Locals Know Best: Fargo, North Dakota
If you’re a student of American trivia, you might know that Fargo, North Dakota’s most populous town, which sits on the Red River Valley of the Great Plains, is named for William Fargo, the founder of the Wells Fargo Express Company. Or you might know that it was referred to as the “Gateway to the West” once the Northern Pacific Railroad was up and running through the area. Or that it was essentially rebuilt after a massive fire decimated 31 downtown blocks in 1893. But chances are everything you know about Fargo you owe to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 kooky crime drama (and present FX series of the same name) gave the town pop culture street cred. Today, Fargo is an energetic hub of creativity with a youthful vibe. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked it number four among the fastest-growing small towns in the US. To get the lowdown the town, we checked in with Alicia Underlee Nelson, who curates Prairiestylefile.com, a site that focuses on what's unique and local in the upper Midwest and Canada's prairie provinces. She's also the author of “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History.” She grew up about 45 minutes away and just moved back after 12 years in Minneapolis. She’s seen the difference the relatively few years can make.
ARTS & CRAFTS
Fargo’s amazingly well-preserved downtown has undergone changes in the past few years, but none of them have impinged on its historic integrity. Where people once went there for basic shopping needs, it’s evolved into an arts and culture district. The Plains Museum is a major local art institution, what with its collection of 20th and 21st century works. But Alicia always tells people to hit the various galleries when they come to town. Gallery 4, which was established in the 1970s and is one of the oldest coops in town, and the sweeping Ecce Gallery have great openings each month, Alicia notes. Translation? Free party. Both feature regional artists and bill themselves as springboards for new talent. But art here is not constrained to the confines of four walls. Or passive viewing, for that matter. Anyone who has chalk or pastels or spray paint can make his mark on the public art wall, a blast of color tucked away in an alley. “Basically, there are very few rules,” Alicia says about it.
There’s a longstanding local pride in time-honored crafts here, too.
“North Dakota is not pretentious at all. We’re super-open and welcoming and friendly. There’s a strong tradition of craftsmanship here. A lot of people quilt and paint and make their own furniture. There’s a real appreciation for people who make art,” she says. But if classics crafts aren’t your thing, she’ll point you to Unglued, a shop where you can pick up any and all kinds of modern indie crafts from region. Case in point: upcycled bowties by local artist Ashley N. Dedan, who makes accessories with clothing scraps under the label Aendee. Alicia also recommends downtown institution Zandbroz, a mashup of a bookstore, a variety shop, and jewelry purveyor. Browsing around here might seem akin to poking around a museum of curios. Or you could pick up some local goodies at Sweet Dreams Confections. Go for the homemade fudge, gelato, and sodas, stay for the from-scratch soup and salad at the shop's cozy, chill coffee bar.
Maybe the Coen brothers, who are known for their wacky, if often dark, sense of humor, were drawn to Fargo for its quirk factor, and there are indeed a few unusual places to visit. Alicia calls out Scheels, an outpost of a national sporting goods chain, but this locale features an indoor ferris wheel, shooting games, and--wait for it….. statues of US presidents.
“You can go for a ferris wheel ride in the middle of winter. You wouldn’t think it if you were going in to buy basketball shorts, but you can. It’s a strange place,” she said, noting that you might spot a bride and groom getting their wedding photos taken there. It’s also the place to go for North Dakota State University gear. The team plays across the street in the Fargodome, but regardless of whether you’re a football fan, if you’re in town during a weekend game, make sure to hit the tailgate party. “It’s seriously one of the best parties in town. There’s a marching band and free games. Plenty of people don’t go to games, they just go to hang out.”
NOW THEY’RE COOKING
The creative vibe shines through in the restaurants here, too. Rhombus Guys Pizza might throw you for a loop if you go in expecting you basic average pie. Among their extensive veggie pie options is the tater tots hot dish pizza, which Alicia swears is better than a plate of perfectly fried tater tots. Its upstairs patio is another reason it’s worth visiting. Locals here are obsessed with their patios in the warmer months, which Alicia attributes to the winters being treacherous. Blackbird sits on the slightly less eccentric side, offering wood-fired pizzas that are locally minded down to the flour. (“The guy’s obsessed with dough,” Alicia says.)
