3 Island Getaways in the USA

Are you dreaming of an island vacation but worried about breaking the bank? There’s good news: Finding your little slice of paradise is closer — and more affordable — than you might think. In fact, there are a variety of budget-friendly island getaways in the USA. Check out this guide to three island vacations for your family’s next adventure.

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Getting there: Drive about 35 miles south of Mobile Regional Airport.

Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Dauphin Island offers a serene family island adventure. Stretching over 6 square miles of pristine beaches, maritime forests and sandy dunes, Dauphin Island is a natural escape with a laid-back vibe. Start your vacation by relaxing on the beach; though most visitors head to Dauphin Island Public Beach, West End Beach also offers stunning coastal views with less traffic. Whichever beach you select, expect to pay a small entry fee.

After a couple of hours of sunshine, bring the family to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium to explore its 10,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 31 aquariums and interactive activities like a 7,000-gallon stingray touch pool. Here, your family can discover more about the marine life of Mobile Bay, the fourth-largest estuary system in the U.S. Then set your sights on the sky at the nearby Audubon Bird Sanctuary, where up to 420 officially documented species migrate annually (or live permanently), making it one of the top birding spots in the world.

While on your Dauphin Island vacation, add a dose of history to your itinerary at Fort Gaines, a key site in the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. The masonry fort features original cannons and a blacksmith shop, plus a museum and tunnels to explore. Admission is $8; children ages 5-12 are $4.

After your journey back in time, drive to a local favorite: the Lighthouse Bakery, known for its tasty sandwiches and scrumptious pastries. You can’t go wrong ordering a strawberry danish, bacon twist or the ever-popular pigs in a blanket.

Sink your toes into the sand and catch the nightly show over the Gulf of Mexico on Dauphin Island, appropriately nicknamed the “sunset capital of Alabama.”


Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Getting there: Drive about 30 miles south of Charleston International Airport.

The beautiful, family-friendly barrier island of Kiawah is renowned not only for its sandy beaches and maritime forests but also its world-class golf facilities. Take a lesson at one of several nearby courses, like Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where you can tee off at The Ocean Course or the Jack Nicklaus-designed Turtle Point. Alternatively, take a scenic drive about 20 miles north of the island to the City of Charleston Municipal Golf Course, which offers some of the area’s lowest greens fees.

On the road back to Kiawah Island, don’t miss the Angel Oak tree on Johns Island, towering over 66 feet and estimated to be about 500 years old. The branches of this quintessential Southern live oak create an astounding 17,000 square feet of shade. It is also considered to be one of the oldest living things in the country, standing on land that was part of a 1717 land grant to Abraham Waight, one of the most prosperous land owners of that time. Stick around Johns Island for a family dinner feast featuring the area’s most delectable Italian cuisine at Wild Olive. This popular rustic Italian eatery is a favorite among locals and tourists; try the agnolotti with cherry-braised duck, parmesan and scallions, or the pappardelle with guanciale (cured pork cheek), mushrooms, arugula and parmesan — all for less than $20 a dish.

On the next day of your island getaway, head for the shore on the west end of Kiawah Island at Beachwalker County Park, which offers public access. Here, you can relax under an umbrella or take part in outdoor activities, including surf lessons, kayaking and paddleboarding. Depending on the day and season, parking at the beach will cost $5 or $10 per car. When you’ve had enough sun for the day, get a rare glimpse at how tea is manufactured in North America’s only operating tea factory. Admission is free, but there is a charge to tour the factory and grounds by trolley.

Pack a picnic and enjoy it beneath the shade of South Carolina’s famous Angel Oak, a tree whose longest branch stretches 187 feet.


Shelter Island, New York

Getting there: Drive about 100 miles east from John F. Kennedy International Airport or LaGuardia Airport, or pick up a car at one of three Alamo locations in Manhattan.

Simply getting to Shelter Island is part of the adventure. From New York City, you’ll traverse Long Island via Interstate 495 or the Southern State Parkway to the peninsula’s eastern end. From there, you’ll need to hop on a ferry from either the north ($12 per car) or south ($15 per car) to experience this secluded island. With a population of less than 2,500, this sleepy island is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle. Here, you can spend lazy days exploring nature by kayak or paddleboard (pick up watercraft from Shelter Island Kayak Tours), or enjoy the unique coastal landscape and rich biodiversity on your own two feet.

One-third of the island is protected native habitat, so that richness is on display at nearly every turn. Spend a day at Mashomack Preserve, boasting 11 miles of coastline amid a breathtaking landscape of marshes and woodlands. It has miles of hiking trails, including the Laspia Family Trail, which offers a chance to spot birds and turtles at Sanctuary Pond and admire the lush growth of the preserve. You can also contact the preserve to participate in its nature programs and guided hikes. Later, pick up a bike from Piccozzi’s Bike Shop and cruise past the Victorian cottages that dot the island’s residential landscape. Or visit the Shelter Island Historical Society for insight into the island’s history and culture dating back to the Manhanset Indians and the arrival of colonists in the 1600s. The society offers special summer programs for children.

For local cuisine, head to Commander Cody’s Seafood, an island favorite that serves the catch of the day straight from the boat. Nosh on lobster from the live tank, or savor skillet-fried chicken or barbecue ribs. Or pick up some authentic New York submarine sandwiches from Eagle Deli for a picnic lunch at Kissing Rock.

Thanks to its location between the North and South Forks of Long Island, Shelter Island’s waters are peaceful and protected from the storms and rough tides of the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the Long Island Sound to its north. Photo by a son, flickr.
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About the Author

Cynthia Beisiegel is a writer and editor based in Dallas. A New York native, she lived half her life in what she considers America’s finest city: San Diego. Her love for travel has led her to five of the world’s seven continents. She can always be found somewhere in the world exploring new destinations, meeting new people and sharing her stories. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @lalabicicleta.