Ten Southern European islands to add to your bucket list
Text: Arne Adriaenssens
Nothing helps you to escape everyday stress better than having a whole sea between you and your worries. Luckily, Southern Europe has plenty of lush islands. Together, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal count over 1,200 of them, spread over the Indian, Atlantic, Arctic, Southern and Pacific Ocean and, of course, the Mediterranean Sea. We take you island hopping past the nations’ most stunning isles and archipelagos.
1. Corsica, France
If one place in France screams ‘paradise’, it must be Corsica. With its crystal-clear waters and pearl-white beaches, it is a dream destination for every sunbathing aficionado. It’s rocky coastline also counts numerous UNESCO-protected ‘calanches’: steep rock formations which are rooted in the sea. Yet, there is more to Corsica than can be spotted from the sea. With a core of mountains and forests, Corisca is a green lung amidst the Mediterranean blue. Explore its mystical heart on foot during a one- or multiple-day hike. In its cities, you can enjoy the island’s rich cuisine. Located a mere 12 kilometres from Sardinia, its kitchen is influenced by both the French and the Italian one. Make sure to try game dishes like the Corsican pork and the delicious Brocciu cheese, a soft delicacy which strongly resembles ricotta.
Every other day, Air Corsica flies to the island’s three airports from London Stansted.
2. La Gomera, Canary Islands, Spain
As it is way smaller and not half as well-known as Gran Canaria or La Palma, La Gomera is one of those last unaltered paradises on earth. The tiny island only counts 20,000 citizens and most tourists have yet to find this Walhalla in the Atlantic. With its round shape and central crater, it is not hard to imagine that La Gomera used to be a volcano. Hikers should walk past the impressive Roque de Agando and enter the frightening Mirador de Abrante; a glass platform, hundreds of metres above the ground. From San Sebastian, the island’s biggest village, you can also enjoy a spectacular view of the Pico del Teide, the magnificent volcano of the nearby island of Tenerife.
Multiple airlines fly from London Gatwick and London Stansted to La Gomera on a daily basis.
3. São Miguel, Azores, Portugal
Deserted in the middle of the Atlantic, you will find Portugal’s breathtaking archipelago: the Azores. Its capital, Ponta Delgada, is located on the island of São Miguel, the region’s biggest island. With its temperatures fluctuating around 16 to 26 degrees all year long, and a fair share of rain drooling down in winter, São Miguel carries the nickname ‘the green island’. Stroll past its rough coasts and wooded core or gaze at the mystical Lagoa do Fogo. The waters surrounding the island are also the home to dolphins and whales. Go to spot them on a tiny boat, as big ones will scare the animals away. To meet the biggest whales, you must go in May or June. During the rest of the year, you’ll have to settle for some smaller varieties and dolphins.
AirPortugal shuttles between São Miguel and London Heathrow and Gatwick multiple times a day.
4. Capri, Neapolitan Archipelago, Italy
Tomato, artichoke, mushrooms, ham and mozzarella: those are the toppings of a classic pizza capricciosa, the delicious indulgence that has set Capri on the map. Yet, the tiny island has way more to offer than a tasty slice on the go. Built on a rock of just ten square kilometres, Capri is a paradise in pocket size. In its two villages, you can taste all that’s nice about Italy while gazing at the deep blue sea. Through the magnificent Via Krupp, you descend from its capital to the harbour, where plenty of boats await you. Most of them are happy to show you the Grotta Azzurra: a mysterious cave underneath the mountains where the few rays of daylight create a spectacular blue glow in the water.
To get to Capri, you must fly to Naples (plenty of airlines have at least one connection from London Gatwick and London Stansted a day) and continue by ferry.
5. Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Spain
Travelling to the moon can be a bit of a hustle. Luckily, the landscapes on Lanzarote are equally out-of-this-world. In the west corner of the island, in the Timanfaya National Park, you can gaze at beaches of ash and humongous craters; both the result of a devastating eruption in 1730. If you book it at least two months in advance, you can join a hiking trip through this reserve. During this two-hour guided tour, you can discover the park as very few people get a chance to see it. Last-minute bookers can explore a part of the park on a dromedary’s back. Away from the ashes, Lanzarote also has plenty of white sand and crystal-clear water. The perfect combination to relax after your trip through space.
