A Saturday morning on Main Street U.S.A.: Smithfield, Virginia (©Todd Cairns)
From tiny towns that helped turn the tide in the Revolutionary War to quaint seaside villages and those that welcome trailblazers of all kinds, there's no shortage of experiences to be had in the Mid-Atlantic states. Whether you want to get the blood pumping while hiking and biking, rest up in a bed and breakfast, enjoy some world-renowned ham—then burn it off in a race—or spend a day in a state park or animal sanctuary, these small towns are more than accommodating. Discover Americana at its best in these picturesque and history-making towns.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
A community that encompasses 1.6 square miles, Rehoboth Beach is known as the destination beach for vacationers from Washington, D.C., and its surrounding areas. It was in fact settled by Native Americans drawn to the beach's cool breezes and abundant seafood. The Dutch and English settlers who made their way here in the 1600s laid the town out in a fan-shaped design with wide streets and plentiful parks, a design that is mostly intact today. The boardwalk, which was built in 1873 and ran the entire length of the coast, is currently a mile long.
A day in Rehoboth Beach is one of relaxation, whether or not you're there among the summertime swells (the population rises from 1,400 to 25,000 in summer): shady streets are lined with cottages and boutiques that harken back to Victorian influences; since Delaware has no sales tax, it's a great place for a shopping excursion. The seafood here is just about as fresh as you can get, so be sure to sample it before you leave. And the landmark Henlopen Hotel was the first to open on the boardwalk.
Can't make it to the beach in the summer months? Not to worry, there's always something going on throughout the year. Two of Rehoboth's most popular annual festivals take place in fall: the Sandcastle Contest in September and the Sea Witch Festival in October.
Named in honor of poet John Milton, you just might consider this town of 2,700 people paradise found. A community passionate about education, religion and preservation, Milton is chock-full of monuments, markers and historical societies that pay deference to the people and artifacts that shaped its history.
You could also call this town the "home of the cottage industry" due to the number that have blossomed here. Following its shipbuilding era, Milton was the site of one of the largest button-making operations in the Northeast—large mother-of-pearl seashells were shipped directly from the South Pacific to Milton specifically for this purpose, as townsmen set up makeshift workshops to cut and polish button blanks, before sending them further north for additional ornamentation. And enthusiasts of Delaware's state tree—the American Holly—grew, tended to and churned out so many holiday wreaths, it earned Milton the moniker "Holly Capital of the World."
Popular recreation activities in Milton include fishing, canoeing and kayaking, as well as bird viewing; Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge plays host to migratory birds making their way down the Atlantic Flyway and is also home to many threatened and endangered species.
Milton's historic homes are also a must-visit: the walkable district, with more than 200 homes, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
A seaport colonized in 1634 and incorporated in 1752, the river town of Smithfield—named for founding father Segar Cofer Dashiell Smithfield—was nurtured by business and industry from its earliest days. It quickly evolved into one of the area's largest meat-processing producers, with four plants devoted to the art of curing hams that are now world-famous. In 2002, in celebration of the 8,100-person town's 250th anniversary, Smithfield produced the world's largest ham biscuit—the Guinness World Record holder weighed in at 2,200 pounds, 8 feet wide and 14 inches tall.
But Smithfield is much more than its pork products. Its historic downtown has been designated a Preserve America Community, and features 70 buildings of architectural importance from the Colonial, Federal and Victorian periods. Its strict historic district guidelines ensure new buildings fit into the preserved landscape, keeping the feel of small-town Americana alive.
You'll never be for want of things to do in this vibrant community—from weekly farmer's markets to wine tastings to guided walking tours—don't miss those that explore the rich military history of the area—Smithfield has events for all ages to enjoy. Those who are visiting in October shouldn't pass up the chance to be part of the annual Hog Jog, a 5K, mystery "Wild Hog" race and "Piglet" run for the wee ones. Runners traverse downtown Smithfield and the surrounding countryside; the event culminates in an awards ceremony and costume contest for the best piggy-clad participants.
