Winning tip: San Blas Islands, Panama
Comprising 365 islands in the Caribbean Sea, the San Blas archipelago is inhabited by the Kuna people, and has avoided mass tourism. The islands are blessed with eco-friendly accommodation and unspoilt nature. I would recommend a visit to the Cayos Limones chain – with clear waters and white sands. There are also shipwrecks that make for excellent snorkelling, and the local food is a treat. Reaching the islands takes about a day from Panama City and involves a scenic three-hour 4WD drive to Carti Suitipo, or Garti Tupile through rainforests and mountains. The water taxi, operated by the Kuna, costs between $15 and $25, depending which island you visit.
Caye Caulker, Belize
If barefoot and boho is your thing, take the water taxi ($10 one way) from Belize City and head 21 miles north-east to this palm-fringed paradise. The reef in the turquoise waters surrounding the island provides excellent snorkelling with routine sightings of manatees, ray, sharks and turtles. For experienced divers the Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau, is a must, but the less intrepid can take a charter flight for spectacular views over this world-class atoll. On the four-mile long island itself, even the main drag is pure white sand. For a cheap and cheerful retreat (plenty of hostel and guesthouse rooms from about $15) with a friendly Caribbean vibe, Caye Caulker can’t be beaten.
São Nicolau, Cape Verde
São Nicolau is a beautiful, quiet and less-visited island of Cape Verde. There are wonderful day walks, especially in Monte Gordo natural park. There is not much accommodation but a few small nice guesthouses in the pretty capital, Ribeira Brava. If you are not a walker, there is a great coastal road to enjoy the scenery from, some long quiet beaches and dramatic volcanic scenery plunging into the sea. I was doing a volunteering project on another island (Maio) and have visited most of the main islands and found that each has their own character and something to offer. Most tourists go to the beach resorts in Sal and Boavista. But the scenery and interest is generally better on the other islands. And São Nicolau ended up as my favourite.
Utila island and its cays are very little-known Caribbean islands 29km off the mainland of Honduras. They are a paradise for scuba divers with over 60 dive sites, including wrecks and caves. During the annual whale shark migration, excursions offer close encounters with these placid giants. Utila is one of the cheapest places in the world for scuba diving and also offers another remarkable value-for-money attraction: you can rent your own private tropical island, without having to be a millionaire. For $140 and $155 a night respectively, you can rent a house for up to six people on the private islands of Sandy Cay or Little Cay. The islands are proper postcard paradises, with palm-framed beaches and crystal clear water. And you could have one all to yourself.
Koh Jum, Thailand
Forget the gaudy muay Thai boxing rings of Phi Phi and the sleazy pubs of Phuket, Koh Jum is one of the last untrodden gems in Thailand’s rock-studded Andaman sea. You’ll be asked to hop on to a long tail boat from the ferry as it goes past. Then you’ll be deposited on a ribbon of yellow sand backed by pines and palms. There’s a never-ending smile on the face of the lady at Friendly Koh Jum guesthouse (doubles from about $32 on various hotel booking websites), where you wake to the sound of mooing cows and calling cockerels. Not a Chang beer vest in sight.
Ascension, South Atlantic
About half-way between South America and Africa, Ascension is like nowhere else I’ve been. Yellow and white sandy beaches are edged by jagged volcanic rocks, while the highest peak is covered in dense bamboo forest. The volcanoes that formed the island are relatively young, so there is much exploring to be done of craters, canyons, chimneys and lava fields. Huge populations of sea birds nest on the island, as do turtles, who leave great hollows on the beaches where they have laid eggs. From the port of Georgetown, I saw a pod of whales out to sea. Part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Ascension is bizarrely reminiscent of home, despite being a tropical paradise. In the Obsidian Hotel (now closed because of the loss of direct UK flights last April), a photo of the Queen takes pride of place on the wall above the cereal selection at breakfast. Reaching the island is not straightforward, though – currently it involves travelling via South Africa and St Helena by sea on the RMS St Helena (ascension-island.gov.ac), and flights are once a month from St Helena.
Mumbo Island, Malawi
The only building on Malawi’s Mumbo Island is a perfect, get-away-from-it-all eco-lodge. There’s no electricity or lights, just five large, well-equipped, well-spaced tents, a welcoming bar and a dining area. The outdoor bathroom has simple but effective bucket showers and a long-drop loo complete with wood-shaving “flush”. Days began watching the sunrise from our wooden deck with a pot of tea, while deciding whether to kayak or hike around the island or snorkel in the calm, clear freshwater to see the colourful cichlid fish. On lazier days, we watched the huge variety of birds and reptiles from our sunbeds in the sandy cove. Staying here is not cheap – $250 a night each – but includes three meals a day and activities excluding scuba diving and sailing.
We had over a week exploring around Komodo Island off Flores. Yes, as a family, we are all experienced divers – but you can do this as a snorkeller and budget traveller – and even see the glorious manta rays. I have never seen such a variety of fish and cora – it’s because the island has been protected for 30 years. The blue viper (a pit viper subspecies) is the most beautiful snake I have ever seen. The dragons are, well, deserving of respect, commanding, and lethal. We stayed with Scuba Junkie: what a nice bunch.
• £250 for 6 dives over 4 days/3 nights from Scuba Junkie including accommodation and meals
A short trip to the Philippines island of Palawan, part of an archipelago of the same name between the South China and Sulu seas, proved to be a holiday like no other. There are plenty of accommodation options in the capital Puerto Princesa: we chose a very friendly bed and breakfast, the Purple Fountain Courtyard Inn (doubles from $40 B&B, ilink.ph). Highlights from the trip included a nighttime firefly watching expedition, a trip to the subterranean river – with its impressive rock formations, monitor lizards, and ceiling of bats – and climbing up the fascinating Ugong rock (and ziplining back down). It is very reasonable to hire your own boat for the day, which allows for more choice of destinations. Starfish Island lived up to its name: with the shallows filled with many multi-coloured varieties, it’s a wonderful destination for snorkelling. All the food we tried was delicious, there is a fish market where you can buy fish straight from the sea, there is plenty of exotic fruit available and I did not struggle to find vegetarian options in most restaurants.
Isle of Pines, New Caledonia
Isle of Pines is closest I have ever come to paradise. A short plane trip from the New Caledonian capitol of Noumea, it is a microcosm of pristine water, unspoiled white sandy beaches, friendly locals and delicious food. Tourism is a relatively small industry on this island in the south-west Pacific, with few accommodation options. The Meridien (doubles from £200, lemeridieniledespins.com) is the pick of the bunch, and only a small stroll from the beautiful piscine naturelle, a beautiful tidal pool teeming with tropical fish, surrounded by the commanding pine trees of the island’s name. It’s an overseas territory of France, so the cuisine is heavily influenced by Gallic flavours: the oversized sea snails cooked in garlic butter were particularly superb. To enjoy island life at a local’s pace, try a relaxing sail around Upi bay on a traditional outrigger (or pirogue) with one of the indigenous Kanak guides.
Pulau Tioman, Malaysia
From the moment you step on to the catamaran at Tg Gemok, you feel as though you are on your way to a Bond villain’s lair. The Berjaya Tioman (doubles from £64 full-board) has spacious, clean and comfortable rooms, but what makes this place special is the beach. Our two children (15 and 10) raced off to hire full face masks and then didn’t come out of the water for three hours. When they returned they were bubbling over with joy at the coral and multitude of life that they could see just metres from the beach. The full-board package included a snorkelling trip. Over three hours we travelled to three amazing dive sites, where we chilled with turtles and raced with reef sharks. To get to Tioman, you take the ferry from Mersing – a bargain at £14.