By Kelly Hickey
Deal Expert, Chicago
Stunning, shimmering sunsets across the water, the peaceful lullaby of waves crashing and the wind blowing, the feeling of truly being removed for your everyday life … yep, islands are pretty much the best. While it’s wonderful to get that coveted passport stamp, there are plenty of islands to escape to that don’t require a passport.
1. Mount Desert Island, Maine
Home to Acadia National Park and the historic, upscale town of Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Island is 108 square miles of rocky coastlines, evergreen forests and crystal-clear lakes, not to mention some of America’s oldest luxuries. See for yourself why this stunning, glacier-carved landscape inspired the likes of Rockefellers, Fords, Vanderbilts and Carnegies to contribute to its conservation.
How to get there: Mount Desert island is accessible by car via Bar Harbor Road. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Bangor International Airport (an hour away), or fly into Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport (15 minutes away).
2. Shelter Island, New York
Located off the eastern tip of Long Island, Shelter Island is pretty much the Hampton’s charming, less high-maintenance little sister. One third of the tiny island is owned by the Nature Conservancy to protect its natural marshlands, and it is full of nature and bird-watching trails. The rest of the island boasts some of the oldest buildings in America. Shelter Island Heights is officially recognized on the National Register of Historic Places for its collection of rural residences that have remained essentially unchanged since 1872.
How to get there: Shelter Island is about a three- or four-hour drive from downtown New York via I-495 E. There are no bridges, so commuters must take the South Ferry to the island. Out-of-state visitors will find it easiest to fly into New York City and drive from there.
3. St. Simons Island, Georgia
Ranked as America’s No. 1 Favorite Beach Town in 2014, St. Simons Island offers “a triple threat of southern charm, serenity, and affordability” (Travel + Leisure). The 18-square-mile island amid the Atlantic is dotted with miles of pristine white-sand beaches, ancient oaks and lush green golf courses. A bike or trolley ride around the island delivers you to some of the area’s oldest plantations or to the iconic 1872 lighthouse.
How to get there: St. Simons Island is accessible by car via Torras Causeway. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Jacksonville International Airport or Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (90 minutes away), or into the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport (20 minutes away).
Be sure to stay at The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, which is now offering $70 in exclusive extras for Travelzoo members.
4. Ocracoke, North Carolina
Majestic wild ponies, 13 miles of pristine sand beaches and the oldest lighthouse on the East Coast — these are only a few of the highlights of Ocracoke, the outermost island of the Outer Banks. First settled by colonists in the 1750s, the island serves as a perfect place for seaside recreation, exploration and relaxation. It’s also a history-lovers paradise with its 250+ historic structures and Civil War artifacts.
How to get here: Ocracoke is only accessible by ferry, boat or small plane. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Norfolk International Airport or Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport — both are about two hours from the island.
5. Amelia Island, Florida
An enchanting blend of French, Spanish, English and Mexican influences have shaped the landscape and culture of this 400+-year-old Florida island. Bask in 13 miles of Atlantic coastline, try your luck at one of the island’s gorgeous golf courses or take a horse-drawn carriage down 50 blocks of unique housing, shops and dining in the historic district of Fernandina Beach. Whatever you choose, you’ll understand why the island has consistently been recognized as one of the Top 10 Islands in the United States by Condé Nast Traveler.
How to get there: Amelia Island is accessible by car via FL-200. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Jacksonville International Airport (30 minutes away).
6. Key West, Florida
The combination of remote isolation, subtropical temperatures and breathtaking landscapes has made Key West the popular escape for everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffet. Take a stroll down any of the island’s palm-lined streets and you’ll find century-old pastel gingerbread-trim homes, world-class seafood eateries, bars and small shops that call Key West home. Take to the water for some of the best fishing, diving, snorkeling and boating in the world.
7. Vieques, Puerto Rico
Nestled just 7 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Vieques is a Navy testing site turned beach resort oasis. Not only does this island have the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world and the largest natural wildlife refuge in the Caribbean, but it also has over 40 sand beaches. If that weren’t enough natural beauty for you, there’s also wild horses freely galloping on those beaches. Yep, it’s pretty much Puerto Rico’s best-kept secret.
How to get there: From San Juan International Airport, a 25-minute flight to Vieques starts around $220. Visitors can also fly to Vieques from San Juan Isla Grande airport. Or visitors can fly into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and then drive 55 minutes to Fajardo. From there, visitors can take the Vieques-Fajardo ferry, which will take about 90 minutes.
8. St. John, US. Virgin Islands
In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller donated 5,000 acres of St. John’s land to the National Park service, making the island one of the most naturally unspoiled in the Caribbean. Today, visitors can revel in the unbelievable hills, beaches and bays that make up two thirds of the island or take to the bustling streets of Cruz Bay, the island’s main town. Whether you’re planning on staying in a world-class luxury resort or basic campground, you’re sure to become enthralled with the island’s history, culture and natural wonders.
