Top islands for winter sun

Exchanging northern hemisphere drizzle and grey skies for a dazzling island paradise is a great way to beat the winter blues. Golden beaches, warm waters, sunny sightseeing, and, in some cases, abundant wildlife await. Here is our guide to the world’s top islands for winter sun.
Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand. Photo: John_Walker/Shutterstock
Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand. Photo: John_Walker/Shutterstock

1. Sri Lanka

This picture-perfect, tear-drop shaped 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 numerous historic, cultural 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 to one of Sri Lanka’s stunning sandy beaches nearby such as Bentota or Hiriketiya to bask in the sun.

Visiting Sri Lanka in winter has the added bonus of it being whale watching season, which runs from December to January, then again in April. Blue, sperm, bryde’s, killer and beaked whales can all be seen in the warm waters off Sri Lanka’s south coast, especially near Mirissa which is the best place for whale watching. During the season you have around a 95% chance of sighting whales.    

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. Photo: samuraisunshine/Shutterstock


2. Cuba

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

For visitors, 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 North America), low levels of violent crime, and 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 the island's 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. 

Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: rphstock/Shutterstock

 

3. Bali, Indonesia

Just a stone’s throw away from the equator, the Indonesian island of 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 charmed for an entire winter. Make sure you don’t miss its highlights: visit its pristine beaches; see the rice terraces of Jatiluwih (a UNESCO World Heritage Site); explore the artistic centre of Ubud; and take in the protected forests and coastline of 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 a dramatic kecak performance, which involves ritualistic chanting and dancing. The latter can be enjoyed as part of Insight Guides' Indonesia Island Hop trip.

Rice fields of Jatiluwih, Bali. Photo: My Good Images/Shutterstock


4. The Canaries, Spain

The eight major islands of the Canaries, which belong to Spain but sit in the Atlantic off the Moroccan coast, stay warm all year. Relatively cheap flights from the UK, good 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 traveling here can be off-putting (locals are outnumbered five to one in high season), a constant stream of travelers has brought the benefits of a friendly, welcoming and multicultural society.

Tenerife is the largest, most popular and arguably the most beautiful of the Canaries. Home to the highest mountain in Spain, Mount Teide, the island encompasses diverse landscape of forests, lush river valleys and lovely beaches. The attractive capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, sits on the island’s eastern tip and offers a good range of museums, restaurants and shops. 

Teresitas beach, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock


5. The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galápagos Islands make up one the world’s most unique and exceptional travel destinations. Explored 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 at particular times of their seasonal cycle, such as mating or hatching season, 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 snorkeling. 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.

Discover highlights of the islands incredible wildlife on Insight Guides' Galapagos Islands Explored trip.

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


6. Phuket, Thailand

Phuket is Thailand’s largest island resort, with some beautiful beaches, abundant national parks, and plenty of bars, restaurants and facilities for visitors. December, January and February are all great months to visit Phuket, when the weather is comparatively less humid, cool breezes provide respite, and average temperatures are 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 center, 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 soak up 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 – restaurants, street stalls, and an array of bars and clubs. While it may be busy, you can still enjoy swimming and snorkeling in its pristine waters.

Phuket, Thailand. Photo: aphotostory/Shutterstock


7. Madagascar

Fringed by golden beaches and palm trees, with lush vegetation, forests and volcanoes further inland, the island nation of Madagascar is a paradise off the coast of East Africa. September to December is mid-season – with warm temperatures and fewer visitors – and in many ways is 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 colorful animals on Insight Guides’ Wild Madagascar trip, which takes you through desert canyons, verdant rainforests abounding in wildlife, and into the beautiful national parks. Wildlife highlights include lemurs, butterflies, chameleons, crocodiles, geckos, and iguanas. This is also whale season, so look out for passing humpback whales when you’re on the coast.
Two fishermen returning in their Pirogue (dug-out canoe) in Ankify, Madagascar. Photo: Shutterstock

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


Ready to book a trip away to enjoy some winter sun?

Insight Guides can help you plan and book wonderful trips in destinations around the world. Simply get in touch to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. Our local experts will then prepare a personalized itinerary especially, which you can amend until you’re completely happy with every detail before booking.


Updated 18 December, 2019