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.
Little St. Simons IslandOf 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 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 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 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: 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 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 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: Bird-watching on 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: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge 960 1280
Ship IslandWalk 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 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 beaches. 960 1280
Georgia's Cumberland IslandBefore 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 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 U.S.A.,” Key West.
Island attractions: 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: 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
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