Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island and unincorporated U.S. territory with a landscape of mountains, waterfalls and the El Yunque tropical rainforest. In San Juan, the capital and largest city, the Isla Verde area is known for its hotel strip, beach bars and casinos. Its Old San Juan neighborhood features colorful Spanish colonial buildings and El Morro and La Fortaleza, massive, centuries-old fortresses.
A popular vacation destination, the island is known for white-sand beaches and coral reefs, and common pastimes include snorkeling, diving, surfing, and sailing. On the south coast, the city of Ponce has a mix of architecture styles like art deco and neoclassical. It’s also a gateway to the Toro Negro forest, a popular hiking spot. Off the east coast, Vieques Island is renowned for its blue-green Bioluminescent Bay, which appears to glow, plus its wildlife refuge where horses roam freely. This island is also known for salsa music, as well as its regional dishes like lechón asado (roast pork).
Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island, is just off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” Its rich history is reflected in sites like the Valley of the Temples, the well-preserved ruins of 7 monumental, Doric-style Greek temples, and in the Byzantine mosaics at the Cappella Palatina, a former royal chapel in capital city Palermo. On Sicily’s eastern edge is Mount Etna, one of Europe’s highest active volcanoes.
The medieval hill town of Taormina, famed for its chic Film Fest, is a popular base for touring Etna and the baroque city at its foot, Catania. Nearby Siracusa is known for Greek ruins and its historic island center, Ortigia. The southeastern coast has sandy beaches and calm waters, while Agrigento is home to the Valley of the Temples. The Aeolian Islands feature whitewashed villages and black-sand beaches. Sicily’s melting-pot cuisine includes specialties such as caponata, arancini and cannoli, and its wine-producing tradition dates to ancient times.
Crete, Greece’s largest island, is known for its varied terrain, which ranges from fine-sand beaches at Elafonisi to the White Mountains. Mt. Ida, the tallest of the range, is home to the Ideon Cave, which was the birthplace of Zeus, according to Greek mythology. The capital, Heraklion, is home to the renowned Heraklion Archaeological Museum, housing Minoan artifacts, and Knossos, a Bronze Age settlement.
Knossos was legendary for its mythical Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Crete was the center of the mercantile Minoan Civilization, until about 1500 BC. Other historical landmarks around the island include Venetian fortresses (such as Firkas in Chania) and 18th-century Ottoman minarets. The dry natural landscape is covered in wildflowers in spring, a habitat for rare birds such as golden eagles. A huge palm forest grows on the beach of Vai. The Samariá Gorge, a deep rift about 16km long, is a hiking destination. The local cuisine is based on seafood, fragrant herbs, olive oil and fruit.
Santorini is one of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea. It was devastated by a volcanic eruption in the 16th century BC, forever shaping its rugged landscape. The whitewashed, cubiform houses of its 2 principal towns, Fira and Oia, cling to cliffs above an underwater caldera (crater). They overlook the sea, small islands to the west and beaches made up of black, red and white lava pebbles.
Akrotiri, a Bronze Age settlement preserved under ash from the eruption, provides a frozen-in-time glimpse into Minoan life. The ruins of Ancient Thera lie on a dramatic bluff that drops to the sea on 3 sides. Fira, the island’s commercial heart, has the Archaeological Museum of Thera and boutique shops. It also has a lively bar scene and tavernas serving local grilled seafood and dry white wine, made from the Assyrtiko grape. Oia is famous for sunsets over its old fortress.
Honolulu, on the island of Oahu’s south shore, is capital of Hawaii and gateway to the U.S. island chain. The Waikiki neighborhood is its center for dining, nightlife and shopping, famed for its iconic crescent beach backed by palms and high-rise hotels, with volcanic Diamond Head crater looming in the distance. Sites relating to the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor include the USS Arizona Memorial.
The Ala Moana district has a popular beach with calm water and the huge Ala Moana Center shopping complex. Downtown is the Hawaii State Capitol building and Iolani Palace, once home to Hawaiian royalty (now a museum). The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and Hawaii State Art Museum showcase local culture, and the city’s historic Chinatown is also part of the Arts District. Honolulu also contains small pockets of rainforest, canyons, waterfalls and beaches with coral reefs. The Punchbowl is a crater-turned-cemetery.
