Island travel probably isn't the first thing travelers think of when planning a trip in the United States. But given that the U.S. shoreline stretches for approximately 95,471 miles, there are bound to be plenty of islands and inlets to while away a vacation.
On the following pages, I will highlight some of America's most popular island destinations, from the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. The best thing about these islands is that no passport is required to visit them (if you are an American citizen, that is). Note that this is hardly an exhaustive list; see this extensive list of islands in the USA for further island travel ideas.
At approximately 5.5 to 6 hours, it takes as long to fly to Hawaii from the West Coast as it does to fly from East Coast USA to West Coast USA. In spite of this = or perhaps because of it - the Hawaiian Islands are among the most popular travel destinations in the United States. The weather in Hawaii is temperature year-round, though it is rainier between November and March in some locations.
A former outpost of the Spanish military, Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the territory to the United States (from Spain) following the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico's rich Latin heritage is still evident in its cuisine, art, architecture, and music. And though Puerto Rico has its own national language (Spanish), anthem, and has competed independent of the U.S. in the Olympic Games since 1958, the American flag still flies over San Juan, the capital of this Caribbean U.S. commonwealth.
More on Puerto Rico and the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
U.S. Virgin Islands
In addition to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are another option for travelers who want to travel to the Caribbean but stay within U.S. boundaries. There are actually three islands in the USVI - St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix - and each has its own temperament. Note that two main airports, in St. Thomas and St. Croix, service the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. John, the most "natural" of the USVI, is accessible by ferry from St. Thomas and, less often, from St. Croix.
Arcing west off the tip of Florida just beyond Miami is the archipelago known as the Florida Keys. The subtropical climate in the Keys makes it a favorite destination year-round, though hurricanes often threaten between June 1 and November 30th (Atlantic Hurricane Season). Key West, which boasts the Hemingway Home and Museum and nightly sunset celebrations on its pier, is where most travelers stay when visiting the Keys. Fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving are some of the most popular activities in the Keys.
More on the Florida Keys....
Amelia Island, Tybee Island, and Hilton Head
Amelia Island (Florida), Tybee Island (Georgia), and Hilton Head Island (South Carolina) are not part of an archipelago. But they do share a common southern sensibility, which is why I grouped them together here. Another trait these laid-back islands share is that they are all accessible from larger coastal cities: Jacksonville (for Amelia Island) and Savannah and Charleston (for Tybee Island and Hilton Head).
The Outer Banks
The barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina known as The Outer Banks (often abbreviated as OBX) are some of the most fragile islands on the USA's Atlantic coast, which is why many nature enthusiasts cherish the beaches here. Sea turtles, migratory fowl, and even some wild horses live on these barrier islands.
The Outer Banks are comprised of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a 70-mile nature preserve that covers the area between Bodie Island and Ocracoke Island. In between is Hatteras Island, one of the longest islands in the country at 50 miles in length. Some of the most popular beach destinations in the Outer Banks are the towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head (part of the Northern Beaches) and the villages of Hatteras Island.
More on the Outer Banks. Also visit the Official Outer Banks Tourism Website.
The closest airports to the Outer Banks are in Norfolk, Virginia, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
The longest and largest island in the lower 48 states, Long Island extends 118 miles from New York City to Montauk. Its proximity to New York City means that Long Island is heavily populated, but also well-connected by public transportation (Long Island Railroad) and highways. Long Island's beaches are very popular in the summer, particularly Jones Beach, on the south shore of the island, and The Hamptons (video), an tony area on the eastern end of the island that many celebrities call home. The Hamptons are a very trendy getaway during the summer for New York City's movers and shakers, resulting in crowded nightclubs and expensive lodging.
More on Long Island...
Martha's Vineyard has been in vogue since the days of Kennedy White House. Since then, several presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have chosen this small island seven miles from Cape Cod as their summer vacation destination. Martha's Vineyard has 19 beaches, golf, tons of art galleries, and a distinct New England atmosphere, thanks to landmarks like lighthouses and gingerbread cottages. Dining on lobster is also a favorite pastime of Martha's Vineyard travelers.
More on Martha's Vineyard...
San Juan Islands (Washington State)
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Washington State. Three main islands - San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island - are where the majority of San Juan Island travelers venture, and they are accessible via Washington State Ferries (from Anacortes and Bellingham) or via sea plane from Seattle. Natural wonders, including some of the best on-land whale watching opportunities at Lime Kiln Point, are what appeal to most tourists who visit the San Juan Islands. In recent years, the slower pace of life here, coupled with the savvy from eco-conscious residents, has given way to some excellent farm-to-table (and sea-to-table) dining options in the San Juan Islands.
Read more on the San Juan Islands from About's Guide to Seattle. See also the Official Travel Guide to the San Juan Islands.