Abundant water sports, non-crowded public beaches and miles of sand for busy builders all add up to a relaxing and memorable family getaway. Whether you’re looking for a fun-filled day trip, a weekend escape or a week-long vacation, consider these generally lesser-known, yet superbly family-friendly islands.
Written by Jackie Perrin
Anna Maria Island - Florida
If you're looking for drive-thru restaurants and high-tech entertainment options, you'll be hard-pressed for options on Anna Maria Island in Florida. You won't encounter multiple high rises, heavy traffic or high-pressure sales tactics either. In fact, on the "slice of paradise," where residents operate on "island time," the only amplified things are local friendliness and natural beauty.
Connected to the mainland only since 1922, the 7-mile barrier island, situated 40 minutes south of Tampa, is comprised of three interconnected small cities: Anna Maria City, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach. Among the six island beaches, family favorites include Coquina Beach, a life-guarded beach with water sports rentals, concessions and a playground located on the southern end of the island, and Manatee County Beach, named to our 10 Best Beaches for Families in 2015.
The free Manatee Trolley runs the length of the island and, for a tiny fee, connects to Longboat Key and downtown Sarasota. For a fun afternoon diversion, take the trolley to the northern tip of the island, where kid-friendly snack options include Anna Maria Donuts, popular with families for its "donut bar" with dipped and topped-to-order sweets, Poppo's Taqueria and Two Scoops Ice Cream Parlor.
Stop into Beach Bums for sand toys and souvenirs, and to rent kayaks, golf carts or bicycles. Continue down the street for a tour of Anna Maria Island Jail. Adjacent to the Anna Maria Historical Society and housed in a 1920's ice house, the stark, roofless structure is a fitting spot for an amusing family photo shoot. "No roof, no doors, no windows, no bars -- no visitors for years and years," reads the graffiti on the facade.
Day trip options include kayaking excursions on the Little Manatee River, Gulf of Mexico eco-tours with Captain Kim's Charters and Captain Kathe's Boat Tours. Both captains are based in Cortez, a historic fishing village located just over the Bradenton Beach Bridge. If you go, be sure to stop in at the Star Fish Company, a casual waterfront favorite, featuring fresh-caught specialties that you can enjoy at outdoor picnic tables. Kids and dogs are welcome.
If you prefer to steer your own boat, rentals are available through Seaduced Adventures and Just 4 Fun. The latter company offers delivery of boats, tubes, wakeboards, water skis and beach equipment.
Recommended Hotel: An Island Getaway at Palm Tree Villas
Dauphin Island - Alabama
At the Estuarium at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, kids can learn about coastal habitats on an afternoon visit or, for a deeper look, dive into a summer day camp or a month-long high school credit-earning experience. At Fort Gaines, site of the Battle of Mobile Bay, parents and children alike can delve into the history of the island first known as "Massacre."
Of course, a major highlight of a visit is the opportunity to spend a sun-filled day at the beach. Situated next to the Dauphin Island Pier, the main public beach (entry fee) offers restrooms, food concessions and rentals, from kayaks and beach chairs to fishing gear. If you're serious about reeling in a big one, you can book a deep sea or in-shore charter. For a list of options, contact Dauphin Island Marina, where you can also book a dolphin-sighting and shrimping tour with Action Outdoors, or a fishing or nature excursion with Kayak Shack.
July brings the largest fishing tournament in the world -- the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo -- during which over 75,000 spectators flock to the island. On the Saturday before the tournament, junior anglers ages 15 and under can enter the "Roy Martin Young Anglers Tournament," which includes a hot dog lunch with ice cream and a drink.
While you're in town, you'll surely want to sample some southern specialties. At Skinner's Seafood on Bienville Boulevard, pick up a pound or two of Royal Red shrimp or order a straight-off-the-boat seafood dinner that's steamed fresh for you. Back at their home base for the night, adults can kick back and converse as they watch the sun set, while the kids can grab flashlights and search for ghost crabs on the beach -- a simple, yet delightful local tradition.
Accommodation options range from campgrounds and a casual motel to an abundance of condo and vacation home rentals. For further information, contact the Dauphin Island Chamber of Commerce or Mobile Bay Convention & Visitor's Bureau. Dauphin Island Kayak And Bicycle Rental Company will deliver family-friendly bikes and kayaks directly to your island home-away-from-home. The locally owned company also offers island tours.
