Five easy road trips

By Colleen Clark, Travel + LeisurePublished 6th October 2011
These under-the-radar destinations make for an easy road trip-and each is close to a big city.
A Culinary Retreat: Columbia County, New York (2 1/2 hours from New York City)
Everyone knows the Catskills, but neighboring Columbia County is the latest Green Acres idyll: Think picture-perfect hamlets and a decidedly citified food scene.
Stay: On 1,200 acres of rolling pasture outside the bucolic town of Ghent, Kinderhook Farm (1958 Co. Rte. 21; 505/603-1815; barn sleeps four, from $284) recently converted one of its red barns into a cozy guesthouse.
Eat: Start your morning at the Old Chatham Country Store & Café (639 Albany Tpk.; Old Chatham; 518/794-6227; breakfast for two $25), where the pecan sticky buns are house-made. In Pine Plains, the new Agriturismo Restaurant (2938 Church St.; 518/398-1000; dinner for two $89), owned by Fred's at Barneys New York executive chef Mark Strausman, draws crowds for dinner (try the Coach Farms goat-ricotta gnocchi with zucchini blossoms).
See and Do: Stop by Harvest Spirits Distillery (3074 U.S. Rte. 9, Valatie; 518/758-7683) to buy a bottle of dry pear brandy; find a repurposed wine rack to hold it in at 3FortySeven (347 Warren St., Hudson; 518/291-4780), housed in a onetime gas station.
A Spa Getaway: Desert Hot Springs, California (2 hours from Los Angeles)
Restorative mineral pools and a boho attitude make this an inviting alternative to coiffed Palm Springs.
Stay: Designed by the legendary architect John Lautner, the redwood-and-stone Hotel Lautner (67710 San Antonio St.; 323/363-8697; doubles from $250) reopens in the fall with a plunge pool and cactus gardens.
Eat: Ironically, the food scene in this holistic town is suspended in rib-sticking 1950's style: locals congregate for killer barbecue at the kitschy Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace (53688 Pioneertown Rd.; 760/365-5956; dinner for two $40); Martha Stewart has stopped in at the Sidewinder (66121 Pierson Blvd.; 760/329-7929; lunch for two $22), known as much for its retro wood-paneled interior as its chicken-fried steak.
See and Do: Test the waters in the spa at Miracle Manor Retreat (treatments from $120), set atop geothermal springs. It's a worthy splurge after a day spent hiking the otherworldly landscape of nearby Joshua Tree National Park (760/367-5500).
A Wine-Tasting Trip: Culpeper, Virginia (1 1/2 hours from Washington, D.C.)
Set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Culpeper is the ideal home base for exploring the surrounding region's ripening vineyard scene.
Stay: Call before you arrive; the Suites at 249 (249 E. Davis St.; 540/827-1100; doubles from $160) will stock your mini fridge with local bubbly.
Eat: The owners of Foti's Restaurant (219 E. Davis St.; 540/829-8400; dinner for two $90) learned their chops behind the stoves of the Inn at Little Washington -- you'll find proof in the pan-seared quail on bacon-braised endives or toasted-walnut custard.
See and Do: Sip your way from a late-harvest Vidal Blanc at nearby Gray Ghost Vineyards (14706 Lee Hwy., Amissville; 540/937-4869) to a citrusy Petit Manseng at Paradise Springs Winery (13219 Yates Ford Rd., Clifton; 703/830-9463), 40 scenic minutes from town.
An Architectural Hotbed: Mason City, Iowa (2 1/4 hours from Minneapolis)
This small Iowa town (population: 29,000) lures cognoscenti with its design legacy.
Stay: The only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright hotel in the world, the Prairie-style Historic Park Inn Hotel (7 W. State St.; 800/659-2220; doubles from $100) is taking reservations for the first time in nearly 40 years, after an $18 million renovation that restored its stained-glass and terra-cotta exteriors.
Eat: In a striped, shoe-box-size diner, Susie Q Café (14 Second St. N.W.; 641/423-5021; lunch for two $12) serves up Americana in the form of deep-fried pork-loin sandwiches.
See and Do: Pick up a map at the new Mason City Architectural Interpretive Center (520 First St. N.E.; 641/423-1923) and you'll get an overview of the town's treasures, including Wright's 1908 Stockman House and several private residences by stone master Walter Burley Griffin.
A Cultural Find: Chattanooga, Tennessee (2 hours from Atlanta)
Appalachia goes urban along the Tennessee River, where bands and art galleries outnumber hiking trails.
Stay: With its terraced spa, fire pit, and views of Lookout Mountain, the Chattanoogan (1201 Broad St.; 800/619-0018; doubles from $149) has long been the city's hotel of choice. This year, the LEED-certified Crash Pad (29 Johnson St.; 423/648-8393; doubles from $70) came on the scene with significantly simpler offerings but a prime location on the developing Southside.
Eat: Musicians coming off a late night recharge at the Bluegrass Grill (55 E. Main St.; 423/752-4020; breakfast for two $18), known for its cilantro-lime hash browns.
See and Do: When beloved alt-country singer M. Ward comes to town, he takes the stage at Track 29 (1400 Market St.; 423/266-4323), a skating rink turned club. Friday nights, the vibe is unmistakably old-school at the Mountain Opry (2501 Fairmount Pike, Signal Mountain), where fiddlers congregate under leafy oak trees.