These Underrated U.S. Islands Are the Power Moves of the Summer
Island living is strong in… Montana?
But right about now, America’s lesser-known islands are looking extra alluring. Within the confines of their shores you’ll find everything you'd expect—sandy beaches, lighthouses, quirky towns, and quirkier locals—as well as a lot of things you don’t normally associate with island life, like wolves, bears, and cowboys. But it’s what you won’t find that makes these under-the-radar islands so inviting: crowds, hype, and pretension. These are the island vacations you probably weren’t planning, but should be.
Tybee Island, Georgia
Sweet Southern charm and sandy beaches
Dying to dip your toes in the water and your ass in the sand? The last place you’d probably think to visit is the easternmost point of Georgia, but just an 18-mile drive from historic downtown Savannah you’ll find a barrier island with wide, sandy beaches and that small-town-with-a-hint-of-carnival-nostalgia vibe.
The usual roster of Atlantic island joys are here: Grab an ice cream or an old-fashioned malt and head to the pier at sundown, keeping watch for sea turtles and their nests May through October. What truly sets Tybee Island apart, though, is its long, funky history. Head to the diviest bar (there are many!), grab a beer, and, chances are a local will talk your ear off about the town and nearby Fort Pulaski, a Civil War monument still open for self-guided tours. In the 1500s, pirates hid here; since 2005, the island hosts an annual Pirate Fest (which will hopefully return in October 2022) with a parade, a market, live music, and booze. Tybee also has its own wild Mardi Gras, an Irish Heritage Celebration, and a Sand Art Festival (all of which are also set to return in 2022). As if that weren’t enough: The first-ever Days Inn is here, too. Talk about history! —Allison Ramirez
Channel Islands, California
Under the sea, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world
Somehow flying under the radar of beach-obsessed Angelenos despite being less than 90 miles away, this eight-island archipelago is often considered "the Galapagos of the North.” To get to this stunning habitat for rare plant and wildlife (including one of the smallest fox species on the planet), board a ferry in Ventura (an excellent home base for an extended stay), then sit back and enjoy the hour-long journey to Santa Cruz Island, the most user-friendly of the bunch.
Once there, be on the lookout for bald eagle chicks or scrub jays, a small blue bird found nowhere else on Earth. There are day hikes and established campgrounds at Scorpion Canyon, but the real exploring comes underwater. With scuba gear (or a snorkel), dive into the kelp forests that surround the nearby shores. Kayakers should head into the Painted Cave, an enormous opening that plunges deep into the side of the island. When the darkness swallows you whole, the madness of SoCal's 101 will seem like a distant memory. —Ryan MacDonald
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Blackbeard’s final resting place is loaded with pirate lore (but not tourists)
One of the most haunted places in North Carolina, Ocracoke Island is supposedly where notorious pirate Blackbeard finally met his demise. This gem in the Outer Banks was one of his favorite hide-outs, probably owing to its secluded locale over 20 miles off the coast. Even if you’re not into dead pirates, the island offers 16 miles of powdery white sand to spread waaay out on, and exceptionally clear night skies for stargazing. Ride your bike through virtually-untouched, swampy nature and check out the oldest operating lighthouse in the state. You can also visit the Ocracoke Banker Ponies, descendants of a rare breed of Spanish mustangs shipwrecked on the island long ago.
Meanwhile, Ocracoke’s quiet village is teeming with local seafood spots like Howard’s Raw Bar or the Flying Melon, as well as 1718 Brewing if you want to enjoy the breeze with a local beer. The island is only accessible by ferry (we recommend the hour-long trip from Cape Hatteras) or small private plane. —Matt Meltzer
Antelope Island, Utah
The American West, condensed into island form
You have probably heard of Antelope Canyon, a hair under the Utah border in Arizona, the imminently photogenic slot canyon that’s taken over everyone’s mood boards the past few years. But you’re much less likely to have heard of Antelope Island, the largest of a collection of 10 islands in Utah’s famous Great Salt Lake. (So great. So salty.) That’s for the best: Once you’re here, that’ll mean you have it to yourself.
