Travel Writing

Take Five: city island hops

A city break doesn’t have to mean forgoing a fresh sea breeze, inviting coastline or the thrill of leaving land. Here are five island excursions you can do easily from a big city.

Isola Bella Photo: Luca de vito/Flickr
Isola Bella Photo: Luca de vito/Flickr

Isola Bella outside Milan

Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore is a floating fairytale of Baroque garden extravagance. The 17th century Borromeo Palazzo and its gardens come from the rich imagination of the aristocratic Borromeo family. When you approach from the water, the elegant tiers of columned terraces recall a giant, rose-garland wedding cake. Disembark to explore a tiny land of exotic plants and strutting white peacocks.

The shell-shaped theatre and unicorn statue are just enough to tip it into Alice in Wonderland scale of wonder.

Catalina Island Photo: Shane Huang/Flickr
Catalina Island Photo: Shane Huang/Flickr

Catalina Island outside Los Angeles

The perfect antidote to sprawling, swarming LA lies a mere 22 miles from the shore. Catalina Island’s 74-square miles are car-free, uncrowded, and unbelievably beautiful.

The silver beaches, postcard-perfect harbour and iconic Art Deco buildings feel like Hollywood set, but L.A. is a world away. Get around on foot, bike or golf cart. Spot the bison on rocky hills from your boat, or zip line over it. After you soak in the old-world glamour of the circular casino or explore the peaceful coves of the coastline, a 60-minute ferry or 20 minute helicopter ride will have you back on Angeleno soil.

Mljet island Photo: draig/Flickr
Mljet island Photo: draig/Flickr

Mljet outside Dubrovnik

Maybe it’s the National Park status, or the single hotel, or being a beautiful island in a country of beautiful islands, but Mljet gets much less visitors than its jawdropping beauty deserves.

The result: exploring the National Park can feel like you’re the only one there, given a spectacular private show by Mother Nature. Cycle along the edge of the saltwater lakes Malo Jezero (Little Lake) and Veliko Jezero (Big Lake) to fully appreciate the pristine surroundings, then swim in a quiet cove or sunbathe nude on a rock by the lake. The two lakes are connected a short channel, with the bigger lake emptying into the sea. Little Lake is markedly warmer and feels like a lagoon, enticing even the most nervous swimmer. A tiny island monastery-turned-restaurant completes its impossible charm.

The island has other key ingredients: namely the local goats’ cheese, wine and honey. Eat, drink and be merry from July when the 40 day Summer of Culture festival will bring music, art and theatre events to the island.

Hydra, Greece Photo: country-boy-shane/ Flickr
Hydra, Greece Photo: country-boy-shane/ Flickr

Hydra outside Athens

Even after the Hollywood stars and musicians ‘discovered’ Hydra in the 1960s, it retained its modernity-spurning, car-and-bicycle-banning tranquillity. This Aegean outpost continues to draw creative types, hence the dozens of galleries and School of Fine Arts. As you’d expect, exhibitions and workshops dot the calendar, as well as events dedicated to Leonard Cohen who called the island home in his 20s and performed his first gig here.

Day-trippers take the 90 minute ferry from Athens to wander the centuries-old leafy squares, whitewashed lanes and horseshoe harbour restaurants that inspired so many before them.


garnish island
Ilnacullin or Garinish Island

Garinish Island outside Cork city

You’ll find the button-sized and button-cute island of Garinish in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay. It offers just the right mix of wild woodland for exploring, manicured gardens for admiring, and pockets of boulder-strewn strand for sea-gazing. A Martello Tower provides spectacular views of the rest of the bay. There’s a palette of gardens: from the Walled Garden to elegant Italian Gardens to the ‘jungle’: sub-tropical plants that flourish in the humid micro-climate of the harbour. The five minute ferry journey from Glengarriff passes a seal colony. Bring a picnic.

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