The best islands in America

(CNN) — The coasts of the United States are dotted with too many magnificent islands to count, let alone summarize on a Top 13 list.
So first, our deepest, breeziest apologies to Alcatraz, Manhattan, Molokai, Key West, Whidbey Island, Isle Royale, Gasparilla, Chincoteague, Jekyll, South Padre, northern Minnesota and dozens more escape-worthy island hubs from sea to great lake to gulf to bay to shining sea — all of which will surely be featured in upcoming “best islands” travel sequels.

But, for now, we had to stop somewhere.

The following 13 offshore destinations around the nation are standouts for a variety of solid island-ish reasons: Beautiful beaches with crazy seashell collections, giant bears, no cars, bewitching bike paths and carriage roads, idyllic national parks, veritable Victorian vibes, and oyster cocktail pubs among them.

The one common point. All are worth bridge-crossing, ferry-hopping, helicopter-splurging, twin engine-braving or front crawling to savor for yourself. And they’re listed in alphabetical order, because even we couldn’t agree on a No. 1:


Floating Near: Jacksonville, Florida

Famous For: Its turbulent history and tranquil present.

If there’s any question where Florida really begins (or ends), it’s on this secluded speck of land at the start (or finish) of fabled State Road A1A.

Specifically, on its upper tip where Amelia Island’s single town of Fernandina Beach slumbers with its rows of Victorian mansions, pair of old paper mills, and older still cannon-lined Civil War-era garrison, Fort Clinch State Park — all oddly co-existing several miles north of the island’s Ritz Carlton (if you need it) or anything resembling mass tourism.

In its heady heyday, Amelia Island was occupied by a succession of eight different flags — French, British, Spanish, Mexican, etc. — along with an assortment of pirate banners.

What remains: genial Victorian inns, indie art galleries, seafood finds hiding under a bridge beside the Intracoastal Waterway (Down Under Restaurant), Florida’s emptiest beaches, and an assortment of fishing-sailing-manatee-watching outfitters embarking from Fernandina Harbor Marina into the blustery quiet of Cumberland Sound.


Avalon, on Catalina Island, seen from above

Avalon, on Catalina Island, seen from above


Floating Near: Los Angeles, California

Famous For: Friendly golf cart traffic and backwoods bison herds

An outlier of the distant Channel Islands chain, L.A.’s fabled leisure isle (26 miles off the SoCal coast) officially got off the ground when William Wrigley Jr. bought the entire 76-square-mile isle for a few million bucks sight unseen in 1919.

The chewing gum baron would promptly build a hilltop mansion here (now the storied Inn at Mount Ada), bring his Chicago Cubs over for spring training (a long gone tradition) and shape the island’s Mediterranean-style port town of Avalon into a casually refined offshore resort. He lured a cross-section of Golden Age A-listers to come fishing (John Wayne, Winston Churchill), cavorting (Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe) and performing at the storied Casino Ballroom (Count Basie, Glenn Miller).

Today’s Avalon lures a broader crowd. About a million annual visitors from all over.

A quick ferry ride from the mainland (or even quicker, pricier 15-minute helicopter hop) transports guests from one of the world’s biggest megalopolises to L.A.’s offshore version of Mayberry — graced with bobbing yachts, buzzing golf cart traffic, ice cream parlors, galleries, tchotchke shops, and homey eateries & drinkeries with names like Original Jack’s Country Kitchen and Luau Larry’s.
The best-kept secret of all: the rest of the island. Nearly 90% of Santa Catalina remains a rugged preserve — featuring a wild, frothing coastline and over 40,000 acres of undeveloped interior reserved for trans-Catalina Trail backpackers, eco-jeep tourists and descendent bison herds from a long-forgotten movie shoot.


Floating Near: St Marys, Georgia

Famous For: Rustic camping and feral horses

Once an island playground for the Carnegies, most of Cumberland Island is now a national seashore with the park ferry bringing no more than 300 people to the island each day.

While many day trippers pack a lunch and take the island ferry to visit the untouched beaches, tour the Carnegie mansions and spot the feral horses, hardier visitors camp at the rustic campsites — bringing everything they need for a few days of camping on the barrier island. Guests wanting more luxury can always stay at the elegant Greyfield Inn.

The northern end of the island has the one-room First African Baptist Church, which is known for hosting the wedding of the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. Island residents (and there are still a few) know it better as the heart and soul the free African-American community that grew out of enslaved community on the island.


fire island new york

Deer still live on Fire Island

Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography

Floating Near: New York City

Famous For: Not being the Hamptons

No cars. No paved roads. No Starbucks. No development along most of its parkland-protected shores dotted with, count’em, 17 sweetly-named villages — Saltaire, Atlantique, Dunewood, Cherry Grove — all sporting their own enduring charms, proud heritages, limited dining options and ironclad ordinances.

If you were a pristine barrier island hanging off the coast of imposing Long Island and just 60 miles east of that other island (Manhattan), you’d be just as protective of your precious space too.

