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7 affordable American lake towns

Hang on to summer by retreating to an easygoing, affordable lake town, where you can embrace simple pleasures—fishing, huckleberry picking, go-karting, and old-fashioned sweets. We've picked seven to jog your memory; chances are, there's a similar one near you.
Image: North Manistee Lighthouse pier in Manistee, Mich
Enjoy shops, restaurants, galleries and savor local treats in Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, Mich. There's plenty of hiking trails, and fun ways to explore the area. John L. Russell / AP

Embrace the simple pleasures at these all-American lake towns — fishing, huckleberry picking, go-karting, and old-fashioned sweets. We've picked seven to jog your memory; chances are, there's a similar one near you.

Priest Lake, Idaho
In Idaho's remote northern panhandle, evergreen trees blanket the Selkirk Mountains, extending all the way to the edge of Priest Lake. Even in summer, the abundant wildlife—elks, caribou, beavers, ravens, bald eagles, grizzly bears—outnumbers the vacationers drawn by the natural beauty and mellow vibe. The , open since 1906, stocks fishing bait, taffy, old-fashioned toys, and groceries, along with its famous fresh huckleberry pie. Huckleberry bushes growing on north-facing slopes can ripen as late as October and are usually found in open areas along roads or trails. You can hunt them on your own, or stop by the for a map marking the best spots. If fishing is your thing, seek out Captain Rich of . He guarantees you'll catch something if you fish with him on Priest Lake (half-day private fishing charter for up to six people, $500). Trout here can weigh as much as 40 pounds; of course, you can always round up.

Where to refuel: Millie's restaurant draws locals with its pool tables, horseshoes, sand volleyball court, and a pub-style menu that includes fish-and-chips and a burger with fresh-cut fries (208/443-2365).

Where to stay: Rustic, cozy cabins at start at $89 during the summer high season, with a minimum three-night stay. Half-day pontoon and power-boat rentals start at $150.

Easy escape from: Spokane, Wash. (93 miles), or Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (94 miles).

Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, Mich.
Shops, restaurants, and galleries with lovely picture windows and awnings line Bridge Street, the main artery (well, more like capillary) of postcard-perfect Charlevoix, located where Lake Charlevoix drains through Round Lake into Lake Michigan. A harbor-front park on one side of Bridge Street has a fountain and picnic tables, where families pause to savor treats like homemade chocolate black-walnut fudge from the original, family-run Murdick's Famous Fudge (231/547-4213) or a cone topped with a scoop of toasted coconut from . Nearby offers hiking trails amid maple, birch, and aspen trees. Kids can scavenge for small Petoskey stones—formed from coral reefs fossilized 360 million years ago—along the shore of Lake Michigan or brave its ice-cold water. Jet Skis are a fun way to explore Lake Charlevoix, which is often warmer and calmer; half-day rentals from start at $190. On your way to , where you can pick your own Michigan cherries ($1.60 per pound), stop at the wacky roadside monument at 6591 South U.S. 31. It showcases the oven, pie pan, and list of ingredients of the former world's largest cherry pie—a massive pastry that was bested by a group in Oliver, British Columbia, in 1992.

Where to refuel: Juilleret's Restaurant wins raves for its thick cinnamon French toast (231/547-9212).

Where to stay: The three-story colonial revival is convenient for exploring both downtown Charlevoix and the beaches of Lake Michigan. It has eight rooms with hardwood floors and antique furnishings; six of them overlook the lake (from $59 per night).

Easy escape from: Traverse City, Mich. (50 miles), or Grand Rapids, Mich. (176 miles).

Lake Catherine, Ark.
Set amid southern Arkansas's Ouachita Mountain range, 11-mile-long Lake Catherine is a great source for bass and crappie fish. Fishing boats, canoes, kayaks, and party barges can be rented through the state park. Falls Branch Trail winds through two miles of the park's pine and hardwood forest, crossing Little Canyon Creek and leading to a scenic waterfall at Falls Creek. In Hot Springs, about a 15-minute drive away, Hot Springs Carriage Company's rides provide a neat introduction to the historic downtown (501/321-4779). While away the time by strolling among the azaleas and magnolias at the Garvan Woodland Gardens, browsing antiques shops and galleries, or trying your hand at pottery painting at Picasso's Cupboard. Long before Bill Clinton spent his childhood here, Hot Springs was famous for its restorative thermal waters. Of the eight bathhouses constructed in Hot Springs National Park about 100 years ago, the only one still in operation is the Buckstaff, which offers a traditional treatment for modern-day visitors wishing to experience the waters' therapeutic effects (whirlpool mineral bath $22).

Where to refuel: McClard's Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs—family-owned for more than 75 years—has made a name for its ribs and sauce, which you can take home by the pint, gallon, or case.

Where to stay: Lake Catherine State Park's 18 cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, have fully equipped kitchens, lake views, picnic tables, grills and, in some cases, fireplaces (rates start at $75 per night).

Easy escape from: Little Rock, Ark. (54 miles), Texarkana, Ark. (112 miles), or Memphis, Tenn. (188 miles).

