The Philippines’ archipelago is composed of 7,641 islands. I was born on one of them, so I am familiar with life on the beach. However, I am highlighting islands I found on four different continents, not only because of beach life. These six are unforgettable because of one amazing thing, sometimes two, or three — a natural formation, a place in history, a unique creation, or even something wildly different.
1. Marietas Islands
The Hidden Beach And The Mexican Galapagos
The Marietas Islands are on southern Mexico’s Bay of Banderas, off the popular Puerto Vallarta. There are two, 900 meters apart. Both uninhabited, together they form a National Marine Park and UNESCO MAB (Man and Biosphere) Reserve. It is said that an innocent Facebook photo of its Hidden Beach went viral and brought droves of tourists to the islands, damaging the area.
Strict new rules have since been implemented. For example, we could only snorkel outside the string of yellow buoys that demarcated Isla Redonda, the smaller of the two that guards the entrance to the Hidden Beach. Only 116 people per day can enter (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays), so you have to go early. You must swim through a 50-foot-long narrow water tunnel through the volcanic rock that leads to the beach below the crater hole. I cannot swim, and my husband didn’t want to go without me, so we just had to be satisfied with the fantasy in the pictures.
At Isla Larga, the larger island, we had to go barefoot to explore its own “hidden beaches” and a thousand-foot interpretive path. It was good enough, we comforted ourselves. The islands’ underwater life teems with rare fish species, sea turtles, dolphins, and manta rays. They are also a protected bird reserve with 92 species, including the world-famous blue-footed booby and large frigate birds, earning them the nickname “Mexican Galapagos.” We took many photos including those of Lion Head, Deadman’s Cave, Blowhole, and Stone Arch.
Pro Tip: The boat ride from Puerto Vallarta is long, so an alternative is to take a car, taxi, or bus from Puerto Vallarta to Punta de Mita, the closest point to the islands. The cost of the boat trip is cheap and you can spot whales en route!
Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites
I couldn’t wait to show my husband Palawan. The fifth largest in the archipelago, it juts out such that it has the westernmost point of the country. It has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has consistently stayed on lists of Top 10 Best Islands in the World.
The first of the World Heritage Sites are the Tubbataha Reef, one of the world’s best dive spots just 150 kilometers off Puerto Princesa, the capital. It’s an atoll reef with a very high density of marine life. It features a 100-m perpendicular wall, two lagoons, and two coral islands.
The other is the world’s longest (8.2 km.) navigable Underground River only two and a half hours from Puerto Princesa. A short walk through a green forest inhabited by monkeys and monitor lizards will take you to the phenomenon of the river pouring straight into the sea, set amid the lovely limestone karst mountain landscape outside and the stunning formations inside its deep chambers.
Even the Iwahig Penal Colony, a “Prison without Walls” fascinated my husband. Housing about three thousand inmates on about 45,000 hectares (originally) of land, the only real barriers were in the maximum-security section. Minimum and medium-security prisoners were provided with some land and farm animals to build a livelihood for their families. Some practiced crafts, and we bought some of their products at the gift store. Nobody attempts to escape because it was certain death in the mountains.
Pro Tip: The island is also known for its world-class beaches and resorts like El Nido and enchanting islands like Coron and those in Honda Bay. Puerto Princesa and other nearby places offer more attractions: caves, waterfalls, mangroves, parks, wildlife refuge centers, and even refugee camps.
3. Shetland Islands
The Broch And The World’s Smallest Pony
After Iceland, our cruise ship docked at Lerwick (population 7,500), the capital of the northernmost islands of Scotland called the Shetlands (population 23,000). We saw typical stone buildings whose foundations were on the water, Fort Charlotte, the Lerwick Town Hall, the Shetland Museum and Archives, and the Old Town Center.
After the walking tour, there was time left before having to go back to the ship. We had a choice of a site where humans had lived since the Mesolithic period, accessible by bus, or join a Shetland pony tour. We dared ride the bus alone to get to the Broch of Clickimin. Constructed in the first century BC, it’s a very dramatic Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure found only in Scotland.
With unbelievable luck, a Shetland pony was grazing on the bright green grass around the Broch! Originating in the Shetlands, the world’s smallest ponies stand only up to 42 inches, sport a heavy coat, and have short legs. Still, they are used for riding, driving, and packing because they are very strong for their size.
Older Than The Pyramids Of Giza And Stonehenge
I took time off with my BFF to visit the Maltese archipelago. We heard that many movies were filmed on Gozo Island, an island of about 26 square miles. So, we took the 25-minute ferry ride from Malta, the bigger island, through the Gozo Channel. Instead of movie sets, we saw something else.
There was the Azure Window, a rock bridge arch on the beach which collapsed two years later. A Fungus Rock that hosts a promising medicinal fungus plant fascinated us and the Ta’ Pinu National Shrine holds so many articles of miracles. Finally, it was unique to see the Virgin Mary’s statue in the middle of the beach on Ramla Bay.
What impressed us most was a huge pile of old blackened rocks propped together in some parts by support structures. It was the Ġgantija Temple Complex, older than either the Pyramids of Giza, or the prehistoric Stonehenge and the second oldest only to Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. Together with the other temples in Malta, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the earliest of the series, erected during the Neolithic Age (3600–2500 BC).
Pro Tip: We took one of the “Hop-On Hop-Off” buses to these stops. A taxi would have allowed us to stay longer at the Temple.
5. Île St. Marguerite
The Man In The Iron Mask And The French Riviera
For a wedding anniversary, my husband and I chose to be on the French Riviera, visiting Antibes, Cannes, Nice, Grasse, Eze, St. Paul de Vence, and Monte Carlo from a base in Mougins. While in Cannes, we found out about the Lerins Islands, a group of four small Mediterranean islands off the coast. The two largest and inhabited are Île Saint Honorat with a historic Cistercian monastery and Île Sainte Marguerite where a fortress has a famous cell occupant.
We chose the latter. From the ferry dock, we hiked to the top of the hill to what is called the Musee de la Mer. My husband loved the dark cell where the Man in the Iron Mask was held captive for 11 years. What I loved more was that we were able to bring home photos of an entirely different view of the French Riviera, Cote d’Azur, the Cannes harbor, and the Palais des Festivals from the island.
Island Wines That Are World-Class
Waiheke Island is the second largest and most populated island off Auckland, New Zealand. It was ranked fourth/fifth best island destination in the world for a few years. From the ferry dock, we rented a car and proceeded to the southernmost part of Orapiu Bay. After some photos, we drove east through rough coastal roads, unfarmed fields, idyllic scenes with flocks of sheep, and rich olive groves.
At the easternmost part, we lingered at the Man O’ War Bay, where we photographed the lovely scenes popular for events and sampled the best sellers of the only world-class waterfront winery on the island. Satisfied, we resumed our trek up north and then west where most of the 9,000 islanders’ beachfront residences are. Farther west on Ocean View Road, we found the enviable holiday homes of 3,000 affluent Aucklanders, lingering in one owned by a friend.Back to the ferry side, where most of the art galleries, shops, restaurants, etc. are located, we chose to have late lunch at the prestigious Mudbrick Winery and Restaurant. The chef paired world-class wines with our meal and explained each pair as it was served. We chose to sit in the beautiful open garden on a hill rather than the extended balcony or the second-floor deck. From each, there was a mystical view of Auckland and Rangitoto Island. For dessert, we moved to the nearby Cable Bay Winery to sample after-dinner wines and to get another view of Auckland from the wide expanse of greenery rolling down to the waters below.