Boasting a year-round population of about 400 that balloons to over 20,000 during summer months, Fire Island is many things to just as many visitors. LGBT and straight. Home renter families and solo Ocean Beach daytrippers. Bar-hoppers, beachcombers, zealous shorebird watchers …

There are spectacular strips of unpeopled sand here. And hiking, paddling, fishing, camping opportunities along Fire Island’s surprisingly extensive National Seashore.

There’s the riotous July 4th Invasion of the Pines, attracting hundreds of drag queens and spectators. And let’s not forget Kismet’s August clam-shucking contest, drawing its own slew of bystanders and bivalves.

However one defines and does Fire Island, the important thing is — it’s there.


Floating Near: Anchorage, Alaska

Famous For: Bears

America’s second largest island (after Hawaii’s Big Island) has all the rugged beauty and immensity one would naturally expect from a mountain-encrusted, spruce-carpeted, fjord-injected Alaskascape tucked deep enough in the state’s temperate, archipelagic south to be nicknamed the “Emerald Isle” and “Montana at the beach.”

Home to one of Alaska’s visitor-friendliest fishing port towns (Kodiak) with a vast backyard of glacial valleys full of elk, pristine lakes hovered by bald eagles, and rivers chock full of salmon, the island’s biggest draw — literally — is its furry, 1,500-pound namesake.

The Kodiak bear is the largest sub-species of brown and grizzly bears. Over 3,000 of them roam the Kodiak archipelago, and nowhere else.
The island’s top bucket list attraction: Booking a summer slot with one of several licensed bear-viewing outfitters in Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge to witness the ursine sockeye lunch buffet in action.


Mackinac Island, Michigan, feels like a place alone in time

Mackinac Island, Michigan, feels like a place alone in time


Floating Near: Mackinaw City and/or St. Ignace, Michigan

Famous For: 19th-century time travel

What’s the payoff for crossing the nerve-fraying, five-mile Mackinac “Mighty Mac” Bridge between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas? Or skipping the bridge altogether and just hopping a 16-minute ferry to Mackinac Island from either end?

Experiencing Middle America’s best offshore Victorian time warp — complete with horse-drawn carriage rides past 19th-century mansions and War of 1812 historic sites, Afternoon Tea at the aptly-named Grand Hotel, and a quality piece of Main Street fudge.

Augment the experience by renting your own bike, horse buggy or kayak and exploring the rest of this 3.8-square-mile National Historic Landmark (80% of it is preserved state parkland) with its dramatic limestone bluffs, thick forests and out-there Great Lake waters.

Best of all, not a single Model T or Prius to be seen on the island. Cars have been banned here since 1898.


martha's vineyard

The Gay Head Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard

Getty Images/Michael Eudenbach

Floating Near: Boston

Famous For: Making Cape Cod seem like the big city

Leaving the Cape’s summer bottleneck Route 6A gridlock in the dust, ditching the car in Woods Hole and ferrying the seven miles to Martha’s Vineyard isn’t exactly a secret shared by just you and Herman Melville these days.

But it’s still the perfect escape from all those waffle cone/fried clam lines on the pretty peninsula—and further proof that beautiful islands, no matter how summer crowd-inducing, always feel wondrously removed.

Massachusetts’ largest isle is home to pristine down- and up-island beaches, iconic clay cliffs, soulful Oak Bluffs ale houses, some of the smoothest coastal bike paths on either end of the Atlantic, and lots of big names for sedate little places (Sengekontacket Pond).

If you need to escape a bit further out, the beaches and cycle roads continue on Martha’s even quieter, hardier little sister, Nantucket — a swift one-hour, high-speed ferry ride away.


maui hawaii

Maui, one of the Hawaiian islands

Getty Images/Bike_Maverick

Floating Near: Honolulu

Famous For: Being exactly what one would expect from Hawaii

Fun Times Ahead: Maui Fair (usually in October)

Who really wants to compare pineapples to pineapples and rank one dazzling Hawaiian island over another? But if we were pressed to do it, Maui’s greatest hits lineup is collectively tough to out-aloha.

Lanai Cat Sanctuary in Hawaii is home to 600 cats. It was established as a nonprofit charity where tourists can visit cats, donate funds, and also adopt a new friend.​​

Yes, there are even taller waterfalls, wilder Na Pali Coasts, gnarlier North Shore swells, bigger historic sites, eye-popping-er volcanoes elsewhere in the state — but for the whole stress-melting, beauty-seeking shebang may we direct you to the following:

Sunrise at Haleakala National Park — home of the world’s tallest dormant volcano and all-downhill 26-mile bike tour. Sunset at Kaanapli Beach — complete with daily cliff-diving spectacle.

Afternoon snorkeling at crystal clear Molokini Crater — Hawaii’s only island marine sanctuary. Halloween in Lahaina — a.k.a. “Mardi Gras of the Pacific.”

And the worthiest all-day rain forest coastal drive (to Hana) that any tropical isle could ever dream up.


Floating Near: Bangor, Maine

Famous For: Legitimizing national parks east of Yellowstone and Yosemite

Being home to the oldest US national park east of the Mississippi and the earliest spot in continental America to catch the first direct rays of daylight is no small responsibility.

