For a relatively small continent, Europe has some extraordinary coastlines. Their variety is dizzying, from sheltered rocky coves fringed with olive trees to vast stretches of soft sandy beaches. Whittling down the list for possible beach holidays in Europe can be tough, so here are a few places that will get you in the mood for lazy days in the sun.

1. Find paradise in Rab, Croatia

Sandy beaches are a rarity in Croatia, but on this small island in the Kvarner Gulf, you’ve got 22 to choose from. Rab’s aptly named Paradise Beach on the Lopar peninsula is a good place to start for a relaxing beach holiday, with a 1.5km sweep of sand and clear shallow waters. Or take a half-hour hike through woods to reach Sahara Beach in a sheltered inlet – a popular spot for naturists.

2. Take the plunge in Tropea, Italy

It’s hard to find a beach with a more dramatic backdrop than Tropea’s steep cliffs, where brightly coloured houses cling on, seemingly in defiance of gravity. Down in Italy’s toe, Calabria’s prettiest town hovers over several sandy beaches as well as a rocky promontory topped by the church of Santa Maria dell’Isola. Calabria is one of Italy’s least developed regions, and its warmth comes not just from the southern sun and the famously spicy cuisine.

3. Spin those wheels in Ile de Ré, France

Everyone’s on a bike on this chilled-out French Atlantic island, where 100km of cycle trails wind past sandy beaches, vineyards, salt pans and pine forests. Head inland where oyster beds hint at the gorgeous seafood on offer at the food market in the village of La Flotte. After a day on the dunes at Sainte-Marie-de-Ré’s beach, try one of the quayside cafés in St-Martin-de-Ré.

4. Go back in time in Norfolk, England

Norfolk’s North Sea coast might not have the balmy climate of its Continental counterparts, but the six kilometres of Holkham beach’s soft and often empty sands are very tempting all the same. Rent a bike and check out the Norfolk Coast Cycleway along the coast to Wells-next-the-Sea, where rustic beach huts give the area an old-fashioned charm.

5. Chill out in Paxos, Greece

Strap on your swimming shoes to get the most out of the long rocky beach at Monodendri on the east coast of Paxos. You’ll be able to see every detail of the pebbles in the sparkling waters of the Ionian Sea here. Pine and olive trees offer shade, and both of the beach restaurants serve classic Greek dishes; one even has an outdoor pool.

6. Find peace on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast

Just north of Bulgaria’s border with Turkey are some of the country’s least developed beaches. Start in the small village of Sinemorets and work your way down the indented coast, where quiet golden-sand beaches are surrounded by protected nature reserves and pine forests. Bring your own picnic to the secluded sands of Lipite Beach and Silistar Beach, as you won’t find the bars and clubs that dominate the resorts further north.

7. Laid-back Liguria, Italy

There’s a wonderfully traditional and mellow air to the beach at Santa Margarita Ligure. Away from the smart yachts in the pleasure port, you can still watch the fishermen offload their catch, destined for the seafront restaurants. The town makes a good base for exploring this part of Italy’s Ligurian coast, with classy Portofino just to the west and the exquisite Cinque Terre villages a short train ride away.

8. Go wild in Galicia, Spain

The Costa da Morte in Spain’s north-western tip might be known as the Coast of Death – thanks to a few too many nineteenth-century shipwrecks – but its beaches are heavenly. Carnota is the longest beach in Galicia, a wild seven-kilometre stretch of white sand backed by marshland, dunes and mountains. Stroll along the wooden walkways that cross the marshes and catch glimpses of herons and other wildlife.

9. Lose yourself in Languedoc, France

The windswept coast of France’s Languedoc region seems to go on forever as it stretches from the Camargue to the Spanish coast (when it technically becomes Roussillon). Even in the height of summer, there’s plenty of sandy beach to go round. On the western fringe of the Camargue is Plage de l’Espiguette, nearly ten kilometres of untamed dunes and, refreshingly, not much else. If it’s beach bars you’re after, head to nearby Le Grau-du-Roi or La Grande Motte.

10. Go off the rails in Rügen, Germany

Germany’s largest island is also one of its most popular holiday destinations, a fascinating mix of Victorian resorts, long sandy beaches and a national park with imposing chalk cliffs. The most entertaining way of getting around Rügen is by the historic steam railway which connects its eastern beaches. For one of the strangest relics of Nazi Germany, stop at Prora and check out the ruins of what was supposed to be the world’s largest beach resort.

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With its mountainous coastal backdrop, scattering of tawny islands and giddyingly translucent waters, the Croatian Adriatic offers one of the most compelling seascapes in Europe.

Indeed it’s something of an island-hopper’s paradise, with a veritable shoal of ferries providing the opportunity to stride up the gangplank, sprawl on the sun deck and soak up the maritime scenery.

And with a recent increase in the number of sea and air connections, there’s never been a better time to raise anchor.

Where to start

Where you start largely depends on which airport you fly into. The mid-Dalmatian city of Split receives the largest number of incoming flights and is also the Adriatic Sea’s largest ferry port, serving the ever-popular islands of Šolta, Hvar, Brač, Korčula and Vis.

Dubrovnik is also a useful gateway thanks to its catamaran services to Mljet, Lastovo, Korčula and Hvar.

