It wasn’t meant to be this way.
Back when I was first planning to travel long-term, I didn’t think my journey would have a focus. I wanted to see it all: cities, villages, lakes, mountains, rainforests, glaciers, deserts, and beaches.
I had no idea that last item on the list would be the main driving force for my decade of travels.
It began with the Philippines.
I’d been travelling solo for three months at this point, hopping from city to city as I made my way through Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia. From Zagreb to Ljubljana to Budapest to Kiev to Moscow to Taipei to Shanghai to Beijing to Seoul, and then I found myself in Hong Kong, unsure of where to venture next.
My original plan would see me drifting back into China to explore the southern regions of the country, but after I found my first visit challenging, I was having second thoughts.
I jumped on Skyscanner and decided to search for flights from Hong Kong to everywhere. I considered Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia… and then I saw the word Cebu.
Cebu? Where was that?
A quick search showed me that it was in the Philippines. Back then, I had yet to read a single travel blog post about the country, so I opened up Google Images and searched for photos of the Philippines. Immediately, I was slapped in the eyeballs by a thousand breathtaking photos of the most incredible beaches I’d ever seen.
“Holy shit,” I mumbled to myself. “I’ve gotta go to the Philippines.”
Three days later, I boarded a midnight flight to Cebu, then a second flight to Caticlan. From there, I took a ferry to Boracay, and a tricycle to my hostel.
When I arrived in Boracay, I was smitten.
You see, I thought travel was always about culture and ruins and gazing at historic monuments in ancient cities. You mean to tell me I can also spend my year in paradise, hanging out on beautiful beaches for weeks on end?
From that moment on, I made it my mission to visit as many tropical islands as possible.
Whether it’s attempting to visit every inhabited island in Thailand, making annual trips to isolated spots in the South Pacific, or planning my Africa travels around the best beaches — if there’s a destination with a beautiful stretch of sand, it’s probably on my bucket list.
In the age of coronavirus, I’ve pondered long and hard about the type of content I most want to produce. I knew I didn’t want to join the hordes of travel bloggers who are pivoting towards writing about remote work and productivity, as, well, let’s just say it’s not quite my forte.
Instead, I’ve decided to keep my content pretty standard. I’ll be telling travel stories, publishing travel guides, and sharing all of my usual shenanigans from my accident-prone life on the road.
Something I do want to throw into the mix, though, is a whole bunch of round-up posts.
I’m finding that these prolonged periods of isolation are giving me the gift of pausing. For the first time in a decade, I’ve found the time to simply stop, sit down, and reflect. It’s something I rarely get to do, especially when it comes to travel. As soon as I finish one trip, I’m planning the next one while also trying to write about a trip I took six months ago.
Now, with travel off the cards for potentially the entirety of 2020, I’m taking a moment to look back and contemplate the places I’ve been so fortunate to see.
What better time than now, to get down to work and share a round-up of all of my favourite places? I want to share posts about my favourite tropical islands in the world, the best cities in Europe, my favourite U.S. states, the prettiest beaches in Southeast Asia, my most treasured hikes in New Zealand, the most enjoyable places for travelling solo…
I’ll be sprinkling these posts in amongst my regularly scheduled content and I hope you enjoy reading them. After a decade of travel, I’ve got a hell of a lot of spots to share.
Up first, my favourite paradise islands from ten years of travel!
Fulidhoo, the Maldives
The Maldives has long held a reputation for being full of paradise islands, and for a long time, it was believed the only way to see them was to have a lot of money.
I shattered those beliefs in 2014 when I booked a trip to this island nation and discovered it’s possible to visit the country for as little as $50 a day. The secret is simple: avoid all of the expensive resort islands with their overwater bungalows and $8 bottles of water, and instead head for the local islands.
Having been to a resort island and a handful of local islands, I can say that the islands I visited in the Maldives were universally beautiful. The beach on Fulidhoo was just as impressive as the beach on the resort island of Olhuveli, but I was paying $50 a night rather than $500 a night to sit on it. The beaches on Fulidhoo were so freaking pretty.
There were other benefits, too, to visiting Fulidhoo. By staying on a local island, you’ll gain an insight into local Maldivian life that is impossible to obtain on the resort islands, and get to try more of the typical island dishes, as opposed to the international food at the resorts. Maldivian breakfasts are my favourite type of breakfast of any country in the world!
And Fulidhoo is a great destination for solo women, too! Whenever I ventured out alone, I’d find myself chatting to a local woman, sharing a bar of chocolate, and comparing our different ways of life. That never happened when I was exploring with Dave.
