With all the talk in my hometown Hot Springs, Ark., about efforts to revitalize its downtown, it has made me think of similar tourist towns I have visited throughout the years. Although the wilderness is my favorite place to visit, small, quaint towns are also places I love to explore.
I am not one for hokey tourist traps. I love to explore the city like a local and imagine what life would be like to live there. I love museums that take you back to what life was like when the town was blossoming, or that inform you about the natural or social way of life there.
I feel at home in tourist towns across the nation because I live in one. Maybe I’m a little bias, but I believe Hot Springs is the best place to live. Hot Springs National Park is blended with the downtown, but also hosts beautiful mountain and forest scenery. For the active person the woods and mountain vistas can be reached in a hike from the historic downtown giving you the best of both worlds. I am fairly certain it is the only national park located within a town.
One town I found similar to Hot Springs was Boone, N.C. It is a charming small town tucked into the Appalachian Mountains. According to the the City of Boone’s website, http://www.townofboone.net/, Boone’s population is a little more than 17,000 people and home to Appalachian State University.
Crystal and I were camping and hiking our way up the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina in 2013 when we happened upon Boone. Having been backpacking and camping for days, we looked rough but were ready for a meal other than Ramen Noodles. Ashamed of how we looked (and smelled!), we chose a restaurant that looked like we could get away with our appearance. Unfortunately that particular restaurant was closed, but two guys outside directed us to another place, Hob Nob Farm Café, that had great local flavor and was a come-as-your-are type of place. Hob Nob Farm Café, sounded perfect to us, it was good food and local flavor. After dinner we walked around the downtown and got fudge and ice cream from a local creamery.
Boone has a charming downtown with unique stores and historic architecture. We saw many runners and bikers, and I really liked how pedestrian friendly it was. There were apartment buildings behind the stores set against the mountain backdrop. I definitely could see myself living there.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Another charming town I fell in love with was Bar Harbor, Maine. I visited Bar Harbor in 2008, as the last stop on a cruise. The town of about 5,000 is a popular summer destination for New Englanders. It is also the home to Acadia National Park, which might be one reason I loved it so much. It is named for a sand bar that runs from the harbor to another island at low tide but at high tide is covered by the sea. The town is also filled with history.
We were at Bar Harbor on the Fourth of July. As my aunt and I made our way through quaint shops in the charming and quaint downtown, we noticed the locals were getting ready for a parade. I am not sure why, but growing up in Arkansas I rarely witnessed a Fourth of July parade. It seems everyone is grilling or skiing on the lakes. In Bar Harbor, the parade was obviously a big deal and I loved every minute of it. After watching the parade, we sat on the lawn and overlooked the harbor. Then we took a tour bus into Acadia National Park, which is gorgeous.
I am sure I cannot afford to live there though. I foolishly assumed lobster would be cheaper where it is caught, but it is not. It was still the most delicious lobster I have ever had. There is something about small towns in New England that I love.
Pensacola Beach, Fla.
Pensacola Beach, Fla., is another sea-side town that comes alive in the summer. Although it has a reputation of being a spring break destination too, the parts we saw were very family friendly. I have lived in Arkansas all of my life, and at 33 it was the first time I had ever been to the Gulf Coast.
Eroded stone from the Appalachian Mountains make its way down the rivers and collects on the beaches in the Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida. This give the Gulf Coast its bright white sandy beaches and turquoise water.
The town of Pensacola Beach is located on a barrier island, which is just a strip of land, giving you the bay to the north and gulf to the south. Our condo was located on the bay, but a quick walk across the street and we were right on the beach. If you have small children, the bay is a nice alternative because there are not as many waves. Just to the west of our condo, was Gulf Islands National Seashore. Those wanting to view the scenery without the stacks and stacks of condos, could easily walk or bike down to the pristine beaches further to the west. They even have camping!
Even though Pensacola Beach is one of the most beautiful places in nature to see, the town was just as enjoyable. There were not only miles of beaches, but also nice walking and biking paths. One of my favorite things we did was rent bikes and ride through the national seashore at sunset. A 10-mile bike ride made us quite hungry so we pulled up to a local seafood restaurant. It was 9 p.m. and they still had a wait. I enjoyed the lively atmosphere of the town after dark. After dinner we rode back to the bike shop to returned our bikes. From there we took the trolley back to our condo and it too was very much enjoyable.
