The Best Island Vacations for Families in the Southeast U.S.
Fun times await all ages on these isles in Virginia, Florida and the Carolinas
Many families are currently dreaming about their next island getaway—and the good news is a passport isn’t always required. There are magnificent island escapes in the United States loaded with stunning white sand beaches, abundant wildlife and memorable experiences. Some of these enchanting isles are accessible by car, while others can be reached only by boat or ferry.
If your family is craving a fantastic island vacation closer to home, here are seven of the best island getaways in the Southeast United States:
Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, Virginia
Families that love wild ponies and Marguerite Henry’s children’s books will fall in love with Chincoteague Island, Virginia. This serene island is far removed in spirit from the crowded, action-packed beach towns located just an hour away. Chincoteague was voted the Best Coastal Small Town in the United States in the 2020 USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. Here you’ll find seafood eateries, shops, attractions and nature galore. Chincoteague Island is also an excellent spot for outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, fishing, crabbing and watersports.
There are many hotels, inns and vacation home rentals available on seven-mile-long Chincoteague Island, which is separated from neighboring Assateague Island by a small bridge. Located on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is an over 14,000-acre preserve that’s home to a large herd of the island’s world-famous wild ponies.
Virginia’s share of Assateague Island also features the lofty Assateague Island Lighthouse and 10 miles of stunning Assateague Island National Seashore beaches, all of which are completely undeveloped. Shelling, swimming and family picnics on the beach are very popular, and bottlenose dolphins can often be spotted off the coast.
Bald Head Island, North Carolina
Located at the convergence of North Carolina’s Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, this 12,000-acre subtropical island can only be reached by ferry or private boat. No cars are allowed on Bald Head Island and transportation is available by tram, bicycles or golf carts. Bald Head Island is known for its 14 miles of wide sandy beaches as well as its extensive range of recreational activities.
Families can enjoy hiking, biking, boating, kayaking, surfing, fishing, golf and tennis. Nature programs and children’s camps are available throughout the summer. Loggerhead turtles nest along the shores from June through early August, and the island’s 10,000 unspoiled scenic acres are inviting. Vacationers also have fun climbing Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest-standing lighthouse. A wide variety of multi-bedroom vacation home rentals are available on Bald Head Island, including some pet-friendly accommodations.
Duck Key, Florida
The Florida Keys archipelago is known for its incredible natural beauty, wide array of water sports including world-class boating and fishing, and captivating tropical sunsets. Secluded Duck Key is located midway down the island chain, making it a perfect base for exploring all the Florida Keys have to offer.
Duck Key is also home to award-winning Hawks Cay Resort, which offers an extensive choice of upscale accommodations and immersive experiences for vacationers of all ages. Beautifully transformed after a $50 million renovation, the AAA Four Diamond property is set on 60 acres providing peaceful water views.
Hawks Cay Resort was named the top family resort in the United States in the 2020 USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. Families can stay in the resort’s large guestrooms or opt for the property’s spacious multi-bedroom villas. Hawks Cay features top-notch dining venues, a full-service marina, a wide-ranging selection of watersports and recreational activities, five swimming pools and a massive saltwater lagoon, eight tennis courts, an onsite Dolphin Connection program, and a well-equipped 7,000-square-foot spa and fitness center. Families rave about the resort’s outstanding kids and teens programs held at Coral Cay, the resort’s activities and adventures center.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Hilton Head Island is a top choice for family vacationers. Located just 40 miles from Savannah, Georgia, Hilton Head Island is easily accessible by car and offers a wide variety of resorts, hotels and vacation home rentals. Hilton Head Island was voted the #1 Island in the United States for the fifth consecutive year in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards.
The island was named the top island in the continental United States in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards for the fifth time as well. Hilton Head Island is a superb destination for active family vacationers who are seeking a wide variety of things to see and do.
Hilton Head Island’s mix of world-class golf courses, wide beaches and great restaurants has lured many vacationers back year after year. It’s an excellent place for families to enjoy boating and a wide variety of watersports, take part in memorable tours and experiences, learn about Gullah culture, and dine on delicious seafood. Hilton Head Island has been recognized as one of the best family beach destinations in the country, with more than 12 miles of beaches to enjoy. Biking on the island’s wide beaches at low tide is lots of fun as well.