There are no permanent human residents, but most species iconic of the West are here except maybe, like, wolves: bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, and pronghorn antelope, in case you thought the island just had a clever name. The rocks you’re hiking on? Some are older than those on the floor of the Grand Canyon. If you visit in May, you can catch the Cowboy Legends Music & Poetry Festival. And if you visit in 12 of 12 months a year, you’re a short hop to the rest of the absurd outdoor wonders in and around Salt Lake City. —Kastalia Medrano
A low-fuss, A-plus New England paradise
If you want a quintessential New England weekend getaway without the quintessential New England pretentiousness, this is the trip you’ve been looking for. Not far off the coast of Rhode Island, tiny, laid-back Block Island easily packs the lobster-and-lighthouse-filled punch of better-known northeastern escapes like Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Cod. Accessible only by ferry or small plane, ditch your car for a weekend in favor of hikes and bike rides along seaside paths, through a charming downtown strip, and onto—well, any number of beaches.
Despite being just 10 square miles, the shoreline variety on Block Island is surprisingly expansive: you could spend an entire weekend beach-hopping from the dramatic cliffs of Mohegan Bluffs to the calm waters of Baby Beach to sea glass-and-shell-strewn West Beach and still have options to spare. Later, search for quirky, orb-shaped glass floats—part of an island-wide treasure hunt started by a local artist—as you head back up the dunes into town for a seafood smorgasbord. Much like the beaches, the good eats here are functionally endless: Lobster-topped nacho towers at Los Gatitos, crispy, beer-battered fish and chips at Dead Eye Dick’s, and quick-and-tasty lobster rolls at Southeast Light Delights all await. Don’t forget to pack your bib. —Devorah Lev-Tov
Pawleys Island, South Carolina
A Lowcountry hideaway for sparse crowds and hammock naps
Like much of the Carolina Lowcountry, you go to Pawleys for the atmosphere: stately oaks draped in Spanish moss; old historic homes and graveyards; a warm, frothy Atlantic that yields decent rollers for body-surfing and shells for the picking. The “arrogantly shabby” Pawleys Island isn’t as crowded or hoity-toity as Hilton Head, but not as isolated as, say, Daufuskie. You’re spitting distance from incredible seafood joints at Murrells Inlet and even closer to fine dining at Frank’s. And there’s always pizza and beer to be had at the gloriously funky PIT.
A stroll among the sculptures, fountains, and zoo at Brookgreen Gardens is a morning well-spent, as is a private boat tour on the Waccamaw River. Beyond all that, Pawleys attracts a lot of repeat customers because being there just feels good. It smells good: like the sea oats on the dunes, the marsh at low-tide, the damp woodiness of a porch after a storm. Grab an affordable offseason rate in September and you’ll spend the rest of the year jonesing for another whiff. —Keller Powell
Saint George Island, Florida
The simple life of Old Florida in rare, pristine form
I’m the rare local who will actually direct you to the boomerang-shaped barrier island in Apalachicola Bay, because around here, people mostly prefer that you not crowd onto Saint George Island's untarnished beaches. But for those in the know, Florida’s so-called Forgotten Coast on the knobby elbow of the panhandle is Florida at its purest.
Much of the “Big Bend” coastline between the Apalachicola and St. Marks Rivers is protected and undeveloped, preserving the unique character of the fishing villages—and the beaches—along US Highway 98. The emerald Gulf waters greet a wide and uncrowded beach of quartz sand so pristine, it audibly squeaks when you walk on it. A quick drive across the bay is the unexpectedly charming town of Apalachicola (“Apalach,” as the locals call it), the hub of Florida’s oystering industry, where some say the world’s best are harvested. Its tiny but impressive roster of seafood restaurants and Southern-accented boutiques are worth leaving the beach, if only for a meal. —Paul Jebara
Thousand Islands, New York
Why settle for one when you can go to 1,000?
Yes, Thousand Islands is indeed the home of Thousand Island dressing. The archipelago is made up of 1,846 islands that dot the St. Lawrence River as it criss-crosses between New York and Canada. The meandering watery border proved ideal, back in the day, for bootleggers smuggling hooch into the country during Prohibition. These days you’ll find more fishermen and kayakers than pirates; pack your passport, though, in case you run afoul with any border officials as you make your way down the river.
