Ames is a gracious town—with broad lawns, leafy neighborhoods, pretty parks and ponds—and its distinctly rural flavor is the key to its urban charm. With its thrice-weekly farmers' markets, paddling options on the Skunk River, and 55 miles of city-maintained trails for avid bikers, runners, and walkers, Ames is a place for people who like wide-open spaces. "You can drive less than five minutes outside of town and you are really in the country," says Russ Cross, 53, a bank executive in Des Moines, 30 miles away. The lively downtown area—including a long Main Street, fun restaurants (such as favorite Aunt Maude's, serving up local meats, cheeses, and produce), and a pub with its own brew—adds to the charm. "I love that when I step outside my office on Main Street, it's such a clean little town," says Russ's wife, Beth, 51, president of a local marketing company. "It's one of the most welcoming places I've ever seen." The couple, who like to run on Ames's trails with their golden retriever, say they are a long way from retiring, but when they do, they can't imagine moving anywhere else. "There's just so much that I want to do right here," Beth says.
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