Lure: Get in with the in crowd
Location: Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Only 500 overnight visitors a day are allowed on this hilly, ten-square-mile (26-square-kilometer) isle, the centerpiece of a Hawaii-like 21-island volcanic chain 340 miles (547 kilometers) from Recife on Brazil’s equatorial northeast coast. The limit was imposed to protect the archipelago’s pristine National Marine Park, threatened by ever increasing buzz from just-back, big-eyed divers, snorkellers, and surfers.
The catnip of the virtual velvet rope has also lured Hollywood A-listers of late—Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem have unrolled their beach mats here—as well as Brazil’s eco-leaning (and übertanned) elite.
You can stay at one of the dozens of modest guesthouses or do the island in high style by checking in to one of five spare, swank bungalows or rooms at the Pousada Maravilha. Your to-do list should include snorkelling with sea turtles and juvenile lemon sharks in the blue-green waters of nearby Baía do Sudeste. Dune buggy your way to the northwest coast’s Sancho Beach, reached only by climbing down iron ladders mounted on hundred-foot (30-meter) cliffs, then drive to the lookout over Mirante dos Golfinhos, a bay where every afternoon the world’s largest resident pod of spinner dolphins—some 600 strong—exits en masse to fish.
Try tow-diving, a uniquely Noronha activity that involves holding on to a small board and being pulled underwater behind a boat. “It was used by marine biology students to do research,” says Pedro Capelossi, a dive instructor and travel agent with Trip Noronha. “Then someone saw how fun it was.” As for nightlife, get yourself to the beachfront terrace at Bar do Cachorro, where, after midnight, caipirinhas and an irresistible local forro band will elicit dance moves you didn’t know you knew.
Lure: Scout the world’s best shipwrecks
The reefs that encircle this genteel, prosperous British territory some 600 miles (966 kilometers) off the coast of North Carolina have trashed hundreds of vessels, including the Sea Venture, which in 1609 tossed the island’s first European settlers ashore. Today that translates to some of the most spectacular and accessible wreck diving in the world.
As if the nearly 400 identified sunken ships weren’t enough, the Bermuda government deliberately scuttled two more—a 70-foot (21-meter) passenger ferry and a 75-foot (23-meter) tugboat—just for your diving pleasure. Most of the boats, or what’s left of them, are resting no more than 50 feet (15 meters) deep on vibrant coral beds. “There’s not a single wreck that’s sitting in a desolate sand hole,” says Marie Wilson, dive instructor with Blue Water Divers & Watersports, the island’s only year-round operation.
In late winter and early spring, you’ll find mild air and water temperatures, the best undersea visibility of the year, and far fewer people at the dive sites. Book a dive/stay package at the shell-pink Pompano Beach Club on the southwest coast.
Lure: Dive green and dive often
Location: Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Islands
Tiny Batbitim—part of a mostly uninhabited karst archipelago northwest of West Papua—is home to great schools of giant tuna and mobula rays hunting shimmering clouds of anchovies. “We hung in mid-water watching this spectacular dance unfold,” Misool Eco Resort owner Andrew Miners says of his first dive there. “I realized that not only had I stumbled upon a place of spectacular beauty, but, aside from a few intrepid divers, I had arrived before anyone else.”
Miners decided this was the place for the land-based conservation project he’d been dreaming of. Working closely with elders from nearby villages, he leased Batbitim and established a 77-square-mile (199-square-kilometer) No-Take Zone where all fishing (including prevalent cyanide fishing, bombing, and shark finning) and harvesting of turtle eggs is prohibited. With the help of his wife, Marit, and local craftsmen, he designed 11 unobtrusive but stylish cottages using salvaged driftwood and native thatch, incorporating a dive resort into his mini-eco-paradise that’s committed to operating sustainably. Request one of the eight stilted structures hovering over the lagoon; they have built-in deck hammocks and are just a few kicks away from the house reef.
Vitals: Misool Eco Resort, misoolecoresort.com.
Lure: Mountain biking along volcanic trails
Location: La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
Don’t let the Canary Islands’ reputation for being overrun by beery blokes in ill-advised Speedos discourage you from heading to pretty, rarely visited La Palma, the steep, northwesternmost island in the seven-isle chain off Africa’s Western Sahara.