Costa Rica is a rugged, rainforested Central American country with coastlines on the Caribbean and Pacific. Though its capital, San Jose, is home to cultural institutions like the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, Costa Rica is known for its beaches, volcanoes, and biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of its area is made up of protected jungle, teeming with wildlife including spider monkeys and quetzal birds.
Active pursuits include golfing, surfing, and hiking or taking a zip-line canopy tour through Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a mist-covered sanctuary for animals and rare plants, particularly orchids. Other options include viewing endangered sea turtles as they nest in Tortuguero National Park, touring coffee plantations, visiting the sheltered beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, and soaking in hot springs near the base of Arenal, an active volcano. Costa Rica is also known for its eco-lodges, hotels that seek to minimize their effect on the surrounding natural environment.
Kauai is an island in the Central Pacific, part of the Hawaiian archipelago. It’s nicknamed “the Garden Isle” thanks to the tropical rainforest covering much of its surface. The dramatic cliffs and pinnacles of its Na Pali Coast have served as a backdrop for major Hollywood films, while 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon and the Nounou Trails traversing the Sleeping Giant mountain ridge are hiking destinations. Popular beaches include Poipu and half-moon Hanalei Bay as well as Ke’e, whose offshore reefs offer snorkeling and scuba diving. Humpback whale-watching is a wintertime draw, while the National Tropical Botanical Garden (really 3 separate preserves) showcases diverse native plants. Upscale resorts offer fine dining, spas and golf. Zip-lining and helicopter tours are adventuresome options. Hawaii’s culinary specialties – often served at traditional luau feasts – include roast kalua pig and “poi” (mashed taro), while shave ice is a signature dessert.
Maui is an island in the Central Pacific, part of the Hawaiian archipelago. Sprawling Haleakala National Park encompasses the island’s highest peak, volcanic Haleakala, as well as the pools and waterfalls of Ohe’o Gulch, accessed via scenic, winding Hana Highway. The island’s 30 miles of beaches include golden-crescent Kapalua, sheltered from strong currents by lava-rock promontories.
Some other well known beaches are Kaanapali, famed for its daily sunset cliff-diving ceremony, and Ho’okipa, a renowned windsurfing destination. Laid-back upcountry Maui is home to farms and ranches, while a wide range of resorts along the coast offer championship golf courses, spas and island-inspired dining. Three miles off the coast, the half-moon, partially submerged Molokini crater lures snorkelers and divers with colorful fish species. Tropical Iao Valley, in the West Maui Mountains, offers hiking trails, waterfalls and swimming holes.
Phuket, a rainforested, mountainous island in the Andaman Sea, has some of Thailand’s most popular beaches, mostly situated along the clear waters of the western shore. The island is home to many high-end seaside resorts, spas and restaurants. Phuket City, the capital, has old shophouses and busy markets. Patong, the main resort town, has many nightclubs, bars and discos.
Patong Beach is large and full of activity, with vendors offering rental lounge chairs and umbrellas, and a variety of water sports. Smaller Kata Beach, to the south, is also busy. Karon and Rawai beaches, near the island’s southern tip, and those along the island’s northwestern and eastern coasts, are more tranquil and less developed. Phuket is also known for its scuba diving among coral reefs, its Gibbon Rehabilitation Project and the neighboring islets of Phang Nga Bay, which have dramatic, towering limestone cliffs and caves. Other attractions include the Wat Chalong Buddhist temple complex and the Phuket Big Buddha statue.
Hawaii, a U.S. state, is an isolated volcanic archipelago in the Central Pacific. Its islands are renowned for their rugged landscapes of cliffs, waterfalls, tropical foliage and beaches with gold, red, black and even green sands. Of the 6 main islands, Oahu has Hawaii’s biggest city and capital, Honolulu, home to crescent Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor’s WWII memorials.
The state’s diverse islands are destinations for outdoor activities ranging from hiking, golfing and fishing to surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling. Maui is known for its diversity of beaches, upscale resorts and humpback whale sightings. The Big Island is home to Kilauea, an active volcano that regularly oozes lava, part of Volcanoes National Park. Kauai’s dramatic, craggy terrain has served as backdrop for dozens of films. Quieter Lanai offers luxury resorts and beaches. Molokai has minimal tourist infrastructure.