THE 15 BEST VILLAGES TO GO TO IN 2021-PART 3
Perhaps even more than ever before now is a time to value America’s small towns. As we begin to see the opposite of a pandemic that maintained many of us isolated, it is much easier to recognize the value in those points we’ve missed out on. Whether it’s by enjoying an outdoor summer season concert with next-door neighbors or by overtaking good friends at the local brewpub, a feeling of the neighborhood has been hard to discover for lots of; Zoom and also FaceTime created adequate, virtual, yet they don’t compare to the actual thing.
It’s those in-person communications with acquainted faces that make tiny communities so attractive. That is, together with the independent stores, hidden treasure parklands, historical websites as well as design, special dining establishment discovers, and, of course, a slower pace of life and family member affordability that countless city dwellers are discovering a growing number of enticing.
Luckily, many of America’s villages are arising from the results of Covid-19 resilient and prepared to invite visitors. Some, like Dyersville, Iowa, are ultimately organizing long-anticipated sporting events that the pandemic positioned on hold. Others, such as Council Grove, Kansas, are commemorating historical wedding anniversaries. Whatever the case, the 15 locations we have actually picked as the most effective small towns to go to in 2021 are prime examples of perseverance and preservation, and reminders of all that we like concerning towns in the first place.
Towns of America: we have actually missed discovering your roads, perusing your shops, and finding your history. Many thanks for sticking to us. We prepare to return the favor.
Ely, Minnesota (pop. 3,390)
Ely sits on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), over one million acres of interconnected lakes and streams, uncut forest, and remote wetlands that just last year became the world’s largest internationally certified Dark Sky Sanctuary. Tucked within the boundaries of northeast Minnesota’s Superior National Forest, the BWCAW features more than 1,200 miles of the canoe- and kayak-only water routes. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Canadian voyageurs used these channels to transport fur. Today, they’re a paddler’s dream.
Winter is Ely’s longest season. While dogsled adventures are a popular pastime (the town’s moniker is actually “Sled Dog Capital of the World”), cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and even family-friendly kick sledding, a mix of both skiing and dog sledding that involves propelling a chair through the snow by kicking, all take center stage over approximately seven months of the year.
The colorfully painted one- and two-story structures along downtown Ely’s Sheridan Street (its main thoroughfare) exude endless charm, especially when blanketed in snow.
Ely’s storefronts are also home to a wealth of locally made goods, like the warm winter boots and moccasins of Steger Mukluk, Wintergreen Northern Wear’s outdoor apparel (all designed, cut, and sewn on-site), and even Crapola!, Ely’s own uniquely named granola company that’s known for its signature cranberry and apple mix. Piragis Northwoods Company offers all the supplies you’ll need for a fully outfitted paddling trip, while the Brandenburg Gallery is the perfect spot for perusing the works of National Geographic photographer and local native, Jim Brandenburg.
Moose, black bear, beaver, and timber wolf can be seen in the greater Ely region. Pay a visit to the town’s International Wolf Center, a 17,000-square-foot facility where you can watch gray wolves frolic and hunt. Or get a close-up look at the North American Bear Center’s resident black bears Ted, Holly, Lucky, and Tasha during daily behind-the-scenes tours.
Hungry? Don’t miss the massive burgers at Stony Ridge Resort & Cafe (which doubles as an RV and tent campground), or pair a Blueberry Blonde ale with a beef brisket sandwich at Ely’s Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant. Join residents for coffee roasted onsite and vino by the glass at Northern Ground Coffee + Wine Bar. Evergreen Restaurant is known for its all-day selection of fine-casual cuisine, including corned beef hash for breakfast and broiled walleye at dinner.
Wallace, Idaho (pop. 946)
At the foot of North Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains sits an incredibly resilient, Old West mining town. Not only did Wallace, Idaho, survive both the Big Burn of 1910 (a devastating wildfire that essentially shaped the U.S. Forest Service) and the collapse of the silver market, but in 1970 the town went head-to-head with the federal government.
Turns out the latter wanted to run Interstate 90 straight through Wallace’s center, but residents weren’t having it, so the interstate now skirts the town. Today all of Wallace is on the National Register of Historic Places, a beaut of mining-era brick buildings that look much as they did in the late 19th century.
In fact, Wallace is the self-declared “Probable Center of the Universe,” and according to its citizens, for good reason. A proclamation was given by then-mayor Ron Garitone on September 25, 2004, avowed, “Our government-contracted scientists…have, after years of diligence, been unable to unearth one scintilla of earth that Wallace is NOT the center of the universe.”
This year Wallace is celebrating the centennial births of two native Hollywood elite: Doris Houck, known for her roles in several Three Stooges films, and The Postman Always Rings Twice star Lana Turner, whose childhood home at 217 Bank Street still stands, and is in the midst of a renovation. It’s also hosting its inaugural Wallace Music Festival this September 18.
Wallace remains an active mining center and its museums reflect its history. At the Wallace District Mining Museum, visitors can catch a new exhibit highlighting the contributions of Buffalo Soldiers in North Idaho, as well as the town’s role in Hollywood history. (The 1997 thriller Dante’s Peak was filmed in town).
