France has Champagne – the dreamy hedonistic region where Bubbly was not only born, but flows any time of day. Italy has Verona, home to Shakespeare’s fictitious star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, and where travelers still flock to see Juliet’s famous balcony and medieval-themed bedroom at Casa di Giulietta (now a museum). Canada, too, is on the small-town romance map with the tiny coastal enclave of Sidney, on Vancouver Island. Hallmark Channel fans will recognize the white-washed buildings lining narrow streets leading to the water’s edge where many of the network’s romantic movies were filmed; while gin lovers (many a romantic night has started over a gin and tonic-based cocktail) may know Sidney as the home of Empress 1908 Indigo Gin (made with butterfly pea blossom).
But the U.S. is not void of its own romantic small towns — and love stories. From California’s amorous Carmel-by-the-Sea (roaring surf, European vibe), to New York’s laid-back, East Hamptons Shelter Island (arrive by car ferry) to Michigan’s Mackinac Island (accessible only by boat or private plane), we have curated 12 of the most romantic small towns in the US.
Hands down romantic with its rugged coastline, cypress trees, and fairytale cottages with names like “Hansel & Gretel,” and “Birthday House,” Carmel-by-the Sea tops our list for a romantic rendezvous. Actor Clint Eastwood was once mayor here, adding to the town’s sex appeal, and who doesn’t love the intrigue of a town void of street addresses — Carmel’s founding fathers didn’t want the village to ever become too urban. Walk the beach, then stop by a few tasting rooms to sample Monterey’s crisp chardonnay and pinot noir. Just lay low on the heels. A permit is actually required in Carmel to wear heels over two inches lest someone trip over the village’s famously uneven pavement (permits are available via City Hall at no charge).
Best Stay: L’auberge Carmel, a decadently French Relais & Châteaux property, with just 20 rooms — all with modern canopy beds and deep Japanese soaking tubs. Dine at Aubergine, the Michelin restaurant by Chef Jason Cogley, a Relais & Châteaux grand chef, and savor the 2,500-bottle wine cellar.
Shelter Island, New York
This off-the-radar East Hamptons enclave — between the North and South Forks of Long Island — oozes with laidback romance and vintage charm. Known for its pristine water-meets-forest beauty, much of Shelter Island (one-fourth) is preserved. Board the ferry (be sure to bring cash), and in five minutes feel transported to a simpler place and time. Drive along twisty roads past cedar-shake houses shaded by towering pines to Shell Beach, a long sand-and-pebble lane framed by low marsh shrubs and water on three sides. Hike the coastal bluff trail at Mashomack Preserve, then cozy up to the whimsical candy-red, white, and pink awning at The Pridwin’s Crescent Bar for an East End cocktail — a mix of gin, cucumber, mint, and lime.
Best Stay: The Pridwin, originally built in 1927, recently underwent a major renovation. For ultimate privacy (and a nostalgic touch of Dirty Dancing), book one of the reimagined standalone cottages featuring cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, cushy beds, and wooden decks with rocking chairs, many with water views.
Located on the mighty Mississippi River, Natchez was once one of the South’s wealthiest towns. Southern planters — from the cotton and sugarcane trade — built mansions here during the 19th century, many of which remain today. A popular destination wedding locale, Natchez oozes with romance. Take a nighttime carriage ride past the town’s historic houses, walk (by day) under the moss-draped canopy of Cypress Swamp, sail along the Ross Barnett Reservoir, and peruse art at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Old-movie lovers will want to check out the Ruins of Windsor, which appeared in the classic love story, Raintree County starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
Best Stay: The Monmouth Historic Inn, a 19th-century antebellum mansion. Breathe in the blooming magnolias and roses along the property’s 26 stunning garden acres. Rooms come with period antiques blended with modern amenities, but for ultimate romance, opt for one of suites or cottages with fireplace and soaking tub.
Montauk, New York
Set at the end of Long Island, Montauk — a small fishing village turned chic — is the perfect setting for romance. Bike to the famed Montauk lighthouse, walk the beach (especially alluring in the off season), and rendezvous over homemade pasta for two at Scarpetta Beach (at Gurney’s Montauk).
Best Stay: Gurney’s Montauk Resort. Offering sweeping views of Long Island’s dreamiest beach, Gurney’s has been a mainstay on the east coast for decades, renowned for its sea spa. The recently reimagined resort — the only true thalassotherapy (seawater) spa in the U.S. — features rooms with stunning ocean views and its own private beach, In winter, be sure to snuggle into one of the heated igloos overlooking the sea for warming drinks and appetizers.
There may be more oysters in this small town (earning it the moniker “Oyster Capital of the World”) than people. Located in Florida’s tranquil panhandle, Apalachicola is laden with historic 1830s homes. Stroll the Scipio Creek boardwalk along the estuary, savor the local seafood: oysters (of course), shrimp, and crabs. And spend time on the nearby unspoiled beaches of St. George’s Island.
Best Stay: The Gibson Inn. This self-described “New Old Florida” hotel — originally constructed in 1907 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — comes with a rich history and is heavy on the Southern charm. Each of its 45 rooms is light and airy (lots of whites and blues); the historic and iconic Parlor Bar today serves craft cocktails. There is also a billiards room and Bentley chauffeur service, plus wrap-around porches and complimentary bicycles for exploring.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Between 500-600 people reside on Michigan’s romantic Mackinac Island (a.k.a. the “Hamptons of the Lakes”) year round. But honeymooners and celebrities (including Vince Vaughn and Ron Howard who have homes here) are taking note. Accessible only by boat or private plane (there are no cars), the island — set on Lake Huron — is known for both its plethora of fudge shops and surprisingly Caribbean-blue water. Fans of the classic film, Somewhere in Time, starring Jane Seymour and the late Christopher Reeve, will recognize the gazebo and can even watch the film at Mission Point Resort’s theater (also in the movie).
