New England’s Best Small Towns

From mountains to shoreline, our region offers no end of burgs filled with postcard ingredients: gleaming church spires, warm old red brick, jewel-like town greens. The 15 best towns, though, have something extra—a certain flavor that offers not just great snapshots, but also a great escape.

Putnam, CT

Because… a piece of history can be yours for the haggling.

Photo by Keller + Keller

Photo by Keller + Keller

Putnam’s pretty downtown hosts a wealth of shops, such as Vintage to Vogue (art deco furniture), Wonderland Comics (vintage X-Men!), and the 40-dealer-strong Jeremiah’s (dishes, dishes, dishes). All that pales, though, in comparison with the Antiques Marketplace. The largest antiques market in the state, it has 150 dealers and more than 50,000 items, including art prints, sets of sterling silver flatware, and the country’s premier collection of Stickley furniture. Haggling is de rigueur, and discounts are likely. Just ask owner Jerry Cohen: He recently unloaded a $5,000 oil painting for $3,500. The buyer then sold it at auction for 27 grand. —Francis Storrs

 

Lyndonville, VT

Because… your kids (and spouse) will thank you.

What New England town can be called “perfect” when you have a four-months-pregnant wife and a spirited 20-month-old in tow? Lyndonville can.

Cradled in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, it has foliage, hiking, and a sugarhouse that seemingly leapt, fully formed, from a Robert Frost poem. Most important, it has what I am ready to pronounce the greatest family resort on earth: the Wildflower Inn, where innkeepers Jim and Mary O’Reilly just get that it’s impossible to relax when you have to chase a kid around all day. What makes their inn so great? Let me count the ways.

1. On-site daycare by cheerful local college students.

2. A barn with actual farm animals that your daughter can pet—and then talk about for the next eight months.

3. A pool and a playroom full of toys to exhaust said child.

4. Food so sumptuous your wife will forget she was ever nauseated.

5. Nearby activities such as horseback riding and hayrides.

Of course, no New England town can be complete without a few eccentrics. We encountered ours on a hike, where a woman was dragging a large cross on wheels behind her. We assumed she was in community theater, but, as she eagerly explained, her purpose was indeed religious. And we took this for what it was: a sign that Lyndonville is God’s own country. —Steve Almond

Arlington resident Steve Almond is the author of Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked).

 

Harvard, MA

Because… the pickings are prime.

Tourists are relatively scarce in this burg of about 6,000. In fact, you won’t find a single motel or B&B. What you will find, though, are enough orchards to make Johnny Appleseed dance a jig.

Three of our favorites:

Carlson Orchards: This is the go-to for variety, with 21 kinds of u-pick apples on offer. The tour includes tips on how to pluck the best ones (e.g., the ripest are on the outer branches).

Doe Orchards: Great fruit, no fuss. As co-owner Larry Doe says, there’s “not a lot of hoopla” on this 60-acre farm, which boasts 12 apple types and 10 acres of cut-your-own Christmas trees.

Westward Orchards: Those hungry for something exotic can buy quince, along with pears and peaches, at the farm store, housed in a turn-of-the-century dairy barn. —Rachel Baker

 

Rangeley, ME

Because… you can go a little wild.

Photo by Walter Bibikow

Photo by Walter Bibikow

Traditional New England towns, with their trim black shutters and tidy village greens, can make me a little claustrophobic, what with all that historic perfection closing in. My antidote to the overdose of quaintness is Rangeley, a place that looks like what it is: an afterthought. Just a dozen or so wood-frame buildings strung along a lake, Rangeley was born to cater to 19th-century fishermen. Rusticators of all stripes have followed since, which is no easy task—there’s no rushing the 80 miles on two-lane Route 4.

Seasoned visitors know no one really goes to Rangeley for domestic niceties. They go for the endless lakes, the muscular mountains, the odd moose, and a wilderness so vast you get an itty-bitty feeling you thought only possible out west. Everything here is an outdoors binge, from hiking the Appalachian Trail up Saddleback Mountain’s 4,116 feet to panning gold in Coos Canyon. My preferred pastime, however, is to sit on my duff in a car barreling down Route 17. The scenic byway threads two monster lakes, Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic, and has views grand enough to quiet two chatterboxes like my husband and me.

Eventually, we get hungry or tired or simply need to quit feeling so small, and we return to the town’s, er, finer points. Its restaurants, like the Red Onion, are no-nonsense: a simple deck and a bowl of hearty chili. The rooms at the old clapboard Rangeley Inn are equally spare, though comfortable and cheap. Only a few gift shops dot Main Street, nothing like the bonanza of gewgaws you find in Vermont. I love poking around River’s Edge Sports in Oquossoc, perusing the fishing flies and listening to locals regale clerks with their one-that-got-away stories. For this New Englander, that’s about as un-quaint as it gets. —Amy Sutherland

Charlestown resident Amy Sutherland is the author of What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage.

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  • Dan

    Don’t miss Great Barrington Bra & Girl (GBBG) at the top of Railroad Street, the area’s only full-service bra shop, and one of the best intimate apparel and accessories shops that you’ll find anywhere!

  • lo

    also- see Brad at Allium-the best bartender in the Berkshires

  • Dan Shaw

    One of the best places to eat in GB is not on Restaurant Row–it’s Cafe Adam http://tinyurl.com/nuqhc5

  • Claudia

    If you are serious about food, this is the place. It’s a couple of miles north of town.

  • fred

    no one in Shelburne Falls drinks Bud… they (we) prefer locally made micro-brews

  • Marti

    Don’t miss Millerton NY, one of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel “10 Coolest Towns in America”. We are just 10 minutes or less to Sharon, CT and about 30 minutes to Great Barrington We’re a little bit Hip and a little bit Homey! To come on over.

  • Chris

    I have lived in Sharon all my life and it’s nice to see Sharon getting such recognition . The article got it right when it added Sharon.

  • Jonathan

    In Harvard, between orchards, you also have to go to the General Store (a gourmet/locavore paradise), get a cappuccino, sit on the Common, and look at the beautiful old houses. Then go to Fruitlands Museum.

  • Eve

    You forgot to mention the magnificent hillsides and valleys (ablaze with color right now) and the ancient pot holes and waterfalls, and my favorite – the very beautiful bridge of flowers.

  • Eve

    I forgot to mention above, I am talking about Shelburne Falls, MA.
    1

  • J

    Couple comments:
    The bad: Putnam might be quaint because of the antiques, but other than that – it’s pretty much a dump. I grew up near there.
    The good: Hancock IS a beautiful town, not to mention the incredibly nice people. It’s also next door to another beautiful town, my other hometown of Harrisville.