From Earth’s finest assemblies of sugarloaf sands and jewel-toned seas to culture-rich wonderlands and wildlife havens, the islands along the equator are as diverse as they are exciting.
1. Galápagos Islands
Best for: A voyage of discovery through one of the ultimate bucket list destinations.
Made famous by the teachings of Charles Darwin, the photographs of National Geographic, and the cinematography of numerous nature documentaries, the Galápagos Islands reign as a top bucket list destination for many. More than 500 nautical miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the highly protected islands are a living museum of natural history, where plants and animals have evolved for centuries without human interference.
The best way to experience these marvels is by expedition cruise on an itinerary of seven nights on ships like Aqua Expeditions’ Aqua Mare (at the highest of high end) or Metropolitan Touring’s Yacht La Pinta (at a more midrange price point). Each island promises immersion in nature through activities such as hiking, snorkeling, and Zodiac adventures. Tip: Invest in a great camera and solid lenses before coming because the photo opportunities are many.
2. The Maldives
Best for: Romance, castaway vibes and overwater excess
Cast across endless square miles of Indian Ocean blues, Asia’s smallest country comprises a collection of 1,192 coralline islets, the majority of which remain uninhabited. On 164 (and counting) of these mid-oceanic specks, developers have capitalized on their natural beauty to create some of Earth’s most swoon-worthy private island resorts—many with overwater accommodation and amenities.
Among the best is Kudadoo Maldives Private Island, a Yuji Yamazaki–designed property in the Lhaviyani Atoll with 15 ryokan-inspired floating residences and an “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” policy in which everything is bundled into the nightly rate. Think: endless champagne, sand bar picnics, snorkeling with the mantas (alongside a marine biologist), floating breakfasts in your private pool, personal training sessions, and unlimited spa treatments.
Best for: Active pursuits, both on land and under the water
The Caribbean’s “Nature Island” brims with a rain forest, waterfalls, and emerald pools that recall Costa Rica and Hawai‘i—and plenty of hotels to boot. Hike the footpaths of UNESCO-recognized Morne Trois Pitons National Park to reach Earth’s second largest boiling lake (a flooded crater warmed by molten magma below) and ice-cold, swimmable gorges.
Plot a path through segments of the 115-mile long Waitukubuli National Trail in search of Dominica’s 170 colorful bird species, including the endemic sisserou parrot. Expect treasures aplenty under the sea as the Champagne Reef explodes with tiny bubbles from active fumaroles (where hot volcanic gas is released). A naturally occurring resident population of sperm whales (one of 20 species of whales and dolphins in Dominica’s waters) presents a unique opportunity to swim among these leviathans.
Best for: Cultural connection and wellness endeavors
Bali’s serenity is most palpable along its eastern coast and deep within its interior, two areas steeped in culture, tradition, and testament to Bali’s moniker “land of 1,000 temples.” The banyan-fringed forests and terraced rice fields of Ubud are sprinkled with high-design resorts like Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, focused on wellness and cultural connection while easterly coastal towns of Manggis, Candisasa, and Tenganan have a lost-in-time appeal with scenes of traditional daily village life unfolding in real time. In the south, find more typical resort fare, a surfing scene, and Bali’s party-hard tourists.
5. St. Bart’s
Best for: The European good life in the Caribbean
Glamour and fashion converge on this 8.1 square-mile Caribbean island, channeling endless summer in St. Tropez—with a tropical twist. Luxury isn’t just an option here; it’s a way of life. The daily rhythm revolves around people-watching, sun worshiping, boutique shopping, sipping pricey cocktails, savoring exquisite cuisine, sailing on tricked-out yachts, and mingling with other fashionistas and trendsetters.
The capital harbor city of Gustavia features shops from Europe’s most upscale brands and sensational French-tinged restaurants, including Bonito Saint Barth and Bagatelle St. Barths, along its cobblestone streets. Meanwhile, the island’s top beaches are fronted by celeb-frequented, boutique resorts that often fetch a thousand or more per night. A top pick is the 66-key Rosewood Le Guanahani St. Barth: In 2022, the property finalized a four-year, head-to-toe renovation of its colorful cottages and added new amenities to its exclusive private peninsula, including a sleek, beachfront infinity-edge swimming pool.
