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The 5 best islands to live on

Ditch the watch. Forward your mail. And don’t worry about the bank account. If moving to an exotic island has been one of those things that you have (big sigh) always dreamed about, here’s some good news: It’s not that hard to do.
The sun sets near Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, an island off the Yucatan Coast, Mexico. On the island, it's possible to enjoy a luxurious remoteness and local flavor, at a relatively low cost.
The sun sets near Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, an island off the Yucatan Coast, Mexico. On the island, it's possible to enjoy a luxurious remoteness and local flavor, at a relatively low cost.Anja Schlein / AP file
/ Source: Islands Magazine

Ditch the watch. Forward your mail. And don’t worry about the bank account. If moving to an exotic island has been one of those things that you have (big sigh) always dreamed about, here’s some good news: It’s not that hard to do. On these five islands, you can still buy a bit of paradise for less than it might cost for a summer rental in the Hamptons. Internet access is (fairly) reliable, the natives are friendly and the governments are stable. If you do get island fever, there are cities less than 60 minutes away. So what are you waiting for? The hardest thing might be choosing which island to call home.

This tiny island off the Yucatán Peninsula blends the soul of Mexico with the beaches of the Caribbean. This is a hammock-swinging lifestyle, peppered with Mayan legends.

Why move here?
Only eight miles from hyperactive Cancún, Isla Mujeres is a throwback to Mexico’s more innocent days, a time when you might have driven a VW bus down the Yucatán Peninsula, slept beneath a million stars and cooked fish tacos over an open fire. Isla, as it is known, is a casual place that has added a few conveniences without sacrificing its Mexican soul. You can still wander sandy, unpaved roads into villages where fishermen are mending their nets. Hammocks take the place of beds in colorful, Caribbean-style casas; and to get from point A to B, the preferred transport is by golf cart .... After all the island is only five miles long, and what’s your hurry anyway? Remember, this isn’t just Mexico, it’s Caribbean Mexico.

At the same time, compact downtown Isla speaks to the hungry, restless traveler, with its bric-a-brac shops, taquerias and family-run hotels. In the evenings on Avenida Hidalgo and Avenida Rueda Medina, beef sizzles, ready for taco orders; fresh seafood is marinated for ceviche. As you sip tequila at La Adelita (150 different kinds), you’ll hear the cries of “arroz con leche,” locals selling rice pudding.

Offshore is a wild blue yonder with some of the best diving and fishing along the Riviera Maya. On Playa Norte, the water is blue enough to make the sky look pale. On the south side of the island are Mayan ruins and nearby the most touristed touch of all: El Garrafón, a water park that shovels in the tourists off cruise ships. But after the ships have departed, the town slumbers under its coconut palms.

Meet the neighbors
When you master Spanish, you’ll meet the islanders, many of them fishermen. In typical Mexican fashion, Isla’s villagers love a celebration. One of the biggest events is Diá de los Muertos, held in early November. Locals go to the cemetery to eat, drink and sing to the memory of their departed.

You know it’s an island when ...
There’s a traffic jam every morning in front of the navy base, where sailors unroll and raise the Mexican flag. Or your shopping plans in Cancún are cancelled, because of rough seas (the ferry isn’t running).

Escape clause
Cancún is a half-hour by ferry and an hour south is Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. From Cancún, you can also fly to Mexico City or Houston for big-city weekends.

Size: 3 square miles
Population: 14,500
Median Home Price: $199,000

On Isla, houses are cheap compared with property on other Caribbean islands. But purchase soon. According to Mary Grace Henry of Caribbean Realty & Travel Ent., property is appreciating steeply. Foreigners can only purchase property by setting up a trust with a local bank (or the Mexican branch of an international bank); or you can set up a Mexican corporation. For listings, see

Only an hour from Bangkok, Koh Samui and the surrounding islands are the bit of tropical Thailand that time (and the crowds) seem to have left alone.

Why move here?
Anyone pondering a move to Koh Samui should rent The Beach, the Leo DiCaprio film set on the dreamy Thai island of Phi Phi, which was a stand-in for Koh Samui. Ignore the Hollywood melodrama about sharks and drug runners and concentrate on the backdrop: the golden sand, the softness of the southeast Asian sky and water in shades of teal, tiger-beetle green and peacock blue. That part of the movie is real.

Thai fishermen settled here more than 1,500 years ago and kept their secret well into the 20th century. There wasn’t a road or motor vehicle on Samui, Thailand’s third largest island, until the 1940s, and even today, the mountainous interior remains largely jungle. The coast is strung with fishing villages, Buddhist temples and thousands of coconut palms that provide the island’s primary export. Motorbike and boat are still the main ways to get around.