I decided to head to Zanzibar to celebrate the end of my twenties.
I was about to turn 29 and that, combined with a cheap flight I spotted to Tanzania, had me setting off for white-sand shores. I kissed Dave goodbye, told him I’d be back in a couple of weeks, and set off for a solo birthday celebration.
I couldn’t have chosen a better place to do so.
Zanzibar is nicknamed the Spice Island, and there was once a time when it was the largest producer of cloves in the world. If you love your spices, you’ll adore this island. I know I did.
The capital, Stone Town, is a special place, filled with ornate doors, winding alleyways, and spectacular sunsets, but it’s the parts of Zanzibar outside of Stone Town that are most impressive. Head out into the centre of the island to Jozani Forest and you’ll stand a good chance of spotting the mega-rare red colobus monkeys that are only found in Zanzibar. Tour the slave caves to gain an insight into the island’s tragic past and take a spice tour to sample the flavours that made it such a wealthy part of the continent.
And the beaches, of course. Most people come to Zanzibar for the beaches.
My favourite was Nungwi, which is pictured above, at the northernmost tip of the island. There, you’ll be able to watch carpenters build fishing boats on the beach, sunbathe on pristine white sand beaches, and take a tour of the nearby village.
One thing I regret not doing while I was in Zanzibar was visiting the famous Rock restaurant in Paje. When the tide comes in, you have to wade through the turquoise ocean to reach the restaurant, which is — you guessed it! — on a rock. It looks so incredible.
Ask me about my favourite place in the world, and I’ll tell you about Matafonua. Yes, there’s nowhere quite like this gorgeous spit of sand on the small island of Foa, in Tonga.
Have you ever stayed in a guesthouse that seems to attract only wonderful people? A place where it’s easy to make friends, where everyone is infinitely more focused on conversation than technology, and where you immediately extend your stay because you’re not convinced travel gets any better than this?
Thanks to the nightly communal dinners, being a solo traveller at Matafonua meant making friends and always having somebody to chat to. When you throw in the spectacular location that made everybody spend all day at the lodge — why would you choose to leave? — this was a spot where, even in the low season, it was impossible to feel lonely.
For somewhere so isolated, there’s still plenty to keep you busy: kayaking, snorkelling, kite boarding, SCUBA diving, and even swimming with wild humpback whales if you visit in the dry season. Leopard sharks are a regular occurrence in the channel just outside the restaurant, and paddling out to the small island opposite means getting to swim alongside them.
Part of me wanted to stay forever.
Koh Mook, Thailand
I’ve fortunate to have been to a dozen Thai islands over the past decade, and my favourite by far was Koh Mook.
It has everything I could possibly need from an island paradise, and I can see myself returning many times over in the future.
I had so much fun here! The locals were seriously welcoming and it’s home to some of my favourite restaurants in Thailand. Koh Mook felt like one of those islands where you could just arrive and end up staying for months.
There are two main beaches on the island — Sivalai Beach and Charlie Beach — and both offered up something different. Sivalai was quieter and we had it mostly to ourselves. There were shallow seas, soft sands, and hundreds of palm trees. Charlie Beach is more popular with backpackers — it’s beautiful and crowded, with Mong Bar offering up excellent mango shakes on the beach.
I have to tell you about Koh Mook’s Emerald Cave, because it was one of my highlights from the year I’ve spent in Thailand.
You start off by leaping off your longtail boat at the entrance to a small, dark hole. After paddling through the tunnel for around 20 metres, using a waterproof torch for light, you’ll suddenly turn a corner. In front of you will be the most incredible beach, surrounded by limestone cliffs and invisible from anywhere else on the island. If you time your visit right, you’ll have the entire place to yourself.
It was one of the most magical moments of my travels.
Read all about it: The Ultimate Guide to the Trang Islands in Thailand
Aitutaki, the Cook Islands
More than anywhere on this list, Aitutaki meets my definition of a paradise island.
I mean, just look at the colour of that water! Sometimes I can’t believe I actually took this photo. Sometimes I can’t believe a place like this actually exists. Sometimes I can’t believe that I was actually there.
Aitutaki is amazing.
When you take a tour of Aitutaki’s lagoon, you’ll typically be taken to four desert islands and three separate snorkelling spots, and they all look photoshopped. On my tour, I got to snorkel with giant trevallies, swim above giant clams, marvel at bright purple coral, explore a shipwreck in the shallow lagoon waters, get my passport stamped at the world’s smallest post office, and generally feel as though I was skipping through the pages of a travel magazine.
The white-sand beaches, the photogenic palm trees, the turquoise waters — it all comes together to make Aitutaki one of the most special places on the planet.