The two other entry points are the northern city of Rijeka, providing access to a varied group of islands in the Kvarner Gulf; and the north Dalmatian port of Zadar, with its own group of laid-back island getaways.

How to get around

Car ferries run by state company Jadrolinija serve the main islands, providing public transport for the locals as well as sustaining island tourism.

Faster and slightly more expensive than the ferries, passenger-only catamarans run by both Jadrolinija and Krilo Jet whizz across the water to a selection of destinations.

In summer 2015 a fleet of seaplanes run by European Coastal Airlines started flying from Pula, Rijeka and Split to Lošinj, Hvar, Korčula and Lastovo, adding significantly to the number of itineraries on offer.

When to go

It is possible to island-hop all year round, although sailings to particular islands might be limited to one a day in winter. Wait until the summer timetables come into effect (usually June–Sept) to take advantage of the full range of options.

Note that some routes (such as the Veli Lošinj-Zadar ferry or the Split-Hvar-Dubrovnik catamaran) only run in summer.

July and August can be very hot indeed – perfect for splashing around in the Adriatic but potentially exhausting if you are indulging in urban sightseeing, not to mention hiking or cycling.

Some of the catamaran sailings can sell out in high season, raising the chances of you getting stranded at least once during your trip.

Costs are also at their highest in midsummer, when accommodation prices go through the roof. Travel in late spring or early autumn and you’ll get better value all round.

The classic circuit

The most popular island-hopping itinerary is from Split to Dubrovnik via Brač, Hvar and Korčula. This allows you to see the very best of Dalmatia and is relatively easy to do.

There are numerous ferries from Split to Supetar on Brač, from where you can cross the island to visit the fabulous (but over-popular) Zlatni rat beach at Bol. A daily catamaran sails from Bol to Jelsa on Hvar, from where regular buses will take you to Hvar Town and its compulsive mixture of Renaissance architecture and cocktail-fuelled nights.

There’s a daily catamaran service from Hvar Town to Korčula, where another seductive blend of past glory and present-day hedonism awaits. From here, you can choose between a catamaran or bus ride to Dubrovnik, which makes for a suitably spectacular climax to your trip.

Don’t rush it

The only problem with the classic island circuit is that it can sometimes seem like an oversubscribed exercise in box-ticking, and you really need to give each island time in order to get the most out of the experience.

Consider a side-trip to sleepy, understated Šolta, the nearest island to Split, with its dry-stone-walled olive groves and picture-perfect harbour villages, Maslinica and Stomorska.

Once on Brač, avoid Zlatni rat and make for less-hyped beaches like Lovrečina Bay, or the rocky shores around bike-friendly Sutivan.

On Hvar, don’t just stick to the main town but find time for the equally historic but decidedly more mellow Stari Grad.

It’s a shame to go to Korčula without visiting Proizd, the famously alluring rocky islet just off the port of Vela Luka.

Make time for Vis

Very much an independent traveller’s favourite due to the relative lack of package hotels, Vis is the kind of island that attracts superlatives, whether on account of its rugged scenery, stunning beaches, individual cuisine, or its increasingly cool reputation for offshore bohemia (check out this year’s Goulash Disko Festival in early September).

However Vis is also notoriously difficult to island-hop, with Tuesday morning’s catamaran service to Hvar Town the only link to a nearby island. All other ferry transport goes through Split, meaning that you have to track back to the mainland before travelling onwards. Providing you study the timetable carefully, the diversion to Vis will be well worth the effort.

Don’t forget the north

The islands of the northern Adriatic can be just as rewarding as those of the south. Catamaran services from Rijeka allow you to sample some highly individual, under-touristed islands, alongside increasingly sophisticated Lošinj, the rising star of Adriatic chic.

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The uniquely sandy island of Susak ought to be your first stop, followed by bustling Mali Lošinj with its sleek spa hotels and palm-fringed promenades. From here you can travel on to Silba, a snoozy Shangri-la of independent travel where cars and even bicycles are banned. From Silba, head south by catamaran or ferry to the historic port of Zadar (gateway to another group of low-key islands), or return to Lošinj, where one of European Coastal Airlines’ seaplanes will whisk you down the coast to Split, ready to start your island-hopping adventures all over again.

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It’s not just appearance that makes up the beauty of a place. Often, travellers will cite the people as the most beautiful thing about a country or culture. In Southeast Asia, there’s no doubt there is beauty in every form – and now our readers have voted to decide which countries are the most beautiful. Here are Southeast Asia’s most beautiful countries ranked by our readers.

7. Thailand

An ever-popular backpacking destination, we’re surprised to see Thailand at the bottom of this list. That’s not to say it’s not beautiful, though. With brochure-worthy beaches in almost every bay and some luscious mountain landscapes, there’s plenty to wow travellers in Thailand. And, of course, the people are indeed beautiful – they were even voted some of the friendliest in the world by our readers.

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6. Laos

This little nation sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam sits in a similar position here. Laos has no coastline to woo travellers seeking pristine beaches, but instead there are some picturesque waterfalls perfect for swimming beneath, plus one of Southeast Asia’s most charming little towns: Luang Prabang.