For something a bit more high-end, Mezzaluna comes highly recommended. But despite its fine dining appeal, the restaurant also offers excellent late-night happy hour regularly and a midnight brunch on occasion in the colder months. “They announce it online, and it’s worth stalking their website for when they announce it.”
Speaking of late-night, no matter how fun it is to get caught up in the hype of trendy restaurants, diners remain a beloved here. Krolls Diner, an outpost of a small chain, is a retro dining car where you can kick back in a sparkly booth and order classic diner grub or German staples, like the beloved knoefla soup. The fact that its website is www.sitdownandeat.com should cue you in to the light humored attitude of this joint and its heavy food. German food is also the star at Wurst Bier Hall, which has tons of beers on tap and communal tables.
When your sweet tooth gets the best of you, the best dessert in town are found at Sandy's Donuts, which has two locations in town.
“Everyone says their own donut place is the best, but this really is,” Alicia declares. “Just get there early,” she advises. The flavors rotate all the time and include special creations for game days and holidays. There’s also an impressive lunch menu of salads and hot and cold sandwiches at the downtown location. And best of all, each meal comes with a free donut.
In summer 2017, Alicia published her book "North Dakota Beer," so she is intimately acquainted with craft brewers in her hometown and beyond. For an understanding of what’s become a strong craft beer scene in North Dakota, you’ll want to pay a visit to Fargo Brewing Company, the first in town. Located about a 10 minute walk north of downtown, it remains a local favorite, drawing people not only for the excellent beer, but also for the food trucks, the chill industrial vibe, and frequent tasting events. Then later, in 2016, they opened Fargo Brewing Company Ale House in South Fargo where they serve food designed to pair with their brews as well as some quirky bites that only true suds lovers could dream up. Case in point: an ice cream sandwich with the cookie part made with spent grains from the brewery.
Drekker Brewing, located right downtown, has a more polished appearance. Alicia recommends taking their grain-to-glass tour, not least because all the proceeds go to charity. The brewers’ interest in artistry extends far beyond beer. Local art adorns the walls in the taproom as well as their packaging. (One of Alicia’s favorite local artists, Punchgut, created the dynamic graffiti-style cans for the brewers.) They also host live music each weekend, game nights, and late-night craft fairs. Needless to say, it’s a lively hangout. And although they only have a small snacks menu, you can plan to stay for a while since they encourage ordering from outside restaurants.
Kilstone Brewing is less flashy and more tucked away in a low-profile space in an industrial near the interstate highway. Once you’re inside, though, Alicia says it’s really accessible and, what’s more, "they rock bingo," she declares.
Speaking of tucked away, if cocktails are more your speed, The Boiler Room is a chill hotspot that draws revelers for its craft cocktails and creative American fare. The basement locale, which you enter through a back alley, also offers cocktail classes.
