By Carolina Costello, SmarterTravel.com
Looking for more than just a pretty beach? Go to town. These 10 charming island villages pack more punch than your typical beach-resort destination. They’re bursting with history, culture, and local flavor—not to mention beautiful sands and swaying palms. For a less-traveled summer vacation, skip the cookie-cutter resorts and set sail for one of the following vibrant island towns.
Edisto Island, S.C.
An American beach town free from commercialism and crowds, Edisto Beach is the prime place to unwind. There are more churches than there are restaurants and gift shops combined. Instead of big-box stores and fast-food joints, Edisto Beach teems with old oaks draped in Spanish moss, independently owned restaurants, unique galleries and boutiques, and historical plantation estates.
What to do: Locally sourced seafood is the star at most of the town’s restaurants. Munch on homemade crab cakes while dining al fresco at The SeaCow Eatery or sip low-country she-crab soup at Grovers Bar and Grill.
Known as the Nature Island, Dominica is a paradise for outdoorsy travelers. But if you peer beyond the island nation’s beaches and lush rainforests, you’ll find a wealth of culture in Roseau, Dominica’s capital. The town features an interesting blend of Creole and Caribbean architecture, as well as several old plantations. Keep an eye out for handmade huts, called ‘Ti Kaz, that were built by the island’s indigenous people. (Dominica is the only island in the Caribbean where pre-Columbian Carib Indians still reside.)
What to do: Head to the Old Market, where travelers can pick up handmade crafts, fresh fruit, and other locally sourced goods. The place offers some heavy history as well: It was once the site for slave auctions.
Amelia Island, Fla.
This charming town on Amelia Island has a 50-block historical district—known as Old Town—that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Stately Victorian buildings, palm-lined streets, and colorful Southern houses with wraparound porches proliferate. Fernandina Beach is a cultural hot spot set in a prime beach destination. When you’re not sunbathing on Amelia Island’s white-sand shores, you can soak up some knowledge in town at the Fernandina Beach Maritime Museum or the Amelia Island Museum of History.
What to do: Grab your camera and take a walking tour. It won’t be difficult to spot the town’s many architecturally significant buildings; download a self-guided tour map from the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council website.
Located about an hour’s drive from St. John’s, this peaceful seaside community is the quintessential Canadian coastal town. The views alone are worth a trip: The town’s rugged coastline is dotted with churches, gardens, and charming English-style cottages. Arrive in August to catch the popular local Blueberry Festival, which draws more than 12,000 visitors annually.
What to do: Stop by the Hawthorne Cottage National Historic Site. This cottage-orne-style house was once the home of famous explorer Captain Bob Bartlett, who led more than 20 expeditions to the Arctic.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this picture-perfect destination was initially settled in the early 17th century. In fact, it’s the oldest English-speaking colonial town on earth. St. George’s, with its Gothic ruins, 18th-century mansions, and beautiful old churches, feels like a slice of the Old World in the Atlantic. But the town’s colorful houses decked out in turquoise, pink, and white—plus its sweeping seascapes—will remind you that you’re on an island.
What to do: Don’t miss a visit to historic St. Peter’s Church. It’s the oldest continually used Anglican church in the western hemisphere.
A popular place for art lovers, this Hawaiian hamlet has plenty of galleries featuring works by resident artists. Other local treasures include Waioli Mission House and Church, which once housed Christian missionaries, and Limahuli Garden and Preserve, a botanical garden built on terraces of lava rock. But one of the town’s best features is arguably its gorgeous backdrop. Hanalei is surrounded by verdant mountains, towering cliffs, and pristine beaches.
What to do: Catch some traditional Hawaiian tunes in Hanalei. Ukulele concerts are regularly held at the Hanalei Community Center.
Shetland Islands, Scotland
Fishing boats bobbing on the water, a seaside cemetery, and a pretty, yet rocky, coastline make Lerwick a scenic Scottish retreat. Lerwick is the capital of the Shetland Islands, and it’s a good starting point for travelers who want to explore this craggy land of Shetland ponies and seabirds. Although the small town can feel quiet and isolated, you’ll find plenty of liveliness chatting with local fisherman in pubs or shopping for Shetland wool in town.
What to do: Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives, which has an impressive collection of historical Shetland boats and exhibits on everything from local folklore to fishing.
Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos
This old colonial town is known for its pretty whitewashed buildings and its history. Cockburn Town is where Christopher Columbus reportedly first arrived on his first expedition to the Americas. Columbus made it to the island, but thousands of other adventurers were not so lucky. The 1,000-plus shipwrecks that dot the ocean bed around the Turks and Caicos Islands make for some fascinating diving conditions. A handful of diving centers in town will help you embark on an unforgettable underwater adventure.
What to do: Visit the Turks and Caicos National Museum, where you can learn about the island’s colonial history and see fragments from one of those infamous shipwrecks.
Lopez Island, Washington
Many people visit the San Juan Islands, about 90 miles north of Seattle, for quiet beaches and wildlife viewing. But don’t overlook Lopez Village, a lively commercial and cultural center on Lopez Island. In the summer, travelers can buy fresh food and locally made crafts at the popular Lopez Farmers’ Market. Many of the town’s restaurants offer waterfront views or fresh seafood—or both. And a handful of downtown art galleries and boutiques hawk everything from jewelry crafted by resident artisans to fudge made in town.
What to do: Grab a couple of kayaks at Cascadia Kayaks and head offshore to explore coastal caves and watch for whale fins.
Ermoupolis, once the busiest shipping port in Greece, is the place to go if you want to take a break from the beaches and see elegant, opulent architecture. According to Frommer’s, Syros “is one island where the capital town’s pleasures are so considerable that I don’t mind neglecting the island itself.” Neoclassical mansions and Venetian-style marble buildings, rather than Greece’s typical whitewashed houses, crowd this seaside town.
What to do: Walk. With so much head-turning neoclassical architecture, Ermoupolis is the perfect place for a meandering afternoon stroll.