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Updated: 15th February 2024
In the past handful of years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit many incredible islands I only thought I’d ever see in my dreams. I’ve written about some of the best islands to visit for unique, local experiences before. But here, I thought I’d focus on those that are a little heavier on the wallet – and which are my winners when comparing the likes of the Maldives with Mauritius or two popular Caribbean beach getaways.
Maldives vs Mauritius, Aruba or Antigua – these are some of the most famous, expensive and luxurious island vacations you can have. Having now been to all four (plus Fiji, because I couldn’t leave that beauty out), I’ve learnt a thing or two about not only cutting costs when heading to these bougie boltholes but also which island truly shines brightest.
This is, of course, my subjective opinion, and depending on where you live, the flight times and costs might dictate which one of these luxury islands is best to visit. But below, I’ll try to compare the best reasons to visit each of these archipelagos.
Maldives vs Mauritius
Pristine sands and swaying palms, idyllic resorts, and legendary status – deciding between Maldives and Mauritius is actually pretty easy. I found these two island destinations a world apart from each other.
Best for: Direct overnight flights from the UK | Watersports or epic hikes | Rum and culinary lovers | Friends, families or couples
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. Plus, the absolute warmth of everyone I met was infectious. Unlike the Maldives, where I felt I didn’t really have the chance to interact with locals (as I was on a resort island; of course, it’s different if you go independent on a local island), I really appreciated all of the local insight and connections I made.
Overall, Mauritius was truly one of the most surprising destinations 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 so many fantastic places to visit in Mauritius. 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 reaching the clouds, multicoloured Chamarel sands, and giant tortoises. Spots such as the majestic Grand Bassin, a lake surrounded by Hindu statues and temples, are also great for learning more about local culture.
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 activities to keep you entertained, Mauritius indeed will oblige.
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.
Best for: Indulgent luxury | Overwater bungalows | Big budgets | A couple bolthole with limited distractions
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 combining 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.
The Adaaran Club Rannalhi ended up being a really surprising bargain, massively helped by being able to take a free boat transfer from Male rather than needing an expensive seaplane. I actually added 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, were under $50. Still, it’s fair to say while the flights might have been cheaper to the Maldives than in Mauritius, I found that accommodation is significantly more expensive here.
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 and lapping azure waters wore off, I had itchy feet and was kinda ready to get to Sri Lanka a few days in.
Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful white sands – especially when your small, private island is necklaced by them. However, I also love exploring, meeting local people, and enjoying activities. And while scuba diving, snorkelling, and unlimited water activities were all fantastic, I can’t say the Maldives was the best place I’ve ever experienced those.
However, if you’re heading to one of the private island resorts and want a check-in and absolutely chill-out kinda indulgent break – a true, special, unforgettable holiday – the Maldives absolutely beats Mauritius. It just very much depends on the kind of vacation you want.
Cost-saving tips: Everything I’ve said above applies if you’re heading to a private resort island – the most common form of travel in the Maldives. However, 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, that 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 in the neighbouring nation.
Mauritius vs the Maldives – Which is my winner?
Chalk and cheese. You can have a luxury resort escape on each of them – but if you want true get-away-from-it-all indulgence, an overwater Bungalow in the Maldives wins. However, if you want a treat-yourself escape with the chance for culture, delicious cuisines, and exciting day trips, Mauritius beats the Maldives a thousand times over.
Aruba or Antigua
These two beautiful Caribbean islands are both well known for their sensational shorelines, beautiful resorts, and colourful capital cities. But which should you book – Aruba or Antigua?
Best for: Visiting from the USA | Families, friends, or couples | Happy vibes | Scuba diving
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. This small Caribbean island 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, especially, provides numerous activities, from historical cave paintings to a cacti-stewed landscape with roaming goats, donkeys and off-roading adventures. And while kayaking and ziplining are fun in Antigua, I think Aruba has the edge on activities and things to do – especially as they are easier to enjoy without needing a tour from your resort.
For sure, a popular way to visit islands such as Aruba is with a glamorous vacation package to the Caribbean – however, it’s really not needed. Getting around the cultural offerings isn’t a challenge. 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 that is being revived through incredible street art and colourful facades, will give you a taster that will leave you wanting to return. But on the flip side, many would argue that Antigua and Barbuda’s carnival leads the way and that perhaps the twin islands retain more of their “authentic culture” than Aruba.
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. Off-season travel (April – August) is when you will see lower accommodation rates, although the weather is similar all year round as Aruba is outside the hurricane belt.
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.
Best for: Total beach relaxation | Relatively reasonably prices all-inclusives | Adult-only or family-friendly resorts
Welcome to Antigua, one-half of Antigua and Barbuda, where beautiful beaches are in abundance, and all-inclusive resorts hug prime positions along the stunning coastline. The joy of Antigua is you can be as relaxed and totally guilt-free as you like. 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 it would be impossible. So, if luxurious resorts away from busy, public beaches are more your thing, Antigua is likely going to impress more than Aruba.
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-looking 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 island’s 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!
Cost-saving tips: The best way to save money in Antigua is to opt for an all-inclusive resort if you are looking to stay on the luxurious side. Or, take a local guesthouse near Saint John’s for a more budget-friendly stay. Visiting during the off-season, 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 366 incredible beaches – 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.
Aruba or Antigua – Which is my winner?
For me, Aruba is the winner of this Caribbean face-off. Antigua’s beaches are abundant and beautiful for sure, but I found Aruba to have a little more to offer, and it was easier to explore and ‘get beyond the resort’, so to speak, as there’s more tourism infrastructure for DIY travel than Antigua. If you want to check in to a top-notch resort, enjoy private beaches, and maybe take a day trip or two, Antigua could be your winner. Seeking an even more natural, wild island? Dominica is where you’ll find an adventure – and a chunk of my heart!
Or how about the South Pacific: Fiji
Best for: Visiting from the Pacific and west coast USA | Families | Backpacker island hopping | Culture
I couldn’t leave the South Pacific out. Especially Fiji, where I felt like I was being welcomed home by friends from the very 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. Laughter and smiles crack as often as coconuts here, and you can really tailor your island experience to suit you.
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. And that’s why, I guess, for many, the other islands and archipelagos above are better – the flights are shorter and less expensive. But perhaps the Pacific is on your radar. And if so, you’re gonna love Fiji.
Fiji’s main archipelago gateway is the island of Viti Levu, with Suva, the main cruise port, and Nadi, the airport. 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 some luxury resort deals.
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 in a safe, family-friendly environment.
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 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 – including gatecrashing (accidentally) one of the most beautiful private resort islands I’ve ever seen: Castaway Island. 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 they 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 are great ways to start learning more about Fijian culture beyond the coastline.