By: Timothy Jacob
Nothing signifies getting away from it all quite like an island visit. Whether it requires a five-hour ferry ride or a quick trip over a causeway, the very act of separating from the mainland is also a separation from the everyday and an invitation to explore. We’ve gathered together our favorites—both classic destinations and little-known treasures—in the continental U.S. and Canada (plus a few in Europe for good measure). All offer the possibility of an idyllic summer retreat distinguished by natural beauty, alluring beaches, historic charm, and above all, the chance to recharge.
Untouched swaths of wilderness and whale-dotted waters mark these escapes, where being in direct communion with the landscape is as simple as walking out the door.
VANCOUVER ISLAND, BRITISH COLUMBIA
The 12,400 square miles of wilderness here offer plenty of places to get lost among the thick groves of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir. The village of Tofino, on the island’s western coast, is the perfect base for exploring the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a gathering ground for bald eagles, black bears, and whales. For the ultimate in deluxe adventure, stay at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort (from $4,690/three nights all-inclusive, includes roundtrip floatplane, all meals, guided activities, and spa treatments; wildretreat.com), where guests bunk in luxury tents in the middle of a breathtaking river valley. Getting There: Take a ferry from Vancouver or Powell River, British Columbia; Seattle, Bellingham, Port Angeles, or Anacortes, Wash.; or fly to Victoria International Airport from major U.S. cities.
MAGDALEN ISLANDS, QUEBEC
The Magdalens—in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence—are so remote that many of the inhabitants descend from people who were originally shipwrecked here in the early 19th century. These days, the 13,000 residents live in a handful of small towns, leaving plenty of room for rolling hills speckled with wild-flowers and country lanes. The main entry point is the ferry port on Cap-aux-Meules, from which the 50-mile Route 199 branches out to the tips of the archipelago. The 1,700-acre East Point National Wildlife Reserve provides a sanctuary for egrets and kingfishers, while red sandstone makes for spectacular cliffs best viewed via sea kayak. Domaine du Vieux Couvent (from $124/night; domaineduvieuxcouvent.com), a former convent on a seaside bluff, is an elegant retreat. Getting There: Take the ferry from Prince Edward Island or fly from Montreal to the Magdalen island of Havre aux Maisons.
CHANNEL ISLANDS, CALIFORNIA
Just 45 minutes from Santa Barbara, these islands are often considered the Galápagos of North America, thanks to the abundance of native species like the island fox and the island night lizard. Wildflower-filled canyons, secluded beaches, and remnants of a 13,000-year-old native culture are just some of the highlights. Every effort is made to conserve the islands’ pristine conditions, so visitors must bring in everything they need, even drinking water. Each island has a campground ($15/night; nps.gov/chis), some of which overlook the Santa Barbara Channel, home to many whale and dolphin species. Getting There: Take a ferry from Ventura or Santa Barbara, or fly from Camarillo to Santa Rosa Island, Calif.
ORCAS, SAN JUAN ISLANDS, WASHINGTON
The best place to view Orcas’s fjordlike central harbor is from the 2,400-foot summit of Mount Constitution (the highest point in the San Juans). You’ll hike past waterfalls and lakes to Douglas fir–lined ridges, and, with luck and binoculars, spot a passing pod of the island’s namesake mammal. The rugged shoreline, with countless inlets and pebbly beaches, is enticing for kayakers and hikers alike. Check into the Outlook Inn (from $64/night; outlookinn.com), a blend of 19th-century bed-and-breakfast rooms and modern suites with patios and window seats overlooking the tranquil expanses of East Sound. Getting There: Take the popular Washington State ferry from Anacortes (1.5 hours north of Seattle), or fly from Seattle via floatplane or airplane.
