El Morro Fortress dominates the Puerto Rico coastline, a treasure for all U.S. travelers, regardless of passport status. (©Gary Ives/Shutterstock)
Think of heading to an island for a getaway and images of warm climes in lush tropical settings in faraway places spring to mind.
Island hopping is a historic pastime for jet-setting travelers but think closer to home and keep that passport safely stashed to save travel time and money. The United States and its territories have some extraordinary islands with much to offer travelers. From relaxation to adventure, these islands have it all, from sipping a cocktail on a white sand beach or golfing on a championship course to getting the heart rate going while biking across mountain trails, not to mention any and all water sports.
Where to Find Islands in the Northeast U.S.
Mount Desert Island, Maine
Seeing the sun fade below the horizon from a perfect perch on Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island, Maine, to exploring Arcadia National Park—located primarily in the island's confines—there is much to discover.
Bar Harbor—the island's largest town—is the perfect jumping off point not just because it is home to the national park, but its proximity to attractions like Cadillac Mountain, Sand Beach and Otter Cliff; then throw in a bustling music scene, nightlife and no less than 16 seafood-driven restaurants where the catch is as fresh as can be.
Outdoor enthusiasts will thrive in Acadia National Park with 125 miles of historic trails from flat to steep and challenging, and more than 50 miles of carriage roads perfect for bicycling. Explorers can also drive Park Loop Road for breathtaking vistas or head to the southern end of the island for views from Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Nature lovers flock to Nantucket, situated 30 miles off the Masschussets coast. Bird-watchers encounter rare species such as the Gray-tailed tattler while marine-life aficionados can embark on a whale- or seal-watching tour from mid-May through mid-October. Take it easy or get a workout on the island that is a national historic landmark itself after selecting one—or more—of the 12 trails that crisscross Nantucket.
Blooming daffodils mark the emergence of spring as the island is enveloped in the bright yellow flower from early April to mid-May. The season is celebrated with an annual Daffodil Weekend Festival. The island is home to a handful of annual festivals including the Nantucket Wine Festival and the Cranberry Festival.
The period between October and the island's "Christmas Stroll"—when Santa arrives by Coast Guard cutter—in December is the favorite time for Nantucket Chamber of Commerce marketing and membership director Jean Cawley.
"The weather during this time of the year is sublime, perfect for beach picnics and long walks through the moors and cranberry bogs," said Cawley. "Restaurants are still open and there's really no need for reservations."
Cawley said that there a variety of reasons to visit the island in or out of season, including the food.
"Foodies will love Nantucket and can indulge in a wide range of cuisine from the casual clambake to four-star fine dining," said Cawley.
Islands in the Southeast
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
Come for the historic annual Pony Roundup and Swim on Chincoteague Island—Virginia's only resort island—but stay for so much more.
The last week of July for 92 years, wild ponies owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company have been herded across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island, foals have been auctioned off and then the adults returned the following day. The money raised helps fund the fire company and veterinary care of the ponies.
"It’s a big draw for people to come here and see the ponies," said Evelyn Shotwell, Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce executive director. "Summertime, it's a good time for children and families to to combine a trip to the beach."
The undeveloped nature of Assateague's beach is a featured attraction.
"It’s all oceanfront with no commercialization," Shotwell said, adding that Chincoteague is where people live, eat and stay. "There’s miles of walking and bike trails and you can see wildlife like deer, fox, squirrels and birds."
The 1947 children's book "Misty of Chincoteague," inspired by a Chincoteague pony of the same name helped put Chincoteague on the map.
"We have people come here in the spring and fall, often people who read the book when they were 9 or 10 years old and it's on their bucket list," said Shotwell.
Hilton Head, South Carolina
As a barrier island between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, Hilton Head is one of the country's premier golfing destinations.
Spend a day on the links navigating one of the 12-mile island's 24 exceptional courses—with exceptional views—while being challenged by layouts designed from names like Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones. See the best in the world on a world-class course each April as the PGA pros tee it off at the Harbour Town Golf Links at the Sea Pines Resort for the RBC Heritage.
Stay active without golf with the proffer of 300 tennis courts, 12 miles of beaches and six marinas to help indulge water-based desires.
The island is also known as family travel destination with miles of beach front speckled with budget-friendly restaurants and accommodation. Boogie boards, body surfing and sand-castle building are prime pastimes on the shores of Hilton Head Island.
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Show up to play one of five championship courses that make up the oceanfront Kiawah Island Golf Resort and then be happily distracted by the appetizing aromas from the more than 12 on-site restaurants, cafes and lounges.
If golf isn't your bag, the 10 miles of spotless beaches with public access at Kiwah Beachwalker Park are sure to entice.
There is a wide variety of wildlife that are visible on the island, usually at dawn and dusk. Shorebirds are a common sight, but don't be surprised to see animals like deer, bobcats and bats.
