Off the Beaten Path: Europe's Unknown Island Destinations

From the Mediterranean to the Arctic, explore 10 of Europe's hidden island gems

LONDON, August 28, 2009 -- You've heard of Sicily and Capri, Santorini and Ibiza. The only problem is, so has everybody else. If you're looking for that perfect getaway far from throngs of other tourists, there are thousands of European islands hiding in plain view, just waiting to be explored. From the pristine white beaches of the Mediterranean to the glaciers of the Arctic, here are 10 island gems that are off the beaten path.

1. Brijuni, Croatia

Famous for their scenic beauty, the Brijuni (or Brioni) islands, off the west coast of Croatia, are both a resort and a national park. Still relatively undisturbed, the islands are home to miles of spectacular coastline, and lush fields, complete with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna from around the world.

Beyond the beaches, you will find plenty here to explore, including a zoo, pheasant farm, safari park and many archaeological sites. These islands were once the favorite vacation spot of President Josip Tito of Yugoslavia, and the place where he preferred to entertain world leaders and the occasional celebrity. Among those known to have been guests on the islands are Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

2. Formentera, Spain

Just four miles off the coast of Spain's party island, Ibiza, lies a much quieter, less-trafficked sliver of Mediterranean paradise. With its long stretches of unspoiled, white sandy beaches and sparkling turquoise water, Formentera feels more like the Caribbean than Europe.

If you manage, somehow, to get sick of the beaches, take a stroll into the village of Sant Francesc, to wander its tiny cluster of streets, visit the handful of sights and peruse the daily souvenir market. To the modest, beware: Most of the beaches here are unofficially clothing optional.

3. Kalymnos, Greece

Though the Greek Isles have long been a popular summertime destination, only recently did Kalymnos really begin to open itself up to tourists. Known primarily for sponge fishing, the island is now becoming famous for its spectacular rock climbing. Kalymnos is picturesque at every turn – brightly colored houses line the hillside above the harbor, where fishing boats bob in the sea.

Take the time to thoroughly explore the island, and you'll come across groves of fruit trees, caves, radioactive springs and, of course, the kind of gorgeous beaches that you would expect to find on any trip to the Greek isles.

4. Elba, Italy

Elba, or Isola d'Elba, if you want to start exercising your Italian, is the largest island in the Tuscan archipelago, and is located just an hour by boat from the mainland. With a perimeter of just over 90 miles, Elba boasts an impressive diversity of scenery and places to explore -- tiny, picturesque fishing villages, small towns perched on rocky hilltops, lush green valleys, ancient castles, plunging cliffs and sandy beaches overlooking a clear blue-green sea.

For a view of the mainland and other nearby islands, make the two-hour climb up Mount Capanne, or catch the Cabinovia, which will whisk you up to the top in less than 20 minutes. History buffs, take note: It was here that Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled by the Allied governments in May of 1814. Less than nine months later, he escaped, small army in tow, and returned to France.

5. Lipari, Italy

An hour or so northwest of Sicily are the stunningly beautiful Aeolian Islands. Lipari, the largest of the chain, is generally the most crowded -- primarily with summer tourists who flock to its gorgeous beaches -- but is also the most interesting, historically.

Perched high on a cliff-top above the harbor is an ancient citadel, built in the 1500s, which still dominates the main town. If you're looking for a respite from the sand and sun, check out Diana District Archaeological Park, with its Greek and Roman ruins. Lipari can also serve as a perfect jumping-off point to explore the smaller, less crowded islands in the archipelago where you will find, among other things, active volcanoes, castles, thermal resorts and volcanic-black beaches.

6. Ile de Porquerolles, France

Step off the ferry onto the tiny island of Porquerolles, off the coast of Provence, and you'll wonder how such a short boat ride got you from Southern France to the Caribbean. Rent bikes near the harbor and take off among the vineyards, olive trees and fruit trees, or wander along a path towards one of the island's quiet, unspoiled beaches. If you're looking for pristine white sand with perfectly clear water, head north. To the south, steep cliffs plunge down into the sea – standing on top of them will afford you a 360-degree view of the island and the Mediterranean beyond. Be sure to treat yourself to an ice cream cone in town before heading back to the ferry.

7. Isle of Lewis, Scotland

The Isle of Lewis is perhaps best known for its Callanish Standing Stones – rock formations that rival Stonehenge – which are certainly worth a look. The island is relatively flat, and a collection of beautiful sandy beaches dot its rugged coastline. Head inland, and let yourself get lost wandering Lewis' tiny winding roads. It's also a perfect destination for anyone who loves to fish, bike, hike, canoe or go bird watching.

8. Isle of Man

Nestled between England and Ireland in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is big enough to have something for everyone, yet still boasts plenty of hidden-away spots for those looking to escape from it all. Come for the history, the beaches, the trails, the vintage railways, the fishing or the motorcycle racing. Adventurous travelers can also opt to go rock climbing, or swim with the sharks. This is one place where you can still walk for miles through gorgeous, untouched countryside, often without meeting another soul.

9. Faroe Islands, Denmark

Named the world's most appealing islands in 2007 by National Geographic Traveler, the Faroe Islands, located halfway between Iceland and Norway, are worth the trip. Here you'll find that nature rules. More than 300 species of birds make their home on the islands, and if you're patient, you are likely to spot a seal poking its head out of the water. To the east, grassy hills slope down to the sea; to the west, soaring cliffs rise into the air. At no point on any of the 18 islands are you more than three miles from the ocean.

10. Svalbard, Norway

Svalbard, with its snow-capped glaciers, might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think "island vacation." But if you're looking for stunning vistas and amazing wildlife, these Arctic islands, located not far from the North Pole, are the place to go. More than 36 species of birds reside on the islands, as do a variety of seals, and the White whale is often spotted off the coast. Visitors can also reasonably expect to catch a glimpse of polar bears, the Arctic fox and even the Svalbard reindeer. With no roads connecting the communities on Svalbard, snowmobiles and boats are the most common forms of transportation.