The Islands of Summer
Where your only concerns will be what time the tide will turn and where you left your flip-flops
Santa Catalina Island, California
It may seem hard to believe, but this mountainous island less than 40 miles from Hollywood, which rises up from the Pacific like some computer-generated Jurassic mirage, is the real thing. And while the 21-mile-long island may not support dinosaurs, it does play host to an amazingly diverse variety of wildlife and plants. Herds of resident bison (left over from a movie shoot), rattlesnakes, wild boar, and mule deer roam the sun-baked interior; brilliant orange garibaldi, huge sheepsheads, and harbor seals swim in the dense kelp forests under the sea; and whales, dolphins, flying fish, and sea lions can be spotted offshore.
There are really two Catalinas. One is centered in Avalon, the resort town on the northern end of the island known for its busy beaches, bustling harbor, and Mediterranean-style hotels. The other is Two Harbors, the rustic village set on a narrow isthmus connecting the northern and southern halves of Catalina. Here campers find secluded coves and access into the rugged backcountry, 88 percent of which is owned and managed by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy. The two towns are connected by a seasonal water shuttle (13 miles apart by water) and by bus (23 miles by road).
The Avalon area offers a variety of mainstream lodging choices for families, including Hamilton Cove (one- to three-bedroom villas, $250-$400 per night; 310-510-0190), a gated waterfront resort with swimming pool, two tennis courts, fitness center, and private beach. The Two Harbors Campground, on a hillside just above Little Fisherman's Cove, offers access to great swimming and snorkeling and three overnight options: 36 campsites ($12 per person per night) plus 11 tent cabins and two teepees, all of which sleep up to six people and cost $25 per night plus $12 per person per night (reservations recommended; call 310-510-2500).
If you're traveling with older children, consider doing some hiking or mountain biking into the interior, where there are more than 200 miles of trails (made up of two hiking-specific paths and lightly traveled jeep and fire roads) that traverse the mountains, ridges, and steep-walled canyons amid forests of evergreens and hillsides of oak, eucalyptus, and cacti. You'll need permits for both: Hiking permits are free and are available the day of your hike at several locations; biking permits cost $50 for individuals and $75 for families, and are valid for one year. Call the Conservancy House (310-510-2595) for information.
If you're traveling with younger kids or don't want to venture into the backcountry, you'll find plenty of level road biking and opportunities for pleasant waterfront walks in and around Avalon. You can rent gear at Brown's Bikes (310-510-0986).
The island's many secluded coves are ideal for sea kayaking. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports (310-510-1226) rents gear, runs expeditions, and also offers special programs for kids ages 8-14. In Two Harbors, divers head to the West End Dive Center (310-510-0303) for equipment and to sign up for boat dives. Young children can view marine life from a glass-bottom boat; if you go at night you'll get to see sharks. Kids will also get a charge out of the boat trip to view the island's unusually large flying fish, which are capable of reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and of doing belly flops onto the deck of the boat. Both excursions are run by Santa Catalina Island Company (800-322-3434).
If you want to immerse yourselves, literally, in Catalina's bountiful natural marine history, consider enrolling in the Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp ($1,700-$2,100 for a group of up to six people, including ferry transportation to the island and all meals; call 626-296-4040), August 25-29. You and your family will have your own rustic cabin at a waterside children's summer camp near Emerald Bay on the island's remote west end. You'll spend your days with Cousteau and a team of naturalists who'll lead snorkeling trips and evening discussions. There will also be free time for kayaking, hiking, and other traditional camp activities.
Catalina has a number of fine restaurants capable of impressing even jaded L.A. diners. Try the calamari and blackened catfish at the harborside Blue Parrot and the pasta dishes at Ristorante Villa Portofino. Kids will love Antonio's Cabaret and Pizzeria, where the peanut shells get tossed on the floor.
High-speed ferries leave for Catalina from Long Beach and San Pedro (the trip takes about 75 minutes); call Catalina Express (310-519-1212). Catalina Cruises (800-228-2546) embarks from Long Beach and makes the trip in a more leisurely two hours.
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Ocracoke is a strand of sand and sea oats at the tip of of the Outer Banks, that storied 125-mile stretch of ship-devouring barrier islands that sweeps south from the Virginia-North Carolina line. Just over 16 miles long and only two miles across at its widest point, the island has been saved by its National Seashore status from the kind of helter-skelter, go-cart-and-skeeball development that all but ruined Nags Head.
