THE COOLEST SMALL TOWNS IN THE U.S.A.
Jeff and Mary Stai experienced their first Mayberry moment eight years ago, while paying a weekend visit to this high Sierras town. Picnicking in a park with a river running through it, the Stais stared in surprise as a boy ambled out from the woods. "He was barefoot and carrying a fishing pole over his shoulder, with fresh-caught fish," Jeff Stai says. "We said to ourselves, 'We've got to keep an eye on this town.' " Five years later, the Stais uprooted from their home in Orange County and transplanted themselves to Murphys, three hours east of San Francisco. They bought a home and started Twisted Oak Winery, one of a dozen wineries within a three-mile radius of downtown (350 Main St., 209/736-9080).
Murphys has been drawing new residents at a rate unrivaled since the mid-1800s, when it was founded by prospecting brothers Dan and John Murphy. At that time, fortunes in gold were hauled out of the hills. But Murphys' current commodity is its quality of life. "People here are most concerned with friendships and community," says Jennifer Wren Stoicheff, who left behind her Bay Area catering business to move to Murphys. She founded Alchemy Market and Wine Bar, a gourmet emporium and restaurant (191 Main St., 209/728-0700, smoked turkey sandwich with jalepeño chutney $10). "They don't care what you do for a living, or what kind of car you drive. And everyone seems to know everyone else's kids."
The elm-shaded Main Street retains time-capsule touches, such as the Gold Rush-era Murphys Hotel, where Mark Twain and President Ulysses S. Grant each stayed (457 Main St., 209/728-3444, murphyshotel.com, from $49). New housing developments on the edge of town are an indication that fresh crops of urban exiles are on the horizon. In the meantime, Murphys continues to offer more of those Mayberry moments--the doctor who makes house calls, the barista who knows exactly how each local takes his cup of coffee. "Murphys has that small-town sensibility in the truest sense," says Stoicheff.