Best Southern US 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.
Little St. Simons IslandOf Georgia’s 4 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. 960 1280
Sanibel IslandA 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). 960 1280
Kiawah IslandWelcome 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 5 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: In addition to golf, Beachwalker County Park. 960 1280
Galveston IslandLook, 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: Also, Moody Gardens, Seawolf Park, Stewart Park, Schlitterbahn. 960 1280
Bald Head IslandTake 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 2 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. 960 1280
St. George IslandLove 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: Also bird-watching, St. George Island State Park. 960 1280
Cedar KeysThe 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. 960 1280
Hatteras IslandEnjoy 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: Also Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. 960 1280
Ship IslandWalk through the shimmering quartz sand of Ship Island, one of 2 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. 960 1280
Grand IsleLouisiana’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. 960 1280
Marco IslandWhat 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 beach. 960 1280
Georgia's Cumberland IslandBefore you dismiss this as a boring woodshed shot -- look closer: JFK Jr.’s nuptials took place inside this structure, known as the First African-Baptist Church, in September 1996. The small, 1-room church was established in 1893, rebuilt in 1937, and is located on Cumberland Island’s northern end.
Island attractions: Also Greyfield Inn, Plum Orchard mansion. 960 1280
Florida KeysThe 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 USA,” Key West.
Keys attractions: A lot. Including Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. 960 1280
Dauphin IslandWe 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: Also Shell Mound Park, Fort Gaines. 960 1280
Clearwater, FLBlessed with tranquil Gulf breezes and true-to-its-name crystal-clear waters, Clearwater's status as one of America's best shorelines has lured vacationers to the year-round beach town for over a century. Families and couples tend to avoid the heavily developed and at-times-raucous neighbor St. Pete's Beach (if not the traffic) by crossing the soaring bridge to the slim barrier island of Clearwater Beach. 960 1280
South Beach, MiamiThe American Riviera, SoBe or the Art Deco District — whatever you call it, Miami's South Beach is hot year-round. After all, these time-tested nicknames were rightfully earned by its notorious party scene (drinks flowing, filled with celebrities — when they're not aboard their super-yachts, of course), its part-American, part-Cuban cultural heritage, and its eccentric, candy-colored architecture along palm-lined streets. 960 1280
Ocracoke, NCVisitors on the East Coast and beyond looking for a peaceful escape will find 16 miles of enchanting, untouched beaches and a charming, close-knit village (about 1 square mile) on Ocracoke Island. In place of high-rise hotels or a business district, you'll find quaint rental cottages, elaborate gardens tucked behind picket fences and commercial fishermen’s yards — marked by their nets and crab pots. 960 1280
South Padre Island, TXEvery year the sunny shores of South Padre Island beckon to rowdy spring breakers to cross over the 2.5-mile Queen Isabella Causeway from the Texas mainland in mid- to late March. The rest of the year, however, it appeals to budget-conscious families and honeymooners looking for access to water sports, restaurants, bars and shops — without a big price tag. 960 1280
Cannon Beach, ORNestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountain Range, Cannon Beach is named for a cannon that washed ashore in 1846. Its forested headlands, towering monoliths, charming art town and 3.5 miles of serene beaches make it one of the most beautiful places in the US. 960 1280
Honaunau Bay, HIHonaunau Bay is one of a series of tranquil, turquoise bays tucked into the Big Island's South Kona coast. The adjacent Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Park is nicknamed "City of Refuge," with 238 acres of land and plenty of seaside picnic tables and barbecues. For snorkeling, head to nearby 2-Step Beach (named for it's easy-in, easy-out, 2-step entry into the water), which is also known for dolphin encounters. 960 1280
Hilton Head, SCJust 45 minutes from Savannah and Beaufort, SC, this boat-shaped island — one of the largest on the East Coast — is perfect for both families and individuals who are looking for a large resort area with more to do than just relax by the shore (although this isn't a bad place to do that, too). Hilton Head is home to countless trails for biking and running, more than 30 golf courses and 300 tennis courts. 960 1280
Little Palm Island, FLThe resort at Little Palm Island, FL, is one of the best in the country, with one of the best beaches in the entire stretch of the Keys. Just a scenic 30-minute drive from Key West, you'll find a marina, exquisite accommodations (with ocean views from each suite), gourmet meals and a full-service spa. 960 1280
Myrtle BeachAs the largest beach along South Carolina's 60-mile Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach is the East Coast's ultimate vacation hub. While travelers come first and foremost for the extensive white-sand beach, Myrtle Beach also boasts amusement and water parks, restaurants (1,700 of them!), live entertainment, nature preserves, outlet shopping and more than 100 golf courses (most open to the public). 960 1280
Poipu Beach, HIPoipu Beach is a series of 3 white crescents curving beside turquoise waters along Kauai's south coast. Poipu Beach is a near-perfect destination for multigenerational vacations, where older kids and active adults can head closer to the rockier coastline to catch some surf, while younger waders can stick to the crescents' middle beaches, where the water tends to be calmer. Or make a day of it at Poipu Beach Park, where you'll find picnic tables, restrooms, showers and a lifeguard on duty for your convenience. 960 1280
