There’s something about strolling around a small town that restores your faith in America — that, in the long run, everything’s going to be alright. It’s the kind of getaway that does your soul some good, a relaxing visit to a place where the locals nod and say hello, the shops and restaurants are locally owned, and the pace is pleasantly slow. So if all this talk of hard times is getting you down, perhaps it’s time for a rejuvenating and quaintly romantic getaway to one of my six favorite small towns in Northern California.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Maja Petric
If you’re losing faith in America, it’s almost a sure bet that you can restore it by spending a few days in Arcata, my favorite small town in California. Arcata has it all: its own redwood forest and bird sanctuary, a beautiful town square, great restaurants, and even its own minor-league baseball team, which draws the entire town together on many a summer afternoon. Sort of a cross between Mayberry and Berkeley, it has an undeniable small-town flavor, yet it possesses that intellectual and environmentally conscious esprit de corps so characteristic of university towns (Arcata is the home of Humboldt State University). Arcata is also a great launching point for exploring the amazing Redwood National Forest. Yes, it’s a long drive to get here, but so worth it.
A uniquely romantic destination within the vast wine country region of Sonoma, Healdsburg is centered on its historic square, which has maintained its old-fashion charm since 1857 despite the recent addition of high-end hotels, restaurants, and boutiques. Adding to its intrinsic allure, the town is surrounded by rural roads leading to country B&Bs, family owned wineries, and an abundance of Victorian architecture that gives the region an old-world charm. All the premier viticultural regions are nearby, allowing for easy access to Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, and Chalk Hill (Pinot Noir fans will love this getaway). Healdsburg is also a great launching point for a wine-tasting bicycle tour with Wine Country Bikes.
Mendocino is the premier getaway destination on California’s Northern Coast. Despite (or because of) its relative isolation, it emerged as one of Northern California’s major centers for the arts in the 1950s. It’s easy to see why artists were — and still are — attracted to this idyllic community. Mendocino effuses so much New England flavor that it doubled as Cabot Cove, Maine, the backdrop for Murder, She Wrote. Perched on picturesque headlands overlooking the ocean, its art galleries, general stores, weathered wooden homes, and cozy restaurants make it the ultimate romantic coastal getaway. Even the drive getting here is beautiful.
Nevada City’s wealth of Victorian homes, B&Bs, and storefronts makes it one of the most appealing small towns in California. In fact, its entire downtown has been designated a National Historic Landmark. In its heyday, thousands of fortune seekers visited this rollicking Western outpost with its busy red-light district: Mark Twain lectured here in 1866, and former president Herbert Hoover lived and worked here as a gold miner. You can pick up a walking-tour map at the Chamber of Commerce and stroll the streets lined with impressive Victorian buildings such as the Nevada Theatre (1865), one of the oldest theaters in the nation and still operating as such, and the 1861 Firehouse No. 1, which has on display relics from the ill-fated Donner Party.
Some compare the 2.5-square-mile town of Pacific Grove to Carmel as it was 20 years ago. Plenty of tourists wind their way through here, but the town always remains quaint and peaceful—amazing considering that Monterey is a stone’s throw away. While Monterey is comparatively congested and cosmopolitan, Pacific Grove is sprinkled with Victorian homes, flowers, butterflies fluttering about (really), and deer meandering fearlessly from yard to yard. Pacific Grove is best explored on foot, so park the car and spend the day strolling around George Washington Park and the waterfront around the point. Or better yet, rent bikes and take an uber-romantic ride along Pacific Grove’s Ocean View Boulevard.
Located in the heart of the Napa Valley, this former Seventh-Day Adventist village maintains a pseudo Old West feel while catering to upscale shoppers with deep pockets. In a horse and buggy, Robert Louis Stevenson and his bride once made their way down St. Helena’s Main Street lined with Victorian homes. The many beautiful old homes remain, but now they’re stores for designer clothiers, chic pet gift shops, and European home accessories (this is the destination for retail-therapy seekers). After giving your credit card a workout at the St. Helena Premier Outlets, rent a couple of bikes and a picnic basket at St. Helena Cyclery and tour the Silverado Trail wineries.