Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
The best way to shake off the icy winter blahs is to start plotting a springtime escape. These seven small town U.S. getaways are well worth setting your eye on—read on to learn where to seek out your share of flower festivals, arts and crafts trails, and seriously good barbecue during spring.
When this Netherlandish town is in full spring bloom, you’d never guess it was located just an hour southeast of Des Moines, Iowa. But little ol’ Pella, with its 10,360 residents and Dutchified slogans (“A Touch of Holland,” “America’s Dutch Treasure”), has the charming Euro heritage thing down pat. In fact, the town was founded in 1847 by 800 Dutch immigrants fleeing famine and religious persecution back across the Atlantic.
At the center of town is the fetching Vermeer Windmill, the tallest working windmill in North America. (The 1850s-style grain mill was built by Lukas Verbij in the Netherlands, taken apart, shipped to the United States, and then reassembled in Pella in 2002.) Head up to the fifth floor—which boasts a lovely view of the elysian town below—and keep an ear open for the nearby Klokkenspel, a carillon clock with 147 chimes that rings out several times daily.
The number one most compelling reason to make the journey to Pella in springtime, however, is the 85th annual Tulip Time Festival, scheduled for May 7–9, 2020. A burst of rainbow-bright tulip gardens are complemented by parades, quilt and flower shows, historical village tours, a Dutch craft market, Dutch organ recitals, a tractor rodeo, and costumed dances complete with clomping wooden shoes.
To be in the middle of the action, book one of 38 rooms at the Royal Amsterdam Hotel, located off Molengracht Plaza, a 100,000-square-foot Dutch-style square with a man-made canal. From there, it’s a quick walk to the Cellar Peanut Pub, a beloved bar with more than 50 craft beers on tap; In’t Veld’s Meat Market, a 79-year-old butcher shop known for its house-made bologna Reuben; and the family run Jaarsma Bakery, which specializes in Dutch sweets like speculaas bars and stroopwafels.
Roscoe, New York
This Catskill Mountains hamlet of just 541 residents sits at the junction of Beaverkill River and Willowemoc Creek. It’s embedded in thousands of acres of state forest, yet it’s reachable in three hours from New York City. If you’re wondering how it earned its nickname “Trout Town, USA,” your first stop should be the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving America’s fly-fishing heritage. Trout-fishing season opens in April; that’s when the center’s 53-acre grounds become a hub for anglers’ reunions, fishing-themed art shows, and bamboo rod–making demos. Ask the locals and they’ll brag to you how five of the United States’s top trout streams and reservoirs are located in and around Roscoe.
Never fished a day in your life and don’t intend to? That’s OK, too. Visit the Duke Pottery studio and shop to admire the handmade pinch pots and stoneware firing techniques of artist Carolyn Duke, or drop by Prohibition Distillery for a tour and tasting of its Bootlegger 21 New York–branded vodka, gin, and bourbon. For dinner, snag a table at the family owned Italian restaurant Northern Farmhouse Pasta. If you like what you’re eating, know that you can purchase its squid ink fettuccine, cracked pepper pappardelle, and other fresh and dry pastas at the on-site shop.
For animal lovers and/or travelers with kiddos in tow, there is Buck Brook Alpacas, a family owned farm raising alpacas and silky-soft Angora rabbits. Guided farm tours take about 40 minutes; afterward, browse the on-site fiber boutique (the brushed alpaca blankets from Ecuador are beautiful) or spread out a picnic on a grassy knoll.
The Roscoe Campsite Park offers tent and RV sites, as well as cute riverfront and barn-style bunk cabins; deluxe models come with en suite baths and fully equipped kitchens. There are loads of pet-friendly options, plus firepits, a clear stream for fishing, and canoe and kayak rentals after the weather warms up.
Lake City, South Carolina
About two hours north of Charleston and 75 minutes west of Myrtle Beach is pretty Lake City, an agricultural town with 6,895 inhabitants (but, oddly, no significant lakes) and a surprisingly robust arts scene. Lake City’s annual ArtFields competition, running from April 24 to May 2, 2020, displays hundreds of works throughout a variety of local venues, including Jones-Carter Gallery, TRAX Visual Art Center, and the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center (named for a Lake City–born astronaut who died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster). Artists from throughout the Southeast compete to win more than $145,000 in cash prizes, and this year’s festival will introduce new art venues and a sculpture garden.
