On the road to Smalltown, U.S.A.

Some places aren't hot spots, but they make for fun pit stops along the way

June 08, 2008|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,The Orange County Register

When Americans hit the road, it's usually for "sun and fun" or "bright lights, big city." But in the years after Sept. 11, Americans have also hungered for a slice of security and normalcy. A chance to get off the beaten path, away from it all to someplace quieter, older, less hectic.

In my recent travels, I've run across several gems that fit into what I've dubbed "the call of the small" -- the allure of towns that are rarely destinations themselves, just a beautiful spot on the way from someplace to someplace else. I'm able to linger in a few. Others are just a stop for lunch and a promise to come back another day.

Here's a look at some of those small towns I am fond of. If you'll take the time, you might fall in love with them, too.

Waimea, Kauai, Hawaii: Hanalei is prettier. Poipu has better beaches. But both of those Kauai towns are full of vacationers and transplants. Waimea, on the southwestern edge of the Garden Island of Hawaii, is a real town. It has just enough tourist attractions (the 3,500-foot deep Waimea Canyon, rugged Polihale Beach -- the longest in the state) to make it worth the trip.

Mostly what you get is solitude and a laid-back atmosphere without anyone trying to give you a time-share pitch. gohawaii.com/kauai or 800-464-2924.

Shelter Cove, Calif.: I came to this Redwood Coast gem while tracing the path of the San Andreas fault. The fault touches the surface here for the final time on California's "Lost Coast" before cutting north into the Pacific Ocean floor. A winding road down from U.S. 101 reveals a pretty town with a nice little fishing port and the transplanted historic Cape Mendocino lighthouse. Some residents take the easy way in -- landing at a small airstrip in the center of town. sheltercove-lostcoast.com.

Leadville, Colo.: Many Colorado Rockies towns have that rubber-stamp ski-resort-condos-and-chain-stores look. But Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the United States (elevation 10,152 feet), retains its somewhat scruffy mining-day roots. There's an old newspaper office on the main street and a diner painted a bright yellow that sets it off against the gray sky. The number of days when Leadville isn't buried in snow are few. Get there while you can. leadvilleusa.com or 888-532-3845.

Pine Bluffs, Wyo.: This isn't the mountains-and-waterfalls part of Wyoming around Yellowstone. Pine Bluffs is on the far southeastern edge, a few miles from the Nebraska border. What sets it apart is the rodeo held most Friday nights at 7 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You'll see teenagers roping their first calves and great-grandmothers who've been riding ponies between the cones since World War II. There's nothing slick about this true slice of Western prairie life. pinebluffs .org or call 307-245-3695.

Lawrence, Kan.: With more than 80,000 residents, Lawrence is the biggest place on my list of small towns. But when you drive into downtown in the late afternoon, with the sunlight making the old brick buildings glow, it feels cozy and small. I found myself thinking "I could live here." A college town with good bookstores and a microbrewery, Lawrence is also steeped in the history of "Bloody Kansas," the battles that raged over slavery just before the Civil War. visitlawrence.com or 785-865-4499.

Chippewa Falls, Wis.: Take a historic downtown that has been praised by the National Trust for Historic Preservation; add in Olson's, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor at the top of the main street; and mix in a historic brick brewery by a rushing stream, and you have a small town out of 1950s central casting. All you have to do is go over the hill on the other side of the river to find the strip malls and fast-food joints. But from the center of town, it's dreamy. chippewachamber.org or 866-723-0340.

Fredericksburg, Texas: For a small town in the Hill Country of Texas, there's a lot to do here. This birthplace of Adm. Chester Nimitz is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, one of the best World War II museums in the country. The town rents out vintage cottages built by German farmers as B&Bs. Or you can stay at the Hangar Hotel, a converted aerodrome where some guests arrive by small plane.

There's even a major butterfly habitat. In the evening, drive to nearby Luckenbach, the small town made famous by Waylon Jennings, for some country music, a pulled-pork sandwich and a long-neck Shiner Bock beer. fred ericksburg-texas.com or 888- 997-3600.

Eureka Springs, Ark.: Built on a series of undulating hills reached by switchback roads, this Ozarks town is like a puzzle waiting to be solved by a wandering visitor. Put the car in a space, slip on a pair of comfortable shoes and wander around the inns from the turn of the 20th century that once attracted vacationers seeking cool summer temperatures and curative waters. Today, there are lots of art galleries, bistros and a sprawling "only in America"-style Great Passion Play theme park and museum. eure kasprings.org or 866-566-9387.

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