Pensacola Beach is not a town that goes to bed early. The first night we dined at Flounder’s Chowder House. There was a live band and beach volleyball. My nephew played with other children while we listened to the band. We enjoyed it so much we went back the next night.
Although we stayed a while at Pensacola Beach, most towns I only pass through, staying one night or even just to mail a post card. When Lagena and I were making our way from Glacier National Park in Montana to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, we stopped to mail postcards home in the lovely town of Choteau, Mont.
Coming into town of about 1,500 we drove past the Old Trail Museum, which we thought looked neat but decided to keep on driving. The museum is one of 14 stops on the Montana Dinosaur Trail. Who knew we were on a dinosaur trail? Apparently the area of Choteau is very rich in paleontology. A life-sized Maiasaura, the Montana State Fossil, can be seen by anyone who pays the minimal entry fee. Many other paleontology exhibits as well as life in the Montana Rockies can be viewed through the several building that make up the museum.
At the post office, a sweet woman who spotted our Arkansas vehicle tags, stopped us to tell us that her husband was an Arkansan. After we chitchatted about Arkansas and her history there, she told us all about Choteau, and of course directed us to the museum. We were sorry we past it up, and we drove back to take the tour.
She also told us how former late-night show host David Letterman had a home in Choteau, and really cared for the residents, even to the point of giving them a free Willy Nelson concert. “We just had to show our driver’s licenses to prove we lived here,” she said.
Visiting with locals is what makes small towns so homey. They are extremely warm and welcoming and ready to brag on their great town. As the woman pulled out of the parking lot, we noticed she had an Arkansas State University vanity plate. Lagena and I met in college at A-State, so that gave us an extra appreciation for the woman.
Another Rocky Mountain town I fell in love with is Taos, N.M. I had been to Carlsbed, N.M., the year before and wasn’t so sure I wanted to go back to New Mexico, but we wanted tall mountains without too much snow in late October. We chose the Taos area because it was further south and the snow had not set in quite yet.
We started off camping and hiking in the Carson National Forest south of Taos. We hiked from 10,000 feet to about 12,000 feet and it was my first trek above the tree line. The long and steep trail left us tired and famished, and we began to dream of a hotel and hot cooked meal. In late October the aspens and cottonwoods at lower elevations still held their vibrant yellow leaves and they appeared to be glowing in the setting sun light. The drive into Taos took my breath away.
When we got to town the mountainscape was even more breathtaking. I said to my boyfriend, “I’ve heard a lot of people really like this place,” and his reply was simply “Well look at it!”
The town has a population of a little more than 5,000 and is framed by 12,000 to 13,000-foot peaks and the Rio Grande carves a beautiful canyon on the other side.
We kept trying to find a Mexican restaurant (I wanted authentic New Mexican food) but all the architecture looked like what Mexican’s restaurants in Arkansas look like. We ended up at local place and had the best food, which was a fusion of Southern and Tex/Mex.
Taos is also a tourist town, but more of a winter one. With several ski resorts in the area, Taos has some of the best skiing. It also is an artist community, which also reminded me of Hot Springs. We past several galleries and shops in its downtown area.
It is also home to Taos Pueblo, a National Historic Landmark. According to www.taos.org, the pueblo is made up of multistory adobe buildings which have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years.
A good meal made us feel well enough to skip the hotel and we set up camp in the national forest just outside of town. The next day we drove The Enchanted Circle, a scenic byway around the mountains, exploring ski resorts along the way.
We tackled Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at 13,159 feet, though I stopped about 100 feet shy of the top. That night we camped on the desert floor and hiked down into the gorge of the Rio Grande the next day.
I loved how diverse Taos is. We went up mountains and down into gorges. We camped in the forest and the desert, and this was all right there at Taos. There are art galleries and historic landmarks. This is my kind of town.
Home will always be best
Hot Springs is still my home and probably will be until I die. To me it has everything a small outdoorsy town could ask for. In addition to our quaint, historic downtown, we are surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, two state parks, lakes and mountains.