Island Destinations Rated: North America
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Panelists exchanged comments, which were kept anonymous to maintain survey neutrality during the rating process. These lightly edited excerpts offer a glimpse of panelists' varied points of view and the reasoning behind each score. They are not the views of the National Geographic Society.
Block Island, Rhode Island
"Charming, old New England culture of the sea present everywhere. Sheep graze, horses on the roads, an old lighthouse which is simply open to visit. Very low-key. Big old hotels, many beautiful yachts come and go. Many homes have been owned for decades by the same family."
"One big problem: Suburban-style zoning that mandates large lot subdivisions that are marching cookie cutter-style across the island. The island desperately needs to require neo-traditional and cluster development to protect the remaining open spaces."
"Clean and well-kept, a real pleasure to visit. Locals run a set of independent B&Bs and gift shops, rather than chain franchises."
"Fortunate to have large areas set aside as nature reserves."
"The island purposely strives to maintain its bucolic atmosphere, and except for summer crowds, largely succeeds."
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
"Portion of island is a national park. Most tourism concentrated in small communities and focused on the Cabot Trail, with high traffic in summer season. Aesthetic appeal is very high with small unique fishing villages, Celtic music and dancing, and with beautiful scenic drives. Tourism development for the most part is appropriate for the region, and local people benefit from it."
"There can still be found pockets of French and even Gaelic speakers. The population seems a bit too reliant on tourism. As long as Cape Breton is known for its scenic beauty above all else, it will probably be preserved."
"Extremely short tourist season (three months). Small cruise ship business. No other viable economic alternatives results in high unemployment and out-migration."
"Island is in good shape environmentally, but Bras d'Or Lakes undergoing environmental pollution from development and marine traffic."
Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina
"The National Seashore has been key to keeping somewhat of a balance, and there are interesting historic destinations. However, houses, houses everywhere have created considerable problems for the experience."
"On the plus side, Hatteras has resisted high-rises and prohibits billboards (rare in this part of the world), but the island is being overdeveloped."
"The parts of the island that are 'open for business' have been developed to the maximum. With a limited road system and every lot a McMansion, the visitor experience in high season is not very relaxing. But cross over into the National Seashore, and it is another world."
"Ruined by monstrous beach-front development. The only saving grace is what the park service has preserved. These barrier islands are so fragile and exposed that in the end nature may make any current assessment moot."
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Hilton Head, South Carolina
"Golf and gated communities dominate the Hilton Head landscape; it's pretty monotonous in a squeaky-clean way. Remnants of Gullah Geechees are fading, resurrected at an annual festival. Hilton Head's trying to protect—via growth control ordinance and strategic purchases—what little undeveloped land remains and uses the sea turtle habitat as a teaching tool, but it's an uphill battle."
"Hilton Head protects its trees, prohibits billboards and sign clutter, has lots of bike trails, no high-rises. Biggest problems are housing affordability and traffic congestion. Service workers have to commute from off island."
"This island is the poster boy for tourism development gone wild. There is extreme pressure to continue development even though the population living there wants to stop development."
"Highly suburbanized, but retains natural beach-dune system elements."
Key West, Florida
"Key West, especially, but the rest of the Keys as well, are in serious trouble. Cruise travel, overdevelopment, coastal construction, and marine-based recreation have all taken their toll on this area."
"Key West can get very, very crowded. Many of the historic buildings have been preserved and renovated. There's a fair amount of tourist kitsch shops, but less than in many similar places."
"Visitors understand that there's some link to Hemingway or Truman or Williams, but they're a lot more clear about Jimmy Buffet and a sort of generic party-hearty attitude. Toleration—for gays, for drunks, whatever—is understood. The architecture is slowly succumbing to change, and there are some large, generic hotels. New town (created by landfill) is utterly generic."
"While there is very little interpretation of natural or cultural resources on the other islands, what one finds on Key West is both entertaining and educational. The Hemingway House is worth the long drive down the length of the Keys in itself."
"Coral reefs are degraded and over-fished. There is a lot of pressure from diving on the few protected areas. Mangroves have been largely removed from much of the coast. There are problems with pollution. Septic systems leak."
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Mackinac Island, Michigan
"Still spectacular with great social and cultural integrity. In summer the dock area can be frenzied with tourists, yet the remainder of the island remains relatively unchanged—scenic and appealing."
"The pace is purposely slow. Pleasures are simple: bike riding, touring the fort, eating fudge, savoring the view from the veranda of the Grand Hotel. With access restricted by ferry schedules, it will likely never be out of control."
"Its charm, enhanced by the lack of automobiles (since 1898) and the presence of horse-drawn conveyances, is quite remarkable. For the everyday tourist it seems a perfect historic environment. Mackinac is a very fragile environment, though. The crush of summertime tourists strains the local physical plant, and lack of heritage regulations allows for substantial changes to historic fabric, especially in the downtown."
"A great example of conservation/preservation/education all converging in a project that the local community clearly benefits from and is proud of."
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
"An East Coast summer retreat. Quaint homes and mansions built by sea captains dot the portions of the coast. You get the feel that this is a very seasonal place."
"Traditional fishing and farming is largely symbolic, but remain a cherished, if tiny, component of the community's self-identity. Towns have regulations to protect open space and have done an admirable job of preventing commercial blight (no strip development, franchises, or neon lighting). Nevertheless, construction is a primary island industry and the demand for more affordable, year-round housing is a challenge."
"The island has become a trendy place, where successful professionals maintain second homes. It is also a place of social and celebrity gathering, which makes Martha's Vineyard one of the most expensive places in New England."
"While development here is in keeping with the principles of ecological, cultural, and historical sustainability, the sums of money being thrown at real estate here are too vast to allow truly sustainable growth."
