The swimming pigs of Exuma in the Bahamas. Photo / Forest Simon, Unsplash
There’s nothing like an island for capturing the imagination. Thomas Bywater suggests five stops to add to an island-hopping odyssey.
Full of scaly dragon blood trees and desert blooms – Socotra has been described as the Galapagos of the Middle East. Its position in the Indian Ocean, between Yemen and Somalia, has kept it off the radar of all but the most adventurous travellers. Since gaining weekly direct connections from Abu Dhabi it’s a little more accessible but not much. The Greeks claimed it was home to the mythical phoenix. You’ll not find any magical firebirds but there are plenty of other weird and wonderful plants and animals.
About 800 endemic species, according to Unesco. It’s not an easy place to get to and there’s not much in the luxury range, however Engage Socotra runs guided eco-tours to the island and helps run a conservation and community fund for the world heritage site.
Flores Island, Indonesia
Yes, here be dragons, but here also be underground caverns, volcanic pools and funnel-shaped padi fields.
Flores is famous for its reptile neighbours from the nearby islands of the Komodo National Park. The largest lizards in the world, the Komodo monitor can weigh in at more than 150kg. Guided tours are a must for naturalists.
Once you’ve satiated your Jurassic Park fantasy you don’t want to overlook the other amazing natural features of the lesser Sunda Islands. The Liang Bua caves are remarkable karst tunnels that, at one point, were home to tiny prehistoric humans. Yes, dragons and hobbits! However, the snorkelling and tropical coral of the 17 Islands Marine Park trump anything Tolkien could come up with.
The gateway to the park and Flores, Labuan Bajo is one and a half hours flight from Bali Denpasar, with plenty of accommodation options from luxurious to basic.
Pig Bay Exuma, Bahamas
The phrase “Bay of Pigs” conjures a lot of mixed emotions in the Caribbean, unless of course you are in the Bahamas. In the Exuma islands, on Big Major Cay, there is a beach full of swimming, piebald pigs.
The porcine bathers are an extra surreal sight in the clear Caribbean sea. The semi-feral pigs learned to swim to the swineherds who came to feed them. Now they swim for kayakers and pleasure cruisers. There are only about 30 pigs in total but they have become celebrities. Thousands of visitors arrive every year by float plane from Nassau or boat from Staniel Cay.
Swimming pigs aren’t the strangest animals in the Bahamas’ menagerie of animals. Visitors often take a detour to dive with toothless nurse sharks and black rock iguanas at Compass and Bitter Guana Cays. There are a number of operators offering island-hopping day tours from Nassau with itineraries that read more like Gulliver’s Travels than a Caribbean charter.
Saadiyat Island, UAE
Everybody’s seen pictures of The World Islands. The Atlas-shaped archipelago which can be seen from the Palm Jumeirah is one of the UAE’s most visible white elephants – 20 years on and the 300 manmade sandbars are still mostly empty.
On the other side of the Emirates you’ll find a far more successful attempt to engineer a pleasure isle: Saadiyat Island or the “Island of Happiness” is a more complete offering. On the waterfront of Abu Dhabi you’ll find the Louvre’s Middle East outpost. The contemporary art gallery, the largest in the UAE, is in an impressive domed structure near the Saadiyat Public Beach. Here you’ll find sand, sea . . . and more sand.
For a more exclusive stay the Pura Eco Resort on Jubail is located in the nearby mangroves on boardwalks and sandbars. Offering yoga, kayaking and birdwatching in the wetlands – the towering Abu-Dhabi skyline looks like a mirage on the horizon.
Ogasawara Islands, Japan
Only two of the 30 Japanese outer islands are inhabited by humans, Chichijima and the rest hold only the weirdest and most wonderful nature you’ll find anywhere in the Pacific. You’ll find Japanese wood pigeon, bright tiger beetles, honeyeater birds. The outer islands are full of white sand beaches and volcanic coves. Minamijima island is particularly stunning for its rock arches and enclosed white sand lagoon at Ogi-ike beach. It’s a perfectly contained launchpad for kayaks or snorkelling. Guided tours and cruises are limited to 100 visitors a day to protect the delicate natural ecosystem. There are also strict biosecurity measures on the islands, as you would expect. For this reason there is no off-trail hiking or camping allowed on the outer islands.
The only way to get there is by the 24-hour Ogasawara-maru Ferry, which departs Tokyo three times a week in high season.