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Updated: 22nd June 2019
In the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some islands I thought I would only ever see in my dreams, or as a laptop computer screen. I’ve written about some of the best islands to visit in the world, but here I’m going to focus on the ones that are a little heavier on the wallet.
Aruba, Antigua, Fiji, the Maldives and Mauritius are some of the most famed, and expensive, island vacations you can have. Having now been to all five, I’ve learnt a thing or two about not only cutting costs but also about which ones stand out the most for me.
This is, of course, my personal take, and depending on where you live the flight times and costs might dictate which one to visit, but below I’ll try to highlight the best reasons to visit each of these luxury islands. (For those interested, Mauritius takes my top spot with the Maldives, at least the resort island style of exploring the country, not appealing to me).
Aruba may be best known for its resorts and palm-fringed beaches, bustling casinos and sometimes chaotic cruise port, but drive five minutes away from these, and you’ll find an untouched landscape ripe for adventures.
It may be a small island, but this Caribbean destination certainly packs a punch when it comes to outside activities. From the rugged beaches and incredible snorkelling to the slightly deeper scuba diving adventures around shipwrecks and sunken aeroplanes, the water life here ticks all the boxes.
The Arikok National Park also provides numerous activities, from historical cave paintings to a cacti stewed landscape with roaming goats, donkeys and off-roading adventures.
For sure, a popular way to visit islands such as Aruba is with a glamorous vacation package to the Caribbean – however, you shouldn’t miss out on some of the cultural offerings. The Aruba Carnival, for example, which runs from January to March each year is the big draw. As the streets come alive with colourful and bejewelled outfits, steel drums and brass bands ring out through the streets, and the passion and hospitality of the locals shine.
Fear not though, for if you visit outside of these months the Thursday festivals in San Nicolas, the second city which is being revived through incredible street art and colourful facades, will give you a taster that will leave you wanting to return.
Best for: Visiting from the USA | Families | Happy Vibes | Scuba Diving
Cost saving tips: Aruba is a pretty pricey destination, and affordable accommodation is scarce. Forward planning will be the key to saving money here, though renting an apartment with a kitchen will allow you to bring costs down.
Also, if you rent a 4WD you’ll be able to explore the national park without a tour and hit up more local, and thus cheaper, restaurants away from the resort beaches. Off-season travel (April – August) is when you will see lower accommodation rates, although the weather is similar all year round.
Don’t miss: The standout of Aruba for me was in its authentic side. Nothing captures this more than the annual Aruba carnival which takes place from January to March each year. Colourful outfits, smiling dancers, and big bands bring the streets to life making it the perfect time to visit, though be sure to secure that accommodation in advance!WATCH: A QUICK VIDEO GUIDE TO ARUBAREAD MORE: ONE WEEK IN ARUBA TRAVEL GUIDE
Welcome to Antigua, one half of Antigua and Barbuda, where beautiful beaches are in abundance, and all-inclusive resort hug prime positions along the stunning coastline.
The joy of Antigua is you can be as relaxed as you like, and totally guilt-free. Unlike some other islands I’ve visited, where I’ve felt the need to rush around doing a tonne of activities, and not allowing myself any beach time, life is so focused on the water here that would be impossible.
Resorts vary from the super-opulent and luxurious, to the more family-friendly Verandah Resort where I stayed. The unlimited non-electric water-sports, great food and quality drinks, and the rather private feeling wooden bungalows made it a fantastic option without breaking the bank.
Of course, you should make time to venture from your resort though, and there are a variety of options: from tours around the islands historical and cultural sights to scuba-diving and party nights at the iconic Shirley Heights viewpoint, an R&R beach trip to Antigua can be topped up with a couple of excursions, and rum punches!
Best for: Total beach relaxation | relatively reasonable all-inclusive’s
Cost saving tips: The best way to save money in Antigua is to either opt for an all-inclusive resort if you are looking to stay on the luxurious side. Visiting during the off-season which is May to November will also see slightly lower prices, though there is a risk of hurricanes. The public buses in Antigua, which cover a lot of the island and operate quite regularly will also be a lot cheaper than using taxis if you decide to visit St John’s, the capital of the island.
Don’t miss: It’s an obvious one, but the incredible beaches, there are at least 365 of these, or one for every day of the year as locals will happily highlight. While I didn’t get a chance to visit Barbuda, the second half of this nation on this trip, I’ve been told for the most untouched beaches; you should undoubtedly venture there via a short flight or more extended sailing connection.
Fiji felt like being welcomed home by friends from the first Bula! Arriving at customs with a guitar serenade put on by the airport, the island vibes, or Fiji time as the locals call it, began straight away.
Fiji had always been a huge bucket list dream for me, as from my little old home in the UK it couldn’t feel more distant. The first thing you’ll notice in Fiji is the warmth and welcome of the locals. Laughter and smiles crack as often as coconuts here, and you can really tail your island experience to suit you.
The main island, Viti Levu, is home to Suva the main cruise port and Nadi the airport, and as such is the gateway to the archipelago. Backpacker travel is starting to grow here, based out of Nadi, thanks to more affordable options sprouting up around the airport and plenty of day trips from Nadi. A short drive away at Denarau Island, though not really an island, is where you’ll find the luxury resorts.
Island Hopping is the name of the game here, especially if you want to visit some of the most pristine sands and escapes Fiji has to offer. The cost of these can quickly mount up though, but boats, including liveaboards and multiday trips, are preferred here to the crazy expensive seaplanes in the Maldives.
