The 10 Best Islands in New England

Brant Point Lighthouse Nantucket Island, MA
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Ranking New England's best islands is a bit like choosing ice cream flavors: They're all so different, yet all so good. Each island in New England not only has its own lovely landscapes and unique attractions but character, personality, and style that developed over centuries. So, stop pondering questions like, Which is better, Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket? And instead, start making plans to visit them all. It's the only way to decide which is island is your favorite.

01 of 10

Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island

Castle Hill Lighthouse in Newport on Aquidneck Island
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This 44-square-mile landmass is connected to the mainland by bridges, making it easy to forget that the largest island in Narragansett Bay is, indeed, an island. Home to the city of Newport, Rhode Island, and the towns of Portsmouth and Middletown—all known for their waterside attractions—Aquidneck Island is so accessible, it's more on your way than out-of-the-way. And that means you have no excuse for missing out on its essential experiences.

In Newport, tour Gilded Age mansions, stroll the Cliff Walk, shop and dine on the harbor, and book a sailing excursion: This is the Sailing Capital of the World. Aquidneck Island's best beaches are in Middletown, and so are its best fried clams (at Flo's Clam Shack). Don't overlook Portsmouth, where adventurers of all ages adore the Green Animals topiary garden and Rail Explorers outings that get the whole family pedaling on historic, bay-side railroad tracks.

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02 of 10

Mount Desert Island, Maine

Monument Cove, Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, Maine
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On the entire Eastern Seaboard, only New York's Long Island is larger than Maine's Mount Desert Island, which is famously home to the majority of Acadia National Park's 47,000 acres. This rugged New England island is like no other, with its eclectic mashup of sandy shores, ocean-smoothed boulders, sheer cliffs, pine forest, and granite peaks including Cadillac Mountain: the highest point on the East Coast. Attached to the mainland, making access a breeze, and also a popular port for cruise ships, Mount Desert Island would be worth the trip just to visit Acadia.

Year-round recreational and sightseeing opportunities in the park are practically endless. There's more to savor on Mount Desert (pronounced like "dessert") Island, though, in the tourist-made town of Bar Harbor. You'll find the island's best hotels, inns, and restaurants here and it's also your place to embark on a whale-watching voyage, learn about this region's native people, and taste lobster ice cream.

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03 of 10

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Gay Head Light and Aquinnah Cliffs on Martha's Vineyard
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New England's largest offshore island, accessible only via ferry or plane (or your private yacht or jet), is steeped in mystique. The Obama family, the Clintons, and Kennedys before them sought summer refuge here. While exclusivity and privacy (and golf!) are certainly part of this Massachusetts island's story, 96-square-mile Martha's Vineyard is more diverse than many travelers realize.

Even if you only go for a day, you'll love quintessential Martha's Vineyard experiences like biking or walking past the hundreds of colorful gingerbread cottages in the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association community or riding the Flying Horses Carousel, both in Oak Bluffs. Edgartown is another popular Martha's Vineyard destination, with a lighthouse you can climb and Bad Martha beer you can sip. Stay longer, and you'll want to venture to the fishing village of Menemsha for affordable seafood and a glimpse of the island's past. Then continue out to Aquinnah and the famous Gay Head Cliffs: a national landmark and a remarkable sight.

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04 of 10

Nantucket, Massachusetts

Brant Point Lighthouse
Guido Cozzi/Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images

During the plane or ferry ride to Nantucket, you'll have time to shift gears and reset your priorities: New England's most isolated island is located 30 miles offshore. The isle that awaits has its own distinct flavor: chic and sophisticated, yet unhurried, with a year-round population that treasures traditions from spring's Daffodil Festival to the annual Christmas Stroll. The entire island is a National Historic District, with one of the nation's largest collections of pre-Civil War homes.

Must-visit attractions include the Whaling Museum and the Maria Mitchell Association: a science center known for its summertime Open Nights when you can stargaze with professional astronomers. You haven't been to Nantucket, of course, until you've basked on one of the island's beautiful beaches; biked to 'Sconset; sampled beer, wine, and spirits at lively Cisco Brewers; and scored a counter seat at Black-eyed Susan's.

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05 of 10

Block Island, Rhode Island

Mohegan Bluffs Beach from Above, Block Island
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Rhode Island's Block Island (also known as the town of New Shoreham) is a pork-chop-shaped gem located about 9 miles from the coast. Surrounded by fish-filled, Caribbean-blue waters, it's a mere 6 miles long and 3.5 miles wide. Nearly 50 percent of its land has been conserved, protecting unique and significant habitats and cherished recreational sites. One such site is the 230-acre Rodman's Hollow, with its walking trails and populations of endangered and threatened flora and fauna. Private landowners here are fiercely protective of their island home and you'll find it difficult to bring a car to Block Island. However, taxi cabs greet flight arrivals and ferry boats—and most of the island's Victorian inns, shops, and restaurants—are an easy walk from the Old Harbor ferry dock.

