Retreat to an easygoing American lake town, where you can find simple, affordable pleasures—fishing, hiking, bumper cars, and old-fashioned desserts. We've picked eight we love; chances are, there's a similar one near you.
on LAKE MICHIGAN
In a nod to the area's Scandinavian roots, the small town of Ephraim has many lakefront restaurants that still host nightly fish fries, a tradition brought here by immigrants from Norway. The combination of freshly caught lake fish, onions, and red potatoes is served up in style at the Old Post Office Restaurant, where cooks scoop the fish from cast-iron kettles heated over an open fire in the backyard. At dusk, take in one of the best sunset views from the deck of Scuppers, a red-sailed boat captained by Tom Schroeder of Bella Sailing Cruises, which operates out of South Shore Pier (920/854-2628, two-hour cruise $30). Captain Tom can ferry you across Eagle Harbor to see the squat Eagle Bluff Lighthouse at Peninsula State Park, celebrating its centennial this year. For more active pursuits on the water, Door County Kayak Tours leads six daily lake tours from Egg Harbor, which include a brief kayaking lesson and transportation to and from the point of embarkation (920/344-6641, doorcountykayaktours.com, $48 per person). If going it alone is more your style, rent a kayak from the Ephraim Kayak Center, on Eagle Harbor (920/854-4336, from $12 per hour). Rainy-day fun for the whole family can be had at the Hands On Art Studio; kids can make their own jewelry or paint ceramics. Visiting in June? Hit the Fyr Bal Festival, held each year near the summer solstice, with music, fish boils, and beachfront bonfires intended to rid the lake of the "winter witch."
Where to refuel Since its founding Ephraim has prohibited the sale of alcohol, so the only microbrew you'll find is the homemade root beer at Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor. Have it blended into a "frosty" with vanilla ice cream (920/854-2041, wilsonsicecream.com, from $4.50).
Where to stay In the historic district, the white clapboard Eagle Harbor Inn is the kind of place where guests relax in Adirondack chairs scattered on the lawn. (920/854-2121, eagleharborinn.com, from $98).
Easy escape from Green Bay, Wis. (73 miles).
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
The Finger Lakes region of New York State has developed a reputation for wine, especially crisp whites. Three wine trails wind around the long, narrow bodies of water that give the region its name, carved out millennia ago by retreating glaciers. A good place to start is the handsome town of Watkins Glen, at the extreme southern tip of Lake Seneca—within easy driving distance of 35 different wineries producing good Rieslings and Chardonnays. If that sounds too highfalutin, head to Watkins Glen International, a racetrack that hosts NASCAR every August; in September there's a classic-car grand prix featuring machines dating back to the 1930s. Exploring the lake is easy, as several companies offer cruises. You'll feel the wind in your hair on the deck of the sleek sailboat operated by Seneca Sailing Adventures. It holds just six passengers, and leaves twice a day for three-hour cruises (607/742-5100, senecasailingadventures.com, from $50 per person). If you're a hiker or mountain biker, try Finger Lakes National Forest, between Seneca and and Cayuga lakes, where 30 miles of trails pass through gorges, ravines, and woodlands. Keep an eye out for birds like the red-tailed American kestrel. Kids can get close to tamer animals—goats, sheep, turkeys, and other relatively mellow farm dwellers—at the 175-acre Farm Sanctuary (607/583-2225, farmsanctuary.org, $3, kids $1). Rent a canoe or kayak at Summit to Stream Adventures, which also leads guided tours through the Queen Catherine Marsh, an 882-acre wetland (607/535-2701, summittostream.com, kayak or canoe rental $25 per day).
Where to refuel The Wildflower Café is a cute store in downtown Watkins Glen; you can sample microbrews from Rooster Fish Brewing. Locals say the pizzas, like the pepperoni-topped "rooster pie," are delicious (607/535-9797, roosterfishbrewing.com, pizzas from $7).
Where to stay The Idlwilde Inn is a grand Victorian building with a turret and a wraparound porch (607/535-3081, idlwildeinn.com, from $95).
Easy escape from Ithaca, N.Y. (38 miles), or Binghamton, N.Y. (80 miles).
