Top 8 islands for winter sun

Exchanging grey skies and drizzle for a dazzling island paradise is a great way to beat the winter blues. Here are the world's best winter island destinations
Traditional Balinese Kecak Dance at Uluwatu Temple on March in Bali. Kecak (also known as Ramayana Monkey Chant) is very popular cultural show on Bali. Photo: Shutterstock
Traditional Balinese Kecak Dance at Uluwatu Temple on March in Bali. Kecak (also known as Ramayana Monkey Chant) is very popular cultural show on Bali. Photo: Shutterstock


A biting frost, sudden downpours, the inevitable catching of a cold – even with Christmas to brighten it up, winter at home can be somewhat unappetising. Trade in your normal winter routine for sublime golden beaches, abundant wildlife or sunny sightseeing


  • 1. Sri Lanka

This picture-perfect, tear-drop island in the Indian Ocean makes the ideal winter destination. Exquisite sandy beaches flank the south and east coasts, with rainforest, rice paddies and tea plantations inland, and several important cultural and historic sites.

With regional variations in climate, whenever you visit Sri Lanka you are pretty-much guaranteed sunshine in one place or another. If you go in early winter, stick to the south coast where the weather will be better – visit the heritage-rich city of Galle on Insight Guides’ Sri Lanka Deluxe trip then head west to bask in the sun on one of Sri Lanka’s stunning golden sandy beaches.

Visiting Sri Lanka in winter has the added bonus of being whale-watching season, which runs from November to April. Blue, sperm, bryde’s, killer and beaked whales can all be found in the warm waters off Sri Lanka’s south coast, as well as several species of acrobatic dolphin. During the season you usually have 90–95% chance of a sighting, and tour operators will often offer you a second trip, free of charge, if you don’t see a whale.    

  • 2. Cuba

With verdant landscapes and tropical beaches, crumbling architecture and atmospheric towns, a vibrant capital and a pulsating music scene, Cuba packs a lot in for a country smaller than the UK. A fascinating but troubled history has left its mark on Cuba, where Communist propaganda still radiates (huge billboards proclaim Patria o Muerte (Homeland or Death), dilapidated colonial buildings and vintage American cars line the streets, and for most Cubans it remains incredibly difficult to travel outside the country.

For the visitor, Cuba offers a captivating insight into the contradictions of a regime, which, for all its failings, has succeeded in creating free and excellent education and healthcare (some of its measures beat those of the USA and Canada), low levels of violent crime, and, while people might be poor, there is virtually no homelessness.  

To soak up the winter sun (expect daytime temperatures to average in the mid 20s) head for vibrant Havana, the relaxed cultural gems of Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba or Cienfuegos, or any of its splendid stretches of white-sand beaches. Plush hotels and package holidays will often lead you to Varadero on the north coast – this is the largest resort in the Caribbean so while it may have all the amenities you could want, be prepared for crowds and almost no resemblance to authentic Cuba. Alternative beaches (with more character) include Guardalavaca, Playa Esmeralda and Playa Ancón. 


Two fishermen returning in their Pirogue (dug-out canoe) in Ankify, Madagascar. Photo: ShutterstockTwo fishermen returning in their Pirogue (dug-out canoe) in Ankify, Madagascar. Photo: Shutterstock

 

  • 3. Madagascar

Flanked by golden beaches and palm trees, with volcanoes, forests and lush vegetation further inland, Madagascar is an exotic paradise. September to December is mid-season – with warm temperatures and fewer visitors – and in many ways the ideal time to visit. The capital, Antananarivo, or ‘Tana’ for short, is pretty and lively, but for many the biggest draw is the pristine natural environment and the richness of Madagascar’s wildlife.

See a vast array of colourful animals on Insight Guides’ Wild Madagascar trip, which takes you through vast desert canyons, verdant rainforests abounding in wildlife, and into the beautiful national parks. Wildlife highlights include lemurs, butterflies, chameleons, crocodiles, frogs, geckos, eagles, snakes, owls and iguana. This is also whale season, so look out for passing humpback whales if you’re on the coast.  

  • 4. Bali

Just a stone’s throw from the equator, Bali enjoys a tropical climate, with an average temperature (year-round) of 26–27°C (80°F). While October to March is technically the rainy season, the sun usually shines again after a shower, and you can pretty much do anything you would during the dry season (except perhaps trekking at altitude).

