9 European islands perfect for a socially-distanced holiday

Jul 12, 2020

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Editor’s Note: At the time of publishing, you may have to isolate for 14 days when returning from some of the islands mentioned such as the Azores in Portugal. As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. 

Summer holidays this year may look vastly different than in past years. You might be considering a staycation instead of a far-flung spot or skipping a city break for a more rural, socially-distanced getaway. As much of Europe is densely populated, it can seem difficult to escape the crowds for more remote spots on the continent.

But Europe has hundreds of islands. While some are busier and see more visitors (think Ibiza), many offer a nature, forest or beach experience without the crowds. Some are more well-known and easily accessible while some are more remote, but all of them offer some form of wide-open space so you can have a socially-distanced island holiday experience. For ease, we’ve only included islands in countries the U.K. government has deemed low-risk for coronavirus.

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1. Fuerteventura, Spain

Flag Beach on Fuerteventura. (Photo by Thomas Tolkien/Wikipedia/Flickr)
Flag Beach on Fuerteventura. (Photo by Thomas Tolkien/Wikipedia/Flickr)

Fuerteventura is one of Spain’s seven Canary Islands. While it’s certainly not an under-the-radar destination, it is one of the best Canary Islands for beach-lovers to visit if they want to socially distance. One of the most popular beaches to visit is Flag Beach, a wide and long stretch of fine white sand that goes on for over a mile (you won’t be sitting umbrella to umbrella here). The breezy beach is popular among surfers and beachcombers can use the large, volcanic rocks to build little walls or mini-castles to block out the wind — and anyone else not in your group. The south of the island is also prime for social distancing — the beaches of Costa Calma and the Jandia Natural Park are delightfully spacious and often fairly empty.

2. Ushant, France

Ushant. (Photo by MathieuRivrin/Getty Images)
Ushant off the coast of France. (Photo by MathieuRivrin/Getty Images)

France has a number of picturesque islands, but many of them get crowded with visitors, especially in the summer months. But Ushant has plenty of wide-open space and fewer tourists than some of the others. With 400 different bird species living on the island and a special breed of indigenous black sheep, this is the island to visit if you’d rather see more animals than people. Ushant has a little bit of everything — rolling green hills, rocky cliffs and deserted sandy beaches as well as a number of lighthouses to check out. Sustainable travellers will be pleased to know that Ushant is working to run on 100% energy by 2030.

3. La Maddalena and Caprera, Italy

Cala Andreani in Caprera. (Photo by Andreani Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
Cala Andreani in Caprera. (Photo by Andreani Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

With some of Europe’s best beaches and clearest waters, the Maddalena Islands are a small archipelago off the coast of northern Sardinia. You’ll first have to get to Sardinia, an island west of Italy, before boating over from the Palau Port to La Maddalena, the largest of the islands. Here, you’ll have your choice of lodging, and you can explore nearby islets, islands, coves, caves and beaches by boat or kayak. For those wanting a mix of large boulders and fine sand, visit Spiaggia di Punta Tegge. Don’t miss the nearby Caprera Island, which is covered with shady pine forests and home to gorgeous beaches such as Cala Andreani.

Related: Capri, Sicily and beyond: Which of the hundreds of Italian islands is best for your summer holiday?

4. Pico, Azores, Portugal

The vineyards on Pico island. (Photo by Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
The vineyards on Pico island. (Photo by Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Known as Portugal’s wine island, Pico has one of the most unique wine growing and cultivation methods in the world. The volcanic soil isn’t actually conducive to growing grapes, so instead of the rolling vineyards you’d find in Portugal’s Douro Valley or Alentejo region, Pico has small squares separated by basalt volcanic rock walls. These stone walls protect the vines from wind, rain and other elements, while smaller volcanic rocks in the plots soak up the sun’s warmth and keep the vines warm at night. You can view these unique vineyards around the entire island (and taste wine too), but the best spot is the famous Paisagem da Cultura da Vinha da Ilha do Pico, a route that’s just outside of the airport.

