By Donna Heiderstadt
Earth’s surface is 71 percent water, and our oceans are dotted with spectacular islands—tens of thousands of them—but some capture our imaginations more than others.
In Travel + Leisure’s annual World’s Best survey, readers ranked their favorites, and the results show that no distance is too great when a fabulous island waits as your reward. Six of the top 10 islands, such as Bali and Santorini, are more than an eight-hour flight from the U.S. Luckily, Americans can also find island paradise literally just offshore—on untamed Vancouver Island (No. 10).
So whether your island hopping takes you across the country or around the world, here’s where to go to find secluded beaches, wildlife encounters, and luxurious pampering.
No. 1 Boracay, Philippines
This tiny tropical island in the Philippines is making a big splash. After debuting at No. 4 in the World’s Best Awards last year, it has taken the top prize, appealing to travelers with its natural beauty and still-under-the-radar status—chances are you haven’t “been there, done that.”
Best Beach: White Beach, a 2.5-mile stretch of powder-white sand—often cited as the world’s softest—lapped by the translucent Sulu Sea.
Where to Stay: Discovery Shores for modern suites with huge windows, an infinity pool, and the full-service Terra Spa.
No. 2 Bali, Indonesia
It may be one of 17,500 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, but this paradise known for its temples is the country’s crown jewel, offering travelers glimpses into Balinese Hindu history thanks to a vibrant cultural scene filled with music and dance.
Best Beach: To watch the sun come up over the water, head to Sanur. For gorgeous sunsets, upscale resorts, and lively nightlife, stay along Seminyak.
Where to Stay: Amandari, the only Indonesian resort ranked in the 2012 T+L 500, is near a sacred river outside Ubud and arranged like a local village—albeit one with 30 suites that feature private plunge pools and rice-paddy views.
No. 3 Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
T+L readers prove once again that this exotic chain of isolated Pacific islands 600 miles off of South America is one of the ultimate dream trips. Where else can you spy a blue-footed booby or short-feathered penguins?
Best Beach: Here, the best beach is where sea lions catch some rays. Snap hordes of them on Santa Fe Island’s white-sand beach.
Where to Stay: The ideal way to see these islands is on a ship, such as the 90-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, which sails seven- and 10-night cruises year-round.
No. 4 Maui, Hawaii
This year, T+L readers chose Maui as the golden child among Hawaii’s island siblings (up from No. 9 in 2011). After all, there’s always something new to explore, from the resort-lined stretches of Kaanapali and Wailea to Haleakala’s volcanic crater to the funky surf town of Paia.
Best Beach: Napili Beach, a crescent of golden sand lapped by blue-green sea, is slightly out of the way, but well worth the detour.
Where to Stay: Fairmont Kea Lani, a 22-acre oasis of white-washed Moorish architecture, right on Wailea Beach.
No. 5 Great Barrier Reef Islands, Australia
Pure white sand and coral reefs teeming with fish are the hallmarks of these castaway islands off of Australia’s northeastern coastline. More familiar islands, including Lizard, Hayman, and Bedarra, are havens for divers, as they provide easy access to potato cod fish and gaping giant clams—and they’re home to ultra-chic hideaway hotels.
Best Beach: Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is the reef’s most photogenic beach: a 4.5-mile stretch of sand that seems to go on forever.
Where to Stay: Lizard Island Resort, a five-star enclave that counts 40 contemporary suites and 24 private beaches.
No. 6 Santorini, Greece
The cliff-top village of Oia, with its blue-domed churches, sugar-cube houses, and stone pathways leading to caldera vistas, is one of the most idyllic—and photographed—spots in the Greek Isles.
Best Beach: For drama, you can’t beat the black sand and palapa-shaded chaises at Perissa Beach, where cafés are perfect for people-watching.
Where to Stay: The 27 white-washed rooms and suites of Oia’s Katikies Hotel are situated in a free-form style around two infinity pools.
No. 7 Kauai, Hawaii
Sleepy Kauai’s old-school charms and serene landscape will soothe even the most frantic urbanite. Two must-see sights: the dramatic Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon, both layered with scenic hiking trails.
Best Beach: If you crave sun and fun, stay on Poipu Beach in the south; for an untamed panorama, stroll Lumahai Beach, between Princeville and Hanalei.
Where to Stay: Koa Kea Hotel & Resort is Poipu’s newest boutique property. Its 121 rooms and suites have a relaxed vibe that’s in line with Kauai’s less-is-more mantra.
No. 8 Big Island, Hawaii
Hawaii’s wild child is an adventure zone, with invigorating lava treks (its volcano, Kilauea, is still active), stargazing atop 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, and night dives with manta rays.
Best Beach: The Big Island has 80 beaches, but there’s no reason to settle for ivory and blue when you can unwind at black-sand Punaluu Beach or green-hued Papakolea Beach.
Where to Stay: Four Seasons Resort, Hualalai—voted the No. 1 resort in Hawaii in 2012’s World’s Best Awards survey—is even more indulgent after a multiyear renovation that added an adults-only pool and expanded the Hawaiian-centric spa.
No. 9 Sicily, Italy
The sun shines on Sicily 300 days per year, illuminating an island rich in history (Greek and Roman ruins in Agrigento, for starters) and culinary traditions. Cannoli are made here, as are arancini, decadently golden fried rice balls, and all kinds of dishes showcasing the day’s fresh catch of fish.
Best Beach: San Vito Lo Capo, near Trapani on the northwestern coast, is on a curved bay flanked by photogenic rock formations along the Mediterranean.
Where to Stay: One of the rooms overlooking Mount Etna at Grand Hotel Timeo, convenient for exploring the ancient city of Taormina and surrounding vineyards.
No. 10 Vancouver Island, British Columbia
A playground for kayakers, hikers, and whale-watchers, Vancouver Island is covered in stately pine forests that shelter endangered birds and surrounded by waters filled with oysters, crabs, and other shellfish. It’s a short ferry (or seaplane) ride over from the city of Vancouver.
Best Beach: Chesterman Beach in Tofino is ideal for quiet strolls in summer and big-wave-watching in winter. No matter the season, brave surfers can’t stay away from those chilly Pacific swells.
Where to Stay: Wickaninnish Inn is all about rustic luxury, with 75 rooms, a restaurant with 360-degree water views, and a nature-inspired spa.