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Mount Desert Island, Maine
"Well taken care of. Good policies, community involvement. Towns retain character, with the exception of Bar Harbor. Good stewardship."
"Acadia National Park maintains its environmental integrity. Scenic and cultural and historic heritage is being protected well. Around the park, however, there are problems. Bar Harbor is crazy and overly commercial in the summer, and cruise ships only aggravate that. Local residents cannot afford to live here, and traffic gets worse every year. The free biodiesel bus is an asset, and many tourist services (lodging, restaurants, kayak outfitters, e.g.) are providing authentic experiences."
"I was stunned as to how much the island had been developed since I was there as a child. My recent trip was a bit disappointing, as the harbor had big cruise boats in it and the town was overrun with trinket shops. Not much of the local Maine character seemed to be left."
"A benchmark for sustainability. The fact that it is home to Acadia National Park has contributed to establishment of a unique, committed alliance of the National Park Service, the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, and the local residents. It's a win-win scenario for both the locals and the visitors."
"Nantucket's many neighborhoods still bear their own distinct flavor. Siasconset is peaceful and lovely outside of wedding season, and the rugged beachfront is not overdeveloped. Nice heritage museums convey the importance of the community's whaling history—well done."
"Nantucket is great except for all the crowds in the summer and too many super-wealthy building tasteless mega-mansions."
"The stress on Nantucket is gigantic and the town meeting structure helps to threaten character, because the folks who vote have to earn their living out of the local economy—unlike second homeowners and retirees—and hence view growth and construction as good."
Ocracoke, Outer Banks, North Carolina
"Ocracoke is great. It's like the Outer Banks used to be, and the reason is not hard to fathom: A ferry at either end and a national park from end to end. The little community still retains much charm."
"Development is beginning to change the character, but the island aesthetic is still intact, with village appeal and natural beauty close at hand."
"Ocracoke may be about to turn around its long slide toward environmental degradation. There are locals who want to protect the natural and built environment. Much of the problem has stemmed from outside investors largely interested in profits."
"The problem: Those who have only recently moved there and see it largely as a cash cow. Who doesn't want world-class beaches and a small town air? Worth a lot of money, which will quickly destroy it."
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Prince Edward Island, Canada
"PEI seems like a historical laboratory. Canada's birthplace, the native reality, the Acadians on the west coast. Despite the garish Anne of Green Gables conflagration in the middle, the island seems to have figured out how to grow without harming the environment. Since its charm is such a big selling point, they have mastered the art of 'old fashioned.' From the fiddles to the oysters, PEI seems to be wholly authentic."
"A gorgeous 'gentle' island in summer, fiery red in the fall. Large sections of unincorporated land make municipal governance ineffective in land use planning and rewards urban sprawl. Its iconic landscape remains generally underprotected."
"The Anne of Green Gables legacy lives on with all roads leading to Cavendish, especially for Japanese couples who choose it as a wedding/honeymoon site. Culture has become a commodity. For me, the only salvation amongst the golf courses was the Potato Museum and seaweed-pie café and Irish moss interpretive centre."
Salt Spring Island, Gulf Islands, British Columbia
"Salt Spring Island offers tourism options, mainly centered on contemporary fine arts/music culture, creative organic cuisine, agritourism, and marine ecotourism, largely driven by strong-minded locals who scrutinize every new possibility with intense National Geographic criteria eyeglasses!"
"The population is becoming increasingly artsy, retired, wealthy second homes, etc. Skyrocketing housing prices."
"Suffering from being too popular. Major conflict between locals who want tourism and those who moved there to hide from humanity."
"As long as the Islands Trust exercises strong land-use policies, the potential exists for Salt Spring to remain as a delightful and memorable destination."
San Juan Islands, Washington State
"This pleasant archipelago retains its attraction due to limited access through a network of well-managed ferries. With a growing number of second homes and slight gentrification, the islands still retain a good balance between environment and infrastructure."
"No big hotels, no big crowds, but the open spaces are under attack by non-native invasive plants. And whale watching in the waters off the islands is completely out of hand, with the native orca pods chased and harassed all day every day from May to October by tour boats."
"Varied experiences on the different islands. Good kayaking, whale watching, hiking, bicycling. However, islands could be more 'bike friendly' with dedicated bike lanes needed."
"Over 100 islands, each with its own character and attributes. Perhaps the worst is overdevelopment of Roche Harbor to appeal to rich baby boomers and the imposition of urban values into a beautiful setting. However, build-out settlements on other islands have remained sustainable and tasteful."
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"Sanibel has tried to distinguish itself from the rampant development of the rest of the west coast of Florida and has been fairly successful with height restrictions and setbacks. However, every year it gets just a little more crowded and challenging. The Ding Darling Refuge is a treasure."
"Back in the 1970s, the passing of the Sanibel Plan attempted to limit development and promote sustainability. Like everything else in Florida, Sanibel has been sorely compromised, but it has more integrity than most developed islands."
"Restaurants are along the roads, with air conditioning and closed windows, serving chicken wings, rather than by the sea, open air, and offering seafood."
"Sanibel has done a great job in spite of many disadvantages. It still has good environmental features, some social/cultural integrity, and aesthetic appeal."
Santa Catalina Island, California
"People respect the Catalina Conservancy's work and understand its role in controlling over 75 percent of the island. Easy helicopter/boat access means lots of visitors, but most are contained on-island and don't seek a larger experience. Catalina works for what it is."
"This island is developed to its maximum, but concentrated in a small strip along the short waterfront. The remainder of the island is preserved and, with the exception of some feral animal species, seems well-balanced. Recent wildfires may have major impact on future."
"The island is a lovely miniature of what the mainland must have looked like years ago. Plus buffalo! Avalon is a bit tacky, but that is one of the things I love about it."
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