An island vacation is often the best vacation, precisely because the manner in which islands are often cut off from the mainland really gives off that vibe of being a world away from home. While your island bucket list is probably filled with gorgeous and popular destinations filled with award-winning all-inclusive resorts, Michelin-starred restaurants, and world-class beaches, sometimes it’s good to just focus on the kind of island that really can take you away from modern-day life.
The smaller the island, the less it tends to have been a focus for modern development and the tourist hordes. As a result, we’ve found that the natural beauty or historic buildings — churches, mansions, castles, homes — of such islands are relatively well-preserved. Land cheap tickets to a relatively unknown and tiny destination and chances are you’ve landed yourself a getaway with an old-school vibe, free of modern trappings such as constant Wi-Fi connectivity, crowded (and high-stress) tourist trap restaurants, and sometimes even automobiles. For a truly relaxing vacation where you can unplug and unwind without all the noise and crowds of other more popular destinations, consider a trip to one of these tiny islands where you can step back in time.
Named for Princess Amelia, daughter of King George II of Great Britain, Amelia Island is a tiny patch of land — only 13 miles long and a mere 4 miles across at its widest point — off the coast of northeastern Florida. Eight different flags have flown over the island, making it one of Florida’s most historic destinations, and a museum of history on the island chronicles that long history filled with the legacy of the Timucuan Indians, Spanish missionaries, and the local history of the Civil War. With excellent weather all year round, Amelia Island has much to offer for lovers of boating, fishing, golfing, and even theater, making it one of the best American spots for a weekend getaway.
With 365 beaches, Antigua and Barbuda offers affordable photo opportunities for every day of the year. If you’re not feeling up for a swim, the island also has colorful architecture and ruins of forts left behind by the British. Antigua and Barbuda is also much more affordable than most other European-influenced islands in the Caribbean. Summer is the low season in the Caribbean, so it’s the best time to get a great hotel deal or have a beach all to yourself. Make sure to make a visit to Shirley Heights Lookout, a historic hilltop military complex with stunning views and a restaurant and bar known for its Sunday Barbecue party, at which live music and delicious food are featured every week.
The Aran Islands are a group of three islands located off the western coast of Ireland in the mouth of the Galway Bay with a total area of approximately 18 square miles. Gaelic is the primary language of the islands’ approximately 1,200 residents, and they are home to 38 national monuments as well as many historical attractions from the Bronze Age and Iron Age, making this a great spot for traditional Irish culture and history.
You may recognize the name Avery Island, although from an unlikely source — a bottle of Tabasco sauce. The island (which is actually a salt dome) is home to the famous condiment, and you’ll still find a factory there, although that’s not the only reason to visit. Located three miles inland from Louisiana’s Vermilion Bay, it’s also home to a bird sanctuary and numerous exotic plants, thanks to the Avery family it was named after (and whom you have to thank for the Tabasco).
Located off the coast of Rhode Island, Block Island is a destination known for being the perfect place for a getaway full of beaches, fishing, sailing, hiking, and biking. Tourists that do come here usually do so in the summer, but it’s a great beach town to visit in the fall as well. Accessible only by boat or small plane, nearly half of the island is conservation land, meaning this spot feels untouched by modern society and is sure to stay beautiful for years to come.
Located just a few miles off the coast of the Italian mainland, Capri is an island getaway known for its scenic beauty and Mediterranean climate. Rich in both history and beauty, it’s especially popular in the summer, with many hotels already booking up entirely. Tickets aren’t cheap, but it’s worth the price tag considering the island’s historic villas and other architecture.
One of the Sea Islands off the coast of the southeastern United States, Cumberland Island is a small isle that can be reached by ferry from St. Marys, Georgia. Here you’ll find salt marshes and oak trees, as well as 17 miles of beach. Famous for the wild horses that call the island home, it’s also the habitat of white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons, squirrels, alligators, and wild boars.
Part of our island bucket list, Rapa Nui, or Easter Island as it’s popularly known around the world, is located in the Southern Hemisphere. Enjoy the famous moai, the large-headed stone figures that populate the island and have garnered much debate as to their origins and purpose, as well as Anakena Beach, one of the best beaches in the world.
Before taking a ferry to Great Blasket, the principal island of the uninhabited Blasket Islands off the southwestern coast of Ireland, visit the Great Blasket Centre in Dunquin, where you can learn about the people who once lived there and their strong Gaelic traditions and literary legacy that produced many Irish classics. Until 1953, the Blasket Islands were populated by a community that spoke primarily Gaelic, but residents had to be evacuated after a resident passed away with no access to a doctor or priest. Anthropologists and linguists have found a lot of interest in this community’s history and the legacy they left behind, and as do tourists visiting this magical Irish spot.
Technically part of the town of Alexandria, Heart Island is one of the Thousand Islands and lies on the Saint Lawrence River in New York. The already lush and beautiful spot is made more beautiful by Boldt Castle, an unfinished castle with a rather heartbreaking story. In 1900, millionaire George Boldt hired architects and workers so that he could build a castle for his wife, complete with six stories, 120 rooms, gardens, tunnels, a drawbridge, children’s playhouse, and more. When his wife suddenly died in 1904, Boldt had all construction immediately stopped and left the castle as a testament to his love for her, never returning to Heart Island again.