Despite growing popularity with tourists, Ocracoke remains a peaceful haven for bird-watchers, beachcombers, anglers, ocean-storm junkies, and families. And its golden beaches, with their warm and clean waters, remain among the most pristine on the eastern seaboard.
Ocracoke Village, the island's only settlement, surrounds Silver Lake Harbor with an agreeably low-key collection of bike-rental operations, charter-boat companies, crabcake restaurants, and souvenir shops. There are also several inns in town; the five-story brick Anchorage Inn (doubles, $104-$125; 252-928-1101) has an outdoor pool and its own marina and dock, and most of its 35 rooms have harbor views. But many families who come for an extended stay book one of the more than 300 homes available for rent. Because the island's entire ocean side is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, there are no houses directly on the Atlantic, but rental properties do exist on Pamlico Sound, the body of water that separates Ocracoke from mainland North Carolina. Rental rates on Ocracoke are among the lowest in the Outer Banks, ranging from $400 per week for a small cottage in the village to $1,500 for a large, five-bedroom soundfront home. Call Ocracoke Island Realty (252-928-6261) for listings. The only oceanfront digs are in the National Park Service Campground, where 136 sandy, level campsites are available for $15 per day; call 800-365-2267 for reservations. Be aware that these are exposed beach sites without shade or shelter. And bring plenty of mosquito repellent.
Ocracoke's bona fide "attractions" are few. No doubt, you'll visit the lighthouse and head up to the wild pony pens seven miles north of Ocracoke Village, where 27 descendants of horses likely freed during seventeenth-century shipwrecks can be viewed as they roam on 180 fenced-in acres. You can walk the short (.75-mile round-trip) Hammock Hills Nature Trail, which winds through several ecosystems — dunes, salt marsh, and low maritime forests. And you'll definitely want to while away an evening on the screened veranda at The Back Porch Restaurant, tucking into crabcakes with pepper sauce, crab beignets, smoked bluefish, and Outer Banks-style chowder, a regional specialty made with clam broth rather than cream or tomatoes.
Other than that, you're blessedly on your own to fill the days. You can bike North Carolina 12 along the coast or the winding, narrow village streets. Rentals are available at Beach Outfitters (252-928-6261). Fish from the beach (best in fall and spring, especially along the southern coast) or charter a boat for the day with one of the local skippers; try Captain Ronnie O'Neal (252-928-4841) on the traditional, wooden 36-foot Miss Kathleen.
Explore the creeks and inlets of Pamlico Sound by kayak with Ocracoke Adventures (252-928-7873). Or take a day trip to uninhabited Portsmouth Island, 20 minutes south by boat from Ocracoke, to explore the weathered remains of the island's abandoned village and pick up a bucketful of shells.
Access to Ocracoke is by ferry only, from Swan Quarter (800-773-1094) or Cedar Island Operations (800-856-0343) on the North Carolina mainland, or from Hatteras (800-293-3779) on the Outer Banks. Reservations for mainland ferries can be made up to a year in advance and are a must for summer. The Hatteras ferry is free and runs on a first-come, first-served basis.
Orcas Island, Washington
There are many compelling reasons to vacation on horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island, the largest and prettiest of the 460-or-so-island San Juan archipelago. The principal one, though, in the minds of most kids, will be the Free Willy factor. This, after all, is the lush, green heart of F.W. Land, and from June to September it is a prime location from which to view the so-o-o-o-o cute orca.
In fact, you may spot them, along with porpoises, minke whales, sea lions, seals, and eagles, on the ferry trip over from Anacortes. (Call Washington State Ferries at 206-464-6400 for schedules and give yourself plenty of time — the ferry operates on a first-come, first-served basis.) The boat will drop you on the western half of the island at the tiny village of Orcas Landing.
Perched on a knoll just above the docks is one of the island's most recognizable landmarks, the 12-bedroom turn-of-the-century Orcas Hotel. Orcas Island Adventures & Tours (package, $585-$725 per person; recommended for kids 12 and over; 360-376-6720) offers a four-day, three-night family package that includes a room at the Orcas Hotel, all meals (in one of the best dining rooms on the island), whale watching aboard the 43-foot Navigator excursion boat, exploration of uninhabited outer islands, biking, sea kayaking, and hiking.
If you like feeling as if you're ensconced on your own private island, try The Homestead (doubles, $125-$175 per night; $10 each additional person; 360-376-5284) on Westsound. It's about four miles from the ferry dock and has three handsome, rustic, and very secluded waterfront cottages for rent, two with full kitchens and baths, another with a bathhouse and outdoor shower. Some extended families rent them all.
