When it comes to places to take a vacation, it’s easy to think of America’s big cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Miami. But America is filled with wonders that are less heralded but no less magnificent, from the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest to the moss-draped bayous of the South. Along the way, there are sparkling caves, thundering waterfalls, quirky festivals, historic buildings, inspiring art and world-class food – all packed into towns with a smaller population than many college campuses.

For the fourth annual version of our list, we once again worked with the geographical information company Esri to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) according to their number of cultural attractions, historical sites, nature opportunities and food-and-drink destinations, then researched to find the places commemorating important anniversaries, openings, renovations, recoveries and other milestones in 2015. Think of this list not as a ranking but as a menu, with something for every taste – whether it’s country bluegrass, Florida’s white beaches or Alaska’s blue mountains.

St. Simons Island, Georgia

The Spanish came to the islands off the southeast coast of modern-day Georgia 400 years ago seeking gold, but it’s the area’s natural radiance that’s said to have inspired the name “Golden Isles.” Today, the tourists usually come looking for golf, but the pristine salt marshes (some of the most extensive in the U.S.), abundant wildlife and historic sites make it more than just a resort for the sport of kings. Visit the ruins of the British colony at the Fort Frederica National Monument, see the location of the decisive battle that ended the Spanish claims on Georgia, or explore one of the oldest churches in America at the 275-year-old Christ Church Frederica. St. Simons is also home to a storied, if unmarked, site known as Ebo’s Landing, where a group of slaves rebelled by drowning themselves in a creek in 1807. (In African-American oral tradition, the slaves actually escaped death by transforming themselves into buzzards and flying back to Africa – a story that inspired Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, among other works.)

There are several other sites on the island connected to the Civil War, and you can tour historic plantation slave cabins in the process of being restored to their original appearance. For something slightly more modern, climb to the top of the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum (built in 1872) or marvel at the magnificent trees on the Avenue of the Oaks. If it’s golf you’re seeking, the Sea Palms Resort just completed a multimillion-dollar restoration with the addition of a restaurant, alongside a flurry of expanding properties through the Golden’s gorgeous chain.

Come experience the warmth of the sun, pristine stretches of Georgia’s coastline and activities to engage every sense of adventure. Start planning your trip to the Golden Isles and you’ll be on island time before you know it.

Written by Smithsonian Magazine
April 16, 2015