Lazing on an isolated strip of sand is all well and good, but the best kind of island getaway is much more than a day at the beach. We surveyed the world’s ocean outposts to bring you the top spots for local atmosphere, one-of-a-kind retreats and natural wonders, plus a few pugnacious kangaroos.
THE DAY IS HOT and still. The sand is white. The island of Espiritu Santo rises before me like a rusted shipwreck, as a bed of stingrays passes below. I’m floating in a touring kayak, a hundred yards from the beach, reading John Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez. I’m just off the island, a few miles and several coves from where, seven decades ago, Steinbeck himself was sorting through marine specimens on the deck of a 76-foot sardine boat called the Western Flyer and complaining about the lack of beer.
That was March 20, 1940. Steinbeck, who in less than two months would win the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, had spent most of the day on the beach, collecting sea cucumbers and starfish. There was whiskey, wine, stale drinking water, the gentle sloshing of waves against the hull, a visit from some friendly locals in a wooden canoe and a quotient of excellent conversation. If only they hadn’t run out of beer, it would have been paradise.
Espiritu Santo has changed only imperceptibly in all these years. It’s still a stark, silent Eden, visited by a relatively modest number of people just temporarily. Lying off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, slightly north of La Paz, it’s the crown jewel in an archipelago of 244 islands, islets and coastal areas in the Gulf of California (a.k.a. the Sea of Cortez) that was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The sea around Espiritu Santo is considered one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, aswarm with nearly 900 different kinds of fish and host to more than one third of all known marine mammal species. Jacques Cousteau is said to have called it the “world’s aquarium” and the “Galápagos of North America.” Steinbeck called it “ferocious with life.”
The island itself is 23,000 acres of rough desert, recently promoted to national park status and home to all manner of rare lizards, seabirds and cartoonishly thorny plants. There are feral goats and cats and a unique species of black-tailed rabbit, as well as ancient transplanted figs and the ruins of a 19th-century pearl farm. In season, pangas arrive hourly with day-trippers from across the channel, kayakers like myself explore the coves and crazy rock formations along the coastline, snorkelers swim with sea lions, and overnight campers sip frosty margaritas in deluxe solar-powered eco-villages.
And yet there was Steinbeck — and the rest of the crew with him — impatient to weigh anchor and head for the grand old city of La Paz. Lounging on the deck of the Western Flyer, Steinbeck watched as a yacht cruised by. “On her awninged after-deck ladies and gentlemen in white clothing sat comfortably,” he wrote. “We saw they had tall cool drinks beside them and we hated them a little.”
Gazing from my tiny craft over to someone’s luxury camp onshore, I know how he felt. Suddenly I’m wishing I weren’t facing a 4-mile paddle back to the peninsula, and the nearest margarita. But then, what’s 4 miles? With the sun still high over the peninsula to the west, I seal the book in the forward hatch, take a swig of warm water from a plastic bottle and point my bow toward La Paz. —DAVID PAGE
WHERE: Off Poipu, Hawaii
WHAT: Giant sea turtles
WHY: Sometimes the turtles will bob close enough to look you in the eye, and while it might be just for an instant, it’ll feel like having an entire conversation.
WHERE: Jellyfish Lake, Palau
WHAT: Hundreds of thousands of nonstinging jellyfish
WHY: It’s utterly hypnotic. Golden or orange and varying in size, the pulsing jellyfish migrate across the lake each day to follow the sunlight, and you can swim right along with them.
WHERE: The Gulf of Aqaba, Jordan
WHY: The gulf teems with fish, but none is more eye-catching than the lionfish, with its long, feathery fins and zebra stripes. Just keep your distance — it can sting.
WHERE: Off Cocos Island, 300 miles from the Costa Rican coast
WHAT: Hammerhead sharks
WHY: Because sharks are awesome. And these waters, beloved by divers, offer more of them than any other place on earth. —STEVE KETTMANN
It’s a shame the Cook Islands’ namesake explorer didn’t do more actual, well, exploring. In setting foot on only Palmerston Island — flat as a postage stamp and barely bigger — Capt. James Cook missed out on the chance to drop a line in what just might be the world’s most idyllic fishing spot, right next door.
Though various piscine prizes weave their way throughout this 15-island South Pacific chain, the island of Aitutaki has an unbeatable lure for both the fish and those who catch them: a picturesque ring reef that encloses an enormous lagoon. A speedy drop-off beyond the reef means you don’t have to motor far out to sea to troll or jig for deep-water prizes like marlin, mahi mahi, skipjack and wahoo; within the reef, the 12,500-acre lagoon is perfect for casting for trevally and the elusive bonefish.
Best of all is the camaraderie. At the local game-fishing club you’ll find an abundance of cheap beer and a dearth of skepticism — ensuring any fish story will meet the most receptive of audiences. —JENNIFER L. JOHNSON
ISLAND WISDOM, PART 1: UPON ENCOUNTERING A KANGAROO
Take a T. rex, shrink it to about 6 feet, cover it in fur and give it a deer’s head, and you’ve basically got yourself a kangaroo. Put boxing gloves on it, and you’ve got a sight gag. These are just two of the many things to be learned on Kangaroo Island, a charming wonderland off the South Australian coast where seals laze on the beach, koalas sleep in trees, wallabies dart across roads and ’roos abound. Most often, the latter will casually hop away if you get anywhere near them. But should you somehow bump into one, resist the urge to put up your dukes: A kangaroo, if so inclined, can lean back on its meaty tail and deliver a kick that’ll put a substantial crimp in your holiday plans. (Not that it will, necessarily. But it can.) That’s why your best bet is to seek out the tamer specimens lingering around the visitors center. They’re friendly. They like people. They’ll eat out of your hand. So bring an apple. —JASON FEIFER