When you think of an island getaway, you’re likely imagine lazing along a stunning white-sand beach, umbrella drink in hand, watching the people around you build sandcastles or surf among the waves. You probably also think of exotic destinations like the Caribbean, the Seychelles, and maybe even Thailand.
As it turns out, you don’t even need to leave the United States to make that romantic image of white sand and fruity drinks a reality. The U.S. has dozens of excellent islands that are perfect for a memorable getaway, and we’ve found the best of them. How many have you visited?
Amelia Island, Florida
Located just off the coast of Jacksonville, Amelia Island is the northernmost barrier island in Florida, and the ideal place to spend a vacation. The island boasts 13 miles of white-sand beaches. There’s also a series of scenic waterways where visitors can spot dolphins, manatees, and alligators right from their boat or kayak. Horseback riding while visiting Amelia Island is practically a must. This is one of the few places in the United States where horses are actually allowed on the beach. Restaurants specializing in locally caught seafood line the picturesque downtown, which also has plenty of shops to keep you busy during your time away from the beach.
Anna Maria Island, Florida
Another island located off the coast of Florida — though this time, off the state’s Gulf Coast — is Anna Maria Island. This tiny island is actually home to three little cities (Holmes Beach, Anna Maria, and Bradenton Beach), each of which is accessible via the free Anna Maria Island Trolley. Visitors have their pick of historic inns and restaurants to enjoy, while days can be spent lounging along the picture-perfect beaches like the one at secluded Bean Point.
Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island
The first of two Rhode Island islands to make our list of America’s must-visit islands, Aquidneck is a 39 square mile haven with a history dating back to colonial times. Though the island is home to three small towns, most visitors head to Middletown. Sachuest Beach is a popular surfing spot, while Third Beach has fewer waves and is ideal for fishing and swimming. Aquidneck Island is also an excellent bird watching destination thanks to the island’s Norman Bird Sanctuary.
Block Island, Rhode Island
Rhode Island locals love to escape to Block Island, located just off the coast. Don’t let the island’s bland name fool you. Block consists of 17 miles of postcard-perfect beach. It has a surprising number of wildlife-viewing opportunities, and myriad hiking trails leading to the the lighthouse and other cool vantage points. Book a room at one of Block Island’s many historic inns, then spend the weekend enjoying all that this serene place has to offer.
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
The only resort island located off the coast of Virginia is Chincoteague Island. Chincoteague is perhaps best known for the annual Pony Swim made famous by Marguerite Henry, author of the beloved Misty of Chincoteague books. Horse lovers will get a kick out of spotting the wild ponies all around the seven-mile-long island. The pretty beaches and top-notch seafood restaurants are also big draws.
Fire Island, New York
Thirty-two mile-long Fire Island is a barrier island situated parallel to Long Island. Thanks to this easy proximity to the big city, Fire Island has long been a popular vacation spot, especially during the warm summer months. Surfing, sailing, and hiking are all popular pastimes on Fire Island, as is just wandering along the beach collecting shells, or making the trek to the historic Fire Island Lighthouse.
Galveston Island, Texas
Located only about an hour from Houston, Galveston has long been a popular destination for families and Spring Breakers alike. Galveston offers guests miles of wide inviting beaches, while just offshore are some of the best windsurfing spots in the country. A surprising number of historical sites make wandering around the island a great way to spend a day. Families will love the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark and Moody Gardens, which despite its name, consists of nearly 250 acres of fun attractions.
Hawaii, commonly referred to as simply the Big Island, is perhaps the most famous island in America. The Big Island is unlike any other in the chain of Hawaiian islands, partly due to its unique terrain that in many places looks otherworldly. Black volcanic rock covers much of the island, and visitors can even walk among flowing lava at Kilauea Volcano. When you’re not exploring Hawaii’s unique topography, laze by the ocean on one of Hawaii’s famous black-sand beaches.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head Island is one of America’s most famous islands, so you can be sure it’s one worth visiting. No matter how you want to spend your time, Hilton Head has something to offer. Hiking and cycling trails meander all around the island, offering stunning views of the deep blue waters and 12 miles of white sand. In town, visitors can wander through the downtown area and enjoy the many shops, restaurants, and museums. And while Hilton Head is ideal for many water sports, the island’s most popular pastime is almost certainly golfing. A whopping 30 courses are located all around the island.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
The first of three of Georgia’s Golden Isles to make our list of America’s must-visit islands is Jekyll Island. A popular vacation destination for Southerners, Jekyll Island boasts beautiful beaches and sandbars, a waterpark, and protected marshes that are home to myriad bird, reptile, and mammal species. To really explore all that Jekyll has to offer, book a guided tour of the island’s Landmark Historic District. Or rent a bicycle and head out on the miles of trails that meander along the coastline.
