Thinking about heading off for an island vacation? Sounds great, but sometimes the fantasy of that carefree getaway is trumped by reality when you face the crush of fellow relaxation seekers. A quiet rest on the beach turns into a race for the last lounge chair or dinner reservation. Here are some little known islands in and around North America where you can truly escape and unwind.
California: East Brother Island
On this one-acre islet, East Brother Light Station (doubles from $315), a restored Victorian lighthouse that once guided ships from the San Pablo Strait to the San Francisco stockyards, has been transformed into an all-inclusive five-room inn—it’s the only place to stay on the island. After arriving via a 10-minute motorboat ride from Point San Pablo, guests are welcomed with a flute of Domaine Chandon champagne. Climb to the third-story platform, which looks out over Mount Tamalpais State Park. In the morning, innkeepers Ed and Anne Witts (both experts on harbor lore) serve a hearty breakfast: pain au chocolat, herbed eggs, and fresh-roasted coffee.
Tip: Ask for either the West Brother room (with a four-poster bed and views of Marin County) or Two Sisters, for a private fireplace.
Oregon: Sauvie Island
Sauvie Island is the perfect destination for foodies looking for a day trip from Portland. Set between the Willamette and Columbia rivers, this 24,000-acre stretch of farmland is known among insiders as the epicenter of the Northwest’s locavore movement—and it’s just a 15-minute drive from Stumptown. In summer, stop at Sauvie Island Farms to pick plum-colored marionberries; on Thursdays in July and August, Kruger’s Farm Market hosts live outdoor music festivals. The single overnight option is a campsite booked through Island Cove Park (from $17 per tent per night).
Tip: For Sauvie Island–grown produce and bottles from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, try Wildwood Restaurant & Bar (dinner for two $90), in Portland.
Maine: Little Cranberry Island
Little Cranberry Island has only 80 year-round residents—mostly lobstermen and artists—a post office, one restaurant, and a small museum. Otherwise, the less than one-square-mile expanse is uninhabited—and ideal for cyclists. The main road, lined with wildflowers, takes you from the port to a rocky beach well situated for launching your kayak. Lobster rolls are a specialty at the wood-paneled Islesford Dock Restaurant (lunch for two $45). Rent a private cottage (islesford.com) or head back to the mainland and stay at the eight-room Kingsleigh Inn (doubles from $150), which overlooks the water.
Tip: Pick up colorful glass jewelry at Island Girl Seaglass.
Florida: Pigeon Key, Seabird Key, and East Sister Rock
For the ultimate dropout Keys experience, board the ferry to a cluster of unassuming islands off Marathon, including Pigeon Key, a three-acre green that housed the railroad builders who constructed the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West in 1912.
Today it’s a charming museum complex surrounded by grassy fields and shady palm trees. Take refuge on a nearby private island. The 10-acre Seabird Key($5,595 a week for four) is set up with a canoe, bikes, and a sailboat. Nearby, East Sister Rock ($5,000 a week) has a three-bedroom house with a wraparound veranda and a small dock.
Tip: In Marathon, lunch at the Keys Fisheries Market & Marina (lunch for two $31). Regulars order stone crab claws and Key lime pie.
British Columbia: Langara Island
On 8,000-acre Langara, the northernmost spot in the Haida Gwaii—formerly Queen Charlotte—archipelago (reachable via a two-hour flight from Vancouver), sea lions crowd rocky inlets, ravens soar over moss-covered cedars, and orcas and humpback whales migrate within the Pacific.
Get close to the wildlife with the West Coast Fishing Club (four days from $5,570 per person, all-inclusive), an outfitter that arranges four-day guided tours with stays in a hilltop timber lodge. The best dinner option is the hotel’s cliff-top Solarium, where chef Ryan Stone cooks with a decidedly Pacific Northwest flair; prawns with anise-liqueur espuma are a specialty.
Tip: For a lesson in Canadian history, visit the Haida Indian cultural center—with dugout canoes and burial caves on display—on neighboring Graham Island.
British Columbia: North and South Pender Islands
All eyes were on Vancouver this winter, but the cold kept visitors from opting for the two-hour ferry ride south to British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands. On North and South Pender—actually two islets united by a one-lane bridge—temperate rain forest abuts a scalloped coastline that was once the stomping ground of rumrunners during Prohibition.