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5. Vietnam

If the karst rock formations of Ha Long Bay, jutting out of a cerulean sea, aren’t enough to inspire awe, then perhaps the tiered terraces of Sa Pa might just make your heart beat faster. There’s a lot more to Vietnam’s beauty though, including the evocative ruins of Mỹ Sơn and a string of pretty little beaches along its coastline. Not forgetting one of the world’s greatest rivers, the Mekong, and its lush delta in the south of the country.

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4. The Philippines

An archipelago of more than seven thousand islands, The Philippines earns its place as the fourth most beautiful country in Southeast Asia. The island of Palawan is one of the most picturesque spots, with azure waterways flowing between vast rocky cliffs that drop sheer to the water. For some otherworldly beauty, head to the “Chocolate Hills” on Bohol, an undulating landscape of 40-metre-high grassy mounds.

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3. Cambodia

Voted the world’s friendliest country by our readers, it’s no wonder Cambodia takes a top spot in this list too. No-one could deny that, despite the crowds, sunrise at Angkor Wat is a stunning sight. But Cambodia’s beauty extends beyond ruined temple complexes and into brilliant beaches and fascinating floating communities.

2. Myanmar

Tourism in Myanmar has boomed since the NLD lifted its tourism boycott, and for good reason. The country has plenty of travel eye-candy on offer, whether you want to watch the fishermen on Inle Lake, see the sunrise over the thousands of temples in Bagan, or just slowly meander down the Irrawaddy and meet the smiling locals as you go. A deserving destination for second most beautiful in Southeast Asia.

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1. Indonesia

It’s Indonesia that’s captured the hearts and minds of our readers, taking the number one spot for most beautiful place in Southeast Asia. Its astonishing array of natural wonders would make even the most jaded traveller’s jaw drop: beyond the stunning beaches scattered across these 17,000 islands, there are pretty waterfalls, dense jungles and towering volcanoes.

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Richard Mellor explores Šibenik, a city tipped as Croatia’s next best tourist hotspot thanks to a new luxury hotel. 

It’s appropriate that the parachute’s inventor – one Faust Vrančić, if you’re asking – was born in Šibenik, for this Croatian backwater has its feet firmly on the ground. Having a recent history of battle and bombs will do that to a small city.

Just 40 minutes up the coast from Split’s international airport, Šibenik’s travel résumé includes great beaches on its Dalmatian coast, inland hiking and waterfalls, cool music festivals, an evocative old town, fine dining, a UNESCO-protected cathedral and fortresses used in Game of Thrones.

Now, crucially, a top-quality hotel can be added to that list. Previously, as written in the Rough Guide to Croatia, Šibenik’s only downside has been its relative lack of accommodation. But the arrival of the whitewashed D-Resort Šibenik has changed all that: courtesy of Turkish conglomerate Dogus, luxurious digs newly await.

To one side is a new marina, replete with super-yachts and their espadrille-wearing crew. From the other, motorboats scuttle across a short Adriatic Sea inlet to Šibenik’s harbour and tree-lined corniche. Glinting red-tile roofs sprawl mazily uphill, with the ancient St Michael’s Fortress keeping watch over proceedings.

Explore a quartet of fortresses

St Michael’s is one of four fortresses around Šibenik. Once a seat for the Croatian king, its defensive castles were still being used by locals as recently as 20 years ago, providing shelter during the Croatian War of Independence. Today, thankfully, an ongoing restoration programme has them attracting tourists instead.

Over to the southeast, Barone’s new audiovisual display reveals what fortress life was like for its seventeenth-century soldiers.

Skulking opposite is St John Fortress – a Game of Thrones set in 2014 – while out west is the eye-catching sea-castle of St Nicholas, built by ruling Venetians to guard the vital channel into Šibenik.

A new island-hopping path, elevated above the sea, allows visitors to admire its gun platform and impressive Adriatic views.

As for St Michael’s, around which Šibenik first sprung up, bands have replaced bullets: its eleventh-century stonework and myriad improvements now play host to a terraced, 1077-capacity concert venue, one costing a cool £1.2 million. The National, Lambchop, Nouvelle Vague and Thievery Corporation have all played, some of them during August’s annual Terraneo Summer Break festival.

See a classic Croatian cathedral

Šibenik’s real historical jewel, however, is its UNESCO-protected St James’s Cathedral. Much of the Dalmatian Coast’s finest architecture was designed by Juraj Dalmatinac in the mid-1400s, and this entirely-stone-built Gothic Renaissance edifice is considered his crowning glory, even if it wasn’t finished until 1536.

Praise be, in particular, for the silvery dome, reflecting light from far around. Look out, too, for a 71-head frieze, containing strange caricatures of fifteenth-century locals. Adam and Eve are there too, looking utterly ill at ease in being very obviously starkers.

Inside, English-language brochures enable self-guided tours. The highlight is the small baptistry, and its sublimely-carved roof and mischievous cherubs.

Dine afterwards at the excellent Pelegrini restaurant, which majors in regional dishes like truffle and prosciutto pappardelle and cuttlefish gnocchi.

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Amble around the Old Town

From the cathedral’s square slinks away Kralja Tomislava (Kalelarga to locals), Šibenik’s main street. Unexpectedly fancy boutiques sit alongside some more predictable shops hawking tourist tat.

