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10 U.S. Islands Where You Can Beat the Winter Blues

© Lloyd Smith |

Who says you need a passport to escape to an island in wintertime? As the countdown to warmer weather begins, now is the perfect time to escape to any number of American islands that will banish your cold-weather woes. Besides being conveniently located, these islands are often budget-friendly, too. Read on to discover 10 destinations that are guaranteed to put some spring in your winter step. —Deb Hopewell

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Catalina Island

WHERE: California

In summertime, rocky Catalina Island is teeming with tourists who’ve taken the 25-mile ferry ride from Los Angeles, but in winter (with comfortable average temperatures in the mid-60s) you’ll feel like you have it to yourself. Catalina severely restricts cars; you can rent golf carts, but walking is the best way to discover Avalon—the little town that chewing gum built. William Wrigley’s circular, art deco Catalina Casino is a good first stop, housing the first theater built specifically for “talking” movies in 1929. From the center of town, head a mile inland on Avalon Canyon Road to begin climbing the Hermit Gulch Trail—you’ll be rewarded with expansive views of the town below and the Pacific Ocean on both sides of you.

Insider Tip: The Catalina Conservancy, which owns nearly 90 percent of the island, requires hikers to get a (free) permit before going out on any of the trails.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Catalina Island Guide

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Hilton Head Island

WHERE: South Carolina

Hilton Head claims its fair share of outdoor activities (most notably golf), but this island has more going for it than most when it comes to cultural opportunities and upscale restaurants. After a day of beach-biking, tennis, or kayaking, catch a performance by the Hilton Head Choral Society, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, dance, or theater at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

Insider Tip: For great views of the island, visit the red-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse, in the south-side enclave of Sea Pines. Photographs and relics line the walls, stitching together the history of the area as you climb the tower’s 114 steps. For $3.75, step out onto the 90-foot-high observation deck and take in a breathtaking panorama of ocean, harbor, and fairway green.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Hilton Head Island Guide

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South Padre Island

WHERE: Texas

Thanks to South Padre Island’s typically warm winter temperatures and Gulf waters, beach activities like kite-surfing and jet-skiing are almost never out of the question, and even the water park at the Schlitterbahn Beach Resort keeps weekend hours. For quieter pursuits, take a dolphin-watching cruise or head to the South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center for world-class bird-watching. South Padre isn’t lacking for nightlife—there are plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from as the sun begins to set.

Insider Tip: South Padre is an extremely popular spring break destination, with thousands of Texas students jamming the causeway from Port Isabel. PLAN YOUR VISIT accordingly if you want to avoid the Girls Gone Wild crowd.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce

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Key West

WHERE: Florida

Favored by US presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter) and writers (most famously Ernest Hemingway), Key West today is a colorful jumble of art galleries, colorful conch-colored cottages, booze emporiums, and all variety of restaurants. Locals embody the island’s bohemian identity, so the street theater here is non-stop. There are plenty of funky boutiques and purveyors of upscale goods (mod-print pioneer Lily Pulitzer got her start here)—but you’ll want to steer clear of Duval Street for shopping, unless tacky T-shirts are your thing.

Insider Tip: Driving in Key West is a futile endeavor: The streets are crammed to capacity with cars, and parking spots are nearly non-existent. Get to your destination quicker and easier by riding a bike, just like the locals do. There are several reputable rental companies, many of which will drop your bike off at your hotel.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Key West Guide

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Amelia Island

WHERE: Florida

Once the playground of wealthy captains of industry like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and DuPont, Ameila Island has become known for it’s first-rate golf resorts. Nonetheless, the island has managed to preserve a good chunk of its Southern charm and 19th-century history, with Fernandina’s 50 blocks of late-Victorian architecture deemed a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. Wander the streets at your leisure, join a guided tour, or take a horse-and-buggy ride, then grab a picnic lunch and head to the beach.

