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Exploring America’s Lesser Known Vacation Towns

Small, off-the-beaten-track destinations mean no standing in line for mass-appeal attractions, no jockeying for parking spaces, and no standard fare at chain restaurants. As a rule, they’re historically rich, exceptionally scenic, and offer unique accommodations and exciting local cuisine. They also feature a distinctive cultural scene full of activities appropriate to all age groups. Cutting a wide geographical swath, here’s a sampling of must-visit towns from the Pacific coast to the Eastern seaboard.

Dahlonega, GA

Within driving distance of the Gainesville area, this small town in the mountains of north Georgia was founded in 1828 on the site of America’s first bona fide gold rush. Dahlonega was originally home to Creek and Cherokee tribes that were exiled to eastern Oklahoma in the 1830s on the infamous Trail of Tears. This was the result of white interlopers anxious to get their hands on rich tribal land gold deposits. Today, the Yahoola United Cherokee Museum and Cultural Education Center houses and displays local artifacts, tools, weapons and information that celebrate and testify to the enduring quality of local Native American history.

Dahlonega, population 5,300, is a town of colorful seasonal festivals from spring through autumn: Bear on the Square in April, Mountain Flower Art Festival in May, Independence Day Car Show in July, and the Gold Rush Days in October. The downtown area is replete with gourmet restaurants, specialty boutiques, antique stores, and artists’ studios featuring an array of mediums in painting, photography, jewelry, pottery, woodworking, metal and glass. First Friday evenings feature a monthly concert series where wonderful bluegrass tunes can be enjoyed. Also within a short distance from town is a wealth of wonderful waterfalls with quaint names like Cane Creek, Raven Cliff and Anna Ruby Falls.

This award-winning Main Street town is also at the center of north Georgia’s grape growing region and is home to five thriving area vineyards. Every weekend in June, Dahlonega hosts events related to the annual Georgia Wine Festival where wine tasting rooms invite visitors to further explore the historical and cultural wealth of this small Georgia treasure.

Healdsburg, CA

This town of approximately 12,000 residents in the heart of Sonoma County’s wine country is situated off Highway 101 on the beautiful Russian River. Founded by an Ohio entrepreneur

named Harmon Heald in the mid-nineteenth century, Healdsburg was planned around a central Spanish Plaza. Today, that serene space serves as the cultural heartbeat of a community boasting art festivals, summer concerts and locally-grown, organic produce. A casual amble downtown will also reveal Michelin-starred restaurants, independent bookstores, award- winning B&Bs, antique stores, artisan breads, cheeses, and of course, world-class wines.

Healdsburg is the hub of several of the most important AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) in the US: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley. These climate-perfect areas have produced grapes for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines for over two hundred years—since the inception of vineyard- planting by Spanish mission priests. Just a ten-minute drive from downtown will take visitors to the Francis Ford Coppola Winery for an afternoon of food, wine, music, movie memorabilia and swimming.

Though renowned for its wine-tasting rooms and culinary specialties, Healdsburg also hosts an annual ten-day Jazz Festival in late May or early June with performances by world-famous musicians at various venues, including the historic Raven Theater, the glamorous Hotel Healdsburg, boutique restaurants and local wineries.

For those with more craft or antique-oriented interests, the Hand Fan Museum (the only
one in America) has both a permanent and a visiting collection of exquisitely made hand fans from all over the world. For more physically energetic visitors, Russian River rafting tours with inflatables, kayaks and canoes offer the opportunity for splendid adventure – in fast or slow motion – in incomparable local scenery.

Traverse City, MI

For a getaway that features terrific downhill skiing in winter and tart cherry-tasting treats
in summer, there’s Traverse City, Michigan. Named after Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, this town of 15,000 was initially settled as a sawmill operation on the Boardman River. With water everywhere, that means, among other things, there are exciting fishing opportunities—with or without a charter boat service—for salmon, steelhead and brown trout. The freshwater beaches and rich forest lands of the area also spell great family camping opportunities.

