10 great small towns to visit in 2014
City life can be an engaging whirlwind of pub nights, exhibition openings, and networking events, but it's hard not to imagine the life (and the house) you could have in the country. Rather than impulsively uprooting, we recommend pursuing rural tranquility the responsible way: by renting a home or checking into an inn in one of America's most vibrant small towns. Here are 10 hamlets that welcome refugees from cities and suburbs and offer visitors a chance to actively pursue relaxation.
Perched at the northern tip of scenic Penobscot Bay, Belfast's stately main street runs toward a calm harbor filled with big boats. The boats — motor yachts and aging wooden schooners — are thicker than ever thanks to a new marina that is bringing the town jobs and an air of prosperity. But what truly sets Belfast apart is its location just north of convenient. Though Camden is only a half-hour drive away, Belfast sees relatively few tourists and that group is so self-selecting that locals will deign to talk to them. Walk into Chase's Daily — seriously, the food is great — and you'll see farmers, fishermen, and the drop out executives who come here to raise their kids sharing pots of black coffee. This is as friendly as Maine gets.
What to Do for Fun: Belfast is a water town so a lot of activities require a boat. If you want to go whitewater rafting on the Penobscot River, head to Penobscot Adventures in nearby Millinocket. Want to go sailing? Check in at the Belfast Bay Company and climb aboard the Amity, a small, beautiful Friendship Sloop. The nightlife here is beer-centric and self-explanatory; you can always head to Front St. Pub.
It's easy to time a trip to northern Maine. "We only got two seasons up here," the attendant at the gas station in Kingfield will tell you. "July and winter." Kingfield, some 95 miles northwest of Portland, is home to Sugarloaf/USA ski resort, but its reputation as the most authentic ski town east of the Rockies obscures its summer assets: an 18-hole golf course (rated one of the country's best public courses by Golf Digest), an extensive network of mountain-biking trails, and the aptly named Dead River, a canoeist's dream. Plus temperatures, thankfully, in the 70s.
What to Do for Fun: Play Sugarloaf's Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course; mountain bike its singletrack and dirt-road trails ($35 per day for bike rentals from Sugarloaf); or hire one of Sugarloaf's guides for a Moose Cruise — you've got a 99-percent chance of seeing one.
Old Chatham, New York
Old Chatham is the sort of place you can visit without noticing. Aside from the Old Chatham Country Store, there isn't much of a downtown to speak of, just a few blocks lined with aging mansions. Just on the New York side of the Massachusetts border, the town is notable mostly for being beautiful and seeming far more remote than it is. A short drive puts you in New England college country or Kinderhook, a town thick with Manhattanites and restaurants run by recent graduates of the Hyde Park's Culinary Institute of America. Bring a bike and you'll never be bored.
What to Do for Fun: If you're determined to have a good time within the borders of the town, you'll want to start pedaling or head for Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, where you can buy some of the best cheese on the East Coast and hang out with some ungulates in a no stress environment. The place is also a bit of a destination for birders. Again, you'll want to have a bike to chase woodpeckers down country roads.
Mexico Beach, Florida
"A quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem" is the motto of this panhandle town 110 miles from Tallahasee named for the gulf that unfurls to the south. Mexico Beach is very much like the version of Mexico described in country songs: No shirt, no shoes, no problem fitting in. The small downtown area is perpetually full of locals chatting about their latest catch.
What to Do for Fun: Captain J.R. Riley cruises offshore for red snapper, grouper, and amberjack. A sandside deck called Tou-Can's is the social headquarters, serving up raw oysters, rum drinks, and knockout views across the Gulf. The Driftwood Inn has rooms overlooking the surf.
