A Laidback Family Vacation? Here Are the 7 Best U.S. Islands for Fun-Filled Escapes

These scenic U.S. islands are especially great for families.
Coupeville Wharf on Washington's Whidbey Island (Photo: Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands)
Coupeville Wharf on Washington's Whidbey Island (Photo: Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands)

Island travel holds a lot of appeal for families. Maybe it’s the gorgeous ocean views and pristine beaches that lure us to the most idyllic U.S. islands. Maybe it’s the laidback coastal vibes that make them such a great family vacation idea. I have many fond memories of visiting Martha’s Vineyard, Amelia Island, and Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island as a child. For my own little one, there’s something especially magical about taking a ferry to reach our destination.

Of course, not all island vacations in the U.S. need to be accessible by ferry to be charming, but the county’s best islands for family vacations are typically surrounded by large bodies of water, making them feel remote and removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. If you’re dreaming of a passport-free island vacation with the kids, these are the U.S. islands that have a special appeal to families.

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1. Whidbey Island, Washington

Whidbey Island
Whidbey Island is one of the most scenic islands in the U.S. and a perfect spot to bring the kids for a family vacation (Photo: Josh Hild via Unsplash)

Just north of Seattle and easily accessible by ferry, Washington’s Whidbey Island is one of the longest islands in the United States, stretching approximately 40 miles. Though there are several scenic towns on this U.S. island, my family’s favorites are Langley and Coupeville, both of which offer easy access to kid-friendly activities like hiking, water sports, or a simple day at the beach.

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In Langley, stay at the spacious Langley by the Sea rental home for spectacular waterfront views, a fenced backyard, a state-of-the-art kitchen for home-cooked meals, and a large family room perfect for reconnecting with the kids over a classic board game. A quick five-minute drive away, downtown Langley bustles with lively shops and eateries. Stop by Sea Biscuit Bakery for a grab-and-go breakfast and select from one of many house-made pastries and hot breakfast sandwiches. Family-friendly Penn Cove Brewing serves up tacos, sandwiches, and salads. Ultra House offers ramen and Asian fusion with a twist and offers a kids menu.

The town of Coupeville is best known as the film location of the 1998 classic Practical Magic starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. It’s also a hidden gem for families looking to explore the coast of this fabulous U.S. island vacation destination. Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve sits along Puget Sound with more than 30 miles of hiking trails for all skill levels. Stroll along the beach looking for seashells and sea glass, or bring a picnic to enjoy on the beach.

In Coupeville, make Harrington’s Hideaway your home base. The two-bedroom home has a bathtub for those traveling with small kids, in addition to private beach access and a fenced yard where kids can play. Dinner options are aplenty in this little coastal town. Molka Xete serves excellent casual Mexican food while Gordon’s Fusion dishes out eclectic flavors including jambalaya, carne asada, and vegan burgers. Fare Market has a great selection of takeout items on its menu.

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There are plenty of family-friendly activities on the water in Whidbey Island. For families with young kids, I recommend a Family Fun Loop Kayak Tour (ages six and up) with Whidbey Island Kayaking. The 90-minute family tour offers ample opportunities to spot wildlife. Get even further out onto the water on an open deck boat with the one-hour Deception Pass Wildlife Tour, where you can expect to see bald eagles, seals, and possibly a whale. For a thrilling land-based adventure, zip line through an Old Growth forest with Canopy Tours NW

2. Amelia Island, Florida

Amelia Island beach and horseback riders
There’s lots to do on Florida’s Amelia Island, including kid-friendly river cruises and ecotours (Photo: Deremer Studios/Amelia Island CVB)

Situated off the Sunshine State’s northern coast, Amelia Island is one of the most romantic getaways in Florida for couples, but it’s also an especially great U.S. island for families. The island’s most family-friendly amenities can be found at Omni Amelia Island Resort, which has a splash pool, a family pool, and daily activities such as pickleball, a tennis clinic, and arts and crafts. This popular resort also has plenty of kid-friendly dining options, including both casual and fine dining restaurants, which makes it a great option for tired parents after a long day of fun in the sun. Larger families might consider one of the many vacation rental options on the island as well.

