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Five lesser-known North American islands

SmarterTravel

Ask your neighbor to name some North American islands, and you’re likely to hear a lot about Hawaii. Other friends may mention the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, or Nantucket. I doubt many people can come up with names like Cumberland Island or Isle Royale.

The U.S. coastline and the Great Lakes are dotted with islands, many of which make wonderful vacation destinations. Water-lovers can find opportunities for unique day trips and weeklong stays without carrying a passport. From remote wilderness adventures to historical and cultural opportunities and relaxing beachfront towns, North American islands offer something for everyone.

The five areas mentioned below are separated by vast distances, but they’re all part of the U.S. You may not have heard of some, but each island is worth visiting.

NEXT >> San Juan Islands, Washington

San Juan Islands, Washington

The 172 islands of the San Juan archipelago offer a sunny respite from urban Seattle life. Huddled in the rain shadow of the Olympic mountains, the islands receive half the rainfall of Seattle and average 247 days of sunshine. The three main islands—San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas—are also popular for their plentiful outdoor activities, arts and cultural offerings, and tranquil atmosphere.

Lopez is the quietest and most rural of the three islands, perfect for the overloaded person who wants to unwind. As the flattest island, it’s quite popular with bikers. San Juan is the only island with an incorporated town (Friday Harbor). From its “Whale Watch” park (officially Lime Kiln Point State Park), you might be lucky enough to spot an orca whale from shore. Historical tourism is a growing trend on the island as it’s the location of the Pig War, the last standoff between Great Britain and the U.S.

Orcas is a mix of the other islands, quieter than San Juan but less rural than Lopez. Its villages and hamlets are home to artist studios and boutiques. The hilliest island, Orcas is home to Mt. Constitution, which offers amazing views from its 2,400-foot summit. From all three islands, sea kayaking in the protected inland sea is a fun activity for novices and experts alike.

The San Juan Islands are most popular in the summer months. “People haven’t caught on that the weather is great many more months of the year,” says Robin Jacobson, public relations manager for the San Juan Islands Visitor Bureau. She says the best time to go is during the shoulder season months of May, June, September, and October. The weather is wonderful, and the islands aren’t overrun with crowds. Winter, of course, is the cheapest time to visit.

Visitors can access the San Juan Islands by plane or ferry. Jacobson offers an insider’s money-saving tip about ferry tickets. The Washington State Ferry, which runs from Anacortes on the mainland, only collects fares on westward trips. If you wish to visit multiple islands, Jacobson recommends that you buy your ticket to San Juan Island, the farthest island to the west. After visiting San Juan, travel east to Orcas and then to Lopez; these subsequent rides will be free. Travel in the opposite direction, and you’ll need to purchase a new ticket for each leg. The ferry ride in itself is part of the fun of visiting the San Juan Islands. “The ferry ride is fantastic,” says Rafael Hernandez of Seattle. “You sail through all these narrow passages between the islands. You can see seals, dolphins, and if you’re lucky, a whale. And you get nice views.”

NEXT >> Catalina Island, California

Catalina Island, California

One of California’s few offshore destinations, Catalina Island offers a slower, more laid-back way of life. “Catalina Island is California as it was 75 years ago,” says Wayne Griffin, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce. “It may be 26 miles from Los Angeles, but it’s a million miles from L.A.”

Most people head to Catalina Island for the beach, and the waters stay warm through the end of October. Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular because the water is extremely clear, with 30 to 40 feet of visibility. A truly Catalina experience is to take a ride on a glass-bottom boat (they were invented here) or a semi-submersible submarine to view the marine life. The island also offers great hiking opportunities—88 percent of the island is a nature conservancy.

The island is the most crowded in the summer and on weekends throughout the year. You can find lodging for every taste and budget. For an intimate experience, most of the B&Bs have six rooms or fewer. Or, if you want a splurge, the Inn on Mt. Ada is a former Wrigley residence and Mobil four-star hotel. Rates range from $320 to $560 off-peak and $360 to $675 at peak times. You can ferry to the island from several ports along the southern California coast. Long Beach is the largest of these ports, and is conveniently home to an airport as well. To arrive in style, take a helicopter from Long Beach or San Pedro.