Start at Alex Bay, a tourist trap town that’s handy for rental kayaks and guided river tours. Ogle the lighthouses, Fort Henry, Kingston Penitentiary, the stately homes on Millionaires Row, and Boldt Castle—the 120-room, 5-building Gilded Age castle commissioned by George Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria. Many of the islands are privately owned, but there are Airbnbs to be found, or you can reserve one of the two cabins on Gordon Island or Friendly Island, or camp out on Wellesley Island, which has a state park and its own lake. —Melissa Locker
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Diving, hiking, and wolves. Not necessarily in that order
Conventional Michigan wisdom for those looking to be transported to the pre-automotive era says to jump on a ferry to Mackinac Island. But that wisdom typically also comes with a warning about crowd sizes and best practices for dodging horse apples on the streets.
No such apples or throngs of tourists await on Isle Royale, Michigan’s only national park. But it is brimming with foxes, beavers, and mink. And bats, if that’s your thing. The island, located in the middle of Lake Superior in the northern reaches of the Upper Peninsula, requires some planning to get to. But once you’re there, you’re rewarded with solitude and serenity. If you’re into hiking, the Greenstone Ridge Trail is 40 miles end to end. There are also great fishing charters to be taken here, but you probably expected fishing and hiking were popular here. What you probably didn’t expect? Scuba diving. Yes, there are shipwrecks in Lake Superior, and the National Park Service has signed off on guided dives to check out those shipwrecks. —KM
Wild Horse Island, Montana
Search for wild horses and geocaching treasures in the same day
Surprise! Wild Horse Island does not refer to the famously wild horse-filled Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. There are only five or six wild horses on Wild Horse Island, the largest rock in Montana’s enormous Flathead Lake, but that kinda just makes it more special if and when you do see them while off on a hike. You’ll also be amongst bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, and various other Big Sky-type species.
Hike to the top of the island’s caldera, an excellent spot to bring a picnic—the highest point on the island is more than 3,700 feet above sea level, a height higher than the highest natural height in 22 of our American states. It is my opinion that a lake is no kind of lake at all if you can’t swim in it, and so of course you can swim in Flathead Lake, where the rocks underfoot are smooth and shine in different colors. Pack another picnic and rent a boat and spend the day on the water. Into geocaching? You can do that here, too. —KM
Orcas Island, Washington
Artists abound in the San Juans’ most scenic island
With jagged emerald isles that stand out against the stunning blue waters of Puget Sound, Washington’s San Juan Islands are awash in views you’ll hardly believe are in America. The most colorful is Orcas Island—not just because of the panoramic vistas, but because of the people who live there. Despite Eastsound’s recent tourism boom, Orcas is still an artists’ haven. Check out the galleries all along the winding roads and snatch up some world-class pottery at Orcas Island Pottery; try local favorites like Mexican spot Mijitas or Island Hoppin’, the island’s sole brewery; hike the 6.6-mile trail to the top of Mt. Constitution for views across the San Juans (so long as it’s sunny); and, of course, don’t leave without spotting orcas breaching the waters.
As a heads up, getting to Orcas isn’t simple. You’ll either need to drive a few hours north of Seattle to take a ferry from Anacortes, which requires reservations and a $50 round trip toll, or catch a flight from King County International-Boeing Field just south of Downtown Seattle, which runs about $175 round trip. Luckily, views from either are as spectacular as the destination itself. —MM
Monhegan Island, Maine
A remote escape lies 10 miles offshore
If you’re looking to really “get away from it all” follow these steps: Get to Portland, Maine (and complete the mandatory quarantine), drive up the coast 60 miles to New Harbor, and hop on a boat. After an hour or so cruising through the frigid Atlantic waters, you’ll land on Monhegan Island. Covering a scant square mile of ocean, it’s home to a year-round population of less than 50 artists, fishermen, and hardy residents who hunker down during Maine’s harsh winters and welcome visitors in the golden summer.
For daytrippers, The Hardy Boat offers a five-hour layover, which is just enough time to hoof it over some of the island’s 12 miles of trails. Grab a sandwich at The Barnacle, the island’s lone deli, and picnic on Lobster Cove, overlooking the bones of a long-ago shipwreck. Cool off with a pint (or two) of Lobster Cove American Pale Ale on the deck of the Monhegan Brewing Company. For an overnight stay, it’s a simple choice between only two hotels—the Island Inn or the Monhegan House. If you want to avoid reality a little bit longer, rent one of the summer cottages that dot the island and play Robinson Crusoe, albeit with a lot more beer. —ML
Revillagigedo Island, Alaska
Black bears, brown bears, salmon runs, salmon-colored stilt houses
A lot of you out there who are not from Alaska might not realize just how far Southeast the state actually extends. But follow its border on a map all the way down to what you possibly assumed was British Columbia and you’ll find the port town of Ketchikan, billed as the “salmon capital of the world.”