Leading off Kalelarga are a jumble of stony stairways and narrow lanes, a maze whose sleepiness is interrupted only by occasional Vespas and the echo of footsteps. The elegant houses are Dalmatian-style, with dark green and blood-red-coloured shutters.

What really appeals is how Šibenik feels genuinely lived-in. Some alleys are left almost dim under canopies of clothes lines and cables. Old men sit smiling on stools outside their homes, wild rosemary grows and wafts of home cooking tease nostrils. Inside phone boxes, a religious sticker advertises salvation.

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Take to the waters

A ten-mile drive inland is the attractive Krka National Park, named after the river which bisects it. Hiking trails criss-cross, but the headline act is the Skradinski Buk series of 17 successive waterfalls at the park’s southern end.

Beneath the final cascades is a wide basin providing swimming opportunities: come summer weekends, locals strip to their speedos, shorts and bikinis to dive in, and a party atmosphere pervades.

Day-trip ferries from Šibenik serve the small islands of Zlarin and Prvić, where bistros and fig trees give way to peaceful, pebbled beaches.

Bathing’s very much an option at the D-Resort, too, with a large infinity pool neighbouring its spa, where facials, massage and hammam rituals are also offered.

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Among a certain segment of travellers, cruising is sometimes maligned: the dismal buffet and watered-down cocktails. Those kitschy lounge acts. The contrived shore excursions. But that, as they say, was then.

Cruising today, and especially river cruising, offers an entirely different experience, from celebrity chef-driven cuisine to stargazing lounges to bike rides along leafy canals.

River cruising is, in a way, ideal for those who don’t consider themselves cruisers: the ships are relatively small and intimate; land is always in sight, offering daily access to villages and towns; and dinners are elegant affairs at linen-topped tables, instead of noisy group melees.

Here are our five top picks for European river cruises, where the experience is the destination and the journey.

1. The Romantic Rhine, Germany

The Rhine has been immortalized for centuries: it inspired Richard Wagner to write his first opera, and the river’s famous Lorelei rock – supposedly helmed by a swirling-haired siren – has starred in poems, rock songs, and even as a Marvel Comics character.

Germany’s longest river is also one of Europe’s most beautiful cruise routes, particularly the 65-kilometre Middle Rhine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Romantic Rhine.”

During the Roman Empire, the Rhine was a strategic waterway, and looming over its banks are castles and crumbling fortresses that date back a thousand years.

The Rhine scenery is stunning – hilltop castles presiding over terraced, fragrant vineyards. Plus, there’s Riesling-tasting galore, the Mechanisches Muskikkabinett (Mechanical Museum) in Rüdesheim and a stop in Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university town.

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Travel with: CroisiEurope. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016, the family-owned CroisiEurope offers affordable prices, but amenities are on par with the highest-level ships: spacious decks, hotel-style beds, and elegant dining rooms with French menus developed by notable chefs Paul Bocuse and Marc Haeberlin.

2. The River of Gold, Portugal

The traditional fado songs of Portugal are soulful and poetic, much like cruising the country’s waterways. Explore the river Douro and sip aromatic port in the country’s birth city, Porto; explore the lively Spanish university city of Salamanca; and, ease into the evening to the mournful sounds of fado.

A cruise down the Douro glides past looming rock formations and the Valerian and Pocinho Dams, to Barca d’Alva, with an excursion to Castelo Rodrigo, surrounded by almond trees, and on to Pinhão and the Douro Wine District.

Along the way, sample Portuguese specialties like salt cod, caldo verde stew, and the country’s famous port wine.

Image by Viking River Cruises

Travel with: Viking River Cruises winds through Portugal on the Douro River, from the capital city of Lisbon to Porto and its Baroque cathedrals. Their Scandinavian-themed vessels also maximize scenery-watching, with panoramic windows throughout.

3. The Canals of Burgundy, France

Best known for its centuries-old winemaking traditions, Burgundy is going through a rebirth, with wine-tasting salons that are spotlighting the latest oenological tech products and new farm-to-fork restaurants and upmarket B&Bs.

A cruise here floats lazily through the heart of Burgundy, stopping at family wineries like Domaine Briday in the northern Côte Chalonnaise, which is known for its white wines and the sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne.

Highlights include the Chateau de Rochepot, crowned by Burgundian multicoloured glazed tiles; the medieval wine capital of Beaune; and, above all, the barge’s slow pace. The full trip is around 75 miles, which you could cover in a morning drive in a rental car. Instead, this cruise can be spread out over six days, and the hypnotic movement of a barge is a powerful sedative, especially after a glass of Burgundy red.

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Travel with: French Country Waterways. The oldest U.S.-owned barge company operating in France, French Country Waterways is the elegant godmother of the canals. The ship interiors are done up in dark-wood paneling, plush sofas with tasseled pillows, and a grand communal dining table, laden with heavy silverware and flickering candles.

4. The Danube: Prague to Budapest

It’s shortly after that first beer lands on the table, with views of the city’s famous bridges glinting beyond, that Kafka’s famous quote hits home: “Prague never lets you go. This dear little mother has sharp claws.”

