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The red and white striped lighthouse on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Credit: Courtesy of South Carolina Office of Tourism

This year’s World’s Best Awards survey was open for voting January 11 through May 10, 2021, as destinations around the world were lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Survey rules have always allowed readers to reflect on their travel experiences over a three-year period. We hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your own travels as you get back out into the world.

From coast to coast, the best islands in the Continental U.S. attract all types of travelers, but readers seem to have a soft spot for the eastern seaboard — especially when it comes to Florida, which lays claim to five of the top islands. Still, there’s a Midwestern haven that continues to draw fans from every corner of the country.

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated islands according to their activities and sights, natural attractions and beaches, food, friendliness, and overall value.

Mackinac Island (No. 9), located on Lake Huron, has been the site of so many important happenings — a major battle in the War of 1812, for starters — that it’s been designated a National Historical Landmark. And while 80 percent remains protected as a state park, it also has a plethora of galleries, restaurants, and sites to explore on foot, bike, or in a horse-drawn carriage (no automobiles are allowed). “What a different place to visit,” said one voter. “It’s like its own little world.”

Also coveted for its sense of isolation is Maine’s 108-square-mile Mount Desert Island. Landing in the No. 8 spot, it is home to the majority of Acadia National Park, where nature lovers can hike the tallest mountain on the East Coast and explore the rocky beaches. One reader called it the “best biking spot ever!” There are also several lively towns, including Bar Harbor, which hosts annual music and fine-arts festivals. It has a walkable downtown packed with shops, restaurants, and bars.

But this year’s No. 1 island, Hilton Head, has been a familiar favorite for years. Read on to learn why readers continue to vote for it as the best island in the continental United States.

1. Hilton Head, South Carolina

A sailboat seen of the coast of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina

Credit: Aurora Open/Getty Images

With 12 miles of pristine beaches, 33 golf courses, 60 miles of walking trails, as well as outstanding restaurants, museums and galleries, this South Carolina island has been popular with voters for years. For longer stays, many visitors choose to rent houses, but comfortable hotels abound. The Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort, which has three swimming pools, a spa, and four restaurants, is an ideal option for families; for a more serene experience, there is the 60-room Inn & Club at Harbour Town, which was recently refurbished and offers tennis and golf. “We can be as busy as we like or just relax and take in all the beautiful beaches and sea life,” said one voter.

Score: 87.77

2. Kiawah Island, South Carolina 

Wildlife on Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Credit: Daniela Duncan/Getty Images

Score: 86.27

3. Amelia Island, Florida

A boardwalk leading to the beach at Amelia Island, Florida

Credit: Deremer Studios/Courtesy of The Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau/ameliaisland.com

Score: 85.35

4. San Juan Islands, Washington State

A woman on a ferry in the San Juan Islands, Washington

Credit: Jason Hummel/Courtesy of Washington Tourism Alliance

Score: 85.26

5. Long Boat Key, Florida

A kayaker off the coast of Longboat Key, Florida

Credit: Courtesy of Visit Florida

Score: 85.24

6. Nantucket, Massachusetts

A lighthouse on the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts

Credit: Courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Tourism & Travel

Score: 85.07

7. Golden Islands (Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island), Georgia

View through the dunes to two people walking on the beach at Jekyll Island, Georgia

Credit: iStockphoto/Getty Images

Score: 84.78

8. Mount Desert Island, Maine

View from the rocky coastline of Mount Desert Island, Maine

Credit: Deb Snelson/Getty Images

Score: 84.73

9. Mackinac Island, Michigan

View from the ferry to Mackinac Island, Michigan

Credit: Gerard + Belevender

Score: 84.71

10. Florida Keys, Florida

A boat in the clear water near the lighthouse at Alligator Reed, in the Florida Keys

Credit: Paradise Media/Courtesy of Visit Florida

Score: 84.42

11. Captiva Island, Florida

A long stretch of beach at Captiva Island, Florida

Credit: Stacy Hilton/Courtesy of Visit Florida

Score: 82.91

12. Block Island, Rhode Island

Staircase leading down to a beach on Block Island, Rhode Island

Credit: Courtesy of Rhode Island Commerce Corporation

Score: 82.46

13. Sanibel Island, Florida

Aerial view of the lighthouse and clear waters off the coast of Sanibel Island, Florida

Credit: Peter W. Cross/Courtesy of Visit Florida

Score: 82.45

14. Outer Banks, North Carolina

A pristine beach and dunes at Outer Banks, North Carolina

Credit: Courtesy of Outer Banks Visitor Bureau

Score: 80.64

15. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

Boats moored at Oak Bluff, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Credit: Kenneth Wiedemann/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Score: 79.50

See all of our readers’ favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World’s Best Awards for 2021.

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