Best Southern U.S. Islands

From North Carolina to Texas, America’s coastline is home to hundreds of islands. Pack your sunscreen and your swimsuit -- we’ve tallied a list of the best islands for a tropical island getaway.
By: Lisa Singh
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Photo By: Little St. Simons Island

Photo By: Visit Florida

Photo By: Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Photo By: Katie Haugland, flickr

Photo By: Bald Head Island Limited

Photo By: Richard Bickel

Photo By: Visit Florida

Photo By: Thinkstock

Photo By: Historic Ft Massachusetts - NPS photographer

Photo By: Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo

Photo By: Getty Images

Photo By: Cheryl Coward, flickr

Photo By: Getty Images

Photo By: Getty Images

Little St. Simons Island

Of Georgia’s four barrier islands, the Golden Isles comes closest to an unspoiled paradise. The island has been privately owned longer than the United States has been a country. Today, the descendants of the most recent owner oversee the maintenance of the island’s 100,000 acres.

Island attractions: Overnight accommodations for up to 32 guests

Sanibel Island

A young visitor does the “Sanibel Stoop.” Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast attracts travelers with its large number of seashells that wash up on the beach. The island is also home to more than 6,000 residents, but don’t expect any stoplights here. Locals are fiercely protective of the island; more than half the island is composed of wildlife refuges.

Island attractions: Shell collecting (peak season May to September)

Kiawah Island

Welcome to the “happiest seaside town in America.” That’s the motto of South Carolina’s Kiawah Island -- its world-class golf courses are a big reason why. Kiawah is home to five award-winning golf courses, including Ocean Course designed by Pete Dye. The course, located on Kiawah’s easternmost end, hosted the 2012 PGA Championship.

Island attractions: Beachwalker County Park

Galveston Island

Look, Forrest, it’s Bubba Gump Shrimp! Load up the kids and head an hour’s drive from Houston to Galveston Island. The island is just 27 miles long and 3 miles wide, but big on family entertainment. At Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, enjoy rollercoaster rides, carnival games and Bubba Gump Shrimp’s first-ever Texas location.

Island attractions: Moody Gardens, Seawolf Park, Stewart Park, Schlitterbahn

Bald Head Island

Take a 20-minute ferry ride from the town of Southport to reach Bald Head Island. Located at the tip of North Carolina’s Cape Fear, the island unfolds at an easy pace: No cars are allowed here, just golf carts -- and your two feet -- to get around. Kick back in a vacation rental, enjoy wine and music festivals, and take part in an annual fishing rodeo.

Island attractions: Bald Head Island Marina, Bald Head Island Golf Course, Island Retreat Spa and Salon

St. George Island

Love oysters? Head to Apalachicola Bay on St. George Island. The estuary is one of several outdoor pleasures on St. George, located off the Florida Panhandle. Along with oysters, the island offers great fishing spots for grouper, scallops, flounder, redfish, snapper, mullet and trout.

Island attractions: Bird-watching on St. George Island State Park

Cedar Keys

The cluster of islands known as Cedar Keys near Florida’s mainland offer a laidback experience, and the city of Cedar Key is among the star attractions. The tranquil fishing village comes with a small-town Florida feel and wood-frame homes like this. Come lunchtime, swing by Tony’s Famous Cedar Key Clam Chowder, known for its signature dish.

Island attractions: Nature sites such as Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge

Hatteras Island

Enjoy kiteboarding on Hatteras Island, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The barrier island off the state’s coast is known for windsurfing and sport fishing -- earning it the nickname, “the blue marlin capital of the world.”

Island attractions: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Ship Island

Walk through the shimmering quartz sand of Ship Island, one of two barrier islands located off the coast of Mississippi; you’ll find Fort Massachusetts on the island’s western end. The fort was built following the War of 1812, and has stood the test of time and nature's fury; it faced Hurricane Katrina with minimal impact.

Island attractions: Fishing, swimming and tours of Fort Massachusetts

Grand Isle

Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island is home to 1,500 residents who make their living from the seafood and oil industries. While the effects of the BP oil spill will be studied for years to come, the dolphins have returned, the waters washing up on the shore are clear, and the annual Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo (one of America’s largest saltwater fishing events) continues.

Island attractions: Fishing -- more than 280 species in surrounding waters

Marco Island

What do Shania Twain, Leighton Meester and Alan Jackson all have in common? They all have homes on Marco Island. Located on southwest Florida’s Gulf coast, Marco Island entices visitors with white-sugar sand beaches and amazing marine life like this bottlenose dolphin.

Island attractions: The largest of Florida’s 10,000 Islands, Marco offers miles of beautiful beaches.

Georgia's Cumberland Island

Before you dismiss this as a boring woodshed -- look closer: John F. Kennedy Jr.’s nuptials took place inside this structure, known as the First African-Baptist Church, in September 1996. The small, one-room church was established in 1893, rebuilt in 1937, and is located on Cumberland Island’s northern end.

Island attractions: Greyfield Inn, Plum Orchard mansion

Florida Keys

The expansive Seven Mile Bridge is your gateway to the Florida Keys. As you cross the bridge, linking the Middle and Lower Keys, get ready for a breathtaking sight: the Gulf of Mexico on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Keep going and you’ll reach the “southernmost city in the continental U.S.A.,” Key West.

Island attractions: Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum

Dauphin Island

We can’t forget Alabama. Of the dozens of islands off Alabama’s coast, Dauphin Island is among the star attractions. The barrier island, located 3 miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay, is home to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and 164-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary, making it a great getaway for the whole family.

Island attractions:
 Shell Mound Park, Fort Gaines

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