10 Amazing European Islands That You May Not Know About

May 6, 2014

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In the spirit of our “off the beaten path” initiative, we asked TPG Contributor Lori Zaino to pull together a list of island paradises that are far less visited than Capri or Mykonos. You might think of the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, but the gorgeous isles featured here are all in Europe, making them the perfect addition to a summer jaunt to Rome, Athens, Paris or Madrid. 

If you’re thinking about visiting Europe this summer, consider taking a few extra days and tacking an island getaway on to your itinerary. You’ve likely heard of renowned (and popular) Ibiza and Santorini, but Europe offers other island retreats that hover blissfully below the radar. These spots aren’t deserted by any means, but they will give you a little more space to breathe, relax and recharge.

A view of Hvar from the Fortress.
A view of Hvar from the Spanjol Fortress

1. Hvar, Croatia. Set off the coast of the Dalmatian archipelago in the Adriatic Sea, Hvar is becoming ever more glamorous by the day: a sexy spot ideal for lolling around in as little clothing as possible while sipping plavac, the island’s local red wine. A throwback to the heyday of St. Tropez (or Ibiza, before soap-filled nightclubs became a thing), Hvar is kept from becoming over-touristed by its large number of rocky beaches; sand is sparse around these parts. Many visitors rent a boat during the day and explore the island’s bar scene in the evening, but you could also hike up to the Spanjol Fortess to get panoramic views of the island, or explore ancient seaside villages bordered by vineyards, such as Stari Grad, a World Heritage Site that was first colonized by the Greeks in the 4th century BC. Dive into the hip, luxurious restaurant and hotel scene, including the Riva Yacht Harbour Hotel, a sultry boutique property fit for spending the night or just enjoying a few cocktails. The best option for arrival is to fly into Split (SPU) or Dubrovnik (DBV), and then take a boat or ferry over to Hvar.

The hot springs in Mylopotamos, Kythira, Greece.
The hot springs in Mylopotamos, Kythira, Greece.

 2. Kythira (aka Kithira or Kythera), Greece. Unspoiled and tranquil, Kythira is one of Greece’s seven Ionian Islands, but is far less visited than dramatic Santorini or party-hopping Mykonos. It’s full of natural hot springs like those at Karavas and Mylopotamos, the latter of which is also known for caves and waterfalls amidst the ruins of almost two dozen watermills. Scuba diving is a popular pursuit here (the island is one of the few places in the Ionian Sea where diving is permitted), and you can rent equipment at Kapsali Beach. Said to be the Isle of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, Kythira makes an ideal destination for a romantic honeymoon; couples could stay at the small bed and breakfast Studios Zografies and explore the nearby Cave of Agia Sophia, which houses the ruins of an 18th-century chapel decorated with several well-preserved frescoes. To get to the island, you can fly to tiny Kithira Island National Airport (KIT) from either Athens (ATH) or Crete (HER), or take a ferry from Piraeus or Crete.

El Hierro has been declared as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
El Hierro has been declared as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO

3. El Hierro, Spain. Located off the coast of Africa but belonging to Spain, El Hierro is the smallest of the seven Canary Islands, and is generally overshadowed by its beachy neighbors, Tenerife and Lanzarote. The waters around El Hierro are a marine reserve, rimmed with incredible scuba dive sites that include caves, arches and volcanic tunnels; in summer you’re bound to see groups of manta rays, hammerhead sharks, tuna and grey triggerfish. The island’s interior is full of hiking trails through juniper, evergreen and pine forests, inspiring UNESCO to declare it a Biosphere Reserve, and inspiring El Hierro itself to look for sources of renewable energy – the island hopes to be fossil-fuel-free in the near future. For views of both the Atlantic Ocean and a volcanic mountain, consider a stay right on the rocky shore at the colonial-style Parador. You can arrive at El Hierro either by ferry or plane from several of the other Canary islands, including Gran Canaria (LPA), Tenerife (TFS) and Lanzarote (ACE); local airline Binter Canarias flies into El Hierro’s Aeropuerto de los Cangrejos (VDE).

Sandhamn, Sweden.
Sandhamn, Sweden.

4. Sandhamn, Sweden. Located in the Stockholm Archipelago just 30 miles from the Swedish mainland, Sandhamn is the home of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club, which each July hosts the Round Gotland Race, one of the most prestigious sailing competitions in the world. You may have heard of this island via author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (e.g., The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc.), as main character Mikael Blomkvist has a cabin here. As its name suggests, Sandhamn has many sandy beaches, such as the popular Trouville. Reminiscent of Nantucket or Cape Cod, there’s a preppy, yacht-club ambiance here, as well as brightly-painted cabins and pine groves. Visitors can fly into Stockholm (ARN), take a boat or ferry from there, and then enjoy a stay at the cozy Sandhamn’s Vardshus B&B, or for something a bit more luxurious, the Sandhamn Yacht Hotel.

Graciosa is in the Azores.
Graciosa is in the Azores.