From white-sand beaches to lush tropical regions, delicious cuisine and enthralling culture, Bali could keep you busy for an entire winter. Make sure you don’t miss its highlights: buy wares from the vibrant markets; visit its pristine beaches; see the rice terraces of Jatiluwih (a UNESCO World Heritage Site); explore the artistic centre of Ubud; and take in West Bali National Park. Soak up some Balinese culture too – see topeng masked dancers in Batuan (complete with bawdy jokes and a range of characters), or the kecak dance, which involves chanting and dancing in circles around a lamp. The latter can be enjoyed on Insight Guides' Odonesia Island Hop trip.

  • 5. The Canaries

The seven Canary Islands, which belong to Spain but sit in the Atlantic off the Moroccan coast, stay warm all year. Relatively cheap flights (and plenty of package holidays) from the UK, good tourist facilities and an easy-going Spanish way of life provide excellent draws for a winter visit. These volcanic islands offer striking black-sand beaches, dense forests and one of the tallest mountains in Europe.

While the extent of tourists travelling here can be off-putting (locals are outnumbered five to one in high season), a constant stream of travellers has brought the benefit of a friendly, welcoming and multicultural society.

Tenerife is the largest, most popular and arguably the most beautiful of the Canaries, with the highest mountain in Spain (pico del Teide) and a diverse landscape of forests, lush river valleys and pretty beaches. The capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, sits on Tenerife’s eastern tip. It’s handsome and lively, with a good range of museums, shops, greenery and restaurants.      


Couple of blue footed boobies from  Galápagos Islands. Photo: ShutterstockCouple of blue-footed boobies from  Galápagos Islands. Photo: Shutterstock


  • 6. The Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands make up one the world’s most unique and exceptional travel destinations. Famed by Charles Darwin, who studied the wildlife here, the Galápagos’ diverse and fascinating range of species (many endemic) is still its main draw. Animals can be seen here all year round, with few species migrating to other regions. However, if you want to catch animals in particular times of their seasonal cycle (mating season, hatching season etc.) it is best to check these and book your trip accordingly.

The Galápagos Islands experience a cool and dry season from June to November, and a warm and wet season from December to June. The warm season is (broadly speaking) the best time to visit, when calmer seas provide good underwater visibility (for diving and snorkelling). Rain showers are brief.  

The winter season also allows for various wildlife phenomena: December/January is hatching season for the giant tortoise; New Year is when the green turtles lay their eggs; and February (as well as March and April) sees several land birds, sea lions, turtles and tortoises breed and nest. Other species that can be enjoyed on the islands include sea and land iguanas, the waved albatross, penguins, hawks and seals.

  • 7. Japan

Japan is a country of wild contrasts: ancient temples nestle amid modern skyscrapers, fishing communities give way to towering mountain peaks, Eastern calligraphy and philosophy sit alongside Western technology, clothes and fast food.

Japan’s winter, from December to February, might be chilly in places, but is usually dry and sunny – in many ways, the best weather for sightseeing. The further south you travel, the kinder the climate and the milder the winter. Take in Japan’s wealth of history, culture and development – Tokyo, Kyoto, Himejj and Nagasaki are all good bets at this time of year.

Tokyo, Japan’s capital, is a true metropolis, and boldly walks the tightrope between tradition (historic temples, the Imperial Palace and classical art), and the modern (neon-lit skyscrapers, a refined dining scene and some seriously consumerist megamalls). 


  • 8. Phuket

Phuket is Thailand’s largest island resort, with some beautiful beaches, abundant national parks and plenty of bars and tourist facilities. With large Chinese and Muslim populations, the island’s cultural diversity is also noteworthy. December, January and February are all great months to visit Phuket, when the weather is comparatively less humid, cool breezes provide some respite, and the average temperature is still high: 24°C–32°C (75°F–89°F).

Many visitors to Phuket bypass Phuket Town completely, but there are several interesting Taoist temples here, as well as some impressive Sino-Portuguese mansions, an orchid garden and a handicraft centre, which are all worth a visit. The national parks of Sirinat (with its beaches, mangroves, coral reefs and sea turtles) and Khao Phra Thaeo (home to monkeys, civets and other small animals) should be given adequate time.

If you want to go straight to the beach to laze in the sun, head for the west coast. Ao Bang Thao, Ao Pansea (with its Thai-style pavilions) and Hat Surin are all good spots. Hat Patong is the busiest beach on the island, but does come with all the facilities you might therefore expect – shops, restaurants, street stalls, and an array of bars and clubs. While it may be crowded, you can still enjoy swimming and snorkelling in its pristine waters. 


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