Skip to main content

Go barefoot or go home: 15 best islands you've never heard of

By Pam Grout, for CNN
July 10, 2013 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
U.S. reality show "Survivor" was filmed in the Cook Islands. The idyllic motu ("little island"), one of 15 in Aitutaki, sits in a stunning 8-by-10-mile coral lagoon with hundreds of shades of blue. U.S. reality show "Survivor" was filmed in the Cook Islands. The idyllic motu ("little island"), one of 15 in Aitutaki, sits in a stunning 8-by-10-mile coral lagoon with hundreds of shades of blue.
1. Aitutaki, Cook Islands
2. Utila, Honduras
3. Marettimo, Italy
4. Tsarabanjina Island, Madagascar
5. Mou Waho Island, New Zealand
6. Magdalen Islands, Quebec
7. Saba, Dutch Caribbean
8. Quilalea, Mozambique
9. XXXX Island, Australia
10. Guana Island, British Virgin Islands
11. Sovalye Island, Turkey
12. Andros, Bahamas
13. Song Saa, Cambodia
14. Piel Island, Cumbria, United Kingdom
15. Navarino Island, Chile
  • Island where U.S. "Survivor" castaways battle elements has 10-mile-long coral lagoon
  • Boat ride from Sicily to Marettimo lets you escape carbon fumes and taxi drivers
  • On the Piel Island, Savignac monks fought Henry VII's army 500 years ago
  • Andros in Bahamas has the Western Hemisphere's second-largest coral reef

(CNN) -- Bali? Been there.

Virgin Islands? Done that. Twice.

While many well known islands inhabit prominent spots on the average bucket list, there's another group of outposts that only the truly island-savvy know about.

These under-the-radar islands have sea views and ocean breezes, but are blessedly lacking in crowds, fabricated attractions and recreation "ambassadors" leading the Macarena.

These are 15 little known islands that time, Club Med and maybe even your favorite guide forgot.

1. Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Don't feel sorry for the cast of "Survivor" having to battle the elements, construct shelter and scrounge for food.

7 amazing private island rentals

Visit the motu (it means "little island") where "Survivor: Cook Islands" was filmed and you'll find an idyllic island.

One of 15 in Aitutaki, it sits in a stunning 8-by-10-mile coral lagoon shimmering with hundreds of shades of blue.

At low tide, you can walk so far out on a sandbar that your friends might mistake you for an errant sea bird.

Aitutaki has a nine-hole golf course (stray balls sometimes land in the lagoon or the airport runway) and a selection of upscale resorts, including Pacific Resort and Aitutaki Escape where you can get a memorable massage and where a chef will prepare an amazing three-course meal.

With its crystal clear lagoon, archetypical tropical scenery and New Zealand savoir faire (the Cook Islands is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand), Aitutaki is a place anyone would volunteer to "survive."

Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Amuri, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, +682 31720; rates from $626 per couple

2. Utila, Honduras

This little paradise is only 11 kilometers long, but it has 60 dive sites, 18-meter whale sharks (don't worry, they're vegetarian) and some of the cheapest scuba prices in the Caribbean.

For as little as $140 per night, you can get your own deserted island, complete with a fully furnished two-bedroom house.

Most of the 2,500 locals live near Eastern Harbor, a tiny village with nothing but locally owned hotels, restaurants and dive shops.

Water Cay, one of many "caylitos" that make up Utila's collection of tiny islands, hosts Sun Jam, a two-day music and dancing fiesta the first weekend of August.

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras; for Sandy Cay, Little Cay or another private-island rental, check the official Utila website or call +504 3298 6832; private islands from $140 per night

3. Marettimo, Italy

The whitewashed houses, colorful fishing villages and year-round mile climate feel almost African, but this beauty is in Italy, in the Egadi Islands, just an hour by boat from Sicily.

There are no cars on the island -- that means no carbon fumes, no gunning motors, no taxi drivers honking for you to step it up.

What Marettimo specializes in is peacefulness.

Marettimo Residence, Via Telegrafo, Isola di Marettimo, Italy; +39 (0)923 923 202; rooms starting at seven nights for $466

Tsarabanjina Island: Three beaches, 25 villas, one great vacation.
Tsarabanjina Island: Three beaches, 25 villas, one great vacation.

4. Tsarabanjina Island, Madagascar

Hard to pronounce, let alone get to, this island northwest of Madagascar is where Joanna Lumley was "cast away" for 10 days in 1994 filming a BBC documentary called "Girl Friday."

Although she spent half her time in a cave nicknamed "The Albert Hall," this remote island now has an exclusive resort, the only one in the Mitsio archipelago.

Constance Tsarabanjina has 25 villas to go with its three white sand beaches and, if you pack a magnifying glass, you might spot the world's tiniest chameleon. Fully grown, it barely exceeds one centimeter.

Constance Hotels & Resorts, Poste de Flacq, Mauritius, Indian Ocean; +230 402 2999; rates upon request

5. Mou Waho Island, New Zealand

It's an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island in an ocean.

