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Americans don’t have to go far to find themselves on one of the best islands in the continental U.S., but those who live in the Southeast will have the shortest journeys. Year after year, readers give resounding applause for destinations in Florida, which is home to five of this year’s best islands. Four more favorites sit off the coasts of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. It’s also worth noting that this category was the most competitive it has ever been, as domestic island vacations were many Travel + Leisure readers’ first choice for vacations throughout the pandemic.
Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated islands according to their activities and sights, natural attractions and beaches, food, friendliness, and overall value.
In addition to its natural beauty, Amelia Island (No. 10) has several historic sites, including American Beach, an area that served as a haven for Black families during the Jim Crow era. In Fernandina Beach, visitors can spend an afternoon strolling through the lively town or kayaking. The popular oceanfront Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, has a spa, a standout kids’ club, and an 18-hole championship golf course.
Sanibel Island (No. 13) has beaches with more than 250 types of shells and a 6,000-acre national wildlife refuge. The Sanibel Moorings Resort, which consists of 122 suites, has a private beach and a six-acre botanical garden, and guests can go on guided walks with a botanist or a marine biologist.
For all the Southeast’s appeal, this year’s top spot on the list of the best islands in the continental U.S. was taken by a Midwestern haven. Continue reading to learn about Mackinac Island, which also earned a place on our list of the world’s best islands.
1. Mackinac Island, Michigan
Eighty percent of this roughly four-square-mile island on Lake Huron is protected as a state park. The family-friendly downtown has many restaurants, fudge shops, and galleries. There are also several golf courses, one of which, known as “Wawa,” lies on a battlefield where the British captured the island from the Americans in the War of 1812. You can explore the island by foot, bike or horse-drawn carriage, but no cars are allowed. Accommodations include the Grand Hotel, which dates back to 1887 and earned the No. 6 spot on this year’s list of the Best Hotels in the Midwest.
2. Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Located southwest of Charleston, Kiawah, which is also on this year’s list of the best islands in the world, is a popular destination for golfers, but you don’t need to pick up a club to fall in love. Bike to the pristine beaches for sightings of dolphins and nesting sea turtles, or just watch the waves from an oceanfront room at the five-star Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort — voted by readers as the No. 1 resort in South Carolina the past two years.
WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 88.49
3. Nantucket, Massachusetts
Everything about Nantucket can be described as charming, from the rose-trellised cottages to the cobblestoned streets and scenic bike rides. Both its dining and restaurant scenes are booming. One of the newest lodgings: the 12-room luxury hotel Blue Iris by Life House.
4. San Juan Islands, Washington
Each destination in this archipelago between Seattle and Vancouver feels remote in the best possible way, with sweeping vistas and an array of outdoor activities, including hiking, kayaking, and whale-watching. Those who prefer a more leisurely stay will find indulgent farm-to-table meals, delicious wine from Washington State, galleries, and spas.
5. Golden Isles (Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island), Georgia
Marshlands and nature trails lead to white-sand beaches. Key attractions here include nature trails and wonderful beaches, but these barrier islands also boast museums, golf courses, historic sites, and luxury hotels to keep everyone engaged on a cloudy day. Get off the grid and stay at one of the six cottages at the Lodge on Little St. Simons island, a private-island resort that includes 11,000 acres of undeveloped wilderness.
6. Outer Banks, North Carolina
This 175-mile-long chain of barrier islands is a beach-lover’s dream. Lay down your towel on Corolla Beach, where, if you’re lucky, you will see some of the wild Spanish mustangs that roam the islands.
7. Mount Desert Island, Maine
Acadia National Park covers most of this roughly 100-square-mile island. Nature-inclined visitors can spend days biking and hiking. Social options are equally robust, with annual music and food festivals and several picturesque towns, including Bar Harbor.
8. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
There’s something for everyone in this popular destination off of Cape Cod. Up Island, there are majestic cliffs dropping down into the Atlantic Ocean, storybook inns, and a quaint fishing village where you can buy shucked shellfish to eat while watching the sunset. Down Island, travelers will find vibrant villages like Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, where evenings are best spent at the lively bars and restaurants.
9. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
This Southern oasis is a perennial reader favorite thanks to its beaches, world-class golf courses, 60 miles of walking trails, and cultural offerings that can be enjoyed in flip-flops. Rental houses abound, but there are also resorts that will cater to your every whim.
10. Amelia Island, Florida
This small island draws visitors who relish its casual vibe and natural beauty. The northernmost barrier island on Florida’s Atlantic coast — easily reached by car — appeals to beach lovers and history buffs, as well as food lovers, who eagerly await its Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival, held each May.
11. Florida Keys
Passionate fishers, boaters, and divers flock to this string of islands, where they can take advantage of the only living coral barrier reef in the United States. Those who prefer their fun on land embrace Key West, with its relaxed vibe of pastel cottages and plethora of bars. Don’t miss the grounds of the Hemingway Home and Museum, where the author’s six-toed cat has lived on in future generations cared for by the museum’s veterinarian.
12. Captiva Island, Florida
Located on the Gulf Coast, this island is known for its low-key vibe and beaches with abundant seashells. Many travelers opt to rent a vacation home, but there are also a handful of family-friendly hotels, including the South Seas Island Resort, which offers a marine-life–focused day camp for kids.
13. Sanibel Island, Florida
Captiva’s sister island has equally beautiful beaches, but travelers will also find opportunities for offbeat fun, including the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
14. Block Island, Rhode Island
A ferry ride away from the mainland, this funky island enthusiastically welcomes not only people but their canines (they’re allowed in the movie theater!). Rent a bike or moped, pausing for a lobster roll and a beer beachside, before checking in to one of the many bed and breakfasts.
15. Longboat Key, Florida
Its initial draw may be its 11 miles of white-sand beaches, but this island located off Sarasota also boasts golf courses and luxury hotels, including the Resort at Longboat Key Club, which has 226 rooms and suites, plus 45 holes of golf, 20 tennis courts, and a spa.