By Coastal Living
This small nature preserve in the British Virgin Islands is great for snorkeling and swimming, thanks to crystal-clear water and a shallow reef.
Be sure to: Explore the white-sand beach—home to endangered leather back turtles—and snorkel in the waters around Sandy Spit (pictured) for the ultimate escape.
How to get there: By private boat, or schedule a day sail out of Tortola or Jost Van Dyke. For more info, visit bviwelcome.com.
Don Pedro Island State Park
Part of the Gulf Coast barrier islands, Don Pedro lies near the more popular Gasparilla Island. Eleven nature trails weave past giant leather ferns on 225 acres, where you can fish off the dock for flounder, snook, and trout.
Be sure to: Look for endangered gopher tortoises while beachcombing.
Great Bird Island
Off the northeast coast of Antigua, this spot is known for—you guessed it—abundant exotic bird populations, including red-billed tropicbirds, and the West Indian whistling duck. While burying your toes in the sugary sand, look for other unique wildlife such as the (harmless!) Antiguan racer snake.
Be sure to: Snorkel from the soft sandbar and explore the surrounding coral reef.
How to get there: Travel by private boat, or take a day sail from Antigua on Treasure Island Cruises; treasureislandcruises.ag.
Santa Barbara Island
Southwest of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of five islands in the Channel Islands National Park, known as North American Galápagos and home to more than 150 unique species. At Landing Cove, you can kayak, snorkel, and swim with garibaldi, the neon orange state fish. Note: SBI has dramatic cliffs, but no beaches.
Be sure to: Check out the Sea Lion Rookery overlook to see the barking behemoths sun themselves on the rocks and swim through kelp-filled-waters.
Long Island, Apostle Islands
The 21 Apostle Islands in Lake Superior are an adventure-seeker’s playground. Kayakers, hikers, boaters, divers, and lighthouse enthusiasts—there are six lightstations among the isles—will find plenty to see and do here. Long Island, located in the southeast corner, is one of the more remote spots, with three historic lights (one working) and submerged shipwreck treasures.
Be sure to: Suit up in your scuba gear and spend hours exploring the still-intact hull of the sunken 1886 schooner Lucerne.
How to get there: Via private boat or with Adventure Vacations water taxi service (requires advance notice); 715/747-2100 or adv-vac.com. For diving information, contact the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore; 715/779-3397 or nps.gov/apis.
Big Talbot Island State Park
Trails lead hikers through marshland and maritime forest to the beach on Big Talbot, located just northeast of Jacksonville. Fishing and guided paddle tours are available with advance reservations; don’t forget to pack a lunch to enjoy in the beachfront pavilions.
Be sure to: Visit Boneyard Beach, a sandy stretch spiked with salt-washed skeletons of cedars and oaks.
How to get there: Drive 20 miles east of downtown Jacksonville on A1A North. For guided paddle tours, contact Kayak Amelia; 904/251-0016 or kayakamelia.com. For more info, call 904/251-2320 or visit floridastateparks.org.
Part of the San Juan Islands, Yellow Island is known for its wildflower-covered landscape. More than 50 species—including the only cactus native to western Washington—can be found here. Check the trees for bald eagles, listen for songbirds, and watch playful otters swim.
Be sure to: Scan the shore for black oystercatcher birds prying open mollusks with their vibrant orange-red bills.
How to get there: Take a private boat from San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor or Fisherman’s Bay on Lopez Island; you can also kayak from Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. For more info, call 206/343-4344 or visit nature.org.
West Snake Caye
Seventeen miles from the town of Punta Gorda, the four small Snake cayes lie in the 160-mile Port of Honduras Marine Reserve All the islands, such as West Snake Caye, boat lush mangrove trees and endangered species including the West Indian manatee.
Be sure to: Trek through towering mangroves toward the center of the island, where you’ll find a small, serene lagoon.
Isla Espíritu Santo
This large island off Baja California is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. Certain animals—including the black-tailed jackrabbit—can only be found here. Thirty-one marine animal species, such as sea lions and coral, inhabit the waters.
Be sure to: Paddle through Cueva Grande, or “Big Cave,” where you can see the north and south points of the island. Watch for birds; blue- and orange-footed boobies call this secret spot home.