Dreamy beaches, silky warm seas, lush scenery, and endless sunshine – these are some of the top ingredients of the ideal tropical vacation. But each destination offers its own sultry charms. Some dazzle with their natural beauty. Others add cultural attractions to the mix, with exotic customs, architecture, and mouthwatering cuisine. A few offer eco-adventures and wildlife-rich wilderness, and some sleepy islands seem to take you back in time.
Divers flock to thriving coral reefs, and surfers seek the perfect wave. It’s just a matter of finding the perfect fit. From Asia to Australia and the US to the Caribbean, this list of tropical vacation hot spots covers some of the most beautiful islands in the world. You’ll also find ideas for rewarding things to do and tropical places to visit for all budgets, whether you’re seeking an over-the-water bungalow in Bora Bora or a bamboo hut on a Bali beach.
Design your ideal getaway with our list of the best tropical vacations.
Bora Bora, Tahiti
Bora Bora is the quintessential South Pacific paradise. This lush and dramatically beautiful island in French Polynesia rises to a sharp emerald peak ringed by an azure lagoon. Clusters of coconut palms bristle along the beaches, and luxury bungalows perch over the crystal-clear waters, some with glass floor panels, so you can peer into the thriving sea below.
While Bora Bora scores top points for natural beauty, it also ticks the box if you’re seeking some cultural appeal. The official language is French, and you can taste the Gallic influence in the gourmet cuisine. Add a bevy of fun water sports, kayak trips to tiny motu (islands), picturesque hiking trails, and adventures such as shark dives, and, it’s easy to see why many travelers rank pricey Bora Bora as a top honeymoon destination. It’s the ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime place for a tropical vacation, and one of the best tropical vacations for couples.
Strung across the Indian Ocean southwest of India and Sri Lanka, the 26 natural atolls of the Maldives exude an almost surreal beauty. This is due, in large part, to the luminous blue waters that surround them. If slipping into the crystal-clear, soul-warming sea is a top criteria for your perfect tropical vacation, this is the place to do it – water comprises 99 percent of the Maldives. Paradoxically, it also threatens to inundate the shores of this low-lying island nation.
Male is the capital city, but most visitors head straight out to one of the remote atolls, where luxury resorts and bone-white beaches fringed by aquamarine waters await. Diving and snorkeling are world-class, and the Maldives is also a top surfing destination. The most popular surf spots are in the North and South Male Atolls.
Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, with close ties to New Zealand, is a dream destination for closet castaways. Blessed with a luminous aqua lagoon, lush peaks, sublime beaches bristling with palms, and some of the friendliest people in the South Pacific, Aitutaki ticks all the boxes for the perfect exotic tropical vacation.
Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands, and the main tourist gateway, but Aitutaki, a 45-minute flight away, is the jewel in the crown, and that’s saying plenty in an archipelago of 15 ravishing tropical isles. Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and fishing are all popular activities in the Cook Islands, and the island offers a window into laid-back village life, which slows to a halt on Sundays for church services.
More than 20 motu (small islands) are sprinkled around the lagoon. The small island of Tapuaetai (One Foot Island), in its southeast corner, is a popular Cook Islands day trip with a beautiful perspective of the lagoon.
If you really want to splurge, opt for a luxurious over-the-water bungalow. From here, you can paddle to your own private motu, plonk down under a palm tree, and pretend you’re Robinson Crusoe for a day.
The Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
If you’re dreaming of an idyllic South Seas island bathed in sunshine, the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji fit the bill. A short boat ride from the gateway town of Nadi, this picture-perfect string of about 20 islands are popular for their gleaming palm-studded beaches, crystal-clear waters, and thriving coral reefs.
When you first glimpse these tropical beauties, it’s easy to see why Survivor and the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away were filmed on islands in this chain. When choosing where to stay, your budget and interests will determine the best Fiji island for you.
Accommodation ranges from lively backpacker resorts to family-friendly hotels with thatched bures (traditional huts), and luxury hideaways like Vomo Island Resort, Likuliku Lagoon Resort, and the adults-only Tokoriki Island Resort. Popular mid-range resorts include Matamanoa Island Resort, Malolo Island Resort, Mana Island Resort, and Castaway Island.
One of the planet’s top surf breaks, Cloudbreak, lies about a mile away from Tavarua Island Resort, but you can access this legendary break from other island resorts as well.
Fijians love children, so this is also a fabulous destination for families with youngsters looking to relax, and you’ll find plenty of family-friendly resorts here, too.
Need a nature fix? The Seychelles should top your list of tropical islands to visit. UNESCO-listed nature reserves, flourishing coral reefs, and beautiful boulder-rimmed beaches are a wonderland for wilderness lovers, and more than half the land area of these 115 emerald beauties is protected.
The only dilemma about visiting the Seychelles is deciding which tropical island to visit. International visitors fly into Mahé. Here, you’ll find Victoria the capital, as well as the international airport, the cruise ship port, and beautiful Morne Seychellois National Park.
On Praslin Island, you can explore the UNESCO-listed Vallée de Mai, a prehistoric forest studded with rare giant coco de mer fruit palms. And if you’re a beach aficionado, you’ll love laid-back La Digue, which is home to some of the Seychelle’s most beautiful beaches. Add to this a sprinkling of ravishing outer islands, and you’ll have plenty of places to live out your tropical fantasies.
