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America's Best Island Escapes

A trip off the mainland doesn't have to be expensive or foreign. Stick close to home but feel worlds away at these family-friendly spots.

By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright

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Mom and daughter on beach
Courtesy of Hilton Head Island Visitor & Convention Bureau
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Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

hiltonheadisland.org, 800-523-3373

One of the best family golf destinations in the world, this barrier island has 24 championship courses meandering through tidal marshes and maritime forests and along picturesque lakes, lagoons and the Atlantic Ocean.

Fun in the Sun

Learn from the pros. Many resorts offer special family packages and clinics where parents and teens take lessons together in the morning and kids play for free in the afternoon. Off the course, cruise the waterways on a Zodiac boat tour while looking out for alligators. For a local taste, try down-home Southern cooking—fried chicken and catfish, collard greens and Low Country boil—at Dye's Gullah Fixin's.

Island Digs

The recently updated Beach House, a Holiday Inn resort, has a free-form pool and is a short walk to shops and restaurants. Rooms start at $159 (holidayinnresorts.com, 888-465-4329). Surrounded by more than 5,000 acres, the sprawling Sea Pines Resort offers activities like tennis, golf, kayaking and biking. Choose from a broad range of accommodations, including beach or villa rentals. Two-bedroom villas start at $160 a night (seapines.com, 866-561-8802).

Embark Here

Savannah is 75 minutes away. Take a pirate tour or visit Old Fort Jackson, the oldest standing fort in Georgia, which protected residents from the Union Army during the Civil War. Nearby Tybee Island has a historic lighthouse and a 3-mile stretch of beach.

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San Juan Islands, Washington

visitsanjuans.com, 888-468-3701

The waters surrounding the San Juan Islands (Orcas, Lopez, Shaw and San Juan) are home to porpoises, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and more. It's one of the top spots in the world to see killer whales.

Fun in the Sun

Kayak among the orcas and sea lions on a guided paddling trip; San Juan Outfitters offers a three-hour family tour ($79 adults, $49 kids 2 to 12; sanjuanislandoutfitters.com). To catch sight of the creatures from dry land, head to Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island's west side. If it rains, wait out the storm at the Whale Museum in downtown Friday Harbor. Take a day trip or spend the night on Orcas Island, where Moran State Park has five freshwater lakes and more than 30 miles of gorgeous hiking trails. Make sure you drive or climb to the summit of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution for its panoramic views—and don't miss the small but lovely Cascade Falls.

Island Digs

The Lonesome Cove Resort is a terrific value ($170), with cozy cabins complete with full kitchens and decks (lonesomecove.com, 360-378-4477). One of the most popular places to stay, the Roche Harbor Resort on the northern tip of San Juan, has one-bedroom condominiums with full kitchens, separate dining areas, fireplaces and private balconies starting at $295 (rocheharbor.com, 800-451-8910). On Orcas Island, the West Beach Resort offers a private beach, kayak rentals and a variety of accommodations, from rustic campsites ($27-$33) to ocean-view or beachfront one- or two-bedroom cabins with full kitchens or kitchenettes ($89-$259; westbeachresort.com, 877-937-8224).

Embark Here

Ferries to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island leave several times a day from Anacortes (about a 90-minute drive from Seattle). Purchase tickets far in advance; the ride takes up to 90 minutes and is $12.45 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 18 (wsdot.wa.gov/ferries, 206-464-6400). Consider booking a later ferry so you can browse the specialty and antiques shops downtown.

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Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

mvy.com, 800-505-4815

The Vineyard may have a reputation for exclusivity, but there are plenty of affordable lodging and dining options, plus nearly 125 miles of shoreline and acres of forests and salt marshes.

Fun in the Sun

Bike the more than 44 miles of paved off-road trails that crisscross the island. Pedal to the West Chop Lighthouse (a 4-mile round-trip from Vineyard Haven) or follow the 6-mile Beach Road path from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, with scenic water views along the way. Rent an ATV for a wild and woolly dune buggy ride to East Beach, or haul up lobster traps on a charter boat trip.

Island Digs

Adjacent to Ocean Park, the cozy Madison Inn is within walking distance of the harbor in Oak Bluff, shops, restaurants and beaches. Spacious rooms start at $249, with towels and chairs to take to the beach, free snacks and bottled water (madisoninnmv.com, 800-564-2760). Martha's Vineyard Family Campground is located 1.5 miles from the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal. Campsites are $52 a night, or rent a one- or two-room cabin for $135-$155 (campmv.com; 508-693-3772).

