The Best Islands in the Continental U.S. in 2016

Hilton Head South Carolina
Photo: Desiree Espada

If you thought you had to travel to Hawaii to experience island life in the U.S., you may be surprised to discover that some of the most well-loved islands are scattered around the country’s coasts. Every year, T+L asks readers to rank their travel experiences in our World’s Best survey. Here, they share their opinions on the best hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise lines, spas, airlines, and more. When it comes to world’s top islands, reader scores were based on their natural attractions and beaches, their sights and activities, friendliness, food, and overall value. In 2016, wherever you are, you won’t likely be too far from one of the best islands in the continental U.S. Half fringe the American South, while the remainder flank New England, the Pacific Northwest, and the southernmost tip of Florida — there’s even one in the Midwest. In the Salish Sea, just a short ferry ride from the Washington State mainland, travelers have discovered the San Juan Islands, a counterculture stronghold. Creative designers and sculptors, foragers who double as innkeepers and chefs, and nature enthusiasts have made the tight-knit communities scattered across 172 islands welcoming and exciting destinations. On the opposite coast, readers loved Cumberland Island, Georgia, a 17.5-mile-long stretch of woodlands, marshes, and beaches that sits at the end of Georgia’s Sea Island chain. “It was wonderful to see wild horses,” wrote one reader. “There are beaches to walk on without a crowd — unless you count the horses.” Another raved about the island’s “peaceful, untouched” quality. That same stuck-in-time feel helped Mackinac Island — between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas in Lake Huron — score the No. 9 spot. Here, cars are outlawed, making horse-drawn carriages and bicycles two of the more popular methods of transportation. At least 80 percent of the island is preserve parkland, meaning you may just be better off on foot, exploring the historic forts, iconic rock formations, and caves. And most travelers will bed down in the 19th-century Grand Hotel, which offers lawn games and after-dinner dancing. And our No. 1 this year? An outpost of Southern hospitality and traditional American recreation. The best islands in the continental U.S. share an ability to slow down the hands of time: to recall simpler times and slower, laid-back living.

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No. 10: Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Martha's Vineyard
Gabriela Herman

Score: 81.19

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No. 9: Mackinac Island, Michigan

Mackinac Island Michigan
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Score: 82.86

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No. 8: Cumberland Island, Georgia

Cumberland Island Georgia
Getty Images/Ron Chapple Studios RF

Score: 83.33

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No. 7: Florida Keys

Florida Keys
Andrew Hetherington

Score: 83.44

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No. 6: Golden Isles (Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island; Georgia

Golden Isles Little St. Simons Georgia
Getty Images/Gallo Images

Score: 83.47

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No. 5: San Juan Islands, Washington

San Juan Islands Washington
Ian Allen

Score: 84.33

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No. 4: Nantucket, Massachusetts

Nantucket Massachusetts
Getty Images/Westend61

Score: 84.60

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No. 3: Mount Desert Island, Maine

Mount Desert Island Maine
Getty Images

Score: 86.48

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No. 2: Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Kiawah Island South Carolina
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Score: 88.00

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No. 1: Hilton Head, South Carolina

Hilton Head South Carolina
Desiree Espada

Score: 88.35

Even as the secret about Hilton Head gets out, repeat visitors say it hasn’t lost any charm. Pristine golf courses and local wildlife (including loggerhead turtles, dolphins, and cormorants) have made it as popular for honeymoons as it is for family reunions. Other reasons to love Hilton Head? Quiet beaches, yachts bobbing offshore, and the view from Harbour Town Lighthouse. After a 114-step ascent, you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree panorama of marshes and fairways. “Look forward to crossing the bridge to the island,” wrote T+L reader. “You know you are arriving at a very special place.”

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