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
The oldest town in West Virginia, established in 1762, Shepherdstown—population 2,140—imbues you in that small-town feel just 90 minutes from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. It is a town that history will never forget. It was in Shepherdstown that James Rumsey successfully tested his new invention—the steamboat—in the Potomac River. Morgan's Grove Park, which had an integral part in the Revolutionary War, has been designated as "the birthplace of the United States Army." Numerous Civil War battles were waged here; many of Shepherdstown's homes and buildings served as makeshift hospitals.
Today, life unwinds at a decidedly slower pace in Shepherdstown. There are a dozen notable vineyards within a 25-mile radius; the Bloomery Plantation Distillery combines historical heritage with modern cocktail craft, serving up its creations in an 1840s log cabin. Antiquing is also popular in Shepherdstown—just imagine the vintage treasures one could uncover here.
A nontraditional way to discover the area's days of yore is through geocaching, in which your cell phone—or other GPS-enabled device—navigates you to a specific set of coordinates, directing you to an outdoor treasure. If you take something from the geocache, you must leave something of equal or greater value in its place. It's estimated that there are hundreds of geocaching sites within 10 miles of Shepherdstown.
Lambertville, New Jersey
Historic Lambertville was founded in 1705, and to this day its charming streets are lined with Federal townhouses and Victorian homes. A town of less than 4,000, Lambertville is on the Delaware River—and is joined by a bridge to New Hope, Pennsylvania, also on this list—in the southern portion of the state. Known as the “Antiques Capital of New Jersey,” the town offers lots of hidden treasures for shoppers. History buffs will enjoy the Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead Museum, the Howell Living History Farm and the James Wilson Marshall House—built in 1816. A restored 19th-century train depot is home to Lambertville Station, a popular waterside restaurant and inn.
Millbrook, New York
About 85 miles north of the hustle and bustle of New York City is the small village of Millbrook—population 1,435—which prides itself on providing a quaint village life. Where’s New York City executive editor Francis Lewis said there are many charming things about Millbrook, including Millbrook Winery—with tours and tastings—and Clinton Vineyards (tastings); antiques shops; and the Innisfree Garden. Located in the scenic Hudson Valley, the village is home to many horse farms. Local restaurants—more than 20 in a 10-mile radius—offer everything from upscale gourmet to fast, inexpensive diner fare.
New Hope, Pennsylvania
On the other side of the Delaware River from Lambertville is New Hope, Pennsylvania, home to 2,518 residents.
“New Hope is an intriguing mix of hardcore motorcycle gangs, townies, urbane gay populations, art lovers, tourists and witches," said Lois Levine, Where New York editor-in-chief. "Yes, I said witches; there’s a very cool witch store.”
New Hope Chamber of Commerce president Gregg Zollo added "We have the Bucks County Playhouse, which puts on top theater productions, and The New Hope Ivyland Railroad, offering rides through the countryside with optional dinner, brunch, and mystery trains."
Zollo also said that New Hope's restaurants and cafes are on par with the best food in the Greater Philadelphia area, and that the town is rife with shopping and galleries.
He offers these words of advice: "If you're visiting, be sure to stay at the Wedgwood Inn or the Logan Inn, which is the oldest continuously-run inn in Bucks County and one of the five oldest in the United States."
Established in 1749 as an outpost of the Moravian church, Lititz' idyllic community was no doubt shaped by the strict regulations for its residents, intended to reinforce "a peaceful and quiet life in Godliness and honesty." For nearly 100 years, the town— now home to 9,399 people—was only open to Moravian church members; it contained a Brother's House and a Sister's House, for unwed members of each sex, and marriages were chosen by lot until 1819. In 1777, the Brother's House played a vital role in the Revolutionary War as a military hospital.
The symbol of the Moravian church, the Moravian star, is still prevalent in Lititz today. The 26-point multidimensional star adorns the porches of many houses, and at Christmas, the Moravian church displays an impressive 110-point star. The stars, which are popular visitor mementos, can be found for sale in shops throughout Lititz.
Lititz is located in Lancaster County, home to the second-largest Amish settlement in the world. Take the opportunity to learn about the Amish lifestyle and explore a more relaxed time by visiting an Amish homestead or taking a ride on a carriage driven by a real Amishman.