Wolfeboro bills itself as "the oldest summer resort in America," and you'll believe it when you get a load of the gingerbread gracing many of the Victorian-era buildings. Lake Winnipesaukee's cabins and campsites made this area a popular summer getaway in the '50s and '60s, and a few decades later wealthy weekenders bought up the choicest bits of real estate. The result is an interesting blend of high and low culture. Jet Skis zip around slow-moving yachts on the lake, which is dotted with 253 islands. Mount Washington Cruises offers sightseeing excursions across the lake to Weirs Beach (603/366-5531, cruisenh.com, $25, kids $12). Stick around and you can indulge your child (or your inner child) on the bumper cars at Half Moon Amusement Arcades, an old-school penny arcade. A bit farther afield, in the town of Moultonborough, is Castle in the Clouds, a mountaintop mansion built in the arts and crafts style popular in the beginning of the last century (603/476-5900, castleintheclouds.org, $12). Rent a powerboat from the oldest marina on Lake Winnipesaukee, Goodhue & Hawkins (603/569-2371, goodhueandhawkins.com, from $240 per day). Or enjoy the scenery from a canoe—Dive Winnipesaukee specializes in lake-diving trips but also offers equipment rentals (603/569-8080, divewinnipesaukee.com, canoes from $35 per day).
Where to refuel Wolfeboro's casual Wolfetrap Grill and Rawbar serves traditional clam boils, featuring a pound of steamers, corn bread, corn on the cob, and coleslaw (603/569-1047, wolfetrap.com, lobster entrées from $18).
Where to stay For a taste of old-time Wolfeboro, Clearwater Lodges has knotty-pine family cottages just a stone's throw from the shore (603/569-2370, clearwaterlodgesnh.com, from $140, including a full kitchen). Just south of downtown Wolfeboro, the Lake Motel is an old standby, with expansive grounds that run down to the water. Guests can use kayaks, canoes, and rowboats for free (888/569-1110, thelakemotel.com, from $114).
Easy escape from Manchester, N.H. (51 miles), or Portland, Maine (64 miles).
near WALLOWA LAKE
The sky-blue waters of Wallowa Lake, hemmed in by the tall, rocky Wallowa Mountains, bear more than a passing resemblance to Lake Geneva—hence the nickname "the Switzerland of America." Recently, the town has become a mecca for artists working in bronze; the Valley Bronze Gallery opened here in 1982. Take a tour of the Valley Bronze Foundry, which specializes in casting sculptures in the metal (541/432-7445, valleybronze.com, $15). There's even a self-guided "bronze walk," a series of 15 bronze sculptures along both sides of Main Street. For a bird's-eye view of the area, take a ride up the Wallowa Lake Tramway, which bills itself as the steepest in North America (541/432-5331, wallowalaketramway.com, $24, kids $14). Horseback riding is a popular pastime in nearby Eagle Cap Wilderness, where summer visitors sometimes see black bears nibbling on huckleberries. There's no charge to ride the trails, but Wilderness Outfitters Network offers numerous guided horseback tours throughout the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Hikers gravitate toward Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area, home of the deepest gorge in North America. For a dose of serenity on the water, rent a kayak from Wallowa Lake Marina (541/432-9115, wallowalakemarina.com, $15 per hour).
Where to refuel Run by a pair of big-hearted sisters, Old Town Café is the best place to start the day. Fill up on the classic old-town breakfast: layers of home-style potatoes, scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon (541/432-9898, entrées from $8.50).
Where to stay If you're looking for rustic charm, you can't beat the lodging at Flying Arrow Resort—these rustic log cabins are great for families. (541/432-2951, flyingarrowresort.com, from $125). Built in 1915, Belle Pepper's B&B is a lovingly restored country estate (541/432-0490, bellepeppersbnb.com, from $95, two-night minimum).
Easy escape from Walla Walla, Wash. (110 miles).
LAKE LURE, N.C.
on LAKE LURE
If Lake Lure looks familiar, it might be because the area stood in for the Catskill Mountains in the film Dirty Dancing. The scenery is spectacular—those are the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance—and the more than 21 miles of shoreline along the lake make it easy to find an isolated spot for an impromptu picnic. Afterwards, paddle around the glass-smooth waters in kayaks—rent one at the Lake Lure Marina (877/386-4255, lakelure.com/rentals, from $10 per hour). Looking for more speed? Get a motorized pontoon boat to tool around in (from $80 per hour). Hikers head to Chimney Rock Park, which has craggy peaks and a trail that leads to Hickory Nut Falls. Climb to the centerpiece, a huge pillar of granite called the Chimney, with 75-mile views in all directions. Reward yourself afterward with some pampering at Allure, a spa inside the 1927 Lake Lure Inn. The town itself is home to mom-and-pop businesses like an old-fashioned general store called Dalton's where you can get anything from a fishing license to a fried baloney sandwich (828/625-9750).
Where to refuel Overlooking the lake, the Point of View Restaurant has plenty of choices, including a tasty broiled fish sandwich and a mountain trout entrée (828/625-4380, thepointofview.com, from $9).
Where to stay Chimney Rock Inn, on Lake Lure's Main Street, has country cottages decked out with antiques (800/625-2003, chimneyrockinn.net, from $90).
