These towns didn’t make the final cut in our Best Towns 2015 bracket. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to love about them—we think they’re worth a second look!
Bainbridge Island, WA
It’s only a half-hour ride from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, but stepping off the ferry feels like you’ve left the mainland a world away. All good things come at a price, and housing costs are steep, but homes usually include either gorgeous views of Puget Sound or tranquil wooded seclusion. Hikers and cyclists have access to 30 miles of multi-use trails that wind past nature preserves, vineyards and farms. Work up an appetite kayaking, canoeing, or SUPing on the sound—the cafes and wine bars on Winslow Way will fuel you when you’re done.
Little Whitefish has more going for it than most towns ten times its size. In the winter, skiers head to Whitefish Mountain Resort's 90 runs and 6 terrain parks; come summer, try SUPing at Whitefish Lake, or rafting a fork of the Flathead River. There are a dozen or so galleries, but make some art of your own at Stumptown Art Studio, open seven days a week for walk-ins who want to try glass-fusing or ceramics. If you still have energy at the end of the day, kick back with a jalapeno margarita and live music at the Craggy Range.
Santa Fe, NM
Santa Fe might bring to mind green chile and retirees, but the city’s year-round sunshine and all-weather sports have made it a darling of the outdoor crowd, as well. The town is cradled by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, meaning that in only a matter of minutes you can go from finishing your latte at Iconik to bombing down on the Windsor Trail or setting off to conquer Santa Fe Baldy's 12,600 feet. New Mexico’s snow is low in water content, which means good skiing, and there’s always a crowd skinning up before the lifts open on powder days at Ski Santa Fe.
Tourists overwhelmingly favor the Kona Coast on the drier side of the Big Island, leaving quiet, lush Hilo to the generations of families who’ve made it their home. The twice-weekly farmers market is a community gathering spot, where vendors proffer everything from strawberry papayas to orchid leis, koa carvings, and handmade jewelry. Hilo’s also a convenient base for exploring the mountain bike trails at Volcanoes National Park, 45 minutes away. Closer to town, there are several surf spots (Kolekole, Honoli'i, Pohoiki), and numerous rain-forested canyons, waterfalls, and pocket beaches to entice hikers.
For decades the Providence river was paved over downtown, giving the city the ignoble distinction of having the world’s widest bridge. But now the river is uncovered, and downtown has been similarly revitalized. In summer, the waterways are dotted with boats, cyclists and walkers cruise the riverside trails, and India Point Park is packed with kite fliers and fishermen. The city has always had great food—even oft-indicted former mayor Buddy Cianci sells his own brand of pasta sauce. For classic Italian, it doesn’t get better than Al Forno. For something a little more of-the-moment, head for oysters and country ham at North on the West Side.
In wintertime, skiers and snowboarders flock to Brattleboro, usually bound for one of the two nearby ski resorts. In town, you can do the Nordic combined: the Harris Hill Ski Jump is the only Olympic-size ski jump in New England, and 20 miles of groomed cross-country trails are open 24/7 during the season. The town sits at the confluence of two rivers, which means kayaking, canoeing, and fishing are big-time draws in warmer months—as are the river views afterward at the Whetstone Station Brewery.
Northampton, set amid a cluster of highly regarded liberal-arts colleges, is considered one of the most politically liberal and gay-friendly communities in the country. Tucked alongside the winding, wooded Connecticut River, the town is packed with art galleries, restaurants, cafés, and theaters—not to mention home to four roller derby teams. It’s the hub of a couple of rail-trail systems—one that heads east toward Boston and another that heads south to New Haven, Connecticut. Post-ride, grab a table for a cocktail and some people-watching at The Deck, overlooking the local Manhan Rail Trail.
Historic Portsmouth’s charm is its contrasts: Spendy shops, hip eateries and yoga studios surrounding Market Square share foot traffic with tattoo parlors and barber shops; the well-heeled sip cocktails waterside at “tugboat alley,” a working harbor on the Piscataqua river; historic buildings-turned-performance venues showcase the newest touring acts (The Press Room, The Music Hall). Explore the trails at the Great Bay reserve, or charter a deep-sea fishing or whale-watching trip. When it’s time to chill, kick back at one of the beaches at Fort Foster.