If you drive an hour north of Seattle and take a right at exit 208, you’ll find yourself in a small town called Arlington. I grew up there. Most of my relatives owned dairy farms and we drank fresh milk served from metal jugs at dinner. When I was young, I didn’t know how lucky I was to live in a community where I ran into someone I knew whenever I walked down the street. I didn’t have the life experience to fully appreciate the views of the Cascade Range or family picnics along the Stillaguamish River. If you’d asked me, I would’ve told you’d I prefer to live somewhere with chain restaurants like McDonald’s instead of our local hamburger joint, Rotten Ralph’s. Someplace with a multiplex cinema instead of a single-screen theater.
I never dreamed that when I grew up and moved away, I’d choose to spend my vacations in towns like Arlington, but the older I get, the more I find myself drawn to destinations that remind me of my hometown — places full of natural beauty and personality. As much as I love big cities, small towns are the source of my most cherished travel memories. Here’s why you should consider a small town for your next vacation.
You’ll spend less money.
Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula is located on the shores of Lake Michigan. The area is so beautiful that people refer to it as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” It’s a fitting description given the way the lake seems to sparkle into infinity. On a recent visit, I stayed in the quaint community of Baileys Harbor, one of the region’s many postcard-worthy small towns. It was the perfect base for a week of kayaking through limestone caves, touring shipwrecks, and feasting on fresh seafood. I stayed in a large, homey room at the Baileys Harbor Yacht Club Resort. There were amenities like a gas fireplace, refrigerator, and microwave, but most importantly, it was located right on Lake Michigan. Every night, I sat on my private patio and watched the sunset blaze across the sky. In a major city, a waterfront hotel with views like that would run hundreds of dollars a night, but in Baileys Harbor, the nightly rate was about $100.
Lodging isn’t the only place you’ll save money in a small town, either. Restaurants and bars in small towns often charge about half of what you’ll pay for a similar meal in the city, so it’s easier to maintain your vacation budget.
You’ll likely be closer to nature.
City skylines are beautiful, but the stars shine brighter when you get away from the glare of urban life. In small towns, there are no high-rise buildings to obstruct your views, and you’ll feel more connected to the natural world. Growing up, we had a creek in our backyard, where I spent nearly every day throwing sticks for my dog and inhaling the smell of the earth and trees. I wasn’t surprised to learn that studies have shown that spending time in nature is good for your mental and physical health, so I try to schedule something natural and outdoorsy any time I plan a trip.
Last summer, I spent a fabulous week in Little Rock, Arkansas. The majority of my trip revolved around restaurants and museums, so I set a day aside to visit Petit Jean State Park in the town of Morrilton, located an hour outside the city. There, I reveled in majestic views, waterfalls, natural bridges, and caves, including one filled with 2,000-year-old pictographs. It was one of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve been in my life, and I would’ve missed it if I’d limited myself to the city. My only regret was not booking a cabin at the park to stay longer.
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There’s nothing like local food.
I’m a firm believer that food is a great way to immerse yourself in the pleasures of any given region. On a recent trip to Kinston, North Carolina, the craft cocktails at Stanley’s Saloon were so inventive and delicious that one of my friends proposed to the owner and bartender on the spot.
And my boyfriend and I still agree that one of the best meals of our lives was dinner at Joel Palmer House in the tiny town of Dayton, Oregon. The restaurant is located inside a historic home, and chef/owner Christopher Czarnecki curates his menu primarily with mushrooms and truffles foraged from the Willamette Valley. Food like this has terroir just like wine, and the same dish can present wildly different flavors and aromas, depending on where the ingredients were sourced. A menu like this isn’t only merely delicious, it also makes you feel like you’re part of the location.
I’ve had plenty of amazing casual meals, too. I want to go back to Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, just so I can order another basket of fried green tomatoes at The Country Boy restaurant.
The lodging options are unique.
I love racking up hotel points as much as the next person, but unique lodging options are a big part of what makes small towns so special. On a trip to Friday Harbor on Washington’s San Juan Island, my boyfriend and I stayed in one of the luxury yurts in the middle of the woods at Lakedale. Our accommodations had hardwood floors, luxury linens, and a bathroom with a toilet and shower. There was also a wraparound deck with a private hot tub, where we sat at night and sipped wine while staring up at the stars.
We’ve also woken up to cross-country skiers whooshing past our door when we stayed at the Tiny House Village outside of Leavenworth, Washington.
And when I traveled to Texas Hill Country to taste wine in Fredericksburg, Texas, I stayed downtown at The Trueheart Hotel, where accommodations include Sunday houses built around an outdoor courtyard. At night, I sat around the large outdoor fireplace and chatted with the other guests before turning in for bed. The feeling of community was certainly a trip highlight.
You’ll experience the history and unique attractions.
Small towns are full of history. On a recent visit to Sun Valley in Idaho, the assistant manager at the Knob Hill Inn happened to mention that Ernest Hemingway was buried in the historic cemetery nearby. I went back to my room, put on my boots, and traipsed around in the snow until I found the headstone of one of my favorite writers. On another trip to Tuscumbia, Alabama, I toured Ivy Green, the birth home of Helen Keller, where a fabulous guide gave me a deeper appreciation for both Keller and Anne Sullivan, and I was actually able to touch the water pump where her historic breakthrough took place. And one of these days, I plan to make it to the town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, so I can visit the nearby Chimney Rock National Historic Site, where thousands of pioneers chiseled their names in stone as they passed by on the arduous journey across the Oregon Trail.
The people become part of the experience.
They say that life is slower in rural communities. I don’t believe this is true. People in small towns have jobs, families, and responsibilities, just like those who live in cities. If it seems like they have more time for other people, it’s because they choose to make time for other people. One of my favorite recent experiences was the three nights I spent at the Yellow Bow Tie Bed & Breakfast in Statesville, North Carolina. Every morning, I’d wake up to incredible homemade breakfasts like lemon ricotta blueberry pancakes while owners Kevin and Cindy told me stories about their lives and asked for stories about mine. They took special pride in telling me how they source all of their ingredients locally and in providing me with a list of places I wouldn’t want to miss while I was in town. By the time I left, they felt like dear friends, and in the end, this is what really makes a small town vacation special. Conversations seem to flow easily here, and people seem interested in connecting and becoming a part your experience almost as much as the destination itself. For me, the friendships forged on the road are part of why I love to travel and the reason I return to small towns again and again.