As much as we all wish to see every corner of the globe, it can be a challenge to do it all with limited funds and few vacation days. Seeing exotic islands either in the Caribbean or in Southeast Asia, for example, seem like fantasies. Luckily, the United States is diverse enough to offer an array of exotic locales, from golden beaches to volcanic islands.
Check out Cedar Key, Florida, for a true harbor feel in an area centered around fishing and the delicacies that come with it. Any of Hawaii’s islands are a sure bet, but check out Kauai specifically for mountains and seemingly endless green wildlife. Or try Washington state for kayaking on the sea and even get a chance to see whales.
Here are our picks for the 10 most exotic islands in the U.S. and for some of the best ideas for U.S. island vacations.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Turquoise water, tons of green sea turtles and white-sand beaches with visibility seeming to stretch to forever. Sounds like the Caribbean, right? Wrong. The Dry Tortugas, 67 miles off Key West into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico, pack epic snorkeling alongside southern stingrays, parrotfish and schools of Creole wrasse in one of the best U.S. islands. This is all just a ferry or seaplane ride from the Conch Republic. And unlike other parts of Florida, pest prevention will be your least concern.
San Juan Islands, Washington
With conifer forests thick along its coasts and a marine climate with cool summers and mild winters, the San Juan Islands of Washington state feel a lot like Norway. Both destinations are renowned for sea kayaking as well as whale-watching tours, and, yet, the San Juan Islands are just a three-hour drive (and a ferry hop) north of Seattle. Plus, with alpaca ranches and lavender farms covering the hillsides, the experience also includes a touch of Peru-meets-Provence.
Assateague Island, Maryland
Like Portugal’s Soajo Mountain, Maryland’s Assateague Island is home to wild horses — more than 150 in total. These feral ponies have free range of the beaches, marshes and forests. For the best viewing, try the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge’s Wildlife Loop Road, a three-hour walk.
For a more unique spectacle, time your visit with the annual pony swim, held every July, wherein a group who call themselves the Saltwater Cowboys wrangle up the horses, leading them on a swim across the Assateague Channel
Sapelo Island, Georgia
The Spanish moss hanging from live oak branches gives Sapelo Island, Georgia, an only-in-the-Southeast feel, but its golden-sand beaches feel a bit like the islands off Queensland, Australia. Reach it only via boat: either the DNR ferry or private vessel.
Once ashore, walk in the hiking trails through dunes and maritime forests to encounter hundreds of bird species, including the Chachalaca bird, which otherwise requires birders to travel to either Mexico or Central America to cross off lists. Stay the night, and you might even spot a bobcat on one of the most unique island vacations in the U.S.
Culebra, Puerto Rico
Travel to Puerto Rico for one of your next tropical vacations in the U.S. Culebra, a satellite island of Puerto Rico, is often referred to as one of the Spanish Virgin Islands — and for good reason. Its sugar-sand beaches are mostly undeveloped, lending it to the feel of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands.
Like the BVI, Culebra lacks any of the large, major hotel chains. Instead, it has a sleepy charm, appealing to those content to kayak, snorkel and beachcomb on one of the most tropical places in the United States.
One of the wettest places on the planet, Kauai packs its mountains with unending greenery, punctuated by a dozen epic waterfalls. This makes the island every bit as lush and exotic as Tahiti but at a fraction of the flight time. Worth the splurge, a helicopter tour of the Na Pali Coast — where Jurassic Park was filmed — shows visitors more highlights than they could see in a week of hiking.
Elizabeth Islands, Massachusetts
Just south of Cape Cod lie the Elizabeth Islands of Massachusetts, including Penikese and Cuttyhunk, two of the only inhabited islands in the bunch not owned by the Forbe family. Cutthyunk, in particular, still exudes British flavor, carried over from 1602 when it was the first British settlement on the new coast.
Experience it at Avalon Inn, one of the few choices when overnighting. To see more of the neighboring isles, book a day cruise to explore beaches and see wild harbor, harp and gray seals.
Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, is perhaps best known as the home of the Gullah people, a community of African Americans in the lowcountry who speak their own Creole language called Geechee. To get a feel for the people and their culture, stop by the historical foundation to hear local stories and legends, as well as chat up the local guide who’s been on the island for decades.
Cedar Key, Florida
Overwater bars weathered and leaning on stilts give the fishing village of Cedar Key off Florida’ Gulf Coast a back-in-time vibe, like that of Bocas del Toro, Panama. But, unlike Bocas, Cedar Key averages in the low and mid 80s, making for more pleasant conditions for sea kayaking, for which the area is renowned.
The Suwannee River empties into the Gulf roughly 10 miles north of Cedar Key, and the sound separating the two is lined with uninhabited islands, perfect for any boaters to enjoy day picnics and exploring.
Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a chain of 14 volcanic outposts that string out west of the state, remain one of the most remote places on the planet. Sea kayakers treasure the destination, willing to brave the inclement weather for chances to see grey, minke, orca, sperm and humpback whales, as well as walruses, seals and sea lions.
From these United States islands, it’s possible to view the Northern Lights year-round. For those who aren’t into roughing it, know that there is lodging at places like the Grand Aleutian Hotel on Unalaska Island.