The Oasis Bordello Museum is housed in a former bordello, active until 1988, and includes many of its original furnishings, and the Union Pacific Depot Museum, located within Wallace’s original 1901 château-style railway station, showcases railroad history in the greater Coeur d’Alene Mining District. Those who want a deeper dive into Wallace’s mining history can embark on the Sierra Silver Mine Tour. A former miner leads you on an underground excursion through the mine’s main drift, which later became a lab for high school students.
You won’t find chain restaurants in Wallace. Instead, choose from plenty of watering holes (including the town’s oldest, Metals Bar), craft breweries, and independently owned restaurants, including local landmark steakhouse Albi’s Gem Bar and Restaurant, and Red Light Garage, where huckleberry shakes go hand-in-hand with jalapeno burgers and roadside memorabilia.
The surrounding forests are a hotbed of outdoor activity, from ziplining and skiing to hiking and bicycling along the Route of the Hiawatha, a 15-mile-long “crown jewel” of rail-to-trail adventures that passes beside waterfalls, across sky-high train trestles, and through old railway tunnels. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is another rail-to-trail stunner that runs for 73 miles, traveling alongside Wallace and the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene as it winds through the mountainous Silver Valley.
Just outside of town is the Pulaski Tunnel Trail, a four-mile-long out-and-back hiking trail that follows the route forest ranger Edward Pulaski took during the Big Burn of 1910 to save 39 men on his crew.
Charlevoix, Michigan (pop. 2,338)
It’s little wonder that this small resort town in northern Michigan (aka “Up North”) goes by the name, “Charlevoix, the Beautiful.” The scenic town sits right on the banks of Round Lake and the Pine River, a natural harbor and channel that together connect the turquoise blue waters of Lake Charlevoix with Lake Michigan. The bright red Charlevoix South Pier Light Station marks the spot.
This summer, visitors will get an opportunity to fully experience Charlevoix’s Hotel Earl, a historic motel that’s been revamped as a 56-guest-room boutique property—complete with an additional third story and a new in-ground swimming pool. It opened to the public last September and is named for self-taught architect Earl Young, a Charlevoix legend. Young created more than two dozen “mushroom houses” that look as though they’ve been plucked straight from the Shire of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth. Made of local stone and topped with cedar-shake roofs, some are rentable, though curious souls can also embark on a guided or self-guided tour to view them all.
This summer, Charlevoix will also see the grand opening of Hungry Ducks Farm, a petting zoo where families can feed baby ducks, meet miniature goats, fluffy chickens, and water buffalo. Embark on train and carousel rides at the farm, and peruse displays of antique farm toys and quilts. The new attraction is just down the street from Charlevoix’s beloved Castle Farms.
A Sears, Roebuck, & Co. executive built this French Normandy-style castle and its surrounds in 1918 as a model dairy farm, though it’s since been used as an artist colony and rock concert locale. Now a wedding and event venue, the property hosts its own guided tours and is known for its lush gardens, an on-site museum dedicated to World War I, and the state’s largest model railroad winding along more than 2,500 feet of track.
Charlevoix’s walkable downtown is filled with boutique shops like Harwood Gold, a fifth-generation maple syrup farm selling maple sauces and spreads, not to mention espressos, lattes, and fresh-from-the-oven hand pies. (If the hand pies leave you hungry for more, check out the World’s Largest Cherry Pie, a quirky roadside attraction out past the Charlevoix Municipal Airport paying tribute to the 17,420-pound, then-world-record-holding cherry pie the town cooked up in 1976.).
For original gifts, like jewelry made with Petoskey stones (fossilized coral that’s been churned into pebbles with hexagon-shaped cell patterns by the Great Lakes), a stop at The Lake House is a must. Rather hunt for your own Petoskey stones along Charlevoix’s water banks? Head to Michigan Beach.
Town eateries run the gamut from the landmark fine-dining Stafford’s Weathervane to the casual Villager Pub, a local favorite known for its fried whitefish. Smoke on the Water is the place for slow-smoked barbecue and hearty breakfasts.
Whether it’s bicycling along the 26-mile-long Little Traverse Wheelway from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs or hitting up the hiking trails, ski slopes, and ice-skating rink at Mt. McSauba, Charlevoix offers plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors. The 2,678-acre Fisherman’s Island State Park is home to tree-covered bogs and dunes, more than six miles of unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline, and waters ripe for swimming.
Natchez, Mississippi (pop. 14,981)
History runs deep in Natchez. Not only is this Southern town considered to be the oldest continuous European settlement on the Mississippi River, but it’s also the point of origin for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile scenic drive that roughly winds along the “Old Natchez Trace.” American Indians used the latter as a travel corridor for centuries, and it’s now lined with a handful of likable sections.
Natchez is perched along the Great River Road, a 3,000-mile, ten-state byway that follows the Mississippi River from Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier this year, the Federal Highway Administration granted the Great River Road status as an All-American Road, a prominent designation that brings a whole new light to the area.