5. Graciosa, Portugal. The second smallest of Portugal’s nine Azores Islands, Graciosa is called the “White Island” because of its large number of whitewashed houses and villages. In the island’s interior sits the caldera of a former volcano, where the Furna do Enxofre (Sulfur Caves) are found about 330 feet deep in the earth, along a tunnel leading to an underground lake filled with cold sulfur water. These and other geological wonders have inspired UNESCO to name the island yet another Biosphere Reserve. Closer to the surface, the famous hot springs at Carapacho are thought to have healing waters beneficial to those with skin and bone diseases. There are only a few hotels on the island, but try the Casa das Faias for a relaxed, local feel. From most of the other Azores you can fly non-stop on Portuguese carrier Sata into the island’s small Graciosa Airport (GRW), but if you’re coming from Lisbon (LIS), you’ll have to stop at João Paulo II Airport (PDL) on the island of São Miguel before continuing on to Graciosa.

Ile de Re, France.
Ile de Re, France

6. Île de Ré, France. Set off the west coast of France near La Rochelle, this “Hamptons for the French” was created for cycling enthusiasts, and bicycles are the preferred method of transport for both locals and visitors. The small, postcard-perfect villages (some of which are UNESCO Heritage Sites) are legally protected from new construction and strictly governed by extremely specific rule; for example, shutters can only be painted one of 16 shades, of which eight are blue and eight are green. Cycle from the capital, St. Martin, to nearby villages such as Couarde-sur-Me and La Flotte, and sites like the Cistercian Abbaye des Châteliers. The best way to arrive is to fly into the La Rochelle Airport (LRH) – Ryanair, Flybe, Easyjet and Jet2 all offer service from a wide array of European cities – and then taxi to the island via a connecting bridge. Stay in the luxurious Relais & Chateaux’s Villa Clarisse, or for a more laid-back vibe, try the Villa Le Passagere.

The Cala Coticcio on Caprera.
The Cala Coticcio on Caprera

7. Caprera and Maddalena Islands, Italy. Both part of the Maddalena archipelago off the Northern coast of Sardinia, these two islands are connected to one another by a causeway. Caprera is known as the retirement place of Giuseppe Garabaldi, one of the founding political fathers of modern Italy, and his former home there is now a museum. Building on Caprera is tightly restricted, as most of the island has been declared a wildlife reserve for rare bird species, so it’s best to stay on the nearby island of Maddalena and drive over the causeway to Caprera to see the sites. Aside from Garabaldi’s museum, Caprera’s main attractions are stunning cliffs and sandy beaches like the one at Cala Coticcio, and sailing is a popular pastime. To arrive, fly into Olbia Airport (OLB) on the Northern part of Sardinia (flights are available from London, Rome, Milan and a few other large European cities), and take the ferry to Maddalena. Stay in the Residenza Mortini or the Excelsior Maddalena, both on Maddelana.

Bozcada is a Turkish island known for its wineries.
Bozcada is a Turkish island known for its wineries

8. Bozcaada, Turkey. Often called Tenedos by the Greeks, this Turkish paradise is located about 250 miles from Istanbul in the Aegean Sea. The island is known for its fresh food and wine production, and popular spots include the daily market in the main town of Bozcaada and a number of wineries that offer tastings and visits, including Corvus. There are soft, pale-sand beaches throughout the island, and you can visit several sets of ruins, as well as glimpse great views of the sea and city from the main castle. The Turkish government has issued regulations to preserve the island’s cultural and natural habitat, so you won’t find huge hotels or resorts on this island; instead, stay at the Talay Vineyard or the Ela Tenedos boutique hotel in town. The best arrival option is to fly to Istanbul (IST) and then take a 5-6 hour bus ride to Geyikli (or rent a car and drive), followed by a short ferry to the island, or if you dare, take an 80-minute seaplane ride direct from Istanbul.

The Scottish Isle of Islay.
The Scottish Isle of Islay

9. Islay, Scotland. Part of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, this island’s top attractions include eight whiskey distilleries, abundant wildlife, and one of Scotland’s oldest and most traditional golf courses, the Machrie Golf Links. Among Scotland’s almost 800 islands, Islay is far from the most well-known, but is especially respected by the Scottish for its whiskey production. If you’re more into the outdoors, there’s plenty of bird watching and trout fishing to keep you occupied. Islay is only 25 miles north of Ireland, but the best way to arrive is to fly to Glasgow (GLA), and then fly to Glenegedal Islay Airport (ILY). Enjoy a few nights at the Old Excise House or the charming An Taigh Osda Hotel.

The Aurora from a traditional stilted fisherman's house in Nusfjord, Loften Islands, Norway.
The Aurora from a traditional stilted fisherman’s house in Nusfjord, Loften Islands, Norway

10. Nusfjord, Flakstad, Norway. Nusfjord is a traditional fishing village on the island of Flakstad in the Lofoten Islands in Norway. If you’re looking to soak up some sunshine, steer clear of this place, as it doesn’t get much above 65 degrees in the summer, and is best known for its great views of the Northern Lights. During the day, try your hand at cod fishing, visit traditional wooden fishermen’s houses on stilts (or even spend the night in one), and enjoy the stunning scenery of fjords rimmed with mountains. Arrival will be slightly tedious, as you must first fly to Oslo (OSL) – the most economical option from the US is Norwegian Air- and then fly to Leknes (LKN), rent a car, and drive about 30 minutes to Nusfjord.

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