Near the center of pristine alpine Lake Wanaka, on New Zealand's southern island, Mou Waho is a glacial remnant of the last Ice Age.

Once a stopover for steamers and log rafts, this island has a trek to the top of Tyrwhitt Peak and Arethusa Pool, a nice spot for ambitious picnickers.

Co-owned by ex-Antarctic ice diver Chris Riley, Eco Wanaka Adventures offers tours to this unique island that serves as home to several threatened species.

Eco Wanaka Adventures, Wanaka, New Zealand; + 64 3 443 2869; day trips start at $284

6. Magdalen Islands, Quebec, Canada

If Cape Cod's golden beaches and Ireland's green hills had a love child, it might look like Magdalen Islands, a getaway for Montrealers.

Each of this Gulf of Saint Lawrence archipelago's dozen or so islands has its own history and dialect, but they're all connected with an efficient road system that takes in sweeping dunes, ochre cliffs and pastel-colored homes.

Beaches are everywhere and the islands' many inns and restaurants know what to do with fresh-caught lobster, scallops, crab and fish.

Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine, 128 chemin Principal, Cap-aux-Meules, Québec, Canada; +418 986 2245.

7. Saba, Dutch Caribbean

Known as the "Unspoiled Queen," Saba, in a rather ironic twist, is a favorite with the LGBT community.

Same-sex marriage is legal here and its director of tourism is openly gay.

With 1,800 residents, four villages and only a small harbor, the volcanic island (Mount Scenery is still capable of erupting) near St. Martin is the smallest municipality of the Netherlands and the only one that speaks English and uses the American dollar as its official currency.

Saba has the shortest commercial runway in the world and its one main road, built nine years before there was even a car, was masterminded by a local who defied Dutch and Swiss engineers who said it couldn't be done. Josephus Lambert Hassell started building in 1938 with five friends after taking a correspondence course in engineering.

Saba, Dutch Caribbean tourism office

Quilalea: Humans welcome, but only recently.
Quilalea: Humans welcome, but only recently.

8. Quilalea, Mozambique

This 86-acre private island sits in the middle of a protected Indian Ocean marine sanctuary.

Until 2011, when Christopher and Stella Bettany built nine coral and thatch villas, its only residents were nesting sea turtles and a sizable menagerie of wildlife.

Azura at Quilalea eco-resort offers a clifftop spa, a trail leading to dense baobab groves and sailing trips on traditional Mozambican dhows.

Azura at Quilalea; +27 (11) 791 0519; $25,000 per night for the whole island

9. XXXX Island, Australia

Man caves out. Man islands in.

The reason XXXX island is little known is because it's still in diapers.

It was only hatched a year or so ago when beverage company Lion, which owns the XXXX Gold brand, leased the 15-acre property, acquired naming rights (the island used to be called Pumpkin Island) and started holding promotional competitions.

The island is now the ultimate beer paradise, with a pool table, darts, a golf course (OK, it has one hole), Xbox room, rods and tackle, a bar showing nonstop sports and huts with names like The Locker Room and the House of Rock.

You can't rent those huts, but you can win vacations here along with three of your closest buddies.

Contest winners started showing up in late 2012 for coming up with such creative schemes as beer butlers, football goals set in the ocean, a spray sunscreen booth, tree houses with fireman poles and a "loo with a view," a glassed-in bathroom overlooking the ocean.

Off the Capricorn Coast, Great Barrier Reef, Australia; free if you win one of many contests sponsored by XXXX Island

10. Guana Island, British Virgin Islands

This private island has seven baby power beaches, 850 acres and one tiny resort.

As the owners like to say, "It's the Caribbean before it went public."

After being inhabited for 45 years by sugarcane-growing Quakers, Guana was purchased by a couple from Massachusetts who built six stone cottages and invited artists and intellectuals who stayed for months at a time.

Even now, the maximum number of guests is 32, which means everyone is on first-name basis with management -- were the island to be divvied up, everyone would have an average of 30 acres to themselves.

Well, to themselves and flora and fauna that scientists claim is more extensive than on any island its size, anywhere.

Thanks to several long-term restoration programs, Guana is home to such endangered species as Caribbean Roseate flamingos, stout iguanas, red-legged tortoises and the crestfallen travelers which, we're happy to report are birds, not humans.

Guana Island; guests fly to BVI's Beef Island where they're met and taken to the island by boat; all-inclusive rates start at $695 per night for double occupancy

11. Sovalye Island, Turkey

Castle ruins on Sovalye (pronounced SHUH-VAH-LEE-AY) lend credence to the rumor that renegade knights-turned-pirates used this tiny island as a base during the Middle Ages.

Homes, an old city wall, churches and a Roman cistern from the Byzantine period that slid into the sea during numerous earthquakes are scattered throughout the island.

Scented pine and carob forests are a 15-minute boat ride from the port of Fethiye and once you're there everything's undertaken on foot -- no big chore as it takes 45 minutes to walk from end to end of the picturesque coastline.

