The world is full of unique islands — little oases away from the chaos of mainland life. Luckily for American travelers, the U.S. has access to many of them. If you simply don’t want the hassle of applying for a passport or organizing an international trip, these domestic destinations will excite you.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
The Florida Keys are America’s little slice of the tropical paradise, so you can expect soft sands, warm sunshine, and unbelievably blue skies. If you’re looking for something to do beyond your standard beach vacation, travel about 70 miles farther west via seaplane or ferry and you’ll discover the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere at Dry Tortugas National Park. The park is dominated by Fort Jefferson, a massive masonry structure built in the mid-19th century. It was never finished, but it was still used as a prison during the Civil War. Today, it makes for an educational detour from sunbathing and snorkeling the nearby reef.
The largest island in Alaska, Kodiak is a remote, rugged island that awaits intrepid and outdoorsy adventurers. Hike its unforgiving mountains, canoe in rushing creeks, or lie in wait for to spot its majestic namesake bear from a distance — the largest of the grizzlies — to make an appearance. You can spot the Kodiak bear in the National Wildlife Refuge on the island, but the only way to get in is via a helicopter tour or excursion from one of the wilderness lodges. Getting to the island itself is a little easier, as regular daily flights leave from Anchorage, or you can take the 9.5-hour ferry from the Homer peninsula.
Just like former resident Marilyn Monroe, California’s Channel Islands are glamorous, lively, and beautiful. Better still, these chilled-out islands are only an hour from downtown Los Angeles. The port of Avalon on Santa Catalina Island is the main starting point for exploring the city’s secret paradise. Make sure you bring good shoes, as the town can only be explored on foot or golf buggy. (Golf is the preferred sport of the Channel Islands.) On this quaint island, sailboats float lazily in the harbor, locals stroll along waterfront promenades, and seafood is the food of choice. There’s no reason not to live la dolce vita — you’re on vacation, after all.
You likely already know that you can hit the beach at Honolulu without flashing your passport, but now’s the perfect time to explore one of Hawaii’s quieter islands. There’s plenty of room for social distancing on Kauai, known as the “garden island” because of its lush mountains, endless fruit plantations, and colorful flora. Swim underneath secret waterfalls or zipline through valleys virtually undisturbed by tourism. Consider yourself a lover of culture? Kauai is proud of its strong Polynesian connections, and you can learn all about them by attending a hula or traditional chant workshop with an islander.
If you like to dance the night away to the sound of Latin music, why not experience the real thing in Puerto Rico? As a commonwealth of the United States, this Spanish-speaking island welcomes American visitors without requiring a passport. Uncover the island’s piratical history at the castillos in San Juan, where no fewer than three castles protect the harbor mouth from greedy invaders, or stroll the city’s colorful streets with a tropical smoothie in hand. You can also soak up the Caribbean sunshine on one of the island’s 300 beaches. Whatever you do, you’ll see why Puerto Rico is nicknamed the “isle of enchantment.”
Mackinac Island, Michigan
If you thought Main Street, USA, was a fantasy from a bygone era, wait until you discover the traditional yet timeless Mackinac Island. Forget chain stores and identical hotels — Mackinac is fiercely proud of its independent establishments. Ride along the historic, cobbled streets in a horse and carriage, take a knife-making workshop at Forge a Memory, stop by the old-world confectioners to taste melt-in-the-mouth Mackinac fudge, or visit the house where John Jacob Astor made his fur-trading fortune. Worn out from the day? Kick off your slippers at the spa, or lounge in a lakefront hotel.
Assateague Island, Maryland
Want to see horses running wild and free along the beach? Assateague Island — a 37-mile strip of sand in the Atlantic — has hundreds of them. Local folklore says these feral horses came to Assateague after they were shipwrecked off the Virginia coast, but it’s more likely they were moved there by early American settlers. Admire their beauty from afar, and observe their behavior to learn how their secret equine society functions. The herd is Assateague’s star attraction, but camping in the island’s secluded dunes and taking a ride in an over-sand vehicle are worthwhile pursuits too.
Main photo by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.