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.
I WAS BOUNCING ACROSS the whitecaps aboard a high-speed ferry from St. Maarten, holding fast to the seat in front of me, when Saba revealed itself through the morning fog. It’s compact, and tends to look jagged and dramatic — a bit ominous, even, with a single sharp peak tearing away snatches of low-passing clouds, and steep walls that plunge straight into the sea and keep going for another 1,000 feet thereafter. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was the island home of some giant rampaging holdover from prehistory. And in a sense you’d be right: It doubled as King Kong’s “Skull Island” in the 1933 film that bore his name. But that’s fiction. Saba is actually the island home of about a thousand sunburnt Dutchmen who really love karaoke. And Heineken.
At a mere 5 square miles, Saba is the smallest special municipality of the Netherlands (it wound up in Dutch hands after spending centuries being passed back and forth between various European powers), and as such it retains elements of trademark Dutch frankness: The main road is called “The Road,” the highest peak is “Mount Scenery” and the neighborhood at the lowest point on the island is simply “The Bottom.” Though situated between St. Kitts and Anguilla, it’s not your typical Caribbean destination — it’s rocky, the roads can be incredibly steep, there are no beaches and, while there are a few proper hotels, most accommodations tend toward the cheerfully rustic. At the same time, because it’s not a huge draw for sun worshippers, it offers a completely unique Caribbean experience. It’s beautiful, the scuba diving is world-class, the views from the top of Mount Scenery are breathtaking and everything is rounded off with a dose of amiable small-town quirk.
“Sabaoke,” for instance. Nowhere is the whole of Saban society more clearly on display than at the weekly karaoke night at Scout’s Place, a local hotel/restaurant/bar. By the end of the evening I spent there, the stage was groaning, jammed with singing locals fortified by the hugely popular beer-can chicken dinner at Swinging Doors, a nearby country and western bar, and, of course, beer. “Saba consumes more Heineken per capita than any other place on earth!” one local shouted proudly. The Dutch expats, Colombian newcomers, students from the island’s small medical school and sundry hippies, hikers and divers from all over the globe joined together in ragged song.
I spotted the owner of my eco-lodge palling around with my scuba guide, who that morning had taken me down to free an unusually large grouper from an illegal trap on the ocean floor. In time we were joined by a local shopkeeper who’d given me a ride up one of the more precipitous hills the day before (a common courtesy), dishing out en route the latest gossip on all the other people I’d met. Everyone was laughing and having a good time. How did these folks wind up together? Simple, said the lodge owner. “We’re all here,” he said, “because we’re not all there.” — JOE KEOHANE
THE TOM YUM MARTINI AT THE ZEAVOLA IN KO PHI PHI, THAILAND:
The flavors of the traditional Thai soup, served straight up: vodka, lemon juice and cane sugar, mixed with bits of lemongrass, chili pepper and kaffir lime leaf. www.zeavola.com
THE PONCHA AT HOTEL QUINTA DA PENHA DE FRANCA IN MADEIRA, PORTUGAL:
Made with Portuguese aguardente de cana (a white firewater rum), lemon juice and local honey, the drink is purported to heal, or at least numb, a sore throat. www.penhafranca.com
THE FLAMING BOB MARLEY AT SWEPT AWAY IN NEGRIL, JAMAICA:
Equal parts grenadine, crème de menthe and Appleton Estate 151-proof rum, it comes with a flaming straw you’re meant to sip through till it melts. www.couples.com/swept-away
THE ANTIPODEAN AT THE HAYMAN’S CLUB ON HAYMAN ISLAND, AUSTRALIA:
An homage to the Australian bush, this gin, lime juice and eucalyptus syrup cocktail is not unlike the koala: looks harmless, will bite. www.hayman.com.au —ALYSSA GIACOBBE
ROSEWOOD TUCKER’S POINT, BERMUDA:
British charm meets island paradise at this 2-year-old, 88-room beauty. Its golf course is among the best on the island, and the same can be said of its service. www.rosewoodtuckerspoint.com
LITTLE PALM ISLAND RESORT & SPA, LITTLE TORCH KEY, FLA.:
There are no phones, TVs or clocks in the lavish bungalows on this island — accessible only by seaplane or boat — providing a sense of isolation that attracts high-profile guests. www.littlepalmisland.com
Many resorts claim to reside in harmony with the local culture, but very few can say that every six months, nearby villagers take a path through the grounds to reach a pool of holy water. A few days at this stunning property and you’ll think it’s sublime, too. www.amanresorts.com
ST. REGIS PRINCEVILLE, HANALEI, KAUAI:
Hawaii’s only St. Regis overlooks the last known whereabouts of Puff the Magic Dragon (“in the land of Hanalei”), and boasts two world-class golf courses set among scenery even a dragon would appreciate. www.stregisprinceville.com —SAM POLCER
ISLAND WISDOM, PART 3: UPON BECOMING SUNBURNED IN PUERTO RICO
I was glowing. I was on Vieques, east of Puerto Rico, and I had spent all afternoon snorkeling with tropical fish along the island’s craggy coast. I thought the tickle on my back was the blue water gently caressing me; it was not. After I spent the next day covered in aloe, watching telenovelas, my inn owner told me about a place where a hapless sunburn patient such as myself could seek relief in the cool darkness of the night. Minutes later I was on a boat on the way to mangrove-lined Mosquito Bay. I’d heard that the black water was full of invisible organisms that shone when touched. Doubtful, I jumped in. Suddenly, my silhouette lit up in neon colors. As I swam, electric green shadows trailed me. I was glowing again, but in the best possible way. —CHANEY KWAK