Photo by Jeffrey Bary
The island of Malta—home to such sites as the 17th-century Fort Ricasoli, which "Game of Thrones" fans may recognize—is for history lovers.
Islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific get all the love. But you can find equally appealing islands—rich in history and adventure, but low in crowds—in the waters off of Europe and West Africa. Here’s where to dive in.
Most people, when they picture islands with volcanoes, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and white-washed colonial buildings, think of Caribbean and Pacific isles such as Aruba and Hawaii. And while the Caribbean is fantastic (and ready again for travelers), the Atlantic and the Mediterranean cradle equally compelling islands—and they tend to get fewer visitors from North America. So whether you’re looking for a crowd-free island escape or you’re into European history but also want sun and sand, these islands deliver.
If you want to vacation like the French
Located midway between mainland France and Italy, Corsica has been ruled by (among many others) Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Italian city-states, and most recently, the French, all leaving traces of themselves in the architecture and cuisine of millennia-old cities such as Ajaccio and Bonifacio. Visit the Désert des Agriates, a 37,000-acre protected wilderness on Corsica’s desert north coast. As with other Mediterranean islands, the weather is good year-round and the winters are mild. But summer is busiest so go before July. Round-trip ticket from JFK to Ajaccio: $850
If you want to walk in the shoes of famous writers
Head to the island of Majorca—the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands—to follow a little-known literary trail of 20th-century English-language writers, including Robert Graves, Agatha Christie, and Alan Sillitoe. Avoid staying on Ibiza (Europe’s Cancun), but take a day trip there to climb Dalt Vila’s (Upper Old Town’s) 12th-century Arabian castle, packed with artifacts from Moorish rule and the island’s Bronze Age inhabitants, the Phoenicians. Round-trip flight from JFK to Majorca: $495
If you want to chase epic nature—and lots of sheep
Located between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are home to only 50,000 residents, who live off the rugged land and the surrounding seas. Eat at Koks, the islands’ first Michelin-starred restaurant, for a taste of authentic Faroese cuisine made with ingredients sourced almost exclusively from the islands, such as sea urchin, powdered seaweed, and fermented fish. Tour Koltur, an island on which only two people live and which is slated to become the Faroes’ first national park. Visit from May to August, when summer edges the temperature to a relatively warm 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Round-trip ticket from EWR (Newark) to Tórshavn: $870
If you want island time with a side of history
History buffs will find Malta to be heaven. Head into Saint Paul’s Catacombs, an underground labyrinth of tombs dug deeply into Maltan limestone, used by the Ancient Romans from the 300s to 800s C.E. See, also, the six Megalithic Temples of Malta, built between 3600 and 700 B.C.E. The oldest ruins predate the Egyptian pyramids; they’re the oldest above-ground ruins in the world. Winters are mild but rainy, so it’s best to visit between spring and fall. Round-trip ticket from JFK to Valletta: $560
If you want to vacation like a Spaniard
Sixty miles off the coast of Morocco, the volcanic Canary Islands are ringed with black-sand beaches, although you’ll also find beaches of imported golden sand. Climb the 12,000-foot Mount Teide, a dormant volcano, and visit the Vegueta historic district, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with hip nightlife and 500-year-old colonial buildings. Desert winds blow warmth over from the Sahara year-round, but if you travel in spring or fall you’ll avoid the masses of European tourists. Round-trip ticket from JFK to Tenerife: $495
If you want adventure, but also wine
You won’t find sandy beaches on Madeira, but you will find plenty of the cherished fortified wine with which the island shares its name. The wine came into popularity in the 15th century when sailing ships docking in Madeira would stock up—and it remains in demand today. Take a wine tour to see the only vineyards allowed to make authentic madeira. For killer photographs, hike the mountainous Levada do Risco trail to 25 Fontes (25 Fountains), so-named for the number of waterfalls formed by a convergence of streams, and take a dip in the emerald-clear bay fed by them. Madeira is a year-round destination, but the driest months are May through August. Round-trip ticket from JFK to Funchal: $570
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