Growing up on Long Island’s south shore in New York, I spent many muggy summer weekends on the barrier beaches of nearby Fire Island, a 32-mile, car-free enclave where it’s standard practice to walk around barefoot, sand-between-the-toes style, or use a bike, wagon, or golf cart to navigate the pine-scented villages between the ocean and the bay.
With a near 1:1 deer-to-human ratio across the island, I felt at ease hopping off the ferry and leaving behind my flip-flops whether I was headed to sunbathe near the dunes or eat fried calamari at a bayside restaurant.
Where else in the world gives the right of way to pedestrians? I wondered that myself after moving to France eight years ago. Turns out, the following car-free islands—Hydra, Greece; Porquerolles, France; and Lopud, Croatia—offer vacationers the same sense of calm, with added cultural bonuses to discover between beach hopping. While reaching these idylls may take more time and patience, they are well worth the effort. Here’s what to expect from each.
1. Hydra, Greece
First: It’s pronounced “Ee-dra.” The 12-mile-long island is part of the Saronic isles and one of the closest to Athens’s Piraeus port. Many people visit only for the day, taking one of the frequent 90-minute crossings in the morning and returning on the last boat back around 9 p.m.
But there’s a quiet intimacy that befalls the island once the day-trippers depart; do as I did and let one of the donkeys carry any overnight bags to one of the boutique hotels or apartments around town. Once settled, head east past Hydra’s port—it’s a short walk to the Deste Foundation, a contemporary art space inside a crumbling former slaughterhouse overlooking the azure Aegean. Open only in the high season (June through October), this wild outpost displays pieces from the collection of Greek billionaire and art enthusiast Dakis Joannou, including work from the likes of Jeff Koons and Maurizio Cattelan.
When the heat reaches its peak, hop on a water taxi to swim or sunbathe at one of the pebbled beaches that dot the island’s perimeter, or work up an appetite along the west side’s coastal path to the all-white Omilos, a contemporary cliffside taverna, for watching the sunset while tucking into modern Greek cuisine.
Where to stay in Hydra, Greece
For a taste of both town and country, stay at Villa Valentine, a three-bedroom residence a 15-minute walk from the port with artistic decor from colorful canvases collected by owner Didier Guillon, president of the Swiss cosmetics brand Valmont.
Take a small motorboat along the island’s west coast to stay at Four Seasons Hydra (no relation to the chain), a hideaway with a resort-like feel thanks to shore-side loungers and its own restaurant. Within the town, only a short walk from the port, there’s also the family-run hotel Orloff, which is covered in fuchsia bougainvillea, or the more minimalist and modern Nesea apartments.
2. Porquerolles, France
The rugged 7-mile-long, 4-mile-wide island off the coast of Hyéres has just a handful of market shops, restaurants, and cafés, plus a smattering of boutiques selling souvenirs, sarongs, and sunglasses. But the main draw of this easy-to-reach paradise is to hike, bike, or mingle with artwork. Ferries leave from the Giens Peninsula, located on the south side of the French Riviera, so book ahead during the summertime high season and join the masses for the 15-minute ride across.
Once docked, find La Bécane bike rentals and don’t ride away without a map, which denotes how long it takes to get to points of interest. (Ferry service ends around sunset, so it’s best to avoid being stranded if you’re not staying the night!) Fifteen minutes from the ferry dock is Fondation Carmignac, a nearly 40-acre art complex set among the native “pin parasol” trees (which, as the name suggests, hover high above the land like umbrellas). I could have spent the entire day bopping back and forth between the outdoor permanent collection of large-scale works and the air-conditioned, 22,000-square-foot galleries that host an annual temporary exhibition from April through November. But after a small repose with a rosé from Domaine La Cortade, a certified organic vineyard, I chose to bike another 15 minutes farther to the crystal-clear cove of Plage Notre Dame for a late-day dip.
Don’t worry about packing a picnic lunch: Le Poisson Ivre within the Fondation Carmignac makes great ceviches and salads. Or dine back in Hyères, where La Reine Jane’s outdoor courtyard, complete with Edison bulbs strung from acacia trees, makes for a magical atmosphere to end the day.
Where to stay in Porquerolles, France
With the exception of Le Mas Du Langoustier, a rustic and rural 47-room hotel on the western end of the island, the options for staying on Porqeruolles itself are primarily house rentals and a few boats with bookable cabins docked in the inlet. Depending on budget and party size, a better option may be to stay on the mainland and daytrip over.
La Reine Jane in the Hyères harbor offers 14 funky rooms each designed by a different artist, some with sea views. Hilton’s Le Hameau des Pesquiers Ecolodge, in between the salt marshes and pine forests of Port Port Cros National Park, is a slightly more buttoned-up alternative with both flair and comfort.
3. Lopud, Croatia
After navigating through the crowds walking the walls of Dubrovnik, go see about a 15th-century Franciscan monastery. The 5,000-square-foot compound anchors Lopud, aka the second-largest of the Elafiti islands, some seven miles from the mainland. Just a 55-minute ferry from Gruz Bay, the monastery is ideal for those short on time—or can’t afford the cool €12,000 nightly rate of renting the entire place. Following 20 years of restoration, Swiss art collector Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza turned it into Lopud1483, a five-suite villa, complete with an amphitheater for film screenings and concerts, an open-air spa, and wrap-around terraces dotted with sweet-smelling lilac trees that look out on the glistening Adriatic below. Note: The monastery is available to the public exclusively by reservation, and that’s only when it’s not booked privately.
Most of Lopud’s attractions can be experienced in a day—like hiking a trail to one of the Dalmatian Coast’s most attractive beaches, Sunj. To reach it, turn from the port and follow the stone steps up until they turn into a grassy path. From there, it’s 30 minutes of meditative marching to reach Sunj’s crescent-shaped shore. Tip: Bring cash to rent a lounge chair or buy food from the snack shacks.
On the way back, visit Olafur Eliasson’s Your Black Horizon Art Pavilion, a wooden structure in the middle of an orchard full of carob trees and cactus bushes. Originally commissioned by the aforementioned Thyssen-Bornemisza for the 2005 Venice Biennale, the inside becomes a trippy rave every 15 minutes thanks to LED lights that mimic the color shifts on Lopud’s horizon over the course of 24 hours.
While there are a small number of casual spots to eat near Lopud’s port, the ultimate dining experience requires a 20-minute boat ride and a big budget: Bowa Dubrovnik, a restaurant on a secluded stretch of the neighboring Elafiti island of Sipan, is a splurge whether snagging a lounge chair or booking one of the over-the-water cabanas for €500. But there’s nothing quite like feasting on oysters and sipping wine aged underwater while dining above it.
Where to stay in Lopud, Croatia
If Lopud1483 isn’t a fit for the wallet, there’s the 182-room Lafodia Sea Resort, a luxury hotel and wellness center that overlooks the sea. Hotels are generally slim pickings on this island, but there are many pensions and apartments listed on Booking, VBRO, and Airbnb.
Other car-free islands
There are several more European car-free shores to visit, including Marettima, off the coast of Sicily; La Graciosa, which is part of Spain’s Canary Islands; Ile de Cavallo between Corsica and Sardinia; and Juist, one of Germany’s northerly East Frisian Islands.