Best Stay: Hotel Iroquois. Set directly on the water overlooking Lake Huron, The intimate 45-room Iroquois is just a short walk from the ferry. The hotel features its own private beach and award-winning restaurant, known for its locally sourced Michigan whitefish and lake trout, and homemade lemon meringue pie.
White-picket-fenced Irvington is located in Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula, bringing centuries of history and watermen traditions. Observe osprey, eagles, and herons along Carter’s Creek, watch sailboats racing, savor Rappahannock River oysters and Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, and tour the Steamboat Era Museum — preserving Irvington’s history as a steamboat town during the late 1800s.
Best Stay: The Tides Inn. Located on a private peninsula leading to the Chesapeake Bay, the Tides Inn was originally established in the 1940s. Explore the role Eastern oysters play in the ecosystem with the resort’s resident ecologist, relax in tranquil, recently refreshed rooms and suites overlooking the water, and join one of the chefs to learn how to clean and shuck freshly caught oysters.
While Napa gets a lot of attention (and rightfully so), the small town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County offers couples an abundance of romantic options with its art galleries, boutiques, Michelin-star restaurants, and wine of course — lots and lots of wine. Slip into tasting rooms (Marine Layer Wines and MacRostie to start), hike the verdant trails and hills, and spend time in the Spa at Montage, romantically set among rows of grapes, scrub oaks, and eucalyptus trees.
Best Stay: Montage Healdsburg. This restful sanctuary in the grapes is the perfect setting for side-by-side massages incorporating heated flower poultices and signature orange blossom oil. End with a chocolate and wine pairing, before dipping into the sunset (or infinity pool) and heading to a private dinner for two in a suspended treehouse-inspired, glass-encased space.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Known for its brightly painted Victorian buildings and natural healing waters, Eureka Springs in the northwestern corner of Arkansas, is a haven for architectural buffs, history and art lovers, and wellness aficionados. Visitors first began flocking to this tiny spa town in the 19th century to partake in its natural springs. After perusing the ‘downtown’ — and Palace Bath House built around the springs — head off to see Thorncrown Chapel, a stunning wood-and-glass chapel in the woods.
Best Stay: Lakefront Airbnb. Located directly on Beaver Lake and just a quick drive to downtown Eureka, this three-bedroom home offers stunning water views, a private dock, and oversized patio with fire pit, perfect for s’mores.
St. Michaels, Maryland
Founded in 1677, St. Michaels — situated on the Chesapeake Bay (less than two hours from Washington DC) — is famous for its oysters and blue-steamed Maryland crabs. Wander the narrow streets lined with boutiques and fresh seafood restaurants, bike along the water, or set sail on the bay. Make time to visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, an 18-acre working shipyard where Chesapeake Bay boats are built and restored, before heading into Ruse, a Scandi minimal-style restaurant heralded for its popular oyster bar.
Best Stay: The Inn at Perry Cabin. Famous for its role in The Wedding Crashers, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, The Inn at Perry Cabin is set on 26 acres overlooking the Miles River. Suites (many of which are pet friendly) offer water views and deep soaking tubs. Other standouts include the spa, pool, and afternoon tea service.
Cape May, New Jersey
New Jersey extends far beyond the Turnpike and popular Sopranos, as this small coastal town, laden with boutiques, fine-dining, and luxury hotels (thanks to Cape Resorts) proves. Named after sea captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey in 1621, Cape May is considered America’s oldest seashore resort. The beaches are expansive, it’s a long walk from sand to sea; and at Sunset Beach (yes, famous for its sunsets) couples can spend hours combing for Cape May Diamonds — not diamonds, but quartz — that washes up on the shore.
Best Stay: Beach Plum Farm. For the best of both worlds — sea (hear the ferry boat horn from your porch) and farm (chickens, Berkshire pigs, and meadows of waving flowers) — check into Beach Plum Farm, a 62-acre former dairy farm and proverbial Travel Curator favorite. Choose from six houses, each with multiple bedrooms and baths, a fully stocked Smeg refrigerator, outdoor deck or patio, firepit, and fresh-cut flowers.
New Hope, Pennsylvania
This artistic, bohemian town hugging the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side and connecting — via pedestrian walkway— to Lambertville on the Jersey side, has appeared previously in our Travel Curator pages. Editor in Chief Deanne Kaczerski is a super fan, especially of Lambertville’s Foxy Reds (for jewelry), while my ties with New Hope run deep. My very first apartment was on the third floor of a New Hope brownstone overlooking the river. Always an artist enclave, New Hope is today raising the bar on high-end shopping, fine dining, and hotel accommodations. Most romantic dining ambience: Zoubi, tucked away on a tiny side street.
Best Stay: Ghost Light Inn. Intimate (with just 12 rooms), this boutique property offers panoramic views of the Delaware River, tasty dining options, bars, and perches for people watching — which is a New Hope pastime. Each room features a ‘ghost light’ — a single-bulb light on a long metal stand that is left energized on stage after everyone has gone home. The light is said to be left on to allow ghosts to perform without interruption from regular performances.
Featured image courtesy of Cape Resorts