Known as Hawaii’s “Garden Isle,” Kauai is a must-visit island for anyone who enjoys beautiful natural scenery and outdoor adventure. Every region of the island is different, though highlights include the resort-like atmosphere near Princeville, the old timey Hawaiian vibe near Poipu, and the rugged natural scenery of the Na Pali Coast. If hiking is your thing, don’t miss the Na Pali Coast’s famous and challenging 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the jagged coastline.
Key West, Florida
Located just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West is the southernmost island of the Florida Keys, and the southernmost point in the contiguous U.S. This charming island is a wanderer’s paradise. Old Town Key West is chock-full of boutiques, shops, and restaurants, while the island’s many historic buildings include Ernest Hemingway’s home. Look out for the island’s five-toed cats, all of which are descended from Hemingway’s own pets. Of course, Key West also boasts stunning beaches and ocean views. Rent a jet ski and ride around the island, or book an evening boat tour to watch the sunset right from the water.
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
South Carolina has some stunning islands, and Kiawah Island is no exception. From its top-notch restaurants and luxurious resorts, to its stunning beaches and world-class golf courses, this upscale island has something to offer just about everyone. Perhaps the best way to experience Kiawah is simply to explore. Rent a bicycle and ride the trails. The sights are especially impressive at Night Heron Park, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll cycle past some of the island’s local wildlife.
As one of the smallest islands making up the Hawaiian Islands, Lanai is often overlooked as a tourist destination. Still, it’s about as stunning as they come, with a surprising number of things to see and do. Highlights include: Shipwreck Beach, where a wrecked World War II tanker sits for eternity just off shore; gorgeous views of nearby Molokai and Maui; rocks with ancient petroglyphs made by early Hawaiians; and the iconic rock formation known as Pu’u Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
A trip to Mackinac Island is like taking a trip back in time. This postcard-perfect island located in northern Michigan is beloved for its old timey atmosphere and strict “no cars” policy. Wander down Main Street and admire the historic architecture as you shop for homemade fudge and authentic antiques. Then rent a cruiser-style bicycle for the eight-mile trek around the island. Along the way, you’ll see impressive lake houses, rocky beaches with stunning views of the lake, the island’s famous Grand Hotel, and even an 18th-century fur hunters’ outpost.
Marco Island, Florida
Marco Island is the largest of Florida’s “Ten Thousands Islands” chain of little islands and islets located off the Gulf Coast. Visitors make their way to Marco Island year round, where the warm Gulf waters are always nice for swimming. Dolphins and manatees are often spotted from the white-sand beaches, though plenty of local boat tours offer the opportunity to get closer to the local wildlife.
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Is there a New England getaway more famous than Martha’s Vineyard? We don’t think so. Thankfully, you don’t have to be rich and famous to experience this beautiful and historic island. Located seven miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard has 19 scenic beaches for visitors to enjoy. The historic districts of Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs are fun places to explore and shop. Lots of local tours will take you to all of the island’s main sites, including its five lighthouses.
There’s no shortage of beautiful things to see on the must-visit island of Maui. Luxurious resorts sit on some of the most stunning beaches in the world, ideal places to tan, swim, paddle board, surf, and whatever else you can think of. To experience some of Maui’s natural scenery, brave an early morning hike to the summit of Haleakala, where you can enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises you’re likely to ever experience.
Located within sight of Maui, the historic island of Molokai has been nicknamed “The Friendly Isle” thanks to its welcoming population and inviting natural scenery. Molokai is home to beautiful beaches like Papohaku Beach Park and incredible hiking trails such as the one that leads to Kalaupapa Lookout. But Molokai’s best sites are actually its historical ones. Up until the mid 20th century, Molokai was used as a leprosy colony. The Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement makes for a fascinating, heartbreaking, and must-visit attraction.
Mount Desert Island, Maine
Mount Desert off the coast of Maine is the East Coast’s second largest island. Millions of people flock to Mount Desert Island each year to visit the picturesque town of Bar Harbor and to explore Acadia National Park. The list of things to do here is practically endless. We recommend joining a wildlife tour to search for moose, brave the rapids on a white-water rafting trip, or hike. The more than 120 miles of trails include forests, granite mountaintops, and rocky coastlines.
