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There is something magically alluring about islands. Like magnets, they draw us in and encourage us to stick around for a while. Perhaps it's because, according to some studies, living near a coast improves our health and sense of well-being. In any case, we flock to islands for vacations and opportunities to relax and enjoy the activities they offer. But you don't have to jet off to some far-flung tropical locale to find your island paradise. We found eight underrated islands in the U.S. — no passport required.
Isla Royale, Michigan
Isla Royale lies in Lake Superior’s northwest corner, which is just a few miles from the Canadian border and part of Isla Royale National Park. Apart from a few Alaska parks, Isla Royale National Park is the least-visited of all national parks. It also happens to contain the highest number of intact shipwrecks in the National Park Service, making it an exciting destination for divers willing to brave the cold water.
This gorgeously rugged island's isolation is what keeps visitor numbers low. To reach Isla Royale, you’ll want to book a seaplane flight or board a ferry for a three to four-hour trip from Michigan’s upper peninsula or Minnesota. You won’t encounter traffic jams here — the only way to get around is by foot or boat, as the park prohibits all wheeled vehicles except wheelchairs. Multiple campgrounds are scattered around the island, and many have easy water access to launch kayaks or canoes. One small lodge exists on the island if you prefer an alternative to camping. Hiking, wildlife viewing, diving, and paddle sports are the top things to do here.
Lopez Island, Washington
Affectionately called “Slow-pez” or the “Friendly Isle,” Lopez Island is part of the San Juan Islands, which sit in the dark blue waters between Washington and British Columbia. Often overlooked by visitors who head to the busier San Juan islands, Orcas and San Juan, Lopez offers a more laid-back, amiable vibe. You’ll surely be greeted with “The Wave” by local drivers — here, locals frequently lift a single finger from their steering wheel in greeting.
Visitors and residents can reach Lopez via ferry or seaplane. Despite being the first ferry stop from the mainland, fewer tourists visit Lopez than Lopez’s two busier sister islands. You’ll find plenty to do here year-round, as even the winter temps are relatively mild and the island receives less rain than Seattle. Lopez offers excellent biking, hiking, kayaking, whale-watching, and beachcombing, and even has a golf course.
St. George Island, Florida
Located on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” this appealing 28-mile-long barrier island is sandwiched between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida panhandle. Most visitors head to the flashier Destin and Panama City beach destinations when they visit this part of Florida. But if you’re seeking spectacular uncrowded beaches; bountiful fishing; exceptional kayaking and canoeing; outstanding birding and wildlife viewing; and an escape from high-rises, mega-resorts, and chain stores — put St. George Island on your list.
St. George Island and the mainland are part of two extensive, mapped paddling routes, one through fresh water and the other through saltwater: The Florida Paddling Trails Association provides information and maps for freshwater paddling, while the 1,550-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail meanders along this gorgeous coastline. Accommodations range from a few small hotels to vacation rentals, and the island is surprisingly pet-friendly if your travel companions include a furry one.
Tilghman Island, Maryland
This three-mile-long island situated just off Maryland’s East Shore in the Chesapeake Bay packs a lot of appeal despite its small size. You won’t need a seaplane or a ferry to reach Tilghman Island, as getting here involves only a short trek across a tiny drawbridge. Once on the island, you'll find fresh seafood, boating, fishing, and hospitality. Tilghman Island is also home to the Chesapeake Bay skipjack fleet, North America’s last commercial sailing-powered fishing fleet. Once, hundreds of these maneuverable sailboats glided over oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay, but today only about 30 are left. You can sail aboard a historic skipjack, the H.M. Krentz, or the Rebecca T. Ruark, a national historic landmark built in 1886.
Another way to immerse yourself in Chesapeake Bay history is to embark on a crabbing charter with Capt. Wade Murphy III. You’ll learn all about crabs and how to net them, plus you get to keep a half-bushel of crabs per person. Land-based activities include them Tilghman Watermen’s Museum and the Phillips Wharf Environmental Center, where you can learn about and touch various Chesapeake Bay critters.
