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Missed the blue skies?

In this ever-changing climate, who hasn’t longed for the pristine shores of an exotic, sun- kissed, turquoise-water destination? The wait is over, and it’s time to book that holiday to a far-flung paradise. Lucy Kehoe offers up five white-sanded utopias for your next trip

St Lucia Caribbean

The Caribbean island comes with all the laid-back trappings you’d expect, but also offers plenty of culinary diversions, from cocoa and rum tours to a vibrant and lively food scene

Rising from the cerulean Caribbean Sea, St Lucia is made for swooning honeymooners and those looking for escapist paradise, but there's plenty to energise as well as relax you on this volcanic island. Luxurious resorts stake claims along its sandy shores under the photo-ready zenith of the Pitons, the famous twin peaks that are one of the most recognised landmarks of the West Indies. As well as admiring them from afar, you can hire a guide to climb to the top of Gros Piton, the tallest of the two at 798m. Your efforts are rewarded with magnificent views. Despite being smaller, Petit Piton (743m) is actually a more technical challenge, for more experienced climbers. If that all sounds too energetic then why not take a boat trip to view them from Piton Bay? These aren't the only activities to tempt you from that sun lounger, others include a trip to the volcanic Sulphur Spring outside the town of Soufrière. And who would say no to a trip to one of the many cocoa plantations – where you can learn all about chocolate making and how to pair bars with wine – or a tour around a rum distillery?

Food offers a feast for both the eyes and the palate. The same balmy weather that brings sun-worshippers to the island also feeds a lush landscape of farms and fertile soils that produce a unique culinary culture. A morning saunter through market stalls in the capital of Castries provides an introduction to the island’s ingredients. Early risers meandering the streets are met with mountains of christophenes (a squash-like savoury fruit), breadfruit, dasheen (taro) and sweet potatoes piled high. Okra sits beside pumpkins, kale, cucumbers, limes, soursops, papayas, sweet plums, ackee and mangos of all varieties. Spices come wrapped in tidy bags, a culinary artefact of the island’s colonial past when East Indian indentured labourers arrived on its shores under British oppression.

A complex island cuisine stems from its checkered history and abundance of produce. Local dishes are heady, earthy, hearty and powerful. Broths, stews and soups battle for dominance. Meats are braised in coconut milk to produce boyoun, with plantain, banana and ground yam added for heft, fiery Scotch bonnet for heat, and a few potatoes to bulk it up. The mix is cooked slowly to allow the flavours to develop. While imports have always kept St Lucian larders stacked, a new obsession with locally grown produce has developed over the last five years. Until recently, farming on the island was rare, caught up in associations with poverty and slavery, but that’s changing. Organic farms have built a following as St Lucians find a renewed pride in local produce. It’s something that chef Orlando Satchell – who's credited with starting the island’s farm-to-fork movement – continues to support. British-born and internationally trained, Satchell joined a growing number of chefs on St Lucia who celebrate the many influences of the island’s cuisine. Today, on a set menu of small plates – known locally as ti manie - at Orlando’s Restaurant & Bar in Soufrière, the chef serves Cajun chicken with skewered shrimps over callaloo rice and saltfish with squash, sweetened by slices of papaya.

The island’s history has contributed to its fusion cooking. East Indian influences have adapted to complement the Caribbean produce. Take the rotis at Mama’s on Reduit Beach, Rodney Bay, a rum shack adjacent to a quiet, sandy beach. Alongside fire-grilled dorado and snapper, you can pick up traditional Indian flatbreads which have evolved into a uniquely St Lucian delicacy. The soft bread is stuffed with shrimp and doused in a mouth-burning hot sauce. It’s a similar story at Apsara, one of several restaurants in Soufrière’s Anse Chastanet Resort where the intertwined cuisines see delicately plated portions of tongue-tingling goat vindaloo, prawn jhinga and the firm flesh of mahi-mahi marinated in mango pickle before being charred in a tandoor oven.

Before you leave, have a Friday night out in one of St Lucia’s raucous urban hubs, which crackle with energy as the sun swoops beneath the sea. The street food offers a finger-licking final feast. Seafood is cooked over open flames while fried breadfruit and spicy hot bakes (fried balls of dough) fill the night air with tantalising aromas as sound systems roll into the streets and rum bottles open. The fish barbecue joint Duke’s Place on Bay Street in Gros Islet offers a seat to view the festivities. Over charred mahi-mahi and marlin cooked in coal-filled drums, the Friday night atmosphere builds: loud, joyful and, with rum flowing, the worries of yesteryear are long gone.

