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Got $250 to spend this summer? Rent an island.

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Spectacle Island, a five-acre island off the coast of Maine, has been in A.J. Longmaid's family for 30 years; he began renting it out last summer to keep up with maintenance costs. (Photo courtesy of Private Island)

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Spectacle Island, a five-acre island off the coast of Maine, has been in A.J. Longmaid's family for 30 years; he began renting it out last summer to keep up with maintenance costs. (Photo courtesy of Private Island)

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Necker Island is a 74-acre Caribbean island owned by Virgin Airlines chief Richard Branson that rents out for an impressive starting sum of $322,000 per week. (Photo courtesy of Private Island)

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Visitors can kayak while staying on Sand Island's Refuge, a 32-acre private island available for rent off the coast of North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Judy Redfern)

Imagine sitting on a beach with a drink in hand, staring out into a blue ocean. Pale sand stretches out on all sides, a gentle wind rustles the trees overhead and behind you a quaint little bungalow peeks out from a grove of tropical foliage. You’re the only person on the whole island. At this point in the dream, you might wake up, roll over in bed and smell the freshly brewed coffee that will propel you to work.

But renting an island is more plausible and more affordable than one might think. Not all island rentals are like Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson’s famous Necker Island, which boasts a luxury resort and rents for $322,000 a week. Over the past few years, private island rentals have become increasingly popular. Web sites like privateislandsonline.com and vladi-private-islands.de, which dominate the online island-rental industry, tout more modest islands—in size, location and price.

And as the economy turns sour, these serve as affordable alternatives for the average vacationer who is unwilling to spend thousands on far-flung island adventures, but who wants an island adventure nonetheless.

“The concept of island rental and ownership is really becoming better known,” said Alexis Pappas, director of operations at Private Islands, Inc., a Web site that has specialized in island sales and rentals since the late 1990s. “A few years ago a lot of people were discovering it for the first time.” Now, she said, “there are a lot of celebrities that are also renting and buying islands and giving it more prominence. That’s sort of sparking people’s imaginations.”

Even an affordable island-rental scenario still boasts the main attraction: complete solitude. “It’s not going to be a luxury villa in the Caribbean, but it still lets you have that experience,” said Pappas. “When you’re on an island, you have the feeling that you can do whatever you want. It’s something that people have a lot of fantasies about.”

And with some flexibility on timing and location, these fantasies don’t have to break the bank. For instance, Private Islands is renting out an island off the coast of Croatia for only $250 a week. Of course it will cost nearly $2,000 to fly there and back from the U.S. Flying to Vanuatu, just west of Fiji, where the company has other affordable offerings, costs about $3,000.

The cheapest option is to pick a place closer to home. There are more than one million islands in the lakes and waterways of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada alone, and several hundred thousands of them are used as resorts, especially in the late spring and summer months. Take the two-acre Republic Island, located in the Michigamme River in northern Michigan. The heavily wooded island houses a cedar log cabin with a stone fireplace, three bedrooms and a full kitchen. A fire pit and lawn chairs sit outside. At $525 a week, it’s probably one of the more affordable island rentals in the country.

For those looking to save on climbing airfare and rising gas prices, local islands have a special appeal. “Just in the last couple years, people have taken more to the idea of staying closer to home, so they’re doing more research for local unique places,” said Judy Redfern, who manages a 32-acre island property called Sand Island’s Refuge, off the coast of North Carolina. Redfern said that more than 50 percent of last year’s visitors were repeat customers, many of them from the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee—all within short driving distance.

Sand Island’s Refuge is $2,500 for a weeklong stay, and includes a 17-foot boat, two kayaks and a canoe. “Once you rent the place, it’s just groceries pretty much,” said Anna Erwin, a grants officer from Wilmington, S.C., who has vacationed on the island with her husband for the past 12 years, leaving their kids with the grandparents for the week to come and fish for flounder and spot. “I like that it’s really private,” she said, even though it’s only a 90 minute drive from home.

Experts say that the desire to spend time on an island is common. “When we go to these kinds of places, it’s really on our own terms,” said Sheila Backman, a tourism studies professor at Clemson University, who tracks consumer behavior. “We’re hooked up with cell phones every day. So the need to escape is an important one.”

And for the owners of these private islands, renting is a way to offset the cost of maintaining their property. A.J. Longmaid, a 30-year-old boat captain, inherited Spectacle Island, a 5-acre island off the coast of Maine, from his family, and just started renting it out last summer. “My parents had bought it 30 years ago and for me to hold onto it, I had to make it also a business,” he said. “I decided to incorporate the island into something that other people can enjoy too.”

Longmaid, who stays on the island to provide transportation and guidance to guests, expects to be fully booked this summer.

For some renters, the magical quality of a simple residence on a small, undisturbed island with just a boat connecting you to the mainland turns out to be irresistible. Renting, Pappas of Private Islands says, sometimes leads to buying.

E-mail: jyk2117@columbia.edu