5 Small U.S. islands with unmistakable charm

Lauren Hill

Senior Contributor

From New England to Washington and California, coastal areas of the United States altogether encompass many thousands of small islands worth seeking out. Some of these have become popular retreats for both local and international travellers and known globally for their natural riches, unique history and unmistakable charm.

Amelia Island, Florida

Displaying wealth of natural beauty and history, Amelia Island continually inspires. The popular island is a part of the Sea Islands, a chain of barrier islands on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Outside of the main hub, Fernandina Beach, the island offers wide-open space, miles of quiet beaches and an environment of rivers, greenways and marshes home to wildlife, birdlife and marine creatures. Spend your time here exploring the historic district of Fernando Beach where independent shops stretch along the harbour-front, dine on local seafood and farm-to-table fare in the district’s restaurants, and get involved in outdoor activities like e-bike tours, guided hikes, golf, kayaking and sailing. You can arrange a private nature tour, ride along the beach on horseback and visit the heritage-rich Amelia Island Lighthouse. The diverse offering of accommodation here includes The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, which sits right on the beachfront.

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

With its harbour towns, lighthouses and white sands beaches, Martha’s Vineyard has long been a popular U.S. retreat. The New England island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts attracts people year-round for cultural events, fresh seafood and time spent enjoying the appealing coast. Hiking trails wind through wetlands, along coastline and into Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, with areas for fishing, cycling, picnicking, swimming and horseback riding and sites such as Edgartown Harbor Lighthouse. While you’re here, visit the town of Oak Bluffs on the island’s north-eastern shore to relax on its sandy beaches, see the National Historic Landmark gingerbread cottages, hire a kayak or paddleboard and step into its many celebrated restaurants and bars. With access to the sea and an abundance of farmland, local produce is bountiful. Stop by a farmer’s market and tuck into local specialties like fresh fried oysters and chowder.

Orcas Island, Washington

The largest of the San Juan Islands, which are located in the northwestern corner of Washington state, Orca Island combines forested landscape and opportunities to get out into the great outdoors with historic sites, a thriving art scene and dining experience defined by local ingredients from land and sea. The horseshoe shaped island is crisscrossed with roads and trails leading through the rural hilly landscape and forest to sites like the summit of Mount Constitution—the highest point in the San Juan Islands—along with areas of wilderness including the 5,252-acre Moran State Park and artist studios of Orca Island’s main village Eastsound and creative community Olga. Local operators offer bicycle rental, horseback rides and kayak trips, as well as fishing, whale-watching tours, which go from Deer Harbor Marina, and sailboat charter. To get to know the story of this island’s past, you can pay a visit to Orcas Island Historical Museum. 

Santa Catalina Island, California

Santa Catalina, also known as Catalina Island, is one of California’s Channel Islands, positioned to the southwest of Los Angeles. The enticing island pairs rugged interiors, in which the highest peak Mount Orizaba reaches an altitude of 639 metres, a coastline that rises dramatically from the ocean and beaches surrounding the resort town of Avalon and coastal community, Two Harbors. Visitors peruse Avalon’s oceanfront shops, dine on the island cuisine, hike trails leading to inlets and harbours and get out onto the water by sailing boat or kayak to see seals, dolphins and sea lions. You can take a jeep tour of Catalina Island Conservancy, take a mini-submarine tour of Avalon Harbor and opt to snorkel or scuba dive in the surrounding waters. The five islands that Santa Catalina is a part of make up California’s Channel Islands National Park. Known as the ‘Galapagos of North America’, this is an area of natural riches encompassing plentiful wildlife and endemic plants.

Nantucket, Massachusetts

Dune backed beaches, wharves, lighthouses and cedar shingled buildings characterise Nantucket. This small island off Cape Cod in Massachusetts tells the story of its past as a 19th whaling hub, with heritage architecture that makes the town of Nantucket a National Historic District, mile upon mile of windswept coastline and a food scene highlighting local ingredients like the famous Nantucket Bay scallops. Walk along the town’s historic cobbled Main Street, visit landmarks like the 1746 established Brant Point Lighthouse and delve into the island’s past by stopping by the Whaling Museum. Try craft beers at the island’s only brewery, which is also a winery and distillery, Cisco Brewers for tastings tours and live music and sample some of the Atlantic island’s many restaurants serving New England classics like fried clams and lobster rolls.

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