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The best islands to visit right off the US coast

July 13, 2022
9 min read
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Whether you are still working or retired, sometimes you just want to get away to experience a change of pace in a beautiful, easy-to-get-to place with wonderful beaches, decent hotels and inns, and fun things to see and do. Islands just off the U.S. coast fit the bill.

Fly near or to these islands, or pack the car for a trip that will take you across a causeway or aboard a ferry to these patches of paradise.

Here are TPG's picks for the best islands off the U.S. coast.

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Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, offers plenty of activities. (Photo by William Reagan/Getty Images)

With 12 miles of beaches and 32 golf courses (about two dozen of the championship variety), Hilton Head, South Carolina, is well known. But don’t let that dissuade you from visiting. While it's certainly no secret, Hilton Head remains picture-perfect and offers plenty of activities and great places to stay.

About 30 miles from Savannah, Georgia, and accessible from the mainland via a causeway, this Lowcountry barrier island brags of the warmest water on the Eastern Seaboard.

Pull yourself from the beach for a while and escape into nature. Embark on a gentle kayak paddle through scenic marshland or stroll along paved pathways and keep a look out for resident wildlife at the Audubon Newhall Preserve and Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Santa Catalina Island

Santa Catalina Island combines vibrant marine life, beautiful scenery and old-school charm. (Photo by Matthew Micah/Getty Images)

Known locally as Catalina Island, this rocky patch of land jutting into the Pacific some 29 miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, offers an easy escape from the city. Catch a one-hour Catalina Express high-speed ferry from Long Beach, San Pedro or Dana Point, or the Catalina Flyer catamaran from Newport Beach, both operating year-round. It’s not uncommon to see dolphins following your boat.

On the island you’ll find quaint towns, sandy beaches and a wealth of water activities such as parasailing, glass-bottom boat tours to reefs and shipwrecks and diving and snorkeling opportunities in the clear waters.

Visitors are not allowed to drive cars on the island, but you can rent a golf cart or a bike to explore the main town of Avalon and take Jeep and bus tours to see the interior. About 90% of the island is a protected nature preserve. For a workout, trek up 2,103-foot Mount Orizaba.

Related: Catalina Island: What to see and do, and where to stay

Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is a Victorian-era throwback. (Photo by tomprout/Getty Images)

When you get off the ferry on this remote Michigan island in the Great Lakes, you might have the feeling you’ve been transported back in time. Victorian architecture abounds, and one of the popular modes of transportation on the carless island is horse-drawn taxis.

The hillside, Victorian-era Grand Hotel goes by the moniker of America’s Summer Palace. It's certainly a jaw-dropping sight with its 660-foot front porch, and it remains a bastion of tradition where guests still dress for dinner.

About 80% of the island is protected as Mackinac Island State Park, adding to the utopian allure. Explore by bike or golf cart. Historic sites include Fort Mackinac, a Revolutionary War fortress that also played a big role in the War of 1812.

The island is in the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet. Ferry service from the mainland is from Mackinaw City (Lower Peninsula) and St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula). Both Mackinac and Mackinaw are pronounced “ma-kuh-naa.”

Amelia Island

Amelia Island's history, rugged beauty and activities galore are easy to access via two bridges. (Photo by Michael Warren/Getty Images)

With its uncrowded beaches and sand dunes, Amelia Island is a tropical paradise off Florida’s northeast coast. It's connected to the mainland by two bridges and you can get there in 45 minutes from Jacksonville, Florida.

Founded in 1562, the island is the only place in the country that has been under the sovereignty of eight different flags. You can learn all about its history on a horse-drawn carriage tour of the 50-block historic district in Fernandina Beach, where you’ll also find antique shops and Victorian homes and inns — many on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 18-mile-long barrier island has 13 miles of beaches (with more than 40 public beach access points), golf with views of the Atlantic and resorts such as the splurge-worthy beachfront Ritz-Carlton, with its 18-hole championship golf course and sea-inspired spa. Nature areas include Amelia Island State Park, where you can ride a horse on the beach.