Fiji still felt quite real to me, as soon as I stepped out of the resorts, and I think that’s something you won’t always find on heavily touristed islands. Whether you want to relax on a beach with a massage, do watersports off a private island, stroll through lush national parks or embrace the cultural side of island life, Fiji offers everything up in a safe, family-friendly environment.
Best for: Visiting from the Pacific and west coast USA | Families | Backpacker island hopping | Culture
Cost saving tips: Fiji is quite pricey, but a handful of backpackers and hostels around Nadi offer cheap rates although not at the best beaches. Look at Feejee Experience for some more inexpensive multi-day island hopping adventures.
My friends and I actually befriended some local fishermen on two occasions and joined them on their boat for the day, it indeed wasn’t a luxury ship, but we had a great laugh with them and saw some beautiful islands. Off-season travel (November -April) also significantly cuts the costs, but this is when storms are much more common.
Don’t miss: The Yasawa Islands, which although are some of the most pricey islands to visit, offer up some of the best views of pristine islands you’ll ever see. Also, be sure to embrace the cultural aspects of Fiji beyond the Kava ceremonies, hiring a local guide and heading inland is a great way to start to learn more about the island and its culture. The tour company I work for offers tours with local Fijian experiences.
The island nation of Mauritius, tucked away off the south-eastern African coast might conjure up ideas of untouched beaches and honeymoon escapes, and it offers that aplenty, but there is also much more to discover beyond the beaches.
Mauritius was truly one of the most surprising destinations of 2018 for me, I knew the sands would be white, and the lapping waves would be calling, but it was the island adventures and the sheer number of things to do in Mauritius that really surprised me.
From crashing waterfalls without a soul in sight to rum distilleries and cocktails for days, there are countless reasons to visit Mauritius. None other than the hospitality and warmth of the locals. To start to get a true sampling of the island life, leave the resort and head to the central market in the capital of Port Louis before venturing off to explore the monkey-ridden hikes.
Inland, you’ll also find tea plantations dangling in the crowds and multicoloured sand parks drawing in the crowds. Mauritius reminded me a little of a small Sri Lanka, and that is certainly no bad thing. A bevvy of new AirBnB options is also making Mauritius a more affordable destination than many would imagine.
Snorkelling off the beaches around Le Morne, the UNESCO mountain towering on the tip of Mauritius is incredible, with the water and visibility some of the best I’ve ever seen. If you want a beach holiday but with plenty of adventure activities to keep you entertained, Mauritius indeed will oblige.
Best for: Direct overnight flights from the UK | Watersports combined with epic hikes | Rum and culinary lovers | Friends, families or couples
Cost saving tips: Accommodation really does not have to cost a fortune in Mauritius and I was amazed to find guest houses and apartments to rent for as little as $20. The bus network in Mauritius will also allow you to visit some key sights, though hiring a car will give you the most freedom.
Don’t miss: The festivals of Mauritius are plentiful and a fantastic time to visit. Cavadee Festival which happens between January/February includes firewalking and sword climbing as the devotees travel to the temples with their offerings. Holi, the colourful Hindu festival is also celebrated here in March while February brings perhaps one of the most impressive festivals, Maha Shivaratree.
Taking place in the majestic Grand Bassin, the lake surrounded by temples, it has been likened to a small version of the festivals which take place along the Ganges of India.
The Maldives had never really been on my ‘must visit list’, but when my now ex told me it was on theirs, I started looking for affordable ways to make it happen.
After combing the trip with flights to Sri Lanka and hunting around for good value all-inclusive accommodation, it was made possible through great deals, travelling offseason slightly and selecting a private island with included boat transfers, as the seaplane transfers increase costs significantly. I also ditched the dream of an overwater bungalow as the insane cost hike from one on the beach made my eyes water.
I loved my first few days in the Maldives: there indeed is something special about waking up on the water’s edge, or being able to sip on unlimited cocktails at sunset, but after the excitement of the never-ending food and drinks wore off, I was ready to leave.
I’m not really a beach person, in the sense that after a couple of hours I get itchy feet. While the snorkelling and unlimited water activities were great, I started to feel a little trapped being on an island with just the resort bars and restaurants to visit. I completely get why this would be a dream destination for some, but it wasn’t mine.
Once I had started looking into perhaps going island hopping, and realised the cost was insane by seaplane, I settled back into enjoying my book and hanging out in the warm waters. For me, given the price of the trip and the offering, I think there are far better island vacations where you can enjoy equal luxury and privacy, but with more to do.
Best for: Romantic Escapes | Switch off Vacations | Expensive Island Hopping
Cost saving tips: As I’ve said above, solo and non-resort travel is booming right now in the Maldives, and homestays and guest houses on the inhabited local islands are a fraction of the cost of luxury resorts. If you have the luxury of time, but not money, an island hopping adventure on local boats, to local islands, is undoubtedly the most exciting way to explore the Maldives. Be aware though; local laws make alcohol illegal in the Maldives outside of resorts and as per local customs, you may need to cover up fully when on beaches at certain islands.
Don’t miss: Tie in your visit to the Maldives with a trip to Sri Lanka, combining luxury beach escapes with a multitude of adventures and activities available at the neighbouring nation. I actually added on my Maldives visit to my trip to Sri Lanka as when flying with Sri Lanka airways, the extra flights to the Maldives when booked together was under $50.