24 Hours in: Morro Bay, CA
As you approach Morro Bay, California, from Highway 101 in summer, as my family and I did in July, the first thing you’ll notice is that the outdoor temperature drops a few degrees each mile as you head west, over some switchbacks in the coastal range, and down to the lovely little beach town dominated visually by the iconic Morro Rock, a holdover from the region’s volcanic origins. As the environment along the road quickly changed from inland farmland vistas and 97-degree heat to misty seaside hills with breezes bringing temps down into the 60s, we relished what central-coast Californians have known for years but other U.S. domestic travelers are just now getting to know: Morro Bay is a charming beach town that is a real bargain along this beautiful stretch of coast. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING Our lodging for the night, The Landing at Morro Bay, combines the best aspects of a design-forward seaside hotel (mid-century modern interior design and furniture, ample windows and glass doors facing the water) with the comfy convenience of a family-friendly motel (ample parking, friendly staff, excellent local coffee brewed all day at the front desk). We loved that The Landing is a super-short walk from Morro Bay’s scenic wharf and parkland, not to mention our view of the impressive Morro Rock from the second-story balcony. WHAT TO DO There’s enough to do in Morro Bay to keep you busy for days, but our first-ever visit was limited to 24 hours, giving us a chance to get to know the town and add some spots to our “next time to-do list.” Pacific beaches beckon for those who want to catch serious waves (visit AZ.HI.AZ.I.AM Surf Shop first) or just soak up some sun (with some help from Beach Butlerz if needed). The town of Morro Bay and its surrounding area is renowned for hiking in Morro Bay State Park and along the Cloisters Park Trail, kayaking in the bay (or explore via “bay cruisers” or electric boats to see sea otters and sea lions in their beautiful habitat), and golfing on a course affectionately dubbed “the poor man’s Pebble Beach” for its beauty and affordability. Drop by Kites & Surreys to purchase one of the many eye-popping beach-friendly kites on display or to rent a pedal surrey in which to explore Morro Bay’s park trails. And if you’re looking for a splash of urban sophistication amid the natural beauty, we loved Revolve Thrift for its impeccably curated retro-chic collection of vintage clothing, mid-century artifacts, and home decor. WHAT TO EAT The evening we arrived in Morro Bay, we enjoyed dinner at Bayside Cafe, in Morro Bay State Park, serving a nice array of seafood in a family-friendly atmosphere (indoor and patio seating) along the marina. I went with some of my personal “comfort foods,” crab cakes appetizer and fried clams dinner, and was happy that I did. The meal isn’t over until you share some desserts like the outstanding Boysenberry Crips, Key Lime Pie, and (the current frontrunner for my favorite dessert name of all time) Chocolate Oblivion. Breakfast at popular Frankie & Lola’s is everything you might hope for, with an array of omelet options that include fresh veggies, a reminder of Morro Bay's proximity to the central coast’s incredible farmland. I opted for a massive breakfast burrito, half of which completely satisfied my hunger and the other half of which I packed and happily consumed during our trip down the 101 toward Ventura. Right down the street from Frankie & Lola’s, stop into House of Jerky for artisanal meat snacks made with grass-fed, humanely harvested stock. Don’t leave town without grabbing a meal at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant on Embarcadero, where you’ll find not just a great bustling diner-style eatery specializing in fresh-caught Pacific seafood but also a mini-conglomerate of Tognazzini-branded enterprises that includes the Fish Market & Patio and the Smokehouse & Pub. We enjoyed Dockside’s great sandwiches and salads and savored a relaxing stroll along the wharf watching the fishing boats (you may even spot Captain Mark Tognazzini and Bonnie Tagnazzini’s boat, the Bonnie Marietta), and ogling the fresh-from-the-sea bounty at the fish market.
Get to Know: Mountain View, AR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Mountain View, AR, is no. 5 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Music is everywhere in Mountain View, with locals joining visiting musicians to play traditional mountain music in the town square. Founded in the 1870s, Mountain View has become a major center of traditional Ozark culture and music. The Ozark Folk Center is America’s finest place to experience traditional Ozark culture, music, and more. The Folk Center includes demonstrations of blacksmithing, pottery-making, and other pioneer skills as well as toe-tapping mountain music. You can even sign up to learn to play an instrument like the dulcimer or autoharp, or to dance one of the classic jigs you’ll see here. The Folk Center was founded in 1973, but its origins go back to the first Arkansas Folk Festival in the early 1960s, and of course the music traditions here are (almost) as old as the mountains. The tradition of “pickin’” folk instruments late into the night on porches and front yards around the town square continues to this day during northern Arkansas warm season, which happily stretches from mid-April through late November. Thanks to the local, Music Roots Program, skilled folk musicians visit area schools and teach children how to play traditional stringed instruments so that the vital musical legacy continues to be passed on. Mountain View is surrounded by natural beauty as well. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area offers the chance to see the amazing falls, hike on a comfy paved trail, cycle, or fish for rainbow trout. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is located in the beautiful Ozark-Saint Francis National Forest. A visit to the jaw-dropping caverns in Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is a must. The caverns offer tours, exhibits, and family activities along a hiking trail, and the area includes a popular mountain bike trail too. Mountain View's downtown area is also a bustling hub of music stores, antique shops, and the Arkansas Craft Guild. Popular outstanding local eateries include Tommy's Famous Pizza, Kin Folks Bar-B-Q, and JoJo's Catfish Wharf. Portico Pizza Kitchen also serves up tasty pies, sandwiches, and more and, true to Mountain View’s preservation of folkways, Portico is in the same building as a traditional ironworks.
