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.
If your culinary tastes lie more in the DIY camp, the not-at-all-rustic Chevy Chase Beach Cabins offer access to a private beach on Discovery Bay that's home to seven varieties of clams-they even provide plastic diggers and buckets (3710 S. Discovery Rd., chevychasebeachcabins.com, cabins from $110).
Getting there: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (71 miles)
#7 Cape May, N.J.: Pop. 3,607
America's first beach resort, now with a fresh coat of paint
Let's face it: You might be convinced that Cape May, America's oldest beach resort town, is stuck in the past. True, you can still find reminders of the seaside burgh's genteel heritage around every corner, from its rows of pastel Victorians to its butterfly gardens. Local lore has it that refined ghouls even haunt the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate (1048 Washington St., capemaymac.org, tours $10). But Cape May's glory days haven't yet passed it by (to misquote the poet laureate of New Jersey, a certain Mr. Springsteen).
At the Beach Shack hotel, the Rusty Nail surfer bar has been attracting partiers-and fun-loving area lifeguards-since the 1970s. After a major overhaul in 2009, the outdoor sand bar and fire pit make for an ideal cocktail spot. Try the Exit Zero, a refreshing mix of vodka, melon liqueur, pineapple juice, and Sprite, named for the town's Parkway exit number (205 Beach Ave., beachshack.com, Exit Zero $7). Even the Congress Hall hotel, a dignified landmark since 1816, now features a funky nightclub called The Boiler Room that trades in the usual Jersey Shore kitsch for a laid-back speakeasy vibe. The underground bar is built directly into the hotel's foundations, with a stage for live acts next to the original boiler pit (251 Beach Ave., congresshall.com, martini $10).
It's no wonder Y.B. Eat Place has a playful side. Owner Peter Karapanagiotis named the year-old restaurant after himself—he's the "younger brother" of John Karapanagiotis, who owns the nearby George's Place. The menu is full of unusual takes on Jersey diner classics: Rice Krispies-crusted French toast, a swordfish BLT, duck-fat fries (314 Beach Ave., 609/898-2009, duck-fat fries from $3). "The best compliment," says cook Tom Fala, "is that it feels like home to Philly residents."
Though the color scheme at the Star Inn leans toward the Victorian-daffodil yellow, robin's egg blue, coral red-the furnishings are decidedly more up-to-date. In place of doilies and damask patterns, you'll find crisp, white bedding, modern kitchenettes, and posters of starfish and horseshoe crabs that evoke the area's longtime connection to the sea (29 Perry St., thestarinn.net, suite with kitchenette from $129). Glory days indeed.
Getting there: Atlantic City International Airport (45 miles); Philadelphia International Airport (96 miles)
#8 Jerome, Ariz.: Pop. 444
A copper mining village that struck gold as an artists' retreat
Home to the largest copper mine in Arizona, Jerome was once dubbed "The Wickedest Town in the West" for its abundant brothels, saloons, and opium dens. Today, the mine is a park and the Victorian-era bordello has been transformed into the tasteful Mile High Inn (309 Main St., milehighgrillandinn.com, double with private bath $120). But the unsavory types haven't been replaced so much as upgraded to the gentler end of the bohemian spectrum. Today, Jerome belongs to artists.
"We like to say we're all here because we're not all there," says Christy Fisher, who got her start sewing costumes for rock icons like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and is now owner of the stylish Magpie boutique. Fisher follows the ethos of the shop's namesake bird-which she calls "a collector of weird things"-with quirky designs that include skirts emblazoned with Ann-Margret on a motorcycle or a "trashion" line of jewelry made from recycled soda cans and steel (510 Main St., magpiejerome.com, soda can ring $14).
Even the food bursts with color here. At 15 Quince Grill & Cantina, the authentic New Mexican cuisine on the plate-blue corn enchiladas, red Chimayo chiles, green Hatch chiles-is almost as artful as Chef Vlad Costa's heavily tattooed arms. Housed in a former Safeway market, the turquoise walls are lined with a grid of painted steer skulls, each done up by a different area artist (363 Main St., 15quincejerome.com, blue corn enchiladas $13).