You may think you can only find exotic destinations outside the contiguous United States in places that require you to flash your passport to enter, mistakenly believing that it is this document alone that gains access to an intriguing world of different cultures, ethnic foods and unfamiliar scenery. But look closer or — should we say — nearer. While we recommend that everyone apply for a passport, there are islands with cultures so unique you will wonder if you are still in North America; not only do you not need a passport, but you can undertake these travels comfortably in four days (what we like to term a civilized weekend).
Soak in the aloha spirit on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the most westerly of the six main islands. Drive to Kee Beach for a swim and from there see Makana Peak, where oahi, fire-throwing ceremonies, used to take place. You can also hike to view an ancient heiau, a stone platform used for worship and ceremonies, where hula was taught for more than 1,000 years. Kauai combines legend with adventure, so see the Na Pali Coast by sea and by air. If you go with a guide, you’ll learn some ancient Polynesian, soak beneath waterfalls and laze around some of America’s best beaches; when you see them, so tropical and gorgeous, you won’t believe that you didn’t need a passport to enter this ruggedly beautiful teardrop in the sea.
Escape life and head to the Chesapeake Bay island of Tangier, an hour-and-a-half ferry ride from Onancock, Virginia. There are no stoplights, no ATMs, few cars and locals who speak a dialect based on Elizabethan English, a holdover from the original island settlers who came in 1608 from Cornwall, England. The biggest distractions include a one-room museum of fishing artifacts in the back of Sandy’s Place gift shop, the beach and the soft-shell crabs. Crabbing is a big industry on island and the shellfish will be an integral part of your diet (along with Virginia ham). Lodging is limited to only a couple of choices, including the Bay View Inn. Or overnight on island as part of a three-day kayak adventure through Tangier Sound.
Hop on a jet to St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and ready yourself for an exotic adventure. Here, Creole is spoken, madras cloth and moko jumbies liven up festivals, and street corners are decorated by stands selling callaloo stew and maubi, a slightly fermented drink from maubi tree bark, to wash it all down. Plus you can see traces of European influence — the island has been ruled by seven different nations — especially from the Danish who occupied St. Croix from 1733-1917. They came to grow sugar on the fertile flatlands of the southern third of the island; you’ll come for the beaches and colonial relics. Visit the main towns — Christiansted to the north and Frederiksted to the west — whose historic districts are peppered with scale and customs houses, old government buildings, Danish West India Company warehouses and elaborate homes detailed with fretwork. Outside the main towns, the remains of 54 sugar mills, including those at Whim Plantation, Judith’s Fancy and the Little Princess Estate, stand testament to the island’s “sugar is king” history. But today the Danish architecture is only one aspect of a living and breathing culture.
Ninety-nine percent of Sapelo Island is preserved marshland. The other nearly one percent of the island is protected culture: the Gullah, descendants of slaves who once worked the plantations in this area, now live in the community of Hog Hammock. Resident Cornelia Walker Bailey has written books on the cultural secrets of the island. Come for a day trip, and Bailey’s son Maurice will give you a tour of historic and natural sites, or you can stay overnight in her simple guesthouse, The Wallow, in the Gullah village.
Less than a three-hour flight from Seattle you’ll find a seaside town where totem poles and Russian Orthodox church spires share the skyline: Sitka on Baranof Island, located on the seaward side of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Sitka has been home for centuries to the Tlingits, Alaska Native people, and through much of the 19th century to the Russian-American Company, once the world’s most profitable fur-trading company. Russia eventually sold Alaska to the United States, and the transfer ceremony took place here in 1867. Whether you are on a shore excursion from a cruise ship or on island for an extended visit, see the Russian and Alaska Native artifacts, such as a collection of totem poles at the Sitka National Historical Park’s museum. Interact one-on-one in the workshops of master native artists also located in the park, at its Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. Round out the cultural experience by seeing the Tlingit Dancers perform traditional songs and dances in full regalia at the tribe’s community center, or see the New Archangel Dancers perform Russian and Ukrainian folk favorites at Harrigan Centennial Hall. Go kayaking to see puffins and sea otters, or watch migrating humpback whales in spring and fall from shore at Whale Park. After all that fresh air ignites your appetite, head for Ludvig’s Bistro, a cozy storefront known for its fresh fare and creative menu, located on Katlian Drive in town.
Hablas español? Learn a few words before you travel to the Spanish Virgin Island of Culebra, which is about equidistant between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. Culebra is known for its virgin beaches; the nearby cay of Culebrita, only accessible by boat, has a beautiful strip of sand. For an easier-to-reach beach, head to Flamenco Beach on Culebra’s north coast, easily the island’s most popular. In the main town of Dewey, breathe in the adobo and sofrito spices that waft from restaurants and sample local dishes such as empanadillas, crescent pockets filled with seafood or meat, or asopao, a type of gumbo. Like the island itself, the cuisine is a mix of styles: a little Spanish, a little African with hints of Indian influences from early Arawak and Taino people. Stay at one of the many small inns or guesthouses. To get here, catch the ferry from Fajardo on Puerto Rico’s east coast.
Each issue of ISLANDS Magazine explores the most beautiful island destinations in the world, from tropical island outposts to the sophisticated gems of the Mediterranean. Our top-rate photographers and writers discover the quiet beaches, boutique hotels, and unique cultural experiences that make island travel unique.