National Geographic Traveller put together a long list of islands that included lots of my favourites. Trip Advisor sent a list round recently that I really didn't agree with. So, here's my list of ideal little islands to visit, and to paraphrase (very slightly) a work colleague from earlier this year, “Ross was never going to pick a warm Caribbean island”.
These are my favourite little islands – they’re mostly remote, and mostly uncrowded, sometimes icy and they all appear in my picture library.
I could put together another list of the bigger islands I've been to, and I certainly could put together an even longer list of remote islands I haven’t yet been to. In the meantime and in no particular order, my ten favourite little islands.
Streymoy, Faroe Islands
This is the biggest island in the Faroe Islands group, looks and feels like a Shetland-Iceland hybrid, which is geographically apt. Very friendly people, despite an unfortunate (in my mind) line in whaling, with a very long lived democratic tradition, and one of the few grass-roofed parliament buildings in the world. You can get to the Faroe Islands either by boat or plane – but pretty much every visit to the islands is going to need to be preceded by a trip to Denmark.
Austvågøy, Lofoten Islands
The Lofoten Islands are a string of mountainous little islands off the coast of Norway – from a distance it’s easy to see why there are collectively called the Lofoten Wall, they stretch across the coastline appearing to block the way north. Austvågøy is one of the bigger islands and it’s rugged mountain interior is ringed by fantastically picturesque little villages. There are lots of ways to get to the Lofoten Islands - the Norwegian Coastal Steamer stops here every day on both northerly and southerly journeys, there are a couple of little airports, and if you are so inclined and have the time you can get here by road too. The Norwegian government recently built a series of bridges and tunnels to connect the islands to the Norwegian mainland.
This probably only just fits the little island designation – but I wasn’t ever going to leave the main island on Shetland off a list of my favourite islands. Despite holding most of the Shetland Islands 22,000 people Mainland rarely feels crowded, and there are plenty of places where you can be far away from people with only the wind (of which there is plenty) and sea birds (of which there are also plenty) for company. In days gone by Shetland was pretty cut off from Scotland, but these days there are regular flights to the southern end of the mainland from Aberdeen Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there is an overnight ferry to and from Aberdeen every day. There's even an occasional flight to Bergen in Norway if you want fit Shetland into you bigger Scandinavia tour.
Barra, Outer Hebrides
Barra is at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, and is a delightful little island. One of the unique features is that there is an airport but no runway. The little planes from the mainland take off and land on the beach (tide permitting). If you don’t fancy tangling with the tides, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry turns up two or three times a week.
East Falkland, Falkland Islands
East Falkland is one of the two big islands in the Falkland group. There are lots of little islands around that are the main lure for the wildlife watching tourist, but pretty much everyone turns up to have a look at Stanley – the main town in the Falklands – at some point in a visit to the islands. Most people get here on cruise ships, and get to spend an hour or two around the harbour visiting the local pubs (there are several) and the souvenir shops (there are many). A little further afield is the most accessible King Penguin colony in the world, at Volunteer Point about 2 hours drive from Stanley. Accessible is a relative term here – the first hour of the drive is on a gravel road, the second hour needs a decent four-wheel drive vehicle and a driver who knows how to use it. If you want to get here other than on a cruise ship, you only have two options, flying on an RAF charter flight from the UK (8000 miles with a refuelling stop on Ascension Island), or on the weekly scheduled flight from Santiago in Chile.
If the Falkland Islands aren’t remote enough, the next stop is South Georgia. To get here you either need to get posted by the British Antarctic Survey, or buy a berth on one of the small number of expedition cruise ships that visit here each year. It’s about 72 hours sailing on an expedition ship to get here from the Falklands across what can be pretty entertaining seas. The reward of getting here, in the summer at least, is unbelievable numbers of seals, penguins and lots of other seabirds. Until you’ve shared a beach with 400,000 King Penguins and several hundred very grumpy fur seals, you can’t really imagine what it’s going to look, sound and smell like. Neither the penguins nor the fur seals are frightened of tourists. The penguins are just curious. The fur seals seem to have a vague recollection that we tried to make them all into fur coats in the 1920's, and if then can get close enough to take a revenge bite of a tourist they will happily do so.
Alderney, Channel Islands
One of the smaller of the Channel Islands, and arriving here is a bit like stepping back in time. The island has a remarkable resident to restaurant ratio, and from any point on the lovely coast path you are only a few hundred yards from a good lunch. The only real downside is that the island probably isn’t big enough to walk off the lunches without getting dizzy. The easiest way to get to Alderney is on one of the little yellow planes operated by Aurigny, the Channel Island airline – the runway was a grass field until recently, but it’s now a ‘proper’ runway, and much less fun to land on.
The most northerly of my islands is Svalbard. This is close to 80 degrees north, and until recently it was mainly a mining colony. Nowadays most visitors turn in the hope of seeing polar bears and other wildlife in the amazing clear northern air. Despite the remote location and the fact that it’s dark for several months in the winter, there are regular flights each day from mainland Norway.
Lewis, Outer Hebrides
This is at the other end of the Outer Hebrides to Barra – and is a much bigger island. This means that there is space to fit in more beaches, more cliffs and even the magnificent Standing Stones at Callanish. These may not be quite as big or well known as Stonehenge, but they are in a much more dramatic setting. Lewis is comfortably the biggest of the Outer Hebrides and main town Stornaway is able to offer both a little airport and a regular ferry service across the Minch to mainland Scotland.
Fair Isle, Shetland
The Shetland Islands spread over quite a large area but the extreme southern outpost is Fair Isle, twenty-five miles south of the Shetland mainland, and just visible on a good day. The island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and occupied by less than 100 people and (in the summer at least) by an awful lot of seabirds. The main reason most people visit is to see the birds and to stay at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. The poor sailor will need to get to the island on one of the weather dependent little planes run by the Shetland Islands Council, the good sailor (and those foiled by the weather) will need to run the gauntlet of the Good Shepherd IV as it crosses the Noost south of the Shetland mainland. This bit of sea is where the currents from the North Sea and the Atlantic mingle – and it can be a challenge to the most hardened seafarer.