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Cook Islands South Pacific

An untouched paradise of lush mountains, white sands, rainforest, lagoons and coral-rich South Pacific waters, the Cook Islands archipelago will fast track you to slower pace of life

Circling above the atolls that stretch aross sparkling South Pacific waves – map marked for Rarotonga – it’s the coconut palms that first catch your eye. As you descend towards the most populated atoll of the Cook Islands, the self-governing state roughly halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, you take in the lines of green trees fringing the blue curves of sea and white sandy beaches.

People visit the Cook Islands to escape. They come to see the lagoon of Aitutaki; to dive and snorkel through the coral reefs or explore a shipwreck; to take in the seemingly endless Pacific panoramic views. The islands’ rich culture dates back to 500AD with the arrival of the Polynesians. They’re famed for being a happy place, one that's mostly visited by Australians and New Zealanders, so they remain a hidden gem for most Europeans.

The distinct cuisine is underpinned by the many coconut palms, know as the trees of life, that grow across the 15 isles. Unsurprisingly, most dishes are flavoured with generous portions of homemade coconut cream. On Aitutaki, the second-most populated island, the local seafood favourite of mud crabs are gently boiled and liberally dressed with it, while a Polynesian-style ceviche of just-off-the-boat skipjack marinated in lime juice and served with mango, passion fruit, onions and chilli also comes with a dollop of coconut cream. The Cook Islands similarly have an abundance of myriad other tropical gems to cook with – the likes of jackfruit, mangoes, bananas, plantains, pineapples, pawpaws, avocados, pomegranates and lemons.

A trio of fruit, coconuts and seafood define the islands’ cuisine. Lounge by any crescent of crystal-clear sea water and you’ll spot islanders venturing into the shallows at low tide to pick up sea urchins, sea cucumbers, clams and seaweed to bolster their midweek dinner. The fish caught out in the deeper waters beyond the reefs are sold outside fishermen’s houses. They’re hung on lines for passers-by to pick up: an array of mahi-mahi, skipjack tuna, yellowfin, wahoo, and buckets of octopus and crayfish. Disembarking in Rarotonga, The Mooring Fish Cafe in Avana Harbour is the place to sample the islands’ key ingredients. Homed in a shipping container, this waterside spot’s F.O.B sandwiches (Fresh Off the Boat) of white-fleshed mahi-mahi, crumbed and fried, is served with a lime-spiked mayonnaise and Cajun sauce, and washed down with tumblers full of cooling fresh coconut water.

There’s a cutting-edge coffee culture here, too. At the Cook Islands Coffee Company on Ara Tapu in the Matavera District, you could easily mistake the clean-cut interiors for a Melbourne coffee shop. It’s the place to go to tuck into a croissant and flat white. The café’s signature nutty, caramel-flavoured roast is actually roasted in the owner’s own garden.

Head 200km north to Aitutaki for an idyllic escape experience. Here, aqua-coloured waters merge with blue skies, beaches are pure-white sand and there are plenty more coconut palms. Aitutaki's sky-reflecting lagoon waters are a big tourist pull – only a turquoise streak separates the diminutive island from the deep-blue darkness of the Pacific. It’s easy to cocoon yourself in one of the islands’ excellent places to stay – like the secluded bungalows of Pacific Resort or beachside villas at Rarotonga‘s Nautilus Resort.

The lagoon is also a source of seafood and here you can see mud crabs being gathered from the seabed. Find somewhere with an uma, a fire pit dug into the earth and lined with volcanic stones to slowly steam-cook fish and meat in coconut-palm baskets with rukau (island spinach). Eat it while taking in the seemingly endless blue horizon views, and you're bringing together the very best of this islands' experience.

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Tasmania Australia

National parks, nature reserves and World Heritage Sites, a wildly rugged, often white- sanded coastline with sensational seafood puts this island firmly in bucket-list territory

Call it luck, call it fate, call it whatever you want, but the rather miraculous combination of geography, geology and weather on the Antipodean island of Tasmania makes Australia’s most southern state a paradisical destination.

It feels like the end of the world – tucked between the mainland and Antarctica on blue curvature – but this Aussie outcrop has long shed its reputation for convicts driven to the edges of civility. It’s ironic, really: criminals sent to the corners of the earth only to find Eden, all grass-fringed beaches, craggy hills, ancient forests and transparent waters. With roughly the same circumference as Ireland, but a minute population that only recently crept over half a million, most of the state remains a wilderness of tumbling black peppermint and mountain ash forests, home to spotted eastern quolls, miniature wallabies and, of course, the beloved marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil.

And then there’s the beaches. Quiet inlets, surf-pounded stretches and endless sand bars capped with ochre-hued sunset skies. The sand-trimmed isthmus of ‘The Neck’ on Bruny Island, the sea-glass green cove of remote Wineglass Bay and the flat wilderness of Ocean Beach, backed by brooding 40m dunes – they might not offer the swimming opportunities of warmer destinations, but Tassie shorelines are no less mesmeric than picture-postcard Caribbean coves. These are beaches to breathe in, to get the wind in your hair, or dart across in a wind-powered buggy, flying along miles of untouched sand.

