Travel+Leisure. March 2021.
Synonymous with a slower pace and charming hospitality, the southern U.S. lures travelers with its seriously picturesque scenery, historic attractions, outdoor adventures, and delicious food. And while the bustling cities of Nashville and Houston have lots to offer visitors, the smaller towns provide plenty of appeal, too. From Texas to Tennessee, these are some of best small towns in the South.
Duck, North Carolina
The nostalgic town of Duck, located in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is home to luxurious vacation rentals dotting the Atlantic Ocean, as well as waterfront dining and shopping venues. Visitors can spend their vacation on the expansive beaches, shaded bike trails, and rustic wooden boardwalks along 11 acres of maritime forest and willow swamp trails. A cruise over the bay shallows is ideal for a toast-worthy sunset. Duck is also one of the most pet-friendly beach destinations — well-behaved dogs are allowed off-leash and canine water fountains can be found all over town.
Highlands, North Carolina
Highlands is a charming mountain town nestled at an altitude of 4,118 feet in the Nantahala National Forest. The surroundings, which include the highest mountain (Mount Mitchell), deepest gorge (Linville Gorge), and tallest waterfall (Whitewater Falls) in the eastern U.S., lend themselves to a nature-filled getaway. Two popular parks — the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park — are also within couple of hours’ drive. Meanwhile, Main Street in Highlands has eclectic shops and restaurants, and one of the most romantic European-style Relais & Châteaux resorts in the country: the Old Edwards Inn and Spa.
Blue Ridge, Georgia
Blue Ridge is a quintessential weekend getaway from the city of Atlanta. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway is central to its charismatic downtown, dotted with local boutiques, breweries, restaurants, and ice cream shops. There’s even easy access to over 40 independent wineries in north Georgia, so you can stop for tastings and live music. Hike around the Appalachian Mountains and Chattahoochee National Forest, or pick your own apples, blueberries, and sunflowers during farm harvests. There are also a number of cozy, family-run bed-and-breakfasts in Blue Ridge where you can unwind on the porch, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and sip on a glass of Georgia cabernet franc.
Located in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is a classic gateway for outdoor adventures the whole family will love. From stunning mountain views and riverfront walkways to engaging amusement parks and museums, there’s plenty to do in Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas. Some of these activities include hiking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, year-round ice skating, and wildlife spotting (black bears, elk, and deer, just to name a few). The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community is home to over 100 craftspeople and artists along an eight-mile loop, making it the largest gathering of its kind in North America. And for a town that’s only two miles long by five miles wide, there are tons of local restaurants serving Southern-style pancakes, locally caught trout, and a variety of steaks.
Bluffton, South Carolina
This seaside town is home to upscale resort communities surrounded by old oak trees, Spanish moss, and resurrection ferns. The 20,000-acre Palmetto Bluff community in Bluffton encompasses a marina, nature preserve, walking and biking trails, and a signature Jack Nicklaus golf course. If you prefer being on the water, pursue fishing, boating, paddleboarding, and water skiing. Stay at the Montage Palmetto Bluff, an upscale resort with a golf course, spa, seven dining outlets, and a racquet club. In Bluffton, you can experience Southern hospitality by embarking on a Lowcountry Oyster Trail or tasting locally harvested seafood at the weeklong Arts and Seafood Festival in October.
Nestled in Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg is known for its wineries, German history, and delicious peaches. There are also alluring boutiques, art galleries, upscale lodging options, and world-class museums galore. Meanwhile, nature lovers can enjoy lush wildflowers in the spring and some of the best stargazing at the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, one of Texas’ International Dark Sky Parks.
One of the country’s first planned cities and the world’s largest living museum, Williamsburg, Virginia, is a fantastic place to step back in history, discover gardens and nature trails, ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or take a ghost tour. Kids will love the world’s fastest multi-launch roller coaster at Busch Gardens amusement park, while adults can pick from a number of breweries, golf courses, and spas. There are also plenty of great places to stay, including the family-friendly Kingsmill Resort, which is surrounded by 3,000 acres of nature, wildlife, and the iconic James River.
Located halfway between Miami and Key West, Marathon is a collection of smaller keys surrounded by sandy beaches and mangroves. The 10-mile-long family-friendly community offers a myriad of water sports, including boating, fishing, jet skiing, paddleboarding and kayaking. Eco attractions propose an opportunity to learn about its railroad history and interact with the local wildlife. Swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center, feed stingrays at Aquarium Encounters, release sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital, and go bird-watching at Curry Hammock State Park. For a relaxing escape, stay at Isla Bella, a Mediterranean-style beachfront resort.
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