Though eco-travelers may be enthused about renting greener cars or making their road trips more environmentally friendly, sometimes it feels best to leave the car behind altogether. To that end, I’ve put together this introductory list of “car-free islands” in the U.S. There’s no better time than fall to discover them, when summer crowds have flocked back to the mainland, and these idyllic isles welcome slower-paced travelers yearning for a serene getaway.
Read on to learn more about these car-free islands:
- Mackinac Island, Michigan
- Tangier Island, Virginia
- Monhegan Island, Maine
- Fire Island, New York
- Catalina Island, California
Mackinac Island, Michigan
A trip to romantic Mackinac Island (pronounced “Mackinaw”) is like slipping back into a more genteel era. Much of the island appears as it did during the late 19th century, when it became a popular summer escape for well-heeled tourists and families of Midwest industry barons. Horse-drawn carriages transport guests around its mere 3.8 square miles of pine-studded terrain; bicycles, roller blades and horses for rent are also options. Overnight guests stay in Victorian inns and bed-and-breakfasts, or, if pocketbooks permit, the opulent Grand Hotel, which served as the film set for the much-beloved “Somewhere in Time.” An 8-mile road circles the island’s perimeter, with numerous smaller roads and trails criss-crossing the interior. Downtown is a lively cornucopia of shops, especially the many confectioneries that have sold the island’s famous fudge for decades.
Mackinac is located in Lake Huron, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, with ferry service from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. The island was inhabited by Native Americans before European exploration began in the 17th century; it later became a strategic trade and defense location during the Great Lakes fur trade, Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Given its extensive historic preservation, the entire island has been designated a National Historic Landmark. More than 80 percent of it is protected as Mackinac Island State Park, including historic Fort Mackinac. Motorized vehicles have been prohibited on the island since 1898, with the exception of emergency and service vehicles.
For more on Mackinac, visit the Victorian vacation isle’s official website.
Tangier Island, Virginia
This tiny island community in Chesapeake Bay, home to just 600 inhabitants, has attracted the attention of linguists because its people speak a unique English Restoration-era dialect of American English believed to be virtually unchanged since the days of its first occupation by English colonists in 1686. The isolation of the island over the centuries has preserved its distinctive speech patterns, and guests may feel they’ve entered a time warp as they listen to the cadences of the local “watermen” as they converse on the wharf.
Tangier is actually comprised of many small islands on Chesapeake’s Lower Eastern Shore that are separated by marshes and tidal streams and connected by wooden footbridges. The community’s livelihood is its fishing industry, and Tangier’s seafood is famous, especially its softshell crabs and oysters. It is served year-round by ferry from Crisman, Maryland, which also delivers the mail, and a summer passenger boat from Reedville, Virginia.
The island served as a British troop staging area during the War of 1812. It was used during the failed assault on Baltimore that served as the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Visitors can learn more about the island’s storied past and traditional ways at the Tangier History Museum. Today the island is a quiet retreat, with just a few gift shops, a restaurant and a hardware store as the only retail establishments. A handful of bed-and-breakfasts provide lodging for visitors.
Learn more about planning a visit to Tangier Island here.
Monhegan Island, Maine
Lying 12 miles off the crenellated coast of Maine, Monhegan Island is reached by mailboat ferry from Boothbay Harbor, New Harbor and Port Clyde. Its 48-foot lighthouse, dating to 1824, is visible from well out at sea as boats approach its rocky shores. Monhegan was originally a British fishing camp prior to the settlement at Plymouth Colony, when cod was harvested from the rich Gulf of Maine waters and dried here before shipment to Europe. Fishing is still the island’s main economic base, as lobstermen bring in a large sustainable catch from the only lobster conservation area in the state.
The beginnings of an art colony on Monhegan date to the mid-19th century; by 1890 it was firmly established. Monhegan still draws many artists who come to visit or live seasonally, painting and sketching the rockbound coast, ocean vistas and multitude of migrating birds. Among many prominent artists who have found inspiration on the island are Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, both of whom painted the 150-foot cliffs at Blackhead on the north side of the island. Tourists can find works by contemporary artists for sale in the island’s handful of galleries.