Here, a jagged mountain ridge splits the island north to south, and in the center of it all is La Caldera de Taburiente. At 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) deep and six miles (ten kilometers) wide, it’s one of the largest eroded craters in the world. Mountain bikers of all stripes come to ride ancient trails that crisscross the island, from mellow, ripply traverses over lava fields to technical singletrack that free falls from barren summits to deserted black-sand beaches.
Siegmund Schuler runs guided tours of the island with Bike’n’Fun and says, “Every year we find or build new tracks.” Plan a day with Natour Trekking to hike into the windless, brook-laced forest on the crater’s floor, and set aside another to stroll colonial Santa Cruz, where waterfront restaurants along the Avenida Maritima serve goat stew and papas arrugadas (potatoes with garlicky mojo sauce).
Lure: Catch the greatest wave on Earth
Location: Pohnpei, Caroline Islands, Micronesia
When the big winter swell starts breaking on Palikir Pass (pictured here), a channel in the surrounding barrier reef of mountainous, jungly Pohnpei in Micronesia’s Caroline Islands, it is one hell of a wave. Aussie pro surfer Dylan Longbottom has called the hollow, glassy barrel, which is accessible only by boat, “by far the best right in the world.” Though they can indeed get huge, most days the waves run a manageable two to six feet (0.5 to two meters). And even if the water goes flat, there’s still plenty to do. Kiteboard the cross-shore winds at Sokhes Pass, dive the reefs of the outer atolls, or hike to one of Pohnpei’s shampoo ad-worthy waterfalls that tumble out of the high country—where rainfall averages 400 inches (1,016 centimeters) annually—into cool, swimmable pools. “It’s like Tahiti 50 years ago,” says Allois Malfitani, co-owner of the Pohnpei Surf Club, a riverfront lodge that caters to wave riders. “From the water, you can hardly see any sign of human presence.” People have, in fact, been on this island halfway between Manila and Honolulu for ages. Take a jaunt to the haunting Nanmatol ruins, a seventh-century stone city on Pohnpei’s east side that is best explored by sea kayak. For further anthropological, um, studies, stop by the Rusty Anchor, a harborfront bar hidden in the shell of an unfinished hotel and frequented by an Altmanesque cast of expats and locals. Don’t miss an open-air sakau market, where you can sample the mildly narcotic, mellowing goop made from the roots of pepper plants that—if rather unpalatable—is an island staple.
Vitals: Pohnpei Surf Club, pohnpeisurfclub.com.
Lure: Uninhabited isles, a pristine reef, and no one to block your view
Location: Surin islands, Thailand
The Surin islands lie off the Thai mainland, south of its border with Myanmar where the two countries bottleneck along the Isthmus of Kra. My sister, Darcy, and I left for the small archipelago at dawn, boarding a speedboat in Kuraburi that skipped over calm waters. An hour passed, the morning fog lifted, and I spotted five low-slung isles silhouetted on the horizon.
The boat pulled up to a creaky wooden dock that jutted out into a bay on the leeward side of Koh Surin Nua. We disembarked and hired a long-tail boat to take us snorkelling. While waiting for it to arrive (Thais never hurry), we explored the island. There were a dozen small thatched huts, tucked under a banyan tree, that looked out onto an emerald bay from within a dense tropical jungle. Thai tourists, what few there were, smiled at us in a way that made me think we were in on the same secret.
Darcy was living in Thailand then, across the street from the Andaman Sea. She was teaching English but spent all her free time diving, and had heard that the Surins were, in dive slang, wicked. Which is to say that they had one of the best reefs in all of Southeast Asia.
The long-tail brought us to a channel between two uninhabited isles, dropping us off before motoring on ahead to where the current would carry us. The Surins have been a national park for decades, and the overfishing and dynamiting that have destroyed most of the world’s reef systems have barely touched this one. As a result, healthy corals—and natural predators—abound.
Small, brightly colored fish (blennies and dottybacks and damselfish) were hiding. Unsettling schools of big snapper and young barracudas prowled the water—and blacktip reef sharks made shadows along the seafloor.
