Many Americans dream of traveling to exotic destinations, long days laying on gorgeous white beaches, and of being immersed in a new culture. Some refrain from planning trips, however, because of the cost and hassle involved with flying to hard-to-reach countries. Interestingly, according to a report from 2014, less than half of all Americans actually own a passport, a fact that keeps most travelers on domestic ground.
1. Northern Mariana Islands
Officially named the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), these islands and their neighbor Guam make up the Marianas archipelago, a location where Americans can travel to without a passport. Why should you consider these islands set in the Pacific Ocean? The answer includes palm trees, lush mountains, pristine white sand beaches, and plenty of scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, just to name a few.
Known as “America’s best-kept secret”, CNMI is geographically isolated, located 1,476 miles north of Papua New Guinea and 1,611 miles east of the Philippines. It’s considered a paradise with a tropical marine climate and little seasonal variation (aside from wet and dry, which is typical of tropical lands).
There are a few places to visit when you travel to the CNMI islands. First is the capital, Saipan. An island that extends 12 miles long, it’s the main tourist attraction and home to restaurants, clubs, resorts, and a number of water activities that are characteristic of the CNMI. It’s here where you’ll find the Grotto, a 70-foot-deep limestone cavern with piercing blue seawater and three distinct tunnels. It’s a fairly easy dive for certified divers, at nearly 60 feet, and an interesting one where you may spot white-tip reef sharks, barracudas, butterfly fish, green sea turtles, Napoleon wrasses, tuna, and rays.
Foodies will enjoy a varied culinary feast here as well, since the cuisine is influenced by a few different cultures. It’s possible to try noodles from Asian countries alongside Spanish-style empanadas. Dishes are also heavily based in rice, and red rice is a unique item to this territory. Expect a variety of fruits like mango and coconut, and lots of Spam.
2. Puerto Rico
The second US territory with commonwealth status, after the CNMI, is Puerto Rico, which has been an unincorporated territory of the United States since 1898. It’s easier to travel to, located in the northeastern Caribbean, and viable through affordable non-stop flights from various US airports (though Florida is a common connector).
One of the first things you may notice when you visit is the Spanish language. In fact, both Spanish and English are the official languages, though the former is the one primarily spoken. The second is that it has true Caribbean flair, Although the seas are comparative to those of the Dominican Republic’s, the hassle of traveling internationally isn’t, since it’s a domestic territory.
The social and cultural center in Puerto Rico is San Juan, home to the historic cobblestone streets that were constructed 500 years ago, pastel-colored buildings, and centuries-old forts. Are you unsure where to begin your adventures in the city? Get an idea of the surroundings by trying out the hop-on-hop-off trollies, which are sometimes free. Otherwise, schedule a guided trolley tour.
Of course, Puerto Rico may be best known for beautiful sandy beaches and warm blue waters that attract families looking for a beach-filled vacation and divers alike, but you shouldn’t miss a chance to see the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay on the Island of Vieques. In addition to water activities, tourists can enjoy hiking through the rain forests, zip-lining, and festivals.
3. U.S. Virgin Islands
Also located in the Caribbean are the US Virgin Islands, a hop, skip, and jump from Puerto Rico. This location is made up of three main islands, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, plus several smaller isles.
The culture on these islands is a mosaic of American, European, African, and even West Indian influences. Locals rely on open-air markets for fresh fruit and vegetables, while grocery stores are where imported spices are purchased. Typical dish preparation and cooking methods in this region are unique to the European and African communities that are dominant here.
Each island has its own personality. St. Croix is known as the “culture island” and is peppered with landmarks that tell the story of the islands’ history. Here you can find breathtaking views and lots of pristine diving opportunities. St. John, nicknamed the “Island Unplugged,” is where you can go to get away from everyday life. This is the spot for nature lovers, as two-thirds is national parkland, and the island is home to legendary diving. St. John is actually considered paradise for escapists. Then you have luxurious St. Thomas, where action can be found in the form of superb dining and thumping nightlife, plenty of shopping, and even more beaches.
This is the most unique and exotic of all 50 states, and the only one that’s not located in the Americas. There are eight major islands, but only six are frequented by tourists (Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, Lanai, and Molokai) and many smaller islets. Each island has its own unique personality, which offers different experiences to their visitors, including vibe and facilities.
These islands are a major hub for nature-lovers, which is the only thing that they have in common. Visiting means a never-ending supply of lush greens mountains, beautiful waterfalls, both black and white sand beaches, and volcanic landscapes (some of which are still active).
Are you looking for a party? Then visit Oahu. On the other hand, the private island of Lanai is a sanctuary for anyone who wants solitude and doesn’t worry about a budget. Adventurists may love the Big Island, Hawaii, home to Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano and a location where you can witness both lava flows and snow-capped mountains. And if you want to learn more about the origins of Hawaiian culture, visit Molokai, a small island where the majority of locals are descendants of the indigenous peoples.
5. American Samoa
Are you looking for another adventurous destination? Let’s round out this list with another volcanic archipelago. Located in the South Pacific Ocean, America Samoa is truly off-the-beaten-path as the only US territory in the southern hemisphere. This is also the most isolated spot on this list, a fact that contributes to its handful of hotels, scant tourism, and few commercial distractions that primarily revolve around nature and marine life. America Samoa is only a five-hour flight from Hawaii.
In America Samoa, visitors can experience the authentic and vibrant Samoan culture and enjoy tropical rain forests, coral-filled waters, and craggy coastlines sculpted of lava. It’s important to become familiar with the customs of the villages that you plan on visiting. While tourists are welcome throughout the islands, Samoans value their strong religious culture, and visitors can witness prayer curfews, exotic fashions, which include sarongs, and respectful mannerisms such as sitting cross-legged on the floor when visiting a local’s home (called a fale).
There are many ways to experience new cultures and witness exotic sites, all without a passport.
Luckily, there are many ways to escape your cultural norms and travel to far off lands without an American passport. Many US territories in tropical climates are also infused with influences from many other countries, usually as a result of historical ties, that make them all-around exotic destinations. Each of these five destinations attract beach-lovers and adventurous spirits alike. Some cater to luxurious lifestyles and American tourism, while others will surround you completely in their own unique cultures.