Besides exploring the luxuriant jungles and nature reserves, the top things to do in the Seychelles revolve around the water. You can bask on the beaches, dive and snorkel the reefs, sail, and surf the swells. Fishing is also excellent here – especially on Alphonse Island and Farquhar Atoll.
St. Barts, The Caribbean
If you like the glittering jet-setter scene, private villas, and pretty beaches, French-influenced St. Barts should be top on your list. But it all comes at a price.
A constant stream of visiting movie stars and mega-moguls means that accommodation and food costs more here than other destinations – especially during high season. However, in return, you’ll find beautiful blond beaches backed by green hills, world-class shopping and dining, and a cultural sophistication that many other tropical destinations lack.
Like everywhere, low season offers great deals. Plus, all the beaches are public, so you can hide away in a private villa or boutique hotel and live the life of the rich and famous for less. Besides basking on the beaches, shopping, and feasting on mouthwatering continental delicacies, other popular things to do in St. Barts include snorkeling, diving, kitesurfing, kayaking, fishing, surfing, and sailing.
The top beaches are Saline Beach, Gouverneur Beach, and Lorient, and the red-roofed capital of Gustavia is one of the prettiest towns in the Caribbean.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Off the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, Ambergris Caye in Belize is one of the most popular places to visit in Belize and the largest of its 200 cayes. While its Caribbean beaches are generally better for fishing than swimming, thanks to their flourishing turtle grass flats, the magnificent Hol Chan Marine Reserve more than compensates, with superb diving and snorkeling less than a half-mile from shore.
This underwater wonderland is part of the Belize Barrier Reef system, the second largest barrier reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Shark Ray Alley is a popular site, where divers can come face to face with nurse sharks and stingrays. Anglers also flock here to prowl the flats for bonefish and try their luck for permit, tarpon, snook, and barracuda.
Part of the island’s charm is its colorful town of San Pedro, where golf carts rule the streets, and funky restaurants showcase fresh seafood and Mexican-inspired cuisine. Since the northern part of the island lies a stone’s throw from Mexico, the island has a strong Mexican influence, and many locals speak Spanish.
On the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is a top choice for budget-minded travelers. But this popular vacation destination is much more than glorious beaches and all-inclusive resorts.
Rich in history and culture, “DR,” as it’s often called, also boasts some of the most diverse eco-systems in the Caribbean, with steamy jungles, deserts, mangroves, coral reefs, savanna, and soaring green peaks.
Venture away from the tourist strips of Puerto Plata, Punta Cana, and La Romana, where all-inclusive resorts cluster along idyllic sweeps of palm-fringed beach, and you’ll discover a world of adventures. You can climb the highest peaks in the Caribbean, raft the white waters of the Río Yaque del Norte, hike to waterfalls through the steamy jungle, bike through pine forests along alpine trails, and explore the undeveloped beaches of the Samaná Peninsula. Cultural attractions are also a highlight.
The capital, Santo Domingo, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with charming colonial architecture and a fascinating history. But if you just want to bask on a beautiful beach, dive, swim, surf, and snorkel, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to do that, too.
For those seeking a tropical vacation with a spiritual side, Bali beckons with its mystical charm. Temples filled with fragrant incense; rice paddies glowing in the late amber sun; and the calm, gentle people are some of Bali’s highlights. Best of all, this is an ideal destination if you’re looking for cheap tropical vacations – food and accommodation are relatively affordable.
If you’re seeking a lively beach scene, with plenty of shops and restaurants, base yourself in busy Kuta or Seminyak, where you’ll also find fantastic surf beaches. Sanur is a great spot for families, with gentle waves, and Ubud, in the lush hills away from the coastal hubbub, is the island’s emerald soul.
Bali is also known for its relatively affordable spa treatments. You can pamper yourself here without the sticker shock.
Accommodation includes everything from cheap-as-chips hostels to beach resorts and luxury villas staffed with personal chefs and drivers.
The neighboring volcanic island of Lombok is also a popular destination, with less development than its famous sister island.
The Andaman Coast, Thailand
The Andaman Coast is a convenient base for exploring the spectacular islands of the Andaman Sea. These lush limestone peaks rise from turquoise waters, creating one of the planet’s most striking seascapes.
Famous isles include the Phi Phi Islands, such as Ko Phi Phi Don, and its many resorts, and Ko Phi Phi Leh, where the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach was filmed. These islands are on the popular Phuket Day Trip circuit, but you can still find your very own peaceful patch of paradise if you venture further afield. Phang Nga Bay is home to more than a hundred of these emerald beauties, including the famous James Bond Island.
Popular areas to use as a base for exploring all this natural beauty are Krabi or popular Phuket, Thailand’s largest island. The dazzling scenery continues inland at Khao Sok National Park, where you can commune with elephants amid the jungle-cloaked peaks.
Accommodation ranges from homestays and budget-priced beachfront bamboo shacks to luxury villa-style resorts perched on sea cliffs, but even high-end resorts tend to be more affordable here than other tropical destinations.
This is a great choice if you’re looking for exotic culture, fiery food, and ravishing scenery that doesn’t break the budget. Try to avoid the southwest monsoon, which usually strikes the coast from the end of May through the middle of October.