Ithaca, New York - Pie Girl, owner of the Finger Lakes bakery of the same name, puts it succinctly: "Ithaca is 10 square miles surrounded by reality." After years of vagabonding across North America, she chose to open her whole-wheat bakery in a city where the counterculture of the 60s and 70s still flourishes. If you think of Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake as two fingers of a peace sign, then Ithaca is at the tip of the Cayuga index finger. Located five hours from Toronto, it's garnered notoriety as one of the healthiest cities (Organic Style magazine), the best lesbian place to live (Girlfriend magazine) and the best fly fishing in North America (Fish and Fly magazine).
Yet Ithaca is more than a haven for aging hipsters. The fan club keeps on growing. Why the alternative bent?
"Ithaca is one of the most enlightened communities in America," says 30-something Tom Rivera, leader of the controversial religious order called Twelve Tribes. Founded in the 70s and run out of many other cities, the group just opened the Maté Factor Café, the headquarters of their religion. Sort of a Starbucks that's seen the light, the café promotes an environment of peace and features yerba maté, a tea with a special something.
"It provides a mild stimulant and instant clarity," Rivera explains as he steams up a frothy mug. I take a tentative sip, relieved that it's a drinkable blend of cappuccino and chai tea. Later, I giggle like an extra from the movie Reefer Madness through an entire theatre show.
Hooked on the flashback experience, I head to the member-collective-run Moosewood Restaurant, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Located in the historic Dewitt building, it works miracles by making brown rice taste good.
World beat has replaced the 70s background music of the Doobies and Dylan, but the place hearkens back to a time when hairy-looking alfalfa sprouts spilled out of communal cupboards and organic yogurt bubbled on countertops.
Moosewood's cookbook, released in 1977, was at the frontier of vegetarian cooking. Although the menu no longer carries Planet Burgers and body piercings have replaced love beads on the servers, the "it's so good for you" ambience is still the same.
Also keeping up with the times is the MacKenzie-Childs artist workshop a 30-minute drive north of Ithaca on 89 acres of rolling pasture overlooking Cayuga Lake. Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs founded the studio in 1983, revolutionizing home design.
"We came knocking at the formal dinner party and crashed it," said Victoria. Their Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Timothy-Leary funhouse features the artists' surreal humour, like upside-down chairs and tilted floors.
Ithaca's citizens aren't as mellow and happy-go-lucky as they seem. They won a 10-year battle to keep the city Wal-Mart-free and showed no mercy when Target's expansion plans encroached onto environmentally sensitive Buttermilk Falls State Park.
But the authorities did allow the dumpster-diving Rainbow Family of Living Light to pray for peace, the planet and more marijuana around the area's cascading waterfalls.
But Ithacans are not all lost hitchhikers. They're a brainy bunch. The town's population of 30,000 is almost doubled by Cornell University. Alumni of this prestigious school range from NASA astronauts to Pulitzer laureate author Kurt Vonnegut, and astronomer Carl Sagan was a professor here.
It's an intellectual town full of academics and students, 16 per cent of whom come from abroad. It all adds up to diversity and tolerance. And that's part of the secret.
"We wanted to be with others just like us," says Pie Girl, explaining why she left California for New York, "- educated, brainy and environmentally responsible." But then she quickly adds, "Except we aren't all brainy."
I don't know about that. After a mug of yerba maté tea, I feel pretty brainy. And pretty damn healthy, too.