In 1967 writer H. Allen Smith published an article in Holiday magazine called "No One Knows More About Chili Than I Do." Well, a few Texans took exception to that claim, challenging Smith to put his beans where his mouth was. The first chili cook-off took place in neutral territory — Terlingua — and it ended in a tie when a judge went into convulsions. Now the former mercury-mining ghost town, a 257-person dot in the Chihuahuan Desert 230 miles southwest of Midland, is known for its two rival cook-offs the first full weekend in November. But Terlingua's profile as an ideal launch pad for hiking, floating, and jeep trips along the Rio Grande is surprisingly low given its location — between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. And it's becoming a bohemian desert oasis, thanks to some enterprising locals who are converting the mining company's abandoned turn-of-the-century stone buildings into a collection of hip cafes, galleries, and single-family casitas. You can also leave the town and take a minute-long boat ride to Mexico. You can't do that anywhere else.
What to Do for Fun: Camp in nearby Big Bend National Park (at the Chisos Basin campground, located at 5,100 feet, then float down the Class I–IV Rio Grande for anywhere from a half day to a week, or take a jeep tour through the desert of Big Bend, which is punctuated by sotol and ocotillo plants. Both can be arranged through Texas River Expeditions.
You may feel out of place in Ely if you don't have a 16-foot, scratched-to-hell Old Town canoe strapped to your roof rack. Unless you're a fisherman, that is. Ely (pop. 3,724) is located 35 miles from the Ontario border and 112 miles northeast of Duluth at the gateway to the legendary Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a million-acre maze of lakes and boreal forest with 1,500 miles of canoe trails and endless runs of smallmouth bass, walleye, and pike. There are no fewer than 22 outfitters here, so setting up a multi-day wilderness paddling trip is a breeze. The people are — this being Minnesota — quiet but friendly.
What to Do for Fun: Canadian Border Outfitters will take you deep into moose territory for up to 14 days — and hook you up with your very own loaner canoe. Timber Trail Lodge has lakeside campsites ($24), log cabins (from $795 per week), and a new six-bedroom house with a stone fireplace and a deck.
Picking the best mountain town in Montana is a little like naming the perfect bar or trout fly — a great way to start an argument. But it's hard to quarrel with Whitefish, the only one with a national park (million-acre Glacier is 25 miles away), a gigantic lake (sailors, sea kayakers, and trout fishermen cruise six-mile-long Whitefish Lake), and a major ski resort (Big Mountain is one of the west's best-kept secrets). The town is genuinely western, welcoming, and surprisingly busy given its small populace.
What to Do for Fun: The "Danny On" hiking and mountain-biking trail is a good place to get your bearings. It snakes six miles up Big Mountain, peaking at the 7,000-foot summit, which has views into Glacier and across the border to the Canadian Rockies. Back in town, stop by the Buffalo Cafe for coffee and huevos rancheros and you’ll experience an eclectic mix among the just over 5,000 residents: wildland firefighters, an urban dropout turned sculptor, some wealthy weekenders, and a couple of world-class telemark skiers.
A whistle-stop 60 miles south of Jackson Hole, Afton is the yang to Jackson's Lexus-ridden yin. Local ranchers and businessmen wear their spurs on the town's single, facade-lined main street — and you won't find any "I felt the Tetons" T-shirts for sale. But you do have your choice of eight mountain ranges, four of the state's best fly-fishing rivers, four national forests, and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks right next door.
What to Do for Fun:Yellowstone Outfitters has been leading horsepacking trips and ripping trout lips since 1950. The Old Mill has three log cabins – stocked with a hot tub and handmade quilts – in the sage-covered hills south of town.
Take Yosemite's wonders (massive granite formations, crystal-clear rivers), subtract the crowds, add a 19th-century gold rush village, and you've got Groveland. On every edge of town, dirt roads, and logging trails pick up where the pavement ends, creating a network of serpentine routes for biking and hiking the pristine Sierra Nevada foothills of Stanislaus National Forest and providing paddlers with access to granite-bound lakes, rivers, and streams.
What to Do for Fun: Daring boaters launch trips down the harrowing, Class V Cherry Creek/Upper Tuolumne, one of California's wildest stretches of whitewater. For a classic rafting experience go with Marty "Mac" McDonnell, the first person to run Cherry Creek by raft, in 1972. At night, the après scene is rowdy at the Iron Door, California's oldest saloon, on the main drag of town.