Insider Tip: Civil War-era Fort Clinch never saw battle, so the intact brick building is one of the best-preserved forts of the era. On the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, reenactors portray life inside the fort as it was in 1864.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Amelia Island Guide

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St. John

WHERE: US Virgin Islands

On St. John, the smallest, sleepiest, and least populated of the three US Virgin Islands, it’s all about the beach. Trunk Bay Beach, bequeathed to the National Park Service by the Rockefeller family in 1956 (Virgin Islands National Park covers nearly two-thirds of the island), is regularly cited as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, favored for its powdery sand and 225-yard-long, self-guided coral-reef “trail.” For visitors on a budget, there are 126 tents and cottages for rent at Cinnamon Bay campground—a rare find in the Caribbean (rooms from $126, tents from $37).

Insider Tip: Shopping on St. John is not in the same luxury or duty-free class as neighboring St. Thomas (which is only a short ferry ride away, should you want to stock up). But there’s an afternoon’s worth of browsing for cool finds at Mongoose Junction and Wharfside Village in Cruz Bay.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s St. John Guide

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Dauphin Island

WHERE: Alabama

To escape the crowds of other Gulf Coast islands, you’ll find long stretches of uncrowded beaches on Dauphin Island. You won’t find much in the way of shopping, nightlife, or entertainment, but if you enjoy quiet and wildlife, the island is a great choice. The Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries are considered one of the best spots in this corner of the country for bird-watching.

Insider Tip: There aren’t a lot of restaurant options on Dauphin, so be prepared to bring provisions with you. Renting a cottage or condo is relatively inexpensive, and it gives you flexibility to cook your own meals.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Dauphin Island Tourism

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Marco Island

WHERE: Florida

With its white-sand beaches, abundant resorts, and reasonably priced restaurants, Marco Island draws families wanting to enjoy the simple pleasures of collecting shells and playing in the warm Gulf waters (or the resort pool). For those looking for a day off the island, there’s nearby Everglades National Park—you can book one of the many “swamp buggy” or airboat tours on the island (kids love them).

Insider Tip: For some local charm, take the 10-minute drive to the tiny fishing community of Goodland, on the southeast corner of the island, especially on a weekend. They say you don’t have to be a card-carrying eccentric to live here, but it doesn’t hurt. Spend an hour or two with a cold beverage in hand, soaking in the character.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Marco Island Guide

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Big Island

WHERE: Hawaii

Although winter is Hawaii’s busiest time for tourists, the Big Island tends to have more reasonable room rates year-round than some of the other popular Hawaiian islands. The bustling town of Kailua-Kona, on the leeward (dry) side, is the hub of tourism with its many shops, restaurants, bars, and resorts. It’s also the best home base for exploring the beaches and historic sites, or booking a helicopter tour over Waimea Valley and Volcanoes National Park.

Insider Tip: If you’re adventurous, snorkeling at night with magnificent manta rays is a nearly life-changing experience (there are many operators offering tours). If you’d prefer to stay dry, the Sheraton Kona’s Rays on the Bay restaurant, perched on the rocks above Keauhou Bay, offers singularly incredible views of the feeding rays as they carve arcs in the water, drawn to the hotel’s lights above.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Big Island Guide

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San Juan Island

WHERE: Washington

This island isn’t necessarily a place to escape winter, but it is a place to revel in the season’s constantly changing light and weather. Glorious sunny (but cold) days aren’t unheard of on San Juan Island, and they’re perfect for a hike up Mt. Young for the beautiful vistas, or a stroll through the 20-acre sculpture garden at Wescott Bay Reserve. If wet weather sets in, you can still enjoy strolling through the many art galleries and boutiques in Friday Harbor.

Insider Tip: Beat winter at its own game by staying warm and cozy: Rent a waterfront cabin with a fireplace, such as those at Snug Harbor Resort (rooms from $150) or Lonesome Cove Resort (rooms from $180).

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Juan Islands Guide