Koh Rong, Cambodia
You know a place is something special when you get devoured by sandflies, but still come away listing it as one of your favourite places in Southeast Asia.
Still, it’s changed a little since I was last there in 2012. Back during my first visit, there was terrible internet access, little electricity, and what power there was regularly dropped out. It was a place that was all about isolation and living out your desert island fantasies. It was an island where you could walk along the soft sand for 20 minutes and find yourself on a deserted beach, then not see a single other human for the rest of the day. A place where you could dance in the sea after dark and watch the water glitter from the bioluminescent plankton.
There are plenty more guesthouses on the island these days, a handful of resorts, and even a road has been built to give access to more of the island’s beaches. And yet, it’s still relatively underdeveloped. You still won’t find an ATM on the island, for example, and while there’s internet, it sucks more often than not.
The reason why I wanted to include Koh Rong is because it has some of the best beaches in Southeast Asia. Because swimming in the water is like taking a bath. Because the beaches are so beautiful.
As long as you apply plenty of insect repellent, you’ll have the best time ever here.
Read all about it: Koh Rong: An Island Paradise Riddled with Sandflies
Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
If you’re looking for paradise that’s a little more off-the-beaten-path, the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique could be exactly what you’re searching for.
It has sandbanks for dayyyyyys.
First of all, it’s affordable to visit. I based myself in Vilanculos and paid just $30 a night for a private room at a kickass hostel on the beach. Everybody is in Vilanculos for one reason: to get out on the water and explore the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago. These are some of the most breathtaking spots on the planet.
I decided to head to Ilha de Magaruque — the third largest island in the Bazaruto Archipelago — and had one of my favourite African travel experiences while I was there. I spent the day on a beautiful beach, snorkelling alongside octopi, keeping an eye out for the elusive dugongs that have made this coastline their home, tucking into a fresh seafood barbecue, sailing in an old fishing boat, and clambering up dunes to take photos of the sandbanks.
I love this part of the world so much.
Huahine, French Polynesia
Huahine is my favourite island in French Polynesia, which is really saying something, because I’ve been to Bora Bora. And while Bora Bora was just as incredible as you might imagine it to be, it has nothing on Huahine.
Huahine is home to some beautiful beaches — just as beautiful as the ones on Bora Bora — but you won’t have to pay a fortune in order to see them. Huahine is one of the more affordable islands I’ve visited in French Polynesia. I paid $43 a night for a stay in a lovely guesthouse, hired a bicycle for $5 a day, and most meals came to around $10 a day.
It’s relatively quiet, too. Most of the tourists in French Polynesia flock to Bora Bora, Tahiti, or Moorea, leaving Huahine calm, uncrowded, and relaxed.
Huahine has everything you could possibly desire from a South Pacific island. You’ve got the amazing white sand beaches, palm trees lining every road, extinct volcanoes to climb, glistening lagoons to paddle in, dense jungle, old Polynesian ruins to explore, smooth roads to cycle along, vanilla bean plantations to wander through… It’s definitely a paradise island in my eyes.
I spent three weeks island-hopping my way around Hawaii, checking out the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui and to be honest, I think I could put all three islands on this list. When I held myself down and forced myself to choose just one, though, I settled on Oahu.
I loved sunbathing on iconic Waikiki Beach; driving the circumference of the island over the space of a week and stopping off at the most beautiful beaches. I loved spending Christmas Day watching the surfers out on the North Shore Beaches, snorkelling with sea turtles, taking a tour of breathtaking Kualoa Ranch, and eating so much good food in Honolulu.
The one thing I wish I had done: hiked Diamond Head! I actually drove to the parking lot at 4 a.m. with the intention of hiking it for sunrise, but back then, I despised hiking, so decided to nap in the car. What a dumbass.
Man, I really need to get back to Hawaii.
Read all about it: My Quest to Find All of the LOST Filming Sites in Oahu | A Tour of Kualoa Ranch in Oahu
Boracay, the Philippines
I kicked off my introduction with a love letter to Boracay, and I couldn’t not include it in this list.
White Beach, on Boracay, is one of my favourite places in the world. Yeah, it’s touristy as hell and there are touts everywhere, but I simply don’t care. The beach here makes me so happy and it’s my definition of paradise.
The sand is bright white, the water is clear, calm and shallow, and the party scene is so much fun. This is a place where you’ll go drinking every night, sleep off your hangovers on the most perfect beach during the day, then do it all again the next evening.
I still remember the first time I stepped foot on White Beach.