For panoramas of the rocky shore and snowcapped mountains, reserve one of the three rooms at Sahhali Luxury Oceanfront Bed & Breakfast (doubles from $262, including breakfast), set atop a 400-foot bluff. On the less populated south island, there’s Poet’s Cove Resort & Spa (doubles from $290), a 46-guest-room resort with en suite soaking tubs and fireplaces and a 110-slip marina.
Tip: Join up-at-dawn locals at the Sunday farmers’ market for just-baked cinnamon buns and focaccia bread.
Quebec: Îles de la Madeleine
Were it not for the gusty winds that sweep along the beaches of Îles de la Madeleine, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 130 miles by plane from mainland Quebec, the dozen-island atoll may have remained isolated forever.
But now a growing sailing and windsurfing community books far in advance for one of the 10 renovated rooms at the convent turned hotel Domaine du Vieux Couvent (doubles from $190, including breakfast).
For an experience that’s even farther off the beaten path, take a 50-minute ferry ride to L’Île-d’Entrée, a favorite fishing spot.
Tip: Adventure seekers should arrange an afternoon of windsurfing through Aerosport, the most experienced local outfitter.
Mexico: Espíritu Santo
It’s not easy to find an undiscovered Mexican beach getaway, but a collection of islotes off Baja California Sur’s eastern shore remain pristine desert-island paradises. Instead of miles of resorts, you’ll find white-sand coasts and crimson peaks filled with UNESCO-protected wildlife. The most inviting is Espíritu Santo, a volcanic speck with shallow inlets that lies 15 miles from La Paz.
To get there, sign up for a one- to five-day cruise with the eco-minded Baja Expeditions (from $260 per person per night). There are no hotels, but travelers can sleep in the small vessel’s eight tents or opt for a night back in La Paz at Posada de las Flores (doubles from $180).
Tip: Round out the Baja Expeditions trip with a Mexican cooking class on the beach. Chef Antonio Orozco teaches you to make carne asada on a charcoal grill.
The Bahamas: Eleuthera
Regulars rejoice in the fact that this 110-mile-long island, with its peaceful pink-sand beaches, has played second fiddle to its smaller celebrity-filled neighbor, Harbour Island, for decades.
On the island’s northern end, all 26 rooms at Cove Eleuthera (doubles from $205) open onto expansive porches; to the south, the 32-room Pineapple Fields (doubles from $160) has a restaurant and lounge called Tippy’s (it’s one of the best in the Bahamas). The fast ferry from Nassau takes 2 1/2 hours.
Tip: Catch the hourly boat from Jean’s Bay dock to Spanish Wells, a diehard fisherman’s island, for a lesson in crawfish hunting and a stroll past harborfront houses covered in blooming bougainvillea.
British Virgin Islands: Anegada
The only coral island in the volcanic BVI chain, Anegada is also one of the largest—10 by 2 1/2 miles—and, unexpectedly, one of the most sparsely populated. An 80-minute ferry ride from Tortola (via Virgin Gorda), it is known for powdery beaches and a large flamingo population.
Accommodations are simple: the Anegada Reef Hotel (doubles from $175) is a modest 17-room property that often schedules soca music during cocktail hour. Cow Wreck Beach Resort (doubles from $250) has three waterfront cottages; head to the outdoor bar for Wreck punch, made with rum—and bartender Alex Warren won’t tell you what else.
Tip: While snorkeling Horseshoe Reef, the largest continuous barrier and patch reef in the Caribbean, look out for remnants of the 1859 cargo ship Parramatta.
Puerto Rico: Culebra
Sleepy Culebra—20 miles east of Puerto Rico—makes Vieques, its sister island, seem downright rowdy by comparison. The hilly landscape and abundance of wildlife preserves mean that development is minimal and the tiny airport will never see much more than an 18-seat twin-prop plane.
Ten beaches ring the shore; discerning travelers claim that crescent-shaped Playa Flamenco is the Caribbean’s most perfect swath of sand.
The one town, Dewey, is dotted with lagoon-side cafés framed in strings of lights. Stay at Club Seabourne (doubles from $199), where the lemon-yellow cottages have private verandas on a slope facing Fulladoza Bay.
Tip: Butiki sells landscape paintings by local artist Evan Schwarze and colorful, sought-after bracelets.