The world’s best secret islands
Enjoy your own tropical paradise in the San Blás Archipelago. (Alfredo Maiquez/LPI)
Looking for a romantic spot that is (almost) all yours? Here are our top spots to reignite your love affair with desert islands, with picks from across the globe.
1. Socotra, Yemen
You just have to be intrigued by a destination that describes itself as "the most alien-looking place on earth". Ripped from the coast of Gondwanaland by plate tectonics, the four desert islands that form the Socotra group are a treasure-house of biodiversity, with thousands of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth. Topping the weird list are the barrel-trunked cucumber tree and the dragon's blood tree, which oozes blood-red sap. Despite being closer to Africa than the Arabian Peninsula, Socotra is administered by Yemen, which keeps the islands off the tourist radar.
Modern-day Sinbads can fly to the tiny capital, Hadibu, from Sana'a and Aden with Yemenia Airlines.
2. Torres Strait Islands, Australia
As far as you can go in Oz without falling off the map, the Torres Strait Islands are Australia as it might have been if Europeans had never arrived. Spilling north from the tip of Cape York, the 274 islands in the Torres Strait preserve a unique tribal culture that bridges the divide between Aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea. The Great Barrier Reef is right on the doorstop and there are airstrips and hotels on Thursday Island and Horn Island, but access to other islands is at the discretion of local tribal councils.
Permits to visit outlying islands must be obtained at least one month in advance from the Torres Strait Regional Authority (www.tsra.gov.au).
3. Yaeyama Islands, Japan
If Godzilla should ever rise from the sea to destroy Tokyo and Osaka, there is only one place to ride out the storm - the idyllic Yaeyama Islands, tucked away at the very southern tip of the Japanese archipelago. Looking more like the Caribbean, the islands of Iriomote, Taketomi and Ishigaki serve up generous portions of sun, sea, sand and sushi. Ishigaki has the best of the beaches, while Taketomi is famous for its traditional Ryukyuan houses and Iriomote is a jungle playground with an open-air onsen (hot springs).
Japan Transocean Air flies daily from Tokyo to Ishigaki, which is connected to the other islands by regular ferries.
4. Îles du Salut, French Guiana
Most people have heard of Devil's Island, but few would be able to stick a pin on a map. The smallest of the three Îles du Salut, this infamous former penal colony is separated from the coast of French Guiana by 11km of treacherous, shark-infested waters. Steve McQueen tried to escape the islands repeatedly in Papillon, but most modern visitors are willing castaways, lured here by waving palms, chattering macaws and spooky ruins from the penal colony days.
Access to the Îles du Salut is by catamaran from Kourou and the only place to stay is the clubhouse-style Auberge des Iles (www.ilesdusalut.com).
5. Ulleungdo, South Korea
It is easy to see the appeal of tiny Ulleungdo. Midway between South Korea and Japan, this rugged volcanic island is said to have no pollution, no thieves and no snakes - in other words, this is perfect hiking country. Ferries run daily from the mainland to the tiny port at Dodong-ri, where trails climb to the rocky summit of Seonginbong Peak (984m). If you want to really push the boat out, continue to the Dokdo islands - a tiny collection of outcrops that are hotly disputed between Japan and South Korea.
Perched beneath a towering cliff wall, Chusan Ilga Pension (www.chusanilga.com) offers comfortable but satisfyingly rustic accommodation on the rugged north coast.
6. San Blás Archipelago, Panama
Panama probably is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of the Caribbean, but this Central American nation has coral cays to rival anything in the Caymans or the Virgin Islands. Run as an autonomous province by the Kuna people, the San Blás Archipelago is a crescent of 365 tiny islands basking in the warm waters of the southern Caribbean. Forget luxury resorts - the only hotels are homestays in village houses and dinner is whatever the fishermen bring home in their canoes each evening.
Air Panama has regular flights to several San Blás islands, including the capital, El Porvenir.