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Lounging on one of Florida’s best family beaches is a great way to spend the day. Parents and kids can build sandcastles, go for a swim, or rent a paddleboard or float. But Amelia Island has an adventurous side, too. You can book a river cruise and ecotour to learn more about the wildlife on Cumberland Island, just north of Amelia—don’t be surprised if you spot a dolphin or wild horses during your tour. Visit the Historic District on Centre Street for art galleries, vintage shops, and the family-owned Villa Villekulla Toys toy store.

3. Fripp Island, South Carolina

Fripp Island in South Carolina (Photo: Shutterstock)
South Carolina’s tiny Fripp Island exudes the laidback charm of island life (Photo: Shutterstock)

Located at the southern tip of South Carolina, Fripp Island is just 3,000 acres and is best known for explorers and pirates seeking treasure. Because of its remoteness, it exudes a kind of laidback charm you can only find on the best island vacations in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot for families to do here.

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Fripp Island Resort has family-friendly amenities along with special packages for those traveling with kids. Kids can partake in Camp Fripp, which offers educational and creative workshops that include painting, tie-dye, and learning about area wildlife. There’s a swim-in movie night along with live entertainment throughout the week. If you want to get on the water, book a kayaking tour or a pontoon cruise. The world-class golf course is great for active adults looking to get some swings in, while weekly activities for adults, kids, and families keep non-golfers busy.

Dining options on this tiny U.S. island range from delis and cafes to the High Tide Pizza Food Truck and the Big Fripp Dipper Ice Cream Truck. Nothing screams summer like a good old-fashioned ice cream cone. Fripp Island Golf and Beach Resort also offers vacation rentals with a home-away-from-home feel where you’ll have the convenience of a fully-equipped kitchen and outdoor grill for BBQs.

4. Mackinac Island, Michigan

Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is the quintessential U.S. island destination where families have been vacationing for generations (Photo: Steve Saunders via Unsplash)

One of the most popular Midwest family vacations, idyllic little Mackinac Island is the quintessential U.S. island destination for active families. Visiting the thickly forested island is like traveling back in time to an era of car-free roads, horse-drawn carriages, and stately Victorian homes. There are more than 70 miles of trails to explore either by bicycle or on foot, plus an adorable downtown and ample coastline for water sports. Great Turtle Kayak Tours provides lessons, tours, and rentals for kayaking, paddle boarding, and snorkeling. Its most popular tour is of the underwater coastal caves.

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Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel is generally considered one of the best family resorts in the U.S., but an equally good option for families is Mission Point Resort. Mission Point’s flexible kids club is available from 4:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., allowing parents ample time to enjoy dinner and some alone time. The club has activities to keep little ones busy and serves them dinner.

The resort also has an outdoor pool, a heated swimming pool, and two hot tubs. There’s a putting course, lawn games, tennis courts, and bicycles to rent. Head to Admiral Dave’s Arcade for a variety of games and entertainment, or take a history tour of the resort and the island. Don’t miss movie nights at the historic movie theater.

5. Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine

Acadia National Park
When visiting Acadia National Park, kids can participate in the park’s Junior Ranger Program and be sworn in as Junior Ranger Acadia National Park (Photo: NPS/Emma Forthofer)

Home to Maine’s Acadia National Park and the charming seaside town of Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Island is the sixth-largest island in the United States. This budget-friendly family vacation destination is popular with all ages because there’s a lot to do year-round, but it’s especially unique among island vacations in the U.S. because it’s just as much fun in the fall and winter as it is during the warmer months.

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It’s also an excellent family vacation spot to witness and learn about wildlife and diverse ecosystems. Visit the Oceanarium and Education Center, which showcases a 29-foot lobster boat, nine tanks featuring local marine habitat, and a large touch pool full of sea cucumbers, crabs, and other underwater species.

When visiting Acadia National Park, kids can participate in the park’s Junior Ranger Program and be sworn in as Junior Ranger. Acadia Quest is another fun initiative to encourage little ones to learn about national parks and explore nature. Simply download the app, go through a series of challenges, and document your experiences on social media. The national park has a variety of hiking and walking trails suitable for different levels. From the flat Wonderland Trail that opens to tide pools to the lush Jesup Path and Hemlock Path Loop, there’s a lot of Great Outdoors to explore on this U.S. island.