Darcy dove down to search for nudibranchs, and I dove after her, hooking my thumb on a brain coral to steady myself. She quickly grabbed my wrist and shook her head: Everything around us was living and easily damaged by touch. Among the hard coral we saw a moray eel, its mouth agape, with a cleaner shrimp scrubbing away at the eel’s small, sharp teeth. Then suddenly the moray hiccupped and swallowed the shrimp whole. We looked at each other wide-eyed and agreed: That was rude.
I surfaced and drifted over the reef, then took off my mask to defog it. I rested for a moment, floating in the warm salt water, and watched the long-tail bobbing in the distance. We were just 35 miles (56 kilometers) off the mainland, but it felt much farther.
Vitals: Fly in to Phuket from Bangkok and stay nearly a hundred miles (160 kilometers) north at the Golden Buddha Beach Resort (goldenbuddharesort.com). Visit November through May—before monsoon season when the seas are rough and rains torrential.
Lure: Culinary tourism and wildlife viewing
Location: Kangaroo Island, Australia
Kangaroo Island is just a 30-minute ferry trip from mainland Australia, but its relative isolation has made the vast bushlands and broad beaches of this sparsely populated 100-by-35-mile (161-by-56-kilometer) islet a Galápagosian showcase for wildlife. With no predatory dingoes or foxes, the namesake marsupials—plus wallabies, koalas, echidnas, platypuses, goannas, fairy penguins, opossums, and bandicoots—are living large. (Becoming roadkill is the biggest threat to these nocturnal critters.)
If you can splurge, base yourself at Kangaroo Island’s fabulously built Southern Ocean Lodge, an eco-wonder high above Hanson Bay on the southwest coast. “It’s designed to appear as if it’s floating along the cliff top,” says co-owner James Baillie of the string of minimal-footprint, interconnected glass-walled suites with private terrace daybeds and plunge pools. The lodge runs excursions into nearby Flinders Chase National Park (home to Remarkable Rocks, pictured here) and Kelly Hill Conservation Area and to many of the local food and wine producers, which have, in the past decade, transformed the island into locavore heaven.
In Kangaroo’s cornucopia: superb sauvignon blanc, honey made from the world’s last pure strain of Ligurian bees, creamy sheep’s-milk cheeses, lamb, oysters, prawns, whiting, and barramundi.
Daylong scuba outings off the quiet north coast, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) away, can also be arranged. You’re likely to spot a leafy sea dragon (picture a seahorse festooned with arugula), one of those elusive life-list creatures that make serious divers weep.
Vitals: Southern Ocean Lodge, southernoceanlodge.com.
Lure: Let your base camp be your guide
Location: Pine Island Sound, Florida
This is the way to do southwest Florida—from a crewed, floating B&B loaded with kayaks, limes, rum, and five of your closest paddling buddies to split the cost. The Mirage, a shallow-draft 70-foot (21-meter) outrigger catamaran, cruises through the barrier islands of Pine Island Sound, dropping your gang off at a new location each morning along the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile (306-kilometer) marked canoe and kayak route. A loose itinerary leaves room for spontaneity and takes into account the skill level and ambition of the group.
Poke around the grassy fringes of Sanibel’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, where manatees roll in the dark green water; paddle through the chop with a posse of dolphins to the empty beaches of Cayo Costa State Park; or cut through a channel to play in the Gulf of Mexico on the islands’ western shores. And if you simply want to drift, that’s cool too.
“Sometimes we just let the kayaks float along the edges of the flats and watch the roseate spoonbills fish,” says Elke Thuerling, co-owner of Kayak Voyagers. After dinner, take a moonlight swim, then stretch out on the deck and count the stars.
Vitals: Kayak Voyagers, kayakvoyagers.com.
Lure: Play Ironman without the blood and tears
Location: Big Island of Hawaii
If all you know about cycling the Big Island comes from that televised lava-field grind known as the Ironman, it’s time to take a closer look. There are more than 350 miles (560 kilometers) of smooth paved roads on Hawaii’s largest island; by joining Orchid Isle’s eight-day Tour de Paradise, an inn-to-inn circumnavigation trip, you’ll spin—mostly grimace free—along 300 (483 kilometers) of them.