From Orcas Landing, it's 13.6 miles to Eastsound, the island's largest town, and about another eight miles to Moran State Park, which occupies most of the eastern half of the island.
You'll find plenty to do here — there are two large lakes, 30 miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, and more than 150, mostly lakeside, campsites. Call 800-452-5687 to make campground reservations — essential in summer. Also within the state park is 2,407-foot Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans, from whose summit (reached either by narrow paved auto road or hiking trails) you'll be rewarded with killer views of Puget Sound and northwestern Washington.
Orcas's protected coves and isolated, rock-lined inlets are ideal for beginning kayakers. Shearwater Adventures (360-376-4699), based in Eastsound, rents kayaks to experienced paddlers, gives lessons ($100 per day), and runs expeditions (half day, $40 per person; full day, $75 per person; three-day trip, $290 per person); children over five are welcome. While you're in Eastsound, try to get reservations at Christina's — it's one of Orcas's top restaurants, with a winning, if eclectic, French take on fresh fish. Or to go more casual, stop at La Famiglia Ristorante for seafood and pasta.
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Anyone who has spent a week or more on Nantucket Island will tell you: The return to the mainland can be a serious shock. Whoa, you think as you exit the ferry onto the clogged streets of Hyannis, you mean the entire population is not trim and tan and wind-kissed to squinty-eyed perfection? The vehicles are not all late-model Suburbans and Range Rovers? The main thoroughfares are not sweetly cobbled?
Thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Nantucket is as idyllic a patch of summer as you'll find anywhere. Broad, duned beaches fringe its shores; a scrubby tangle of broom and heath blankets its interior, and wild roses perfume its salt-tinged air. The island supports a wealth of wildlife: Bluefish and striped bass work the rips off the island's shoals; horseshoe crabs and Nantucket Bay scallops move through the warm shallows; wild turkeys and white-tailed deer roam the moors. And the entire fourteen-by-four-mile island is veined with walking trails, bike paths, and sand tracks that end at the roiling Atlantic.
Short-term vacationers will probably want to stay in the harbor town of Nantucket, once one of the most important whaling ports in the world, now a movie-set-worthy collection of grand nineteenth-century ship captains' homes, restored clapboard inns, galleries, and shops. The ferries dock right in town, within walking distance of many B&Bs and larger hotels, including the beautifully landscaped Harbor House (doubles, $325-$355; call 800-475-2637), which, in addition to standard hotel rooms in the main inn, has larger family-sized rooms with two double beds in shingled townhouses grouped around a pool (townhouses cost $355, double occupancy; kids under 18 are free).
For longer stays, though, rental cottages are the way to go. Nantucket real estate agents list hundreds of them (try the Maury People, 508-228-1881), from casual duneside shacks in Madaket on the island's western end to beachfront mansions in Polpis to seventeenth-century rose-covered cottages in 'Sconset village, the prim little former actors' colony on the island's east coast. Rental rates start at around $1,600 a week for two-bedroom homes during the summer season.
The island's most popular family beaches are an easy bike ride or skate from town. (Rent bikes at Young's Bicycle Shop, 508-228-1151; 'blades at Sports Locker on Wheels, 508-228-6610.) On the Sound side, Jetties Beach has calm water, a playground, and perfect conditions for windsurfing and kayaking. Force 5 Watersports (508-228-0700) rents gear on the beach and offers instruction for both activities.
Surfside Beach, three miles out of town at the end of a flat, paved bike path, offers the island's most accessible ocean surf. But Nantucket's most distinctive beaches are found away from the lifeguard chairs and refreshment stands in roadless areas like Eel Point, a waterfront conservation tract several miles from town and accessible only by foot, or Great Point and Coatue, sand-spit wildlife refuges at the island's far northern tip, reachable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles or boats. Oversand vehicle permits for Great Point are sold at the gatehouse in Wauwinet ($80 per season; 508-228-0006). Rent four-wheel-drive vehicles at any number of rental places in town. You can sail in Nantucket Sound aboard the 31-foot Friendship sloop Endeavor (508-228-5585), which also offers theme trips for families (the pirate sail is a favorite) with onboard storytellers, fiddlers, and costumed entertainers. Or join naturalists from the Maria Mitchell Aquarium (508-228-9198) on weekly family shell- and plant-collecting trips to some of Nantucket's most scenic natural areas.
