors with bows, arrows, and spears. Not much is known about the Sentinelese, except that they're hardcore adherents to the Paleo diet. No carbs and we'd be throwing spears too.
Why it's so secret: The Sentinelese have the hospitality of frat boys during rush. They greeted government officials with gestures of defecating and a documentary film director with a 8ft arrow to the thigh. Two fisherman who washed up on island met an early demise and were buried under the sand. Still, it's really beautiful and you should visit.

Vieques

Puerto Rico
Island appeal: For more than 50 years the US Navy used some two-thirds of the island for target practice, but this 21mi stretch of travel-magazine-worthy beaches is paradise sans the artillery shells. Nowadays visitors can enjoy killer reefs, bands of semi-wild horses, and a trippy boat ride among glow-stick-wielding plankton in Mosquito Bay.
Why it's so secret: Tourists tend to avoid areas of aerial bombardment, and Vieques was no exception. Post the Navy pullout in 2003, the island had a lot catching up to do to keep up with the Cancuns, so it's still off the main vacation beat.

Palm Jumeirah

Dubai
Island appeal: Leave it to the sheikhs to style their own 12sqmi archipelago from sand and rocks -- in the shape of a palm tree, no less. A regular member of the highly selective "eighth wonder of the world" club, this stretch of luxury villas, high-end hotels, and luxury shops is like Beverly Hills with exorbitant air conditioning bills. The builders even flew in bottlenose dolphins to add to the ambiance.
Why it's so secret: Palm Jumeirah is among the world's newest islands, and many of its hotels and attractions are still under construction.

Lamu

Kenya
Island appeal: Approachable only by wooden dhow, Lamu is a bizarre window into the past where donkeys are the main form of transport (there's only one car, not counting a tractor and ambulance), and fisherman still pull in their catch every evening. Stunning beaches, homes with bizarrely ornate doors (eat your heart out, Maker Movement), and buildings crafted from coral and shells create a seriously exotic getaway.
Why it's so secret: A spate of Somali pirate attacks and al-Shabaab activity scratched this gem off the tourist circuit, but visit between travel warnings and you'll witness an island completely free from the sunburned hordes. 

Utila

Honduras
Island appeal: This tiny island boasts 12 dive centers, a thriving backpacker scene, and it's cheap (again, backpackers). You'll find the world's largest barrier reef outside of Australia, bumping beach parties, and blindingly white beaches. Plus, you can swim with whale sharks -- who doesn't love a dip with the gentle-yet-terrifying giants of the sea?
Why it's so secret: Unless you're an avid diver with a penchant for Latin American underwater experiences, chances are you've never heard of Utila. And, sadly, you might not be able to point out Honduras on a map either. Way to go American education system.

Palmyra Atoll

Pacific Ocean
Island appeal: Palmyra Atoll (SparkNote: atoll = ring-shaped island chain) smacks of Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure. Buried treasure? Check. Mysterious double murder carried about by rogue narcotics lord? Check. Shipwrecks. Check. By some bizarre historical blip the island skipped the regular humanity-steamrolls-nature saga. It remains a veritable untouched Eden -- aside from the Navy dredging a canal through its lagoon during WWII (we'll give them a pass on that one).
Why it's so secret: The Nature Conservancy runs the island as a research center, and visitors are limited to volunteers, skilled workers, researchers, students, and deep-pocketed donors. In other words, get rich or tap into your inner fascination with marine biology to snag a visit.

Staniel Cay

Exuma Cays, Bahamas
Island appeal: This 2sqmi island is so tiny there's only one lodging option. Luckily, it happens to be a waterfront bungalow on stilts. The inclusive package comes with a 17ft skiff, which of course you'll need for exploring the nearby beaches teaming with massive iguanas and even swimming pigs (cue Bay of Pigs jokes). In the 1960s, Sean Connery filmed Thunderball in the nearby (and aptly named) Thunderball Grotto, a hollowed out island with otherworldly diving caves.
Why it's so secret: The über exclusive Exuma Cays are mainly the preserve of high-lifers like Johnny Depp, Oprah, and Michael Jordan. Luckily, Staniel Cay is open to those of us without guyliner or a media/sports empire.

Saba

Dutch Caribbean
Island appeal: Known as the "Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean," Saba has less than 2,000 residents and only one road. You won't find beaches or mass resorts on this 5sqmi speck of land, but you will find a "potentially active" volcano (how reassuring) and some of the best hiking and diving sites in the Caribbean. 
Why it's so secret: Tourist-toting airlines are no doubt deterred by Saba's 1,312ft runway (the shortest runway at JFK is six times that length). For added thrill, the landing strip is sandwiched between two cliffs that drop straight into the sea.

Gavdos

Greece
Island appeal: Marking Europe's southernmost border, Gavdos is closer to Africa than Athens. With fewer than 50 locals, free camping, and lax nudie laws, the island attracts all forms of hedonism. It's particularly popular among backpackers, naturalists, and a group of Russian scientists bent on discovering the key to immortality (so far they've built a temple to Apollo).
Why it's so secret: Gavdos is way off the beaten path and accessible only by ferry. Most tourists opt for the more popular (and closer) Crete.