You may not have heard of these seven island nations, but the fact that they're relatively unknown makes these far-flung destinations even more intriguing. Despite their diminutive size, these hidden paradises are home to untouched rainforests, delicious island cuisine, and stunning stretches of coastline. Here are seven of the smallest island nations that are seriously underrated.
São Tomé and Príncipe
The two main islands of São Tomé and Príncipe (along with several other rocky islets) comprise one of Africa’s tiniest countries. Roughly 350 miles off the coast of Gabon in the Gulf of Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe was formed by volcanoes that are now extinct. Although they’re small in terms of area, the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are covered in lush, overgrown vegetation. At 330 square miles, São Tomé is the largest island, home to the 1,266-foot-tall dormant volcano Pico Cão Grande, known for its unusual needle-like shape.
Take a safari through Obo Natural Park to spot hundreds of birds and mona monkeys along the way. São Tomé proper is a small but vibrant city with a bustling Mercado Grande (Grand Market). Admire the pink, colonial-style Presidential Palace and São Sebastião Fort and indulge in Afro-Portuguese fare in restaurants clustered in the city center.
Located in the southwestern Pacific, Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands situated 1,100 miles east of Australia and 500 miles west of Fiji. Formed by volcanoes and coral, the island nation is known for its diverse landscape and pristine water and reefs that preserve a number of World War II shipwrecks.
Colonized by the French and British, Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 and is considered one of the most diverse countries in the world — home to people of Ni-Vanuatu, Polynesian, French, British, Australian, New Zealander, Vietnamese, and Chinese nationalities.
Vanuatu is said to have some of the friendliest people in the world, and when you’re not meeting new people, you can hike an active volcano, jump into swimming holes deep in the jungle, lounge on beautiful beaches, and experience kastom (traditional island culture) by visiting a village and learning about the local heritage through songs, stories, and dance.
Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, the tiny island nation of Dominica is home to mountainous terrain dominated by towering volcanoes and gushing rivers and waterfalls — a landscape that led the country to earn the nickname “Nature Island.” Relatively undiscovered by the masses, Dominica is only 290 square miles and situated in the Caribbean between Guadeloupe and Martinique. Despite its small size, the island is home to three national parks.
Ecotourism is Dominica’s claim to fame — visitors flock here for world-class diving in beautifully preserved turquoise bays and hiking in Morne Diablotin National Park, home to the island’s tallest peak of the same name. Spend a day in Morne Trois Pitons National Park to experience Boiling Lake (which literally bubbles with water warmed by natural hot springs) and the dual-cascade of Trafalgar Falls before relaxing on the striking black sand of Mero Beach.
The Marshall Islands are two parallel chains of volcanic and coral islands situated between Hawaii and the Philippines in the Central Pacific. The 1,200-plus islands that comprise the nation are grouped into 29 atolls and together sprawl roughly 800 miles in length. Each atoll encircles its own stunning blue lagoon, which boasts pristine coral reefs and rich marine life.
Although this small island nation is beautiful, it doesn’t receive many tourists and has a small population of mostly Indigenous Micronesians. The islands fell under U.S. control after World War II, but became a sovereign nation in 1979. Prior to their independence, the islands were used for atomic testing conducted by the U.S. government. This led to most of the nation’s 60,000 residents living on only two urbanized atolls — Majuro and Kwajalein.
As one of the least-visited countries in the world, the Marshall Islands draw travelers looking to truly get off the beaten path. The largest atoll, Kwajalein, surrounds a 655-square-mile lagoon, and tourists who make it here often go scuba-diving in the number of World War II wrecks that lurk beneath the surface. If you visit, expect to spend a lot of time lying on picture-perfect beaches, swimming in the tropical water, and casting fishing lines. One thing you won’t be doing much of here is hiking — none of the Marshall Islands rise more than 20 feet above sea level.
Ten volcanic islands comprise Cape Verde, an archipelago nation in the Central Atlantic off the western coast of Africa. Cape Verde’s landmass totals roughly 1,500 square miles, with the majority of the 556,000 residents living on the largest island of Santiago. Although Cape Verde gained independence from Portugal in 1975, Portuguese is still its official language and the European country has had major influences on the local cuisine and culture. However, Creole is often used in conversation and roughly 80% of the population identify as Creole, adding to the country’s diverse cultural identity.
Boa Vista is the most popular island to visit and offers access to one of the nation’s most beautiful beaches, Praia de Chaves, as well as one of the most significant loggerhead turtle nesting sites in the world, Ervatão Beach.
Those interested in windsurfing and scuba-diving should visit the pristine island of Sal, and adventurous explorers should head to thee island of Fogo to trek up the 9,281-foot-tall volcano, Pico do Fogo, and discover the community of 700 people who live in the volcano’s crater — Chã das Caldeiras.
Eight principal islands and several hundred smaller islets make up Palau, an island nation with a population of 18,000 people located 500 miles southeast of the Philippines. Occupied by Germany, Spain, and Britain in the 18th century, Palau was eventually controlled by Japan until 1944, when U.S. Marines claimed the island in one of World War II’s costliest battles.
War relics are still scattered around Palau today; on Peleliu Island, visitors can wander around a war museum and check out planes, tanks, and the infamous limestone caves the Japanese used to hide from U.S. troops. However, most tourists visiting Palau come for the nation’s world-class scuba-diving.
Close encounters with reef sharks, manta rays, and turtles draw intrepid divers from around the world, and snorkelers should not miss the chance to swim with millions of golden jellyfish in Jellyfish Lake. When you’ve had your fill of the underwater world, kayak your way around the Rock Islands, trek through the jungle and take a dip in the natural pool below Ngardmau Waterfall (Micronesia’s tallest cascade), or reap the beauty benefits of the natural white mud at Milky Way Lagoon.
Located in the South Pacific, the tiny island nation of Tonga has several unique aspects that set it apart from neighboring islands. Not only does the country have the last remaining monarchy in the Pacific, but it’s also the only South Pacific Island that was never formally colonized. Because of this, the population of 106,000 still honors many Indigenous traditions.
Having an authentic cultural experience is certain for those who visit, but the excitement doesn’t stop there. The waters of Tonga are also mating grounds for humpback whales, which migrate every year to the warm waters to breed and raise their calves. The Mapu’a’a Vaea blowholes are also a must-see (and must-hear) attraction on the island of Tongatapu — they shoot water up to 59 feet high when the crashing waves rush under the shallow reef made from porous volcanic material.
Another strictly Tongan experience is undoubtedly the fishing pigs. Said to be the descendants of explorer James Cook’s pigs that he introduced to the island in the 18th century, these wild pigs actually wade offshore to hunt fish, crabs, and mussels.