Island Vacations in the Southern US and Gulf Coast Region

Key West, Florida Keys
Key West, Florida Keys

A legendary Atlantic island retreat near the border between Florida and Georgia, Amelia Island comes stocked with American history. Named for the daughter of King George II, the island has been a colony of five separate nations. The island's core visitors come from three different groups: the upscale resort crowd who stay at hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, younger travelers seeking romantic getaways, and the retiree and snowbird populations who flock here from all points north. Attractions include 13 miles of beaches (Fernandina Beach being the most developed), a vital fishing fleet, well-preserved Victorian homes, natural wetlands, and plenty of bed and breakfasts.

The search for a southwest Florida island getaway often ends at Marco Island. Little-known when compared to Florida's other vacation hot spots, like Miami, Orlando, and the Florida Keys, Marco Island stands out as the most populated and significant destination in the Ten Thousand Islands region. Perfect for oceanfront and ocean view resort stays - Marco Island claims 3.5 miles of sandy beach - the Ten Thousand Islands area is particularly convenient for exploration of nearby Everglades National Park.

Having a little Caribbean flavor within the US never hurts, and it always helps if you can drive the 127 miles from Miami on the Key Largo to Key West Scenic Drive, since getting there is indeed half the fun. Connected to the mainland near Miami by 43 bridges and causeways, multiple island getaways are for the taking along the Florida Keys archipelago. The driving route dazzles with ample state parks, day trips, and sunshine to spare. Spectacular yet laid-back Key West, the mecca of the Keys, lies at the southwestern tip of the chain, bringing in cruise ships, anglers, shoppers, and recreational sailors galore.

The Gulf Coast along the Texas shore and across from Corpus Christi has a lot more than shrimp boats and offshore oil rigs. Mustang Island and the adjacent Padre Island and South Padre Island consistently draw vacationers from the Lone Star State and sun worshippers from all over the Midwest. Expect to find ample condos and other accommodations, wilderness preserves, virgin shorelines stretching to the horizon, and the usual hedonistic crowds, especially during spring break.

Texas can claim the largest slice of Gulf Coast shoreline, but Alabama and Louisiana both contain hidden island vacation spots that deserve mention as well. Devotees of southern charm, surf, and sand can drive or take the ferry - leaving every 90 minutes - to reach Alabama's Dauphin Island, the first European settlement in the Louisiana Territory, dating from the early 18th century. At 14 miles by two miles across, there's not much there besides a few churches and a fishing fleet- and that's the best reason to go.

What do you get when you cross Bayou culture with a Gulf Coast island vacation? Louisiana's Grand Isle fits the bill, hands down. Locals call this outpost the Cajun Bahamas, but it's only 135 miles from New Orleans at the end of the causeway that snakes through the final flows of the Mississippi River Delta. Of all the barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana, Grand Isle is still the most popular weekend getaway, thanks in no small part to better-than-average deep sea fishing and ample opportunities to swim, crab, spy for shore birds, and worship the abundant sunshine.

Strictly not for hurricane season, the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina get more than their fair share of huge storms. Still, for vacation getaways during less turbulent seasons, visiting North Carolina's Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, and South Carolina's Hilton Head Island means taking it easy, southern style. Vacationers discover a vibrant history going back centuries, including the rich ethnic heritage of the African-American Gullahs, while taking in the recommended dosage of sun, ocean, idyllic beaches, and regional cuisine.

Bald Head Island represents the kind of romantic getaway that appeals to honeymooners, anniversary celebrants, vacationing couples, and intrepid souls who need only their own company along with secluded beaches and wildlife preserves to fulfill a notion of island escape. The search for solitude ends here, only two miles offshore from southern North Carolina at the mouth of the historic Cape Fear River, where 14 miles of protected beach provide an invitation to explore and dream.

If Georgia's on the mind (Ray Charles said so, and who's to argue?), consider Tybee Island. Spirits soar here, where oysters proliferate and visitors are immersed in the history of a very small island, marked by historic beach cottages, rustic ocean front bars and restaurants, and a tall lighthouse. When the doctor orders peace and tranquility, this is the place to be.

Slightly less-known and even more off the beaten path than Tybee Island, the Golden Isles refer to an attractive string of woodsy barrier islands along the coast of Georgia that feature palm trees, dunes, and thick forests. Of the three main Golden Isles, Saint Simons Island (aka St. Simons Island) is the most remote - although the two other main vacation retreats, Sea Island and Jekyll Island are anything but overrun with crowds. Urban hustle and bustle fades from memory, and wildlife abounds in protected natural habitats, making sightings of osprey and eagles common.

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