NOTE: We know COVID-19 is continuing to impact your travel plans. As of April 2021, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk, though safety precautions are still required. Should you need to travel, be sure to familiarize yourself with the CDC’s latest guidance as well as local requirements/protocols/restrictions for both your destination and home city upon your return. Be safe out there.
But right about now, America’s lesser-known islands are looking extra alluring. Within the confines of their shores you’ll find everything you’d expect-sandy beaches, lighthouses, quirky towns, and quirkier locals-as well as a lot of things you don’t normally associate with island life, like wolves, bears, and cowboys. But it’s what you won’t find that makes these under-the-radar islands so inviting: crowds, hype, and pretension. These are the island vacations you probably weren’t planning, but should be.
Tybee Island, Georgia
Sweet Southern charm and sandy beaches Dying to dip your toes in the water and your ass in the sand? The last place you’d probably think to visit is the easternmost point of Georgia, but just an 18-mile drive from historic downtown Savannah you’ll find a barrier island with wide, sandy beaches and that small-town-with-a-hint-of-carnival-nostalgia vibe.
The usual roster of Atlantic island joys are here: Grab an ice cream or an old-fashioned malt and head to the pier at sundown, keeping watch for sea turtles and their nests May through October. What truly sets Tybee Island apart, though, is its long, funky history. Head to the diviest bar (there are many!), grab a beer, and, chances are a local will talk your ear off about the town and nearby Fort Pulaski, a Civil War monument still open for self-guided tours. In the 1500s, pirates hid here; since 2005, the island hosts an annual Pirate Fest (October) with a parade, a market, live music and booze. Tybee also has its own wild Mardi Gras, an Irish Heritage Celebration (in March), and a Sand Art Festival. As if that weren’t enough: The first-ever Days Inn is here, too. Talk about history! — Allison Ramirez
Channel Islands, California
Under the sea, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world Somehow flying under the radar of beach-obsessed Angelenos despite being less than 90 miles away, this eight-island archipelago is often considered “the Galapagos of the North.” To get to this stunning habitat for rare plant and wildlife (including one of the smallest fox species on the planet), board a ferry in Ventura (an excellent home base for an extended stay), then sit back and enjoy the hour-long journey to Santa Cruz Island, the most user-friendly of the bunch.
Once there, be on the lookout for bald eagle chicks or scrub jays, a small blue bird found nowhere else on Earth. There are day hikes and established campgrounds at Scorpion Canyon, but the real exploring comes under water. With scuba gear (or a snorkel), dive into the kelp forests that surround the nearby shores. Kayakers should head into the Painted Cave, an enormous opening that plunges deep into the side of the island. When the darkness swallows you whole, the madness of SoCal’s 101 will seem like a distant memory. — Ryan MacDonald
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Blackbeard’s final resting place is loaded with pirate lore (but not tourists) One of the most haunted places in North Carolina, Ocracoke Island is supposedly where notorious pirate Blackbeard finally met his demise. This gem in the Outer Banks was one of his favorite hide-outs, probably owing to its secluded locale over 20 miles off the coast. Even if you’re not into dead pirates, the island offers 16 miles of powdery white sand to spread waaay out on, and exceptionally clear night skies for stargazing. Ride your bike through virtually-untouched, swampy nature and check out the oldest operating lighthouse in the state. You can also visit the Ocracoke Banker Ponies, descendants of a rare breed of Spanish mustangs shipwrecked on the island long ago.
Meanwhile, Ocracoke’s quiet village is teeming with local seafood spots like Howard’s Raw Bar or the Flying Melon, as well as 1718 Brewing if you want to enjoy the breeze with a local beer. The island is only accessible by ferry (we recommend the hour-long trip from Cape Hatteras) or small private plane. -Matt Meltzer
Antelope Island, Utah
The American West, condensed into island form You have probably heard of Antelope Canyon, a hair under the Utah border in Arizona, the imminently photogenic slot canyon that’s taken over everyone’s mood boards the past few years. But you’re much less likely to have heard of Antelope Island, the largest of a collection of 10 islands in Utah’s famous Great Salt Lake. (So great. So salty.) That’s for the best: Once you’re here, that’ll mean you have it to yourself.