If you're renting a house, you'll probably fix many of your meals at home. That's a good thing — Nantucket's restaurants tend to be sophisticated and pricey. Families will feel comfortable, though, at the Brotherhood of Thieves and the Atlantic Cafe, both casual chowder-and-burgers places.
Car-and-passenger ferries are operated by the Steamship Authority (508-477-8600) and passenger-only boats are run by Hy-Line Cruises (508-778-2602), both out of Hyannis, Massachusetts. The standard crossing takes a little more than two hours. (Faster, higher-priced boats are also operated by both ferry companies.) Reservations for vehicles are difficult, if not impossible, to secure for summer weekends, but air service is available to Nantucket airport from Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Hyannis, Providence, and New Bedford (though the island's famous fog often shuts the runways down).
We know, we know. Bermuda doesn't immediately strike you as the ideal family destination. After all, isn't this the veddy British, decorum-obsessed isle you've seen in your parents' yellowed honeymoon pics? Isn't this the kind of place where the days are spent agonizing over tee shots and shopping for tea cozies?
Well, yes and no. Bermuda still is, and always will be, overwhelmingly civilized. Jackets and ties are still de rigueur in many restaurants, and the town of Hamilton is still full of shops that sell expensive imported tchotchkes. But with each passing year, this gorgeous flower-hat of an island with its sherbet-colored homes, petal-pink sand, and translucent blue water becomes more casual, more child-tolerant, and more appealing to parents.
Bermuda (actually a chain of 150-plus islets, 20 of which are inhabited) is just 358 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, an amazingly painless two-hour plane ride from New York. Its fortuitous position west of the Gulf Stream makes the climate pleasant and sunny pretty much year-round, with the best weather (and highest rates) from April through October. The island offers stellar opportunities for water sports and for excursions into its quiet, leafy interior, far from the cruise-ship throngs who descend on Hamilton on a regular basis.
For the best snorkeling, try Church Bay in Southampton or Tobacco Bay in St. George. Salt Kettle Yacht Charters (441-236-4863) runs snorkeling trips out of Hamilton harbor on the Bright Star, a 55-foot sloop. Scuba divers will want to explore the dozens of offshore wrecks, most of which are found between 25 and 85 feet. Some wrecks, in fact, especially off the western coast of Bermuda, are within viewing range of snorkelers. Nautilus Diving, Ltd. (441-238-2332) offers resort-course instruction (minimum age is 12) and reef and wreck dive excursions. Rent a 13-foot Boston Whaler (big enough for four people; $100 for four hours) or sea kayaks ($15 per hour) at Somerset Bridge in Sandys (441-234-0914), then spend the day exploring a mosaic of pristine islets.
There's plenty to do onshore, too. Mountain bike or hike on the 18-mile Bermuda Railway Trail, made up of seven sections, some of which skirt the water's edge; rent pedal bikes, as they are called here, at Eves Cycle Livery (441-236-6247). Explore the hiking trails at Spittal Pond Nature Reserve, a 60-acre seaside park. Walk the streets of historic St. George Parish on the island's east end, then have dinner in Dennis's Hideaway, a funky old fisherman's shack where house specialties include conch stew, shrimp, and shark hash.
There are two kinds of accommodations worth considering in Bermuda when traveling with kids. One is the classic cottage colony, the other is the large resort hotel. Families can find happiness at either, as long as they sense the welcome mat is out for children. The beachfront Pink Beach Club & Cottages (one-bedroom suites are $450 for two per night, including breakfast and dinner; add $70 for each additional person, including breakfast and dinner; 800-355-6161), the island's largest colony, is set on 16 lush acres with two tennis courts and a swimming pool. Dinner is served by the pool nightly — no jacket required.
The Southampton Princess Hotel in Southampton (doubles, $330-$465 per night, including children's program; kids under 16 stay free; call 800-223-1818) is a luxurious 600-room monolith atop a steep hill overlooking the sea. Outdoor and indoor pools, a sheltered beach surrounded by rocky cliffs, and a full children's program with supervised day and evening activities
keep kids busy. Six restaurants within the hotel — including a steakhouse, a seafood restaurant, and Mediterranean cuisine — make it possible to avoid the fancy dinner scene. The hotel also runs ferries along Little Sound into Hamilton, a welcome service on this island that does not allow visitors to rent cars.
— Meg Lukens Noonan