5. Lofoten Islands, Norway

Lofoten Islands in Norway. (Photo by Kenneth Schoth/Getty Images)
Lofoten Islands in Norway. (Photo by Kenneth Schoth/Getty Images)

If fishing trips, midnight sun, hiking and sustainable travel is your vibe, you should definitely visit the Nordic Lofoten Islands, which include Austvågøy, Vestvågøy, Flakstadøy, Moskenesøy, Værøy and Røst. Instead of a traditional hotel experience, rent one of the famous colourful fisherman’s cabins to have your own personal space right on the water. A holiday on these islands is about maximizing those daylight hours. You can surf, hike, kayak, snorkel, golf, cycle or fish until almost midnight in the summer thanks to almost 24 hours of sunlight. If your trip is in September or later, you’ll see less daylight, but you may catch the Northern Lights instead.

6. Koufonisia, Greece

Gala beach at Ano Koufonisi island in Greece. (Photo by photo_stella/Getty Images)
Gala beach at Ano Koufonisi island in Greece. (Photo by photo_stella/Getty Images)

Forget social distancing in Mykonos. This summer, head to Koufonisia, which encompasses the two Greek Islands: Ano Koufonissi and Kato Koufonissi near Naxos and Amorgos. You’ll want to stay in Ano Koufonissi, which offers a selection of charming boutique hotels and whitewashed, blue-domed home rentals in and around Chora, the main village. From there, you can explore the island, visiting the golden cliffs of Gala Beach and the sea caves of Pori Beach. Plan rent a boat or hire a guide to visit Kato Koufonissi which is uninhabited and full of deserted beaches lining its crystal clear shoreline.

7. Iceland

Dettifoss waterfall in northern Iceland. (Photo by Erwan Le Roux/Getty Images)
Dettifoss waterfall in northern Iceland. (Photo by Erwan Le Roux/Getty Images)

Iceland is a little further away, but once you arrive, it’s easy to social distance. Not only has the country kept coronavirus at bay, but the entire island is also mostly made up of natural wonders just waiting to be discovered. This summer, you may want to skip the more crowded Blue Lagoon for the Seljavallalaug pool (it’s one of the oldest in Iceland). And, consider a visit to the Gljúfrabúi waterfall in lieu of (or in addition to) the more popular Seljalandsfoss waterfall. While the other tourists are heading straight for the famous Golden Circle (Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall) consider an alternative route: the up-and-coming Diamond Circle. This route includes attractions like the volcanic Lake Mývatn, the Dettifoss waterfall, the Hverarönd geothermal springs and the dramatic glacial canyon Ásbyrgi.

8. Dugi Otok, Croatia

Telascica Nature Park on Dugi Otok island. (Photo by PATSTOCK/Getty Images)
Telascica Nature Park on Dugi Otok island. (Photo by PATSTOCK/Getty Images)

This year, skip Croatian Islands like Hvar and Vis for Dugi Otok. Never heard of it? Most people haven’t, which is why it’s the perfect place to go to escape, well, other people. Arrive via ferry (just under an hour-and-a-half ride) from Zadar. The island only has a handful of hotels, as well as a few rentals, and you can also spend the night in the island’s Veli Rat lighthouse. Make sure to visit the Telašćica Natural Bay, where you’ll find beaches, cliffs, vineyards and forests. The nearby Kornoti Natural Park is home to over 80 islets where you can go camping, sailing or diving or just enjoy the scenery for the day.

9. Isles of Mull and Staffa, Scotland

Fingal's Cave At Staffa Island. (Photo by Lars Johansson/EyeEm/Getty Images)
Fingal’s Cave at Staffa Island. (Photo by Lars Johansson/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Scotland has so many islands ideal for social distancing that it was hard to select one (okay, we picked two). But Mull won us over with its colourful, charming buildings in Tobermory and its geological wonders like the basalt cliffs of the Carsaig Arches and its cycling paths which run through landmarks like Ardmore and Glengorm Castle. A boat trip to the uninhabited island of Staffa is a must, known for its unique vertical rock lines covering Fingal’s Cave — you may come face-to-face with a puffin on this rugged island.

Bottom line

If you’d prefer to holiday around fewer people this summer, consider one of these European islands for a visit. Whether it be empty sandy beaches, hidden waterfalls, tranquil natural parks or serene vineyards, there’s an island right for you regardless of your travel interests.

For more island fun, check out these articles:

Featured photo by Giovanni Laudicina/EyeEm/Getty Images

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