Never underestimate the restorative power of an island, especially if you’re a city dweller.
There’s something about watching the mainland fade into the horizon that helps you distance yourself from stress and drudgery. An island is a world apart, even if it’s as close to downtown as an exurb. And most of the many islands off the thousands of miles of U.S. coastline are small and can be fully explored in a day—on bike or by moped, if not on foot.
Some islands by the city offer shopping and smart restaurants; some offer a window on a different culture or times past. But they all present natural beauty, usually with a complement of flora and fauna that feels connected to the nearby mainland, yet exotic.
A final note: Unlike all the others, one of our destinations, Padre Island off Texas, is connected to the mainland by road. This makes Padre more accessible and in some ways may make it feel less like a world apart. While its link to the mainland makes it less of an island retreat in the strictest sense of the word, it deserves to be represented here as a great city getaway.
California: Santa Catalina Island
Somehow, a road trip seems less than the ideal way to escape the daily driving grind of La-La Land. For many Southern Californians, a much more psychically satisfying getaway is a brief sojourn to Catalina.
With its mix of small-town charm, meandering beaches and hilly backcountry wildness, Catalina casts a wide net for its 1 million annual tourists. Those who choose to do more than shop and eat can ride a rental bike or hoof it into the woods (mostly owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy), kayak, snorkel or scuba.
Ferries leave for Catalina from San Pedro, Long Beach or Dana Point up to 30 times a day, depending on the season. You can also hop a small plane from LAX or even a helicopter from Long Beach or San Pedro.
Note: In May 2007 a wildfire burned several square miles of interior chaparral on Catalina, but the principal town of Avalon was spared.
Massachusetts: Boston Harbor Islands
If you’re admiring a gleaming Boston skyline several miles to the west and endless miles of ocean to the east, you must be floating in Boston Harbor, right? Actually, you could be on solid ground, on one of the 30 smallish Boston Harbor Islands, accessible by ferry from downtown and the South Shore.
You’ll start your closer-than-the-suburbs marine adventure at Georges Island, which features Fort Warren, home to captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Then, if you’ve got a bit of ambition, you’ll fan out by free water taxi to Lovells, Peddocks (which features a marsh and a pond), Bumpkin (shell beaches and wildflowers) or Grape (wild berries and other edibles) islands to get away from the crowd.
Inexpensive ferries run frequently in the summer from Long Wharf or Fan Pier in Boston or from Hull or Quincy south of Beantown.
Michigan: South Manitou Island
For Traverse City folk who seek a well-packaged wilderness experience, South Manitou Island is an ideal day getaway. Part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, South Manitou is a formerly inhabited 8-square-mile isle 16 miles out on Lake Michigan.
Two top destinations beckon hikers: The west shore’s perched dunes and, on the island’s southwest corner, a stand of some of the world’s oldest and largest Northern white cedars—they measure up to 18 feet around. There’s also a 100-foot-tall lighthouse that wasn’t always successful during its 87-year career. This is good news for divers, who frequent the 50 shipwrecks clustered around the island.
The 90-minute ferry from Leland, Mich., leaves you for four and a half hours on South Manitou before the return trip. Bring your own lunch; there’s no food service or groceries on the island.
Ohio: Kelleys Island
It can be almost disorienting for Ohioans when they find themselves on Kelleys Island, one of five major Lake Erie isles. But to drive just over an hour from often-gray Cleveland and take a 20-minute ferry ride to a miniature oasis on a giant lake—it’s a wonder.
Kelleys covers just a few square miles, which makes it perfect for navigation by golf cart, on a bicycle or on foot. You can visit historic houses, forests and your choice of sandy or rocky beaches. Check out the Village Pump, a watering hole frequented by the boating crowd. The biggest attraction in the island’s state parkis the Glacial Grooves.
Ferries bustle between Kelleys and the mainland port of Marblehead; air service is available from Sandusky.
Rhode Island: Block Island
If you love the idea of an island daytrip off New England but find Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket too rich for your blood, Rhode Island’s Block Island may be just the place for you. With the village of New Shoreham surrounding the ferry landing, Victorian hotels with wraparound verandas, long sandy beaches and 200-foot bluffs, Block Island offers the beauty of its better-known neighbors with less fuss.
You can hang out all day in the town and on its beach or roam the island’s 10 square miles on foot, bike or moped—or even in your car, if you insist.
Ferries for Block Island, some of them double-speed, leave year-round from New London, Conn., or Newport and Galilee in Rhode Island. Galilee is 40 minutes south of Providence and an hour and a half south of Boston.
South Carolina: Bull Island
Here’s one barrier island on the East Coast that won’t ever be smothered in million-dollar vacation homes: Bull Island, part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
Six-mile-long Bull was inhabited in the 19th century, which explains the extensive system of roads and trails. Otherwise, this rustic island of beach, marsh and infernally buggy interior is devoted to wildlife, including the egrets, herons, pelicans and dolphins you may see on the ferry ride over and, on land, the elusive red wolf and loggerhead turtle.
The ferry leaves the mainland from Garris Landing—an hour’s drive north of Charleston—several times a week during the warmer months. The 30-minute boat ride is narrated by a naturalist.