Leave the mainland behind: these are the best islands in Europe, boasting beautiful beaches, crowd-free coves, and a bounty of fresh seafood.
This is one of the best islands in Europe for nature lovers. From the lush forests that hug its mountainous centre, to the golden sands and inky blue coves at its base, Corfu is the most colourful of all the Greek islands – with a vibrant local culture to boot. Spend your days beach hopping, feasting on traditional Greek food, and discovering ancient treasures in the Achilleion – a palace that dates back to the 1800s.
While you’re here: Corfu was where Gerald Durrell, the famous naturalist, spent some of his childhood years (between 1935 and 1939, and where he was to return in the 70s)– so make sure you visit some of the wild and wonderful places that inspired his incredible life’s work – which include a trilogy of books chronicling his life there starting with My Family and Other Animals – such as the family’s favourite picnicking spot in Lake Antiniotissa on Agios Spyridon beach. The former home of his novelist and travel writer brother Lawrence Durrell in the quant village of Bellapais – he arrived there aged 41 – is also a Mecca for visitors to the island. Like his sibling his novel Bitter Lemons of Cyprus chronicles his time on the island.
Forget the Ibiza you think you know: there’s a whole other side to this party-loving Spanish island that’s natural and wild, and like nothing you’ve ever encountered in Europe. Its sandy coves look like they’ve been plucked from the Caribbean, with crystalline waters to boot. Wild walking trails take you through wild herb-scented forests, with white-washed villages and secluded seafood restaurants providing the perfect sundowner spots.
While you’re here: Take a boat trip over to Formentera (pictured top), another Spanish island that’s just as picturesque. Here you can snorkel in bath-temperature waters with shoals of colourful fish, or sip cocktails while millionaires’ yachts bob in the harbour.
This sun-drenched island in the Cyclades is iconic for its cascades of white-washed houses and lapis lazuli-coloured waters – but it’s even more impressive in the flesh. This is a slice of traditional Greece – where the food is fine, the vineyards are bounteous, and the welcome is always warm.
While you’re here: Santorini is a key port of call for cruise ships, but its bays are best experienced from a sailing ship or small boat. Finish with a seafood supper, and a nightcap on a clifftop taverna in the tourist hotspot of Oia.
Croatia is having a moment: according to data from the eVisitor and eCrew system a total of 6.88 million tourists visited it in the first six months of 2019 (up 6 per cent compared to the same period in 2018), but thankfully it hasn’t become too overrun with resorts… yet. Make a beeline for heavenly Hvar, one of Croatia’s many Adriatic islands, which boasts beautiful bays and a charming town, as well as a historic centre that dates back to the 13th century.
While you’re here: Explore Croatia’s beautiful islands –including Hvar – on Jules Verne’s The Coast of Explorers & Emperors sailing holiday, which also takes in Split, Korčula, Mljet, Dubrovnik, Pelješac Peninsula and Pučišća. Prices start from £1,595 for seven nights.
Step away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland to discover Sardinia – a peaceful isle with 2,000km of coastline, secluded gin-clear coves, and charming trattorias serving up just-caught seafood and all the pasta you could possibly wish for. The Costa Smerelda is the island’s tiny strip of millionaire’s villas and glitzy bars, whereas the rest of the island is low-key and very local.
While you’re here: Don’t miss the village of Chia, on the south coast, and its string of beautiful sandy bays. You’re less than an hour’s drive from Cagliari, but the vibe here is far-flung and natural. Bring a picnic.
With its volcanic landscapes and rugged coastline, this Canary Isle is a really wild child – but its untamed beauty makes it all-the-more charming. Thanks to its southerly location (on a par with North Africa), and breezes which blow straight from the Sahara Desert, Lanzarote remains mild well into the autumn and winter months – making it a great winter sun getaway.
While you’re here: Visit Timanfaya National Park, home of the Islote de Hilario volcano – a great beast of a mountain surrounded by landscapes which look like the surface of the moon. At the volcano’s summit, there’s a restaurant where meat and fish are grilled using its natural heat: a dinner to remember, for sure.
Most people know Madeira as a fly-and-flop destination, but the Portuguese island has much more up its sleeve. Take a ride on one of its white-knuckle cable cars (with amazing views of the mountains and coast), go whale and dolphin watching, or walk the spectacular levadas (waterways) that criss-cross the island. All that adventure will make your sunlounger all the more rewarding.
While you’re here: Madeira is famous for its incredible flowers, nurtured by the tropical climate and fertile soils. Each year between April and May the island hosts its annual Flower Festival in the capital Funchal with a flower parade, street murals, carpets of flowers and more to marvel at.
The fortress city of Valletta (pictured above) looks defiantly out to sea, a tiny peninsula protecting the island from invasion – though now that threat has passed, the effect is simply impressive rather than imposing. Malta is small and easy to navigate (by car or by bus), so you can fill your days discovering secluded beaches, little villages, and the numerous ancient palaces and temples which are scattered all over the island. The perfect recipe for a fortnight’s relaxation.
While you’re here: Malta has some of the finest diving and snorkelling spots in Europe – and while they don’t rival the colour and variety found in Caribbean waters, they’re certainly worth a look. Local favourites for snorkelling include Gnejna Bay and Ghar Lapsi.