These under-the-radar destinations make for an easy road trip-and each is close to a big city.

By Colleen Clark
September 13, 2011
Credit: Courtesy of Kinderhook Farm

A Culinary Retreat: Columbia County, New York (2 1/2 hours from New York City)

Everyone knows the Catskills, but neighboring Columbia County is the latest Green Acres idyll: Think picture-perfect hamlets and a decidedly citified food scene.

Stay: On 1,200 acres of rolling pasture outside the bucolic town of Ghent, Kinderhook Farm (1958 Co. Rte. 21; 505/603-1815; barn sleeps four, from $284) recently converted one of its red barns into a cozy guesthouse.

Eat: Start your morning at the Old Chatham Country Store & Café (639 Albany Tpk.; Old Chatham; 518/794-6227; breakfast for two $25), where the pecan sticky buns are house-made. In Pine Plains, the new Agriturismo Restaurant (2938 Church St.; 518/398-1000; dinner for two $89), owned by Fred’s at Barneys New York executive chef Mark Strausman, draws crowds for dinner (try the Coach Farms goat-ricotta gnocchi with zucchini blossoms).

See and Do: Stop by Harvest Spirits Distillery (3074 U.S. Rte. 9, Valatie; 518/758-7683) to buy a bottle of dry pear brandy; find a repurposed wine rack to hold it in at 3FortySeven (347 Warren St., Hudson; 518/291-4780), housed in a onetime gas station.

A Spa Getaway: Desert Hot Springs, California (2 hours from Los Angeles)

Restorative mineral pools and a boho attitude make this an inviting alternative to coiffed Palm Springs.

Stay: Designed by the legendary architect John Lautner, the redwood-and-stone Hotel Lautner (67710 San Antonio St.; 323/363-8697; doubles from $250) reopens in the fall with a plunge pool and cactus gardens.

Eat: Ironically, the food scene in this holistic town is suspended in rib-sticking 1950’s style: locals congregate for killer barbecue at the kitschy Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace (53688 Pioneertown Rd.; 760/365-5956; dinner for two $40); Martha Stewart has stopped in at the Sidewinder (66121 Pierson Blvd.; 760/329-7929; lunch for two $22), known as much for its retro wood-paneled interior as its chicken-fried steak.

See and Do: Test the waters in the spa at Miracle Manor Retreat (treatments from $120), set atop geothermal springs. It’s a worthy splurge after a day spent hiking the otherworldly landscape of nearby Joshua Tree National Park (760/367-5500).

A Wine-Tasting Trip: Culpeper, Virginia (1 1/2 hours from Washington, D.C.)

Set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Culpeper is the ideal home base for exploring the surrounding region’s ripening vineyard scene.

Stay: Call before you arrive; the Suites at 249 (249 E. Davis St.; 540/827-1100; doubles from $160) will stock your mini fridge with local bubbly.

Eat: The owners of Foti’s Restaurant (219 E. Davis St.; 540/829-8400; dinner for two $90) learned their chops behind the stoves of the Inn at Little Washington—you’ll find proof in the pan-seared quail on bacon-braised endives or toasted-walnut custard.

See and Do: Sip your way from a late-harvest Vidal Blanc at nearby Gray Ghost Vineyards (14706 Lee Hwy., Amissville; 540/937-4869) to a citrusy Petit Manseng at Paradise Springs Winery (13219 Yates Ford Rd., Clifton; 703/830-9463), 40 scenic minutes from town.

An Architectural Hotbed: Mason City, Iowa (2 1/4 hours from Minneapolis)

This small Iowa town (population: 29,000) lures cognoscenti with its design legacy.

Stay: The only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in the world, the Prairie-style Historic Park Inn Hotel (7 W. State St.; 800/659-2220; doubles from $100) is taking reservations for the first time in nearly 40 years, after an $18 million renovation that restored its stained-glass and terra-cotta exteriors.

Eat: In a striped, shoe-box-size diner, Susie Q Café (14 Second St. N.W.; 641/423-5021; lunch for two $12) serves up Americana in the form of deep-fried pork-loin sandwiches.

See and Do: Pick up a map at the new Mason City Architectural Interpretive Center (520 First St. N.E.; 641/423-1923) and you’ll get an overview of the town’s treasures, including Wright’s 1908 Stockman House and several private residences by stone master Walter Burley Griffin.

A Cultural Find: Chattanooga, Tennessee (2 hours from Atlanta)

Appalachia goes urban along the Tennessee River, where bands and art galleries outnumber hiking trails.

Stay: With its terraced spa, fire pit, and views of Lookout Mountain, the Chattanoogan (1201 Broad St.; 800/619-0018; doubles from $149) has long been the city’s hotel of choice. This year, the LEED-certified Crash Pad (29 Johnson St.; 423/648-8393; doubles from $70) came on the scene with significantly simpler offerings but a prime location on the developing Southside.

Eat: Musicians coming off a late night recharge at the Bluegrass Grill (55 E. Main St.; 423/752-4020; breakfast for two $18), known for its cilantro-lime hash browns.

See and Do: When beloved alt-country singer M. Ward comes to town, he takes the stage at Track 29 (1400 Market St.; 423/266-4323), a skating rink turned club. Friday nights, the vibe is unmistakably old-school at the Mountain Opry (2501 Fairmount Pike, Signal Mountain), where fiddlers congregate under leafy oak trees.

Miracle Manor Retreat

Test the waters in the spa at Miracle Manor Retreat, set atop geothermal springs. It's a worthy splurge after a day spent hiking the otherworldly landscape of nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace

Located off the beaten path in Yucca Valley, this historic “canteen” was first built in the 1940’s as part of Pioneertown, an elaborate movie set for some of Hollywood’s most famous Westerns. Today, the restaurant draws an eclectic crowd with its Old West theme, Santa Maria—style barbecue, and free live music (past performers range from Robert Plant to Sonic Youth). The exposed-brick dining room is decorated with colorful Christmas lights and old band flyers, while the outdoor patio contains picnic tables and a mesquite-burning grill, where the staff prepares house specialties like the baby back ribs with homemade barbecue sauce.