Salmon runs begin in late May or June, and by July/August are going absolutely gangbusters. Salmon runs mean bears. Like, bears standing mid-creek snatching salmon with their teeth looking hardcore, but also looking kind of cute and silly with their lil’ ears all wet . You can take airplane tours to various bear-filled spots around the island, or perhaps you’d like to try some ziplining over the salmon streams, which is to say hopefully over some bears. If you didn’t know, you’re in the world’s largest temperate rainforest. Shop for sculptures, jewelry, and other Native Alaskan wares downtown, and take a stroll down Creek Street to check out the colorful houses propped up on stilts. —KM
Ship Island, Mississippi
A remote getaway in the Mississippi you’d never expect
The Gulf Coast of Mississippi is home to some of America’s finest under-the-radar beach towns in Ocean Springs and Gulfport. The area’s got funky bars, artist galleries, and seriously good seafood—but take a boat out to the barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and you’ll forget you’re anywhere near civilization.
The largest of the bunch is Ship Island, a one-time military fortification where you can bliss out on soft white sands and enjoy clear, clean water you don’t typically expect in the Gulf. Beyond just sunning yourself, the island’s also got a boardwalk where alligators and coastal birds tend to hang out, a seaside snack bar, and Fort Massachusetts, a Civil War-era fort. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to spot some dolphins on an afternoon cruise. After a long day at the beach, head back across the water to Gulfport to seafood joints like Half Shell Oyster House, The Chimneys, and Shaggy's Gulfport Beach. Thank us later. —MM
Editor's note: Ship Island is currently closed for repairs due to storm damage, but dolphin and sunset cruises are still available.
Washington Island, Wisconsin
Scandanavian charm awaits just across Death’s Door
Wisconsin’s Door County didn’t get the name “The Cape Cod of the Midwest” for nothing: This is the kind of place that makes even the most intrepid writer struggle to find a word that’s not “quaint,” a collection of small towns and idyllic beaches set amid orchards and lighthouses. And Washington Island might just be its crown jewel.
Getting there requires a ferry ride across a long strait in Lake Michigan known as Death’s Door, under which some 250 shipwrecks reside. Not exactly the kind of lore you expect to lead to a place known for its impossibly welcoming cottages, historic hotels, and Scandanavian hospitality, but hey, you’d hardly know you’re gliding over an underwater graveyard. Once there, you’ll get lost in the comfort of the limestone shores of Schoolyard Beach or amid the rolling lavenders that give the island its fragrant allure (coupled with some old-school stave churches, it’s downright dreamy). Do not, under any circumstances, leave this place before taking down a full shot of Angostura bitters at Nelsen’s Hall, a rite of passage since 1899 and a surefire way to settle your stomach before hitting those choppy waters on a return trip. —Andy Kryza
The Big Island, Hawaii
The tropical road-trip destination you never thought to take
In the greater scheme of things, Hawaii isn’t underrated by any stretch of the imagination. So why would The Big Island show up on a list of underrated island vacations? It’s all about what you’re doing when you’re here. And what many visitors aren’t doing is road-tripping.
Yes, you could pick any of the beaches on the Big Island’s 4,000-square-mile landmass and have a great time without moving. But set out on a 232-mile perimeter sweep and the sights that sear themselves into your mind come hard and fast. You’ll find beaches populated with more turtles than people. Sands both golden and black. Cascading waterfalls and bubbling lava. Valley after valley of pure bliss, and town after town of immaculate poke and bento. Any time you stop your car, you’ll consider never getting back in, whether it’s to explore Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park or crack into beers and musubi in Hilo. Here, every stop is its own mini vacation. Plan to switch plans on a whim. —AK
Editor's note: Due to the ongoing pandemic, the government of Hawaii encourages tourists to reconsider traveling to the islands until at least late October.