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.
BACK IN 2003, my friend Lary and I were flying into Managua for vacation, and marveling at the sight of Lake Nicaragua below. The size of a small ocean, it was formed by a volcanic eruption, and the volcano still sits in the center of it, smoking.
From the air, it’s one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. The lake is shimmering and dotted with islands, hundreds of them. Some are no bigger than a few acres. Many of them are populated with lovely Swiss Family Robinson–type dwellings. And many of those are for sale. Lary’s eyes lit up when he saw them. From that moment, he was on a mission.
After landing, we headed to Managua’s outdoor market, and Lary started demanding I use my Spanish to ask a merchant how much a cluster of rusty elbow valves cost. “Stop it! You can get that in the States,” I said. Then it hit me: He wasn’t coming back to the States. What had I done?
You’d think that private island ownership is the sort of option available only to the super-rich, a category to which Lary does not belong. He was born in upstate New York, and when I met him he was living in an abandoned candy factory near downtown Atlanta. And yet if there was anyone who could make a home at the base of a volcano in a massive lake in Central America, it was he. A professional rigger by trade, crankily eccentric and full of theories, he’d figure out how to create a plumbing system carved from the rocks, fashion automated fishing machinery that functioned in accordance with the lunar cycles and then pirate satellite signals when he decided he wanted to connect to the world.
Before I left to return to Atlanta, Lary had his island. It was just 25 grand, bought off a former mercenary. When I left him at a bar in Granada, he was sharing his theory that all things are shrinking. “Even measuring tapes,” he insisted. The locals nodded in approbation.
Over the next few years, Lary set up rain barrels, erected windmills and made a reef by dumping discarded concrete and rebar 30 yards off his shoreline. He lived in a tiny cottage, which he expanded until it resembled an eclectic mansion of sorts, with colorful sail shades and bamboo fencing. Then a hurricane hit, and he built it all again.
I didn’t see Lary for years after that. But then one day, he just turned up. “Somebody offered me 15 times what I paid for it,” he said, adding that he planned to use the money to finance his next project. “Wait until you see what I’ve got planned,” he gushed. “It will be like Graceland, only underground.” —HOLLIS GILLESPIE
ISLAND WISDOM, PART 4: UPON DECIDING TO ACQUIRE YOUR OWN ISLAND
If you thought shopping for a condo was hard, try having to factor in things like water supply, boat accessibility, tidal variation and foreign property laws. Luckily, there are websites (like privateislandsonline.com and vladi-private-islands.de) that offer plenty of advice, as well as brokered listings for everything from open-water lighthouses to fully developed tropical retreats. —SAM POLCER