After a couple of days in Prague, it’s hard to escape its grip, but the Danube awaits. The river’s history unfolds along the way, with stops at medieval Regensburg; the Benedictine Abbey of Melk, one of the largest monasteries in Europe; and Passau, which rises over the convergence of the Inn, Ilz, and Danube rivers.

The cruise culminates in Vienna – where you’ll sample the famous sachertorte and ink-black coffee – and Budapest.

Enjoy sausages and a beer (or five) at Historische Wurstkuchl, Germany’s oldest restaurant in Regensburg; an evening of opera in Vienna and crossing beneath the 1849 Chain Bridge in Budapest.

Image by Avalon Waterways

Travel with: Avalon Waterways. Launched in 2003, Avalon Waterways has among the newest ships on Europe’s waters, with ample rooms with sliding glass doors, a sky deck with whirlpool, and stylish dining quarters.

5. The Norwegian fjords

Few sights accompany the morning coffee better than the sun rising over Noregian fjords. Greet the first light of day on the deck, as your ship glides around a bend and Norway’s cliffs come into focus, rising like skyscrapers over the waters.

Embark on a twelve-day trip from Bergen to Kirkenes, which includes Ålesund, with its Art Nouveau architecture, and Tromsø, the capital of the Arctic.

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Travel with: Hurtigruten. On most other cruises, you’ll see the same passengers day in and out, but take the Hurtigruten ship and the faces change daily, since it also functions as a commuter route, with locals hopping on for short jaunts up and the down the coast.

And, don’t underestimate the allure of nostalgia: one of Hurtigruten’s most popular ships is the MS Lofoten – it launched in 1964, and little has changed since then. The ship celebrates the vintage era, with cargo loaded by traditional crane; gleaming wood and brass throughout, as well as oil paintings of coastal Norway; and sherry served on silver trays.

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We’ve all heard of the big hitters, such as Ibiza, Corsica and Sicily, but what about Europe’s lesser known islands? Have you ever dreamt of mixing it up with a windswept, heart-pumping hike on the remote hills of Foula? Or kicking through the sweeps of sand that pass for roads on La Graciosa?

It pays to follow your inner Robinson Crusoe and break away from the crowds in Europe. Here are 7 European islands you’ve probably never heard of, but should definitely consider for your next holiday.

For hikers: Foula, Scotland

It’s worth the effort of getting to the UK’s most remote inhabited island, especially as you might catch glimpse of a minke whale or an orca as you cruise across the Atlantic by ferry from Shetland’s mainland.

The reward on a remote outpost the Romans dubbed their ultima thule, literally ‘the end of the world’, is jaw-dropping hiking. The chances are you won’t see another human as you vault across the island’s lofty peaks (the highest, The Sneug, soars to 418m), but watch out for the bonxies. These giant great skuas don’t appreciate visitors and have been known to knock hikers clean off their feet.

Image by Robin McKelvie

For beach bums: Porto Santo, Portugal

No doubt you will have heard of Madeira, but what about its Macaronesian neighbour Porto Santo? It may only be less than 8km wide and 15km long, but this little gem packs a proper beach punch.

The main attraction is the epic sweep of golden sand right by the ferry landing that stretches off for over 7km into the distance. Savvy visitors from Portugal’s mainland know all about the sandy charms of this relaxed island, but few other Europeans have yet to descend en masse, even though there are plenty of decent hotels and restaurants on hand.

Image by Ghost of Electricity on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For explorers: Saaremaa, Estonia

Ok, we won’t lie, the Baltic Sea is not the world’s warmest, but try telling that to the citizens of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, who flock here to laze around on the brilliant beaches and take a bracing dip in summer.

We recommend venturing here in spring (winter is extremely cold and summer can be busy), when you have a better chance of snaring one of the cosy wooden houses that snuggle in this tree-shrouded oasis. Hire a bike and head off looking for seals and seabirds, just steer clear of the bears, who we’ve heard are also occasional visitors.

Image by Kristjan Klementi on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For a secret escape: Lastovo, Croatia

The emphasis here is on the ‘Last’ in Lastovo: from here there’s only open Adriatic all the way across to Italy. Most travellers these days know the Croatian tourist hotspots of Hvar and Brač, but this relaxed charmer remains relatively untrammelled by tourism, at least in part due to the vagaries of the ferry timetable.

This outlying island boasts a rich sweep of Venetian-era architecture, with its natural attractions recognised by the Croatian government who have declared it a protected nature park. The local waters also dish up a rich bounty of seafood, the best of which is the plump local lobster, or jastog, which is best enjoyed simply grilled.

Image by Lauren Jane on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For relaxed ramblers: Graciosa, Spain

Forget images of bronzed sunbathers jostling for beach space in the Canary Isles. Bounce over the rough surf from Lanzarote and slip on a pair of sandals as you ease into Graciosa time on this remote isle.

There are no roads as such, just sweeps of sand that shift between the low-rise whitewashed houses of the island capital of Caleta del Sebo.

Embark on an epic walk around the north of the island, taking in one of the five volcanoes or the white sands of Playa de las Conchas, before returning to rest your weary feet in one of Caleta del Sebo’s fresh seafood restaurants.

