You come across three humpback whales on the ferry to Santa Cruz Island from the California mainland. Not the least bit troubled by our presence, they let you glide almost within touching distance before thrusting their tails out of the water and diving.
And so it goes on an isle that conjures California’s distant past, an American version of the Galapagos that harbors more than 700 species of plant and animal life. Pods of dolphins, sea lions basking on the stony shore; bright orange garibaldi and colonies of starfish inside half-submerged caves that can only be reached by kayak. The only thing missing are the Chumash Indians who lived here until well into the Spanish period.
Secluded, exotic, remote islands ... in the U.S.? You may not realize it, but America is full of gorgeous islands, some of them reachable only by plane or boat and others surprisingly close at hand. Some have never been settled and others support thriving little communities. But all are places where you can chill out for a long weekend or maybe even the rest of your life.
Like Santa Cruz, some islands are nature havens. The ancient boreal forest on Michigan’s Isle Royale supports the sort of creatures that once roamed the entire Great Lakes region—moose, beaver, lynx and wolves. Hiking trails and water routes link primitive campgrounds that seem more like the Yukon then somewhere within a few hundred miles of Chicago.
Alaska’s Kodiak may be the second largest island in the U.S. (after Hawaii’s Big Island), but the vast chunk of wilderness is virtually uninhabited. More than half the isle falls within the giant Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, home to the indigenous Kodiak brown bear who fish for salmon along more than a hundred streams.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are posh private island resorts of the sort you expect in the South Pacific or Caribbean rather than right off the American mainland. Florida’s Little Palm Island is like a Jimmy Buffett song come to life, cheeseburgers in paradise and margaritas all day long — although Kobe beef and Veuve Clicquot are also on the menu.
Developers tried turning South Carolina’s Daufuskie into a private island resort, but were largely rebuffed by island residents, who have fought a long and often contentious battle to save their palmetto paradise. The one exclusive gated community that did get built shares the rustic landfall with around 200 ordinary islanders, a mixed bag of artists and writers, fishermen and misfits who spurn the outside world. Singer John Mellencamp owns land on Daufuskie and is reportedly building a home.
Bygone island lifestyles are also making a stand on Sapelo off the Georgia coast. All of the island’s longtime residents trace their roots to African slaves who were brought to the island after the American Revolution to work the rice, indigo and cotton plantations. After the Civil War, they lived in seclusion for more than a century, blending African and American customs into a unique “Geechee” culture that still exists. Even today, the people of Sapelo live largely off the natural bounty of the island and surrounding waterways, allowing them to remain totally off the radar.