The Island Life

Living on "Island Time" in America's Diverse Islands Means More Than Just Sand and Surf
By Rebecca Davis

Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take you to... Mackinac Island? That's right, folks, there is an island in Michigan with not a palm tree or Mai Tai in sight. The Beach Boys may not have sung about them, but there are islands of note throughout the United States, with rich histories, secluded beaches, and the rich communities borne of island living. A touch of isolation helps these special spots maintain a sense of tradition and heritage, from Caribbean Romanticism to a reverence for natural beauty. And it's all a bit simpler to achieve when the world can only reach you by ferry twice a day. So ferry along with us to nine of the States' island dreams:

1. Nantucket, Massachusetts
With its weathered gray shingles and cobblestone streets, this village was not always a vacation spot for wealthy Americans. The entire island is a National Historic Landmark Nantucket town, the center of most island activity, echoes with whaling lore, from numerous historic homes of famous sea captains to the Whaling Museum, housed in the old spermaceti factory. The two-hour ride from the mainland points to the sea as the key player in its present as well. It may not get the celebrity spotlight of its neighbor, Martha's Vineyard, but that just adds to Nantucket's charm.

2. The Sea Islands, Georgia and South Carolina

A uniquely diverse group of islands off of the eastern coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, the Sea Islands are home to boneyard beaches littered with driftwood and shells, and rambling plantations surrounded by former cotton fields. While some of these fields have turned into sand traps and tightly shorn greens (Hilton Head boasts more than forty golf courses), others rumble with pigs feet (wild pigs and donkeys roam through Ossabaw island). But common to all of the Sea Islands is a feeling of being distinctly Southern, from the gentility of the plantations to the foot-stomping Bluegrass Festival, to the many vestiges of Gullah culture created by the former plantation slaves.

3. Florida Keys
There is romanticism and allure to the Florida Keys, that certain something that attracted the likes of President Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway, and today's artistic types. From its swashbuckling history to balmy evening breezes, this island chain is the most authentic version of the tropics in the continental United States. But go beyond the trendy tip of Key West to find various other treasures, left by pirates, smugglers, and buccaneers in a smattering of shipwrecks. One special spot in Key Largo affords some of the best diving and snorkeling in the region. Beyond the mangrove swamps into the aqua waters of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, divers explore underwater caves and the natural playground of Molasses Reef. But don’t feel threatened by the multitudes of exotic fish you will encounter. After all, you’re bigger than they are…or are you?

4. San Juan Islands, Washington
The best feature of the San Juan Islands also centers on the water, but shipwrecks and coral reefs are not the draw here on the northern coast of Washington State. With more than 172 choices, there is isolation aplenty, though the four more developed islands are expanding every day. The orcas are one of the island’s main attractions (usually the whale-watching begins while still on the ferry). By land, the whales are visible from Lime Kiln Point State Park, where bald eagles compete for the natural spotlight. Sea-kayak between the islands for the true experience. You might absorb some of the reverence most San Juan Islanders have towards their home—an almost spiritual love of the land.

5. Mackinac Island, Michigan
Once visitors have stepped foot on Mackinac Island, they are transported back to the turn of another century, an era before high technology intruded. No cars are allowed on this small spit of land; transportation is by foot, bike, or horse-drawn carriage. Along with the Victorian ambience, drink in the influence of Native American culture and the early settlers in the demonstrations and reenactments of early American life that take place in the island’s four historical parks. (And don't miss one of the world's largest suspension bridges close by.)

6. Tangier Island, Virginia
The Chesapeake Bay still has the real deal: the watermen who still throw over the cages hoping those blue crabs will sidle in and make them a living. You can see them in action on the mainland of Maryland’s Eastern Shore at Crisfield, with its award-winning crab pickers and even better eatin'. But take a journey into the heart of the Bay and find Tangier Island, a place so enamored of its own traditions that it turned Paul Newman down when he wanted to make a movie there. With descendants of a handful of families still populating the narrow streets (they get around on golf carts), and wives, sons, and daughters still carrying on the crabbing and oystering business, you'll find friendly types everywhere you look...if you don't plan to stay too long.

7., 8., and 9. Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam
We know that no list of U.S. islands is even near complete without our true island paradises at least noted. Puerto Rico sometimes gets short shrift when it competes with its Caribbean neighbors, but has a host of charms all its own, such as our only indigenous tropical rainforest.

Guam made its presence known as a wartime outpost, and there is still an active military presence on the island. However, this does not diminish Guam’s natural beauty, with abundant coral reefs and exotic wildlife. If you want to see endangered species of turtles or dive off of 350 foot cliffs into an underwater cave, then this is the place to go.

Hawaii seems almost trite as an island retreat, now that so much is athrong with tourists from both sides of the Pacific. But hike just a while off Maui's Hana Road, or down the slopes of Haleakala, or venture onto the smoking volcano plains of the Big Island, or follow the gray whales off the channel, and you can still discover the paradise the Polynesians found when they landed.

And if you stay around long enough, you may just be there for the birth of the country's newest island, bubbling up off the ocean floor as we speak.

Published: 2 Aug 2000 | Last Updated: 3 Feb 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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