Not every island is a sand-and-sun beach destination where you go to crack open a good book, sip a tropical drink and forget about the worries of home for a few days. Some are full of wildlife and culture and things you can’t find anywhere else. Maybe they’re a little bit out there. Maybe they’re cold or the beaches aren’t anything to write home about. But they’re worth exploring. This week, we visit a few of them.
The world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar lies east of Mozambique and is home to 5 percent of the world’s wildlife and vegetation. While the beaches are great, there is a diversity of terrain from rainforest to desert, and much of the flora and fauna are unique to the island. Of the more than 200 bird species, about half are found only on Madagascar, which has almost 20,000 plant species, including seven types of baobab tree. Lemurs leap from tree to tree, while chameleons cling to the branches, making for an entirely different kind of safari experience.
A teardrop-shaped island off the southeastern tip of India, Sri Lanka has recently opened up to the outside world after a 30-year civil war ended in 2009. Marco Polo called it “the finest island in the world,” and it yields treasures far beyond the many precious gems found in its soil. Its two dozen national parks are home to elephants, leopards, sloth bears and deer. As far as human contribution, Anuradhapura served as the capital for nearly 1,500 years and is still a sacred site for Buddhists, while Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress full of murals and gardens that was a revolutionary example of urban planning in the fifth century.
The seat of the Republic of China since defeat at the hands of the communists shortly after World War II, Taiwan has developed a unique culture that is a mix of aboriginal, Chinese and Japanese elements. With nearly 25 million inhabitants, it packs about 1,700 people into every square mile. At 1,671 feet, Taipei 101 in the capital city briefly held the title of world’s tallest building, though now it’s struggling to remain in the top 10. Street food is the hallmark of Taiwanese dining, with tofu, rice, pork and vegetables all enjoying starring roles. Outside the city are temples in gorgeous natural settings reminiscent of a much older way of life.
There is a settlement with a couple dozen non-permanent human inhabitants at any given time on this island east of Tierra del Fuego and north of Antarctica. There’s even a church. But the main attraction is penguins. Tens of thousands of king, gentoo and macaroni penguins share space with elephant and fur seals. South Georgia is also where Ernest Shackleton landed in a lifeboat on of one of the most harrowing rescue missions of all time after a wreck some 800 miles away, then hiked more than 20 miles to a whaling station for help. Not to worry, though, you’ll be safe in the hands of our Virtuoso partners.
About 50,000 brave souls inhabit this archipelago between Iceland and Norway, and it’s assuredly not for the beaches. An independent country in the Kingdom of Denmark (after a treaty with Norway in 1814), the Faroes play host to Europe’s largest puffin colony and dramatic waterfalls tumbling to the North Atlantic. There are several animal species that have evolved uniquely in isolation, such as the Faroe pony, strong as a horse but with a smaller stature, and the Faroe sheep. The friendly population has an interesting blend of Norse and Celtic heritage and are fond of traditional saga-like songs accompanied by dance known as kvaedir, some of which are hundreds of verses long.