5 Car-Free Vacation Islands
We found five U.S. destinations that let families really get away from it all—including their cars!
Sometimes, less is more. There’s something special about slowing down and taking the kiddos somewhere with simple pleasures—no cars, fewer people, and a quiet vibe. You read that right—even in 2018, there still are a handful of places across the country that don’t allow vehicles. Many of the spots are islands, where families leave their minivans on the mainland and explore instead by foot, bike, boat, or the occasional golf cart. With no traffic in sight, kids are free to roam, and parents are free to truly relax. (Exhale now.) Here are five to consider, with a rundown on how to get there and what to do once you arrive.
North Captiva Island, FL
Size: About 2 square miles
Location: In the Gulf of Mexico, just west of mainland Florida, just north of Sanibel Island
Getting There: Ferries from Pine Island cost $20 each way. See northcaptiva.com for schedules.
Lodging: Mostly vacation-home rentals; prices start at $169 a night.
As far as islands go, North Captiva is a relative rookie. It was cut off from the larger Captiva Island during a hurricane in 1921 and has remained separate—and accessible only by boat—ever since.
Today most of the island’s family-friendly offerings revolve around the great outdoors. There are about 5 miles of white-sand beaches, where visitors can spot shells like pink and purple tellins, yellow cockles, corkscrew-shaped augers, and spotted junonias (although you are not supposed to actually take said beach treasures). The island also has a 700- acre tract of conservation land, where families can go to spot tortoises, birds, snakes, raccoons, and bobcats.
Dining on North Captiva is an intimate experience—with only four restaurants, you’re bound to run into the same families again and again. Most moms and dads swear by Barnacle Phil’s (239-472-1200), an island-style diner that specializes in comfort food and key lime pie.
Santa Catalina Island, CA
Size: About 76 square miles
Location: Pacific Ocean, southwest of Los Angeles
Getting There: Ferry service from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point costs $37 each way.
Lodging: Rentals start at $129 a night; the Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Island has family rooms with bunk beds. Rates start at $250 a night.
Catalina Island bills itself as “Kidalina” for families, and the nickname fits.
Most of the island’s formal activities are in and around the main town, Avalon. Beaches are serious business there, and the four most family-friendly options—South, Middle, Step, and Descanso—all are within a short walk of downtown. Activities range from swimming and snorkeling to stand-up paddling and kayaking. The water is so clear, you can see orange garibaldi fish darting beneath you as you go. You can spot even more colorful fish on popular glass-bottomed boat and semisubmersible submarine tours. (Check out catalinaadventuretours.com or visitcatalinaisland.com.)
But perhaps the most popular activity on Catalina is watching the sun set. Make a reservation for the overwater patio at Avalon’s Blue Water Grill for a front-row seat.
Fire Island, NY
Size: About 32 miles long
Location: A barrier island off Long Island, east of New York City
Getting There: Ferry service from Sayville, Bay Shore, and other towns on Long Island costs $10 each way for adults and $5 for kids.
Lodging: Vacation rentals start at around $149 per night. Or try The Palms Hotel for $263 a night.
Fire Island is made up of 17 communities linked by narrow boardwalks over the sand. Technically, the western end of the strip—near Robert Moses State Park—allows cars. The rest is completely car-free.
Head to the Atlantic Ocean beaches on the south shore for long stretches of sand perfect for building sand castles, playing Frisbee, wavedodging, and more. Another day, explore the island’s north shore, which faces the calm Great South Bay and is perfect for kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding.
The main attraction on Fire Island is its eponymous lighthouse, built in 1858. On ground level, the museum's exhibits paint a picture of Long Island from before the housing explosion of the 1950s. If your kids are feeling adventurous, climb the 182 steps to the top of the tower. On a crystalclear day, you can even see the New York City skyline 40 miles west.
Mackinac Island, MI
Size: About 4 square miles
Location: Lake Huron, between the Michigan “mainland” and the Upper Peninsula
Getting There: Ferry service from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace is about $24.
Lodging: Mostly hotels, with rates starting around $89 per night; both the Mission Point Resort and Grand Hotel have family specific packages.
The most important detail about Mackinac Island is how to pronounce it—it’s “Mack-in-aw,” with a silent C. Once you’ve got that down, you can move on to the area's three distinct diversions: history, carriage rides, and fudge.
Fort Mackinac, much of which is still intact, dates to the American Revolution, when the island was under British rule. Today, interpreters dressed in period costume retell stories, fire cannons, and do reenactments.
Horse-drawn carriage rides offer quite an adventure, spanning nearly 90 minutes and taking passengers on tours that cover most of the island.
Finally, of course, is the fudge. The sweet treat has been a mainstay on the island since the 1800s, and today shops up and down Main Street sell variations. Visitors gravitate toward the selections at Ryba’s, Murdick’s, Joann’s, and May’s. The best of the bunch? You’ll just have to decide that for yourself.
Smith Island, MD/VA
Size: About 6 square miles
Location: Smack in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, about two hours from Washington, D.C.
Getting There: Ferries from Crisfield, on the Delmarva Peninsula, service the island’s two main towns; fares are $20 each way. See visitsmithisland.com.
Lodging: Inns, vacation rentals, and a motel; rates start at $99 a night.
Family fun on Smith Island is all about the water. Visitors spend hours “proging,” or beachcombing, for sea glass, arrowheads, shark teeth, buoys, and driftwood. Private-boat captains whisk families to nearby Shankes Island, a great place to glimpse baby pelicans, or to the adjacent Glenn Martin National Wildlife Refuge; ask for names and numbers at the Drum Point Market in Tylerton. There’s also kayaking and canoeing—many overnight accommodations come with these water vessels, and rentals are available from outfitter Crisfield Kayaking (443-783-2486).
For on-land action, head to the two main towns of Ewell and Tylerton. Ewell is the larger of the two, with a visitor center that has exhibits detailing the history of the island, as well as a klatch of vacation rentals. In Tylerton, the Drum Point Market is the center of activity and serves up some pretty epic crab cakes.