GULF ISLANDS, BRITISH COLUMBIA
The six main islands at the southern end of this archipelago are usually overlooked stops on the ferry route between Vancouver (on the mainland) and Victoria (on the southern tip of Vancouver Island). But these conifer-studded retreats—picking up where the northernmost San Juan Islands leave off and filling the Strait of Georgia with secluded coves, sandstone cliffs, and densely forested ridges—are worth the detour and are ripe for exploration. Disembark at Sturdies Bay, on Galiano Island, and hike to the top of Mount Galiano for panoramic views of mist-shrouded old-growth forests, tidal lagoons, and passing pods of whales that patrol the placid straits between islands. Beneath the surf, divers in dry suits swim among sea anemones, six-gill sharks, giant Pacific octopuses, and well-preserved wrecks, while circling kayakers wait until midnight to stir up pools of phosphorescence with their paddles. Head toward the northern tip of the island, where the lone cabin of Hidden Ridge B&B (from $130/night; hiddenridgegaliano.com) is an enclosed, single-room gazebo with French doors leading to a patio high above the sea. Getting There: Take a ferry from Tsawwassen (40 minutes south of Vancouver), or a floatplane from Vancouver.
Blessed by pristine beaches, these islands require little more than a swimsuit, a towel, and some shades for full enjoyment.
CUMBERLAND ISLAND, GEORGIA
This protected National Seashore has been an in-demand getaway since the late 19th century, when the Carnegies used it as a family retreat. In the 1970s, the civic-minded family fought to protect the powder-smooth sand from high-rise developments, making it possible for beachcombers to enjoy the wild horses, armadillos, and sea turtles that call the island home. These days, the National Park Service limits the number of day visitors and campers, but if you stay at the luxurious Greyfield Inn (from $395/night; greyfieldinn.com)—built in 1900 by the Carnegies—you’ll get unlimited access to a 1,000-foot-wide band of sand that stretches for miles. Getting There: Take the ferry from St. Marys, Ga. (reservations at nps.gov/cuis), or, if staying at the Greyfield, arrive via water taxi from neighboring Amelia Island.
MARTHA'S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSETTS
Long a haven for the Northeast’s creative elite, from Walter Cronkite to Carly Simon, the unique blend of rustic-cosmopolitanism here more recently attracted the likes of the Clintons, who upped the island’s renown when they visited during Bill’s presidency. The island’s high-profile fans are attracted to the stunning beaches and charming villages, but anyone can enjoy the uniquely New England brand of glamour. The Winnetu Oceanside Resort (from $230/night; winnetu.com), with its beachside cottages and kid-friendly activities, is perfect for families. Getting There: Take a ferry from Woods Hole or Hyannis, Mass.; Falmouth, Maine; New Bedford, Conn.; or North Kingstown, R.I., or fly from major New England cities.
GRAND MANAN, NEW BRUNSWICK
The Bay of Fundy, which separates Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, creates tides that rise and fall as much as 55 feet twice a day around Grand Manan, resulting in a shoreline that’s rarely the same from one hour to the next. Bring a chair, a camera, and patience to Deep Cove Beach, where the seawater will inch up your ankles, only to recede again, revealing tidal pools. Offshore, finback whales swim and farmers harvest dulse (a prized, edible seaweed). Author Willa Cather spent many summers in Whale Cove, and The Inn at Whale Cove (from $120/night; holidayjunction.com/whalecove) still maintains the cottage where she stayed. Getting There: Take the ferry from Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick.
AMELIA ISLAND, FLORIDA
Eight national flags have flown over Amelia Island since the 16th century, but the prize has always been the same: immaculate beaches spotted with starfish, nesting turtles, and migrating birds. The soft, white sand that covers its 13 miles of shoreline is separated from the main village of Fernandina Beach by 40-foot sand dunes. For the full flavor of the pristine landscape, stay at the Amelia Island Plantation (from $179/night; aipfl.com), a 1,350-acre resort eco-sensitively built around the island’s signature live oak groves, tidal marshes, and sand dunes. Getting There: Drive 30 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla., and cross a short bridge onto the island.