When you’re not making the art rounds, pop by Moore Farms Botanical Garden to stroll among the flowering magnolias and learn about Southern heritage plants like camellias and chrysanthemums. Then tuck into some authentic Southern grub: The perpetually slammed Lake City Shrimper is best known for its enormous seafood platters and mountains of hush puppies, while Schoolhouse Bar-B-Que in Scranton, less than four miles up the road, serves pulled pork, chicken and dumplings, and black-eyed peas out of an old four-room schoolhouse.
Book the private room at Casa De Sotavento, a Mediterranean revival–style house built in the 1920s. Via Airbnb, guests get their own private entrance, a queen-size bed, a spacious bathroom with walk-in shower and claw-foot bathtub, and access to a private outdoor patio with hot tub.
The biggest town on our list (population: 19,368), Stillwater sits on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, about 35 minutes from the Twin Cities. Although it has some sprawling sections with soulless strip malls and fast-food chains, the old logging town’s Main Street is among the quaintest in the state. (They don’t call this mid-1800s town the “birthplace of Minnesota” for nothing.)
Check into the Lora, a stylish 40-room boutique hotel with views of the scenic St. Croix River, a celestially themed house bar (the Long Goodbye, which makes a mean rye old-fashioned with sarsaparilla bitters), and an ambitious New American restaurant, Feller, on its ground floor (the wild boar with ancho glaze and fried cornbread dumpling is a force to be reckoned with).
Within walking distance from the Lora, you can hunt your way through a bundle of multi-dealer antiques shops (Midtown Antique Mall, Stillwater Antiques Mall, Staples Mill Antiques), comb the stacks for rare first editions at Black Letter Books, shop for designer stationery at Mara-Mi or Swedish dish towels and Troentorp clogs at Scandinavian North, or take a macaron baking class at the Stillwater outpost of the respected Twin Cities’ kitchenware shop Cooks of Crocus Hill.
To really enjoy that fresh spring air, walk down Pine Street and ogle the Queen Anne houses with rosy pink turrets and fish-scale shingles; go for a bike ride along the 4.7-mile St. Croix Loop Trail (the Lora provides complimentary wheels and a helmet); or lace up your running shoes and do your best fist-pumping Rocky impersonation at the top of one of Stillwater’s five historic staircases. The views are worth it if you can survive the brutally steep 100-plus steps up.
Time your visit to the 28th annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour (May 8–10, 2020) and you’ll also catch established ceramicists like Ani Kasten throwing open their studio doors for free self-guided tours.
There are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park, but the one to the east—52 miles from Cody—has the most scenic drive in. (It won’t open until April or May, depending on the weather, but this is a glorious time to go if you want to avoid the summer tourist crush.) The park aside, Cody makes for a fine escape on its own: It’s a small town (9,885 people) with a big, swaggering personality. The main attraction is the sprawling Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which houses the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, and the Cody Firearms Museum. At the Cody Nite Rodeo, travelers can watch junior barrel racing and bucks gone wild at the world’s longest-running nightly rodeo, now in its 82nd year. For a finger-licking-good lunch (Texas-style brisket, ribs, and pulled pork), hit up the Fat Racks BBQ food truck at the corner of Beck Avenue and 12th Street.
Come bedtime, tap your reserve of Oregon Trail nostalgia by resting your head in an original 1897 sheepherder’s wagon at the K3 Guest Ranch Bed & Breakfast, 10 minutes from downtown Cody. Save for newfangled upgrades like running water and air-conditioning, the interior looks much as it did 100 years ago. If the antique wagon is already booked, K3 also has a new sheepherder’s wagon, a six-bed bunkhouse, and a handful of traditional guest rooms. Best of all, the family run dude ranch is the perfect base for exploring downtown Cody or excursions further afield like hiking in Shoshone National Forest (the country’s first such reserve, it’s just under 30 miles away) or watching the mustangs of McCullough Peaks run free about 20 miles from K3.