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
South Carolina’s Kiawah Island is outstanding on all sides: ocean, marsh, bay and river. Located just 21 miles south of Charleston and easily accessible by car, Kiawah Island Golf Resort features wide beaches, a vast array of accommodations, world-class golf, tennis, spa and fitness facilities, and an extensive menu of daily activities and events. Ten miles of pristine private beaches stretch from east to west, offering outstanding views of the Atlantic from oceanfront condominiums and vacation homes. The remainder of the island is surrounded by marshes and lagoons.
Families can stay at The Sanctuary, Kiawah Island’s award-winning oceanfront luxury hotel or choose from hundreds of island villas and multi-bedroom homes. Nature- and sports-oriented activities are offered for children, teens and adults. Kamp Kiawah will keep kids ages 3-7 busy with activities, swimming, arts and crafts, and themed nature programs. The resort also offers Adventure Camp and Camp Xtreme for children ages 8-15.
Known as one of the best golf resorts in the nation, Kiawah Island Golf Resort offers five championship golf courses including The Ocean Course, which features the most seaside holes in the Northern Hemisphere. Kiawah’s Tennis Center has earned numerous accolades as well. Golf and tennis lessons are available for kids, teens and adults. Kiawah Island Resort also offers pools, restaurants and miles of paved biking paths for families to enjoy.
North Captiva Island, Florida
Families can escape life’s hectic pace and make memories together on North Captiva Island. While some Florida coastal vacation destinations are packed with people, this low-key barrier isle retains its original peaceful charm. North Captiva Island is just a short private ferry ride away from the Southwest Florida mainland. There are no cars on the island and electric golf carts are used for transportation.
North Captiva’s Salty Approach private airstrip provides access for small private planes. About two-thirds of North Captiva Island’s 700 acres has been designated as a state land preserve, so it’s easy for families to find their own secluded spot on this unspoiled isle. North Captiva’s five miles of white sand beaches are covered with shells, and dolphins and manatees are often spotted in the surrounding waters.
Popular activities include boating, fishing, biking and beachcombing. Along with neighboring Sanibel and Captiva Islands, North Captiva Island is one of the top spots for shell collecting in the United States. Private boat tours, shelling excursions and ferry rides are available to nearby Cabbage Key and Boca Grande. There are no hotels on North Captiva Island, but families can rent private vacation homes and villas. Some offer private pools and a few are pet-friendly.
North Captiva Island Club and Safety Harbor Club provide resort-style amenities for guests including pools, tennis courts, a few restaurants, and access to bikes, kayaks, and marina facilities. North Captiva Island is a tropical paradise well-suited for vacationers seeking a relaxing getaway. Families wishing to have access to cars, shops, numerous restaurants, and other amenities may wish to vacation on nearby Sanibel Island or Captiva Island instead.
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Ocracoke Island was once the secluded refuge of Blackbeard the pirate and it’s still a top escape for vacationers today. Officially part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Ocracoke’s sandy strands are legendary. The island offers 16 miles of undeveloped coastline for families to enjoy. Ocracoke’s Lifeguarded Beach has been named one of America’s best beaches for the last consecutive six years by Stephen Leatherman, also known as Dr. Beach.
Ocracoke Island is accessible by three different ferry routes, by boat or via private plane. Families can rent private vacation homes and cottages, camp at the National Park Service’s Ocracoke Campground, or stay in small inns and lodges. While automobiles are allowed on Ocracoke Island, vacationers can also get around the island by bike, tram or golf cart. Off-road vehicles are permitted on the beach.
The National Park Service staffs the Ocracoke Island Discover Center and offers nature-oriented programs for both adults and children. Fishing, biking, shelling, birdwatching and a wide variety of watersports are popular here. Families can visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse and stop by the National Park Service’s 188-acre Ocracoke Pony Pens to spot Ocracoke’s Banker Ponies as well.
Vacationers also enjoy taking the free Hatteras Ferry to explore Hatteras Island, hiking on Ocracoke’s Hammock Hills Nature Trail and enjoying memorable seafood dinners at one of the eateries in charming Ocracoke Village. Families seeking a wider variety of restaurants, attractions and shops may want to choose an alternative Outer Banks destination such as Duck or Corolla.
By Nancy Schretter, Contributing Editor
Header Photo Courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort