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Which tropical island is right for you? by Pauline Frommer

Sand, seas and sunny skies — that’s all there is to a tropical island vacation, right? Well, that’s not enough for everyone, and certainly not for me. Perhaps I’m too demanding, but I find that after baking in a lounge chair for several hours, I’ve had enough of beach time. I start looking for historic sights to explore, good patches of sea to snorkel, restaurants to try and dance clubs to hit. And on some islands, these “extras” are in woefully short supply.

The truth is that no island can fulfill every need; those that have the best snorkeling often have the blandest restaurants. Find one where the nightlife is hopping and it may be because the beaches are gritty and the waves too rough for swimming, so people gear their vacationing to the night hours rather than the daytime.

Doing your research and figuring out which island has the right mix of offerings is the key to picking the right destination. Price, too, plays a big role in choosing correctly.

To help you in your decision, I’m going to stick my neck out and name the islands that I’d rank as “superlative” in several important categories. I’m sure many of you will disagree with my choices (and with so many islands to choose from, it’s inevitable that I’ll leave out some great ones). So I’m hoping that you’ll regard this list as a starting point, and that you’ll add your own picks to the mix below.

Two notes: My selections are listed in alphabetical order, so please don’t assume that no. 1 in each category is meant to be better than the others. Also, note that I’m defining “tropical island” as one that has warm weather year-round, which may very well eliminate your favorite beach destination.

Okay, let the games begin:

Most beautiful beaches

  • Bora Bora, Tahiti
  • Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
  • Kauai, Hawaii
  • Mauritius
  • Phi Phi Island, Thailand
  • Zanzibar, Tanzania

Most intriguing cultural and historic attractions

  • Bali, Indonesia
  • Cuba
  • Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
  • Molokai, Hawaii
  • Oahu, Hawaii

Best off-shore attractions (e.g. scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing)

  • Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
  • Isla Holbox, Mexico
  • Maldives
  • Palau, Micronesia
  • Turks and Caicos

Best on-shore natural sights and activities

  • Big Island, Hawaii
  • Dominica
  • Maui, Hawaii
  • Montserrat
  • St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Best cuisine

  • Bali, Indonesia
  • Jamaica
  • Guadeloupe and Martinique, French West Indies
  • Mauritius
  • Oahu, Hawaii
  • Puerto Rico

Best nightlife

  • Cuba
  • Jamaica
  • Morro de Sao Paolo/Tinhare Island, Brazil
  • Mauritius
  • Puerto Rico

Most affordable (for costs on the ground)

  • Bali, Indonesia
  • Dominican Republic
  • Jamaica
  • Langkawi, Malaysia
  • Margarita, Venezuela

Most expensive

  • Bora Bora, Tahiti
  • Lanai, Hawaii
  • Mustique, French West Indies
  • Necker Island, British Virgin Islands
  • St. Barts, French West Indies
  • Nevis

What do you think of these choices? Share your thoughts with other travelers in the comments section.


  • Puerto Rico's beaches, climate and night clubs were phenomenal when we vacationed at San Juan. I'm really surprised Puerto Rico only made two spots on your list. I honestly can't remember not having something to occupy my time while we were there. There was so much to do and see but, unfortunately we only had a week there. Not nearly enough time to explore beyond the shore but, we did manage to enjoy the native cuisine and take in some sightseeing and even get in some snorkeling on our breaks from the beach.  We will definitely have to make plans to re-visit and take in more of the history & culture to truly be able enjoy this tropical paradise.

    Find out where to go and how to plan your trip to San Juan with KMA Global Travels's Destination Guides! Get recommendations on attractions, restaurants, and hotels, and up-to-date weather, health tips, and general information for thousands of destinations.  Enjoy!

  • Well, it's hard for me to comment on this list, as I haven't been to all the places you've listed (but now I want to, on some of them!). I'm surprised, however, that beautiful St. Lucia didn't make the cut anywhere. Consider it for your next list.

  • I agree.  My wife and I go to Puerto rico every year.  You never run out of things to do...the rainforest(El Yunque), and las Kioskos in Rio grande, Old asan Juan, condado, goes on and on.  

  • And what about the Canary Islands (spanish territory)?

  • Greece welcomes thousands of tourists every year to offer exceptional recreational opportunities. The best time to visit Greece is in Summer when the weather is perfect for a holiday. Rhodes Island is the world famous destination in Greece.

  • This is a great starter list for the categories listed, but as you so rightly pointed out, there are probably dozens more that could have been included on the list. As a native and tour guide in Hawaii its always good to see our islands on these list , especially listed in several categories. This I guess goes to show that the tropical islands of Hawaii are amongst the most intriguing of places to visit and are still highly rated by many visitors. More info on the Hawaiian Islands can be found at for those interested.

  • Great attempt to compile these 'best of' lists. I would add Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, Australia to the best beach category (if you've ever seen it, you'll know why!).

    Redang, Perhentian, Lang Tengah, Sipadan and Mabul islands in Malaysia also offer some awesome beaches with spectacular walk-off-the-beach snorkelling/diving opportunities. With all due respect to your off-shore list, Sipadan tops them all. The food in Malaysia (especially in Sabah/Malaysian Borneo, home to Sipadan/Mabul islands, some of the best beach/diving spots in the world) has got to be on the best cuisine list. Weird that Malaysia doesn't feature on your list anywhere except Langkawi (because it's tax-free?).

    As for cultural attractions, I would add the Riviera Maya. Stunning beaches in and around Cancun/Cozumel and the Mayan sites of Tulum and Chichen Itza nearby.

    I found it odd that Europe is nowhere to be found on those lists. In Barcelona, you've got the beaches, nightlife, food & culture. Or how about the fab beaches around Bodrum/Marmaris (the Turquoise coast) in Turkey, with a great nightlife and the nearby historical attractions of Ephesus and Pammukale.

    For more travel ideas and tips, you're most welcome to visit my blog:



  • Ko Phi Phi in Thailand barely has any beaches. It's the stunning topography that makes it beautiful. Bali has tons of foreign food, but Balinese cuisine is fairly dismal IMHO. Try any place in Thailand for superior food.  Langkawi is NOT affordable, no matter what the tourist board told you. I'm the author of 6 guidebooks to SE Asia.

  • I have been to several of the locals and each offers its own uniqueness.  I would tell you however that French Polynesia (including Bora Bora) ranks higher than Hawaii in multiple categories and that the Riveria Maya is one of the better places i have been to in the carribean.  It is very unique with the cenotes, geological formations and of course the ruins.  Also has some very good diving right off the beach in many places (akumal).  I love the BVI's, but they offer very little when compared to the pacific islands (hawaii included).  One area that i feel was missed was a "Best of family areas to visit".  Great review all and all!

  • Kauai in Hawaii is my fav. I can just lay there the whole day sipping pinyacolada.

    I have to agree with Keith though that Sipadan, Redang, Perhentian and Lang Tengah on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia are some of the most beautiful islands in the world. I just love the food there too.

  • I like Bermuda, just because it's so swanky. Not sure which categoy it would go in.

  • Yes to Kauai!!!

  • I've wanted to go to Bali ever since I read Eat, Pray, Love. I hope I get to go someday. It sounds amazing.

  • St Kitts has beautiful beaches and what a place to lay back and relaxe...:)

  • Why so much Hawaii? Because it's in the US? Personally, I like the Tahitian islands much more.

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