Discovered by hippies in the ’70s, backpackers in the ’80s and upscale dropouts in the ’90s, this island blends everything Thailand offers in abundance (tom yum gai, Thai massages, beachside bungalows, lively bars) with posh resorts and all the modern conveniences. As is true in other parts of Thailand, a $2 bowl of noodles at a place like Chaweng Center’s night market can be as scrumptious as poo tja (crabmeat and vegetables) at a fine restaurant such as Budsaba, where you ring a bell for service and traditional Thai dancers entertain you.

Meet the neighbors
Samui society is increasingly multicultural. It is easy to mix with the Chao Samui (as the native islanders are called), who have a high literacy rate and often speak English. Join the fun at Songkran, the annual Thai New Year celebration, which is three days of good-natured water fights and feasting. “If you haven’t got a BIG water gun, your street cred goes out the window,” says realtor Wesley Morlham, a local veteran of the water wars.

You know it’s an island when ...
You get tired of phanaeng gai (spicy chicken curry). Thai food is yummy, but a steady diet of chili can wreak havoc with unaccustomed innards.

Escape clause
Direct flights to Bangkok and the island of Phuket are about an hour.

Size: 95 square miles
Population: 40,000
Median Home Price: $100,000

You can still find loads of beautiful homes for less than six figures, but Wesley Morlham of Samui Property Solutions reminds us that foreign nationals cannot own land in Thailand or more than 49 percent of a Thai company that owns freehold land. But, says Morlham, a foreigner is allowed to own a house, “which, coupled with a renewable registered 30-year leasehold, is regarded by many as being as good as owning the land outright.” For listings, see

One of the less visited Bahamas, Exuma retains its slow pace, even though it’s only 250 miles from Miami. Drop anchor, cast a line, or dance away the days.

Why move here?
“Old-school Bahamas” is a tag for this collection of 365 cays stretching 120 miles and anchored by two main islands, Great Exuma and Little Exuma. There are no high-rises to obstruct ocean views (nothing is higher than two stories), just clapboard cottages painted pink, yellow or blue. Pass a day with a Kalik beer and a plate of cracked conch, deciphering the local patois; or seek out bartender and resident sage Lerman “Doc” Rolle, who dispenses rum (and advice) at Club Peace & Plenty in George Town.

Exuma is a waterman’s paradise, with secluded coves for picnicking or fishing; and George Town’s Family Island Regatta, where local fishing boats vie for bragging rights, is a big party every April. Waste away days bonefishing at the world-renowned Exuma flats. Or plunge into what Mark O’Brien calls the “most beautiful, impossible-to-describe water in the world.” Four years ago, O’Brien and his wife moved to Great Exuma from Kentucky, spending $450,000 on a 25-year-old beachside bungalow at Tar Bay, six miles from George Town.

Exuma is the place to go if you want to remain relatively close to the U.S. mainland yet like the idea of splashing in a turquoise-water paradise and immersing yourself in a different culture.

Meet the neighbors
Several islanders have the last name Rolle. Many locals can trace their roots back to 1783 when colonists loyal to the British crown were given land grants here after America’s independence. Exuma’s largest landowner and slave owner was Lord Rolle; when he freed his slaves, he gave them land, and many took his name. West African traditions prosper in the form of goombay music, Jump-In-Dance, and Junkanoo, where revelers parade in colorful costumes and make music with goat-skin drums, cowbells, horns and whistles.

You know it’s an island when ...
You look forward to Mondays, when rake ’n’ scrape music plays at Eddie’s Edgewater.

Escape clause
Other Out Islands are easily accessible and Nassau is 25 minutes by air. It’s a 90-minute flight to Miami or Fort Lauderdale.

Size: 61 square miles
Population: 3,570; 5,000 (winter)
Median Home Price: $575,000

There are still deals, but buy now as property is appreciating quickly. If you buy a house that is more than $500,000, you can apply for Bahamian residency, which allows you and your immediate family to live here the rest of your natural born days and take advantage of the country’s liberal tax laws. For listings, see

Long warm days, old stone homes, vineyards and fields of lavender. Welcome to life on Hvar. Croatia’s little island in the Adriatic is safe, affordable and, well, intoxicating.

Why move here?
Floating just off Croatia’s drop-dead gorgeous Dalmatian coast, Hvar is far different from the other islands featured in this story: Think olive trees, fields of lavender, vineyards and rocky shores. But what Hvar shares with the other islands may surprise you: With an average of nearly eight hours of sunshine per day and water temperatures that hover around 70 degrees for at least half the year, it has one of Europe’s best climates.

