Summer vacation season is upon us and to many that means planning an island escape. You don’t need a passport or even to travel far to experience island life. This week’s Bucket List brings you seven of our favorite U.S. island gateways. Whether you’re in search of palm trees, golf or simply a break from the hustle of everyday life, there is an ideal destination for everyone among this gallery of islands.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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Santa Catalina Island, or more commonly Catalina Island, lies just 22 miles off the southern California coast. It's home to only two towns, Avalon and Two Harbors, but there is still plenty to do when visiting. A majority of the island is protected by the Catalina Conservancy, making it a nature-lover's paradise. Many of Catalina's offerings are outdoor activities, including snorkeling and scuba diving, glass-bottom boat tours, camping, fishing, golfing, parasailing, hiking and more. If the outdoors aren't your thing, the island has a variety of shops, restaurants, museums and historical attractions as well. Be sure to visit the Casino. This landmark dates back to 1929 and was built by William Wrigley, Jr. to serve as a social club. Today it houses the Catalina Island Museum.
Photo by lpotatol, CC BY-NC 2.0
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Visiting Michigan's Mackinac Island is like traveling back in time without sacrificing any modern day conveniences--except cars. Located in the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, personal motorized vehicles are banned on this island lake. Instead, visitors can get around on foot and by bike or horse-drawn carriage. The latter pairs especially well with the old-time charm of Mackinac's Colonial and Victorian-era buildings. Getting to the island is a breeze. Multiple ferries operate out of Mackinaw City and St. Ignace and takes around 15 minutes. As far as what to do once there, the island has plenty to offer. Getting around is easy, as most sights are less than a mile from each other. Biking, hiking and horseback riding are not only a great method for getting around, they're also some of the island's most popular activities. A visit to the Grand Hotel should also be at the top of your itinerary if you're not planning on staying there. This Victorian icon was built in the 1880's to serve as a summer escape for the wealthy of the Midwest. It boasts a sweeping 660-foot front porch, a 9-hole golf course and an expansive tea garden complete with croquet and bocce ball. Another staple of Mackinac Island is its fudge and to leave without sampling it would be like never visiting at all. The island is home to five fudge companies who continue to make the treat as they did before the turn of the 19th century. You can often see the candy makers through the shop windows along Main Street as they work the fudge on slabs of marble.
Photo by Michael Patterson, CC BY-ND 2.0
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Just 20 miles from Savannah, Georgia you'll find Hilton Head, the popular South Carolina resort island. It's heralded as a top-notch family destination and for good reason. There's something for everyone on this small barrier island. At just 12 miles long, it's home to more than 20 golf courses, 350 tennis courts, 25 interconnected bike paths and nearly 9 miles of Atlantic Ocean beach. Sea Pines Forest Preserve is among the must-sees. This protected area and wildlife habitat includes boardwalks, walking trails and fishing docks. For a more literal taste of the island life, hop on a tour at Hilton Head Distillery to see how local rum is made.
Photo by L1mey, CC BY-NC 2.0
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The big draw of Maine's Mount Desert Island, or simply the Island, is Acadia National Park. Occupying about half the island, the national park is home to postcard-perfect landscapes marked by granite peaks. Among them is Cadillac Mountain, the tallest along the East Coast in the U.S. The island as a whole is great for outdoor enthusiasts. With 120 miles of trails and plenty of easily-reached peaks between 500 and 1,500 feet, hiking is by far one of the most popular activities. Reaching the summit of Cadillac Mountain (1,530 feet) between October and March grants you bragging rights of being the first in the country to see the sunrise. At 766 feet, South Bubble Mountain is another noteworthy hike. This short and easy route is named after Bubble Rock, the large glacial erratic it leads to. The island's tide pools are also worth checking out. They form on cliffs and along the rocky shoreline, providing little pockets of biodiversity at your feet. The pools at Otter Cliffs are among the best, where sea urchins, star fish, crabs and more gather at high tide. Mount Desert is also home to a variety of gardens, like Wild Gardens of Acadia and Thuya Garden, as well as museums like the Bar Harbor Whale Museum.
Photo by Dave Wilson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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A visit to the San Juan Islands offers a true escape. Located north of Puget Sound in the waters off British Columbia, this Washington state destination includes some 700 different islands. While more than 170 are significant enough to be named, most visitors head to San Juan, Orcas, Lopez or Shaw. The four are accessible by ferry from the city of Anacortes. Activities vary between the islands, but all revolve around taking in the area's natural beauty. Hiking is one great way to take it all in. If you can only tackle one peak, setting out for the summit of Mount Constitution, part of the Cascade and Olympic ranges on Orcas islands, is a must. At nearly 2,400 feet, it's the highest peak in the San Juan Islands and the second highest peak on an ocean island in the entire U.S. The views from the top are breathtaking. There's also an abundance of wildlife on and around the islands. Sailing, kayaking and boat tours are a few popular ways to spot seals, orca and humpback whales, sea lions, porpoises and more.
Photo by Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington, CC BY 2.0
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Key West just might be the crown jewel of the Florida Keys. As the southernmost city in the continental U.S., it has that going for it too. The island is famous for its nightlife and nature, but despite its semi-tropical location, Key West doesn't have the most idyllic beaches. What the island lacks in soft white sand, it makes up for with other forms of natural beauty. If you're looking for proof, head to the Key West Nature Preserve or the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Another must-see is Dry Tortugas National Park (pictured), a small island home to Fort Jefferson and ample surrounding coral reefs. The area also boasts the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. In all, the Great Florida Reef is compromised of more than 6,000 individual reefs spanning 4 miles, making Key West a great base camp for nearby snorkeling and scuba diving.
Photo by Tabitha Kaylee Hawk, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Martha's Vineyard is one of the most iconic island destinations along the Eastern Seaboard. Less than 10 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, this Massachusetts island is accessible via a short 45-minute ferry ride. It's famous for a number of things, including its idyllic beaches, lighthouses and gingerbread cottages, as well as its popularity among celebrities, socialites and other noteworthy folks. Once you get on island, as the locals say, start with a visit to the Martha's Vineyard Museum for some historical context. As for beaches, they're not in short supply. Head to Aquinnah, a town on the south side of the island, for some of the best. This picturesque stretch of coastline is home to the Cliffs of Gay Head. Like beaches, the island's lighthouses are abundant. Especially noteworthy ones include Gay Head, East Chop, West Chop and Edgartown. Fishing, hiking, biking, golfing and sailing are also popular island activities.
Photo by Ben Alman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0