The Coolest Small Towns in America
In Budget Travel's fifth-annual celebration of hometown escapes across the USA, we're spotlighting 10 places that somehow pack in more personality than cities triple their size. How? It all comes down to the people.
One weekend in Saugatuck was all it took for Philippe Quentel. After two days of taking in arts and crafts homes, picket fences, and upper Midwest charm, he made the 140-mile drive back to Chicago, sold his art gallery—then one of the city's largest—and opened Affordably French, right in the heart of Saugatuck (421 Water St., 312/404-4592). To residents of this sleepy Lake Michigan town, Quentel's story is nothing new. Then again, little in Saugatuck is. Spared the big-box modernization seen by many of its neighbors, it retains a charm from another era. On Butler Street, 70-year-old Saugatuck Drug Store is the source for everything from Kleenex to kites (201 Butler St., 269/857-2300). Chain restaurants are nonexistent. And to get to Saugatuck's white-sand Oval Beach, visitors cross the Kalamazoo on an 1838 hand-cranked chain ferry. "In old black-and-white pictures, Saugatuck looks just as it does now," says Lindsay Tringali, 31, owner of Bella Vita Spa and Suites, a clean-lined, six-room inn downtown (119 Butler St., bellavitaspa.biz, from $109). "Beyond some fresh paint and paved roads, it never changes."
Bandon, Oregon pop. 3,295
A farm-to-table hub on Oregon's rugged coast
Bandon is the rare small town that qualifies as a full-blown foodie destination, thanks to a long growing season and chefs who get their hands dirty. Take Jeremy Buck, who relocated here from Florence, Italy, and opened Alloro Wine Bar & Restaurant near the aging canneries lining Old Town harbor (375 2nd St., allorowinebar.com, pastas from $10). Buck's signature dish is ravioli filled with chanterelles he forages himself. Diners are equally devoted; locals know to come by 7:30 a.m. for the quiches at 2 Loons Cafe (120 2nd St. SE, 541/347-3750, entrées from $4). Even the drugstore has a food focus: The wine selection at Tiffany's includes a 2004 Ca' del Baio Barbaresco Pora, only five cases of which were ever sold in the U.S. (44 Michigan Ave. NE, tiffanywineshop.com). As for where to stay? The Bandon Inn, where the morning's cranberry bread is, natch, all local (355 Hwy. 101, bandoninn.com, from $74).
Cloverdale, California pop. 8,454
Wine country without the fuss
Some 90 miles north of San Francisco, Cloverdale is ground zero for Sonoma County's highly regarded zinfandels—but that doesn't mean locals flaunt it. The area's 156 wineries are mostly family-owned and low-key, like the Pendleton Estate, where owners Michall and Jeannine Pendleton give private 45-minute behind-the-scenes tours and tastings (35100 Hwy. 128, pendletonwines.com). Downtown Cloverdale is a neat collection of rambling Victorians and feed stores turned art galleries, all anchored by the green-and-white 1923 Pick's Drive-In, the go-to spot for burgers and floats (117 S. Cloverdale Blvd., 707/894-2962, burgers from $3.50). Every Friday in summer, the town plaza, a cobblestoned stretch shaded by magnolias, transforms into a freewheeling block party. "Everyone picks up dinner at the farmers market and gets wine from one of the vineyards' stands," says Mary Stuart, 59, owner of Vintage Towers B&B, a seven-room inn overlooking a wisteria-filled garden (302 N. Main St., vintagetowers.com, from $129). "The band starts playing boogie-woogie, and it turns into one big party."
Cuero, Texas pop. 6,571
Old West meets modern art
Set amid the rolling hills an hour and a half south of Austin, Cuero is where Texans come to reconnect with their roots. On Main Street, 19th-century storefronts, yucca plants, and BBQ joints make an impression that's one part Wild Bunch and one part Friday Night Lights. At Bahnhof Cafe, lawyers rub elbows with ranch hands over pickle chips and chicken-fried steak (213 W. Main St., bahnhofcafe.com, entrées from $7), while across town, visitors at the three-room Broadway House B&B dip into a claw-foot tub or relax on a four-poster bed in front of a fireplace (205 E. Broadway St., broadwayhousebandb.com, from $75). Despite its focus on history, the town is far from one-note. "I was shocked to find so much art and music in this tiny place," says Austin expat Kerry Rhotenberry, 52. In 2006, Rhotenberry opened Courtyard Gallery in a converted 1896 Post Office building, and she now fills her walls solely with the work of artists from within a 100-mile radius (210 N. Esplanade St., courtyardgalleryofcuero.com).