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.
This "Double Gateway" to the Rockies has had a vibrant and colorful history—and that color is red. Sandstone quarried from the area's nearby hills has given the town's architecture a distinctive reddish-pink hue. Many historic buildings from Lyons's mining days in the late 19th century, such as the dynamite warehouse, the saloon, and the schoolhouse, have been repurposed as museums, libraries, galleries, and restaurants. Historic in its own right, Lyons Classic Pinball houses over 30 playable vintage pinball machines dating from the 1960s to today, with kitschy retro themes like Kiss, Evel Knievel, and Elvira. In addition to traditional Rocky Mountain outdoor activities like mountain biking, skiing, and hiking, try floating in an inner tube down the peaceful St. Vrain River or snowshoeing over freshly fallen powder at one of the area's vast ranches.
Surrounded by the picturesque mountain scenery of Idaho's northern Panhandle, Sandpoint takes its name from the sandy shores of massive Pend Oreille Lake. A 15-minute car ride separates the town's public beach—popular for summer sun basking, volleyball, cookouts, and cruises—from Schweitzer Mountain Resort, a winter sports wonderland that offers skiing, snow tubing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Every Wednesday and Saturday from May to October, Farmin Park hosts a farmers market that sells everything from handmade baskets and medicinal herbal soaps to raw local honey and even lean Idaho yak steaks. Local annual celebrations include the Lakedance International Film Festival and Lost in the '50s weekend, when vintage cars cruise the downtown streets and classic recording artists belt out their hummable hits. In addition to mainstays like the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, the eclectic Festival at Sandpoint has hosted diverse musical acts like the Beach Boys, Lou Rawls, and Ziggy Marley.
This quiet Sonoma wine town along the Russian River is flanked to the north by an unspoiled wilderness of redwood forests and to the south by orderly rows of vineyards. Get one of the best—or at least the highest—views of this landscape while skydiving over the valley; flights leave from the municipal airport. The Cloverdale Arts Alliance offers an independent film series and free Friday night concerts all summer long in the town plaza. The nearby Dry Creek Valley is dotted with award-winning vineyards. Cloverdale's Fritz Winery, built in a cave-like subterranean facility under a hillside, has an inviting outdoor patio that serves as the perfect place to sip a glass of the zinfandel or chardonnay. Reasonably priced tasting events pair wines with regional specialties like San Francisco sourdough bread and Dungeness crab from Fisherman's Wharf.
New London, N.H.
It's no wonder that this New Hampshire village has been a popular vacation destination since the late 1800s. The simple pleasures of New London are timeless. The numerous lakes and ponds that pepper the area are lined with trees that blaze crimson and gold in the autumn—a must-have for any self-respecting New England town. Seasonal offerings—boating, hiking, skiing, and foliage viewing—attract visitors throughout the year. The New London Barn Playhouse has been staging popular comedies, dramas, and musicals, like Hairspray and South Pacific, in its summer stock theater productions since 1933. The independent Morgan Hill Bookstore usually features autographed books by famed children's author Tomie dePaola, a New London resident. Unfortunately, according to the store's website, the creator of the grandmotherly Italian witch Strega Nona is currently recovering from hand surgery and is unable to sign books. Budget Travel wishes dePaola a quick recovery!
Three Rivers, Calif.
Three Rivers lies in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near the entrance to Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Together, these parks encompass over 1,300 square miles of wooded wilderness and include Mount Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48, and General Sherman, a giant sequoia that is, measuring by volume, the planet's largest living thing. The community has enjoyed a reputation as a flourishing artists colony for over 60 years. The Three Rivers Artists' Biennial Studio Tour invites guests into the studios of area painters, sculptors, weavers, collagists, potters, and photographers, many of whom look to the region's abundant wildlife and natural splendor for inspiration. On the first Saturday of every month, these artists collaborate for a day of themed festivities—February's theme is Passion—that include artist talks, gallery showings, live local music, and great deals at town shops and restaurants.
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.