The Golden Isles
The city of Brunswick and its four barrier islands—St. Simons Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island and Jekyll Island—between Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, are better known collectively as The Golden Isles.
With a name like the Golden Isles, much is expected and the islands deliver on that promise.
St. Simons has been described as the glittering gem in the Golden Isles' crown. The miles of hard-packed beach are perfect for running, collecting shells or just listening to the waves lap against the shore. For a sense of the island's history, visit Christ Church, Fort Frederica or the St. Simons Lighthouse.
The 5,700-acre Jekyll Island is the southernmost of the four and has much to offer from 10 miles of white-sand beaches to dolphin tours, bike trails and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which allows a look into how sick and injured sea turtles are cared for.
Get pampered at Sea Island with two five-star accomodations and three championship golf courses. Horseback riding on the beach is a popular activity or spend time kayaking through marshes.
A privately-owned resort accessible only by boat, Little St. Simons Island still offers day tours and guided nature walks to visitors not staying on one of the island's six cottages. Get a taste of the Low Country on the tour with a provided lunch. The island is also a nature sanctuary and bird-watchers will delight at trying to peep as many of the 239 species as possible.
Key West, Florida
After an invigorating day of snorkeling or scuba diving in the clear, blue water, journey down historic Duval Street for a drink or head to Mallory Square for an amazing Key West sunset.
The continental United States' southernmost city, just 90 miles from Cuba, offers more than just amazing beaches, incredible views and every kind of watersport imaginable. Delve into history with a tour through The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum—a U.S. National Historic Landmark—then relax at Sloppy Joe's bar, his favorite hangout.
Enjoy a meal at the hotel or venture out to one of the many seafood restaurants in town. Sample the delectable varieties including tuna, grouper and snapper in addition to spiny lobster and crab—when in season.
Just about as south as you can go without a passport is the U.S. territory island of Puerto Rico, a perfect place to soak up history—and some historied rum.
Be enchanted by Old San Juan while traversing the cobblestone streets past the dramatic rainbow hue of homes. Discover the historic nature of the city through one of the island's best museums then take a short ride to upscale shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
“I was charmed by Puerto Rico. It’s an easy vacation, they speak English and use the dollar but it’s still exotic enough to feel intriguing,” said Laura Albritton, Island Runaways blogger. "I adore historic San Juan and Little Havana, it’s like having a rustic village combined with a fishing town."
Get back to nature with the wonder of El Yunque National Forest, the national forest system's only tropical rainforest, or take a nighttime kayak to Mosquito Bay and be illuminated by the world's brightest bioluminescent bay. The island also boasts of 270 miles of coastline with some of the best beaches in the world.
Monfongo and spit-roasted pork are among Puerto Rico's iconic food, but stellar local and international cuisine can be found from food trucks to high-end establishments.
Islands Off the West Coast
Catalina Island, California
The biggest decision heading to Catalina Island, southwest of Los Angeles, might be what kind of vacation to take.
The decision boils down to something like asking yourself "Is it a relaxing time by the pool or on the beach or is hiking up rugged trails or experiencing the sea in a number of adventurous ways to see what floats your boat?"
Upon arriving by ferry or helicopter, historic Avalon—onetime home to Zane Grey and William Wrigley, Jr.—is easily traversed by renting a bicycle or golf cart. The Catalina Casino offers hours of entertainment with a movie theater and museum. Take an ecotour and see from a bison to bald eagle, the endangered Catalina Island fox or the island's bald eagles.
The four star hotel Mt. Ada is Wrigley's former home and affords rooms with views of Avalon Bay. Get a sense of the town with a three-hour tasting and walking tour, be entranced by Lover's Cove, a California-protected marine preserve, and no trip would be complete without indulging in a Buffalo Milk, the town's signature cocktail.
San Juan Islands
Whether its action and adventure or relaxation, the four ferry-accessible islands in San Juan Country—San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island—off Washington's coast are able to accommodate.
Stroll through historic Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and learn about the stewardship of whales at the whale museum or discover them on your own.
"It’s got the best orca whale viewing from shore, but you shouldn’t wait for a whale to pop up, you should probably take a boat,” said Barbara Marrett, San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau communications and stewardship manager. "It's a great destination for families with the hiking and biking and kayaking and food...We totally have our own feel. It’s like visiting a foreign country when you go to a different island.”
Marrett noted some of the things that make San Juan Island—with an average summer temperature of 70 degrees—"a pretty special place." The horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island has its own charms.
Residents on Lopez Island are known for being friendly and waving as visitors drive by and the flat nature of the island is appealing to bicyclists, providing stellar marine views along the way. Shaw is a short drive away and while it has less luxuries than the other islands, it still makes a perfect day trip.