Get to Know: Chatham, MA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Chatham, MA, is no. 4 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Chatham, which is situated in the “elbow” of Cape Cod, is one of those rare small towns that feels like it was a cool small town 100 years ago. After all, you can’t avoid its history, and it involves lots of eye-catching sites. First, there’s the postcard-perfect Chatham Lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was first lit to guide boats in 1897. The town's historic district has over 300 protected buildings. What’s more is the town has the highest concentration of classic Cape-Cod-style houses. (Think: timber frames, Victorian details) Not least among them is the ultra-luxe resort Chatham Bars Inn. Among its 24-plus buildings, some date back as far as 1914. Also onsite is eight acres of farm and a greenhouse, sources for the hotel’s posh restaurants’ produce and herbs. While those kinds of gardens are above and beyond what most other restaurants in Chatham offer, one thing that pretty much every dining spot offers is straight-off-the-boat seafood. The town is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to lobster, haddock, and skate, to name a few. And about those restaurants—there’s a lot of them. It all starts at the airport, where you’ll find Hangar B, a compact eatery known for its hearty and creative breakfast fare. Other options throughout town range from the classy yet casual Bistro on Main to the Filling Station, a retro diner located downtown that dishes out classic breakfast food all day and burgers on soft pretzel buns, to the legendary Chatham Orpheum Theater, which features a café where you can anything from salads to burgers to sandwiches to sliders as well as beer, wine, and cocktails and indulge while you watch a movie. Toss in plenty of outposts for birdwatchers (the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is part of the US Fish and Wildlife Services) to take in the show; the new Chatham Shark Center, in case you wanna learn more than you can get during "Shark Week" (Chatham is known for the return of great white sharks); and whale watching excursions and it all adds up to something pretty cool.
Get to Know: Bisbee, AZ, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Bisbee, Arizona is number 2 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America. When you look at the town by its numbers, the facts will astound you: By the early 1900s, the town’s Copper Queen Mine, one of the richest mineral sites in the world, yielded almost 3 million ounces of gold and more than 8 billion pounds of copper. As a bustling mining camp back then, a history honored at the Mining & Historical Museum, a population of more than 20,000 relished its riches. Flash forward to today, with a population of around 6,000, and its small town vibe is likely a big reason why retirees and creative types flock there. Two hours southeast of Tucson, 30 minutes south of Tombstone, and eight miles from the Mexican border, this mile-high city is something of a funky, laid-back artists’ paradise set against a hilly historic backdrop. Actually, “hilly” is a bit of an understatement. The town is so steep that each floor of the four-story high school sits on a ground floor. The Mule Mountain Pass into town is not for the faint of heart. Once you get there, though, you’re rewarded with a living portrait of the Old West. Various boutiques and galleries flourish amid restored Victorian homes, old saloons in the Brewery Gulch district, once the stomping grounds of gamblers and prostitutes, and stunning historic hotels, like the Copper Queen Hotel, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the state, dating back over a century. But far from being a fusty time capsule, Bisbee delights in its quirkiness. The Shandy Dell, a collection of nine revamped retro trailers, is a popular accommodation. The so-called Killer Bee Guy, a specialist in the insects who’s often featured on TV when broadcasters need bee expertise, has a shop here that sells honey, bee pollen, and more. And in case you have any doubt of the general attitude, just take a look the bumper stickers found on many residents’ cars that say “Keep Bisbee Bizarre.”