This summer’s best island festivals in the U.S.
Get ready to celebrate everything from sailboat races and sand castles to shrimp and grits.
There’s something about islands and their sense of remove that makes them feel magical at any time of the year. But visiting an island during one of its iconic events allows you to see it at its finest and meet the locals in all their glory. Hundreds of U.S. islands host summertime festivities—some in their inaugural debut, others with more than a century of tradition behind them—and many invite travelers to join in the fun. March in a parade to welcome the solstice, learn to swim like a mermaid, fly your own handmade kite, or gaze at the stars with astronomers. Here are 10 of our favorite island events across the country.
Solstice Parade (June 22)
Orcas Island, Washington
Given the long, rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest, the coming of the summer sun warrants a big bash. And the artful communities of Washington’s Orcas Island, part of the San Juan archipelago, put on quite a show. This year’s parade theme is “Carnival of Elements,” so expect more than 200 homemade costumes representing the periodic table, earth, water, wind, or fire. The route ends at Eastsound’s Village Green with live music, dancing, and an epic farmer’s market featuring the island’s produce, flowers, foods, and creative works.
Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Kiss the clock goodbye in one of 89 villas—most built over the pristine lagoon—at the St. Regis Bora Bora. Kayak, sail, or simply chaise-lounge with views of Mount Otemanu. Butler service, a restaurant menu by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and traditional taurumi massages round out the relaxation.
Mermaid Festival (July 5-7)
Key West, Florida
Haven’t heard of MerMay, MerMagic Con, or the many merfolk pods across the country? Come to this inaugural Florida event to see 35 mermaids rise to the surface. With dual goals of celebrating mermaids and advocating for ocean conservation, the festival kicks off the first of seven events with Meet the Mermaids at Havana Cabana and goes on to include Swim With the Mermaids sessions (tails available for rent), a parade, an adults-only Ocean Blue party, and a MerTots Splash Hour. Proceeds from merchandise and ticket sales will support the nonprofit organization Reef Relief.
Detroit Kite Festival (July 14)
Belle Isle, Michigan
Kite flying is an ancient skill that’s been used by cultures around the world for wind testing, fishing, military communications—and windy day fun. On Detroit, Michigan’s Frederick Law Olmsted–designed Belle Isle, the latter is celebrated in high style with this event that draws thousands of attendees, including the WindJammers, a professional kite-flying team based in the city. Kites can be borrowed, bought, or built, with staff from the Detroit Institute of Arts on hand to teach the basics of kite construction to kids and the “Will It Fly?” tinkering workshop for older enthusiasts. While you’re there, stop by the Albert Kahn–designed Belle Isle Aquarium and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, home to one of the country’s largest orchid collections.
Ukulele Festival (July 21)
This festival, now in its 49th year, sings the praises of the ukulele, or “jumping flea”—purportedly named for the speed with which players’ fingers strum the four strings. Originating in part from the braguinha, a small guitar brought to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese immigrants who worked in the sugarcane fields, the ukulele quickly became a beloved element of the hula culture. The event features internationally known musicians as well as a hundreds-strong children’s orchestra from Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele School. Head to the bandstand of the 300-acre Queen Kapiolani Park, which lies at the base of Diamond Head and is also home to the Honolulu Zoo.
Newport Jazz Festival (August 2-4)
Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island
Over the last 65 years, this weekend event in Newport, Rhode Island, has hosted jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and B.B. King. This year’s 50-plus cool cats, including Common, Corinne Bailey Rae, Herbie Hancock, and Ravi Coltrane, will jam on four stages in Fort Adams State Park. Food and craft booths as well as beer and wine gardens round out the revelry, which comes with stunning views of Newport’s Harbor.
The Rockville Regatta (August 3-4)
Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina
The tradition of racing small boats from South Carolina’s Sea Island Yacht Club as the final event of the sailing season dates back 129 years, with generations of families taking the tiller. Rockville, a quiet centuries-old town noted for its beautifully restored homes and Spanish moss–draped live oaks, buzzes with excitement on race weekend as crowds gather on land and water (a “spectator fleet” party) waiting for the shotgun blast to signal the start. Catch two races on Saturday and one on Sunday morning, including the Sea Island One Design class, featuring a type of wide, flat wooden skiff that’s famous in the area. While you’re on the island, cruise by the Charleston Tea Plantation or Deep Water Vineyard.
Grand Illumination (August 14)
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Known as a welcoming haven for African American vacationers during the segregation era, the town of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, also hosted one of the earliest summer religious retreats at Wesleyan Grove. The original tented camp was replaced by gingerbread cottages, hundreds of which have been lovingly restored and decorated with antique Chinese and Japanese lanterns. During this spectacle, now celebrating its sesquicentennial, residents and guests gather in the Oak Bluffs Tabernacle for a twilight sing-along, followed by the ceremonial candle lighting of one of the lanterns. The residents then light their own lanterns until the whole village is illuminated by the colorful paper and silk designs. The result is pure enchantment.
AIA Sandcastle Competition (August 24)
With a certified architect on each of the competition’s 60 teams, these are no ordinary sandcastles. Construction tools include shovels and buckets but also metal flashing, paint brushes, and spackle knives. Still, only sand and water can be used as materials when the teams compete for the Gold Bucket—the Heisman Trophy of sandcastle competitions. They also battle it out for bragging rights and awards like Greatest Feat of Structural Integrity. Those who don’t bring their A game might win the Biggest Disaster award for a collapsed structure. Aspiring builders can take a workshop on techniques, and food trucks will fuel the efforts. This last hurrah of the summer season for the Houston, Texas, area draws 20,000 people to East Beach.
Shrimp & Grits Festival (September 20-22)
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Georgia’s Jekyll Island is celebrated for its Gilded Age family “cottages” as well as its Driftwood Beach and Georgia Sea Turtle Center. But during this weekend, you can also get your fill of one of the South’s iconic dishes. On Friday night, cast your vote in the People’s Choice cooking competition with entrants selling half portions at half price for judging purposes. If you’re still hungry, head to a food truck and the Craft Brew Fest offering tastings and live music (plus shade and fans). The perfect way to work off those calories? Running in the 5K Go for the Grits race.
Star Party (September 21)
Antelope Island, Utah
Only an hour from the bright lights of Salt Lake City, Utah, Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake was awarded an International Dark Sky Park designation in 2017 after investing in downwardly directed, low-wattage lighting. This makes it an ideal location for stargazers and astrophotographers, as well as anyone visiting the island to glimpse its bison, pronghorn antelope, and abundant bird populations. In September the Milky Way, Jupiter, and Saturn will be particularly well positioned for viewing along with nebulae and star clusters. Staff from the Ogden Astronomical Society will provide telescopes and tips.
- Nat Geo Expeditions