Island vacations likely bring to mind images of sunny beaches in foreign countries, but there are plenty of great islands in the U.S. While almost every state on the coast has a few islands (even Alaska has over 2,000 off its shores), we have a particular love affair with U.S. islands in the South. Whether it’s the abundant wildlife, unique experiences and landscapes, fascinating history, charming vibes, or beautiful beaches, here are our picks for the best islands in the southern U.S.
This small barrier island off the coast of Georgia packs in the perfect amount of quaint character. Just 18 miles from Savannah, Tybee Island is easy to reach, yet it feels worlds away. Here, visitors will find relaxing beaches, great fishing opportunities, romantic sunsets, and several chances to see wildlife like dolphins and turtles. Hometown pride runs thick and you can expect to find nearly every shop and restaurant owned and operated by a local.
Our Pick for a Tybee Island Hotel: Hotel Tybee
St. Simons Island is one of Georgia’s gems, and if you’ve visited, you’ve likely been charmed by its atmosphere. Here, salt marshes and sandy beaches pair with oak trees draped in Spanish moss, giving the island an undeniable romantic air. This is where you come to slow down, soak in the salty air, and perhaps play a few rounds of golf or unwind in a spa. The beautiful beaches here are best visited at low tide, when the sand stretches out hundreds of feet (though high tide makes for easy surfing). This island is also known for its wildlife activities, fishing, and quaint historic attractions, including a lighthouse museum and old fort ruins.
Our Pick for a St. Simons Island Hotel: Ocean Lodge
Reachable only by ferry, Ocracoke is the southernmost island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. One of the island’s biggest claims to fame is its historic lighthouse — the state’s oldest operating lighthouse. It’s a must-visit, and at only 65 feet tall, it’s easy to climb to the top without too much huffing and puffing. Other island activities include walking tours, beach days, water sports like kayaking on Silver Lake, and hikes at Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, the island sustained significant damage from 2019’s Hurricane Dorian.
Our Pick for an Ocracoke Hotel: Ocracoke Harbor Inn
4. Pine Island, Florida
Paddleboarders and kayakers flock to Pine Island, the biggest island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Here, the Great Calusa Blueway gives adventure-seekers 190 miles of waterways to navigate in search of serenity and wildlife. Paddles through the Pine Island Sound feature mangrove tunnels and dolphin-spotting opportunities, while stops at the 67-acre Randell Research Center offer a glimpse into the indigenous people of the area through archeological finds and a museum. Visitors can also check out the current bohemian artist communities and tropical fruit plantations.
5. Edisto Island, South Carolina
Low-key nature lovers will feel right at home on Edisto Island. A part of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, this small island goes big on both the beach and nature activities. The island is flanked by a long stretch of beach on one side and Edisto Beach State Park on the other. Some popular island activities include camping in the state park, visits to the Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve, reptile shows at the serpentarium, boat tours that teach you about the local wildlife and ecology, and walks along the Indian Mound Trail.
Hilton Head has long been a top vacation destination, particularly for well-heeled families seeking a wholesome and picturesque break. In fact, it was voted America’s favorite island in Travel + Leisure for four years straight. Fill your days with games of golf and tennis, upscale presentations of Lowcountry cuisine like seafood and pies, and activities on both land and water. Scenic bike rides, dolphin tours, water sports, relaxing on the beach, and shopping are all popular activities here.
Our Pick for a Hilton Head Hotel: Hilton Head Marriott Resort & Spa
All it takes is a quick drive across the bridge from Naples to reach the sugar-sand beaches, parks, and wildlife on Marco Island. It’s also the gateway to Florida’s undeveloped Ten Thousand Islands, offering several boat tour options and plenty of water sports operators that get you out on the water. Other adventures here include shelling excursions, canoe trips, fishing charters, and birding expeditions. Or, you can simply relax on the beach. Pro tip: Foodies should make it a point to dine at the JW Marriott, where you can sample dishes made with local ingredients from the nearby Everglades.
Our Pick for a Marco Island Hotel: JW Marriott Marco Island
8. Oak Island, North Carolina
Oak Island is a barrier island separated from mainland North Carolina by the Intracoastal Waterway. The slow pace and gorgeous, natural scenery are two major draws here, though it does have a few other claims to fame. The Oak Island Pier is the tallest in North Carolina, and at nearly 900 planks long, the Ocean Crest Pier is one of the longest fishing piers along the Cape Fear coast. Sand dunes, sea turtles, and historic spots like the Oak Island Lighthouse and Fort Caswell are popular with visitors.
Sanibel Island is the spot if you’re into shelling. There are over 400 different kinds of shells to be found along the shoreline here, plus the destination is home to The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum — the only museum in the U.S. focused entirely on seashells. However, Sanibel isn’t only about shells. Hit up the beach, stroll down the boardwalk in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, visit the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, or stop to smell the flowers at the Sanibel Moorings Botanical Gardens.
Our Pick for a Sanibel Island Hotel: Sundial Beach Resort & Spa
We love the Florida Keys, but the proximity of Key Largo to the mainland can’t be beat for a quick island getaway. Just 18 miles from Miami, this place has great snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, fishing, and camping — and that’s just in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This park is also home to the famous underwater statue of Jesus Christ and the only living coral barrier reef in the country. Eco-tours, SUP paddleboarding, yoga, and fresh-caught seafood are other great ways to experience this beautiful island.
Our Pick for a Key Largo Hotel: Key Largo Bay Marriott Beach Resort
11. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
Folks hoping to visit South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island can only get here by taking a ferry across the Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head. You’ll be rewarded with beautiful white-sand beaches, old oak trees with Spanish moss, and a true escape from the day-to-day of modern life. Streets swap cars for golf carts and bikes. Once you’re here, nosh on delicious Lowcountry cuisine, play a game on the green, visit the local rum distillery, or explore the island’s history. For a unique treat, book an overnight stay the Bloody Point Lighthouse.
While in Key West, strut your stuff in the Old Town, drink your way down Duval Street, or test your wits on a historical ghost tour. There are also plenty of water activities on offer, including snorkeling, sailing, and jet-skiing, to name a few. Back on land, you can explore your way across Key West on a bike tour, food tour, beer tour, and more. Those who are feeling frisky can let loose at the clothing-optional bar Garden of Eden.
Our Pick for a Key West Hotel: Casa Marina Key West, A Waldorf Astoria Resort
13. Dauphin Island, Alabama
Nestled within the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, Dauphin Island is a must for Audubon enthusiasts. This small island packs in a lot of history and nature, making it a great family vacation spot. Visits to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab Estuarium and Audubon Bird Sanctuary make learning fun and interactive, while fishing charters and boat tours are great ways to experience the island by water. There’s also an old lighthouse, Indian Mound Park, and an old fort for folks looking for a glimpse of the island’s history.
Northern Florida’s Amelia Island is only a hop, skip, and jump from the border of Georgia, giving visitors the best of Florida’s sunshine and beautiful beaches with a touch of charming southern hospitality. Kayaking eco-tours, beach days, wildlife excursions, and even adventure activities like skydiving can fill your itinerary while in town. There’s also a very Instagrammable historic district, and the lively performing arts scene almost guarantees you’ll be able to catch a show of some kind during your stay. This is where Floridian locals go on vacation, so don’t tell them we let the cat out of the bag.
Our Pick for an Amelia Island Hotel: Elizabeth Pointe Lodge
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