How to get there: St. John doesn’t have an airport, so visitors must fly into the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas and then continue to St. John by ferry or car barge.
The trip from the airport takes about 90 minutes. Cruises can also take visitors through the U.S. Virgin Islands.
(Yes, there are islands in the Midwest)
9. Isle Royale, Michigan
Isle Royale National Park is “a destination for the truly dedicated explorer” (National Geographic). Brave adventurers can trek rough and wild trails, encounter wolves and moose and make camp wherever they end their days — there are no designated campsites on this 45-mile-long island.
How to get there: The only way to get to the island is by boat or seaplane. The Thunder Bay International Airport in Ontario is the closest airport to Isle Royale.
10. Mackinac Island, Michigan
Located just off the tip of the Michigan mitten in Lake Huron, Mackinac Island packs fascinating history, small-town charm and natural beauty into 3.8 square miles. The island is a National Historic Landmark having undergone extensive historic preservation and restoration, and it is known for its unusual ban on almost all motor vehicles – it hasn’t had cars on it since the 1890s. The island is also the site of one of America’s oldest state parks and some seriously delicious fudge. During peak season, 10 thousand lbs of fudge leave the island each day.
How to get there: The only way to get to Mackinac Island is to hop on the St. Ignace-Mackinac Ferry. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Chippewa County International Airport, drive about 40 minutes to St. Ignace and then take the ferry from there.
WEST COAST & HAWAII
11. Orcas Island, Washington
Rolling hills, shimmering lakes, quaint hamlets and lush woodlands cover the 57 square miles of Orcas Island, known by locals as “the gem of the San Juans.” Hike, bike, horseback ride, swim or cruise — whatever you decide, you’ll be sure to encounter extraordinary natural beauty, wildlife, friendly people and that much needed breath of fresh air.
How to get there: The Washington State Ferry will take visitors from Anacortes to the island. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport or Vancouver International Airport — both are about 75 minutes away.
12. Catalina Island, California
Just 22 miles out from LA’s coastline, Catalina Island “gives you a glimpse of what undeveloped Southern California once looked like” (Fodor’s), with its quaint beach communities and unspoiled natural landscapes. The island’s access to the area’s unusually clean water also makes it a favorite of divers, snorkelers and kayakers, though other adventures like eco-themed zip lining are also available. Visitors and explorers of the island may notice the large population of bison on the island. Allegedly, a film crew brought bison to the island in the 1920s for a movie and left them, which is why there are over 200 roaming the island today. Catalina is also known for being the place where Mr. Wrigley brought his Chicago Cubs for spring training from the 1920s-1950s and for being the site of one of Marilyn Monroe’s homes.
How to get there: An hour long boat ride or 15-minute helicopter ride from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach or Dana Point delivers visitors to Catalina Island. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Long Beach Airport, John Wayne Airport or Los Angeles International Airport.
13. Santa Cruz Island, California
With a portion of the island managed by the National Park Service and the rest being owned by the Nature Conservancy, Santa Cruz Island is a place of truly unique natural wonder. More than 600 types of plants, 140 kinds of land birds, 11 species of mammals, five types of reptiles and three species of amphibian call the 96-square-mile island home and so does one of the largest and deepest sea caves in the world. Maybe Darwin should have studied here instead …
How to get here: An Island Packer boat will take visitors from Ventura to the island. Out-of-state visitors can fly into Los Angeles International Airport and drive to Ventura (90 minutes away).
It’s important to note that there is no transportation available on the island — all areas must be accessed by foot, kayak or private boat.
14. Kauai, Hawaii
Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and boasts one of the most unique geographical landscapes in the world. The island is full of lush rain forests (a product of over 440 inches of rainfall each year) soaring mountains, steep sea cliffs, sandy beaches, coral reefs, small stretches of desert and even swamps. It’s no wonder the island has been the site of more than 50 movies, including “South Pacific,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Descendants,” and is considered an unparalleled treasure of the Hawaiian islands.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Kauai is to fly into Lihue Airport.
Despite being just 200 square miles, Guam is the largest of the Mariana Islands and chock full of cosmopolitan charm and excitement. Walk the city streets and you’ll find a fascinating mix of Asian, European and Polynesian cultures not to mention gorgeous beaches and lookouts, delicious fusions of cuisine and fascinating glimpses into the island’s storied past. Fun Fact: You can reach a white sandy beach within 15 minutes from any point on the island.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Guam is to fly into Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport – the flight is 12.5-hours long from California.
Note: In order to visit the island without a passport, you must get there without hitting a foreign port or place. It is also recommended that travelers bring a government issued photo ID and a copy of their birth certificate.
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