You don’t have to fly to a far-flung tropical locale to live the island life — a ferry ride or a bridge are the only things that separate these idyllic U.S. islands from the mainland. Pedaling is the preferred method of transportation, mom-and-pop shops far outnumber mainland chains, and the most challenging decisions you’ll make are which beaches to visit or where to head for happy hour. Here are 10 amazing U.S. islands close to home.
Mount Desert Island, Maine
Over 50 miles of this island is covered by Acadia National Park, one of the country’s most loved. Thick woodlands and rugged mountains hug miles of the Atlantic coastline surrounding an island studded with picturesque harbors like bustling Bar Harbor, quaint towns and country lanes lined by swaths of pastel colored lupines. Drive up to the summit of the famed Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise before anyone else in the country. Hike the Bubble Rock Trail and relax afterward with tea on the lawn at Jordan Pond. In Southwest Harbor, grab a picnic table at Beal’s Lobster Pier where just-pulled-from-the-trap lobsters are boiled to succulent perfection in seawater.
Santa Catalina, California
For those looking to escape the buzz and sprawl of the Southern California mainland, head to the craggy, jasmine-scented island of Santa Catalina, just an hour’s ferry ride from Long Beach. The bulk of the island, which is part of the Channel Islands archipelago, is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit that has worked to preserve Santa Catalina’s natural beauty. Tiny Avalon is the island’s main town and serves as the hub for visitors and locals alike with its charming, Mediterranean vibe and easy walking. Beach lovers can indulge in a day spent relaxing at the Descanso Beach Club, where both lounge chairs and cabanas are available to rent. To explore the mostly car-free island, rent a golf cart in Avalon for a fun jaunt and spectacular views.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
This tiny slice of turn-of-the-century life is nestled within Lake Huron, where cars have been outlawed since 1898. A favorite summer resort since the Victorian era, Mackinac Island is just 4 square miles and was a national park until 1895 when it became a Michigan State Park. In 1966, the island found it’s way onto the country’s National Register of Historic Places and the island is home to numerous elegant cottages and hotels encompassing myriad architectural styles. Visitors to the island are known fondly as “fudgies,” since no one leaves Mackinac without a taste of the local confectionary, and bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are the primary means of transportation.
Block Island, Rhode Island
Block Island’s quaint, laid-back character and natural beauty transports visitors to a simpler time. Located 13 miles south of mainland Rhode Island, much of the island is managed by conservation groups and remains largely undeveloped. Hop the ferry in Port Judith and step off an hour later onto charming Water Street with its down-home vibe and historic ambience. Rent a bike from one of the many shops in town and pedal away from the Old Harbor along country lanes, past peaceful ponds and farmland, to one of the island’s many isolated beaches, all of which are free.
Longboat Key, Florida
This secluded Florida island is a peaceful alternative to Sarasota County’s more popular destinations like Siesta Key and Anna Maria Island. The crystalline waters of the Gulf of Mexico lap gently along the shore of 10 miles of pristine, white sandy beach. Since much of the beach is private and only accessible via the condos and hotels that line the shore, book a stay at The Resort at Longboat Key Club to enjoy it. Bonus: the vibrant hub of Sarasota’s famed St. Armands Circle is less than two-miles away as are all the rich cultural experiences of the county, like The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Cedar shingled homes, widows’ walks and a whaling museum give visitors to this New England island a hefty dose of seafaring history. Part of what makes this storybook-perfect island so special is its remoteness in comparison to other islands in the region. Still, despite being located 25 miles off the mainland of Cape Cod, Nantucket is relatively easy to reach by ferry from Hyannis. Cobblestone streets and chic shops fill the downtown area and the only Starbucks reference you’ll find is the name of one of Nantucket’s original whaling families. With the highest point on the island only 110 feet, leave your car on the mainland and spend your time coasting along the island’s extensive network of paved paths between the harbor and beautiful beaches.
Little St. Simons Island, Georgia
Accommodating just 32 visitors per night and accessible only by boat, Little St. Simons is a privately owned, 11,000-acre barrier island with an intriguing history. Purchased in the early 1900s by a company intending to turn the island’s proliferation of red cedar trees into pencils, the company’s owner instead established a personal hunting retreat. Opened to the public in 1979, the island is a nature-lover’s paradise, with a staff of talented on-site naturalists who lead a variety of activities, from kayaking through untouched tidal marshlands to creek fishing and wildlife hikes. Grab one of the beach cruisers propped up along the fence and pedal out to the island’s 7-mile long private beach where you’ll find chairs and towels waiting. Share your adventures with the other guests at a late afternoon cocktail hour while watching the sunset over the river.
San Juan Islands, Washington
This verdant archipelago is clustered throughout the waters of Puget Sound between Washington and British Columbia. The number of islands in the San Juan cluster depends upon the tides, with a smattering over 700 peeking above the surface when the sea at its lowest. Of these, 172 are named, a few dozen are inhabited, and just four — San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw — are accessible by public transport aboard the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. On Lopez, gentle slopes are ideal for biking and you’ll lose count of the number of locals who give you a friendly wave. Orcas’ calm waters invite even beginning paddlers to explore the spectacular coastline from a kayak. In San Juan, Friday Harbor is where the action is, if you can call it action, with the largest collection of galleries, hotels, and restaurants. Lime Kiln State Park is considered one of the best spots to view the islands’ three resident pods of orca whales.
Sanibel Island, Florida
Just 3 miles along the causeway from Fort Myers in southwest Florida, you’ll find this sleepy Florida island boating more than 250 different varieties of shells — and only one traffic light. Development is prohibited on two-thirds of the unspoiled barrier island, which has no roads wider than two lanes and 25-miles of bike paths. Kayak through secluded estuaries, visit the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge to spy over 245 species of birds, bask on the white sands of Bowman’s Beach, or watch dolphins playfully jumping through the waves on a sunset cocktail cruise.
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Immerse yourself in low-country bliss on this private island just an hour south of Charleston. Though many visitors come to enjoy Kiawah’s five championship golf courses, the island is also home to 10 miles of stunning Atlantic coastline bordered by windswept dunes, 30 miles of bicycle paths that wind beneath moss-laden live oaks, plentiful wildlife, and The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Resort. The sublime hotel offers a mecca of recreational activities, villa rentals and a luxe spa. During the summer months, don’t miss the Monday night oyster roast and barbecue at Mingo Point, nestled on the banks of the Kiawah River.