Easy escape from Asheville, N.C. (28 miles), and Charlotte, N.C. (91 miles).
on GRAND LAKE
Once a reservoir for the Miami-Erie Canal, Grand Lake was constructed between 1837 and 1845 by a crew of 1,700 men who were paid a daily wage of 30¢ and a jigger of whiskey (which was thought to prevent malaria). The lake is now just for recreation, but locals honor its past with the annual summertime Celina Lake Festival, held on the lakefront July 24 to 26, 2009. There are events like a beauty contest, fishing derby, classic-car show, and a boat race with vessels built entirely of cardboard and duct tape. Fishing is one of the most popular activities on the lake, and there are dozens of tournaments held every year; anglers covet largemouth bass, bluegills, and crappies. The lake, part of Grand Lake Saint Marys State Park, has tons of family-friendly activities, from tubing to swimming to bird-watching. Rent a canoe at the campground office and paddle around at your own speed, keeping an eye peeled for the lake's population of bald eagles (419/394-2774, $6 per hour, $3 after the first hour).
Where to refuel For picture-perfect views of the lake, there's Pullman Bay. The home-baked pies (by the slice or the whole thing) are the main draw—try the sugar cream or the butterscotch. The fried chicken is tasty, too (419/586-1664, entrées from $9).
Where to stay At the white clapboard West Bank Inn, all of the rooms face the water (866/359-8624, westbankinn.com, from $100).
Easy escape from Columbus, Ohio (108 miles), or Fort Wayne, Indiana (64 miles).
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF.
in MAMMOTH LAKE BASIN
The town of Mammoth Lakes is famous as a winter destination, but those in the know head here in summer, when the crowds are small, the temperatures are mild, and the High Sierra terrain is in bloom. You have your pick of more than a dozen lakes, each with their own personality. Massive Mono Lake, for example, is best for birding, as the salty inland sea attracts throngs of eared grebes, Wilson's phalaropes, and California gulls. For a stunning aerial view of the landscape, try a sunrise hot air balloon excursion with Mammoth Balloon Adventures (760/937-8787, mammothballoonadventures.com, one-hour tour $165 per person), which includes a sparkling cider toast. Crowley Lake is popular with kayakers, and you can rent a kayak at the Crowley Lake Marina from Caldera Kayak (760/934-1691, calderakayak.com, from $30 for a half day). The five lakes in the Mammoth Lake Basin—Twin, Horseshoe, Mamie, George, and Mary—are where anglers go for rainbow, brook, and brown trout. There's plenty to do on dry land, too: Head west over the Tioga Pass and you're in Yosemite National Park, with its plunging waterfalls. Kids love exploring the real-life ghost town that's at the center of Bodie State Historic Park—a handful of spooky wooden storefronts are all that remain of the gold-rush town that once had 65 saloons. Getting to the town involves a bit of a drive: it's 60 miles north of Mammoth Lakes.
Where to refuel Gourmet food at a gas station? That's what you'll get at the Whoa Nellie Deli, at the Tioga Gas Mart in the nearby town of Lee Vining. Try the lobster taquillos with tomatillo-pineapple salsa (760/647-1088, entrées from $15).
Where to stay Cinnamon Bear Inn is a downtown B&B popular with outdoorsy travelers (800/845-2873, cinnamonbearinn.com, from $99).
Easy escape from Carson City, Nev. (135 miles), and Fresno, Calif. (186 miles)
LAKE PLACID, FLA.
on LAKE PLACID
When Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System, settled in this area of south-central Florida to open a hotel, he found it so similar to his hometown of Lake Placid, N.Y., that he convinced residents to change the name. Shops sell crafts, clothes, and antiques in the small town, which has an outsize reputation for its caladiums: leafy red, pink, and white plants that peak in late summer. The lake is a convenient jumping-off point for exploring wildlife preserves and state parks. Twenty miles to the north, Highlands Hammock State Park is a dense jungle of cabbage palms, ferns, hardwood trees, and orchids and other air plants (park admission $6 per car). You may spot river otters, barred owls, white-tailed deer, and, if you're lucky, a panther or a bobcat. The elevated wooden Cypress Swamp Catwalk allows visitors to make their way through the swamp floodplain, which is crowded with alligators, turtles, and wading birds.
Where to refuelJaxson's Restaurant takes pride in its farm-to-table approach: fresh herbs from its own garden, ground beef from Hartzell's Meat Market, and even local gator tail, fried or grilled. There's a covered outdoor patio and a laid-back bar; Thursday is karaoke night.
Where to stay Tully's Silver Sands Cottages' two-bedroom lakeside cottages sleep six to eight people. After making dinner on the charcoal grills, guests can unwind on private docks as the sun sets over the water (863/465-1354, tullyssilversands.com, from $150, with a two-night minimum).
Easy escape from Orlando, Fla. (100 miles), or Miami, Fla. (160 miles).
See last year's list of Summer Lake Towns here.