The Nominees for America's Coolest
We've pulled together a list of 21 nominees from coast to coast. Cast a vote to determine the readers' top 10 American small towns—and check the September 2010 issue of Budget Travel Magazine to see if any reader choices made the final cut.
Barnegat Light, N.J.
This seaside village, located between Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on the northern tip of Long Beach Island, is home to Old Barney, the iconic red-and-white lighthouse for which the town was named. The quiet haven offers a more serene experience than your average Jersey Shore town, attracting flocks of seabirds rather than flocks of rowdy summer beachgoers. What's cooler right now than sustainability? In addition to hosting sustainable fisheries, Barnegat Light is home to the non-profit ReClam the Bay, which raises baby mollusks to reintroduce to a bay that attracts a bustling fishing community. And, in a state where the diner is king, Mustache Bill's became the country's first diner to be designated an America's Classics by the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2009.
Nicknamed the Land of Waterfalls, this Blue Ridge Mountain town has become a surprisingly vibrant arts community in the past couple of decades. Sixteen animal sculptures and five murals dot the artsy Main Street and surrounding areas, where 4th Friday Gallery Walks offer an evening of gallery-hopping, fine food, and wine-tasting. Approximately one quarter of the town's squirrels are white, and locals will not let you forget that fact—the annual White Squirrel Festival invites visitors to "Go Nuts!" in celebration of these critters with live music, a parade, and a street festival; while the local White Squirrel Shoppe sells items like squirrel-shaped soap, Christmas ornaments, and candles out of its historic 1899 brick building downtown. The county seat of Transylvania County, the town also plays host to a spooky Halloweenfest and a Flight of the Vampire 5K Race.
A little over two hours southeast of San Antonio, Cuero is dominated by two ugly beasts: the turkey and the legendary, blood-sucking Chupacabra (Spanish for "goat-sucker"). Unofficially nicknamed the Turkey Capital of the World, Cuero plays host to an annual Turkeyfest, with its slate of tongue-in-cheek events like the turkey toss, the turkey race, and turkey bowling. Don't ask. The local high school's mascot is the Gobbler, an angry emerald tom. In 2007 and 2008, Cuero had two sightings of the mythical Chupacabra, described by witnesses as a hairless fanged monster the size of a coyote. The sightings led to a cottage industry to rival Bigfoot's and Nessie's, with sales of T-shirts, hats, signs, and silver charms. Decidedly more savory: Cuero's Bahnhof Caféwith deep-fried pickles and attached antiques store—was chosen as one of Texas Monthly's 40 best small-town cafés.
Also called the End of the Road, Ely sits in Minnesota's scenic extreme north, where it once served as an iron-mining hub. But Ely has come a long way since her unglamorous mining days, now playing host to a number of renowned wilderness facilities like the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. The city is a perfect base for camping, canoeing, and fishing, as the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness offers an untouched expanse of lakes and bogs straddling the U.S.-Canadian border. Ely has become notorious for the annual April Fools' jokes that city leaders play on the eager-to-be-fooled citizens. In 2008, a press release announced that Ely was being sold to Canada to boost tourism. The mayor commented on the subject in a local newspaper, and cheeky "Say No to Canada" signs were displayed along the highway. The following year, Ely began a mock-campaign to secure the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
Bandon's rugged coast is dotted with unique rock formations—with descriptive names like Face Rock, Cat and Kittens, and Elephant Rock—as well as a 19th-century lighthouse. The town is one of only four cranberry-growing areas on the West Coast. As a celebration of the tart regional specialty, Bandon throws an annual kitschy-cool Cranberry Festival and Parade, which include a prom-like Cranberry Court, delicious cranberry treats, and more than a few Bandonites dressed as the bulbous berries. The town's small boardwalk is the perfect place for fishing and catching Dungeness crabs, which can win you big bucks during the annual Bandon Crab Derby. The no-frills Bandon Fish Market, housed in a bright blue seaside shack, serves up the freshest local seafood in dishes like fish-and-chips and clam chowder.