Push off from Kona on the dry west coast and head north on the wide shoulders of the Ironman highway. Over the next few days, you’ll climb into the Kohala Mountains and cross the rolling grasslands of the 150,000-acre (60,700-hectare) Parker Ranch before reaching the Hamakua coast on the island’s wet, green side. It’s a fun, snaky cruise past waterfalls and rocky coves into Hilo, the island’s biggest town (and home to its best shave-ice vendor, Itsu’s Fishing Supplies). From here you’ll crank 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the Kīlauea crater in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, then spend your last day cruising 4,500 feet (1,372 meters) down to Punaluu on the island’s south shore and roll north along the Kona coast.
Of course, it’s not all about the bike; you’ll quit riding at around 2 p.m. every day, leaving ample time to sample the goods at small coffee plantations, hike, body surf, and loll on the black-sand beaches. A sag wagon trails the group, but Orchid Isle’s owners, Oliver and Julia Kiel, say only two people in seven years have ever taken the lift. “We really baby you around the island,” Oliver says. The company also offers a much faster paced four-day circumnavigation with five and a half hours of cycling a day for cyclists who want to reach out and touch those Ironman dreams.
Vitals: Orchid Isle, cyclekona.com.
Lure: Discover SoCal’s secret stashes
Location: Catalina Island, California
Leave the venti macchiato–fueled drama of mainland Cali behind and hop a ferry bound for Catalina Island, 22 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of Long Beach. Beyond the open-air bars and Mediterranean-style inns in the charming port of Avalon, most of the 76-square-mile (197-square-kilometer) island is wilderness: sunbaked hills etched with trails and old fire roads, pocket coves patrolled by sea lions, and wide grasslands roamed by descendants of bison brought over for a 1920s movie shoot.
The Trans-Catalina Trail is a 27.5-mile (44.3-kilometer) route from Avalon to remote Parsons Landing on the island’s west coast, linked by several small beach and hillside campgrounds. You can walk six miles (ten kilometers) through the first few sections of the trail and catch a shuttle at the airport back to Avalon—or tackle it from end to end. “Plan on spending four days to do the whole thing,” says Bob Rhein, a spokesman for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which built the trail and manages the island’s wild areas. “Bring plenty of water and watch for rattlesnakes.”
At trail’s end, you’ll have to retrace your steps to Two Harbors, Catalina’s only other town, to board a ferry for home—or stay an extra day or two for snorkel trips to kelp forests and kayak outings to caves. Snag a sea view at the Banning House Lodge or book a bunk at the Catalina Cabins. Then pull up a stool at the Harbor Reef Saloon and order a Buffalo Milk: The pub’s potent concoction of rum, milk, and crème de cacao is guaranteed to make La La Land seem even more distant.
Lure: Trek past the glitter for canyoning gold
Location: Martinique, West Indies
Sure, shoppers in Louboutin heels click down chic Rue Victor Hugo and jet skis whine past topless sunbathers on the hotel beaches of Pointe du Bout, but away from the hectic, touristy south, Martinique is moody and wild—and largely unexplored by visitors.
In the Regional Natural Preserve, rivers cut deep gorges through dense jungles, and trails vein mist-shrouded volcanoes: It’s the kind of territory that has made this one of the Caribbean’s best destinations for canyoning—trekking into the interior, rappelling down cascades, leaping into basins, and floating on currents.
“It’s more athletic and more playful than simply hiking,” says Sophie Sutter, a canyoning guide with Le Bureau de la Randonnée, which offers everything from beginner-friendly outings to arduous daylong expeditions requiring technical descents of waterfall-drenched 200-foot (61-meter) cliffs.
If you prefer to stay dry, head out on one of dozens of marked trails, such as the 12.4-mile (20-kilometer) coastal route that connects, via banana and mango plantations, Le Prêcheur to Grand’Rivière, a road’s-end Atlantic fishing village where the local kids still ride waves on rough-hewn logs, and family-owned Creole restaurants like Tante Arlette win raves (try the crawfish fricassee). Unpack at the just renovated Le Domaine Saint Aubin, a delightful red-roofed plantation house from 1919 that has 30 sunny rooms along with cottages and terraces overlooking the island’s rugged east coast.
Originally published in the February 2009 National Geographic Adventure magazine.