Americans have undoubtedly held a long love affair with the automobile, but sometimes a good thing can just turn sour. Whether it’s soaring gas prices or traffic congestion that have you ready to put the brakes on a car-centric vacation, or the prospect of dealing with a chorus of “are we there yets?” from the back seat, there’s no better time than the present to get a car-free vacation into gear. Happily, there are plenty of great U.S. locales where you can trade in the sound of car horns and sirens for quiet tranquility – and beat the pump, to boot. Explore these ten charming isles and mountain towns from a street-level perspective that no car ride can rival, plus throw in a kowtow to Mother Nature, as all of these sprees are carbon emissions free.
While you might expect to see Ferraris and Jags cruising around one of the world’s most fabulous and exclusive ski resorts, come summer, the visiting elite swap their wheels for heels and take to the streets to explore this movie-set perfect Victorian mining town. While the A-list pedestrians may still shimmer with bling, the summer months are considerably more laidback (except for a surge of Hollywood-in-the-Rockies vibe during the star-studded Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June). Visitors can stroll Aspen’s charming Durant Avenue, lined with the town’s best boutiques and restaurants (many housed in former saloons and gambling parlors), or take in the fresh mountain air while biking, rafting, hiking, or kayaking in White River National Forest, or on the surrounding mountain terrain. Summer events and festivals ensure that Aspen is never without an audience: the Aspen Music Festival and School is a nine-week affair that takes place every year from late June through mid-August.
Though its heyday as a stomping ground for movie stars passed with Hollywood’s golden age, Catalina Island, 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, is still an idyllic seaside escape with a year-round Mediterranean climate (and no freeways!). Avalon, the only real city on this 75-square-mile isle, is a postcard-perfect place where the mode of transport is by golf cart rather than car (it’s the only city in California authorized to regulate the number and size of vehicles on its streets). Most restaurants, shops, and attractions are within walking distance. Check out the Art Deco mermaid murals adorning the grand 1920s circular dance hall known as the Casino – then sprout your own fins and scuba dive in the crystal-clear Pacific. Inland, you’ll discover indigenous foxes, bald eagles, and the modern-day offspring of a bison herd brought to the island for a silent-screen-era movie shoot.
A mere two hours from the crush of Manhattan traffic, just off Long Island’s South Shore, lies bucolic Fire Island, a narrow, 32-mile-long barrier island where nary a honk can be heard since no cars are allowed. Dotted with small communities separated by high dunes and ancient forests (including the 40-acre Sunken Forest, one of the few remaining maritime forests on the East Coast), this National Seashore fronts the Atlantic with broad stretches of fine white sand, ideal for sunbathing, surfing, fishing, boating, and bird-watching. Guided tours are offered during the peak summer months, so visitors can learn more about the abundant wildlife (including a large deer population), freshwater marshland, and trees that have been twisted and formed by the constant saltwater spray. Come sunset, trade nature for nightlife in Cherry Grove or The Pines, two adjacent gay and lesbian communities with booming bar scenes. Ferries from Long Island regularly disembark at the island’s town centers.
Little St. Simons Island
For anyone who has ever dreamed of owning their own island but hasn’t reached "celebrity status" quite yet, Little St. Simons Island may just be the next best thing. This privately-owned island off Georgia’s Golden Isles chain was a popular retreat for American royalty such as the Astors and the Rockefellers, and today provides refuge for a privileged maximum of 30 overnight guests who bunk down at the exclusive The Lodge, Little St. Simons’ only hotel (although day trips can also be arranged). The charm here is owed to its remoteness: it’s only accessible by boat, and there are no cars or television. Even phone reception is limited, so visitors must leave the "network" (read: bye-bye BlackBerry) behind. Wind down with a bike ride, or spend time fishing, bird-watching, and horseback riding – and best of all, you can feign your celebrity status in an environment that’s paparazzi free.