Fiercely protected by its residents, the island remains remarkably unspoiled. Much of it is uninhabited and open to exploration via 17 miles of public hiking trails. Visitors will also want to stop at the Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum, housed in the former keeper’s house on the lighthouse grounds.
For details on how to reach the island and book a place to stay at one of several cottages or inns that host guests, check out this online visitors guide.
Fire Island, New York
Though Fire Island lies just off Long Island, it is a world apart. The western and eastern ends of this 32-mile-long, half-mile-wide barrier island are accessible by automobile from Long Island, but visitors must leave their cars behind in the large parking fields: the space in between is restricted to pedestrians, cyclists and golf carts. In the off-season, a limited number of driving permits are available for permanent residents and contractors, but the overall feel of the island is one of non-motorized tranquility. Most visitors reach Fire Island via one of the numerous ferries that serve it from the Long Island towns of Patchogue, Sayville and Bay Shore.
The island, once a thriving whaling center in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a renowned beach house locale for legions of well-to-do New York actors, artists, musicians and other wealthy denizens. It has avoided the commercialism and class-snobbery of the Hamptons, however, due in part to the fact that the majority of the island is protected as parkland and none of the roads are paved. Though island nightlife is lively, dress is casual, and an unpretentious, bohemian atmosphere prevails.
One of Fire Island’s natural highlights is the Sunken Forest in Sailor’s Haven, one of the few remaining maritime forests on the Eastern Seaboard. Tucked between two huge sand dunes, this 40-acre mini-ecosystem features twisted trees that have been shaped by the harsh winds and constant salt spray, freshwater marshland, and abundant wildlife. Part of Fire Island National Seashore, the Sunken Forest earned its name because it appears to lie below sea level — but it’s just an illusion created by the tall dunes that surround it. Miles of roller-coaster boardwalks offer access over the dunes, providing close-up views of the gnarled holly, sassafras and shadblow trees, some of which are over 200 years old. Sumac, bayberry, blueberry, bearberry and wild grape color the forest floor. Those who look up will see — and hear — some of the forest’s 300 bird species in the twisted canopy. In the off-season, a quiet walk through the odd forms of the Sunken Forest feels like a scene from a fairytale.
Nature defines life on Fire Island, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it — shelling, clamming, biking, boating, kayaking, swimming, even year-round surfing (during winter Nor’easters, only for ultimate diehards!). Taking in the view from the top of the 1857 Fire Island Lighthouse is also a must-do: on a clear day, observers can even see the New York City skyline. The island is home to several towns, each with a distinctive personality. Charming, old-school Ocean Beach is where visitors will find the greatest number of shops, restaurants and bars.
Click here for an online travel guide to Fire Island.
Catalina Island, California
The only Pacific coast island on this list, Santa Catalina lies 20 miles off the California coast and is administered by Los Angeles County. Most of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, dedicated to protecting its outstanding natural heritage. About 85 percent of Catalina’s 4,000 residents live in the only town, Avalon. The island was largely uninhabited at the end of the 19th century save for a few cattle herders, but as the young city of Los Angeles boomed, so too did the island, as a nearby vacation destination.
While not technically car-free, most Catalina residents get around by golf cart, since vehicle permits are severely restricted. The current wait list to bring a car to the island is about 10 years. Ferries from Dana Point, Newport Beach, Long Beach and Marina del Rey bring about one million visitors a year to Catalina, but the island remains a peaceful haven with 42,000 acres of land and 50 miles of rugged shoreline protected from development. Visitors who wish to hike or mountain bike on Conservancy land can do so with a day permit obtained from the Conservancy’s office in Avalon. Bicycles and golf carts are available for visitors to rent.
Another enjoyable activity is to view the reefs and shipwrecks off Catalina’s rugged coast on a glass-bottom boat tour. Snorkeling and scuba diving are also popular pastimes in the clear waters off Catalina, with schools of flying fish and teeming bright orange Garibaldi frequently seen. Bus, Jeep and zipline tours of the island’s interior are also available — and while you’re at it, keep your eyes open for buffalo! They were brought here originally as “extras” for a 1924 movie filmed on the island, and now comprise a resident wild herd.
To download the official Catalina Island Visitors Guide, visit the Catalina Chamber’s info-rich website.