When it’s time to get away this summer, consider an island vacation—not in some far-flung locale, but right within the continental United States. Gorgeous islands pepper America’s oceans and lakes, and each comes with its own unique vibe. These seven are easy to get to (though only some allow cars) either by taking a ferry or your own boat, and all make for a great summer adventure.
Madeline Island, Wis.
Every year, thousands of kayakers, paddleboarders and canoe paddlers converge on this 14-mile-long island in Lake Superior to explore the island’s coastline. They’re looking not only for Madeline’s serene beaches and wildlife-rich lagoon, but also its fascinating rock caverns that centuries of waves and weather have carved from sandstone cliffs. For those who prefer solid ground, the island also has wooded hiking trails, campgrounds and a golf course.
Lopez Island, Wash.
Though it’s the third-largest island in the San Juan archipelago, Lopez Island (which locals refer to as “Slowpez”) has somehow retained a small-town sleepiness. Maybe it’s because there’s just one quirky village here, with bookshops, galleries and quaint waterfront cafes. Or perhaps it’s because one of the main pursuits for most visitors here is hiking—among rocky coastal cliffs, across verdant farmlands, through forests and around lakes and long sand spits. Most likely, though, Lopez’s friendly feel comes from the longstanding tradition of waving at every bike, pedestrian or car that passes by.
Monhegan Island, Maine
It’s just a single square mile in size, lies about 10 miles off the coast of Maine and has roughly 65 year-round residents. Yet this tiny island has been home to a well-known art colony for more than a century, where famous painters such as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and several generations of the Wyeth family have found inspiration. In recent years, the island has also been attracting tourists, who spend their time hiking the ruggedly beautiful bluffs and beaches (no cars are allowed) or poking around the small village with its art museum, charming eateries and historic lighthouse.
Getting here: Travel by passenger ferry or snag a mooring at the town harbor.
South Bass Island, Ohio
The pristine beaches and wooded campsites of South Bass Island State Park—and the lively restaurants, bars and shops in the village of Put-in-Bay—are what bring more than 750,000 visitors to South Bass Island on Lake Erie each year. Once ashore, most everyone rents golf carts or bikes to get around, which reinforces the island’s charming, vacation-y vibe.
Daufuskie Island, S.C.
Set between the coastal hubs of Hilton Head, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., this eight-square-mile sea island is one of the last remaining outposts of Gullah (Lowcountry African American) culture in the United States. Many of the 400 or so year-round residents are members of the Gullah community, who speak a distinctive Creole language called Geechee and keep the arts and traditions of their culture alive. Visitors—who mostly get around the island by golf cart—can learn about Gullah history and culture on walking tours, browse the art galleries and shops, sample Lowcountry cuisine or play a round of golf.
Getting here: Come by ferry or tie up at the marina.
Fire Island, N.Y.
This needle-thin, 32-mile-long barrier island, just 60 miles east of Manhattan, only allows select permitted vehicles on it, so for most people it’s just accessible by water. The island offers an array of diversions, including 17 distinct communities that range from family-friendly to rollicking party hubs, a historic lighthouse and a gorgeous 26-mile-long stretch of national seashore. The only traffic here consists of pedestrians and bicyclists moving slowly among the island’s network of boardwalks and sandy paths—sometimes while dragging wagons filled with beach chairs, pets or groceries.
Getting here: Ferries run here continually through the summer season; six public marinas in various towns are available for boat owners.
Garden Key, Fla.
Just 14 acres in size, this extraordinary island—part of Dry Tortugas National Park, set in the Gulf of Mexico beyond the Florida Keys—is almost completely occupied by a massive, hexagonal, 19th-century fortress, Fort Jefferson. Originally built to protect the deepwater harbor—from which U.S. warships controlled one of the country’s most valuable shipping waterways—the fort is today a huge draw for day visitors. There’s no dining or shopping (or cars allowed), but you can explore the fort, snorkel among the coral reefs that surround it and camp overnight in the lee of its hulking walls.
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