Crowd-free crescents, UNESCO-listed dots, the map’s hardest-to-reach corners… We’ve scoured the globe to find the most enchanting islands you’ve (probably) never heard of but really should visit

Channel Islands, USA

Dive with sea lions, watch humpbacks breach, snorkel through kelp forests and train your binoculars on the birds (including ten endemic species) – the Channel Islands, eight low-lying isles stretched along California’s Pacific coast, are the natural world’s Hollywood. This largely uninhabited and largely protected haven is a place where wildlife can flourish – their relative isolation has allowed a rare coastal Mediterranean-type habitat to develop, encompassing 790 types of plants. 

However, it’s in the water that things get most exciting, with a diversity of dolphins, seals, whales and more drawn here to feed and breed. Cetacean-spotting boat trips could yield humpbacks, orca, fin, grey and blue whales. Better, stay longer: each of the five islands within the national park has a campsite, from where you can make forays by foot, kayak or boat.

When to go: The islands are visitable year-round. Summer and autumn are best for snorkelling, diving, kayaking and swimming. Grey whales are present December-April; blues and humpbacks April-September.

How to go: Flights in small twin-engine planes run to Santa Rosa Island from Camarillo (25mins), 100km north-west of LA. Boats leave from Ventura, 140km north-west of LA; Island Packers runs a range of trips.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Raja Ampat means Four Kings, which is misleading seeing as more like 1,500 islands make up this remote archipelago off the north-west coast of Papua. It is certainly fit for royalty though, comprising 46,000 sq km of gloriously fashioned landscapes and clear, turquoise seas. 

The islands themselves vary enormously: some are barely a bump of jungle-cloaked karst; some rise out of the blue like clusters of mushrooms; others – such as Waigeo and Misool – are larger, and ideal for homestays with local Biakese people and hikes to rock art and ancient cliff burial sites. However, it’s the region’s waters that really draw intrepid travellers.

Raja Ampat is at the heart of the Coral Triangle and, according to Conservation International, has the highest marine diversity in the world – 75% of the world’s coral species have been recorded here, along with 1,430 species of reef fish and six of the world’s seven marine turtle species. 

Joining a liveaboard dive trip is an excellent and efficient way to navigate. Good dive sites include Sardine and Chicken reefs, where snappers and fusiliers throng, and The Passage, off Waigeo, a fine shallow dive amid mangroves and soft coral.

When to go: October-April is the best time – the weather is drier, the seas calmer and underwater visibility greatest.

How to go: Flights to Sorong (West Papua), the gateway to Raja Ampat, run from Jakarta (4hrs), Makassar (South Sulawesi; 2hrs) and Manado (North Sulawesi; 3hrs). Ferries link Sorong to Waisai (2-3hrs), the capital of the archipelago.

Masirah, Oman

Members of the RAF once based on Masirah dubbed it Fantasy Island – though not because of its wonders, but because getting anything you wanted while stationed here was pure fantasy. Still, the lack of development that frustrated expats will excite travellers: this hilly outcrop of sand and palm trees is one big natural oasis. 

Birds, including flamingos and oystercatchers, flock beaches strewn with rare shells and the wrecks of salt-encrusted dhows. However, turtles are the main draw – four species come here to nest throughout the year, including one of the world’s largest populations of loggerheads, numbering around 30,000. 

A hike up Jebel Humr (274m), Masirah’s high-point, provides a good island overview.

When to go: The weather is cooler and less humid November-April. Green turtles nest July-October and hatch September-December. Loggerheads nest May-September and hatch July-November. Olive ridleys and hawksbills nest February-May and hatch April-August. 

How to go: Ferries leave from Shana’a (5-6hr drive south of Muscat); the crossing to Hilf, Masirah’s main town, takes from 1.5hrs.

Christmas Island, Australia

Discovered afloat in the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day 1643, this Australian territory – the summit of a submerged mountain – is closer to Indonesia than its motherland. 

It’s certainly tropical in feel, cloaked in rainforest and rich in endemic species. Foremost of these is the Christmas Island red crab – around 120 million of the crimson crustaceans live here. And once a year they make a mass migration from their forest burrows to the sea to breed. Spurred by the phases of the moon, they sideways-skitter down cliffs, over rocks and across roads to reach the coast.

It takes some luck with timing to catch them (though Parks Australia issues predictions), but there’s more to this island than its relocating crabs. The diving is superb (come November-April for whale sharks); the birdwatching raucous (80,000 seabirds nest here); and, with 63% of the island designated as a national park, the hiking is varied and pristine. 