Related: Florida’s top 10 vacation regions for different types of travelers

Martha’s Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard is steeped in New England tradition. (Photo by DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images)

A 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the low-key, 96-square-mile island of Martha’s Vineyard is full of New England charm and history.

Visitors find sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs overlooking the sea, charming inns, five lighthouses and such tranquil scenes as sailboats in harbors. Since Victorian times, affluent travelers have been drawn to the island.

What surprises many visitors is that outside the main towns such as Victorian-era Oak Bluffs, with its famous 1876 Flying Horses Carousel, and postcard-perfect Edgartown, much of the island is still rural and populated with working farms. Head to the West Tisbury Farmer's Market on a Saturday to sample local goods and to spot celebrities who frequent the island.

Another quintessential Vineyard experience is grabbing a lobster roll at Larsen’s Fish Market to munch on Menemsha Beach — one of those good-to-be-alive moments.

Orcas Island

Orcas Island caters to active travelers and culture seekers alike. (Photo by Edmund Lowe Photography/Getty Images)

Located off Washington state and one of the San Juan Islands, Orcas Island is a ruggedly beautiful paradise with the bonus of thriving arts and culinary scenes.

Come to the island to bike, hike, go horseback riding, explore lush old-growth forests and swim in lakes — when you aren’t dining on farm-to-table cuisine or checking out the galleries and boutiques in the historic village of Eastsound.

On a clear day from the lookout tower on top of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution, accessible by car or bike, you may catch 360-degree views of the Salish Sea, San Juan Islands and the mainland, including snowcapped Mount Baker and Mount Rainier.

You can get to the island on the Washington State Ferries system year-round from Anacortes, about 80 miles north of Seattle. The ferry ride is about 70 minutes (make reservations to bring your car).

Mount Desert Island

Mount Desert Island preserves one of the nation's most visited national parks, Acadia. (Photo by Peter Unger/Getty Images)

Accessible via a causeway, and the largest island off Maine at more than 108 square miles, Mount Desert Island, or what locals call MDI, is best known as the home of Acadia National Park and the small town of Bar Harbor, a longtime hangout spot for rich and famous New Yorkers. Quaint towns on the island also include Northeast Harbor, which Martha Stewart has been known to frequent.

Visitors come to admire the rocky coastline, eat lobster, go on whale-watching tours (to see humpback, finback and minke whales), shop at galleries and boutiques, see the leaves change color in the fall and take the perfect photo of a fishing boat loaded with lobster traps.

Related: This is why you should visit Maine’s Acadia National Park

The national park covers a large swath of the island, with a 27-mile loop road. A key attraction is 1,532-foot Cadillac Mountain, the first place in the continental U.S. to see the sun rise. Visitors get up in the wee hours to catch the sunrise, a quintessential island experience (from late May to late October, a vehicle reservation is required to drive Cadillac Summit Road).

Sanibel Island and Captiva Island

A world apart from Florida's busy resort towns, Sanibel is accessed via the aptly named Path to Paradise causeway. (Photo by Vito Palmisano/Getty Images)

These adjacent laid-back barrier islands off Fort Myers Beach, Florida, are such special places that the causeway out to Sanibel is sometimes referred to as the Path to Paradise.

Visitors come for the gorgeous, lightly populated beaches that are perfect places for strolling and shell collecting. Sanibel is the self-proclaimed seashell capital of the world, and you can find everything from tiny shells to conchs.

These islands, devoid of high-rises, offer plentiful paved bike paths and walking trails, as well as protected parks such as the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. On Captiva, connected to Sanibel by the 1918 Blind Pass bridge, golf carts are a primary mode of transport.

If you’re lucky, your views may include dolphins popping out of the water, manatees and many species of birds. Mother Nature puts on an impressive light show at sunset — sometimes complete with the "green flash" phenomenon.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases