When we think of island getaways, we often think of exotic locales far from home, white sand beaches and tropical climes. But not all islands conform to this image, and many are much closer than you think. The United States has a lot more to offer in terms of islands beyond the Florida Keys and the state of Hawaii, from upscale beach community islands to remote wilderness islets. Whether you are on the east coast, the west coast, or somewhere in between, there is likely to be an island within a short ferry ride or flight away. Here are a few United States islands worth visiting.
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Primarily known as a summer spot for the rich and famous, Martha’s Vineyard Island is located just offshore from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. As a relatively sleepy spot, one of the most enjoyed pastimes on Martha’s Vineyard is to relax by the beach. Grab a new book to read while listening to the waves at Bunch of Grapes, an independent bookstore in Vineyard Haven. Hiking, biking, and wine-tasting are also popular activities, or if you are interested in learning about a sustainable farm and agriculture, check out the FARM Institute in Edgartown on the eastern side of the island.
The island also has musical festivals, fishing tournaments, the oldest carousel in the nation (Flying Horses), and five lighthouses.
Getting there: Martha’s Vineyard can be reached by sea or by air. One ferry line transports people and automobiles to Martha’s Vineyard in about 45 minutes, and it launches from Woods Hole, MA, 80 miles from Boston, 80 miles from Providence, 250 miles from New York City, 348 miles from Philadelphia, and 484 miles from Washington D.C. Other ferries depart from Falmouth, New Bedford, and Hyannis, MA; Quonset Point, RI; and Montauk and New York City, NY.
Chincoteague & Assateague Island, Virginia/Maryland
Technically the same island, Chincoteague and Assateague are located just south of Ocean City, Maryland, partially in Maryland, partially in Virginia. Assateague has many opportunities for outdoors and wildlife enthusiasts – sightseeing cruises (the best way to see the famous wild ponies that roam the island), kayak tours, bird watching, fishing and crabbing, biking and more. Chincoteague is more of the resort island, where you can stay in a hotel and find restaurants and shopping.
There are two herds of wild ponies, separated by a fence at the Maryland/Virginia line. Each year the ponies are round up and then they swim from the Assateague side to the Chincoteague side to be auctioned. It is free for the public to watch; this year the swim will be held on July 27, and the auction on July 28.
Getting there: Drive in from the north or the south on Highway 13. Chincoteague is a little over an hour south of Ocean City, MD and a little over 2 hours north of Virginia Beach, VA. It’s about 3 ½ hours east of Washington D.C.
Cumberland Island, Georgia
Cumberland Island is just under 40 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida and has a variety of outdoors activities, with 50 miles of trails and miles of undeveloped beaches (where many sea turtles make their nests), with both backcountry and developed camping.
For the history buff, there are three main historical sites – the Plum Orchard Mansion, a Georgia Revival Mansion built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie (open to the public on the second and fourth Sunday of each month), the First African Baptist Church Settlement where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married, and ruins from a home built by Revolutionary War Hero General Nathanael Greene’s wife, Catherine in the 1800s. You can also visit the now crumbling Dungeness estate (also owned by the Carnegies before it burned in 1959) or keep an eye out for the bands of feral horses that have roamed the island since the 16th century.
Getting there: Drive in from Interstate 95 to Highway 40, or take the 45 minute ferry ride over from St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s less than an hour drive north from Jacksonville, FL.
>> Look for cheap flights to Jacksonville
Kodiak Island, Alaska
Like many places in Alaska, Kodiak island is a great place to look for wildlife, including the Kodiak bear. You can also spot bald eagles, puffins, a variety of other birds, and buffalo, and go whale watching or fishing. In town there are four museums, shopping, restaurants, and also many talented visual, fiber, metal, and multi-media artists.
From Kodiak, you can fly to one of the five villages around the island, such as Akhiok, which is about 90 air miles from Kodiak and is the most remote village on the island. Here you will find lots of sea mammals, birds, and the highest density of Kodiak bears. With a population of around 60 people, you can see the subsistence lifestyle in action. The community also has 22 Alutiiq dancers who perform for visitors.