Recommended Hotel: Gulf Shores Plantation
Kelleys Island - Ohio
At the Casino Dock in downtown Kelleys Island, depart the ferry and rent a golf cart. Although bike rentals are also available, a cart is your best bet for first-time family island exploration. Pack up some sand toys and pay a visit to the public beach at Kelleys Island State Park, where you can swim or rent kayaks. Then cross the street to check out Glacial Grooves State Memorial. Formed during the Ice Age, the limestone grooves, created by a receding glacier, are a fossil-filled natural wonder.
Afterward, order up a round of frozen fruit smoothies at Taste by the Lake in Caddy Shack Square. At the kitschy downtown shopping center, you can shop for souvenirs, play a game of mini-golf or cool off in the arcade. On the way to Caddy Shack Square, be sure to take note of the historic 1901 Estes School, a K-12 school with a full-time enrollment of less than 30, where both island and mainland students participate in summer science classes at the Lake Erie Field Station.
Kelleys Island is known as the "Walleye Capital of the World." Try your hand at reeling one in by booking a charter through Seaway Marina. At the Seaway Marina Deli, you can pick up a picnic lunch for the trip, complete with homemade potato chips. Other excursions, including family-friendly sunset cruises, are also available.
Summer events include Island Fest, a July celebration with kid-friendly activities, a parade and fireworks. In August, the circus comes to town.
Griffing Flying Service offers round-trip flights from Sandusky to Kelleys Island; flights are also available at Erie-Ottawa Airport in Port Clinton. Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line offers both vehicle and pedestrian transportation from Marblehead to the island daily, weather permitting.
Kelleys Island State Park Campground offers campsites and yurts. Furnished yurts (two total) sleep up to six and are available for weekly rentals. Guests must bring their own linens. Most overnight island accommodations welcome children. Options range from B&B's to condos and rental homes.
Recommended Hotel: Kelleys Island Venture Resort
Isle of Palms - South Carolina
With the friendly staff at Barrier Island EcoTours, you can learn about local marine ecosystems and collect seashells while exploring salt marshes and undeveloped barrier islands. Book a crabbing excursion or a sunset dolphin cruise, or choose a private family charter, which includes plenty of time for fishing, kayaking and cast-netting, as well as an optional beach-side cookout.
Looking for something to satisfy a thrill-seeker? Make waves with your tween or teen with an action-packed "Wave runner Safari." Parasailing, wake boarding, water skiing, tubing and banana boat tours are also available.
Set your chairs in the sand for the day at Isle of Palms County Park, an alcohol-free beachfront park with concessions, beach rentals and lifeguards in season. Nearby, The Windjammer is legendary for its sand sports enthusiasm.
Miles of paved bike paths are located around the island. Isle of Palms Beach Chair Company will deliver boogie boards and beach-friendly Baby Joggers, as well as adult bikes with baby seats, tagalongs and children's bikes with training wheels directly to your island rental accommodation. Carolina Bike & Beach offers a similar array of family-friendly equipment.
Recommended Hotel: Wild Dunes Resort
Wellesley Island - New York
In Thousand Island Park, a private Victorian cottage enclave built in the Methodist summer camp-meeting tradition, toss the car keys and spend some quality time with your kids. From pick-up sports games in "The Common" and excursions to "The Guzzle" restaurant and ice cream parlor for some penny candy, to story hours at the 1903 library created by the designer of the Lincoln Memorial, and trips to the St. Lawrence River swimming dock, kids will have a ball experiencing carefully preserved pastimes.
At Minna Anthony Common Nature Center at Wellesley Island State Park, kids can sign up for a fishing class, learn about birds of prey or go on a nature scavenger hunt. Summer excursions in the Center's Voyageur canoe are a summer tradition for regular visitors.
A campground with campsites, cabins and full-service cottages is located at Wellesley Island State Park, which, in addition to the nature center, features a full-service marina. Dewolf Point State Park, on Lake of the Isles, offers secluded cabins, campsites and boat dockage. For best results, make camping reservations in advance, up to nine months prior to arrival.
Cottages in picturesque Thousand Island Park, a National Register Historic District where pastel-hued structures are rich with gables and grand views, are generally rented by the week. Cleaning fees and Thousand Island Park Corporation fees are additional. Contact Trude Fitelson Real Estate for availability and details. The historic Wellesley Island Hotel, centrally located in Thousand Island Park, offers rooms by the night and an onsite restaurant.
Navigating Thousand Island Park, situated at the southeast tip of Wellesley Island, is easy -- you can travel by foot, bicycle or golf cart. Three golf courses are situated on the island, including one nine-hole course at Wellesley Island State Park, and two full courses at Thousand Islands Country Club.
Recommended Hotel: Wellesley Hotel and Restaurant
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