White sand beaches, pristine waters and scenic getaways aren't as far away as you may think. Travelers who'd prefer to skip a long flight to Hawaii or the Caribbean can find many island paradises right in the continental United States — and they're only a drive, boat ride or short flight away.
From whale watching trips in the Pacific Northwest to untouched shorelines in North Carolina, America's most scenic islands provide worthwhile alternatives to pricey tropical resorts.
The Pacific Northwest offers "stunning" views of forested beaches and sea animals, especially from the San Juan Islands in Washington, says Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet. Travelers can get around the archipelago (which is nestled between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia) by a ferry system. Most people opt to lodge on San Juan Island, but Orcas island is also a popular spot for tourists, especially those who want to catch sight of local whale pods.
"It feels like a stepping stone to Alaska," Reid says. "You see a lot of wildlife you wouldn't see in other places."
Further down the West Coast lie the scenic Channel Islands, the most famous of which is Catalina Island, just 22 miles off the shore of Los Angeles.
Visitors can dine and shop in Avalon, the Channel Islands' only city. For a more rugged experience, visitors can explore the natural hiking trails on the other side of the island. Other must-dos on Catalina include snorkeling, kayaking (the region is home to colonies of sea lions, dolphins and whales) and a visit to Casino Point Underwater Park.
"A lot of people don't really consider the availability of an unspoiled natural environment so close to L.A.," says Jess Moss, editor at Fodor's. "It's a great day trip from Los Angeles and can be a very different experience from a city vacation."
For a step back in time, visit Michigan's Mackinac Island, which is reminiscent of a Victorian luxury getaway. The island is a national historic site and has prohibited the use of cars for more than a century — the best way to get around is by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage.
"It's really a time-warpy, old fashioned, water taffy kind of place," says Holly Hughes, co-author of 500 Extraordinary Islands and a former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Guides.
During the summer, Mackinac hosts the world's longest freshwater yacht race and an annual fudge festival. The island is home to several historic hotels that were built in the late 1800s, including the Grand Hotel, which has the longest front porch in the world.
For gorgeous beaches and affordable vacation homes, many East Coast travelers opt to spend a few days in the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
With adjacent seas nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Outer Banks are home to rough waters that are often more ideal for surfing than swimming. Nancy Schretter, managing editor of the travel website Family Travel Network, recommends Hatteras Island, along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, for "its miles and miles of pristine beaches with very white sand and rolling dunes." Hatteras visitors can bring dogs on the beach, a bonus for travelers who want to vacation with their pets.
Beachgoers can travel further south to Cumberland Island in Georgia for an even more secluded experience. Once owned by the Carnegie family, Cumberland Island is part of the national seashore, and was a popular vacation spot for wealthy Americans in the late 1800s. More recently, John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette in 1996 on Cumberland Island, inside the historic First African Baptist Church.
To get to Cumberland, visitors must hop on a ferry from St. Mary's, Ga. — there are no cars on the island and few paved paths. Like the nearby Golden Isles of Georgia, Cumberland Island has miles of trails for horseback riding and hiking.
"What's most striking about Cumberland Island is its beautiful white sand beach — it stretches for 16 miles and feels like a wild, undisturbed beach," says Giampiero Ambros, general manager of travel site Virtual Tourist.
Among the Barrier Islands along the Gulf Coast in Florida, Sanibel Island is considered one of the best shelling destinations in the world — with beaches abound with conch, scallops and lightning whelk seashells. A must-see for nature enthusiasts is the island's J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to more than 220 species of birds. Visitors can island hop to the more exclusive beaches on nearby Captiva Island by crossing Sanibel-Captiva Road and on North Captiva Island, by taking a ferry.
Whether for a romantic getaway, a family vacation or a camping trip, escaping to an under-the-radar island right in the U.S. could save you the fuss of flying--and afford you more time to relax.
© 2012 Forbes.com