An island getaway is a coveted vacation. And, when it comes to island getaways, a favorite among Americans is Hawaii. But the flight there takes long hours and costs hundreds of dollars even in the off-season. And when you get there, you will need lots of money to do anything. We have hesitated to go back. Besides, there are islands -- from the New England coast to the Florida Keys and the Los Angeles coast up to the Pacific Northwest -- much closer to you, each with a distinctive island charm.
1. Martha’s Vineyard
Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful alternative to Hawaii if you live in Massachusetts or the states nearby, especially during late spring, summer, and early fall. The mainland ferry dock in Wood’s Hole is just an hour and a half from Boston and the Steamship Authority ferry ride takes only 45 minutes. The island has many museums, art galleries, and unique landmarks. In fact, there are four museums right in Wood’s Hole. You may opt to go on day trips and return for more or stay for a weekend at many lodging options. You need not worry about getting around; there is a good public transportation system on the island.
Oak Bluffs is famous for the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association with its Giant Tabernacle surrounded by about 300 lovely vacation gingerbread cottages in all colors and designs. It also features four museums, including the Cottage Museum. An old scenic lighthouse is in Aquinnah. Edgartown, which has five museums, is connected via a small ferry to the small island of Chappaquiddick (where the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s car accidentally went into the water, tragically drowning his young female companion). For something more uplifting, look for the Giant Pagoda Tree in the middle of town. West Tisbury hosts the most art galleries and Falmouth has the most (nine) museums for your enjoyment, too.
2. The Outer Banks
Highway 158 cuts through North Carolina and connects to Highway 12, which runs through the Outer Banks, the Carolina barrier islands that jut out 26 miles from the coast. Depending on where you are in the state -- or Virginia -- the drive will take only about three to four hours. Best during late spring, summer, or early fall, the islands offer a lot of history and their charm rests in their unique terrain and distinctive weather. The whole family will definitely enjoy a weekend stay. Make time for kiting or even hang gliding at the 426-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It is home to the largest and tallest active sand dune in the East Coast. Movie buffs will be happy to discover the Inn at Rodanthe, where Richard Gere and Diane Lane in the movie Nights in Rodanthe, lived out their love story doomed by a hurricane.
The islands’ winds were precisely why the Wright Brothers chose Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks to attempt their historic flight. A 90-foot-high monument on Big Kill Devil Hill commemorates their feat. But this is not the only bit of history in the islands. The Lost Colony on Roanoke Island is where, in 1585, 115 pilgrims preceded those in the Jamestown Colony in Virginia (1607) and the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts (1620). Lastly, four beautiful lighthouses that were built to help maritime commerce still stand -- the Ocracoke Lighthouse (1823), Bodie Lighthouse (1846), Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (1870), and Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875). Even with all these lighthouses, so many ships sank in the waters around the Outer Banks, which are also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The Ocracoke Museum was built to remember them.
3. The Florida Keys
About 1,700 islands make up the Florida Keys, where there’s as much beach activity as Hawaii -- and much more -- year-round. To get there, you drive the Overseas Highway, a breathtaking narrow highway with water on both sides, punctuated by connecting bridges -- there are 43, with the Seven-Mile Bridge as the longest -- and sometimes patches of swaying palm trees. Only three hours from Miami, the Sunshine Key Resort and Marina on Big Pine Key, one of the islands, is a good option for even a week’s stay. The resort has blue water on all three sides, all kinds of amenities, and lots of activities. It was also cool to see key deer roaming around the property. They grow to only a third of the size of regular deer, so just about three feet tall.
In just 45 minutes, a public bus can take you from Big Pine Key to Key West, the southernmost Key. The famous Mallory Square offers great shopping. Stay until dusk for the celebration of a spectacular sunset. There’s a lot of exploring to do in Truman's Little White House, the former winter home of the nation’s 33rd president and the well-known Hemingway House and Museum. You may even dance the night away at Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favorite hangout. And there’s a unique photo-op at the Southernmost Point of the U.S., unbelievably only 90 miles from Cuba. This sub-tropical Caribbean archipelago is a definite alternative to Hawaii, especially if you are on the East Coast.
4. Catalina Island
This island, just an hour by ferry from Los Angeles, is perfect for a weekend getaway throughout the year. A hilltop tour reveals a priceless view of the harbor, which is smaller and less luxurious than the one in Monaco but has the same look of a playground of the rich. At the highest point stands the mansion of the chewing gum magnate Wrigley who was responsible for creating this island destination. There’s a Wrigley Memorial Tomb down the hill. Even the former spring training houses of the Chicago Cubs, previously owned by Wrigley, remain. Deer, which flourish since there is no predator larger than the small fox on the island, will invariably sneak upon you. In fact, deer hunting is legal on Catalina some week days.
But more than the deer, the island is known for its Old Hollywood charm. The Avalon Casino, not a gambling den, is a 140-foot-tall circular building that juts out into the harbor. The top floor houses the Ballroom with its 20,000-square-foot dance floor. The ground floor has the fabulous Catalina Theater -- which can seat 1,154 people -- where the first talking movies in the country were shown. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe used to live in pastel-colored wooden homes that are peppered across Catalina’s flats and hillsides. The Square and the commercial buildings around it are adorned with beautiful colorful tiles, reminiscent of those in Mexican, Spanish, and Portuguese towns. Finally, the small pier overlooks a busy beach with lots of water activities and is a jumping-off point for side trips to Lovers Cove.
5. Vancouver Island
The city of Victoria on Vancouver Island is less than three hours from the city of Vancouver on mainland Canada. This includes the one-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Tsawwassen south of the latter city near the U.S. border. Actually, it takes roughly the same time to reach Victoria via a ferry from downtown Seattle, Washington, as well. Of course, the island has so much more to offer beyond the city, especially during late spring, summer, or early fall, but Victoria is a definite must-experience. If you are in the Pacific Northwest, you need not go any further to have a charming weekend getaway.
The city is home to the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Its Chinese treasures are hidden in two rows of small side shops on a tiny side street called Fan Tan Alley. Right on Victoria Harbor stands the beautiful British Columbia Provincial Legislature. Yes, Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, not the big city of Vancouver. Facing the harbor across from the Legislature stands the Fairmont Empress Hotel, known for both its grandeur and its upscale afternoon tea.
The beautiful Butchart Gardens, north of the city near the ferry dock, is also a must-not-miss. It’s comprised of five sections -- the Sunken Garden, which has a different look for each season; the Rose Garden, with 250 varieties of roses; the Japanese Garden, which became my favorite; the Italian Garden, where you can dine at the exclusive restaurant near the private garden of Mrs. Butchart; and the latest addition, the Mediterranean Garden. The most beautiful garden I have ever seen, it has inspired me to extend the garden in my home.
Want to get away? Check out these 8 Reasons To Visit Idaho’s Redfish Lake, plus 10 Things To Do In Gulf Shores, Alabama On A Rainy Day.