It’s not just the idyllic landscapes that lure travellers to Tasmanian shores, though: a culinary flare lit some 10 years ago continues to glow brighter, pushing the boundaries of Antipodean cuisine onwards as the mainland’s kitchens overheat. A cooler climate and fertile soils have enticed many an Aussie chef across the waters. There’s a directness with which chefs handle the island’s produce – an unspoken acknowledgement of its superiority, without boastfulness. After all, the produce really is better here. The rain is cleaner, the air is fresher. And that’s not marketing puff. The island’s winds arrive straight from Antarctica, before anyone gets their gases into it. The sparkling environment pays off at stalwart restaurant The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery a Derwent Valley dining destination, about a 35-minute drive from Hobart that's so confident in the island’s exemplary produce that the menu reads almost arrogantly simple: sourdough bread slathered with kefir butter, smoked paprika dancing over burrata and a wood-fire roasted cabbage served with a simple drizzle of pickled jalapeño pesto.

In Launceston, Craig Will plates a playful menu that celebrates the local seafood at Stillwater a restored flour mill on the banks of River Tamar. You could call it contemporary Tasmanian cuisine: abalone and prawn pot stickers, Tasmanian octopus spaghetti and kingfish sashimi served with pickled cucumber and zingy citrus sauce.

Chefs from across Australia are pulled here by the seafood that live in the cool waters. Abalone, which can sell for thousands of pounds to the kilo when shipped to China, are plucked from under the waves by locals to be sliced, grilled and served over bread at kitchen tables. Sea urchins sit tight beside rock lobster and salmon. Pearly-white bivalves await extraction in Oyster Bay. The best spots for salty suppers are the unpretentious joints: Bruny island’s oyster bar Get Shucked or Freycinet Marine Farm’s tasting room overlooking the iridescent waves of Coles Bay. Tucking into freshly shucked oysters, orange-lipped mussels and tender scallops with a view across the water, you can spot the very boats that probably plucked your dinner from the seabed, out on the waves once more. A stay at the excellent Saffire Freycinet nearby is recommended.

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The Gambia West Africa

The wild coastline of this narrow state offers a fabulous sun-trap for sand loungers, and more. Behind the beaches lies a complex cuisine that’s waiting to be discovered

The coast of this tiny West African state, bordered by Senegal, is all pale-yellow sands meeting Gatorade-blue seas, with the odd mangrove disrupting otherwise horizon-hugging beaches. Its amazing sub-tropical climate means it gets year-round sunshine, with average temperatures between 29C-34C, so it’s no surprise that it’s long been a sun-and-sea destination of choice for sun-starved Europeans. It’s referred to as ‘the smiling coast’, but this sun-trap branding does it a disservice. Despite being the smallest country in Africa, it packs in a dizzying array of experiences, with wild, untamed beaches, sleepy fishing communities and wildlife-packed coastal reserves offering plenty of diversions outside the hotels and main towns.

Wildlife sightseeing opportunities include a day trip into neighbouring Senegal, via road and ferry, for a safari to see giraffe, rhinos, zebras, antelope and buffalo. Alternatively, arrange a visit to a chimpanzee rehabilitation sanctuary that’s spread along the River Gambia and homes around 100 chimps over three islands, which you explore by boat. Hiking is another option and a 30-minute drive from Banjul will find you in Bijilo Forest Park, which is a small nature reserve that's home to red colobus and vervet monkeys. Birdwatchers should go to Abuko Nature Reserve where there’s a stunning forest with more than 300 resident bird species. Twitchers can be rewarded with unusual sightings of red-bellied paradise fly catchers, kingfishers and hammerkops.

The diminutive urban capital of Banjul, which vibrates to the drum of mbalax (a fusion of traditional sabar drumming and Western musi), is the heartbeat of the country’s cuisine. This is where you can lose yourself in the aromatic scents of the street markets under a minaret-dotted skyline. It’s an interesting cuisine that makes the most from the produce grown in the beautiful interior and its Atlantic-facing fishing communities. Along the 80km-long coast, beaches offer a chance to indulge in some excellent seafood and bask across powdery beaches. Some of the best shoreline stretches are found between Banjul and Brufut, though you’ll need to watch out for picnic-stealing monkeys while you sunbathe. For more remote beaches, catch a bus down to the expansive shores of Sanyang. Most hotels are based in Senegambia, which sits flush to the capital, offering easy access to the food markets and lunch stalls of neighbouring Banjul. Fruits – papayas, bananas, grapefruits, soursop – sit piled in plastic crates, ready to be transformed into wonjo, a vibrantly red sour drink made from boiling roselle hibiscus flowers.

