catalina island california

Point Vicente Lighthouse, Catalina Island. (Photo: Getty Images)

Beach Travel

6 Island Escapes in the U.S. Where Vacation Dreams Really Do Come True

The United States is home to oft-overlooked islands that boast white sand beaches, temperate-rainforest-covered mountains and high-spirited Gulf Coast entertainment. Even better, you don’t need a passport to reach them and make your vacation dreams come true.

If you’re looking for island getaways in the U.S. where fantasies of warm sand and sun or intimate romantic escapes become reality, look no further than these easy to get to and stress-free locales.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Find Respite on Catalina Island, California

Escape the hustle of big city life on this tiny island off of California’s southern coast. An easy hour or so ferry ride from Newport Beach, Dana Point, Long Beach or San Pedro brings you to this Pacific island that measures only 22 miles long and eight miles across.

Most of Catalina is designated as a natural protected area of rugged and majestic wilderness under the stewardship of the Catalina Island Conservancy. Catalina Island’s untamed interior is perfect for hiking along the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail, camping or spotting the resident bison herd.

Both Avalon and Two Harbors are home to dining discoveries, beaches and galleries. While Blue Water Grill Avalon and the Lobster Trap are favorites on the island, one of the best ways to taste Catalina Island’s fare is to take a Catalina food tour, which visits half a dozen eateries on a walking tour of Avalon.

Tasting the local grapes is also a must at El Rancho Escondido, home to Catalina Island–grown chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel.

Enjoy a Nature Fix on Whidbey Island, Washington

Whidbey Island, Washington scenic cliffs
Reconvene with nature on Whidbey Island (Photo: Getty Images)

Located in the Puget Sound north of Seattle, Whidbey Island has it all. Nestled within its lush, emerald forests and craggy hills are sweeping mountain views, cozy waterfront towns and locally owned farms and wineries.

Deception Pass State Park is by far the most popular “must-see” attraction on Whidbey Island thanks to miles of Puget Sound beachfront, hidden ocean coves, rugged cliffs and more than 35 miles of hiking trails through temperate rainforest groves. You can also book tree-climbing excursions with AdventureTerra Canopy Climbing.

Artists flock to this island for inspiration, and the many charming villages on Whidbey Island celebrate art with galleries, fairs and boutique shopping.

Seek Out Culture and Fun in Key West, Florida

 Whether it’s the island weather and the beautiful architecture that drew you to Key West, Florida, or the abundance of historical sites and attractions, this tiny island getaway will jam-pack your itinerary with fun. 

Centrally located in the Bahama Village district, Key West’s 173-year-old lighthouse is a great place to kick things off, as it offers both breathtaking views of the surrounding Bahamian clapboard-style houses and a ton of history.

Just east of the lighthouse, you’ll find Duval Street — the 1.25-mile-long strip is lined with boutiques, cafés and restaurants, making it the hub of Old Key West’s shopping district and a center for nightlife.

The city has some incredible Cuban restaurants, like El Meson de Pepe and Frita’s Cuban Burgers, which are a must-try. When visiting Key West, you can’t leave without indulging in a piece (or two) of Key lime pie — so a visit to Blue Heaven or Kermit’s Key West Lime Shop is nonnegotiable.

Plan to be in Mallory Square for the sunset — it’s a 20-minute walk from the fort. Chances are you won’t be alone, but the views as dusk is settling in are unbeatable.

Round out your day at Key West Bight, a marina in the Historic Seaport, and grab dinner at one of the enticing eateries. Conch Republic Seafood Company is a favorite for their incredibly fresh “dock-to-dish” dining.

After dinner, take a walk down Duval and pop into the many welcoming bars (Sloppy Joe’s, the Rum Bar and the Smallest Bar Inn are a few good places to start). Things get festive after dark in this neighborhood, and it won’t be hard to make new friends.

Savor Island Vibes on Puerto Rico

Woman stands under palm trees by clear stream in Puerto Rico
Immerse yourself in the rich culture and lush surroundings of Puerto Rico. (Photo: Getty Images)

A U.S. territory, Puerto Rico combines history, culture and beauty within a landscape marked by five wildlife refuges, 36 nature reserves and 19 state forests. Don’t forget the famous beaches of Puerto Rico, including Bioluminescent Bay (Mosquito Bay), which lights up with millions of bioluminescent plankton on Vieques Island, located just eight miles from the mainland, or the long, crescent-shaped Luquillo Beach just 30 miles east of San Juan.

With welcoming people and vibrant sites, like Old San Juan with its candy-colored buildings and blue cobblestones or the trendy-nightclub-filled Condado neighborhood, Puerto Rico is rich with cultural attractions, intriguing history and artistic personality. This island is home to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System, as well as more than 2,000 caverns and the world’s second-largest river.

Puerto Rico’s residents love to celebrate, and the island hosts festivals, events and holiday celebrations year-round, including the Spanish-influenced Three Kings Day Celebration in January, the Festival del Frío in February, the Pineapple Festival in May and the Festival Nacional Indígena in November that pays homage to Puerto Rico’s indigenous roots and the influence of Taíno culture.

The cultural richness of the island comes alive on the plate with food that is complex and authentic, but you also don’t want to miss out on the famous local rums made by Casa Bacardi and Hacienda Santa Ana or a classic piña colada, a cocktail that was born right here on this island. The truly adventurous will try a form of local moonshine called pitorro at the PitoRico distillery.

Live It Up in the Low Country in Hilton Head, South Carolina

Kayaks piled up near Hilton Head lighthouse
Have a family adventure along the Atlantic Coast on Hilton Head Island. (Photo: Getty Images)

Just off the coast of South Carolina’s low country, Hilton Head is one of America’s favorite islands due to its more than 12 miles of Atlantic Water sports like kayaking, boating, water cruising and jet skiing are popular, as are golfing at the Port Royal Golf & Racquet Club and shopping at Shelter Cove Towne Centre, Hilton Head’s newest and most trendy shopping and dining location.

Restaurants like Annie O’s Kitchen, Fishcamp on Broad Creek, and Skull Creek Boathouse, among others, serve up quintessential low country cuisine, excelling at fried okra, local oysters, gumbo or even buckets of fresh seafood and steamed shrimp.

Hilton Head is a popular family getaway location due to all the activities kids love, like zip lining, the Urban Air Trampoline Park and the Coastal Discovery Museum. But if you’re looking for a romantic escape, book a sunset sail with Hilton Head Dolphin Tours on Calibogue Sound and relax at world-class spas like Spa Soleil.

Get Active on South Padre Island, Texas

The Texas Gulf Coast, nicknamed “the Third Coast,” has a personality all its own, and no place showcases that unique Texas spirit like South Padre Island. Favored by the spring break party crowd and attendees of summer family reunions, South Padre is a perfect vacation dream getaway for both little kids and grown-ups.

Fishing, dolphin-watching tours, beachfront horseback riding and even dance classes are just a few of the activities that make this island so much fun. But South Padre isn’t all games and giggles; it’s also a leader in conservation.

Sea Turtle, Inc., on South Padre works for the protection, rehabilitation and recovery of sea turtles, including the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, and the center also has free educational projects and games for kids.

But, yeah, the dancing at the numerous beachfront nightclubs like Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Louie’s Backyard or the random grassroots parties on the beach are pretty epic, too.