When you’ve had your fill of history, culture and man-made wonders, sometimes sun, sea and sand is all you need. Desert islands like Fiji and Maui top the bucket lists of many a traveller, with all the ingredients for the perfect exotic holiday: tropical climes, swaying palms and blissful white-sand beaches. Closer to home, the Canary Island of Fuerteventura and Vis in Croatia make getting away from it all as easy as pie. Whether you're after some serious escapism or want to marvel at mother nature, Lucy McGuire picks some of the most exotic places to travel in the world. And for more inspiration, read our where to go when alternative month-by-month guide.
1. Maui, Hawaii
With a legendary surf scene and golden crescent beaches that span more than 120 miles, there are attractions everywhere you turn in Hawaii. Maui, known as "the Valley Isle", is a favourite for its misty peaks, gorgeous sunsets and bamboo forests. Relax on Kaanapali Beach or see the red sands at Kaihalulu – it’s like no other beach in the world.
Where to stay
Best hostel: Friendly Tiki Beach Hostel is the perfect surfer hangout for travellers on Maui. The beach is just moments away, while the communal areas are great for socialising with other guests. Rooms can be booked either indoors or outdoors; all come with indoor bathrooms, free Wi-Fi and communal kitchen facilities. There's a Women's Dorm ("Wahine"), too. Group activities – such as Friday night BBQs – add to the fun.
Best beachfront hotel: Napili Kai Beach Resort is a dazzling beachfront property where you can eat, sleep and play to the sounds of the ocean. The resort has its own putting green, four swimming pools, two whirlpool hot tubs, several outdoor BBQ areas and even two shuffleboard courts. Whether you want to put your feet up or while away the days with more active pursuits, it is all possible here.
What to do
Best to stay active: Maui is a tropical wonderland, laced with tremendous trails and hiking routes. Book onto a 5h Waterfall and Rainforest Hike to take in a range of breathtaking 10–40m-high waterfalls. You'll have the chance to swim in natural pools, enjoy a fresh picnic lunch and learn all about the culture, flora and fauna of the area from your experienced naturalist guide.
Best to relax: A Luxurious sunset cruise is an enchanting way to see Maui in the colourful tones of the evening. Drink in the sunset views from a luxury catamaran, while your award-winning chef prepares your dinner. Experiences don't come better than this.
2. Puerto Rico
With a tropical climate, secluded palm-fringed beaches and topography as varied as a patchwork quilt, Puerto Rico is arguably the most exotic island in the Caribbean. Spot tree frogs in the dense jungle of El Yunque, take a night-time swim in the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay and admire the country's abundance of beautiful golden sands.
Where to stay
Best for spa & golf: The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort is a luxurious four star with all the amenities you'd expect from a world-class resort hotel. There are two championship golf courses, while the Mandara Spa takes its inspiration from Bali and features meditation areas, a salon and several steam rooms. Bedrooms, meanwhile, are light and airy with splashes of colour.
Best budget option: Aside from being kind on the wallet, Chalet Olas del Sol sports superlative sea views. There's a garden, too, as well as a number of great hikes in the area. With two bedrooms, a living room and a fully equipped kitchen, Olas del Sol is a great option for small groups or families on a budget.
What to do
For water enthusiasts: Active travellers shouldn't miss the chance to kayak in Fajardo. Taking to the waters of Bio Bay Laguna Grande Nature Reserve comes with a twist. After a full safety briefing, you'll head out in your kayak for a sunset to remember; after dark falls, the magic really begins. Marvel at the bioluminescent bay as the water's surface comes alive with twinkling sparkles created by tiny organisms. It is the perfect reminder that Puerto Rico is among the world's the most exotic holiday destinations.
For hiking: El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest registered by the US National Forest System. It offers fantastic hiking, with dense foliage, tumbling waterfalls and gushing rivers. The best way to learn about the area and its native flora and fauna is to take a guided tour to El Yunque.
Also, in our detailed guide you will find more different things to do in Puerto Rico.
3. Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
If you're looking for exotic destinations close to home, this one's for you! Fuerteventura might just be the most interesting island in the Canaries, thanks to its deserted beaches, crystal-clear water and hippy vibe. Steady trade winds make it prime territory for watersports. Alternatively, if you’re looking for an all-over tan, join the naturists who flock here for its famed nudist beaches. For more information check out our guide to the Canary Islands.
Where to stay
Best for families: The all-inclusive AluaVillage Fuerteventura is the perfect base for families in Fuerteventura, with a dedicated children's pool, children's area and a chock-a-block entertainment programme. While the kids are happily amused, adults can take advantage of the spa – complete with steam bath, whirlpool tub, saunas and sundeck.
Best for spa & wellness: The Royal Palm Resort & Spa - Adults Only welcomes guests who are sixteen and older, making this an excellent choice for couples after some serious pampering. The spa includes an indoor pool, landscaped sauna area, gym and even a salt cave. As you might expect, there's an extensive list of cosmetic and wellness treatments on offer, too.
What to do
Best for spectacular landscapes: Book onto a Dune Buggy Tour to take in the gorgeous scenery of Fuerteventura in a PGO 600 buggy. Petrol heads and adventurers are in for a wild ride, with most of the tour spent exploring off road.
Best for ocean tours: If a Dune Buggy Tour sounds like a bit too much adrenaline, plump for a Dolphin & Whale watching tour instead. Seeing these beautiful animals breaching the waters is a breathtaking experience.
4. Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Azure water, swaying hammocks and hidden beaches can all be found in Colombia – a country that until recently has escaped the tourist trail. Hike through Tayrona National Park, an eco-traveller’s dream destination and hands down one of the most exotic places to travel in the world. It’s the perfect place to stay in a beach hut, feast on exotic fruits and explore beautiful lagoons.
Where to stay
Best for beachfront vibes: With an outdoor pool and a sun terrace literally overlooking the beach, Senda Casa Tayrona Los Naranjos enjoys a stunning location. The characterful thatched roof and dark-wood shutters give the whole place tropical tiki vibes.
Best hostel: Shuttles from Simon Bolivar airport can be arranged directly to Viajero Hostel Tayrona & Ecohabs, making this a very accessible choice. But ease of access isn't the only thing going for Viajero Hostel. There's also a stunning pool, hammocks strung up under the palms and bookable activities including surf classes. The restaurant, meanwhile, serves up delicious dishes of fresh seafood. Why not wash it down with a tropical cocktail?
If you're thinking of visiting Colombia – let us know. We can pair you with a local expert to plan and book a fully personalized trip.
5. Vis, Croatia
The secret’s out; the Croatian island of Vis has some serious pulling power among island hoppers, thanks to its dramatic cliffs and exotic beaches. This gem in the Adriatic is a short boat ride away from the Croatian town of Split, yet its secluded coves would look right at home in the tropics. Take a boat to Stiniva, a hidden beach that’s often heralded as the best in Europe.
Where to stay
Best for staying in the historical centre: Hotel San Giorgio is a friendly place with kind and helpful staff and a charming garden courtyard. Rooms are clean, colourful and come in the form of standard doubles plus junior and deluxe suites. The latter comes with a jacuzzi – perfect for special occasions and anniversaries.
Best sea-front spot: Mira Sea Front Guesthouse offers a good range of self-catering apartments on Vis. The studios and apartments are found in two different locations, both in the small village of Komiza. True to the name, all have sea views.
Rough Guides has paired with local experts in Croatia to offer personalized holidays – find out more! You could take a sailing trip along the Adriatic coast or explore the Dalmatian coast from two bases.
6. French Polynesia
French Polynesia is undoubtedly one of the most exotic places to go on holiday, where emerald lagoons sparkle and the scents of vanilla, coconuts and Tiare Tahiti flowers fill the air. Yes, it's as beautiful as you've heard. You won’t be able to cover all five archipelagos (a total of 118 islands), so head to Maupiti: "the untouched island". Its beaches are whiter-than-white, it’s sprinkled with mystical caves and Mount Te’urafa’atiu offers breathtaking views.
