If you're thinking of a European summer holiday but want to avoid the crowds, try one of these lesser-known hotspots, writes Stephanie Holmes.

Azores, Portugal

A remote, nine-island archipelago 1300km off the coast of Portugal, Lonely Planet once referred to the Azores as the Hawaii of the mid-Atlantic. Here you'll find volcanoes, hot springs, caves, crater lakes, ancient villages and a rich sailing culture.

The islands hold two of Portugal's 15 Unesco World Heritage sites (Pico's vineyards and Terceira's old town of Angra do Heroismo), three biospheres and a huge network of natural parks and marine reserves.

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The food is great, especially the seafood, and it's the perfect place to immerse yourself in Portugal's traditional fado music — there are regular, live performances of this melancholy, moving music. Those looking for a European island party scene like Ibiza should look elsewhere — this is a tranquil destination where the focus is on health and wellbeing. The other thing to be aware of is the unpredictability of the weather — think rugged, black-sand beaches, bubbling mud pools and frequent rain — but if you come prepared for all seasons, you'll have nothing to worry about.

Divers will relish the opportunity to get in the depths with manta rays. Sperm whales are found here year-round, as well as migrating blue, humpback and fin whales in the Northern Hemisphere spring. In fact, the islands are a haven for all outdoors enthusiasts, with fishing, birdwatching, mountain biking, kayaking, canyoning, hiking and surfing on offer.

Lagoa do Fogoon Sao Miguel island in Portugal's Azores. Photo / Getty Images
Lagoa do Fogoon Sao Miguel island in Portugal's Azores. Photo / Getty Images

Unlike the mainland's package holiday haven of the Algarve, there are few big hotel chains here.
Instead, you'll find the best accommodation in cosy guesthouses and boutique hotels, which all adds to the Azores' reputation as one of the world's best sustainable travel destinations.

Getting there: Fly to Lisbon, then catch a connecting 2h 25m flight to Sao Miguel, the largest island in the Azores. From there, you can fly, sail or catch a ferry between islands.

Details: visitazores.com
Rugen, Germany
If your knowledge of Germany only extends as far as Berlin and Hamburg, you might be surprised to learn the country has some great beach destinations worth a summer visit. Rugen is the country's largest island, and sits off the northeastern tip in the Baltic Sea, close to the Polish border. It's famous for its white-sand beaches and crystal-blue seas, as well as the white cliffs and heritage forests of Jasmund National Park. You can have a relaxing beach break or an active hiking/biking holiday, or a combination of the two.

Must-see sites include the Grantiz Hunting Lodge, built in 1723 and accessible via a historic steam train; the lighthouses of Cape Arkona, from which you can see Denmark; and Konigsstuhl (the King's Chair), the most famous of Jasmund National Park's chalk cliffs.

This is a popular holiday destination for Germans and you won't find as many English speakers as you would in other parts of the country (or more popular European tourist destinations). Make sure you have a good, offline translation app downloaded to your smartphone or an old-school phrase book at hand.

Stay in the beach resorts of Sellin, with its art nouveau architecture; Bergen, with its church abbey dating back to 1168; or Binz, the largest resort on the island, and closest to the national park.

Visit between June 22 and September 7 to catch the Stortebeker Festival in which about 150 actors put on a nightly performance to tell the story of Germany's infamous 14th century pirate Klaus Stortebeker
Getting there: Rugen is connected to the mainland by rail lines, road and regular car and passenger ferries. It's about three hours' drive from Berlin or Hamburg.

Details: tourism.de/rugen-island
Menorca, Spain
Part of the Balearic Islands, Menorca is usually overshadowed by its more popular sister islands Mallorca and Ibiza, but it really shouldn't be. It has everything you'd look for in a Spanish island holiday — great food, fabulous beaches, whitewashed buildings in ancient villages, relaxed bars and beautiful independent accommodation options. This is another laid-back destination, far removed from the mega-clubs and pool parties of Ibiza's summer scene or the drunken Brits on cheap, booze-fuelled breaks in Magaluf.

In-between beach days, visit Mahon Port, where you can shop, eat, drink and people-watch to your heart's content. Take a boat tour around the harbour to gain an insight into the island's history or head over to Isla del Rey, a tiny island used as a British military hospital in the early 18th century, now a protected natural site. If you're more of an active relaxer, walk or bike around the 185km Cami de Cavalls, an ancient coastal path around the island; take the kids to the go-kart track in the island's interior or cool off at a water park.

Foodies won't want to miss the Menorca Cheese Museum, which offers tours and tastings. Wash it down at Menorca Gin Distillery, where you can see the original copper stills used in the production of the local Xoriguer gin.

Getting there: Book a return ticket from Auckland to Barcelona (Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Korean Air and Qatar Airways all provide good options), then fly Barcelona to Menorca with a low-cost carrier like Vueling or Ryan Air.

Details: visitmenorca.com/en/home
Gozo, Malta
Didn't know there was more to Malta than the island itself? Well, same. But apparently there is another island, just 5km off the northwestern tip of Malta, which is well worth a visit. With a population of less than 32,000, the island is tranquil, with pristine coastline and beautiful rural scenery. It's likely to stay that way — the Maltese Government has developed the Eco-Gozo project, aiming to manage growth, to protect the island's environment and focus on sustainable economic development.

Gozo is one of Europe's top diving destinations, while on land there are beautiful villages and beaches to be explored.

Don't miss the Ggantija Temples, a Unesco World Heritage site built between 3600 and 3200BC (before Stonehenge), the Gozo Museum of Archaeology, and the baroque architecture of the Knights of St John.

Gozo island, Malta. Photo / Getty Images
Gozo island, Malta. Photo / Getty Images

Getting there:

Fly to Malta, then take a 25-minute ferry over to Gozo from Cirkewwa Harbour.

Details: visitgozo.com
Corsica, France
Part of France for more than 200 years, geographically Corsica is closest to the Italian island of Sardinia and was once an independent Italian-speaking republic. It was also the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, and you'll find his family home museum in the city of Ajaccio. The landscape is diverse, from white-sand beaches, to mountain peaks, to rugged coastal cliffs.

While the south of the island is well-known to European tourists, the north remains relatively undeveloped, and you'll find charming fishing villages and beautiful sandy bays.

Another great option for active travellers, Corsica's attractions include hiking, canyoning and snorkelling, with plenty of time for lazing on the beach in-between. For a real challenge, take on the GR 20 long-distance footpath that runs north to south over 180km of mountainous terrain with hut accommodation available along the way. The walk is usually done in 15 days. If you want to get into the mountains without the gruelling hike, hire a car and head up to some of the pretty hilltop villages to explore the cobbled laneways and medieval architecture.

While the food is described as more "rustic" than in mainland France and Italy, you'll still find great red wine, charcuterie and cheese. And make sure you try fiadone — a sweet cake made with Corsican cheese.

Corte, a French commune in Corsica. Photo / Getty Images
Corte, a French commune in Corsica. Photo / Getty Images

Getting there:

Corsica has four small airports and Air Corsica flies there from 11 French destinations, as well as London Stansted. Other airline options include Easy Jet, Air France and Eurowings, or you can catch a ferry from mainland France and Italy.

Details: visit-corsica.com/en