For the seventh year running, we're on a mission to uncover the top ten standout communities across the country. Does your hometown or favorite getaway have what it takes to make the cut? Nominate it by October 15th to find out!
BUDGET TRAVEL VACATION IDEAS
10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2012
We logged 368,000 votes in our seventh annual contest to choose the best hometown escapes in America. This year's twist? A nail-biter of a finish that crashed our website (temporarily, of course!) and resulted in our first-ever tie for first place.
What’s your idea of cool? How about a place where the local dump doubles as an art gallery. Or a town that’s helped spawn a major foodie movement. A Gold Rush outpost with an unsung history of ethnic tolerance would certainly qualify, right? So, too, would a New York village where they make wine served at the White House—yet tastings at the winery are still free. How about two towns that wanted to win our seventh annual Coolest Small Towns contest so badly, they launched a last-minute voting frenzy that crashed our website. That wasn’t so cool at the time, but now we love it—so much so that we declared those two towns co-Coolest. You know what else we love? All those places out there that are already clamoring to enter next year’s contest.
#1 (tie) Beaufort, N.C.: Pop. 4,039
Southern charm with a dash of salty seaside spirit
Captain Horatio Sinbad is what you might call a friendly pirate. He's got six cannons on his 54-foot brigantine, the Meka II, but he's also got Wi-Fi. He's got a gold tooth and a gold hoop in his left ear, but his mate lovingly wears the matching earring on a chain around her neck (and brings him coffee on deck). He makes his living as a pirate, sailing the East Coast to lead mock invasions—"historical entertainments," as he calls them—then dutifully returns to Beaufort, N.C., every chance he gets. "The water is clean, the fishing is great, and the people are friendly," he says. "This is home port for me."
If you'd just dropped into Beaufort, you might be surprised to find that a pirate has weighed anchor there. Perched on an especially serene stretch of the North Carolina coast, the town has an air of Southern gentility about it, from the restored 17th- and 18th-century buildings that flank the local historical society to the Confederate jasmine and animal topiaries that frame the Langdon House B&B (135 Craven St., langdonhouse.com, doubles from $108). Feeling a shiver in your timbers? A cup of rich gumbo and a slice of salty, pillow-soft French bread at the Beaufort Grocery restaurant and bakery will warm you up nicely (117 Queen St., beaufortgrocery.com, cup of gumbo $4.25). There's even a thriving health-food store, the Coastal Community Market (606 Broad St., coastalcommunitymarket.com, locally made hummus $4).
And yet Beaufort's got a wild side, starting with the undomesticated horses you'll see roaming just across Taylors Creek. Blackbeard himself sailed those waters, and his spirit pops up at the North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front St., ncmaritimemuseums.com, admission free), the Queen Anne's Revenge restaurant (510 Front St., qarbeaufort.com, crab-stuffed shrimp $15), and beyond. If he were alive, you'd almost certainly find him on a stool at the Backstreet Pub, a dive-bar-like joint that also serves as a live-music venue and a lending library for sailors. Owner Liz Kopf likes to call her place the funkiest bar from Maine to Venezuela: "I always say there are more characters per capita in here than anywhere in the state" (124 Middle Lane, historicbeaufort.com, beer $2 on Mondays and Tuesdays).
Getting there: Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, New Bern, N.C. (37 miles); Wilmington International Airport (98 miles)
#1 (tie) Hammondsport, N.Y.: Pop. 661
Wine country history on the banks of the Finger Lakes
Hammondsport, N.Y., may well be the recycling capital of America. Not garbage recycling (though they do that, too). We're talking about the vintage seaplanes restored and flown by the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (8419 State Rte. 54, glennhcurtissmuseum.org, admission $8.50). The birdhouses made of scrap wood in front of the Aroma Coffee Art Gallery (60 Shethar St., 607/569-3047, birdhouses from $40). The spiral staircase, crown moldings, and bits of vintage wallpaper in the octagonal 1859 home that has been converted into the Black Sheep Inn (8329 Pleasant Valley Rd., stayblacksheepinn.com, doubles from $149). Even the cypress paneling in the Bully Hill Vineyard's lower dining room came from old wine barrels (8843 Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Dr., bullyhill.com, smoked pulled pork sandwich $13). "When my husband and I came back to live here the first thing he did was start restoring old boats," says Nancy Wightman, whose husband, Ed, grew up in the Finger Lakes region. "It's not just about loving history. You get the sense that's who the people here are."