The 12-room Ece Boutique Hotel offers a private waterfront, restaurant perfect for taking in the sunset and views of the sea from every room. The only other restaurant on Sovalye is owned by Metin Duru, a former filmmaker who puts out quite a spread for less than $10.

Sovalye tourism

Andros: Sometimes you need a break from the fun.
Andros: Sometimes you need a break from the fun.

12. Andros, Bahamas

You may have been to Nassau to gamble with 3 million other casino-goers.

But have you partied with Chickcharnee, the half-man, half-bird that protects the largest (at 5,956 square kilometers) of Bahama's 700 islands?

Or Lusca, the dragon-like sea monster that lurks in the watery depths of Andros' many blue holes?

This island with a veritable melting pot of cultures also has the world's oldest dive shop, the Western hemisphere's second largest coral reef and locals who make waterproof straw baskets, batik and other crafts.

Small Hope Bay Resort; +242 368 2014; all-inclusive rates from $260 per day

13. Song Saa, Cambodia

In the untouched Koh Rong Archipelago, Song Saa is actually two islands, Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, joined by a bridge.

Just 35 minutes by boat from the port of Sihanoukville, its 27 villas resemble a chic Cambodian fishing village -- they were constructed from salvaged timber

Before the Australian owners started building, they put $500,000 into starting a conservation reserve protecting the island's seahorses and turtles. Four staff conservationists can guide you into the island's still deserted oases of virgin rainforests and tropical reefs.

Song Saa Private Island; +855 236 860 360; all-inclusive rates from $668 per person per night.

14. Piel Island, Lake District Coast, Cumbria, UK

On the tip of the Furness Peninsula, 50-acre Piel Island has a king, a castle and a pub.

About 500 years ago, this island, once an abbey for Savignac monks, was the launch pad for an invasion against Henry VII's army.

Peasant Lambert Simnel, posing as Edward VI, tried to regain the throne for avid Yorkists, but the fact that he was a mere 10 years old should have been a clear sign to the 3,000 German and Irish mercenaries who joined him in battle that ignominious defeat was inevitable.

The castle is little more than a stone ruin, but the pub, called The Ship Inn, serves a mean meal of line-caught fish, fresh game and meat either raised on Piel or brought in from nearby Cumbrian farms.

As for the King -- he's crowned in an elaborate ceremony involving a very old throne, a helmet, a sword and alcohol being poured over his head -- is the landlord of the Ship Inn and, according to the registry dating to 1856, is required to be "a free drinker and smoker and lover of the female sex."

Any guest who sits in the Throne Chair is required by Piel Island Law to buy everyone in the pub a drink.

Piel Island; +07516 453 784; Ship Inn rooms from $60 per night.

15. Navarino Island, Chile

In fierce competition with Ushuaia for title of "end of the world," Navarino is remote, wild and beautiful.

It's a holy grail for adventurous backpackers, who go for a five-day circuit through dramatic landscapes of Chilean fjords, glaciers, unspoiled forests and towering granite needles that's little changed since Charles Darwin hiked here in 1832.

Today, Navarino is mainly inhabited by sailors from the Chilean Navy, crab and octopus fisherman, the mestizo descendants of the Yagan, and more than 40,000 beavers imported from Canada in the 1940s.

It's just north of Cape Horn and the place where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, spectacularly.

Next stop: Antarctica.

Navarino, Chile; +56 61 621136

Part of complete coverage on
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT)
Journals, luggage tags, Panama hats? Yawn. We've got a selection of gifts travelers will actually use.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
Global events, new attractions and anniversary celebrations will put these destinations on travel radars next year. Question is, which one(s) to visit?
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Of all Christmas traditions out there, one has an All-American pedigree: electric Christmas tree lights.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0251 GMT (1051 HKT)
The gateway to Japan's capital, Tokyo Station, is celebrating its centennial this month -- and it's never looked better.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1004 GMT (1804 HKT)
Looking for snow porn? This helicopter ski adventure will fly you into the Coast Mountains for the freshest runs.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
From Singapore to Norway, there are plenty of reasons to plan your next trip around a fabulous hotel opening its doors next year.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
Step aside Mount Everest, this mountain country is home to cool cafes, crazy drinks and ancient Buddhist tradition.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Nonprofit Ethical Traveler has released its annual list of the developing countries doing the most to promote human rights and preserve their environments.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1036 GMT (1836 HKT)
These waterfront watering holes have killer ocean views, creative drinks and the mahalo vibe we demand.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 2038 GMT (0438 HKT)
Can't wait to book your ticket to Indianapolis and Oakland? The venerable guidebook is right there with you
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 0625 GMT (1425 HKT)
By helicopter, snowmobile and big-wheel truck across some of the world's most volatile landscapes.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 2142 GMT (0542 HKT)
Construction begins on a new Singapore airport complex that could make delays and layovers a pleasure.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
Inflight chatterboxes are annoying but they're not the worst violators of onboard etiquette, according to an Expedia study.