Be sure to make your way to the far side of the island, where Southeast Light stands atop the legendary Mohegan Bluffs. The wooden steps nearby lead down to a magnificent strip of secluded beach. It's the antithesis of the party scene at Ballard's Beach, where there's daily live music, and you can have drinks delivered right to your rented lounge chair.

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06 of 10

Monhegan Island, Maine

Monhegan Island, Maine, Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage
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Maine's Monhegan Island, a whale-shaped rock covering just 1 square mile, is a favorite destination of artists, who are captivated by its reflective light and quintessentially New England motifs.

You can catch a passenger ferry to Monhegan from Port Clyde, New Harbor, or Boothbay Harbor, and see some of the island-inspired works by stopping into artists' studios, visiting the seasonal Monhegan Museum of Art & History housed in replica and renovated lighthouse keeper's quarters, and observing artists painting en plein air. There are 12 miles of hiking trails to explore, and in this car-free island's petite village, you'll find inns, shops, restaurants, and beaches: all of the makings of a vacation from the stresses of everyday life. The water may be too cold here for a swim, but you'll love hunting for sea glass.

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07 of 10

Lake Champlain Islands, Vermont

Grand Isle, Lake Champlain Islands, with Green Mountains of Vermont
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Vermont may lack an ocean coast but it does have islands. North of Burlington, Route 2 leaves the mainland behind, crossing a series of bridges and causeways before connecting to local roads that link the four Lake Champlain Islands (South Hero, Grand Isle, North Hero, and Isle La Motte) and the Alburg peninsula.

In this picturesque and little-known Vermont destination just south of the Canada border, you'll find beaches, bikeways, state parks, apple orchards, and a handful of notable landmarks. Standouts include Hero's Welcome general store and the Chazy Fossil Reef, part of which you can see at Fisk Quarry Preserve. Any stay in these islands is, by nature, secluded, and top lodging properties like the North Hero House and Ruthcliffe Lodge & Restaurant have water views and dining on-site.

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08 of 10

Boston Harbor Islands, Massachusetts

Sunrise Aerial Georges Island, Boston Harbor Islands
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You can enjoy an island escape without ever leaving Boston. You read that right! In the summer and fall, you can board Boston Harbor Cruises' ferry boats departing from Long Wharf for several of the 34 islands and peninsulas contained within the Boston Harbor Islands National Park. It's a 20-minute trip to Spectacle Island, a former garbage dump that's cleaned up its act to become a destination for swimming, picnicking, and hiking.

The larger Georges Island is a 45-minute voyage away and a trip back in time to the mid-19th century, when this offshore outpost was a training ground for Union soldiers during America's Civil War. You'll enjoy exploring the ruins of Fort Warren, participating in ranger-led programs, and picnicking with a view of active and historic Boston Harbor. The Harbor Islands also offer some stellar camping with sites usually available at sites on Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells, or Peddocks Islands.

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09 of 10

Chebeague Island, Maine

Two peeoping sitting on beach chairs at Chebeague Island Maine

Kim Knox Beckius

There must be some mathematical equation that explains how an island's charm is exponentially proportional to how difficult it is to reach. In the case of Chebeague (Mainers say, "shuh-big"), you have two ferry options. Casco Bay Lines runs a ferry from Portland that takes 60 to 90 minutes to travel the 10 miles to Chebeague's shores. and You'll arrive at Chandler Cove, which is at the opposite end of where you'll find most of the island's tourist businesses. Alternatively, you can zip from the mainland to Chebeague Island in 15 minutes on the Chebeague Transportation Company ferry from Yarmouth, but you'll need to allow an extra 40 minutes to park and catch the shuttle bus to the ferry dock.

Either way, you'll know the time you invested was well spent when you wash ashore on this gorgeous, 24-square-mile isle, which has only about 350 year-round residents and four times as many summer folks. The century-old Chebeague Island Inn is the island's gracious place to stay and dine. Be sure to check out the Museum of Chebeague History, play nine waterview holes at Great Chebeague Golf Club, and pass carefree hours at one of this bikeable island's half-dozen scenic beaches.

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10 of 10

The Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire/Maine

Star Island cemetery at sunset, Isles of Shoals
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These nine rugged little islands—Appledore, Cedar, Duck, Lunging, Malaga, Seavey, Star, Smuttynose, and White—are as intriguing as their names suggest. Located about 10 miles offshore, the archipelago is split between New Hampshire and Maine. While the Isles of Shoals are sparsely populated, they are abundantly storied.

The Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Isles of Shoals Steamship Company is the primary operator of narrated cruise tours of these islands, known for tales of pirates, ghosts, and squabbling residents. Their tour boats will also take you to Star Island for the day, as will the Star Island Ferry from Rye, New Hampshire. Home to the islands' last remaining Victorian-era hotel, Oceanic, Star Island fascinates history buffs and even enchants those who prefer to just sit and savor a lobster roll.