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The World's Best Island Beaches

12/04/2015 11:26am ET | Updated December 4, 2016
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"I find it difficult to disconnect from life, so I love how isolated the Maldives are," says Nick Porfilio, CEO of social savings website Saveful.com. "It takes a long time to get there--about 24 hours from the U.S.--but you truly feel like you're in paradise, unplugged from the rest of the world." Once there, the San Franciscan adds, "if you want to go snorkeling or diving, one of the world's best reefs is literally outside your villa's door."

That mix of seclusion and convenience was a big reason why Travel + Leisure readers placed the Indian Ocean archipelago near the top of the World's Best awards. As part of the annual survey, readers ranked islands around the globe for such enticements as their dining, value, and romantic appeal, but none of those features would be worth much without one other category: their beaches.

Granted, not every island in the beachy top 20 got there thanks to powdery white sand alone. One winner has an array of sand colors--including red and black--while others are known as much for their underwater coral and colorful fish as their pristine stretches of sand. And some winners offer easy ways to play in the waves, whether you want to snorkel, paddleboard, or dive off a cliff.

And still some other readers preferred island beaches where there was precious little to do. When Faye Nulman traveled in 2010 to Moorea, she loved the "natural air of peace and quiet," says the New Jersey massage therapist. One day, she rented a dune buggy and drove to the top of a mountain for views. "The sounds of the birds were wonderful, along with even more silence," she says. "It was as if the entire island was ours alone."

No. 20 Captiva Island, Florida
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches This island off southwestern Florida is best known for its seemingly endless inventory of pastel seashells—250 different varieties—covering the sand. But unlike its more bustling sister island—where seashellers do the “Sanibel Stoop”—Captiva visitors do the “Captiva Crouch.” Prime shelling season runs from May through September, but year-round, the sunsets are fabulous from Alison Hagerup Beach. Perhaps because shelling is not terribly strenuous or sociable, the island did not rank highly for its wealth of activities or friendly locals. To boost your chances of having the most pristine sand to yourself, stay at the South Seas Island Resort, where you can take a quick boat ride to the even quieter beach of Cayo Costa State Park.
No. 19 Bermuda
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches Despite its bevy of green diversions—namely, golf— this classic British island still dazzled readers with its pink sand, found on beaches like John Smith’s Bay or Elbow Beach. Readers also raved about The Reefs Resort, set among limestone cliffs, ranking it at No. 3 among all Caribbean hotels. Going underwater exposes even more of the islands’ beauty—like the snorkeling at Church Bay, or peering at the dramatic formations at Crystal Caves. And while the upper-crust reputation may have contributed to its so-so standing in the value category, it’s hard to argue with the island’s easy access, off the coast of North Carolina.
No. 18 Turks and Caicos
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches This archipelago southeast of the Bahamas no doubt secured its spot thanks the snowy white sands like those on Grace Bay Beach—and indeed the nearby Grace Bay Club made readers’ top 10 of Caribbean resorts. And while these 40 coral islands did not make the survey’s top 20 for romance, it does offer a wealth of family-friendly options, like the condo-style Ocean Clubresorts. Turks and Caicos also ranked at No. 6 for dining in the Caribbean: For a lunch-and-beach experience away from the tourists, take a seat at the picnic tables of Da Conch Shack and Rum Bar, off scenic Blue Hills Beach in Providenciales.
No. 17 Nantucket
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches Many readers might be forgiven for thinking that the most beautiful things on Nantucket come on a plate: it ranked at No. 1 in the world for island cuisine—like the lobster with carrot-truffle dumplings at elegant Topper’s, the spicy fried oysters at The Proprietors Bar and Table or the “deconstructed clam bake” atStraight Wharf Restaurant. To work up an appetite, try hanging ten at Surfside, Cisco or Miacomet beaches,or taking a jeep out toGreat Point, where you can fully appreciate the island's wild side—marsh grasses and seemingly untouched sand dunes. Such well-preserved beauty comes at a price, of course: Nantucket ranked in the top 5 for feeling expensive.
No. 16 Kiawah Island, South Carolina
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches A 20-mile drive from Charleston, this barrier island offers a consistently uncrowded experience, since most of its starfish-dotted beaches are reserved for private owners or resort guests (and there’s just one resort, Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which features the plush Sanctuary Hotel). The island does offer one public beach: the Kiawah Beachwalker Park, which has 10 miles of sand overlooking both the Atlantic and the Kiawah River, and which is edged by pine trees, live oaks and magnolias. From mid-May through October, you might also see one of the island’s nearly 300 loggerhead-sea-turtle nests along the dunes. The island ranked at No. 15 for romance, apparently for both reptiles and mammals.
No. 15 St. Bart's
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches This French-speaking Caribbean island is famous for its A-list (and rather pricey) ambiance: it ranked last in the survey for feeling like a bargain. But the beaches—all public—act as the great equalizer. St. Jean Beach is where you go to see and be seen, but for fewer crowds, try Grande Saline, the cliff-ringed Anse de Gouverneur or Colombier, which is reached only by boat or scenic goat path. For well-rendered cuisine—the island took the silver medal for dining—tuck into the Creole menu at Le Grain de Sel, or the Provencal-influenced L’Esprit Salines, helmed by Jean-Claude Dufour and overlooking Saline Beach.
No. 14 Santorini
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See More of the World's Best Island Beaches Set against the bright blue waters of the Aegean Sea, the beaches of this Greek island offer a variety of colorful contrasts: the red-rock formations of Red Beach, the black sands of Perissa Beach and the white stones (and nude sunbathers) of Vlychada. The island also ranked at No. 3 for activities—like scuba diving, snorkeling, or tasting the white and dessert wines from vineyards likeKoutsoyannopoulos Winery and Wine Museum, near black-pebbled Kamari Beach. For great sea views, stay at Katikies Hotelin Oia, which overlooks the Caldera cliffs, or the adults-onlyPerivolas, built into three-century-old cliff dwellings. As a testament to the gorgeous sunsets, the island also ranked at No. 5 for romance.

--By Katrina Brown Hunt

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