Getting there: Kodiak Island is reachable by air from Anchorage (one hour flight) or a short commuter flight from Homer. You can also get to Kodiak Island by sea from Homer or Whittier via the Alaska Marine Highway System. If you take the Marine Highway System from Homer to Kodiak, be prepared for a 9.5 hour boat ride.
Bainbridge Island, Washington
Bainbridge is an island in Puget sound, west of Seattle, with a population 23,000 people. With its blend of city and wilderness, there are miles of hiking trails, easily accessed from town, that make great places to look for a bald eagle or an osprey. If you want to get out on the water and paddle part of the Cascadia Marine Trail, you can rent a kayak or take a tour with one of several adventure companies or kayak clubs.
Getting there: The island is just 10 miles west of downtown Seattle on Highway 305, but can take 40 minutes to drive over. Your other option is to take a 35 minute ferry from Pier 52 on Alaskan Way in Seattle.
Channel Islands, California
The Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands – Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara – off the coast of Ventura County, California. The islands and the surrounding ocean are home to over 2,000 plants and animals, 145 of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
The only inhabitants on the islands are the animals, though you can camp there if you want to stay overnight. Due to its isolation and fragile environment, be sure to pack out everything you bring in and be sure to follow posted signs about fires. During the day, you can hike trails that lead to gorgeous views of the ocean and waves crashing onto cliffs, or get into the water and snorkel or scuba dive. There is no entrance fee, but there is a fee for camping.
Getting there: The islands can be reached by boat from Ventura, or by plane from Camarillo. Trip length varies depending on which island you are going to, and where you depart from. Island Packers is the ferry company that departs from Ventura, which is a little over an hour north of Los Angeles. Camarillo is about an hour north of Los Angeles.
>> Find a hotel in Los Angeles
Catalina Island, California
Catalina Island is part of the Southern Channel Islands of California, but isn’t part of the Channel Islands National Park. There are some permanent residents on the Avalon side of the island, so there are a couple hotels and some restaurants and shops, but most of the island is hiking, Jeep, and ATV trails. Snorkeling, diving, and kayaking are also fun activities to do while you’re on the island.
Even closer than Channel Islands National Park, the ports to Catalina are easily accessible from either Los Angeles or Orange County.
Getting there: You can reach Catalina by air or by ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point. It’s about an hour ferry ride from Long Beach, about an hour and 15 minutes from San Pedro, and an hour and 30 minutes from Dana Point with Catalina Express. Long Beach and San Pedro are about 30 minutes south of Los Angeles and Dana Point is in Orange County and is about an hour south of Los Angeles or an hour north of San Diego.
Isle Royale, Michigan
Located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is the largest wilderness area in Michigan and has hiking trails and a rugged coastline for exploring on foot, inland waterways to paddle through, and shipwrecks for divers to check out. The park service also offers interpretive programs and guided tours. Closer to Canada than it is to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, its remote location makes it one of the best places to see moose, wolves, loons, beaver, and fox in the Midwest.
The user fee is $4 per person per day, age 11 and up, and there is an onsite lodge if visitors want to stay the night.
Getting there: Isle Royale is reached by air or boat from Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan ( 200 miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, 400 miles north of Chicago, Illinois, and 250 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge), and Grand Portage, Minnesota (150 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota).
Padre Island, Texas
With beautiful beaches (the island was originally named “Isla Blanca” by Spanish explorer Alonzo de Pineda) and warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island is well developed and has turned into a big spring break vacation destination. Kiteboarding, windsurfing, dolphin boat trips, and horseback riding are some of the activities visitors can do beyond just relaxing. South Padre Island is also home to the Dolphin and Nature Research Center, providing hands-on interactions with Gulf inhabitants and educating the public on the importance of conservation.
The northern part of the island is home to the Padre Island National Seashore, where you can fish, camp, or look for birds. Visit the Padre Island website for entrance and camping fees .
Getting there: Padre Island is accessible by air or by driving from Highway 77 and 281 from the north and Highway 83 from the west. Padre Island is 30 minutes east of Corpus Christi and about three hours south of San Antonio.
>> Find hotels on South Padre Island
Read more about island travel:
- Hawaii for Lovers
- 8 Small and Beautiful Italian Islands
- 6 of the Most Remote Islands in the World
- Around the World in 7 Lesser-Known Islands