Nicknamed the “Jewel of the Mississippi,” Natchez is brimming with historic buildings, from pre-Civil War mansions to religious sites, including Temple B’Nai Israel, an architectural treasure built-in 1905 that’s home to Mississippi’s oldest Jewish congregation. A walkable downtown boasts antique shops and unique stores, such as ArtsNatchez, a non-profit highlighting the glazed ceramics, metal clay jewelry, and other handmade works of regional artists, and Silver Street Gallery & Gifts, purveyor of gumbo bowls, Mississippi state flags, and more.
Natchez is also home to several National Park sites, including Forks of the Road, the location of one of the largest slave markets in the U.S. during the 1830s and 1840s. Display boards tell the story of the thousands of men and women who were sold into enslavement here, and a potential interpretive center is in the works.
The William Johnson House is a townhome where the emancipated businessman William Johnson once resided, and the Grand Village of Natchez Indians is a National Historic Landmark honoring the homeland of the local Natchez Indians, the area’s first inhabitants. This 128-acre park features an on-site museum filled with locally excavated artifacts, a reconstructed Natchez Indian house, and three prehistoric Native American burial grounds.
The town’s second Soul Food Fusion Festival, a culinary celebration highlighting the diversity of Natchez culture, food, and music, most notably those of the region’s African American and Native American residents, takes place June 18-20. It’s the brainchild of Jarita Frazier-King, the owner of Natchez Heritage School of Cooking, which hosts classes and special events showcasing African American recipes and heritage, and promotes food as a universal language.
Whether it’s barbecued beef brisket at the roadside Pig Out Inn, a chocolate malt and seafood basket at Bellemont Shake Shop, or an ever-changing fine dining menu that might include charcoal-grilled chicken or cast iron pork chop (along with music Friday and Saturday evenings) at the cozy Kitchen Bistro and Piano Bar, Natchez offers a diverse array of dining options. Grab a cocktail atop the Natchez Manor Bed & Breakfast, home to the town’s only rooftop bar, or pair a brick-oven Margherita pizza with a tap-poured pilsner at Natchez Brewing Company and Kitchen.
Music lovers can also delight in the annual Natchez Festival of Music, which takes place late May through June and includes performances in everything from jazz tributes to show-tune favorites.
Litchfield, Connecticut (pop. 8,094)
Located midway between New York City and Boston, Litchfield has long been a getaway for East Coast city dwellers. This well-preserved example of an 18th-century New England village boasts its own village green, along with plenty of surrounding countryside to explore. As U.S. locales continue reopening following their pandemic closures, Litchfield is no exception.
This summer will see the return of the Litchfield Hills Road Race on June 13, and the June 22 reopening of the natural history museum at White Memorial Conservation Center, a 4,000-acre nature center of forest, fields, and wetlands that’s also home to 40 miles of trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.
This year also marks 80 years since Litchfield’s Laurel Ridge Farm planted its spectacular 11-acre field of daffodils, an April-to-May blooming that’s almost a “rite of passage” for local school children.
Not only is this small town home to the country’s first law school, where former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr was once a student, but Litchfield is also the birthplace of author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in 1811. Delve into its diverse history through artifacts like prints, drawings, and old papers at the Litchfield History Museum. Of course, if it spirits you’re after, Litchfield Distillery offers tastings of gin, whiskey, and vodka, as well as tours of its facility, which pumped out about 1,500 gallons of hand sanitizer during the pandemic.
Downtown Litchfield is brimming with antique stores, clothing boutiques, and restaurants, including the Market Place Tavern, an American eatery located within the old Litchfield jail (its early 19th-century jail cells are still visible). Other local dining spots include the landmark Village Restaurant and the long-running West Street Grill, a French- and Italian-inspired bistro where celebrity sightings are commonplace.
For more than 50 years, The Dutch Epicure Shop has been tempting residents and visitors alike with Black Forest cake, seasonal pies, and fruit tarts. Although visits to the main property are currently on hold, Litchfield’s award-winning Arethusa Farm serves up scoops of old-fashioned ice cream in flavors like strawberries and sweet cream chocolate chip at various regional storefronts, including one in nearby Bantam.
Each October, leaf peepers head to Litchfield to take in the vibrant fall colors of Mount Tom State Park, also known for its hiking, swimming, and somewhat surprisingly, scuba diving in the park’s 56-acre spring-fed pond, which reaches 48 feet deep. You’ll find more hiking trails at Topsmead State Forest, the former summer estate of Connecticut businesswoman Edith Morton Chase.
For swimming, Bantam Lake, the state’s largest natural lake, is a regular go-to. Photographers flock to the Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy, where more than 80 bird species, including golden pheasants, black-bellied plovers, and raptors, like a Harris’s Hawk named Dusky (whom visitors can get to know up-close), reside. Former Smithsonian secretary (1964-1984) Sidney Dillion Ripley II and his wife, Mary Livingston Ripley, donated the land for this esteemed nonprofit in 1985.
The rolling hills outside of Litchfield are where you’ll find the 16-acre Haight-Brown Vineyard, Connecticut’s first farm winery, and Lee’s Riding Stable, which offers guided hour-long rides on horseback. For weekend stays, The Litchfield Inn provides a mix of luxury and themed rooms, including one resembling a rustic log cabin.