There are no permanent human residents, but most species iconic of the West are here except maybe, like, wolves: bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, and pronghorn antelope, in case you thought the island just had a clever name. The rocks you’re hiking on? Some are older than those on the floor of the Grand Canyon. If you visit in May, you can catch the Cowboy Legends Music & Poetry Festival. And if you visit in 12 of 12 months a year, you’re a short hop to the rest of the absurd outdoor wonders in and around Salt Lake City. — Kastalia Medrano
Pawleys Island, South Carolina
A Lowcountry hideaway for sparse crowds and hammock naps Like much of the Carolina Lowcountry, you go to Pawleys for the atmosphere: stately oaks draped in Spanish moss; old historic homes and graveyards; a warm, frothy Atlantic that yields decent rollers for body-surfing and shells for the picking. The “arrogantly shabby” Pawleys Island isn’t as crowded or hoity-toity as Hilton Head, but not as isolated as, say, Daufuskie. You’re spitting distance from incredible seafood joints at Murrells Inlet and even closer to fine dining at Frank’s. And there’s always pizza and beer to be had at the gloriously funky PIT.
A stroll among the sculptures, fountains, and zoo at Brookgreen Gardens is a morning well-spent, as is a boat tour on the Waccamaw River. Beyond all that, Pawleys attracts a lot of repeat customers because being there just feels good. It smells good: like the sea oats on the dunes, the marsh at low-tide, the damp woodiness of a porch after a storm. Grab an affordable offseason rate in September and you’ll spend the rest of the year jonesing for another whiff. — Keller Powell
Saint George Island, Florida
The simple life of Old Florida in rare, pristine form I’m the rare local who will actually direct you to the boomerang-shaped barrier island in Apalachicola Bay, because around here, people mostly prefer that you not crowd onto Saint George Island’s untarnished beaches. But for those in the know, Florida’s so-called Forgotten Coast on the knobby elbow of the panhandle is Florida at its purest.
Much of the “Big Bend” coastline between the Apalachicola and St. Marks Rivers is protected and undeveloped, preserving the unique character of the fishing villages — and the beaches — along US Highway 98. The emerald Gulf waters greet a wide and uncrowded beach of quartz sand so pristine, it audibly squeaks when you walk on it. A quick drive across the bay is the unexpectedly charming town of Apalachicola (“Apalach,” as the locals call it), the hub of Florida’s oystering industry, where some say the world’s best are harvested. Its tiny but impressive roster of seafood restaurants and Southern-accented boutiques are worth leaving the beach, if only for a meal. — Paul Jebara
Thousand Islands, New York
Why settle for one when you can go to 1,000? Yes, Thousand Islands is indeed the home of Thousand Island dressing. The archipelago is made up of 1,846 islands that dot the St. Lawrence River as it criss-crosses between New York and Canada. The meandering watery border proved ideal, back in the day, for bootleggers smuggling hooch into the country during Prohibition. These days you’ll find more fishermen and kayakers than pirates; pack your passport, though, in case you run afoul with any border officials as you make your way down the river.
Start at Alex Bay, a tourist trap town that’s handy for rental kayaks and guided river tours. Ogle the lighthouses, Fort Henry, Kingston Penitentiary, the stately homes on Millionaires Row, and Boldt Castle — the 120-room, 5-building Gilded Age castle commissioned by George Boldt, the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria. Many of the islands are privately owned, but there are Airbnbs to be found, or you can reserve one of the two cabins on Gordon Island or Friendly Island, or camp out on Wellesley Island, which has a state park and its own lake. — Melissa Locker
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Diving, hiking, and wolves. Not necessarily in that order Conventional Michigan wisdom for those looking to be transported to the pre-automotive era says to jump on a ferry to Mackinac Island. But that wisdom typically also comes with a warning about crowd sizes and best practices for dodging horse apples on the streets.