NEXT >> Cumberland Island, Georgia

Cumberland Island, Georgia

Want to vacation like a millionaire? Then head to Georgia’s Cumberland Island. The Carnegie family bought most of the island in 1880 and built several mansions there. You can still stay in one of their homes, Greyfield, and tour the ruins of another. “At one time 20 percent of the world’s wealth wintered on Georgia’s coast,” says Dan Rowe, Georgia’s deputy commissioner of tourism. Cumberland Island is also where John F. Kennedy Jr. got married in the historic First African Baptist Church.

But you don’t need to be rich to enjoy this national seashore. You can camp on the island for $4 a person, far less money than you’d pay for a room at Greyfield (the only indoor lodging available). The uncrowded beach is the main attraction, where visitors will find excellent shelling, as well as swimming and sunbathing. Summertime finds sea turtles nesting and eggs hatching on the beach. The mild winters are the prime time for birders, as Cumberland Island is home to over 355 species of birds.

The ferry to Cumberland Island departs from St. Mary’s, which is 30 minutes away from Jacksonville, Florida, and an hour and a half from Savannah. Once the ferry leaves, the campers and Greyfield Inn guests have the island to themselves. If you’re camping, you’ll have to bring in your own supplies, as Greyfield’s restaurant serves only its guests. For an upscale experience at Greyfield Inn, book early; the hotel has only 11 rooms, which cost from $350 to $575. Rowe also recommends that you try to time your stay with one of the hotel’s oyster roasts.

NEXT >> Chincoteague and Assateague, Virginia

Chincoteague and Assateague, Virginia

Any child who’s read the Misty of Chincoteague novels knows that Chincoteague and Assateague are famous for their wild horses. The animals live in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is actually on Assateague. And every year in the last week of July, the ponies swim across to Chincoteague during the annual Pony Swim and Auction.

But the sister islands have more to offer than just ponies. Chincoteague’s beaches and small-town atmosphere draw families during the summer months. Couples often come in the spring and fall for bird-watching or to bike and hike through Assateague’s unspoiled beauy. Michele Black of Falls Church, Virginia, prefers to visit off-season because it’s quieter. She likes to take walks and look for wildlife. “The waterfowl come through in the fall in enormous numbers,” she says. “Seeing 50,000 snow geese take off at once is just spectacular.”

Chincoteague and Assateague are accessible by bridges from the mainland. The closest major airports are Norfolk (1.5 hours away) and Baltimore (3.5 hours away). You’ll find a range of accommodations from chain hotels to B&Bs and vacation rentals. The rental homes are a great deal if you’re traveling in a group.

NEXT >> Isle Royale, Michigan

Isle Royale, Michigan

Isle Royale is located in Lake Superior and operated as a national park. Its remote wilderness calls to hikers, backpackers, kayakers, and canoers. Wildlife enthusiasts are likely to see moose, wolves, bald eagles, and osprey. The faint-of-heart should stick to the Michigan mainland.

“It’s like being in a foreign place,” says Josh Rogin of Washington, D.C., who had never heard of Isle Royale until a friend took him one summer during college. During a two-week backpacking trip, their group hiked past inland marshes, over rocky hills, and past gushing waterfalls. “We could go long periods of time hiking without seeing another human,” he says, even though he was traveling during the August high season.

The island has 36 campgrounds, some of which are convenient to docks and lakeshores for boaters. If you don’t care to rough it or want a nice bed to end your stay, the Rock Harbor Lodge offers the only noncamping accommodations on the island. Prices are cheaper outside of the peak season of July 15 to August 15 ($193 to $302 compared with $215 to $323), and include half-day use of a canoe.

Isle Royale is only open to visitors from April 16 through November 1. Even in the peak season, it’s not crowded—fewer than 20,000 people visit the island each year. Four ferries and one seaplane provide transportation to the island. The Park Service’s ferry out of Houghton, Michigan, does the crossing in six hours; a private ferry out of Copper Harbor, Michigan, takes about three hours. The other two leave from Grand Portage, Minnesota. The closest major airports are Chicago and Minneapolis, and Northwest offers service to the nearest airport in Hancock, Michigan.

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