St. Michaels, Maryland
Its location on the Chesapeake Bay makes it the perfect site for a trading port, shipbuilding and an oyster fishery; indeed, all of these industries have been part of St. Michaels' storied history. Named for a Methodist preacher who designed the town square, St. Michaels' origins date back to the 1600s. Its earliest industry was shipbuilding, with six ship builders active by the War of 1812; schooners were the vessel of choice, and St. Michaels' builders developed the style that became known as the Baltimore clipper.
For its part in the War of 1812, St. Michaels became known as "the town that fooled the British"—in the early hours of August 10, 1813, the British planned an attack on the town, but the people of St. Michaels got word of this attack and hoisted lanterns onto the masts of their sailboats and into the tops of trees, causing the British to overshoot the town. Because of this clever ruse, only one house was hit, the "Cannonball House," which still stands in St. Michaels' historic district and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the town of 1,008 people is home to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum; in addition to viewing its floating fleet of historic boats, visitors can take a tour of wharf exhibits and a boat ride on the Miles River. Those who want a hands-on experience can become an apprentice in the working boatyard.
Beyond boating, St. Michaels hosts a number of B&Bs that offer the true Mid-Atlantic experience. After breakfast, stop at the St. Mary's Square Museum for walking maps of the city; among the sites it'll guide you to is a cannery warehouse and the Hooper Strait Lighthouse.
The spirit of trailblazing is alive and well in Damascus. Daniel Boone first cut a swath through its countryside in 1759; later, one of the town's earliest settlers, Henry Mock, followed that very same trail when moving his family to Kentucky. Mock was so enchanted by the beauty of this area at the confluence of the Laurel and Beaverdam creeks that he decided to stay; he built the town's first operational grist mill, powered by the flow of Laurel Creek. The town was later named Damascus after a city of the same name in Syria, which was warred over by ancient armies because of its beauty.
Virginia's Damascus is a bicyclist's dream: the Virginia Creeper, Appalachian, Iron Mountain, Daniel Boone Heritage and the Trans-America National Bicycle trails can all be picked up from this town of 814 people—there's a reason they call it "Trail Town U.S.A." For the equestrian-minded, guided horseback riding trips from the Pine Mountains and through the Mount Rogers National Recreation Trail are available; the latter has more than 200 miles of trails open to horses. Mount Rogers also has 400 miles of trails open to hikers.
Birdwatchers are at home on the Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail, where 43,000 square miles of diverse lands host every bird and animal habitat that occurs naturally between Maine and Florida. Thus, it is home to thousands of species of all types of animals life. Anglers will adore the Whitetop Laurel Creek area, which encompasses one of the state's largest wild trout streams.
Pay homage to Virginia's rich military history at the Confederate Soldier Monument and the Abingdon Muster Grounds, where you can discover what life was like for the Overmountain Men, a volunteer militia that helped turn the tide for America in the Revolutionary War. End your patriotic tour at The Tavern, which served as a field hospital in the Civil War. The charcoal numbers used to designate soldiers' beds are still visible.
Hinton, West Virginia
Within a day's drive of half of the country's population, the town of Hinton takes pride in its friendly, cleanly, safe community. You'll venture back in time to Hinton's booming railroad days, streets lined with red bricks and architecture that dates back to the 1870s.
Being at the confluence of not two but three rivers, the Greenbriar, Bluestone and New, makes Hinton a great place for sightseeing and aquatic activities. At Pipestem Resort State Park, an aerial tramway takes you on a six-minute ride along 3,600 feet of the Bluestone River Gorge—and, never a town to be ordinary—Hinton has not one but two gorges. A lookout tower, located at the park's entrance, leads you up steep terrain to 3,000 feet for a panoramic view of the city. The park is also a prime area for bird viewing, in particular bald eagles.
Of course, fishing is another popular activity in the area, and the Bluestone Wildlife Management Area has myriad lakes stocked with large and small mouth bass, striped bass, crappies, sunfish, catfish, trout and walleye. It's also an ideal area for picnics, rock climbing and watersports.
Those looking to delve into the 2,588-person town's heritage should visit the Campbell-Flannagan-Murrell House Museum, Hinton's longest-standing structure that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the John Henry Monument & Historical Park and the Hinton Railroad Museum, which chronicles the birth of the town through its railway.