Whether you're looking for a tropical escape or windswept remoteness, the following destinations are perfect for island-hopping. From there, your biggest challenge is choosing your favorite beach...
Inner and Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Despite their wild and remote image, getting around these archipelagos in western Scotland can be straightforward. A few of the most accessible islands include Skye, where the geologically diverse landscape includes lochs (lakes), forests, and glens (valley) and Islay, with its whiskey distilleries. Iona has white sandy beaches, and Lewis has mysterious standing stones. Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne runs services to 22 islands, most year-round. Visitors planning to travel extensively around the islands can purchase an Island-Hopping pass, which can save you some money. For example, one pass includes ferry rides from the mainland and to the islands of Skye, Harris, and Lewis, and back to the mainland. For car and passenger, the pass costs $30 per person in the summer ($28, or $56 total, in the winter). By comparison, the total price for a car and passenger making the same trip by buying single tickets would be $202 in the summer.
Kvarner Islands, Croatia
Getting around the well-developed and family-friendly Kvarner Islands of Croatia is cheap and easy; the most costly part will be getting to Croatia from the United States. Luckily, the island of Krk, which has a mile-long beach and a medieval walled center, also has both an airport and a port (in Rijeka), making it an ideal starting point. Even luckier, budget airline Norwegian flies direct to Rijeka from Oslo for as little as $67 each way in summer. The same airline also offers fares from New York City to Oslo starting at $456 each way in summer. From Rijeka, you can take the catamaran to the lush island of Rab, popular with divers, for around $10. From there you can take another catamaran to the island of Pag, famous for its nightlife, for under $2. A direct ferry from Pag back to Rijeka costs around $5. At Croatia Ferries you will find up-to-date ferry timetables.
Inland Sea, Japan
The slow-pace of life on the islands of Japan's Inland Sea makes for a welcome break from the rush of Tokyo or Osaka. These small islands have, in recent years, been transformed from sleepy fishing villages to contemporary art centers. This is particularly true of Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima, where you will find eclectic artwork by Japanese and foreign artists in museums, abandoned houses and in the open air. From Uno Port on the mainland, take a ferry to Naoshima for around $3. When you arrive on Naoshima, you can rent a bicycle from one of the stores at the ferry port and easily cycle around the whole island, stopping off at Chichu Art Museum to see works by James Turrell, Walter de Maria, and Claude Monet. You can also see the Art House Project, which turns abandoned houses into works of art, and the kitsch-filled Naoshima Bath “I♥湯” (the name uses the character for hot water, which is pronounced you) – a public bathhouse and art installation. From Naoshima's Honmura Port, you can take a ferry to Ieura Port on Teshima ($6) and from there walk, cycle, or take a bus to the otherworldly Teshima Art Museum, which holds a single piece of art. A few of the ferries traveling from Naoshima to the tiny island of Inujima (home to another Art House Project) stop at Teshima on the way. The fare from Teshima is about $10 but be sure to check the timetable before you set out. The mainland guesthouse Uno Slope House keeps an updated timetable at its website.
Stockholm Archipelago, Sweden
The 24,000 islands of the Stockholm archipelago vary from densely populated suburbs, to completely uninhabited. The most popular are Grinda with its charming red-roofed tavern, and Finnhamn, where you can spend the night in a sea cabin or youth hostel. Hopping around the major islands is easy with ferries operated by Waxholmsbolaget, which caters both to errand-running locals as well as visitors. Waxholmsbolaget offers a special Island Hopping pass that's valid for ferry travel around the archipelago. Compared to the normal ferry ticket prices, it presents very good value: $65 for five days of unlimited travel instead of $10-$22 for single one-way tickets .
Central Gulf Coast Thailand
Decades worth of backpackers making the trip from Ko Samui to Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao have grooved a well-worn, and easy to follow, path across these lush Thai islands. Once you've had your fill of Ko Samui's palm-fringed shoreline, take the ferry to Ko Pha-ngan ($9) for the waterfalls of Than Sadet-Ko Pha Ngan National Park and, if it's your scene, full moon parties. From Ko Pha-ngan, it's an $11 ferry to the divers' paradise of Ko Tao. Numerous dive centers offer trips to sites around the island where you can see reef sharks, turtles, and stingrays. From Sairee Beach, you can rent a bicycle or motorcycle for getting around the island, or catch a ride on a longtail boat traveling between the beaches.