Lake Champlain, Vt.
The quaint village of Shelburne is one of the most appealing communities strung along skinny Lake Champlain, which divides mountain chains in Vermont and New York. You can explore the southern area of the lake on a Carillon cruise. Bring binoculars to help pick out bald eagles, ospreys, and herons, and keep your eyes peeled for Champ, the lake's elusive monster. For DIY boating, rent from the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center based in Burlington, a laid-back college town about six miles away (keelboat rentals $50 per hour, kayaks, and canoes $15 per hour). From Burlington, bike paths snake their way along the lake and through stretches of rolling farmland. In summer and early fall, picnickers congregate on the lawn at Shelburne Farms—a nearly 1,400-acre education center and working dairy farm on the lake's shore—for events like the Vermont Mozart Festival. Figurative arts are also well represented in Shelburne, whose namesake museum has a notable collection of American folk art and paintings by Impressionists. The independent Flying Pig Bookstore devotes a special section to homegrown talent like novelist Chris Bohjalian.

Where to refuel: The owners of Bistro Sauce support local farmers, as does the Shelburne Country Store, which sells cheese, maple syrup, and jams, and makes its own fudge daily.

Where to stay: Pitch a tent or park an RV at the Shelburne Camping Area, which also has kitchenettes that can be rented by the day or week (sites start at $24, kitchenettes start at $75). A more refined alternative, the Victorian bed-and-breakfast Heart of the Village Inn has a library and wraparound porch that encourage guests to linger (from $150).

Easy escape from: Manchester, Vt. (90 miles), or Albany, N.Y. (153 miles).

Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.
The man-made Lake of the Ozarks ("the lake" to Missourians) has more than 1,000 miles of shoreline skirted by boat docks and forests of oak and hickory trees. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate Lake of the Ozarks State Park's cabins, which have front porches but no electricity or running water (rates from $40 per night for up to six people). Underground caves in the park are home to bats and salamanders and are prone to angel showers, an unusual phenomenon in which a never-ending shower of water seems to come out of the solid ceiling of rock (tours $6). When its dark above ground, visitors head to the Main Street Music Hall in Osage Beach, where performers put on a nightly two-hour show of comedy routines and classic country, gospel, and folk tunes (tickets $17). There's an all-American feel to the town, too—flags flutter atop kid-friendly diners, and bowling and mini golf are popular. But the biggest crowds can be found browsing discounted goods at 110-store Osage Beach Premium Outlets.

Where to refuel: Cozy, blue-and-white clapboard restaurant The Potted Steer has docking spots for those who prefer to arrive by boat. The Ozark Hills supply meat for dishes like pork loin and smoked baby back ribs.

Where to stay: The Cliff House Inn has a gazebo, gardens, and a goldfish pond. Each of the four suites comes with a hot tub and a fireplace ($150 per night, including breakfast, two-night minimum stay required on weekends).

Easy escape from: Springfield, Mo. (94 miles), or St. Louis, Mo. (175 miles).

Lake Placid, Fla.
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 now 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 Freedom Marine Center offers Jet Ski and boat rentals for guests who are itching to find the best fishing spots (863/699-9300, half-day Jet Ski rental from $150, half-day boat rental from $175). The lake is also a convenient jumping-off point for exploring wildlife preserves and state parks. Twenty miles to the north, Highlands Hammock is a dense, subtropical jungle of cabbage palms, ferns, hardwood trees, orchids, and other air plants (park admission $4 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 crowded with alligators, turtles, and wading birds.

Where to refuel: Jaxson'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 Florida gator tail, fried or grilled. There's an 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 (two-night stay $300).

Easy escape from: Orlando, Fla. (100 miles), or Miami, Fla. (160 miles).

Lake Arrowhead, Calif.
A ride on The Lake Arrowhead Queen, a charming paddlewheel boat, delivers panoramic views of upscale waterfront homes and the dense San Bernardino National Forest. You also get a quick history lesson about the privately owned lake created to provide irrigation to San Bernardino Valley. Buy the $16 boat tickets at Leroy's Board Shop (909/336-6992) in Lake Arrowhead Village, a collection of shops, galleries, and cafés set on a peninsula jutting out on the clear cobalt-blue lake. The Village Fun Park is a treat. Kids can play mini-golf, go-kart, and ride on a restored 1950s carousel. Log cabins are common in the sleepy town of Lake Arrowhead—less developed than nearby Big Bear Lake—and its prominent arts association hosts classical and cabaret performances. L.A. residents, celebrities included, come here to unplug and soak up the fresh air. Focus your stargazing on the expansive smog-free night skies; the Mountain Skies Astronomical Society's educational programs can help you better appreciate all that twinkling.

Where to refuel: The Cedar Glen Malt Shop, well worth the 10-minute drive along winding roads, is a quick fix for homemade burgers and old-fashioned shakes and malts (909/337-6640).

Where to stay: The Lodge at Lake Arrowhead was built as a hunting lodge in 1928 and has the hand-carved beam ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and huge stone fireplaces (one below a bighorn sheep's head) to prove it. Eight guest rooms are named after famous writers; the Ralph Waldo Emerson is decorated with an antique French oak bed and art deco bathroom tiles (rooms start at $119).

Easy escape from: Palm Springs, Calif. (76 miles), or Los Angeles, Calif. (80 miles).