Stay at the Acadia Inn in Bar Harbor, where the rooms are spacious and affordable and hotel specials include the Kid’s Kampout package, which provides tiny guests with a tent, lantern, and mat for an indoor camping experience. The hotel also offers bath kits that include tear-free shampoo and rubber duckies.

6. Vashon-Maury Island, Washington

Point Robinson Lighthouse with Mount Rainier in the backdrop (Photo: Shutterstock)
Head to Point Robinson Lighthouse for scenic views with Mount Rainier as the backdrop (Photo: Shutterstock)

Home to fewer than 11,000 full-time residents, Vashon-Maury Island is actually two islands in the Puget Sound connected by an isthmus built by homeowners in 1913. Make Vashon Inn your home base while visiting this U.S. island destination. Its four nicely appointed suites are roomy, comfortable, and set up like a private home or apartment with a kitchen, dining area, and living area. Larger families needing more space can rent two separate suites directly adjacent to each other.

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I also recommend Vashon Inn because it’s just a three-minute walk to the island’s sweet downtown, where you’ll find a delicious bakery, tons of restaurants, and cute shops selling local crafts. You can arrange for a horseback riding excursion that weaves through trails in an old growth forest, or take the kids on a morning hike to burn off some energy. There are many easy trails to explore. One of my family’s favorites is the Judd Creek Trail, an easy one-mile loop. Kayak and e-bike rentals are also available on the island from Vashon Adventures, which offers tours and classes suitable for all ages.

If you’re interested in UFOs, visit the site of a purported UFO landing (commonly referred to as the Maury Island Incident) located at the Vashon Municipal Airport. For something more terrestrial, plan a relaxing day looking for sand dollars and seashells at the beach. Visit a local llama farm (by appointment only) for a unique island vacation experience.

The variety of dining choices also make Vashon one of the best islands in the U.S. for families. In addition to a fleet of food trucks, you can’t go wrong with Pure Organic Kitchen and Juicery for its speedy service and fresh ingredients. Vashon Pizza has an amazing Helena Greek pizza. Extra hungry? Go for the cheese bread with all the dipping sauces. And you’ll regret it if you miss Glass Bottle Creamery, which makes some of the best ice cream in the world (I’m not exaggerating). The creamery sources its eggs, cream, and milk from local farmers. Dairy-free and vegan options are also available.

7. Maui, Hawaii

Maui Beach
Rent a car and get out into the real Maui, exploring the island’s scenic roads (Photo: William Zhang via Unsplash)

You can’t talk about the best islands in the U.S. without mentioning the Hawaiian Islands. They’re all wonderful to visit, but Maui is my pick for families yearning for an unforgettable tropical escape with a well-earned reputation for kid-friendly activities and abundant natural beauty. From the moment you set foot off the plane, perpetual sunshine and sprawling mountains greet you.

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Make the Grand Wailea your family’s basecamp on this island adventure. The 40-acre property has spectacular ocean views, spacious rooms, and a memorable luau suitable for children of all ages to go along with its nine pools, 2,000-foot lazy river with waterslides, tennis courts, beachfront access, and daily kids activities. Enroll the little ones in the Grand Passport Program, which is a guide that helps them navigate all the resort’s fun offerings.

Explore the island via a Hele Wai Eco Reserve or hiking tour through the hotel’s concierge. These off-site tours offer families a kid-friendly exploration of Maui’s local flora and fauna, and opportunities for spotting wildlife. Or, rent a car and get out into the real Maui, exploring the island’s scenic roads (you’ll often see whales breaching off the coast), driving to the top of the towering Haleakala volcano, or taking in popular attractions such as the Maui Ocean Center and Maui Arts and Cultural Center.

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Jean Chen Smith
Jean Chen Smith is a freelance journalist who is passionate about storytelling and curating authentic travel experiences. Based in Oregon with a love of the great outdoors, she has contributed to The Oregonian, Travel + Leisure, FamilyVacationist, SFGATE, Insider Travel, 1859, AARP, and more. When not writing and traveling, she is following her other passions which include Pilates, trail running, and spending time with her shih tzus Tonka and Paisley.