Cars are rare on Lopez Island, the friendliest and, at 29.5 square miles, the third-largest of the U.S. San Juan Islands. Travelers make the 45-minute ferry ride from Seattle to escape to a simpler time of life in a place where a tight-knit community and beautiful surroundings regularly take center stage. Lopez Village – the main town – is only four miles from the ferry landing. Here, everything from art galleries and shops to restaurants and bakeries are within walking distance of one another. Venturing out of town to explore the island’s pastoral vineyards, farmlands, and parks requires only the use of a bicycle. When they’re not simply enjoying the change of pace, visitors and locals alike can be found whale-watching, fishing, hiking, clamming, and crabbing. (No wonder Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, bought an entire peninsula of the island!)
This Michigan isle is the perfect destination for vacationers looking to ditch their vehicles – in fact here, it’s a regulation. With motor vehicles restricted since as far back as the 1920s, you’ll have to kiss your car goodbye at the boat docks before setting sail for hospitable Mackinac Island, with its scenic setting of unspoiled nature and Victorian homes. During the summer months, the islanders entertain visitors and themselves alike with a number of festivals, including the Annual Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac in July, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and the Annual Stone Skipping contest, held every Fourth of July. If you end up absolutely craving a joyride, you can still indulge in one – only here, it’ll be on horseback, courtesy of the island’s rich equestrian tradition.
Artists and urban-dwellers have been seeking refuge on Maine’s car-free Monhegan Island for years, drawn in by its rugged terrain and timeless solitude. Photographers will find Lobster Cove hard to resist, with its many flat rocks on which to set up shop and capture the surf and even a shipwreck. Anyone interested in learning about the history and culture of the area can head to the Monhegan Museum, set in what was once the home of the lighthouse keeper and showcasing the works of many local artists. In fact, an artists’ colony on the island has been in existence for more than 100 years, with several works available for purchase at the numerous artists’ studios – an artistic reminder of the island’s peace and tranquility is guaranteed to top the typical gift-shop coffee mug, hands down.
Leave the gas pumps behind – Nags Head Island is all about communing with nature. Cars certainly aren’t needed to navigate this tiny, 6.5-square-mile barrier island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Indeed, visitors, most of whom are lured by outdoorsy pursuits in the first place, get more out of biking and walking between the island’s wildlife refuges (spot everything from wood ducks to red wolves), forests, wetlands, and beaches, than wheeling around. Explore the third largest estuary system in the world, the highest sand dunes on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and the remains of sunken ships (legend has it that the infamous pirate Blackbeard and his crew used to roam the more than 900 square miles of water that surround Nags Head). At the end of the day you can retire knowing that you’re helping the very environment you’re enjoying with your carbon-emissions-free vacation.
Not designed with cars in mind, Nantucket’s narrow cobblestone streets are best explored on foot or by bike. Follow the island’s winding lanes past historic clapboard homes of sea captains and pre-Civil War buildings – many of which are now home to boutiques and galleries, as well as the island’s famous Whaling Museum (housed in an 1847 candle factory). A high-speed ferry from Hyannis, Massachusetts, or a quick flight from most major New England cities will get you to this charming former whaling capital of the world. Once ashore, don your flip flops and shades and head to the beach to test out your sea legs with an array of water activities, or bicycle around the attractive town, making stops for ice-cream cones, window-shopping, or golf.
South Padre Island
This 1.8-square-mile barrier island along the Texas Gulf Coast may be best known for its bawdy spring break ritual, but the island equally boasts experiences for couples, families, and just about everyone in between – all within a compact stretch of surf and sand. Apart from stretching out on the sparkling beaches, activities on South Padre Island range from wildlife watching and birding to fishing and a variety of watersports – you can even sign the kids up for sandcastle building lessons. The Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark, which opened in 2001, is a favorite family attraction while the annual South Padre International Music Festival is expected to attract close to 20,000 revelers during the first weekend in November.