Take a taxi ride up to Tanji, the country’s busiest fishing port, to wind between distressed wooden boats, ramshackle buildings and the country’s bustling smokehouses towards tables laden with the colourful sheen of piscine scales at the market. Here, snapper sits beside barracuda, capitaine beside firm-fleshed butterfish, all draped with the occasional sea snake. It can be overwhelming, particularly with when haggle-ready stallholders eye up visitors. Find out how to cook with these ingredients by taking a class with Ida Cham-Njai – she will give you a guided tour of her preferred stalls. After filling a bag with market finds, she’ll lead you through the recipe for benachin, a one-pot stew cooked over charcoal flames. White fish, Gambian rice and a garlicky tomato, sweet potato and okra sauce tumble into her pot. Then it’s onto West Africa’s ubiquitous groundnut stew, named domoda here.

Those less inclined to cook should make their way to the small village of Sukuta to dine at the urban oasis of Omakan, a boutique hotel with a restaurant specialising in fish dishes. It’s a dining experience enhanced by the sound of crashing Atlantic waves. Or, try Ngala Lodge’s restaurant between Bakau and Fajara. After a sunset drink, tuck into its menu of European classics with a distinctive African touch. Gambia can be a holiday of two halves – explore and unwind. You chose.

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New Caledonia South Pacific

Its marine biodiversity is so vast it’s Unesco protected – what lies beneath these Pacific waters is as stunning as the isles and islets that make up this beautiful French territory

The Melanesians were here some 2,000 years before Captain Cook sailed up in 1774, and before the French made it theirs some 80 years later. They’d all have been astounded by the depth and breadth of beauty of these islands, which are just over a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney; three hours from Auckland. Thick forest inspired Cook to name one of its many islands the 'Isle of Pines'. It’s wooded areas protect much of the island’s beaches, but beyond the thick green curtain lie pale, white sands that open up to warm Pacific waters.

The tropical lagoons and coral reefs are an ’outstanding example of high diversity coral reef ecosystems’, says Unesco, which has designated half of it as a protected area. Much of the multi-coloured tropical fish are within its 1,600km-long lagoon, the world’s largest, while its coral reef systems are the second largest. Nesting green, hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherback turtles are joined by humpback whales, dugong and dolphins in this aquatic reserve. Overhead there are 23 species of tropical seabirds, including boobies, noddies and frigatebirds.

Weaving your way around the islets and isles makes for a special sailing expedition, as do organised sunset cruises. Cycling is another favourite activity with many of the locals, combining a Tour de France-inspired passion for two-wheels with the challenge of the volcanic mountain landscape.

On the cuisine front, it’s a nod to New Caledonia's history that, in some parts, an adoration of yams sits comfortably beside a love of champagne. Have lunch on the islands' powdery shores and you’re as likely to be scoffing fois gras as you are pomme frites made from taro (a starchy root crop). Annexed by France in 1853, New Caledonia is now a French Overseas Territory (a 2020 referendum rejected independence). Gallic customs have left their mark. Every week container ships arrive laden with French cheeses, wine and foie gras. On the largest island of Grande Terre, restaurant names in its capital Nouméa ring with the language of romance: Au P’tit Café, Le Bintz and La Table des Gourmets. Encountering a menu of imported cheeses, caviar and Bordeaux wines is as common as ordering from one flush with coconut, banana, yam, candlenut and sweet potato.

At Nouméa's Chai de L’Hippodrome, 17 Rue Louis Blériot, an extensive French-leaning wine list is supplemented by charcuterie boards and cheeses. The bottle shop Régénérés, 1 rue Charles Péguy focuses on natural French wines. Jutting out over the waters of Nouméa, Le Roof plates up elegant seafood platters of the day's catch. Its wobbly crème brûlée gives Paris’s finest a run for their money. The island favourite
of venison (the deer here are a problem) is enjoyed skewered and cooked over flames, stewed or tossed into a pawpaw salad.

The idyllic Isle of Pines, just off the main island, is the place to sample local delicacies. The cone-shape shelled bulimes (snails) offer an introduction to an indigenous cuisine and rousette (bat) – or flying fox as it’s known – is another favourite. Its gamey flavour is added to aromatic coconut stews. Melanesian dish bougna – vegetables and fish wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and cooked in an earth oven – is another popular tradition.

For sheer relaxation, book into the Le Méridien Île des Pins for an out-of-this-world luxurious stay. It’s a great base for exploring the local area, with turtle watching and canoeing in the lagoon. Organise a boat trip lead by a tribal leader through Île des Pins Tours which can include a dinner experience where you'll get to sample yams in their myriad forms. Le Méridien has all the wellbeing facilities you’d hope for, with a spa and infinity pool, but it's also just a 15-minute walk to the island’s 'natural swimming pool', which provides an unforgettable communing with nature experience that's just about as idyllic as it gets.

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