Years of tradition inform every aspect of these pedigreed refuges, all inextricably linked with their island locales.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
From your vantage point on the 660-foot-long front porch, a scene straight from the 1880s unfolds: Couples promenade through rows of lilacs, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop by (cars are prohibited on the island), and a green lawn rolls down to the point where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron converge. Inside, renovated Victorian elegance abounds in 385 rooms with heirloom furniture. As the island’s meeting place for more than 120 years, tradition is paramount, so you’ll be served tea in much the same way it was presented to guest Mark Twain in 1895 (from $225/night per person; grandhotel.com). Getting There: Take the ferry from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City, Mich.
SPRING HOUSE HOTEL
Block Island, Rhode Island
The cupola-accented roofline and oceanfront lawn here have been the backdrop for Kennedy weddings, but 156 years of ocean-frolicking guests attest to an easy atmosphere that’s in line with the island’s laid-back vibe. Despite renovations, the 33 TV-free, fan-cooled rooms in the main building have retained their original, uneven floors, a show of character typical of the Spring House. The hotel’s welcoming attitude is best seen at the annual summer concert series that draws thousands to the front lawn (from $250/night; springhousehotel.com). Getting There: Take a ferry from Point Judith or Newport, R.I., or from Montauk, Long Island.
JEKYLL ISLAND CLUB
Jekyll Island, Georgia
It may be the smallest of Georgia’s barrier islands, but what Jekyll Island lacks in size it more than makes up for in grandeur. Pulitzers, Astors, and Rockefellers docked their yachts here throughout the early 1900s, and while the Club’s guest roster today is decidedly more inclusive, a game of croquet and high tea on the 240-acre estate is still on the agenda. A comprehensive renovation of this National Historic Landmark’s 157 rooms in the 1980s preserved the signature turret while returning robber-baron elegance to the dining room’s impressive marble fireplaces (from $189/night; jekyllclub.com). Getting There: From Brunswick, Ga., cross a causeway to Jekyll Island.
Green Island, New York
Although it’s deep in the Adirondack Mountains, the Sagamore is a far cry from the typical wilderness lodge. Grand Colonial Revival columns reflect its fabled history as a luxurious wilderness retreat for the Philadelphia and New York elite starting in 1883. Lake George, insulated by six million acres of state park, provides the stunning backdrop for the 72-acre resort (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), which was renovated in 2002. Stay active with a round of golf or a ride on the Morgan, the Sagamore’s replica 19th-century touring boat (from $239/night; thesagamore.com). Getting There: From Bolton Landing, N.Y., cross a bridge onto Green Island.
The vivid past is never too far away at these outposts, an atmospheric bunch rife with legends, artifacts, and customs.
Nothing less than the former whaling capital of the world could pack as much historical punch as Nantucket. Narrow cobblestone streets wind past rows of lovingly maintained buildings, from the clapboard homes of former sea captains (in one of 12 “approved” colors) to boutiques and galleries housed in pre–Civil War structures. At the Whaling Museum, which occupies a former candle factory, examine the skeleton of a sperm whale and intricate scrimshaw carvings. After a day at the beach (they’re all accessible to the public on Nantucket), relax at The White Elephant (from $600/night; whiteelephanthotel.com), a 53-room harborside landmark that has been setting the standard for Nantucket elegance since the 1920s. Getting There: Take a ferry from Hyannis, Mass., or fly from most major New England cities.
NAGS HEAD, NORTH CAROLINA
Legend has it that Blackbeard roamed the waters off Nags Head, and pirates walked the beach at night with lanterns, causing countless ships to run aground. In the 1800s, locals salvaged lumber from these shipwrecks and built Queen Anne–style cottages (nine of which still stand). By 1903, the buzz of the Wright Brothers’ airplane engines at Kitty Hawk (five miles north of Nags Head) sparked an influx of visitors to the island’s great beaches. The 1930s-era First Colony Inn (from $159/night; firstcolonyinn.com) boasts prime beachfront. Getting There: Drive 80 miles south from Norfolk, Va., and cross the Wright Memorial Bridge into Kitty Hawk.