I’d had high expectations because I’d seen all those pristine photos on Google Images, but I’d assumed they’d been heavily edited. I made my way out of my guesthouse and walked until I reached the sand, looked up, and let out an audible gasp.
I had never seen anywhere like it.
Until I arrived on Boracay, I didn’t believe a beach could look so breathtakingly perfect.
I’ll never forget that moment. It was the one and only time that a sight has literally taken my breath away.
Read all about it: Finding Paradise in Boracay
Sao Miguel, The Azores
If you’re ever looking for a way to break up the journey between the U.S. and Europe, I highly recommend visiting the Azores. In particular, the island of Sao Miguel.
SATA Airlines fly between Boston and Portugal, and offer a free stopover in the Azores for up to seven days. I opted for four and it was the perfect amount of time to spend on Sao Miguel. I spent one day roaming the capital of Ponte Delgada, one day scootering out west, one day exploring the centre of the island, and one day exploring the east.
So, what’s so special about Sao Miguel?
Everything. Most of all, it’s such a foodie destination. You’ll find incredible wines, cheeses, and fruits grown here, and the restaurants are incredible. You can even eat a stew that’s been cooked inside a volcano!
It’s an island of lagoons, as you can see from the photo above. There are waterfalls, hot springs, black sand beaches, beautiful villages, geothermal activity, and it’s so easy to explore by car or scooter. There’s even an old abandoned hotel to wander around.
It’s a ridiculously beautiful island that’s inexpensive to see and full of impressive viewpoints.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
If you asked me where you could find the most turquoise waters in the world, I’d direct you to Isla Mujeres. The water here is the most incredible shade of aqua.
Fortunately, the beaches are just as pretty. Playa Norte receives most of the tourists and for good reason, as it’s one of the best beaches on the island, but it’s still so easy to escape the crowds.
Simply get on a scooter, or if you’re old and American, a golf cart. Kidding. I would have probably rented a golf cart had I not had a scooter-proficient boyfriend by my side. Anyway! Get your hands on some form of transportation and hit the road. You’ll find quieter beaches all along the coastline, as well as a shit ton of iguanas. The inland villages are so pretty and colourful, the food’s great — as it is everywhere in Mexico — and it just has such a lovely, laidback vibe. One of the cooler things you can do on the island is visit the Underwater Museum, where you can snorkel or dive to see hundreds of sculptures and statues on the ocean floor. So badass.
In the summer months, you can even swim with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres.
Read all about it: Isla Mujeres: My Mexican Island Paradise
I’m very fortunate to have friends who know how to sail.
Every few years, we charter a yacht in the Greek Ionian and spend a week exploring paradise. Our favourite place to head to is Ithaca. I love this island.
It’s far less crowded than the more famous Greek islands, like Santorini and Mykonos. It attracts fewer tourists than its Ionian neighbours, Corfu, Lefkada, and Kefalonia. It’s chilled out, the food is incredible, the beaches are wonderful (although stony), and the locals so friendly. Most interestingly of all, the water is actually pretty warm around here! The Mediterranean normally makes me shiver, but there’s something about the Ionian that has me repeatedly jumping into the water. I just don’t feel the cold!
As for the spots on Ithaca itself, I love meandering through the adorable village of Kioni, pictured above from the water. I love spending time in the picturesque village of Frikes. I love eating at the incredible restaurants in Vathy’s bay. I love it all.
This isn’t just a destination for sailors, though. It’s easy to reach Ithaca from the mainland, and simple to get around once you’re there. In fact, I’m hoping to one day visit while not on a sailing adventure because all of my previous visits have felt far too short.
The Glaring Omissions on My List
Obviously, it’s the Caribbean.
Yes, for all of my love of beaches and tropical islands, I have yet to make it to the Caribbean. I count it as one of my biggest travel oversights. I was hoping to finally get to a few of its islands in 2020, but that no longer seems likely. Top of my Caribbean list at the moment is Jamaica, St Lucia, and the Dominican Republic, but it changes all the time.
I’m forever regretful that I cancelled a booked trip to the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Reunion Island back in 2015.
The Comoros, Sao Tome and Principe, and Cape Verde are also high up on my African island destination list.
The South Pacific always calls my name, as you know, and I’m craving heading to Samoa, Vanuatu, and the Fijian Yasawa Islands, in particular.
And there’s a whole bunch of islands in Latin America, too. The Galapagos. Easter Island. The San Blas Islands. The Corn Islands. Roatan.
Wow. All of a sudden I have an overwhelming urge to book a plane ticket. Good thing there’s not a pandemic or anything going on in the world right now.
Well, at least I have an enormous list to work my way through once things return to normal.