No such apples or throngs of tourists await on Isle Royale, Michigan’s only national park. But it is brimming with foxes, beavers, and mink. And bats, if that’s your thing. The island, located in the middle of Lake Superior in the northern reaches of the Upper Peninsula, requires some planning to get to. But once you’re there, you’re rewarded with solitude and serenity. If you’re into hiking, the Greenstone Ridge Trail is 40 miles end to end. There are also great fishing charters to be taken here, but you probably expected fishing and hiking were popular here. What you probably didn’t expect? Scuba diving — yes, there are shipwrecks in Lake Superior, and the National Park Service has signed off on guided dives to check out those shipwrecks. — KM
Wild Horse Island, Montana
Search for wild horses and geocaching treasures in the same day Surprise! Wild Horse Island does not refer to the famously wild horse-filled Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. There are only five or six wild horses on Wild Horse Island, the largest rock in Montana’s enormous Flathead Lake, but that kinda just makes it more special if and when you do see them while off on a hike. You’ll also be amongst bighorn sheep, mule deer, bald eagles, and various other Big Sky-type species.
Hike to the top of the island’s caldera, an excellent spot to bring a picnic — the highest point on the island is more than 3,700 feet above sea level, a height higher than the highest natural height in 22 of our American states. It is my opinion that a lake is no kind of lake at all if you can’t swim in it, and so of course you can swim in Flathead Lake, where the rocks underfoot are smooth and shine in different colors. Pack another picnic and rent a boat and spend the day on the water. Into geocaching? You can do that here, too. — KM
Orcas Island, Washington
Artists abound in the San Juans’ most scenic island With jagged emerald isles that stand out against the stunning blue waters of Puget Sound, Washington’s San Juan Islands are awash in views you’ll hardly believe are in America. The most colorful is Orcas Island-not just because of the panoramic vistas, but because of the people who live there. Despite Eastsound’s recent tourism boom, Orcas is still an artists’ haven. Check out the galleries all along the winding roads and snatch up some world-class pottery at Orcas Island Pottery; try local favorites like Mexican spot Mijitas or Island Hoppin‘, the island’s sole brewery; hike the 6.6-mile trail to the top of Mt. Constitution for views across the San Juans (so long as it’s sunny); and, of course, don’t leave without spotting orcas breaching the waters.
As a heads up, getting to Orcas isn’t simple. You’ll either need to drive a few hours north of Seattle to take a ferry from Anacortes, which requires reservations and a $50 round trip toll, or catch a flight from King County International-Boeing Field just south of Downtown Seattle, which runs about $175 round trip. Luckily, views from either are as spectacular as the destination itself. -MM
Monhegan Island, Maine
A remote escape lies 10 miles offshore If you’re looking to really “get away from it all” follow these steps: Get to Portland, Maine (and complete the mandatory quarantine), drive up the coast 60 miles to New Harbor, and hop on a boat. After an hour or so cruising through the frigid Atlantic waters, you’ll land on Monhegan Island. Covering a scant square mile of ocean, it’s home to a year-round population of less than 50 artists, fishermen, and hardy residents who hunker down during Maine’s harsh winters and welcome visitors in the golden summer.
For daytrippers, The Hardy Boat offers a five-hour layover, which is just enough time to hoof it over some of the island’s 12 miles of trails. Grab a sandwich at The Barnacle, the island’s lone deli, and picnic on Lobster Cove, overlooking the bones of a long-ago shipwreck. Cool off with a pint (or two) of Lobster Cove American Pale Ale on the deck of the Monhegan Brewing Company. For an overnight stay, it’s a simple choice between only two hotels — the Island Inn or the Monhegan House. If you want to avoid reality a little bit longer, rent one of the summer cottages that dot the island and play Robinson Crusoe, albeit with a lot more beer. — ML
Revillagigedo Island, Alaska
Black bears, brown bears, salmon runs, salmon-colored stilt houses A lot of you out there who are not from Alaska might not realize just how far Southeast the state actually extends. But follow its border on a map all the way down to what you possibly assumed was British Columbia and you’ll find the port town of Ketchikan, billed as the “salmon capital of the world.”