Mustang Island, Texas
Unlike Padre Island to the south, where spring breakers and summer vacationers party until dawn, Mustang Island offers similar white sand beaches and a more relaxed atmosphere. This 18-mile-long barrier island along the Texas Gulf Coast near Corpus Christi offers year-round activities such as birding, watersports, fishing, shopping, beachcombing, and paddling. At the island’s north end is Port Aransas, aka the “Fishing Capital of Texas,” where you can book inshore and offshore fishing charters.
Mustang Island State Park covers most of the island’s southern end and offers beaches, fishing, camping, picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, geocaching, and kayaking. Adventurous paddlers will enjoy exploring the 20-mile Mustang Island State Park Paddling Trail, which follows the island’s western shoreline. Golfers will relish the Gulf of Mexico views while teeing off at Palmilla Beach, Texas’ only true links course. And for a truly off-the-beaten-path experience, you can take a short ferry ride from Port Aransas to San José Island. The island is privately owned and closed to vehicles, making it an excellent place for fishing, birding, swimming, and collecting pretty seashells.
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
Located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Chincoteague Island is the gateway to the stunningly beautiful Assateague Island. Stretching 37 miles along Maryland and Virginia’s coastlines, the island is part of the Assateague Island National Seashore and known for its wild horses, gorgeous beaches, hiking, biking, scenic paddling, birding, and fishing. No visit to Chincoteague Island is complete without spending time in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague’s southern end. You can’t stay overnight in the Refuge, but it’s only a short drive over Chincoteague's bridge. (You can camp in the campgrounds on Assateague’s northern end, which is only accessible from Maryland.)
You’ll find plenty to do on Chincoteague too — including watching rocket launches! NASA launches rockets from Wallops Island just south of Chincoteague, so if you time your trip right, you can see science and history in the making. You'll also find boating, kayaking, fishing, clamming, crabbing, horseback riding, biking, and shopping. And once you've worked up an appetite, you can feast on fresh seafood at one of Chincoteague’s many excellent restaurants.
Amelia Island, Florida
Amelia Island is Florida’s northernmost barrier island. It's easy to get to from Jacksonville but a world away from city life and spring break parties. In addition to uncrowded beaches, a laid-back vibe, and southern hospitality that you won’t find in many of Florida’s other barrier islands, Amelia offers a perfect balance of upscale and casual experiences. If you seek luxury, stay in one of the island’s snazzy resorts, or choose from the many other options ranging from modest hotels to vacation rentals.
Golfers can take their pick from one of the many golf courses, while cyclists can ride the fantastic network of bike trails that wind along the beaches and under shady canopies of Spanish moss draped live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. History and nature lovers will want to visit Fort Clinch State Park with its row of Civil War cannons pointing at Georgia. Anglers, paddlers, and boaters have plenty of opportunities to get out on the water.
Another appealing aspect not offered by many other beach communities is Amelia’s picturesque historic downtown seaport district, where you’ll find quaint shops and bustling restaurants. For a unique experience, take a short kayak or paddle tour over to Georgia’s Cumberland Island, where you can see wild horses roam and visit unspoiled beaches.
Block Island, Rhode Island
While many head to New York’s Fire Island or Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Rhode Island’s tiny Block Island is often overlooked. Block Island lies about 13 miles offshore and is reachable via car, passenger ferries, or plane. This historic island can trace its roots to 16 farming and fishing families who settled here in 1661. In addition to the usual island activities based around the beaches and water, Block Island offers visitors three lighthouses to explore and the Block Island Historical Society Museum.
One of the best ways to get around is by renting a moped or bike. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy exploring Block Island National Wildlife Refuge and anglers will want to cast their lines into the multiple freshwater ponds and the ocean. The island attracts migratory birds and is a popular spot for birders. A must-see is Mohegan Bluffs, a 200-foot-tall series of bluffs overlooking a secluded beach you can reach by walking carefully down a 141-step staircase.