Where to stay
In Bora Bora: The Maitai Bora Bora offers a range of accommodation, from classic overwater bungalows to beach bungalows and ocean- and garden-view rooms. Located near to Matira Beach, the only public beach on Bora Bora, the hotel also has two restaurants and two bars. Settle in to your new luxurious surroundings before taking to the waters to get up close and personal with the island's dazzling marine life.
In Tahiti: Vanira Lodge, in the village of Teahupoo on the Tahiti peninsula, faces the ocean on one side and is backed by dense forest on the other. For exotic locations, this is the spot to beat. Choose from "nature", "spa" or "terrace" bungalows. All are exquisite, but the Maara nature bungalow is particularly atmospheric; raised on stilts at the edge of the forest, it's a far cry from the bungalows back home.
What to do
In Bora Bora: Explore the underwater world of Bora Bora on a Shark & Snorkeling Safari and seek out black tip sharks, moray eels, sting rays and other tropical marine life. Knowledgeable guides will help you spot colourful fish. Warning: searching for sharks, naturally, isn't for the faint of heart.
In Moorea: Booking a Half-day 4x4 Safari Tour will allow you to discover a number of island highlights in style. From visiting a tropical garden to admiring an old volcano crater from the island's pineapple fields and visiting a distillery, travellers will be captivated from start to finish.
7. The Yucatan, Mexico
This southeast corner of Mexico which separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea has all the ingredients for an exotic holiday. Explore Tulum’s wide beaches, cool off in unique limestone cenotes and swim with whale sharks off Isla Holbox. The Mesoamerican reef just offshore – the world’s second longest – boasts a wealth of marine life.
Where to stay
In Tulum: If you love art and design, look no further than Casa Malca. This luxury hotel oozes contemporary charm, while modern art is hung throughout the rooms, hallways and communal areas. The spacious suites are works of art in themselves, making this a popular spot for weddings.
In Playa del Carmen: The philosophy at Palmaïa - The House of Aïa Wellness Enclave All Inclusive is all about being in harmony with nature. The concept is played out in everything from "vegan suites" to hand-crafted dishes in their restaurant and an innovative "Architects of Life" programme that promotes spiritual growth. Yoga, meditation, healing ceremonies or transpersonal astrology, anyone?
What to do
In Tulum: Tulum isn't all about white-sand beaches. The area's long history and rich culture is showcased in the wealth of Mayan ruins here – best explored with the help of a local guide. Visit the archaeological zone and a cenote on a guided tour to get beneath the skin of the area's culture before cooling off in a gorgeous cenote.
In Playa del Carmen: It would be criminal to stay in Playa del Carmen without visiting world-famous Chichén Itzá. The massive El Castillo pyramid that once dominated the old Mayan city remains the undisputed highlight. On a guided tour you'll not only benefit from the knowledge of your guide, but you'll save time by skipping the lines, too.
Consider combining the Yucatán with a visit to Mexico City or head to Chiapas and the famous Sumidero Canyon before relaxing on the white sandy beaches of Playa del Carmen. Contact our local expert today for your personalized quote.
8. Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia
This paradise island off Cambodia’s southern coast is one of the Gulf of Thailand’s most exotic places to travel. It’s starkly different to the tourist town of Sihanoukville (where you catch the ferry), as you’ll find no traffic and very little development, except for a few rustic beach huts. Go night swimming with bioluminescent plankton off M’Pei Bay, take a rainforest hike or sip a coconut in a hammock on Saracen Bay.
Where to stay
Best for families with children: One Resort has a children's playground, plus a range of fantastic activities for the whole family to enjoy (think snorkelling, diving and fishing). The in-house restaurant makes mealtimes carefree, while the resort's two swimming pools and private beach area are perfect for cooling off. Family rooms and bungalows complete the picture.
Best budget choice: The white and blue beach huts of Sarasea Resort are totally charming, with little patios out front to sit and watch the world go by. Facilities include a restaurant, bar, garden and private beach area. The bungalows may look simple, but each comes with a flat-screen TV – not that you'll want to watch it, with the ocean lapping at your door.
