Island Adventure Travel

Even if you're not practicing for the next season of Survivor, indulging in an island vacation can quickly become a dose of the extreme.
By: Matt Villano

When warm sands, gently swaying palms and fruity beach cocktails make you cringe, and a dueling Man versus Nature vacation sounds heavenly, take heart: We've gathered information on a crop of islands ripe for adventure travel. Even if you're not practicing for the next season of "Survivor," indulging in an island vacation can quickly become a dose of the extreme.

San Juan Islands, Washington
Sea kayakers from all over the world come to Washington state's San Juan Islands to paddle and watch wildlife. The waters between San Juan, Lopez and Orcas islands provide a perfect mix of choppy ocean and gentle bay. Moreover, considering you can't drive from one island to another, kayaks can also serve as useful methods of transportation.

The best sea kayaking leaves from Roche Harbor, a tiny town on the north side of San Juan Island that is home to the historic Roche Harbor Resort. From there, paddlers usually head around Henry Island into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and south along the western edge of San Juan Island down to Lime Kiln Point State Park.

From May to October, stay alert for killer whales -- a resident population of the animals patrols the waters. The animals, made famous by the likes of Sea World star Shamu and the film "Free Willy," feast on the salmon that also call the area home. Though the whales don't care to eat humans, federal legislation requires that kayakers stay at least 50 feet away from the pods.

Other San Juan kayak trips are more about different animals. On Orcas Island, which is shaped like an upside-down U, paddlers can rent boats in the village of Eastsound and ply the gentle waters of the inlet that separates the island's two lobes. Here, as you glide along the glassy water, look for bald eagles and the occasional harbor porpoise.

Bora Bora, French Polynesia
The last thing environmentally conscious travelers would advocate on a tropical island is driving all over it. Yet, in the verdant mountains of Bora Bora, 4x4 off-road driving is all the rage. Tapuna Safari leads treks in 20- and 30-year-old Range Rovers. You pay; they drive.

Jostling aside, the scenery and views are spectacular. The trek starts from the dock at the tiny town of Vaitape, where the Eden Beach Hotel offers reasonably priced rooms. From there, the excursion heads north toward the town of Faanui, then turns inland and up the mountains that comprise the spine of the island. The drive uphill is rutted and steep; passengers must hold on to the vehicle's overhead roll bar to keep from sliding out the back of the truck.

Most off-road fanatics head east to a World War II-era radar station on Popotei Ridge. At the top, Bora Bora's lagoon seems almost too blue to be real, and sailboats look like bath toys. Of course the views are even better with fresh coconuts and "lady finger" bananas, both of which are available in ample supply. If you're lucky, your guide will bring a machete to hack some of these goodies off the trees.

Another classic 4x4 trek is on Raiatea, a tiny island to the south. Four different jeep outfitters bring visitors up the banks of the Faaroa River and along a valley formed by a now-dormant volcano. At the top of the valley, vegetation becomes so thick the vehicles must turn around. This is what off-roading is all about.

Bali, Indonesia
Forget the Canadian Rockies -- the best single-track mountain biking in the world might be on the Indonesian island of Bali. A lush landscape and tropical climate provide the perfect mix of shaded terrain and natural obstacles to keep rides interesting. The best part: you can rent a bike from one of the car rental companies at the airport in Denpasar for dirt cheap.

Perhaps the most accessible network of single-track is found in the river valleys above the artsy town of Ubud. The trails mostly are walking and livestock paths that connect one village to the next. It's easy to get lost up here, but locals are friendly enough to give directions back to civilization.

For a more challenging ride, climb up to the village of Penelokan on the edge of Batur Caldera and drop down the steep switchbacks to Lake Batur. Another trail that continues over the north side of the crater rim runs for 10 miles through several tiny villages down to Lupak, on the scenic northern coastline. Few, if any, tourists ever journey this way, and if you're feeling lazy, you'll come across plenty of hostels and hotels in which to spend the night.

For a more relaxed jaunt, follow the paved road around the east side of Bali, winding along the rugged shoreline from Amed to Seraya. Fishing is a way of life along this stretch, and on early-morning rides you might spot fishermen pushing their outriggers from black-sand beaches into the twilight.

The Maldive Islands
If diving is your game, the Maldives are the place to go. Located in the Indian Ocean, the islands that comprise this nation are the tips of ancient volcanoes, meaning the majority of the local landmass is submerged. With so many secrets beneath the water's surface, the place practically begs visitors to don flippers, strap on a scuba tank and head below to check things out.

Every resort offers dive instruction, and the diverse nature of more than 70 dive sites in the Maldives makes the islands suitable for divers of all experience levels. North Male Atoll offers ample dive spots with rich aquatic life. Lion's Head in Vaadhoo Channel is a good spot, too, since channels generate fast tidal flows that attract many of the shark, ray and fish species for which the Maldives are renowned. Finally, the wreck of an old cargo ship near Hulhule Airport Island is home to turtles, groupers, fusiliers and jackfish.

Coral also is plentiful and prevalent in these parts -- more than 50 different species of coral, in colors so vibrant they make Crayola's 64 seem dull. Some of the most incredible coral reefs sit inside the atoll, which protects them from the open ocean. Even the world's most advanced divers have spent days (or weeks) in here, simply poking around. A good home base: Bandos Island Resort & Spa.

For hard-core divers, some seasons on the Maldives are better than others. During the Northeast monsoon season, from December through April, for instance, giant manta rays and whale sharks come close to shore to feed. These creatures are tremendous; in their presence, even the biggest worries seem insignificant.

Sao Miguel Island, Portugal
If extreme physical exertion does not appeal to you, but you're craving excitement all the same, consider a bona fide eating adventure. On the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores, gastronomy is taken seriously. Of all the volcanic islands in this mid-Atlantic chain, Sao Miguel is the most populous. Therefore, it's also the one with the most gourmet restaurants. If you want traditional Portuguese fare, forget Lisbon and head here.

Succulent dishes such as "caldo azedo" (a kind of sour soup) and "torresmos em molho de figado" (rashers of bacon with liver sauce) are commonplace around Ponta Delgada, the island's largest town. Another must-try is "cozido," a meat-and-veggie stew made by wrapping a pot and burying it in soil. The island's natural volcanic heat cooks the meat and vegetables. These dishes are on the menu at O Corisco, a short taxi ride from the chic-but-affordable Hotel Talisman.

The Azores offer other culinary specialties, too. Seafood, naturally, is plentiful -- locals rave about the lobster and crab at Ala Bote. The island even boasts a burgeoning pineapple crop, much of which is operated and sold out of tiny huts, called "hot-houses." The huts are situated in the areas of Faja de Cima, Lagoa and Vila Franca do Campo, and some even offer tours.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Sao Miguel is a bastion for tea. The tea industry began here in the late 19th century, when two Chinese explorers came to Sao Miguel to teach islanders how to prepare it. Stop by the main plantations at the Gorreana Tea Factory, next to the old Chapel of Senhora do Resgate. Gastronomic adventurers are always welcome.

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