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5 Scenic Boating Destinations to Set Sail

For many Americans, boating is an enjoyable activity — open water, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, the feeling of freedom, and new memories. With over 95,000 miles of coastline and thousands of lakes, the United States boasts some of the best boating destinations for mariners seeking their next great adventure. Before embarking on your boat trip, you have to do some research first. For example, you may need special licenses or reservations if you want to fish, camp, or dock your boat.

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You can also sign up for a vessel safety check — conducted for free by the U.S. Coastguard Auxiliary — to ensure that your boat is in serviceable condition and is equipped with the all required safety gear. Listen to weather forecasts and most importantly, be careful of afternoon thunderstorms that may occur.  Once you’ve prepared for your trip, you are now free to set sail into these five best boating destinations, ranging from historic cities to secluded parks.

Newport, Rhode Island

newport rhode island
Michael Kagdis

Newport has been a longtime favorite destination for mariners. Its rich history, beautiful scenery, and sailing culture make it an ideal spot for amateur and experienced boaters alike. Rent a boat or dock space from one of the city’s huge array of marinas and set sail in whatever direction strikes your fancy, from Newport Harbor and Brenton Cove on the west side to Easton Bay and Sheep Point Cove to the east.

While you’re in the area, soak in the quintessential New England experience by indulging in fresh seafood from dozens of local restaurants. When you’re ready to dock and hop back on land for a bit, you can visit Newport’s Historic District to enjoy incredible colonial architecture or head to one of many nearby beaches to soak up the sun. Be sure not to miss out on Newport’s famous Cliff Walk, where you can birdwatch and stop to study historic mansions as you hike through 3.5 miles of incredible wildflowers and breathtaking New England shoreline.

Time your visit just right (July 2021), and you can hit up the annual Newport Kite Festival, a free event where enthusiasts gather to show off colorful and quirky flying contraptions. For anglers, there are tons of sites for fresh- and saltwater fishing, and even shell-fishing for oysters and the infamous New England quahog — but don’t forget to get your license first! All in all, Newport makes for an incredibly well-rounded vacation that will satiate your need for open water, fresh seafood, and historic sightseeing.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

fort lauderdale florida boats
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Dubbed “The Venice of America,” Fort Lauderdale is the epitome of a boat-centric city. In addition to being dotted with over 300 miles of waterways, the city houses over 40,000 yachts and 100 marinas, gets 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, and hosts one of the world’s largest boat shows, the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (October 27 through October 31 for 2021). Once a major hot spot for spring-breaking college students, Fort Lauderdale is now fully aimed at resort-style living. Dock at local restaurants to enjoy some fresh catch or spend the day fishing and bring your own in to be cooked. Ample waterways are a parasailer’s paradise, or you can kick back and just enjoy the stunning views from your captain’s chair.

Coral reefs make for incredible snorkeling and open water diving, and the nearby Everglades provide a huge stomping ground for new adventures. Visit the 4,000 square mile wetlands to take airboat tours, go fishing, kayak, hike trails, and experience a truly unique ecosystem swarming with wildlife from turtles and alligators to manatees and dolphins.

When you’re in a landlubber mood, disembark and head to Fort Lauderdale’s bustling downtown, where you’ll find beaches, dozens of golf courses, the Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District, and popular Las Olas Boulevard, which is filled with shops, restaurants, and unique architecture. Or you can park yourself at the Thunderbird Drive-in, the world’s largest such theater with 14 screens. Fort Lauderdale is also a great destination for vacationers who like to day-trip as it’s within ferrying distance of both the Bahamas and Miami.

San Juan Islands, Washington

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An hour and a half north of Seattle lie the San Juan Islands, a gorgeous archipelago of 172 named islands that make for an amazing boating destination if you’re looking to take things slow. The islands have a temperate year-round climate and less rain than Seattle, so it’s easy to schedule a trip where you can enjoy the scenery without Mother Nature interrupting your plans. Rent your vessel from one of the nearby marinas or hop on the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. Head out on the water and enjoy stunning views of mountains and sea at the same time — and get some whale-watching in. The islands are one of the best places to spot Orcas in the wild.