Settled, over the centuries, by Venetians, Greeks and Croats, Hvar has a long history of art and culture. The 16th-century Spanjola fortress and the 17th-century municipal theater dominate Hvar town. Here, locals gather in cafés around the cobblestone square and along the palmshaded waterfront each evening to sip prosek, a dessert wine, and dine on local favorites like octopus salad or muckalica (pork cutlets). Beyond the town are rugged mountains scented with lavender and rosemary. You can also take a water taxi to the nearby Pakleni archipelago, where secluded strands of white sand, hiking trails and pine groves await.

Hvar, with a fairly homogenous population, was spared the ethnic and religious violence that decimated other parts of the region. Croatia is scheduled to join the European Union in 2009 or 2010 and the euro will become standard currency.

The “in” thing to do now is buy a 17th-century stone farmhouse, plant a few grapes and cork your own vintage. Londoner Tim Coulson moved here in 2004 and did just that. “Now I wake up in the morning to the beautiful, crystal-clear blue sea, big green hills, clean air and lots of old stone,” he says.

Meet the neighbors
Easter Week is the biggest annual bash and newcomers are welcome to join Za Krizem, a candlelight procession between five villages held the night before Good Friday. If you want to score points with the neighbors, bake the traditional Hvar cake made from saffron, honey and coriander.

You know it’s an island when ...
There are no quick conversations. “On Hvar,” says Coulson, “all business is done with coffee — before, during or after.” Translation: Be patient as you house hunt.

Escape clause
Dubrovnik — one of Europe’s most intact Renaissance cities — is only 30 minutes away by high-speed ferry. During the summer, there are also ferries to Ancona and Pescara, Italy.

Size: 115 square miles
Population: 11,500; 55,000 (summer)
Median Home Price: $279,000

Buying property on Hvar is fairly straightforward. But you must apply for permission to purchase a house or land. This is normally a formality, and most people apply via a local attorney. In order to dampen speculation, the government slaps a 35 percent capital gains tax on anyone who sells within three years. For listings, see

If you want to get off the tourist track but not stray too far from superb diving, cool waterfalls and friendly villages, Vanua Levu is the Fiji that you’ve always imagined.

Why move here?
If vanishing from the planet sits anywhere near the top of your to-do list, Vanua Levu may be the island for you. This second largest Fijian isle remains pleasantly undiscovered and thoroughly unpretentious.

The mountainous island is smothered in jungle and surrounded by a labyrinth of coral reefs and some of the world’s best diving. Much of the island is accessible only by foot or boat, and along vast stretches of shoreline you’ll never hear the din of traffic. Follow a trail up into the hills and you could end up at a waterfall with a clear cold pool or at a natural hot spring.

The island’s two main towns are a world apart. Located on the drier, northwestern side of the island, Labasa is a busy market town and home to the majority of the island’s Indian population. Sugarcane and pine forests cover the surrounding countryside and just offshore lies one of the world’s longest barrier reefs.

The south side is lush, palmriddled and spectacularly beautiful, with the occasional colonial manor house peeking out from a coconut plantation. Here, expat life centers around the town of Savusavu, set on the edge of one of the largest and most protected bays in the South Pacific. Between May and October, the bay is a regular stop on the transpacific yacht circuit. “My window to the world,” says Hans Boernke, a German who’s lived on Vanua Levu for nearly 15 years. The restored Copra Shed along the Savusavu waterfront is the hub of social life with open-air cafés where both the conversation and the draft Fiji Gold flow freely. Or slink into a British state of mind and master your snooker skills at the old Planter’s Club on the other side of town.

Meet the neighbors
As on the big island (Viti Levu), the population of Vanua Levu is about evenly split between native Fijians and Indians. The former tend to live in villages, the latter in Labasa and other towns. “The Fijians,” says Boernke, “like to talanoa” — which means talk a lot — mostly by enjoying their beloved bowl of kava and sharing legends. Don’t be fazed when your neighbors (both expat and locals) drop in at any hour of the day to borrow anything they darn well please. Fiji’s village life is founded on a communal culture where everything from meals to most property items are shared. “You may find,” says one expat, “the whole village will be in your house sharing the use of your possessions.” Consider this a sign that you’re now one of them; sit back, relax and enjoy it.

You know it’s an island when ...
You find yourself poaching yellowfin tuna over one of the steaming volcanic “hot spots” around Savusavu that many locals still use for cooking.

Escape clause
There are dozens of smaller islands around Vanua Levu that make excellent weekend escapes. Try surfing world-famous Taveuni or if you crave an urban experience, hop the puddle-jumper to Nadi (home to the international airport), just an hour’s flight away on Viti Levu. 

Size: 2,140 square miles
Population: 130,000
Median Home Price: $150,000

As long as you don’t have a criminal record in your home country, moving to Fiji is fairly easy. Anyone who buys land or sinks at least $200,000 into a business approved by the Fiji Trade & Investment Board can obtain permanent residency. For listings, see

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