Embark Here

Make reservations in advance for the hour-long high-speed ferry ride to Hyannis; the price is $71 round-trip for adults and $48 for kids ages 5 to 12 (hylinecruises.com, 800-492-8082). You can stroll along Main Street, visit the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory or take a tour with Cape Cod Duckmobiles.

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Caladesi Island, Florida

floridastateparks.org, 727-469-5918

Swimming, fishing, boating...This sun-drenched isle on the Gulf Coast boasts beachy pleasures and water sports.

Fun in the Sun

Swim in warm Gulf waters and comb the shell-strewn beach or paddle a 3-mile kayak path (rentals are available at the island's only concession stand), where you may spot armadillos, gopher tortoises, stingrays and dolphins. Fishermen can cast for mangrove snappers and tarpon—then take the catch to Guppy's on the Beach in nearby Indian Rocks Beach to have it cooked to order.

Island Digs

There are plenty of budget-friendly choices in Clearwater, like the cozy East Shore Resort, which features one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchens and porches overlooking the bay from $760 a week (eastshoreresort.com, 888-449-3636). The friendly Amber Tides Motel is within walking distance of Pier 60 and has a heated pool; rooms start at $65 (ambertides-motel.com, 727-445-1145). The luxurious Sandpearl Resort sits on 700 feet of beachfront property and offers a variety of on-site activities and kids' programs; rooms start at $239 (sandpearl.com, 877-726-3111).

Embark Here

Ferries depart every half hour from Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, 4 miles north of Clearwater. This is a day trip; visitors are only allowed to stay on the island for four hours. The 20-minute ferry ride costs $14 for adults and $7 for children ages 6 to 12 (caladesiferry.org). While in Clearwater, visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see rescued dolphins, sea turtles and otters.

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South Bass Island, Ohio

lake-erie.com, 800-255-3743

Formed by glaciers, this island in western Lake Erie is jam-packed with activities—the perfect place for families on the go.

Fun in the Sun

Drive your golf cart or bike (cars are allowed, but islanders prefer quieter modes of transport) to mini-golf courses, the arcade or go-kart and bumper-boat tracks. Don a miner's lamp and descend 52 feet to the bottom of Perry's Cave, an Ohio Natural Landmark. The village of Put-in-Bay has an antique car museum, butterfly house and wildlife center, but there's something for history buffs as well: Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial is a symbol of cooperation among the United States, Great Britain and Canada.

Island Digs

At South Bass Island State Park campsites start at $27 a night; the rustic cottage is available for $125 (dnr.state.oh.us, 866-644-6727). Put-in-Bay Resort has a variety of lodgings, including 8- and 12-person villas from $375 a night and standard rooms from $159 (putinbayresort.com, 888-742-7829).

Embark Here

It's a 45-minute ride from Sandusky to Put-in-Bay on a high-speed ferry (jet-express.com, 800-245-1538). Adult round-trip fare is $39; kids 6 to 12 pay $11. You may want to make a pit stop in Sandusky, home to Cedar Point amusement park and Kalahari, the largest indoor water park in the country.

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Other Islands We Love

Like most of Maine, unspoiled Monhegan Island—located 10 miles off the midcoast—is delightfully undeveloped: no paved roads, no cars allowed. There's a small, step-back-in-time village with art galleries, a lighthouse and a museum, plus 17 miles of hiking trails (monheganwelcome.com).

It's all about the beach on Anna Maria Island—snowy white sand dotted with tiny coquina shells at the shoreline. The low-key Gulf Coast getaway, about 50 miles south of Tampa, is a slice of old Florida—a place blessedly free of high-rise hotels and fast-food franchises (annamariaislandchamber.org).

Rocky bluffs, miles of shoreline and a network of hiking trails make Madeline Island a popular Midwestern destination. It's in Lake Superior, off the north coast of Wisconsin (madelineisland.com).

About a two-hour boat ride from Ventura, California, the Channel Islands are home to 2,000 species of plants and animals, including four species of seals and sea lions and one-third of the world's whale, dolphin and porpoise species. Kayak through sea caves (nps.gov/chis).

Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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