We all dream of island getaways with white-sand beaches and intimate towns meant to be explored by bicycle, with stops for homemade ice cream and family-friendly dinners with water views. Something about an island getaway whispers “relaxation,” and “quality time.”
But you don’t need a long plane ride to bring you to an island paradise. U.S. islands do exist, believe it or not, and some of them may only be a few hours from your hometown!
Written by Lissa Poirot
South Padre Island, Texas
Texas isn't all cattle ranches and hill country. In fact, its jutting tip near the border of Mexico is an island filled with family fun like surfing, mini-golf and swimming, especially along the long stretches of soft-sand beaches lining the Gulf shores. Schlitterbahn Waterpark on South Padre Island is also fun for families, featuring more than two dozen family-friendly rides and attractions in an indoor/outdoor (think convertible) park that welcomes water lovers year-round.
This Southern island is made up of 30 acres of Spanish moss-draped trees, 14 miles of dune-covered beaches and 100 miles of bike paths and walking trails, making it a playground to many looking for a beach getaway that combines nature and charm, as well as world-class golf and tennis. Dolphin discovery cruises, lighthouse tours, the Sandbox Interactive Children's Museum, miniature golf, and sing-a-longs beneath the giant oak at Shelter Cove -- singer Gregg Russell has been entertaining families for more than 20 years -- make Hilton Head Island perfect for families. Walk the tan beaches in search of nesting sea turtles or grab a net and go "crabbing" for dinner.
The southeastern-most tip of the United States is also an eclectic island escape for families. With year-round warm temperatures, Key West is an all-year celebration of sunny weather. Families can play on the beach; hop a charter for deep-sea fishing, snorkeling or diving adventures; take in the the island's famous and breathtaking sunsets from a sailboat or from a Mallory Square perch; and go on eco-tours in area parks and waters. Dry Tortugas National Park is ready for exploration, and kids will have fun watching the street performers in Mallory Square before the entire family dines on fresh seafood, including fresh-from-the-ocean lobster.
Step back in time in this Lake Michigan island, where cars are rare and horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are the vehicles of choice. Mackinac Island is a summer playground (the winter months can be unbearably cold) and family-friendly festivals abound, from July's Festival of Horses to August's Fudge Festival. The Grand Hotel is the island's grand dame, and after a starring role in Hollywood, attracts visitors from around the world to this intimate island. The hotel's Esther Williams Swimming Pool is open to guests and non-guests and is a must-visit when not dipping a toe into the lake's rock-lined waters.
Nestled into the rocky Atlantic coastline and Acadia National Park, is Mount Desert Island, better known for its seaside town of Bar Harbor. Just a quick bridge away from the mainland, Mount Desert Island is the perfect place to sample just a small portion of the 41,000-acre park, including a walk along the Shore Path. Be sure to visit Diver Ed to learn about all that lives deep within in the depths, and let the kids get up-close-and-personal with sea life like lobsters and sea cucumbers.
Cobblestone streets, blue waters filled with sailboats, and tiny beaches just beckoning your kids to frolic make up the intimate island of Nantucket, just an hour by ferry from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The former whaling capital of the world evolved into a summer destination nearly 100 years ago, and with its strictly enforced building codes, remains much of what it had been in the early 1900s, with more homes and buildings listed on the National Registry of Historical Places than any other location in the country. Kids will do exactly what generations of children did before them: play in the sand, ride a bike, devour ice cream, nosh on lobster, then repeat.
Off the coast of Washington state awaits 172 named islands, and plenty more that have yet to be named, all offering exploration. The three main islands for family visits include Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Island, each reachable by ferry, boat or seaplane. The San Juan Islands are a water-lover's playground, offering everything from canoeing to kayaking to sailing to fishing to whale watching. Rocky shores and sandy beaches top a day's visits, while biking and hiking trails afford expansive views. Stop by the Funhouse, a children's hands-on museum/science center/art studio/game center for hours of fun -- you'll barely be able to drag your little ones away. Friday Harbor provides a plethora of restaurants and boutiques to enjoy when the quiet of nature gets to be well, too quiet.
Georgia's small stretch of coastline is its summer jewel and referred to as the Golden Isles due to its dune-covered beaches that turn golden during sun sets. The most popular of the barrier islands are Tybee, which is closest to Savannah; St. Simons, which is home to the wonderful and uber family-friendly Cloisters; and Jekyll, which is protected as park land. The islands have a mild climate throughout most of the year, growing hot and humid in the summer months, which makes ideal weather for canoeing, kayaking and sailing. Spend time island hopping and visit each lighthouse.
The Outer Banks is a series of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, including Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island, making up nearly 100 miles of coastal dunes. This is where the first Colonialists lived in the 1500s and the Wright Brothers first learned to fly, and today, the islands are highly protected park land with zoning and building laws protecting the landscape and the views. Enjoy the scenic drive from end to end, and visit historic sites, museums and lighthouses along the route. Guided tours will bring your family closer to the wildlife on the islands and the ocean, including the wild horses of Corolla. Of course, beach time is a given for all families who visit, as are the islands' multitude of vacation rentals.
Hop on a ferry from the Los Angeles area to visit Catalina Island, located just 22 miles off the Southern California coast. Instead of lines at the Anaheim theme parks, your family can follow a single-file line while hiking the hilly terrain and join in wildlife adventure tours. Snorkeling and semi-submersible trips provide a glimpse into the Pacific waters and its undersea world. Ride an open-air Unimog during a canyon tour, kayak the island's isolated beaches and dive in hidden coves. The island is an outdoor lover's playground, and its charming town of Avalon will serve as a place to shop, dine and sleep when day is done.