Whales aren’t the only natural sights you can look forward to. The islands are also home to the greatest concentration of bald eagles in the contiguous United States, along with plentiful other species like harbor seals, river otters, black-tailed deer, and herons.

Take to the land for even more adventure by taking a mellow, leisurely drive over the Orcas Island Scenic Byway or biking through incredible preserved woodlands on the San Juan Island Scenic Byway. Round out your trip with kayaking, hiking, local farm visits, museums, horseback rides, arcades, and more. The San Juan Islands’ protected status, along with hundreds of harbors and docks, make them a perfect boating destination for travelers looking for a serene getaway that still offers plenty of entertainment.

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Isle Royal National Park Michigan
Isle Royal National Park/Facebook

If seclusion is what you’re after, head to Isle Royale National Park on Michigan’s Lake Superior. The park is only accessible by boat or seaplane, so it’s tough to beat if you’re looking for pure solitude. Once there, you’ll find yourself in a tranquil world of history and nature. This national park is unlike any other. With 165 miles of trails peppered with sites for backpackers to pitch their tents and wildlife sightings that can include moose, foxes, and beavers, it’s the passionate camper’s wildest dream. For the best and fullest experience of this wild paradise, plan your visit for August – pesky insects start to die down in late July just as wild blueberries begin to ripen. Once you obtain a camping permit, you can spend your nights under the stars by docking or dropping anchor on the park’s perimeter. While you can’t water ski or jet surf at the park, there’s plenty of kayaking and fishing to be had.

For a touch of civilization, visit one of the park’s two developed areas: Windigo and Rock Harbor. Windigo, which is situated at the southwest end, is largely a camper’s respite, with a small store, showers, cabins, and campsites. Rock Harbor, while still quiet and secluded, functions as the park’s “downtown” area. It’s located in the northeast and has a restaurant, store, boat dock, and the Rock Harbor Lodge. While you’re out exploring, you can visit a historic copper mine or check out the lighthouse quietly perched atop Passage Island.

Lake Superior waters can be rough at certain times of the year, as evidenced by Isle Royale’s over 25 shipwreck sites you can now dive to explore, so if you’re not an experienced boater, you may prefer to hire a charter or take a ferry instead. For tranquil scenery, unique boating, and rugged camping, there’s nothing quite like Isle Royale National Park. Plan properly, though — the park closes from November to mid-April due to extreme weather.

Lake Havasu, Arizona

Lake Havasu Arizona London Bridge
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A mere 24 miles away from the high-rolling hustle of the Las Vegas strip is Lake Havasu, right on the border between Arizona and California. The lake is a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam and is all about no-holds-barred fun. There are no size or speed restrictions, so you’re free to do everything from jet skiing to leisurely canoe rides. Havasu is connected to 60 miles of continuous waterways, including the Colorado River itself, so there’s no shortage of places to point your bow. Beaches, coves, and the beautiful Copper Canyon are all easily accessible for boaters hoping to explore and sightsee. The lake is also spanned by London Bridge, a popular attraction that once spanned the River Thames and was sold to Lake Havasu City by the City of London in 1831 (a reassembly was completed in 1971).

Teeming with large carp, smallmouth bass, striper, redear sunfish, and more, the Lake is a popular destination for anglers. It’s no wonder, as several have reeled in massive hauls over the years, including a world-record-setting sunfish in 2014 (surpassing the previous title holder, which was also caught on Lake Havasu).

Rent a houseboat and you’ll never have to leave the water — there’s even a local restaurant that will deliver pizza dockside by skateboard. If you do decide to hit the land, there’s plenty of additional fun to be had in Lake Havasu City, where you can hike, mountain bike, take hot air balloon tours, go off-roading, visit local shops and restaurants, stay at a resort, or go on a lighthouse tour (with over 24, the city has more lighthouses than any other in the country). With ample opportunities for watersports, sightseeing, outdoor adventuring, and fishing, Lake Havasu is an ideal boating destination if you’re traveling with family or a larger group.

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LeeAnn Whittemore
Former Digital Trends Contributor
LeeAnn Whittemore is a writer, artist, and graphic designer who grew up in the Midwest before moving to the Gulf Coast. As a…
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