Glass-bottom boats with thatched canopies ply shimmering lagoons. Tanned locals in pareus (sarongs) play ukuleles. Ridged velvet-green mountains punctuate the skyline. Palm trees reach higher than any roof. This is reality in the Cook Islands, a 15-isle archipelago marooned in the South Pacific. Go on a mountain safari on the main island of Rarotonga, or head to Aitutaki to stay in an overwater bungalow and motu-hop to deserted sugar beaches that beg to be Instagrammed.
With a history dating to the Stone Age, Hvar is as fascinating as it is beautiful. Thirteenth-century walls surround Hvar Town, with its red-tiled roofs, and the ancient stone ruins of Stari Grad Plain became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. A jaunt to the interior reveals rugged mountains, lush vineyards and fragrant lavender fields. Embark on a boat trip on the Adriatic to snorkel, swim in sea caves, and wander secret beaches and seaside hamlets.
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Drop-dead gorgeous Fiji is a filmmaker’s dream. Spy its Mamanuca island chain in Cast Away and Survivor; ogle its Yasawa archipelago in the 1980 version of Blue Lagoon. A dizzying amount of natural beauty — from mountains and mangroves to rivers and reefs — swathes Fiji’s 333 islands, and awe-inspiring wildlife (whales, sea turtles, dolphins, parrots) is the icing on the cake. For scenery with a side of luxury and exclusivity, reserve a bure (villa) at one of Fiji’s numerous private-island resorts.
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This unique history of formation and isolation has given rise to breathtaking and extraordinary wonders. Perfect white sand beaches, abundant reefs, towering waterfalls, lush valleys, snow-capped mountains and fiery hot volcanic cauldrons captivate the hearts of those who visit as well as those who call this beautiful place home. A special culture has evolved from the unique natural environment of these islands. Native Hawaiians are the host culture here, and the values of Aloha have laid the foundation for the Hawaii we have today. Since the 1700s, peoples of various cultures have been arriving on these shores, bringing their foods, their music and their ways of life.
Possibly the location of the storied island of Atlantis, Santorini is the stuff of screensavers and wall calendars. Red-, black- and white-sand beaches rim its caldera lake — one of the largest in the world — while iconic whitewashed buildings stair-step up the hillside overlooking the Aegean Sea. Photo ops abound, from centuries-old windmills and ancient ruins to blue-domed churches and colorful wooden fishing boats. Stay in a boutique cave hotel for the full experience.
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The Island of Hawaii (i.e., the Big Island) contains 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones — the only spot on the planet with so many condensed into one small region. Lush tropical terrain rules the green, wet, windward side of the island (see Akaka Falls and Waianuenue/Rainbow Falls), while more arid beauty is on display at Hapuna Beach Park. You can even enter an ice climate at the mystical summit of Mauna Kea volcano, as well as Lake Waiau, one of the highest lakes in the United States.
The joy is to watch how these islands are transformed by changing distances, by sunlight, by clouds. On some, there is a sliver of beach, just enough from which to swim; others are edged with little villages built on boards, the houses tied together. All are tropical paradises: Koh Phi Phi, Koh He, Koh Racha, Koh Surin, Koh Dok Mai, to name some of the favorites. Koh Phuket serves as a good jumping-off point. After being devastated by the 2004 tsunami, these islands have made a comeback.