Photo: Fran Gealer

santa catalina island, california
(1 hour from Los Angeles)

The atmosphere may be laid-back, but the activities are anything but: weekenders can ocean-kayak, mountain-bike through conservancy lands, hike challenging slopes, swim, ride horses, golf, parasail, camp--all on a 70-square-mile island that's just an hour-long ferry ride from Long Beach. Everything from octopus to flying fish can be spotted in the surrounding kelp forests and coral reefs; sign up for a dive with Catalina Scuba Luv (126 Catalina Ave.; 310/510-2350), or bring snorkeling gear to Casino Point Underwater Park in Avalon Bay. Experienced divers head to the island's west end; contact West End Dive Center in Two Harbors (310/510-4232) for information. Alternatively, rent a kayak from Descanso Beach Ocean Sports on the beach in Avalon (310/510-1226), or hire wheels from Catalina Bike Rentals on Crescent Avenue (310/510-0111) to cruise around town. After all that you'll want to indulge yourself at the six-room Inn on Mt. Ada (800/608-7669 or 310/510-2030; doubles from $340, including breakfast, lunch, wine, beer, and champagne), a 1921 Georgian Revival house built for chewing-gum millionaire William Wrigley Jr., high on a hillside overlooking Avalon Harbor.

petaluma, california
(1 hour from San Francisco)

With more than 30 antiques stores, 50 factory outlets, and dozens of restaurants and cafés, this historic Sonoma town is a shoppers' mecca--though hardly anyone realizes it, besides in-the-know decorators and collectors from San Francisco and L.A. Don't let them have all the fun. Start at Monarch Interiors (199 Petaluma Blvd. N.; 707/769-3092) for antique oriental rugs and pine farm tables; then hit Vintage Bank Antiques (101 Petaluma Blvd. N.; 707/769-3097) for early-20th-century California paintings and 1940's kitchen tablecloths. Break for afternoon tea--scones, crumpets, cucumber sandwiches--at the Maria of London Tea Room (2 Liberty St.; 707/762-5251; tea for two $40). Veddy proper, you know. The Cavanagh Inn (10 Keller St.; 707/765-4657; rooms from $85) is within striking distance of downtown shops; after a long day trolling for bargains, cool off in the courtyard garden with a glass of Sonoma Valley wine.

glen rose, texas
(1 1/2 hours from Dallas)

Who'd have thought you could go on a tented safari to see giraffes, wildebeests, Arabian oryx, and endangered black rhino--without leaving Texas?Anyone who has dreamed of owning a farm in Africa will want to visit the 1,500-acre Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. Choose your own adventure: the excellent guides lead nature hikes and open-van drives in search of game; organize campfires; and set up hunts for fossils of creatures that lived in the Comanche Sea 100 million years ago. Sleep in air-conditioned tents at Foothills Safari (2155 County Rd. 2008; 888/775-6742 or 254/897-2960; two-person tents $200, including breakfast), in the "company" of more than 1,000 wild animals. Scaredy-cats might prefer the five comfortable rooms in the stone-and-cedar Lodge at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center (from $150).

round top, texas
(1 1/2 hours from Houston)

For a town of 81 people, Round Top certainly doesn't fit the usual definition of "tiny rural backwater." Among the many draws: Shakespeare in summer at the Winedale Historical Center (Farm Rd. 2714; 979/278-3530), where the Texas Crafts Exhibition takes place twice a year; classical concerts year-round at the respected Festival Institute at Round Top (Hwy. 237 at Jaster Rd.; 979/249-3129); and the Henkel Square Museum Village (979/249-3308), with its 19th-century log cabins and schoolhouse-church built by German immigrants. Carry on the frontier-town fantasy at one of the five restored and modernized cottages (plumbing, electricity, and air-conditioning have been added) scattered around town belonging to Gaste Haus B&B (979/249-3308; from $75; no credit cards). Choices range from a one-room cabin or a three-bedroom farmhouse to an immaculate 19th-century two-bedroom town house. (Blending-in tip: Ditch the cell phone or you'll feel like an alien.) Finally, stop at Royers Round Top Café (979/249-3611) for a slice of pecan pie--just like Great-great-great-grandma used to make.

south haven, michigan
(2 1/2 hours from Chicago)

Not only does the town of South Haven have pristine beaches, a 350-acre state park laced with hiking trails, and bountiful fishing on Lake Michigan, but it's also the blueberry capital of the world (no one's contested the claim yet). Witness the town's annual National Blueberry Festival (August 10-13 this year): scheduled activities include a parade, bake-offs, and the always well attended pie-eating contest. Pick your own blues and raspberries at De Grand Champs Blueberry Farm (Blue Star Hwy. at 14th St.; 616/637-3915; season runs July-September). Then step aboard the Idler, a 1910 Mississippi steamboat docked on the Black River, and head belowdecks to Magnolia Grille (616/637-8435; dinner for two $75), which serves Cajun dishes in the ship's original dining room or in four converted staterooms. Book now for a summer stay at the 1883 Last Resort (86 North Shore Dr. S.; 269/637-8943; doubles from $80; open April-October), which has incredible lake views and English-style gardens.

middleburg, virginia
(1 hour from Washington, D.C.)

