In many ways, islands are worlds unto themselves. Surrounded on all sides by vast stretches of open water, they develop their own cultures and languages and folkways, known to all islanders, but strange and fascinating to new arrivals. And some islands, it must be said, are better than others, and those that are far-flung, well, they tend to be the best. In these strange days, when even a trip to the supermarket feels like a journey, dream with us about isles and atolls and keys—filled with natural wonders, and well off the beaten path; I think you’ll agree that these are some of the very best.
South Georgia Island
Sometimes called the “Serengeti of the Southern Ocean,” the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is about 100 miles long, bisected by a line of soaring, snow-capped mountains and some 160 glaciers—and absolutely pulsates with wildlife.
Here, three days’ sailing from the closest inhabited civilization, penguins gather in rookeries numbering in the hundreds of thousands (one spot, called Salisbury Plain, is inhabited by about half a million), with millions of king, macaroni, Gentoo, and chinstrap penguins lining beaches and coves, all along the lee side of the island. They’re joined by wandering albatross (the world’s largest bird, by wingspan), fur seals (almost extinct, a century ago), and lumbering, alien-looking elephant seals, who joust for supremacy along the shore.
And there’s history, too—a little over a century ago, explorer Ernest Shackleton landed here in a lifeboat, having navigated almost 1,000 miles of roiling ocean from Elephant Island, seeking rescue at a whaling station, and saving his stranded men.
Wrapped in mist, and mystery, this archipelago of 150 islands sits off the coast of northwest British Columbia, near the bottom edge of the Alaskan Panhandle. Once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, it’s the ancestral home of the Haida people, whose ancient villages, with their longhouses and carved memorial and mortuary poles, abandoned more than a century ago, still line the shores. (One, SG̱ang Gwaay, has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
With almost half of it preserved inside the Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve and Haida Heritage Site, these are islands of ghosts, and legends, temperate rainforest—filled with Sitka spruce and hemlocks and towering western red cedars—thick enough to swallow you whole. Take in the views, and the stories, with each village attended by full-time Haida Watchmen, who share the history (and the mysteries), with visitors.
Closer to France than England, this group of three islands, floating out in the middle of the English Channel, is quirky, charming, and indisputably independent, neither part of the United Kingdom, nor the European Union. Formally a bailiwick (and ruled by a bailiff) dating back to the 10th century, the sweeping landscapes on the main island were painted by Auguste Renoir, and Victor Hugo, exiled here for 15 years, was a resident of the hilly capital, St. Peter Port.
But even amongst the three islands here, there’s diversity—take a one-hour ferry ride from St. Peter Port to Sark (tourism slogan: “A World Apart”) and you’ll be in a whole different place, a fiefdom where feudalism was only recently abandoned, and a land without cars, where you’ll need a bicycle, or a tractor, to get around. Cross the Coupée to Little Sark, enjoy a glass of sloe gin at La Sablonnerie, then emerge to a canopy of stars, in one of the world’s greatest dark sky preserves.
Sitting about a third of the way across the North Atlantic, this string of volcanic islands has, since their first settlement in the 15th century, been a way station for those seeking new horizons, and the New World, visited by everyone from Christopher Columbus to Mark Twain.
Technically an autonomous territory belonging to Portugal, each of the nine islands has its own unique mix of church spires and old-town cobblestones and wild country. Shaped like a dragon, Sao Jorge makes some of the world’s best cheese. On Terceira, you can hike right into the heart of an empty volcano. Pico, dominated by a massive summit, features UNESCO-recognized vineyards, protected by walls of black stone, rectangular plots known as “currais.” And on the island of Sao Miguel, visit the volcanic town of Furnas, where you can take a dip in a hot spring, then lunch on “cozido,” a juicy combination of meats cooked by the earth, the food buried in a little metal container, just below the surface.
Sitting amidst one of the world’s great tourist destinations, this Hawaiian island, which can be seen rising off the coast of Maui’s west side, remains largely undiscovered to visitors (in part because it’s home to no large hotels or resorts). Preserving a traditional heritage, life moves at a wonderfully slow pace. You can hike down the face of a cliff to Kalaupapa, once a leper colony, and now a National Historic Park, shop local fruit stands, or learn more about island culture with a guided walk in the sacred Halawa Valley. Then head to one of the island’s regular jam sessions, where locals gather to play the ukulele and slack-key guitar, and dance the hula.
Located about halfway between Iceland and Norway, this North Atlantic archipelago occupies a lonely, blustery stretch of sea. Settled by Vikings in the 9th century, these 18 grassy, green, basalt islands only emerged on the tourist map very recently. With vast, windswept landscapes, bald, jagged peaks, and thousands more sheep than human beings, it’s a wonderful place for those who love long drives, hikes, and, in general, beautiful isolation. Hop between fishing villages populated by traditional homes with sod-grass rooftops, walk past plunging waterfalls, then maybe join a local farmer for a hearty meal—known as “heimablídni.” These five-course meals showcase time-honored local hospitality, and usually feature lamb, codfish, and beer made nearby.
Known locally as Rapa Nui, this super-isolated place—more than 1,200 miles from the nearest inhabited island (which itself is only home to 50 people), and more than 2,000 miles from the South American mainland—has a puzzling past. Settled centuries ago by Polynesians from the Marquesas, or Gambier Islands, or maybe somewhere else, the first residents had to navigate canoes over vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean.
Once here, they set up a complex civilization, building—famously—the island’s iconic “moai,” towering monolithic statues, lines of huge stone heads. Later, that society devolved to war and destruction, battles that toppled many moai and disrupted the flow of the history on the island. Most believe the moai honored ancestors, and projected protective power over communities here, and nearly 1,000 remain. A visit to see these statues can be a transformative experience, inspiring awe at their size, and catalyzing thoughts on the past, and life.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.