Image by Gerard Girbes Berges on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For dramatic landscapes: Viðoy, the Faroe Islands

Most people struggle to place the Faroe Islands accurately on a map let alone name one of the islands. This dramatic volcanic archipelago may only harbour fewer than 50,000 residents, but the island of Viðoy is home to what the locals claim are the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

Hire a local guide to tackle the wild heights of the most northerly point in the Faroes, Cape Enniberg. These remarkable cliffs vault over 750m above the fuming Atlantic. Seabirds like it here, too, with one of the most impressive colonies in Europe.

Image by DavideGorla on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

For history buffs: Gozo, Malta

Everyone has heard of the deeply historic mainland of the island nation of Malta, but neighbouring Gozo sneaks under the radar a little.

Gozo has always often trod a separate path to the mainland, although it shares much of the same influences, with the Romans and the Phoenicians having breezed through, leaving their indelible traces.

The most striking site are the Ġgantija temples. Dating back to before Stonehenge was even thought of, these rocky remains are some of the oldest standing structures in Europe. The views are impressive from up here, too, with a whole swathe of the island opening up. There are also dramatic views from Gozo’s lofty citadel in the island capital of Victoria.

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For a few chunks of rock in the southern Mediterranean, Malta is a hugely versatile destination. Like its unique language, the country is an intriguing blend of Italian, Arabic and British influences, a legacy of centuries of invasion and assimilation.

As its capital, Valletta, gears up for a stint as European City of Culture in 2018, Andy Turner gives a rundown on how to get the most out of a visit, from Baroque palaces to beautiful beaches.

Bed down in a palace

Recent years have seen large areas of Valletta shrouded in scaffolding as its ancient palazzos are converted into swanky boutique hotels, partly in anticipation of the European City of Culture juggernaut hitting town in 2018.

One of the best is the Luciano Al Porto, with red-shuttered rooms leading off an elegant spiral staircase, and fine views over the Grand Harbour to go with your breakfast.

For a spot more luxury with Far Eastern touches try the Locanda La Gelsomina across the water in Vittoriosa. Here you can practice your warrior pose on the rooftop terrace of a 400-year-old palace.

A photo posted by Oliver Gatt (@olivergatt) on

Hit the road

Given Malta’s main island is is a fun-sized 27km by 14km, hiring a car gives you access to pretty much everywhere. While you will need to get to grips with local driving etiquette (take no prisoners and don’t bother indicating), barrelling along a coast road, preferably in a convertible, is hard to beat.

The Maltese-only road signs can prove confusing, so invest in a GPS. A circuit from Valletta, north to St Paul’s Bay (San Pawl il-Baħar), via the beach of Għajn Tuffieha and the Blue Grotto, another pretty coastal spot on the west coast, makes for a fun day out.

Just resist the temptation to take a “short cut” inland where you may end up on a rutted track following a horse and cart.

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Embrace beach life

Malta gets ferociously hot in high summer when everyone and their zija (auntie) heads to the nearest beach. The picture-postcard option is The Blue Lagoon, a shimmering expanse of turquoise water surrounding tiny Comino islet, between Malta and Gozo.

It’s well worth the day trip despite the inevitable crowds (arrive early if you want enough space to lay a beach towel).

“Paradise Bay” (yes, Malta knows how to market itself), a jet-ski ride south, lives up to its name with a pretty crescent of white sand accessed down a cliffside path.

If you really want somewhere off the beaten track try St Peter’s Pool in the far southeast. A stunning natural swimming pool, you’ll find locals (and adventurous dogs) diving from the limestone cliffs to cool off (bring everything you need as there are no facilities down here).

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Get cultured in the capital

Valletta, Malta’s capital, seems built for aimless wandering. Its grid of sun-dappled Baroque streets is punctuated by vintage shop signs, red British-era pillar boxes and ornate timber balconies.

Inside the gloriously over-the-top St John’s Co-Cathedral (“co” as it shares duties with another cathedral in Mdina), you’ll find two masterpieces by Caravaggio, completed while a guest of the Knights of St John in 1607 (that the painter was a wanted murderer at the time appears to have been a detail the knights were happy to overlook).

A block away, gleaming suits of armour stand guard along the marble corridors of the Grand Master’s Palace, worthy of a visit if only for its stunning tapestries depicting the exotic wildlife of the New World. A musket shot from here, Malta leaps into the twenty first century with its bold new parliament building by Renzo Piano.

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Go local for lunch (and dinner)

Ask a local to name a Maltese meal and they’ll probably dutifully mention rabbit stew, the de facto national dish. A dental workout at the best of times, try it slow cooked in a ragu sauce (Gululu in St Julian’s serve it up with spaghetti).

Next in the Maltese culinary trinity is pastizzi, the island’s answer to the Cornish pasty, just smaller and filled with cheese and mushy peas. Pick one up at the Crystal Palace hole-in-the-wall bar in Rabat (nothing to do with the London football team).

Last but not least, ftira is a flatbread “pizza” featuring potatoes and anchovies; you’ll find it sold at most bakeries and it makes for a perfect beach snack.

For most visitors seafood is really where it’s at, though, and the island’s finest can be found in the pretty fishing village of Marsaxlokk (pronounced “mar-shash-lock”). Here the day’s catch is unloaded almost directly to your plate.

