The South has a vacation island for every taste

Contributing Travel WriterJuly 5, 2014 

There's something about an island that sings the song of summer, whether it's the sight of sandy beaches, the sound of waves lapping the shore or the feel of gentle breezes.

For those in search of a perfect vacation idyll, there's an island ready and waiting — and not too far away. The southern United States has an island for most every vacationer.

Here are four that are sure to suit your vacation style.

For the active

Are you one of those people who want every day to be crammed with nonstop action, and who can't bear to leave civilization too far behind? If so, Hilton Head in South Carolina is for you.

Some see it as overdeveloped and overstimulated, others see it as a tempting smorgasbord offering a tantalizing array of riches. There's golf (some 25 championship courses), tennis, fishing, sailing, parasailing and zip-lining to fill the days. Then, there are a slew of restaurants and nightspots for after-dark fun.

From the moment you arrive at the candy-cane striped Harbourtown Lighthouse, the island's welcoming beacon, you are spoiled for choice. Will it be sun and surf on the 12 miles of Atlantic beach, or hiking and biking on 60 miles of public paths and nature trails?

Located amid salt marshes and centuries-old live oaks, the Coastal Discovery Museum offers hands-on exploration of the history, heritage and wildlife of South Carolina's Low Country. The elevated boardwalks at Sea Pines Forest Preserve allow for an up-close look at a swamp habitat.

Hilton Head is recommended for the country club set, those who take their golf game and their sunset cocktails seriously.

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For the laid-back

If putting on a sundress or long pants to go out to dinner seems a tad formal, and you think T-shirts and flip-flops should be appropriate attire anywhere, you'll love Georgia's Tybee Island.

Tybee is more honky-tonk than haute, and the slow pace of life on the island will have you practically catatonic in no time.

Just a short drive over the causeway from Savannah, Tybee is that elegant city's quirky, disheveled distant cousin. In contrast to Savannah's culinary scene, the island hot spot is the Crab Shack, a former fishing camp where, as the name says, crabs of all varieties (from local blue to Alaskan king and Dungeness) are the menu staple. The slogan extols: "Where the elite eat in their bare feet."

Tybee is small (only 1.5 miles wide and 2.5 miles long), but its beaches rival any on the Atlantic Coast, and its main street has a retro feel with a host of mom-and-pop establishments that seem straight out of a 1950s TV show.

There are no large-scale retail shopping outlets, but there are some unique shops and galleries where local artists display their wares.

For great sunsets, take a stroll on the wooden pier, or climb to the top of the Tybee Island Light Station, one of the few remaining 18th-century lighthouses still in operation.

Finally, there are 3 miles of sugary white public beaches whose salt marshes teem with all manner of waterfowl, often the only company you'll have on your strolls.

Tybee Island is recommended for frazzled executives in need of disconnecting and families looking for a vacation that won't wreck the budget.

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For the history, culture and luxury lover

If you want your own special island — more in the sense of a Bali Ha'i than Gilligan's Island — you should opt for Amelia Island, a 13-mile-by-2-mile paradise just off Florida's northeastern tip, about 40 miles from Jacksonville.

With a 460-year history, during which eight different flags have flown over it, Amelia has been at various times, an English plantation, a haven for Spanish pirates, a Civil War fortress and a terminus for Florida's first cross-state railroad (built in the 1890s by Henry Flagler).

Listed today on the National Register of Historic Places, Fernandina Beach, the island's sole town, has a 52-block enclave of sherbet-colored Victorian, Queen Anne and Italianate mansions known as the Silk Stocking District. It's a paeon to Amelia's Golden Era, the latter half of the 19th century, when the island was considered the queen of summer resorts.

Must-sees include the Amelia Island Museum of History, housed in the old Nassau County jail, chronicling the island's occupation by eight cultures (including the Amelia "Patriots"), and the Amelia Island Lighthouse, observable from 19 miles out at sea.

Vacation life is good here. Guests can choose accommodations from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, routinely voted one of the South's best resorts; Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, whose hardwood floors and nautical theme evoke a New England whaling town; and Amelia Island Plantation, a secluded sanctuary nestled on 1,250 acres.

The Plantation is surrounded on three sides by water — the Atlantic Ocean, Nassau Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway — and is threaded with lagoons and dappled with marshes that are home to herons, egrets, sea turtles and deer.

Amelia Island is recommended for those who believe Mickey Mouse is holding the Sunshine State hostage and there are no natural places left.

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For no frills

If you are willing to forgo high-end restaurants, nonstop nightlife and deluxe shopping in favor of days spent combing the beaches for seashells and nights spent joining locals in a darts competition, Alabama's Dauphin Island is just the spot.

Sandwiched between the mouth of Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, this barrier island is developed on 6 miles of its 14-mile length, with the rest populated only by sea oats and grasses, ghost crabs and migratory birds.

Dauphin Island is truly for the birds; the Audubon Island Bird Sanctuary is recognized as one of the top four spots in the country for viewing spring migration.

Take time to visit the Dauphin Island Sea Lab for a behind-the-scenes peek at marine life of the Gulf of Mexico, and Fort Gaines, whose ramparts have guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay since before the Civil War. It was during the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay, however, that the fort gained notoriety, as it was here that Rear Admiral David Farragut issued his famous order, "Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead."

Don't look for high-rise hotels anywhere on the island. In fact, your best bet might be to opt for one of the rental cottages beautifully furnished and equipped for guests; find listings at

Dauphin Island is recommended for those who really mean it when they say they want to get away from it all.

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Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at

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