Best American Beaches 10 Photos
Martha's Vineyard, Mass.Crowds swarm Martha's Vineyard during the summer months, but respite can be found in the Vineyard's far eastern reaches "up-island," as it's known locally, at Moshup Beach. Tucked beneath the infamous Gay Head Cliffs, Moshup Beach is accessible by a 10-minute walking trail, making it an isolated paradise (and unofficial clothing-optional destination.) 960 1280
East Hampton, NYIt’s easy to see why the picturesque town of East Hampton is a beloved vacation destination for New Yorkers. A-listers settle into sprawling mansions along Lily Pond Lane, but anyone seeking out white sands and scrumptious lobster rolls will find them on Main Beach (just beyond Main Street). Find out more about our recommendations for East Coast beaches to visit. 960 1280
Cape May, NJCape May, the crown jewel and southernmost point of the Jersey Shore, is dotted with gingerbread Victorian houses and colorful bed and breakfasts. Founded in 1620, this town -- the nation’s oldest seashore resort -- is one of few places where the sun both rises and sets over the water. 960 1280
Nantucket, MANantucket’s community of weathered grey-shingled houses, surrounded by wild roses, is postcard perfect. Thirty miles south of Cape Cod, the former whaling community grew rich in the 19th century and still attracts well-heeled vacationers from New York and Boston. 960 1280
Duck, NCStretching for 130 miles along the Atlantic coast, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a skinny strip of barrier islands whose hallmark high, sandy dunes front frothy surf on one side and gentle sound on the other. Visitors looking for an old-school family vacation should check out Duck, an upscale residential rental community along the northern reaches of the Outer Banks. This town has no high-rise hotels, but it has rental homes. 960 1280
Myrtle BeachAs the largest resort town along South Carolina’s 60-mile Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach has silky white sands that draw vacationers from up and down the East Coast. Its plethora of restaurants, live entertainment, amusement parks and water parks — plus more than 90 golf courses — make it a beacon for spring breakers, families and retirees alike. 960 1280
Provincetown, MALocated on the northernmost tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is known for being the first landing place of the Mayflower Pilgrims in the New World. Since then it has become a distinguished art colony with a gay-friendly vibe and miles of galleries, shops and old mansions. 960 1280
Southampton, NYA charming village center, high-end shops and exquisite dining have made Southhampton a perfect blend of sprawling beaches, private estates and just enough places to “be seen” to satisfy the upper crust. Visitors looking to escape to the Atlantic are drawn to its 7-plus miles of unspoiled shoreline, windswept dunes and waving grasses. 960 1280
Hyannis, MAHyannis in Cape Cod is best known as home to the famous Kennedy family compound -- and more recently Taylor Swift. However, less-famous visitors are also drawn to Hyannis’ laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere and Kalmus Beach’s superior windsurfing. 960 1280
Kiawah Island, SCLocated just 15 miles south of Charleston, SC, Kiawah Island is a coastal island and golf resort loaded with 10 miles of pristine beaches, approximately 10,000 acres of natural woodlands and every amenity to meet the needs of the entire family. 960 1280
Best East Coast Beaches 10 Photos
From the air, the Hana Highway looks like a zigzag line drawn by a three year old. It twists and turns for 52 miles and takes anywhere from two to four hours to traverse depending on how many cars you meet on the one-way bridges. In fact, there are 54 bridges and 600 curves to make sure you're paying attention. And please do, because in addition to the traffic, the flowing waterfalls, plunging pools, scenic rainforests and the town of Hana are well worth the drive. 960 1280
There are rewards in life that are all the sweeter because of the effort it took to get there. Hana is such a place. Separated from the rest of Maui, you'll feel as if you stumbled upon the land that time forgot. Spend a few nights in Hana and soon you'll have trouble remembering where you came from and wondering why you'd ever go back. 960 1280
Every evening on the northernmost cliffs of Maui's Kaanapali Beach, a cliff diver lights the torches then dives off Puu Kekaa, or Black Rock. This dramatic show is a reenactment of a feat performed by Maui's revered King Kahekili. Surrounded by restaurants, the ceremony also takes on a modern twist, signaling the end of the day and the start of your own private celebration. 960 1280
Maui has always been a magnet for those who love the sea, from Hawaiian voyagers to whaling ships and modern-day catamarans that glide upon the water. Complete your Maui vacation with a few hours offshore, tacking up and down the coastline with the West Maui Mountains in your view. Add a splash of champagne or a frosty mai tai and there's nothing else like it. 960 1280
It doesn't matter how old you are'when you walk 'through an ocean,' the little kid in you comes out to play. Fantasy mixes with reality as you come nose to nose with wide-eyed tuna and white-tip reef sharks. Yellow butterfly fishes flutter like leaves around coral, while slick stingrays glide by without a care in the world.
Molokini is a small, crescent moon-shaped atoll off the coast of Maui. It's in a State Marine Life and Bird Conservation District, which means fishing is prohibited, so it's teeming with life. Take a snorkel or scuba tour and you'll be treated to a kaleidoscope of over 250 colorful varieties of tropical fish. Tours are available out of Maalaea Harbor and Lahaina. Insider tip: Early morning is best because the water is clear.
Maui might be for lovers, but it's also for golfers. And if you love golf, that's even better still. There are 14 courses on Maui, with several ranked at or near the top of the 'world's best' list. The PGA TOUR's Hyundai's Tournament of Champions is held here each year, so you never know who you might see on the course.