6. Bora Bora
Best for: Overwater romance and epic diving
The 118 Islands of Tahiti rise over five archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an expanse surpassing that of the European continent. Among these landscapes none garners more attention than Bora Bora, a destination synonymous with terms like “paradise” and “heaven on earth” and home to some of the world’s most spectacular overwater bungalow resorts.
Here, admire the majesty of the 2,835-foot-tall Mount Otemanu in the distance and the Technicolor marine life in the ocean below (swimming among the parrotfish, butterflyfish, and puffers as you see fit). Tag on extra days to visit Moorea or Tahiti proper for a true taste of French Polynesian culture, or head to the Tuamoto archipelago for some of the best diving and snorkeling on the planet.
Best for: Carnival and culture
Trindad’s cultural endeavors may be the Caribbean’s most rewarding. During the region’s biggest Carnival—which happens between February and March annually—hundreds of thousands celebrate in the dazzle of custom-made costumes, the soulful sounds of steel drums, the taste of seafood creoles and doubles (fried bread stuffed with curried chickpeas and topped with chutneys), and the dance fever that fills the streets.
But the truth is, the party never truly ends in Trindad’s capital, Port of Spain, thanks to a love for “liming” (hanging out), a highly social street food culture, and a penchant for catchy calypso, soca, and steelpan music. For scenic beaches, drive north of the capital for an hour and find beautiful swathes at Maracas Bay Beach and Blanchisseuse Beach.
Best for: Exotic scenery without needing a passport
Hawai‘i is home to a series of tropical island dreamscapes, each worthy of “Wish You Were Here” missives and coffee table pictorials. Among them is Lāna‘i, Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island (population: 3,102), which feels about as far-flung as it gets within the United States. Rest comfortably at the island’s sole coastal resort, Four Seasons Resort Lanai, and revel in easy access to Lāna‘i’s natural beauty, including cliff-side hiking trails and famed dive sites. (Don’t miss Cathedrals, a collection of lava tubes that recall the appearance of stained glass.)
Go deeper by renting a Jeep and venturing on dirt roads across windswept rocky terrain, discovering petroglyphs and desolate beaches along the way. Consider pairing Lāna‘i with a trip to Kaua‘i, aka the “Garden Island,” famed for its ridged mountains, skyscraping waterfalls, and rugged canyons. (Think: the backdrops from Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games.)
9. Sri Lanka
Best for: An island that’s got it all, from incredible food to stunning temples and leopards
This island nation ticks all the travel boxes, including culture, wildlife, historical pursuits, and affordable luxury. Along the southern coast alone, discover Yala National Park (home to secretive leopards and swimming elephants), quiet palm-fringed beaches with world-class resorts, and centuries-old forts.
Toward the island’s center, explore mountainous terrain cloaked in tea plantations and a surfeit of Buddhist and Hindu temples. Whever you go, arrive hungry for local and regional cuisine that will ambush the senses. Food highlights from a recent trip to southern Sri Lanka included spicy crab curry with pulao and coconut sambal, ridge gourd curry, brinjal eggplant moju, and watalappam, a sweet coconut custard pudding. What’s more, Sri Lanka’s top properties, like Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort and Anantara Kalutara Resort, run a fraction of the price of other stunning island destinations, without sacrificing the luxury experience.
Best for: Striking boulder-strewn beaches and time with the tortoises
One hundred and fifty-five islands strong in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles is Africa’s smallest nation and home to prehistoric, granitic beachfront landscapes—these are remnants of 75-million-year-old supercontinent Gondwana. (Populations of Aldabra tortoises, one of the oldest living species on the planet, also speak to this Land Before Time setting.)
Assemblies of towering, primordial boulders mixed with lazuline waters and wide stretches of downy sands are features of this paradise. While unrestrained display of ancient splendor defines the Seychelles’ easterly, inner islands, southern and western islands boast more familiar, low-lying sandy fare, cloaked in coconut forests. A duo of resorts in separate archipelagos, Four Seasons Resort Seychelles in Mahe and Four Seasons Resorts Seychelles at Desroches Island, facilitates exploration of the country’s dichotomous world—in fabulous style (with the bonus of communing with tortoises on Desroches).