With Rough Guides tailor-made trips we can connect you with a local expert in Cambodia to plan your ideal holiday. Everything is one hundred percent customizable, so if there's an activity or experience you've always dreamed of, just let us know.
9. Whitsunday Islands, Australia
The brilliant white and blue hues of the Whitsunday Islands have become an iconic exotic location for travellers exploring Australia. Located off coastal Queensland, it’s home to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef – a dream for serious divers. With hiking trails and secluded beaches, it’s just as beautiful above the water. Visit between July and September to catch a glimpse of the migrating humpback whales.
Where to stay
Hamilton Island beachfront: Large rooms – with private balconies – and gorgeous views are the hallmark of the Reef View Hotel. To make the most of the hotel's beachfront location, ask for a room that looks out over the twinkling Coral Sea, though the garden rooms are pleasant too. On top of various room options (including family rooms) are a range of superlative suites. For those with deep pockets, the two-bed terrace suite and the presidential suite are the best of the bunch.
Best for on a budget: Palm Bungalows might be reasonably priced, but there's nothing else that feels "budget" here. The stylish interiors are light and airy, while private balconies overlook the lush, tropical gardens. With air conditioning, tea and coffee and free Wi-Fi, plus a fitness centre, swimming pools and tennis courts, the facilities are excellent, too. And with Catseye Beach just a two-minute walk away, the world is your oyster.
What to do
Best for active travellers: There's a whole host of exciting activities to get excited about on the Whitsundays. For a day to remember, why not roll several stellar experiences into one, by attempting to snorkel, raft, and bush walk - all in one day. Action-packed adventures don't come better than this.
Best views: The Whitsunday Islands might look great from ground level, but the views from the air are something else entirely. Book a scenic flight from Airlie Beach and enjoy bird's-eye views over the dramatic seascapes of the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. In-flight commentary helps travellers identify the key landmarks from above.
When it comes to exotic holiday destinations, Fiji is hard to beat. A country blessed with gorges, mangrove forests, waterfalls and natural pools, it's the jewel of the South Pacific. There are over three hundred islands in the archipelago and its marine parks offer incredible soft coral diving. It’s also where five different turtle species, spinner dolphins and the rare Fiji crested iguana all call home.
What to do
Best for culture enthusiasts: The Untold Broadway Show entrance is a contemporary story about ancient Fiji told through song and dance. It's a well choreographed show, staged in a 450-person capacity arena by internationally renowned dance company VOU Dance Fiji. Prepare to be blown away.
Best for nature experience: The Fijan Nature & Waterfall Experience takes in the sublime tropical rainforests of Colo-I-Suva Nature Reserve, where your experienced guide will highlight all the local flora and fauna. Jungle treks can be hot work, but there are several natural pools and waterfalls along the way – the perfect excuse to jump in and cool off.
Find more ideas for your pastime in our guide to the best things to do in Fiji.
Get to know Fiji with a local expert: Fiji Forever is just one sample itinerary that can be modified and quoted according to your preferences.
Home to otherworldly landscapes and one of the Earth’s most unique eco-systems, few places match the Eden-like quality of Madagascar. Explore Tsingy forests, a series of vertical limestone rocks dubbed the "Forest of Knives", or head to Masoala National Park, packed with unique plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth.
Thinking about heading to Madagascar? Have a look at our Wild Madagascar itinerary and contact your local expert today to receive your personalized quote or send in your details and have the expert craft and quote an itinerary according to your preferences.
What could be more exotic than being in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by stunning nature and cultural attractions? Our guide to Bermuda offers the perfect off-the-beaten-track holiday.
There are plenty of outstanding candidates for the most exotic places to travel in the world, but these are the pick of the bunch. If you're ready to start planning your next trip, get in touch with our local experts today. They can help you plan, organize and book the perfect exotic holiday, totally customizable to match all your preferences.
Top image: Island of Maui, Hawaii © Joe West/Shutterstock