A photo posted by SFL (@syd_food_life) on

Explore Malta by moonlight

After a sundowner drink on a rooftop restaurant (try De Mondion if you’re feeling flush), a moonlit amble around Mdina is one of the most atmospheric experiences on the island.

The lamplit streets of Malta’s oldest town radiate medieval intrigue. You half expect a knight on horseback to clip clop past (fittingly Mdina doubled for King’s Landing in the early series of Game of Thrones).

Back in the capital, Gugar, is a great spot to settle down with Cisk (Malta’s national beer) surrounded by shelves of books and an alternative crowd. For something stronger, join Valletta’s bohemian types at Café Society, where you’ll find well-mixed cocktails in a cool, cave-like bar.

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Party in paradise

Between June and September you’ll find Catholic fiestas crackling into life across the island, with even the smallest village competing to put on the best firework display or the most colourful street procession.

More recently, Malta has become a venue for high-wattage music festivals, including Annie Mac’s acclaimed Lost and Found in spring and June’s  Isle of Malta MTV. This year sees Groovefest‘s blend of Ibiza house arrive at the island’s Café del Mar in late April – don’t forget your glow sticks.

Andy Turner flew with Air Malta who operate direct flights from seven UK airports. Check out visitmalta.com for more on Valletta 2018. Compare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Japan has long captivated the imaginations of travellers around the globe, seeming to both baffle and beguile all who venture there.

Between language barriers and Japan’s rather deceiving size (roughly stretching the length of Miami to Montreal) it’s all too easy to miss out on Japan’s best spots during the trip planning process. From countryside almost mystic in its tranquility to the addictive buzz of urban life, there’s a lot to pack into a single itinerary.

Let this video serve as a starting point – a one minute guide on which to base your Japanese odyssey. Whether you decide on the seaside or the mountains, big city backstreets or rustic villages, one thing’s for sure: you’re bound to discover a culture like no other.

Spain’s massive size means that it’s thankfully not as hard as you might expect to wander off the well-beaten tourist track. Whether it’s quiet coves, tucked away old villages or eerie landscapes you’re after, here are seven places that you’ve probably never heard of but really should visit in Spain.

1. Las Alpujarras, Andalucía

South of Granada, the hills and valleys of Las Alpujarras provide some of the country’s lushest scenery. This isn’t an area for novice drivers – hairpin bend after hairpin bend lead up to many of the region’s lovely white-washed villages – but it’s worth the effort to enjoy the serenity of the countryside.

In the settlements here you can really get a sense of a truly local way of life – one that revolves around shady central plazas, welcome siestas from the midday sun and sherry in the local bar after dark.

2. Beget, Girona

Beget is tucked so deeply into a valley that you won’t see it before you’re almost in it. This tiny village in northern Catalunya is definitely worth stumbling over, however – little has changed here for centuries, creating a quiet charm that’s hard to beat.

Explore the narrow cobbled streets to find old stone houses and pretty little bridges that cross the river. For dinner, sit down to a plate of seasonal Catalan food at one of the family-run restaurants.

The centrepiece of the village is the stately, beautiful twelfth-century church, which boasts a carved wooden Christ figure dressed in a tunic, with arms outstretched.

Image by azama8 on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

3. El Burgo de Osma, Soria

The Río Duero cuts across central Castilla and some of its loveliest scenery can be found in and around the graceful old town of El Burgo de Osma.

Though its buildings pay homage to the fact that this was once a very grand place – it is home to both a cathedral and a university – El Burgo today is quaint and gorgeous, with little in the way of attractions, but a joy to experience nonetheless.

The town is particularly lovely on summer nights, when locals congregate on the main square to use it as a social club, playground and exercise yard. El Burgo also makes a great base from which to explore the surrounding area, which boasts both a dramatic canyon park and a mighty fortress.

Image by jesuscm on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

4. Zahara de la Sierra, Andalucía

The beautiful southern region of Andalucía is particularly known for its beautiful white towns, and one of the best examples of which can be found at Zahara de la Sierra, reached via a very scenic drive through the countryside from the lovely old town of Ronda.

An obvious landmark for miles around, it is the castle that you notice first, sitting dramatically on top of a stark rocky outcrop; below which huddle bright white houses (with their equally picturesque red-tiled roofs).

5. Cadaqués, Girona

It’s easy to shun the idea of the Costa Brava, with its rather old-fashioned image of sun-and-sea holidays, but the region is home to some very pretty beaches, and with a bit of knowledge it’s not too hard to find more interesting towns and quieter sands.

The most pleasant place to stay on the northern Costa Brava is undoubtedly the picturesque seaside town of Cadaqués, its narrow, hilly streets filled with bougainvillea-covered houses and with craggy headlands on either side of its still-working fishing port.

The beaches here are small and pebbly, but there’s plenty else to the town to keep you occupied, not least its art galleries and studios – Dalí settling nearby after World War II saw the town attract a rather bohemian artistic community – and smart restaurants.

6. Las Médulas, Castille y León

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the other-worldly landscape of Las Médulas had been ravaged over hundreds – even thousands – of years by the weather, but you’d be wrong. The strange, jagged red rocks here are the result of Roman strip-mining, when five tonnes of gold were taken from the hillsides via canals constructed for the purpose.