A layoff prompted Johanna and Steve Corman to sink thousands into a dream business: a bar that serves fizzy drinks, sodas and mocktails in Portland, Maine.

Thankfully Mount Desert — Maine’s largest island and the pin-up offshore hub of Acadia National Park — is up to both tasks. The latter from the top of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain (highest peak on the North Atlantic seaboard) — which sees the sun before anywhere else in the Lower 48 between mid-January to early March and again between early October through late November (it’s complicated).

Draped in A-list coastal Maine imagery and matching blueblood history at storied Bar Harbor (former summer playground of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, etc.) near the gates of the park, Mount Desert welcomes over three million annual visitors to rusticate at tony inns, nosh on shellfish, gallery hop, stargaze in one of the darkest available skies in the northeast, hike, bike, paddle and vanish into a network of car-free “carriage roads” financed by J.D. Rockefeller Jr.


A stretch of beach on Ocracoke Island

A stretch of beach on Ocracoke Island


Floating Near: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — and Norfolk, Virginia

Famous For: Pirate lore and the term “Ocracoma”

It takes some doing to reach North Carolina’s Outer Banks, home to the historic Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk and a still remote-ish string of migrating sandbars set safely apart from all those Virginia-and-Myrtle-Beach-goers.

It takes even more doing to reach Ocracoke, OBX’s southernmost barrier island — tucked well below the relative crowds of Duck, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Hatteras.

No bridge. No crowds. Almost no pulse — in the best sense — Ocracoke welcomes ferry (or private plane) commuters to do exactly what’s expected of anyone on a wafer-thin, 16-mile long spit of sea grass flecked, wave-pounded Atlantic shore and former Blackbeard hideout.

Put life on blissful pause.

And perhaps rent an old bicycle, browse through buccaneer tchotchke shops, idly chat with pirate impersonators, gorge through a mess of oyster shooters (beer, hot sauce, pepper, raw oyster in a shot glass) at Howard’s Pub & Raw Bar, and then slowly pedal up a long quiet road to a vast, empty beach to nap it off.

Where else could the word “Ocracoma” (definition: “feeling relaxed and ‘oh so good'”) have been coined?


Orcas Island, seen from the sky

Orcas Island, seen from the sky


Floating Near: Seattle

Famous For: Making visitors wish this was a one-way trip

Over 170 named islands and hundreds more at low tide comprise Washington’s San Juan archipelago. But, for now, a brief word on the three biggies — all accessible by the Washington State Ferry system and hampered only by crappy car lines on summer weekends.

San Juan Island, the namesake and hub of this chain, is your best bet for shopping and paddling through killer whale country.

Seattle’s Space Needle debuted its latest addition – a glass floor allowing visitors to see the city like never before.

Lopez Island, the quietest and flattest, is a magnet for cyclists.

Orcas Island, the “Gem of the San Juans,” is for wishing you could afford property here — and for driving slowly and aimlessly with the windows down on hilly, empty, sun-dappled backroads with names like “Enchanted Forest” and “Dolphin Bay.”

Then dipping through a quiet green valley dead-ending at some tiny harbor where an old man on a bicycle is walking his seven dogs along the road. Before driving up into Moran State Park and to the top of 2,409-foot Mt. Constitution for views of Mt. Rainier, British Columbia and everything in between on a clear day.

Then rolling past pottery shacks, sculpture gardens and back onto Main Street, Eastsound (a.k.a. “town”) where the ferry boat awaits near those sigh-inducing realty office window posts.


Floating Near: Fort Myers, Florida

Famous For: Serious seashells by the seashore

Foraging for shells on a long, shell-strewn beach. It’s a mindless activity reserved for kids, right?

Not on the conch- and cockle-carpeted shores of Sanibel Island.

The island’s boomerang-shaped, east-west orientation (most are north-south and miss the biggest shell payloads) makes Sanibel more than just another sedate Florida Gulf community with sweet sunsets, smooth bike paths and spoonbill-stuffed wildlife refuges.

A world-class shell magnet, the sands of Sanibel are strewn with amazingly intact whelks, junonias, coquinas and murexes—and folks of all ages hunched over looking for them. Doing the well-known “Sanibel Stoop.”

From the beach, it’s a quick commute to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum and myriad craft shops to admire just how many ingenious little figurines can be made from nothing but shells.


Floating Near: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Famous For: Resilience and Virgin Islands National Park

Among the most unique hideaways in the Caribbean and singular outposts on the US National Park grid, St. John is nearly two-thirds designated parkland — a tropical preserve that has stood as the perfect low-key alter-ego to its attention-hogging neighbor St. Thomas, just a 20-minute ferry ride away.

More than one year after suffering devastating hits from a pair of Category 5 hurricanes (in September 2017), both islands remain in the throes of what the US Virgin Islands Department of Tourism calls a strong recovery.

On St. John, famous rustic retreats like Caneel Bay Resort remain indefinitely closed, with hopes to slowly rebuild. The Westin St. John Resort Villas is scheduled to open for villa owners in January, while the resort tentatively plans to open for short-term guests in mid-year 2019.

CNN’s Katia Hetter contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared here