I love the culture and excitement of big cities like Manhattan and Los Angeles. But when I want a relaxing girls’ getaway or a romantic weekend, I escape to a small town.
In addition to their storybook charm, small towns are often friendlier and more affordable than their big-city counterparts. They tend to be closer to nature, without the crowds or the snarl of rush-hour traffic. Hotels are quaint and service is personal. Plus, your tourist dollars support independent businesses and help local communities thrive.
Here are five of my favorite small-town escapes:
Folks in this northern California hamlet have perfected the art of relaxation. Start your visit at Cafe Mokka, an old-world bistro serving coffee, tea and fresh juices in a courtyard filled with lush ferns. Around the property, private huts built of fragrant eucalyptus house traditional Finnish saunas and hot tubs, which are available to rent by the hour.
Arcata and its sister towns, Trinidad and Eureka, are nestled amidst some of the world’s most extraordinary scenery: the Pacific Ocean to the west and the magnificent Redwood National and State Parks to the north. Seafood restaurants like Salt and Trinidad Bay feature local oysters and crabs, and cozy inns like The Lost Whale are great starting points for enjoying the region’s breathtaking beauty. More information: visithumboldt.com.
If mountain scenery soothes your soul, you can’t do better than this historic town in southwest Colorado. Located near Four Corners, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet, it’s accessible through one of the most spectacular highways in the world, the San Juan Skyway. Natural wonders abound, from thundering waterfalls to hot springs, alpine lakes and snow-capped mountain peaks. After a day of exploring, enjoy a beer at the Ouray Brewery or sample hand-crafted whisky from KJ Wood Distillers, both on Main Street. Then kick back at The Western, a historic Victorian hotel meticulously restored to its mining-era glory. More information: visitouray.com.
New Smyrna Beach, Florida
Just an hour northeast of Orlando, but largely off the radar for out-of-state tourists, lies the town Travel & Leisure calls “Florida’s most underrated seaside city.” The historic downtown is a carefully preserved piece of Old Florida, from the pastel-colored houses (high rises are prohibited) to the surf shops and ice cream kiosks near the water. But the centerpiece is the beach, more than 17 miles of sugar-white sand with some of the finest wave action on the East Coast. Enjoy great views at laidback eateries like The Breakers, then spend a night at the historic Night Swan Intracoastal Bed and Breakfast with its stunning views of the Intracoastal Waterway. Nearby activities include the Daytona International Speedway (open for tours year-round) and Blue Springs State Park, where you can see manatees in the wild from mid-November through March. More information: visitnsbfl.com.
Bustling in summer and peaceful in the off-season, this town on Lake Michigan’s “Art Coast” has something for everyone. The vibrant downtown is a great place for some retail therapy, with dozens of boutiques, gourmet food stores, antique and vintage emporia, and art galleries. Standouts include Good Goods, with two floors of artisan crafts, and Amazwi, showcasing the work of African artists. Nearby, the famous Oval Beach is bordered by rolling dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. (There’s also a campy, fun dune ride that’s part roller coaster, part educational experience.) Stop by to catch the sunset before dinner at Coast 236, known for its sustainable fine dining. Then cap off the perfect day with a great night’s sleep at the luxurious Wickwood Inn
Cape May, New Jersey
Forget everything you ever knew about the Jersey Shore. This picture-perfect Victorian village at the state’s southern tip is as refined and picturesque as Nantucket or Kennebunkport, but less than two hours from Philadelphia and three from Manhattan. Long a best-kept secret among locals, it’s a relaxing alternative to the honky-tonk towns further north.
The attractions here are timeless, from the historic Cape May Lighthouse to dolphin and whale watching tours, kayaking, paddle boarding and pontoon boat rentals. For a change from the beach, visit Jersey Shore Alpacas to get up close and personal with these adorable creatures. Tasty seafood can be found at dozens of local eateries, including Lala Lobster, Primal Cape May, and the Oyster Bar. There’s also a wide range of accommodations, from the “grande dame” Congress Hall to elegant inns (try the Virginia Hotel or The Hugh B&B) and comfortable efficiencies like Lokal. More information: thejerseycape.com.
What's your favorite small town in America? Let us know in the comments below.