August 22, 2019

North America's Favorite Islands

These appealing locales, from the Gulf Coast to Great Lake-locked lands, are top-notch vacation destinations in the U.S. and Canada

By Rebecca Matheson Ortiz

Vacations Magazine: North America's Favorite Islands
John Sylvester/Tourism PEI
Prince Edward Island, where idyllic farms dot the windswept landscape, is the inspiring setting for much of Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved "Anne of Green Gables" series. It's cradled by the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and a fitting location to elicit such praise for the sea.

At just 140 miles long, Prince Edward Island is the smallest Canadian province. It's said that no spot on the isle, with its 680 miles of shoreline, is more than 10 miles from saltwater. Fans of red-headed orphan Anne Shirley can venture to the storied Green Gables Heritage Place in Cavendish, and gourmets can enjoy field-to-table dining, fresh shellfish, locally brewed beer and wine produced by island vineyards. For history buffs, the Lennox Island Mikmaq Cultural Centre explores indigenous heritage, while the Confederation Players of Charlottetown hosts guided walking tours and costumed re-enactments in PEI's capital city.

An eight-day escorted tour from Gate 1 Travel, "Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island" spends two nights in Charlottetown, with scheduled trips to the red beaches of Cavendish and a popular "Anne of Green Gables" museum. More than a dozen departures are available in 2019, with three in June (just in time for lobster season) and the last in September (as fall foliage excursions begin); prices start at $1,599.

Read on to discover seven other charming islands and archipelagos in North America.

Mackinac Island, MI
Step into simplicity on Mackinac Island, where horse-drawn carriages and nearly 1,500 bikes take the place of cars, and fudge recipes from the 19th century still reign supreme.

Found at the junction of Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas in Lake Huron, Mackinac's 3.8 square miles overflow with stunning landscapes and historic places, including two forts that played a role in the War of 1812. A charming downtown edges the waterfront, and you can browse for wares in quaint Victorian shops, sample chocolates and look out on Lake Huron from the ferry dock.

The 1887 Grand Hotel, where Mark Twain once gave lectures, overlooks the Straits of Mackinac and lures guests to the cozy rocking chairs on what is said to be the world's longest porch. After a lavish dinner at the resort, visitors can dance the night away to the swanky sounds of the Grand Hotel Orchestra.

On the eight-day "Mackinac Island" with tour provider Collette, guests spend two nights at the Grand Hotel and enjoy a horse-and-buggy tour of the island's must-see spots, like Arch Rock, a natural formation more than 50 feet wide, and the Surrey Hill Square Carriage Museum, where you can observe a working blacksmith shop and study antique carriages. Departures are available from June to October, with prices starting at $2,799; a springtime version of this itinerary also includes a celebrated tulip festival in Holland, MI, with a May departure priced from $2,849.

Vancouver Island, British Columbia
This Pacific spot is cupped between Canada's southwestern seaboard and the northwestern curve of Washington state. A mountain range runs along most of its 285-mile length, from Cape Scott Provincial Park to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. The isle boasts nearly 8 million acres of land, 2,600 farms and 2,137 miles of coastline, making it a foodie haven with fresh, locally sourced produce, dairy, meats and seafood.

Wildlife is abundant here, so keep your eyes peeled for orcas, black bears and the seals of Fisherman's Wharf in Victoria. Also in the capital, visitors enjoy tours of Craigdarroch Castle, built by a coal baron between 1887 and 1890, and the Royal British Columbia Museum, a cultural treasure that displays artifacts and specimens of the province's natural and human history, including the native works of the First Peoples Gallery.

Indulge in Vancouver Island and reserve accommodations at the Fairmont Empress, considered the Castle on the Coast, on Victoria's Inner Harbour. The hotel has served a world-famous afternoon tea since its 1908 grand opening. A $60 million dollar renovation in 2017 refreshed the Willow Stream Spa, 464 plush guest rooms and more while adding a new restaurant, Q at the Empress, that has since picked up an award for excellence from Wine Spectator.

Massachusetts barrier islands
In the Atlantic Ocean roughly 30 miles from Cape Cod, MA, glaciers carved a group of barrier islands during the last ice age. These include 50-square-mile Nantucket and 100-square-mile Martha's Vineyard -- both rose to fame during the golden age of the whaling industry -- and Cuttyhunk Island, just 2 miles long and not quite 1 mile wide.

Nantucket is celebrated for its bright cranberry bogs, picturesque lighthouses, cobblestone streets lined with 18th- and 19th-century buildings and, of course, impressive beaches. Martha's Vineyard, long known as a summer haven for the rich and famous, pours on the Colonial charm and welcomes sun seekers with pristine shores, gingerbread cottages and natural wonders such as Aquinnah's cliffs, created by an ancient ice sheet. On Cuttyhunk, visitors can unplug from technology and reconnect with nature as they revel in the beauty of the islet.

Blount Small Ship Adventures stops at Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and Cuttyhunk on its seven-day "Islands of New England" cruise. Optional tours include a 30-mile motor coach ride through Nantucket and a 2.5-hour sightseeing outing accompanied by an expert on Martha's Vineyard. Seven departures are planned from June to August, with prices from $2,009.