Salmon runs begin in late May or June, and by July/August are going absolutely gangbusters. Salmon runs mean bears. Like, bears standing mid-creek snatching salmon with their teeth looking hardcore, but also looking kind of cute and silly with their lil’ ears all wet . You can take airplane tours to various bear-filled spots around the island, or perhaps you’d like to try some ziplining over the salmon streams, which is to say hopefully over some bears. If you didn’t know, you’re in the world’s largest temperate rainforest. Shop for sculptures, jewelry, and other Native Alaskan wares downtown, and take a stroll down Creek Street to check out the colorful houses propped up on stilts. — KM
Ship Island, Mississippi
A remote getaway in the Mississippi you’d never expect The Gulf Coast of Mississippi is home to some of America’s finest under-the-radar beach towns in Ocean Springs and Gulfport. The area’s got funky bars, artist galleries, and seriously good seafood-but take a boat out to the barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and you’ll forget you’re anywhere near civilization.
The largest of the bunch is Ship Island, a one-time military fortification where you can bliss out on soft white sands and enjoy clear, clean water you don’t typically expect in the Gulf. Beyond just sunning yourself, the island’s also got a boardwalk where alligators and coastal birds tend to hang out, a seaside snack bar, and Fort Massachusetts, a Civil War-era fort. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to spot some dolphins on an afternoon cruise. After a long day at the beach, head back across the water to Gulfport to seafood joints like Half Shell Oyster House, The Chimneys, and Shaggy’s Gulfport Beach. Thank us later. -MM
Washington Island, Wisconsin
Scandanavian charm awaits just across Death’s Door Wisconsin’s Door County didn’t get the name “The Cape Cod of the Midwest” for nothing: This is the kind of place that makes even the most intrepid writer struggle to find a word that’s not “quaint,” a collection of small towns and idyllic beaches set amid orchards and lighthouses. And Washington Island might just be its crown jewel.
Getting there requires a ferry ride across a long strait in Lake Michigan known as Death’s Door, under which some 250 shipwrecks reside. Not exactly the kind of lore you expect to lead to a place known for its impossibly welcoming cottages, historic hotels, and Scandanavian hospitality, but hey, you’d hardly know you’re gliding over an underwater graveyard. Once there, you’ll get lost in the comfort of the limestone shores of Schoolyard Beach or amid the rolling lavenders that give the island its fragrant allure (coupled with some old-school stave churches, it’s downright dreamy). Do not, under any circumstances, leave this place before taking down a full shot of Angostura bitters at Nelsen’s Hall, a rite of passage since 1899 and a surefire way to settle your stomach before hitting those choppy waters on a return trip. — Andy Kryza
The Big Island, Hawaii
The tropical road-trip destination you never thought to take In the greater scheme of things, Hawaii isn’t underrated by any stretch of the imagination. So why would The Big Island show up on a list of underrated island vacations? It’s all about what you’re doing when you’re here. And what many visitors aren’t doing is road-tripping.
Yes, you could pick any of the beaches on the Big Island’s 4,000-square-mile landmass and have a great time without moving. But set out on a 232-mile perimeter sweep and the sights that sear themselves into your mind come hard and fast. You’ll find beaches populated with more turtles than people. Sands both golden and black. Cascading waterfalls and bubbling lava. Valley after valley of pure bliss, and town after town of immaculate poke and bento. Any time you stop your car, you’ll consider never getting back in, whether it’s to explore Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park or crack into beers and musubi in Hilo. Here, every stop is its own mini vacation. Plan to switch plans on a whim. -AKWant more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’. Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health.
Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid.
Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor.
To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power.
Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.
You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks.
It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties!
An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:
‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.”