CATALINA ISLAND, CALIFORNIA
This storied outpost has played host to everyone from Spanish missionaries to Hollywood golden age royalty to William Wrigley Jr., who bought the island in 1919 and then built a replica Wrigley Field where his Chicago Cubs could train in spring. Catalina’s rugged interior, where buffalo and wild boar roam, contrasts with the main harbor town of Avalon, where a cylindrical Art Deco casino perches on the harbor’s lip and golf carts are the preferred mode of transport. The refined Hotel Metropole (from $199/night; hotel-metropole.com) offers oceanside-chic interiors and water views. Getting There: Take a ferry from Long Beach, Newport Beach, Marina del Rey, San Pedro, or Dana Point, or take a helicopter from San Pedro or Long Beach, Calif.
If you’re in Europe, hop over to one of these favorites for an age-old take on island life.
Greece’s largest island, ringed by 650 miles of coastline (including black sand beaches along the southern coast) is also home to a monastery-dotted, mountainous interior that is decades behind the coastline in terms of development. Hike into the deep ravines of the Samaria Gorge, climb past Minoan ruins at Knossos to the summit of Zeus’ Mount Ida, or explore one of the spiraling cave systems that burrow into the mountains for a true taste of Crete’s diverse landscape. Recuperate from trekking near the northern city of Chania at the Ammos Hotel (from $185/night; ammoshotel.com), a minimalist-chic beach resort. Getting There: Ample direct flights leave for Chania from major European cities, or take an overnight ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens.
There’s nothing quite like the Mediterranean sun, especially when it’s shining on Zlatni Rat (The Golden Horn), a 580-yard sand peninsula bordering the shimmering Adriatic Sea. Near the port of Bol, Zlatni Rat is well loved by Croatians, which is quite a feat given that Brac is just one of about 140 islands in the Kornati chain, and one of more than 1,000 breathtaking islands along the Dalmatian Coast. Sunbathers and windsurfers flock to Brac via a ferry from Split, and coarse, granular sands hold umbrellas in place before a backdrop of lush forest and towering limestone mountains. Reserve a waterfront room at the Hotel Kastil (from $90/night; kastil.hr) along Bol’s harbor, and you'll never be far from the nightlife or the sea. Getting There: Take a catamaran or hydrofoil from Split (on the mainland) to Bol (on Brac’s southern shore).
HOTEL CAESAR AUGUSTUS, CAPRI
Even on a notoriously high-profile Italian island like Capri, this cliffside hotel is in a league of its own. The Roman-style villa was home to a German financier in the 1850s and was later owned by a Russian prince before opening as a refuge for travelers in the late 1940s. Suites boasting arched stone doorways and private terraces are coveted by royalty, but the best architectural details can’t compete with views of Mount Vesuvius. If you can tear yourself away from the infinity pool, the rest of this über-glam island awaits (from $680/night; caesar-augustus.com). Getting There: Take a ferry or jetfoil from Sorrento, Naples, or from other ports along the Amalfi coast.
It’s no surprise that Napoleon’s birthplace has an independent streak. Though politically linked to France, Corsica's turbulent histories with both France and Italy have led Corsicans to embrace their own fascinating culture, including their distinctive dialect, Chjam’ è Rispondi. Local produce like honey and almonds are staples of the Corsican diet, and in the Mediterranean’s most mountainous island interior, blankets of wild sage, thyme, and lavender produce a delectable scent. In the capital, Ajaccio, on the southwest coast, you can tour Napoleon’s childhood home (circa 1770), and then retreat to Le Pinarello Hotel (from $470/night; lepinarello.com), set in a charming, small fishing town. Getting There: Fly to the capital of Ajaccio from most major European cities.