The U.S. Barrier Islands

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Manhattan and Miami Beach are the two most famous United States barrier islands. Both are modern, big cities, full of excitement and beautiful ocean views. Often rugged, the barrier islands play an important part in the ecological systems of our coastlines by protecting the marshes and coastal estuaries during storms.

Barrier islands are valuable natural resources and recreational areas where we can enjoy nature, the ocean and wildlife. The California coast has far fewer barrier islands than the states on the East and Southern coasts, yet they are some of the most unspoiled and are mostly rocky islands floating in the Pacific.
California’s Channel Islands are a chain of eight islands and are one of the richest marine biospheres in the world. Santa Catalina or Catalina Island is a well-known tourist destination and home to about 4,000 residents. Avalon is another tourist destination for campers, hotel guests and day trippers. San Nicholas and San Clemente are the exclusive property of the U.S. Navy. The remaining five islands form the Channel Islands Nation Park. Visitors can hike, camp, kayak and swim on the islands year round. A favorite experience is to watch the diverse and beautiful species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).The weather conditions change quickly and visitors are advised to prepare for drastic changes regardless of the season. Amenities are few and transportation is provided by a concessionaire.

Padre Island is the largest of the Texas barrier islands and the world’s largest barrier island. The island is sparsely populated. South Padre Island is a resort town known for its beaches, watersports and dolphin watches. Fishing and horseback riding are other activities for tourists. North Padre Island is home to the Padre Island National Seashore. The park is primitive, but camping is permitted. The Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, the most endangered of the sea turtles, have a nesting beach on North Padre Island. Bird watching is a popular activity during migration periods.

The Sea Islands are a chain of more than 100 tidal and barrier islands off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida between the mouths of the Santee and St. Johns Rivers. The islands have a colorful history of cultures. From the indigenous cultures to modern times, Amelia Island (Florida) claims to have changed hands eight times during the colonial period; the French, Spanish, British, Patriot, Green Cross, Mexican, Confederate and United States flags have all flown over Amelia Island.

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Gullah and Geechee are still spoken on the South Carolina Sea Islands. The languages are spoken by the people of African descent who were abandoned on the islands after the Civil War and the cotton plantations imploded. Beaufort, called Little Charleston, has the southern charm of that city without the big city busyness. The formal homes and gardens on the islands are a favorite of moviemakers. Forrest Gump, The Big Chill and Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides, among others, were filmed in the islands.

Tourists go to the Sea Islands for their rich heritage. Visitors to Hunting Island State Park can learn to crab as Sea Islanders do. There are also kayak tours through the tidal marshes to shrimp-filled estuaries and remote areas with snowy egrets. For golfers, Sea Island offers a top-notch golf resort including three 18-hole championship golf courses and the PGA Tour’s McGladrey Classic. The resort’s Golf Performance Center uses multidisciplinary instruction to help each golfer achieve his or her maximum potential.

Honeymoon Island is located off the coast of Dunedin, Florida, near Clearwater. The island began as a 1939 development for newlyweds. The thatched bungalows have long since been torn down and now the state park receives visitors from 8:00 a.m. until sundown. You can hike, take kayak trips and go swimming, surfing or shelling on the beaches. Pets are welcome on the island at the designated pet beach.

Miami Beach is the southernmost barrier island with a vibrant tourist presence. Miami Beach has twelve sister cities around the world to promote tourism and business. The city hosts an annual outdoors arts festival, The Miami Beach Festival of the Arts, and sports a revitalized Art Deco district. It’s home to the New World Symphony and the Miami City Ballet. Lincoln Road is a pedestrian road mall with no vehicular traffic so visitors can enjoy open air dining and ambling through different shops and galleries.

This brief tour of the barrier islands only touches on some of the most famous. There are many others equally beautiful and worth visiting. For the nature enthusiast, the barrier islands offer a pristine look at nature’s bounties. And for the five-star hotel tourist, there are many spa-like resorts that provide as many modern amenities as the pocketbook allows. So whether you prefer nature or modern resorts, investigate the barrier islands. You’ll be amazed at the variety.