The Nominees for America's Coolest
We've pulled together a list of 20 nominees from coast to coast. Cast a vote to determine the readers' top 10 American small towns—and check the September 2011 issue of Budget Travel Magazine to see the winners.
Phoenicia, N.Y. (Pop. 388)
Two and a half hours north of New York City, this tiny town in the Catskill Mountains is a smaller version of nearby Woodstock: quiet and rural, with a hippie vibe and an artsy edge. Phoenicia's main drag is humbled by panoramic views of the magnificent 286,000-acre Catskill Forest Preserve, but surprisingly trendy stores line the street, like Mystery Spot Antiques—packed with vintage clothing, out-of-print books, and quirky housewares—and the Arts Upstairs, a seven-room gallery of original works, often by local artists. Thanks to a wealth of ex-Manhattanites who settled here a decade ago, Phoenicia has plenty of quality restaurants. Sweet Sue's may look like a regular diner, but the line of locals out the door should tip you off: The brunch menu includes renowned home fries and 25 types of pancakes, like pumpkin, mixed berry, and even carrot.
Clayton, N.Y. (Pop. 1,890)
This historic shipbuilding center lies on a tiny peninsula in the middle of the Thousand Islands, a remote archipelago dotting the St. Lawrence River along the Canadian border. Known for its lush greenery and surprisingly clear waters, Clayton thrived as a millionaires' retreat in the late 1800s. Today, those lavish homes are a draw in themselves. The city's historic downtown boasts restored brick buildings clad with original window crowns and cast-iron cornices, many of which house shops and hotels like the red-and-white Thousand Islands Inn, built in 1897, and the River Rat Cheese Shop, where you can pick up local white cheddar from nearby Gold Cup Farms. In the summertime, the old ferry terminal, which once shepherded wealthy visitors to their island cottages, now hosts waterfront concerts. Out on the river, the family-run Ferguson Fishing Charters offers morning fishing trips, followed by picnics on a deserted island, where a guide cooks the day's catch over a fire. For dessert: Eggs, sugar, cream, and bread are tossed into the hot grease, creating a French-toast-like puff pastry that's topped with butter, maple syrup, cream, and brandy.
Wiscasset, Maine (Pop. 4,489)
In this village along the tidal Sheepscot River, U.S. Route 1 serves as Main Street, crowded with gourmet food shops and antiques dealers. In the warmer months, the brick walkways and 18th-century buildings are adorned with brimming flowerpots. Tourists wander in and out of the town's nearly two-dozen antiques stores, where locals hawk American folk art, quilts, and 1950s board games. Wiscasset is planning to edge into the future soon with a new hydropower plant, which will be the largest clean-energy development in the history of the state. The town's main attraction, though, is Red's Eats, a rickety hut on the water that serves up lobster rolls stuffed with a pound of fresh meat. Bed-and-breakfasts dot the surrounding area, the most notable of which is the family-friendly Snow Squall Inn, owned and run by a former chef who now prepares breakfasts for his guests each morning. For those who want to sleep under the stars, Chewonki is the crème de la crème of campgrounds. It has a pool, a tennis court, boat rentals, and 47 spacious sites along Montsweag Brook.
Newtown Borough, Pa. (Pop. 2,384)
Located in Pennsylvania's rural Bucks County, between NYC and Philadelphia, Newtown Borough was founded by William Penn in 1684—and hasn't changed a whole lot since. The area is surrounded by peaceful, rolling farmland, and the two-lane roads are frequented by Amish horses and buggies. In town, State Street is lined with wide sidewalks, flower gardens, and boutiques like the Rose Cottage Needlepoint Studio crafts shop and Ned's Cigar Store, a tobacco outlet run by two friends who won the lottery (one the Cash 5, the other a scratch-off) and bought the store with their winnings. Newtown is also home to the oldest movie theater in the country, with just one screen, along with some standout restaurants: As one of our readers noted, "Oishi, for instance, is the best Japanese restaurant I've ever been to—and I live in Manhattan!"