Dreamy beaches, warm seas, lush scenery, and endless sunshine – these are some of the top ingredients of the ideal tropical vacation. Some dazzle with their natural beauty, others add cultural attractions to the mix, with exotic customs, architecture, and mouthwatering cuisine. Divers flock to thriving coral reefs, and surfers seek the perfect wave. It's just a matter of finding the perfect fit.
Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, with close ties to New Zealand, is a dream destination for closet castaways. Blessed with a luminous aqua lagoon, lush peaks, sublime beaches bristling with palms, and some of the friendliest people in the South Pacific, Aitutaki ticks all the boxes for the perfect exotic tropical vacation. Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands, and the main tourist gateway, but Aitutaki, a 45-minute flight away, is the jewel in the crown, and that’s saying plenty in an archipelago of 15 ravishing tropical isles. Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and fishing are all popular activities in the Cook Islands, and the island offers a window into laid-back village life, which slows to a halt on Sundays for church services.
UNESCO-listed nature reserves, flourishing coral reefs, and beautiful boulder-rimmed beaches are a wonderland for wilderness lovers, and more than half the land area of these 115 emerald beauties is protected. The only dilemma about visiting the Seychelles is deciding which tropical island to visit. International visitors fly into Mahé. Here, you’ll find Victoria the capital, as well as the international airport, the cruise ship port, and beautiful Morne Seychellois National Park. Besides exploring the luxuriant jungles and nature reserves, the top things to do in the Seychelles revolve around the water. You can bask on the beaches, dive and snorkel the reefs, sail, and surf the swells. Fishing is also excellent here – especially on Alphonse Island and Farquhar Atoll.
Bora Bora is the quintessential South Pacific paradise. This lush and dramatically beautiful island in French Polynesia rises to a sharp emerald peak ringed by an azure lagoon. Clusters of coconut palms bristle along the beaches, and luxury bungalows perch over the crystal-clear waters, some with glass floor panels, so you can peer into the thriving sea below. The official language is French, and you can taste the Gallic influence in the gourmet cuisine. Add a bevy of fun water sports, kayak trips to tiny motu (islands), picturesque hiking trails, and adventures such as shark dives, and it’s easy to see why many travelers rank pricey Bora Bora as a top honeymoon destination.
Strung across the Indian Ocean southwest of India and Sri Lanka, the 26 natural atolls of the Maldives exude an almost surreal beauty. This is due, in large part, to the luminous blue waters that surround them. If slipping into the crystal-clear, soul-warming sea is a must for your perfect tropical vacation, this is the place to do it – water comprises 99 percent of the Maldives. Male is the capital city, but most visitors head straight out to one of the remote atolls, where luxury resorts and bone-white beaches fringed by aquamarine waters await. Diving and snorkeling are world-class, and the Maldives is also a top surfing destination. The most popular surf spots are in the North and South Male Atolls.
Called the Garden Isle, Kaua’i is a tropical Eden. Lush rainforests, waterfalls, and spectacular green coastal peaks lure nature lovers from around the world. A natural masterpiece of dramatic lava-sculpted landscapes, the island has a more laid-back vibe than its popular sister islands of Maui and Oahu. Though Kauai is known for being home to one of the rainiest places on Earth, the island is comprised of several microclimates, and the area around touristy Poipu tends to be drier. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing the beach with slumbering monk seals; nature reigns here, and that’s a big part of the island’s allure.
If you’re dreaming of an idyllic South Seas Island bathed in sunshine, the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji fit the bill. A short boat ride from the gateway town of Nadi, this picture-perfect string of about 20 islands is popular for their gleaming palm-studded beaches, crystal-clear waters, and thriving coral reefs. When you first glimpse these tropical beauties, it’s easy to see why Survivor and the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away were filmed on islands in this chain. When choosing where to stay, your budget and interests will determine the best Fiji island for you. Accommodation ranges from lively backpacker resorts to family-friendly hotels with thatched bures (traditional huts), and luxury hideaways.
On the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, the Nicoya Peninsula is a hot spot for surfers and eco-tourists. Pockets of jungle forests and long beaches washed by perfect barrel breaks make this a popular place to visit for nature lovers and surfers. Tamarindo is a prime tourist destination. It’s the most developed town on the peninsula, with fantastic surfing for all skill levels at Playa Tamarindo, as well as a wide range of restaurants and hotels. It lures a colorful mix of fun-loving backpackers, surfers, families, and chilled-out expats. Around Tamarindo you can snorkel; dive; horseback ride; zipline; and watch turtles nesting from October through March at nearby Playa Grande, one of Costa Rica’s most important nesting grounds for leatherback turtles. Not far from these beach towns, one of Costa Rica’s top tourist attractions, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, protects one of the continent’s last unspoiled pockets of cloud forest.
If you like the glittering jet-setter scene, private villas, and pretty beaches, French-influenced St. Barts should be top on your list. But it all comes at a price. A constant stream of visiting movie stars and mega-moguls means that accommodation and food costs more here than other destinations – especially during high season. However, in return, you’ll find beautiful blond beaches backed by green hills, world-class shopping and dining, and a cultural sophistication that many other tropical destinations lack. Low season offers great deals, plus, all the beaches are public, so you can hide away in a private villa or boutique hotel and live the life of the rich and famous for less.
The beautiful Abacos, in the Bahamas, offer some of the world’s best waters for boating and sailing. These peaceful Atlantic islands, also called the Out Islands or Family Islands, seem a world away from the busy tourist spots of nearby Florida. Here, you’ll find secluded pine-fringed beaches; flourishing coral reefs; and sleepy fishing villages, where golf carts and boats are the main mode of transport. British Loyalists settled these islands, and you can witness this heritage in the cute and colorful colonial cottages lining the narrow streets. Favorite things to do in the Bahamas include fishing, diving, snorkeling, relaxing, and chatting with the locals, and with miles of pristine beaches, it’s easy to find your own private patch of soft, white sand.
Ambergris Caye in Belize is one of the most popular places to visit in Belize and the largest of its 200 cayes. While its Caribbean beaches are generally better for fishing than swimming, thanks to their flourishing turtle grass flats, the magnificent Hol Chan Marine Reserve more than compensates, with superb diving and snorkeling less than a half-mile from shore. Part of the island’s charm is its colorful town of San Pedro, where golf carts rule the streets, and funky restaurants showcase fresh seafood and Mexican-inspired cuisine. Since the northern part of the island lies a stone’s throw from Mexico, the island has a strong Mexican influence, and many locals speak Spanish.