But to truly savor local flavor, plan a trip to Traverse City around the National Cherry Festival the first full week in July (July 5–12, 2014). This fun-filled happening had its beginnings in a 1925 “Blessing of the Blossoms” event where local farmers and

businessmen planned a celebration and promotion of the tart cherry harvest. In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge was invited and presented with a cherry pie three feet in diameter containing 5000 cherries. A new world record was set in July 1987 when the cherry pie had grown to seventeen-and-a-half feet and weighed over 28,000 pounds!

It’s said that tart cherries have soothing health benefits – everything from arthritis relief to stress reduction to sleep enhancement. Be that as it may, from those early days, the National Cherry Festival has grown in scope, size and wonder. Traverse City residents busy themselves each July thinking up new ways to present their goods in pastries, preserves and pies. The Festival also invites visitors to enjoy sports events and foot races, live music, arts competitions, craft booths, marching bands, parades and a volleyball tournament. The crowds can get a bit thick during the National Cherry Festival, so it’s best to plan ahead for this one.

Staunton, VA

The birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, Staunton, population 24,000, is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia. Founded in 1732 by a Scots-Irishman named John Lewis, the town is today a cornucopia of colonial and nineteenth century lore featuring a large, beautifully preserved historic district. From its early beginnings as a trading center in the backcountry for grain and tobacco to its modern-day character of a culturally rich urban educational center, Staunton appeals on many levels.

The home of Mary Baldwin College (founded as a women’s college), Staunton also boasts the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and the Museum of American Frontier Culture. For those with a theatrical bent, there’s the American Shakespeare Center producing plays in a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse in London. Free walking tours of the hilly town’s beautifully preserved Victorian structures and businesses are sponsored by the tireless Historic Staunton Foundation. Gospel Hill District is one such area with its roots in religious meetings held at a local blacksmith’s shop in the 1790s.

One of the most fetching features of Staunton is its city parks, one of which, Gypsy Hill Park, is a 214-acre expanse of golf course, stadiums, horse-shoe pits, swimming pool, bandstand, pavilions and a lake—replete with elegant white swans. Many summer evenings the sounds of local folk bands fill the magnolia- scented air in this gracious setting harking back to earlier times.

Bisbee, AZ

One of the quirkiest small towns on the list, Bisbee captures some of that illusive, Old Southwest character blended with modern- day industries. It’s the seat of Cochise County, named after the famed Chiricahua Apache warrior who holed up in the nearby Dragoon Mountains, eluding at length US Cavalry units.

Founded as a copper, silver, and gold mining settlement in 1880, Bisbee physically emerges out of one side of the Mule Mountains in terraced fashion. To tour the streets of Victorian-laced architectural buildings is to ask for a workout. There’s even an annual 5-K run called the Bisbee 1000 Stair Climb that goes up and down, up and down, and then up and down some more.

Bisbee, with a population of approximately 5,600 souls, had its economic heyday from the WWI era to the early 1970s. Phelps Dodge operated its famous Copper Queen Mine producing historical amounts of the valuable metal, along with what came to be known as Bisbee Blue turquoise discovered in the open pit mining area called Lavender Pit. The area is also rich in mineral deposits like azurite, hematite and malachite that contribute to a currently thriving local jewelry business of exquisitely handmade rings, necklaces, hair ornaments, brooches and bracelets.

Bisbee today is a rebirth of artistic and cultural intentions, and the setting for chic restaurants, independent coffee houses, and budget- tormenting boutique jewelry stores. What shouldn’t be missed is the Copper Queen Hotel, one of whose earlier financial backers was John Wayne, with its Old West charm, along with the Art Deco County Courthouse. For history buffs, there’s the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, and the historic walking and ghost tours of “old town.” For family fun and education, there’s the Queen Mine Tour for which visitors get to don mining lanterns, hats, and slickers for their ride deep into the underground tunnels of the copper mine that closed in 1975—nearly one hundred years after giving rise to this remarkable little gem called Bisbee. 

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