Santa Catalina Island, CA
One of California's Channel Islands, Santa Catalina is found in the Pacific Ocean just 22 miles from the Golden State coast. Eighty-eight percent of the 76-square-mile island is a nature reserve, and visitors can go hiking and kayaking around the town of Two Harbors to view a herd of 150 bison and more than 60 plant and animal species that only can be found here.

After purchasing a controlling interest in 1919, chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley Jr. started work on a resort destination. Catalina's Mediterranean climate offers warm afternoons and cool evenings, with an average of 267 days of sunshine a year. Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin once wined and dined on this nugget of paradise. More than 225 films, including the 1966 Doris Day hit "The Glass Bottom Boat," have been shot here since 1911.

Preserved gems await in Avalon, the isle's largest town with less than 4,000 full-time residents. Visitors can explore the 1929 art deco Catalina Casino and its historic theater alongside an expert guide, walk the flowering pathways of the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden -- home to the rare Catalina ironwood and other endemic plants -- or look into Catalina Island Conservancy projects on an eco-tour.

Venture to Catalina with Carnival Cruise Line. Sailing round trip from Long Beach, CA, the recently renovated Carnival Inspiration makes stops here and in Ensenada, Mexico. Prices begin at $169 for four nights.

The Golden Isles, GA
Four barrier isles await along Georgia's seaboard: St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Jekyll and Sea islands. As the state contains one-third of the Atlantic coast's marshland, these destinations serve as thriving habitats for marine life and a nesting place for more than 400 species of birds, including bald eagles.

St. Simons, the largest of the group, inspired poet Sidney Lanier's "The Marshes of Glynn" with its Spanish moss-draped oak trees and shores fit for a postcard. It also is home to unique boutiques, galleries, championship golf courses and the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, where you can climb 129 steps to the top of a fully functional, 147-year-old tower for panoramic views.

The 5,500-acre Jekyll Island once entertained some of the industrial age's wealthiest families, like the Rockefellers and Goulds, who purchased it in 1886 as a private getaway. Today, the 240-acre site encompassing the former Jekyll Island Club and the grand "cottages" of Millionaire's Row is a National Historic Landmark District.

Skim the Intracoastal Waterway on the eight-day "Historic South and Golden Isles" with American Cruise Lines, which stops at St. Simons for tours of 18th-century battlefields and Jekyll for a look at its lavish homes. The trip is available through early May, with additional departures in November and December, including a Christmas cruise. Fares begin at $3,995.

Galveston Island, TX
Galveston Island and its 32 miles of beaches rest in the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles southeast of Houston. Its namesake city was incorporated in 1839 and soon became the Lone Star State's largest port, but the destruction brought by a 1900 hurricane changed its course from major metropolis to laid-back beach town.

Get a feel for the past when you visit The Strand, a downtown thoroughfare, National Historic Landmark District and one of several carefully preserved spots on the island. Visitors also can tour the 1892 Bishop's Palace and catch a Broadway show at The Grand 1894 Opera House before cooling off at La King's Confectionary, where employees dispense fizzy treats from a 1920s soda fountain.

Galveston's museums include an attraction devoted to railroad history, showing off more than 40 pieces of locomotives and rolling stock as well as memorabilia and model train exhibits, and the Texas Seaport Museum, which features the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa, a fully functional three-masted sailing vessel.

Spend some time in Galveston before you set out with Royal Caribbean International on a tropical cruise. One option is a round-trip, weeklong sailing on the Liberty of the Seas with stops in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Cozumel, Mexico's isle near the Yucatan Peninsula. It departs on Sept. 15, and prices start at $449.

The Florida Keys
This chain of coral and limestone islands hooks from the Sunshine State's southeastern edge in the Atlantic to about 220 miles southwest in the Gulf of Mexico. The 113-mile Overseas Highway connects the bigger isles and mainland with 42 bridges. About 2,900 square nautical miles of the archipelago are protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Each isle has its own flair, with some of the more popular destinations being Key Largo and its fantastic diving and snorkeling; Islamorada, known as the sport-fishing capital of the world; Big Pine Key, a refuge for miniature deer; and Key West, the southernmost point of the continental U.S., with its carefree Caribbean vibes.

Key West, touting colorful, tin-roofed cottages and luxurious mansions, has charmed pirates and poets alike. Visit the home of author Ernest Hemingway, where you can pet six-toed cats descended from his own dear feline, or grab a drink at Sloppy Joe's Bar, one of Hemingway's favorite watering holes. At sunset, embrace the island's tradition of gathering at Mallory Square, where artists celebrate the close of another day with live music and street performances.

Call on Key West during a Norwegian Cruise Line sojourn aboard the Norwegian Sky. Five-night departures travel round trip from Miami and spend time on the islet as well as Norwegian's private escape in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay, before a two-day stop in Havana. These itineraries are part of an all-inclusive program, meaning alcoholic beverages are included along with food and entertainment. Prices are from $499.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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