Mustang Island, Texas
This must-visit island may be tiny, but it’s chock full of charm and appeal. Located within site of Corpus Christi, Mustang Island has five miles of picture-perfect coastline where you can enjoy sunbathing, fishing, and even camping. Many people make the trip to Mustang Island for birdwatching, as the island is home to one of the continent’s few Whooping Crane populations. If birds are your thing, try to time your trip to catch the annual Whooping Crane Festival in February.
There’s a good reason Nantucket enjoys such a reputation as a must-visit island: it’s absolutely adorable. Once referred to as “Faraway Land” by local Native Americans, Nantucket boasts a downtown historic district with cobblestone streets, quaint boutiques and restaurants, and lots of historic cottages. Some of which can be rented or have been turned into inns and B&Bs. Though simply wandering is sure to yield enough to see and do, Madaket Beach is a nice place to spend the day and enjoy a sunset. Various boats are available if chartering a fishing a trip is more your style.
As Hawaii’s most populated island, Oahu is no stranger to tourism. Still, this beautiful island, nicknamed “The Gathering Place”, easily hails among America’s must-visit islands. Waikiki, with its luxurious hotels and packed beaches, is a practically an obligatory stop on any Oahu itinerary. We suggest spending more of your time on a beach like Waimanalo, a stunning piece of coastline which routinely makes the list of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Tiny Ocracoke Island has yet to be taken over by hordes of tourists and commercialism. It’s still a small working fishing village, and is only accessible via ferry, private plane, or your own boat. Visitors can wander the tree-lined downtown. Buildings originally constructed in the 1880s remain standing and often even serving their original purpose. This includes the local lighthouse, one of the oldest working lighthouses in the country. And of course, there are the beaches. Ocracoke Island boasts 16 miles of pristine beach, all of which is undeveloped and protected by the National Park Service.
Orcas Island, Washington
Orcas Island may just be the gem of the beautiful San Juan Islands, located off the coast of Washington state. This small island consists of forested areas, lakes, and stunning rocky coastlines. Visitors can explore just about all of it via the island’s extensive trail network. Moran State Park offers the most beautiful natural settings, while a series of waterfront villages make for a fun day of wandering. Finally, a trip to Orcas Island isn’t complete without joining a tour to spot some of the island’s most famous residents, bald eagles and killer whales.
Sanibel Island, Florida
Sanibel Island, along with its sister island, Captiva, is one of the most popular getaway islands located off of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Sanibel’s turquoise waters are ideal for diving and snorkeling, while the sandy beaches are perfect for a lazy day of enjoying sun and surf. Sanibel’s beaches are a popular destination for shell seekers. The island maintains a unique reputation for being one of the best destinations for shelling.
Santa Catalina Island, California
Though it looks like a place you’d find along the Mediterranean, Santa Catalina Island is actually just an easy ferry ride away from the bustling metropolises of Southern California. The island is a haven for outdoor adventure sports. Local companies offer guests the opportunity to go zip-lining, parasailing, and snorkeling, among other activities. The picturesque “downtown” area has lots of historic inns and B&Bs offering quaint rooms with a view. However, the ultimate view is arguably the one you’d get camping out underneath the stars at any of the island’s designated campgrounds. Just watch out for the herd of bison left over from when Catalina was a popular filming location during Hollywood’s earliest years.
Sea Island, Georgia
Sea Island, one of Georgia’s Golden Isles, is a popular vacation destination full of upscale resorts and unique activities. Located only 75 miles from Savannah, Sea Island boasts stunning white-sand beaches, three championships golf courses, as well as world-renowned hotels and spas. After all, a place like this is perfect for relaxing.
Shelter Island, New York
Shelter Island, located on the easternmost part of Long Island, tends to get overshadowed by its bigger, more famous neighbors. But this quiet little island is absolutely a must-visit place, especially for those interested in enjoying one of the region’s best nature preserves. The Mashomack Preserve covers 2,100 acres, or nearly 1/3 of the island, and consists of miles of trails. Shell Beach is just one idea spot for sunbathing on the island’s 17 miles of coastline. Just offshore, boating, sailing, and fishing are all popular pastimes.
St. Simons Island, Georgia
Another one of Georgia’s Golden Isles, St. Simons Island is known for its historic sites and relaxed atmosphere. Wander the barrier island’s quaint downtown, and marvel at the moss-covered trees and buildings, many of which are centuries old. Three championship golf courses are on the island, as well as a working lighthouse that dates back to 1872. Finally, set aside some time to enjoy East Beach, St. Simons’ most famous beach for swimming, sunbathing, and even windsurfing.