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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014

From country music to herbal cocktails to horseshoe crabs to Rodin, our third annual list takes you to cultural gems worth mining

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2. Healdsburg, CA

(Shaw Nielsen)

"The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God." That's from the poet-essayist-farmer Wendell Berry, who may as well be the patron saint of Healdsburg.

Poised between Calistoga and the wild Pacific Coast, with damp morning fogs and blistering afternoon sunshine, the place is so fertile anything grows. The eat-local movement inspired by Bay Area chef-restaurateur Alice Waters has fully flowered in Healdsburg.

Four celebrated Sonoma County wine regions nearby—Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Chalk Hill—helped drive the gastronomical renaissance. But these days growers with small family farm biodiversity in mind are pulling up vines on prime grape-growing land worth $200,000 an acre to plant many-colored baby beets, hops, Belgian endive and Meyer lemons, and make way for sheep and free-range chickens. Chefs from town forage at Preston Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley for wild salad greens like stinging nettles. Area farm families are finding ways to hold on to their land by producing homemade comestibles, from sausage to vinegar, and marketing them on the Internet instead of letting food manufacturers mash their crops into jars with big-name labels.

A fine-food store, Shed, recently moved into a breathtaking glass-encased barn downtown, where co-owner Cindy Daniel experiments with organic fermented beverages called shrubs and welcomes local farmers to gather as they once did in Grange halls all across rural America.

This is farm-to-table via nirvana, a sophisticated culture of nourriture that would have astonished 19th-century food philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. M.F.K. Fisher, who translated his landmark The Physiology of Taste and wrote her own stirring books about food, lived nearby.

To get a sense of how rich the soil is, how blessed the climate, you don't have to go farther than Healdsburg Plaza, established by town founder Harmon Heald in 1857. Walkways, a fountain and a postmodern pavilion are shaded by mature coast redwoods and live oaks, orange trees and crape myrtles. Back in the day there were hardware stores on the plaza and farmers in bib overalls. But now the Mercantile Shop sells apple chutney instead of burlap and the plaza is surrounded by galleries and chic shops. Restaurants abound, including Scopa, Chalkboard, Spoonbar, Baci and Mateo's Cocina Latina, which puts Sonoma slants on traditional Yucatán recipes.

Then, too, there are downtown's wine-tasting lounges featuring vintages from some of the region's 100 wineries—major players like Kendall Jackson and La Crema, as well as singular labels like Banshee, Mueller and Trione. Lest things get out of hand, city hall ruled to limit them to two per block around the plaza.

A visit to the Healdsburg Museum in the old Carnegie Library recalls the town's past, especially its agricultural heritage seeded by immigrants from northern Italy. When Prohibition took a toll on the early American winemaking industry, farmers planted orchards, turning Healdsburg into the "Buckle of the Prune Belt." Don't miss the vintage photograph of a 1920s parade float featuring a quartet of winsome, white-robed "prune goddesses." Then ramble past the 19th-century Queen Anne and Neoclassical Revival mansions built along Matheson Street.

On the east side of town a road makes a circle around 991-foot Fitch Mountain, which is dearly loved by locals and was the center of a summer colony that grew up in the 1920s, attracting families from San Francisco. The kids could swim and inner-tube down the Russian River, which winds around the base of the mountain, while Mom and Dad did the Lindy Hop on Fitch Mountain resort dance floors.

Drive along West Dry Creek Road, where Italian farmers planted still-thriving vines that climb up hillsides as if they were trying to go somewhere. In a certain slant of light, the landscape turns zinfandel purple and you get a visceral understanding of the connections between Mother Earth and human well-being.

- SS


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