Looking more like Arizona than northern Spain, this eerie landscape of red-rock needles and caves is best viewed from the Mirador de Orellán, which offers a spectacular panorama over the area; undoubtedly the best way to experience it is on foot, via the Las Valiñas trail from pretty Las Médulas village.

7. The Costa da Morte, Galicia

Don’t be put off by its name – the “Coast of Death” – this relatively undeveloped region is well worth a visit. Though at times it has a rather desolate beauty, and though it can be as wet and windy as the shipwrecks that litter its seabed suggest, the quiet, beautiful coves, snug fishing villages and mountain slopes make this costa surprisingly enchanting.

This isn’t the place to go for resort facilities – and all the better for it; instead, head for the charming little seaside towns like Malpica de Bergantiños and Laxe, the latter of which offers some of the area’s safest swimming.

For really wonderful scenery, head to Ezaro; here, the mineral-rich rocks of the escarpments are multi-coloured, and appear to glisten underneath countless little waterfalls.

Image by Asier Ríos Molina on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Explore more of Spain with The Rough Guide to SpainCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Colombia meets Jamaica? Not quite, but two competing images loom large over the Caribbean island of Providencia: Bob Marley, adopted saint of the local Raizal population, and Johnny Depp, fictional hero of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise and a symbol of everything ‘pirate’ to the local tourism industry. It’s all a very long way from Bogotá.

This tiny Caribbean outcrop, along with its sister island of San Andrés, is actually much closer to Nicaragua than the coast of Colombia. With a population of around 5000, there are more golf carts and bicycles than cars and everyone knows everyone else.

All this makes Providencia a great getaway from Colombia’s frenetic cities. Here, Stephen Keeling picks a few highlights of visiting this fascinating island.

Crab lovers rejoice

Not surprisingly, fresh seafood dominates menus on Providencia. The local black crab is a major staple, appearing in soups, stews or simply fried in the shell – some twenty percent of the island’s population make their living from the tasty crustacean.

The black crab is actually tinged with orange and lives on land most of the year (hiding in burrows in the hills and feeding at night). Between April and July the crabs descend en masse to the sea during their annual migration to lay eggs (the newly hatched juveniles then make the return journey) – it’s sometimes possible to view this amazing spectacle on foot, but these days the army routinely closes and guards strips of the coast road to protect migrating crabs. In recent years their numbers have declined dramatically thanks to overexploitation and the loss of habitat, but there has been some progress in making crab farming sustainable.

Image by on Cultura de Red Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Reggae Roots

Providencia loves its reggae and reggaeton, with the best place to soak up the island vibe Roland Roots Bar on Manchineel Bay. This Rasta-themed beach bar, with wooden shacks right on the sand, sways to a mellow reggae soundtrack and there are even swings from which to fling yourself into the sea.

Pirates of Providencia

In 1670, pirates led by Henry Morgan essentially occupied Providencia – though the buccaneers had been flushed out by 1689, this period informs much of the island’s romantic view of itself (many islanders claim descent from the pirates).

Get to grips with their legacy on tiny Santa Catalina Island, linked to Providencia by a rickety, wooden pontoon pedestrian bridge. On the other side a boardwalk leads along the shore, between tangled mangroves and a ramshackle village to Morgan’s Cannon (Cañónes), a rusty old artillery piece said to be the place pirates were hanged and ‘protestants burned’ by the Spanish.

On the other side of the hill lies Fort Beach (Playa Fuerte), a small stretch of sand with another old cannon, wishing well, an underwater cave (also named for Morgan), and good snorkelling. It’s one of seemingly thousands of spots in the Caribbean where Morgan supposedly hid treasure – he must have been swimming in gold.

Image by Quimbaya on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Go to church

The Raizal population on Providencia remains proud of its cultural roots, and one of the strongest traditions is attending Baptist church on Sundays (services are usually held in English). Even if you are not religious, it’s worth going along to see the soulful gospel choirs that sing at the main services – a magical experience. Services at the Iglesia Bautista Central (Central Baptist Church) take place at 11am every Sunday.

Scuba, boats and beaches

Providencia is blessed with small but glittering white-sand beaches and the best diving in the region – the island sits atop the third-largest barrier reef in the world.

Submarine highlights include “Manta City”, a congregation of giant southern stingrays (not mantas), and “Tete’s Place”, where schools of snappers, goatfish and parrotfish make you feel as if you’re swimming in a giant aquarium.

image by Luis Alveart on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If diving isn’t your thing, most hotels can arrange tours around the island via speedboat, including a two-hour visit to Crab Key, just off the east coast. This tiny islet offers superb snorkelling in the spectacularly clear surrounding waters – you’ll see plenty of small but multi-coloured tropical fish, fans and corals here. There’s a bar on the dock selling fresh coconuts and rum, and sometimes shrimp ceviche.

You can also make the short climb to the cocoplum-smothered top of the cay for sensational views of the massive reef, ‘the sea of seven colours’ around it and back over to the mountains of Providencia, rising into the clouds like a languid South Pacific atoll. Otherwise, tranquil Southwest Bay on the main island boasts the best beach, with a small selection of hotels and restaurants.

Explore more of Colombia with The Rough Guide to ColombiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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