Every day, you can catch multiple flights to Lanzarote from London Gatwick and London Stansted.
6. Réunion, France
Wild waves, tower-high mountains and stunning greenery: Réunion is as pure as they come. The French island, which lies between Madagascar and Mauritius, is a popular destination amongst climbers, who like to explore the rough inland with just their arm- and willpower. The island’s highest point is the top of the Piton des Neiges, an inactive volcano which is over three kilometres high. Back down, more of nature’s beauty awaits you. Endless beaches, soothing thermal baths and deafening waterfalls will amaze you wherever you go.
To reach La Réunion, you must change aeroplanes once or twice. Air Mauritius is the only airline that can bring you from the United Kingdom to the island. Otherwise, you must combine flights from different airlines. Your trip will take between 17 and 24 hours.
7. Elba, Tuscan Archipelago, Italy
Elba is mainly known as the island where Napoleon lived in exile. Yet, a beautiful prison it is! With its bright-white cliffs, deep-blue waters and dark-green vegetation, the island seems to be the creation of an expressionist painter. In the small harbour villages, you can find excellent seafood in many a small restaurant amidst the colourful houses. As far as the weather goes, you don’t have to worry, either. Although the island’s weather can change very fast, and a drop of rain isn’t exceptional, you can usually enjoy the soothing sun for the lion’s share of the day. During May, the tourist office even offers a sun guarantee. Whenever it rains more than two hours a day, your stay gets completely refunded!
An air connection between London and Elba doesn’t exist, currently. The fastest way to Elba is by flying to Pisa (plenty of flights a day from all of London’s airports) and taking a train to Piombino, where you can hop on a ferry.
8. Faial, Azores, Portugal
Faial (Portuguese for beech forest) is worthy of its name. The green island is filled with trees, plants and bushes, giving it its lush look. Central on the isle, you fine the Caldeira, a two-kilometre-wide crater which was caused by volcanic eruptions. The last eruption on Faial took place in 1957 and 1958, when the Caplinhos erupted for multiple months, covering the island in a cloud of smoke. The heavy eruption also marked the geography of the island as it grew by no less than two and a half square kilometres of land at its west corner. Only the lighthouse, which used to adorn the corner of the island but now looks upon a black mountain, reminds you that the isle’s black tail wasn’t there before.
To get to Failal, you can fly to São Miguel (as described earlier), where the local airline Sata provides daily 50-minute transfer flights.
9. Menorca, Balearic Islands, Spain
Menorca is the place to go for beach lovers who wish to escape the tourist craze that you find on most of the Balearic Islands. The island has more sandy beaches than Ibiza and Mallorca combined and just a fraction of its visitors. Most of its beaches are housed in so-called calas: small coves amidst the rocky cliffs. On top of the rocks, a path of almost 300 kilometres stretches out, circling the island. This Cami de Cavalls is perfect for a walk with an ocean view but it is even more suited to be conquered on horseback. As the citizens of Menorca adore their steeds, the island’s paths are perfectly equipped for galloping through the sea breeze. But it is not all sun and sports, here. With plenty of vineyards and gin distilleries on the island, you can just as well immerse yourself in its local culture on a terrace with a drink.
As a popular paradise close to home, plenty of direct flights head from London’s different airports to Menorca every day.
10. Mont Saint-Michel, France
Although it is – by far – the least exotic island in the list, the Mont Saint-Michel is the one to welcome the most visitors per square metres. Annually, over three and a half million people visit the three-square-kilometre isle. Located just a kilometre from Normandy’s coast, the Mont Saint-Michel is only an island for 12 hours a day. Because of the tides, the road between the island and the mainland is sometimes flooded and sometimes open. Today, however, a bridge welcomes you to the island at any hour of the day. Make sure to visit the iconic abbey on top and take your time to stroll through the picturesque streets. In the many cosy restaurants, you can eat the best French delicacies around in a most-enchanting décor. In fact, the island is so fairytale-like, that Disney used it as its main inspiration for Corona, the kingdom from the film Tangled.
From London Southend, both Air France and Flybe offer two direct flights to Rennes every day. From here, you can continue your trip to the island by car.
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