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.
Port Townsend, Wash. (Pop. 9,136)
Set on Puget Sound, with the jagged Cascade Range as its backdrop, postcard-perfect Port Townsend is a bustling seaport and artists' community rolled into one. Along the water, kayakers bob between industrial ships ferrying wares to Seattle, 40 miles southeast, and beyond. In town, the streets are lined with 19th-century architecture, including the Jefferson County Courthouse, a redbrick stunner considered one of the best-preserved Victorian structures in the country. Down the block, the Fountain Café serves fresh seafood and homemade pastas out of a mint-green 1889 building, alongside countless galleries. In the warmer months, local artists set up easels around town to paint the surrounding landscape: The peaks and rain forests of Olympic National Park are a few minutes west, and the San Juan Islands are a quick boat ride to the north.
Talkeetna, Alaska (pop. 1,062)
This former gold-mining hub, about two hours north of Anchorage, is best known as the base camp for the adventurous hoping to climb all 20,320 feet of nearby Mount McKinley—North America's tallest. Somewhere between 500 to 800 climbers summit the peak each year, but not all of them fare so well. In fact, Talkeetna's cemetery contains a Mount McKinley Climbers' Memorial to those who perished in their attempts—scattered throughout, in place of regular tombstones, visitors will find propellers poking out of the ground, which mark the graves of bush pilots. For those who like their adventures a little less daring—but just barely—the West Rib Pub & Grille offers the five-pound Seward's Folly burger, made up of two pounds of caribou, sliced ham, 12 slices of bacon, and 12 slices of cheese. Each year, residents look forward to the Moose Dropping Festival, a singular gambling event in which varnished pieces of moose dung are flung from a helicopter after residents bet on where they will land. (In 1989, Talkeetna made national headlines when an outraged PETA representative misunderstood and thought live moose were being dropped from helicopters.) No wonder this undeniably quirky town is said to be the inspiration for Cicely, the fictional setting of the '90s cult-classic comedy Northern Exposure.
Haleiwa, Hawaii (Pop. 2,285)
This North Shore beach town is less than an hour's drive from Honolulu, but it's far enough removed to retain a low-key vibe all its own. The resident surfers and artists are completely laid-back and unpretentious. Anything other than flip-flops looks way too fancy, and anything other than a beach-cruiser bike on the little oceanfront path looks way too intense. In the morning, everyone gets their caffeine fix at Coffee Gallery, a locally owned nook that also serves baked goods like maple blondies topped with bacon crumbles. In the afternoon, the surfers head to Surf N' Sea to get their boards waxed or to replace their leashes before taking on the legendary North Shore breaks, while the more mellow head to the beachside Shark's Cove Grill food cart to load up on peanut-butter-and-banana smoothies or a platter of Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice, and then watch the waves from the safety of the sand.
How do we define 'Coolest Small Town'?
The town must have a population under 10,000—we're talking small towns, not big cities. It's also got to be on the upswing, a place that's beginning to draw attention—and new residents—because of the quality of life, arts and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature. And cool doesn't mean quaint. We want towns with an edge, so think avant-garde galleries, not country stores.