When to go: Temperatures vary little (22-28°C year-round). Wet season is December-March. The red crab migration usually occurs November-January.

How to go: Flights to Christmas Island leave from Perth (3.5hrs) and Jakarta (1hr).

Snow Hill Island, Antarctica

Though Snow Hill Island was discovered in 1843, its 4,000-strong colony of emperor penguins – the biggest penguin species – was only found in 2005. It’s unsurprising: this icy outcrop is remote even in Antarctic terms, often hemmed in by the frozen, floe-choked Weddell Sea.

Indeed, it often takes an off-ship, weather-dependent helicopter excursion to reach the rookery; choppers land several kilometres away to minimise disturbance. If you do make it to the island’s south-west corner, one of the world’s greatest wildlife experiences awaits: a noisy gaggle of regal birds, the adults up to 120cm tall, tending their fluffball chicks in the middle of pristine polar nowhere. 

When to go: November-December, to see the emperor penguins with their chicks.

How to go: Expedition cruises leave from Ushuaia (Argentina); a few head for the Weddell Sea and attempt to reach Snow Hill Island, using helicopters to get closer to the colony.

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Some 350km adrift from the Brazilian mainland, and a smidgen south of the equator, the Fernando de Noronha archipelago is a 21-island eco-paradise. 

The waters are impossibly emerald, the ethos equally green – 70% of Noronha is protected in a national park, and visitors must pay a mandatory Environment Protection Tax on arrival.

UNESCO also approves, having inscribed the archipelago on its list for its rich waters (which are ‘extremely important for the breeding and feeding of tuna, shark and turtle’) and its avifauna – Noronha is home to the largest concentration of tropical seabirds in the Western Atlantic. It’s also just a beautiful place to be. 

The beaches, even by high Brazilian standards, are spectacular, with Praia do Sancho generally considered pick of the bunch. The water is full of frolicking spinner dolphins and (allegedly) friendly lemon and nurse sharks. There are also abundant reef fish; some are nice to swim with, others turn up at delicious beach barbecues.

The hiking is good too: hit the Esmeralda Coast Trail to spot diving pelican or trek to Pedra Alta Little Point, site of Brazil’s first shipwreck.

Wrangel Island, Russia

Why indeed – you’d think you’d want to avoid this hostile, hard-to-reach Russian zapovednik (strict nature reserve), which remains littered with the detritus of would-be settlers past. But in the summer months, when the daylight is continuous and the melted sea ice permits ships to come close, Wrangel is one of the hottest wildlife tickets in town.

Thought to be the last redoubt of the woolly mammoth (which survived here until around 2000 BC), the island is now home to a high density of polar bears (around 350-500) plus reindeer, musk ox and Arctic fox. It’s also beloved of 80,000 Pacific walruses, which gather on the rocks and floes here to breed. And birdlife is abundant: snowy owls nest on the tundra, snow geese flock on the 900-odd lakes and colonies of kittiwakes clamour on the cliffs. 

When to go: July-August, when temperatures peak at around 15°C. This is when walruses gather, the island’s 400 plant species burst into life and cruises run.

How to go: Only accessible by very few specialist expedition cruises a year. Voyages leaving Nome (Alaska) may also include the Russian Kamchatka and Chukchi peninsulas.

Cape Verde

Ten volcanic islands make up Cape Verde – but most tourists see only one of them. Sal has an international airport and an awful lot of sand; the windsurfing’s good too. But there’s more to this Atlantic archipelago, lurking 570km west of Senegal. 

Santiago, the biggest island, has lush and craggy mountains, good for walking. Its UNESCO-listed Cidade Velha was the first city built by Europeans in the tropics and has impressive remains including a royal fortress and Pillory Square.

São Vicente is the place to dip into Cape Verde’s musical heritage; hit the bars of its main town, Mindelo, to hear live morna and coladeira – the area’s creole-inflected music. 

Perhaps most worth a ferry ride is Santo Antão, a geological wonder of high peaks, where villages teeter on verdant valleysides and seemingly everything grows – from banana palms and pineapples to pines, carobs, eucalypts, dates and almonds. Driving the old road from Porto Novo to Ribeira Grande will showcase the island’s rugged richness.

Also seek out Vila das Pombas, where tiny pastel-painted houses line the promenade against a backdrop of coconut palms.

When to go: Cape Verde is sunny and warm year round. Rainy season is July-October.