St. Augustine, Florida
Founded in 1565, St. Augustine (population: 14,243) is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, with the Spanish colonial architecture to prove it. Start your visit at the 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, an impressive stone-walled fortress with drawbridges, then swing over to the Old Jail, which reimagines what life was like for hardened criminals serving between 1891 and 1953. The stripy, mid-19th-century St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum is ultra-photogenic from a distance, and the platform at the top offers sweeping views of the northern Florida coastline.
Check out, too, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink collection at the Lightner Museum, housed in the original Alcazar Hotel (once one of the grandest hotels on the planet); it includes massive malachite urns, human hair art, rare Tiffany glass, early Underwood typewriters, and more than 5,000 salt and pepper shakers. Even more eclectic: the Villa Zorayda Museum, a former antique-stuffed millionaire’s residence, built to a 10th of the scale of a segment of the Alhambra (the 12th-century Moorish palace in Granada, Spain). Self-guided audio tours cover 135 years of the house’s bizarre history, including its less-than-savory turns as a casino and speakeasy.
You’ll find souvenir shopping galore on the palm tree–lined pedestrian corridor of St. George Street, plus loads of other tourist attractions to keep your brood entertained. (Potter’s Wax Museum, the oldest wax museum in the country, and the St. Augustine’s Pirate & Treasure Museum are especially popular with kids.)
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park is the only place on Earth where you can see every known species of crocodilian, plus lemurs, pythons, and exotic birds. Or try the 1,600-acre Anastasia State Park, a protected wildlife sanctuary with miles of sandy beach. Here, you can rent a bicycle or kayak and explore the Salt Run, an estuarine tidal marsh, keeping your eyes open for great blue herons and roseate spoonbills. (Note that while the sparsely populated beaches at Anastasia are nice for sunbathing, swimmers should beware the riptides.)
Because parking in Old St. Augustine can be a challenge, staying somewhere walkable to the historic district is recommended. Agustin Inn, an elegant bed-and-breakfast situated between St. George Street and Matanzas Bay, has 18 rooms, some with Jacuzzi tubs and private balconies, and free off-site parking for guests. Guests rave about the breakfast spreads (red velvet waffles, anyone?) and endless chocolate-chip cookies. Don’t gorge too much, though—you’ll want to save room for a charcuterie board, Mayport shrimp and antebellum grits, and duck cassoulet at Preserved, James Beard Award–nominated chef Brian Whittington’s Southern charmer.
Paris, Tennessee (population: 10,094), located two hours west of Nashville and 15 miles from the Kentucky border, is home to a 70-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. Surprisingly though, that’s not its biggest claim to fame—that’d be the World’s Biggest Fish Fry. The all-you-can-eat affair (scheduled for April 18–25, 2020) sees more than 12,500 pounds of catfish dropped into vats of bubbling-hot oil. Fire truck parades, rodeos, a carnival, and a goofy catfish race round out the week of festivities.
Beyond catfish, late March through May is crappie and bass season at the creek mouths and embayments in the 841-acre Paris Landing State Park. The marina at Kentucky Lake, in particular, has drawn boaters for more than 50 years. Visitors can also swim, golf, hike one of three trails ranging from .6 to 3 miles, or simply watch for sunlight coots and cormorants along the paved picnic loop. The state park rents out 10 three-bedroom, two-bath cabins, or you can have your choice of a craftsman-style bungalow with firepit, lakeview cabin with screened gazebo, or book-themed library loft at the 400-acre Sandy Creek event grounds in Springville, 15 minutes east of Paris.
Seeing how this is Tennessee and all, the town has a friendly barbecue rivalry: Treat yourself to plates of pulled pork or brisket from Trolinger’s and Perry’s BBQ & Catering, then debate who is the real pitmaster over English brown ales at local craft brewery Perrylodgic. Whatever you do, every meal should end with a treat at Sweet Jordan’s, a baked goods and ice cream shop founded by Jordan St. John, a charming young man with Down syndrome. (Most of his staffers also have special needs.)
When wandering around downtown, keep your eyes peeled for large and small murals from the Back Alley Paris Project, and don’t miss the Paris City Cemetery, final resting place of John Wesley Crockett (1807–1852), the state attorney general and son of legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett.
This article originally appeared online in January 2019; it was updated on March 11, 2020, to include current information.