Middleburg is ground zero for northern Virginia's Hunt Country, a lush landscape of horse farms and huge estates with sweeping lawns, frequented by debutantes and beleaguered Congressional staffers. It's all just a short drive beyond the capital's suburban sprawl. Dozens of events celebrate the local obsessions--hunting, gardening, and horses. On the calendar: the famed Middleburg Hunt Point-to-Point (held April 30 this year; 540/338-5231); the Middleburg Garden Tour (May 20-21; for information call Louden Tourism at 703/771-2170), showcasing the best yards in town--and that's saying something; and the Middleburg Classic Horse Show (third week of September; 540/253-5001), in which more than 500 horses compete. Dress code is all-out Katharine Hepburn circa 1945--tweed hacking jackets, khakis or jodhpurs, and crisp white shirts. Stay at the nearby Goodstone Inn (36205 Snake Hill Rd.; 877/219-4663 or 540/687-4645; doubles from $275 in-season), a restored fieldstone carriage house on a 265-acre estate; you can even board horses in Goodstone's stables.

grand rapids, ohio
(1 1/2 hours from Detroit)

A spa retreat just outside Detroit?All those weary city-dwellers and auto execs need it, which is doubtless why Kerr House (17777 Beaver St.; 419/832-1733; two-night, all-inclusive weekend packages from $695 per person) does so well. At this 20-year-old spa and yoga center, housed in an 1878 mansion, only five to seven visitors are in residence at a time. Guests go for a tune up involving hatha yoga, self-esteem and stress-management seminars, and spa treatments ranging from shiatsu massage to detoxifying mud baths and herbal wraps. Meals are low-cal with flavor, and not strictly vegetarian--shrimp and couscous, chicken with wild rice. Most days start with breakfast in bed. Leave time to explore the town's shops and galleries, including the Olde Gilead Country Store (24139 Front St.; 419/832-7651), where you can satisfy your sugar jones with a seemingly infinite selection of candy--just don't tell the folks at Kerr House.

chesapeake city, maryland
(11/4 hours from Philadelphia)

Why?Bargain antique hunting. Messing about in boats. Bay crab season in August. And it's much less crowded here, in the northern part of the bay, than it is along the more famous southern coasts. If you sail into town, dock your boat at one of the 299 slips at Bohemia Bay Yacht Harbor (1026 Town Point Rd.; 410/885-2601). Landlubbers can take in the coastal views from a trail in the 2,200-acre Elk Neck State Park (4395 Turkey Point Rd.; 410/287-5333). The park's tulip poplars and mountain laurels provide shelter for herons, terns, and the occasional bald eagle. You'll want to stay at the "Victorian-casual" (read: 19th-century furniture minus the porcelain dolls) Inn at the Canal (104 Bohemia Ave.; 410/885-5995; doubles from $85), which has knockout breakfasts--French toast with sweetened cream cheese, in raspberry sauce--and a porch lined with rocking chairs overlooking the water. For lunch, make a detour to the nearby town of North East and grab a mallet at Woody's Crab House (29 S. Main St.; 410/287-3541; lunch for two $25).

newfound lake, new hampshire
(2 hours from Boston)

Fiercely protected by those who live on it, Newfound Lake is one of New Hampshire's most beloved secrets, and consequently, one of the cleanest lakes in the East. Even the beach and pine-shaded picnic areas at Wellington State Park (Rte. 3A, Bristol; 603/744-2197) are relatively crowd-free. Rising over the lake is 3,121-foot Mount Cardigan, nicknamed Old Baldy; it's a 2 1/2 -hour hike up and down the western face (accessible April through November). At the lake's northern tip lies the 36-acre Hebron Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary (North Shore Rd.; 603/744-3516). Guided tours are available through the Newfound Audubon Center (North Shore Rd.; 603/744-3516), which also mounts nature exhibits and a summer day camp. The Inn on Newfound Lake (Rte. 3A, Bridgewater; 800/745-7990 or 603/744-9111; doubles from $105) has been welcoming guests since the 1840's, when it was a stop on the Montreal-Boston stagecoach route. The inn's Wild Hare Tavern and Pasquaney Restaurant (603/744-9111; dinner for two $60) are both popular hangouts. Try to get a table on the veranda during sunset--as locals say, the view is gawgeous.

spring lake, new jersey
(1 1/2 hours from New York City)

You won't believe you're in Jersey. With two miles of clean sandy beach fronted by a noncommercial boardwalk, well-preserved Victorian hotels and gingerbread-trimmed houses with perfect lawns, just one chain store (Crabtree & Evelyn), and absolutely no fast-food joints, Spring Lake is blissfully out-of-date. It's a favorite of New York City's old Irish clans and anyone looking for an attitude-free stretch of coastline. The hotels are charming enough, but for a really quiet getaway, try Ashling Cottage (106 Sussex Ave.; 888/274-5464 or 732/449-3553; doubles from $199 with shared bath). The 10 antiques-filled rooms in this 1877 inn, one block away from the beach, are proper without being stiff--tapestry-covered armchairs, lace curtains, and plush carpets. Book far in advance for a table at Whispers, the formal rose-and-white dining room at the Hewitt-Wellington Hotel (200 Monmouth Ave.; 732/974-9755; dinner for two $80); two specialties are Hudson Valley foie gras with pumpkin risotto, and skate fillet with lobster whipped potatoes and crabmeat.