Just off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Isla Holbox is an island northwest of Cancun free of cars and full of gorgeous beaches with amazing marine creatures such as whale sharks and sea turtles. You’ll also find all manner of exotic birds here in addition to flamingos and pelicans. The streets themselves are made of white sand, and because so few outsiders come to the island, it’s a relatively untouched paradise that’s also quite affordable.
Lying right off the coast of Georgia, Jekyll Island is a beautiful subtropical getaway that’s part of the Sea Islands located along the coast of the southeastern United States. The best place to stay on the island — indeed, in the state — is Jekyll Island Club Resort, which has been around since 1888 when it started out as a retreat for America’s wealthiest. Lounge at the resort pool all day, and gather around the fire pit for s’mores at night. The resort also continues one of the traditions it’s had since its opening with a croquet lawn where you can try your hand at the popular nineteenth-century game. Cyclists will especially love it here; Jekyll Island has 20 miles of bike paths and the resort’s Jekyll Wheels program allows you to rent tandem bikes, mountain bikes, beach cruisers, and more.
Pronounced “MAK-i-naw,” Macinac Island is the hidden gem of Michigan with its Victorian charm and fun activities for the entire family. The island is a three-in-one destination: You can visit Active Mackinac for a more outdoorsy time with biking, hiking, horse-riding, and paddling; Grand Mackinac for a more upper-class experience at the Grand Hotel resort; or Fudgie Mackinac to indulge your sweet tooth with the island’s famous fudge amid historic and shopping sites. Tours of the island are available on foot, bike, or even via kayak or stand-up paddle board, both of which are available for rentals. We also recommend bringing your own bicycle; Mackinac is known for its island-wide motor vehicle ban.
This island destination 1,200 miles southeast off the African coast is often overlooked despite the unique mix of cultures that sets it apart from other beach-laden, biodiverse paradises. This may no longer be the case in the coming years as multiple airlines have begun servicing Mauritius. Just in time, too, as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence in 2018 with festivals and all sorts of cultural and historical exhibitions. Mauritius’ rich history is also reflected in its melting-pot cuisine, with strong Indian, Creole, Chinese, and French flavors, and the country’s many festivals, including Diwali in October and the Festival International Kréol in November. Nature lovers will be enthralled by the many different species of animals and plants as well as the chance to take on the waters with watersports and explore the surrounding volcanic mountains.
The island of Nantucket is just 3.5 miles wide by 14 miles long, but its beauty and idyllic vibe have long attracted upper-class Americans and celebrities as well as the average Joe. Nantucket is extremely green-conscious, so all visitors must follow the island’s well-established recycling system. This Massachusetts town is so pretty largely thanks to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, which preserves 36 percent of the island, as well as local wildlife. The marine life of Nantucket can be seen at the local aquarium — and eaten at fantastic seafood restaurants such as the Nantucket Lobster Trap. Nantucket is also an extremely safe destination, and families have been known to allow their children to wander on their own.
Cape Town is one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world, and a visit there has to include a visit to Robben Island just about four miles off the coast. Learn about the country’s apartheid history at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters were once held prisoner. Three of South Africa’s presidents were former inmates of Robben Island which is a National Heritage Site in South Africa as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tours, which take about three and a half hours, depart about three times a day from Cape Town, and include a tour of the various historical sites there that make up the Robben Island Museum, including the army and navy bunkers, island graveyard, and historic quarries in addition to the famous prison.
Commonly referred to as simply Catalina Island, this group of islands is 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, technically a part of Los Angeles County. The most underrated destination in all of California, Catalina Island feels like a breath of fresh air way from modern life and touristy site, with no chain restaurants and a famous, grand-looking casino that’s been around since 1928. Both snorkeling and scuba diving are popular endeavors on Catalina Island, and Sea Trek is a diving experience where even beginner swimmers can wear high-tech diving helmets for an underwater guided walking tour. If that’s too daunting, there are plenty of glass-bottom boat and semi-submarine rides as well. If you’re interested in a tour of the wildlife and history on land, there’s also a zip line eco tour available.
Having already made a noteworthy appearance in the Star Wars films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Skellig Michael has recently achieved a degree of celebrity it already should have had worldwide. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, the top of the island hosts an ancient Christian monastery which has been there since sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries. Six hundred stairs over 1,000 years old lead to the top of the island in a steep and very slippery climb without hand or side rails of any kind.
St. Ives is a quaint coastal town in the southwestern English countryside of Cornwall, known for its beautiful views as well as the arts scene that has thrived here since the 1920s. Despite being a pretty low-key vacation spot, we found that some hotels have already sold out for the summer. Explore the crafts shops and art galleries in town, as well as lovely beaches.
The center of one of 2017’s biggest travel controversies when the city banned cruise ships, Venice is made up of 118 islands and 400 bridges. Take an iconic gondola ride through this Italian architectural paradise that looks much the same as it did 600 years ago. We suggest a trip sooner rather than later, however, as the beautiful city’s wooden foundations are sinking thanks to time and climate change, and it may one of many famous places in danger of disappearing by the end of the century.
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