• How do we define 'Coolest Small Town'?
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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.
Egg Harbor, Wis.
Egg Harbor just may be the only town in America named after a food fight. Legend has it that this village, perched on a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, takes its name from a playful 1825 egg-throwing "battle" between trade boats entering the harbor. The eccentric Dovetail Gallery & Studio pays homage to this local lore with a whole museum dedicated to the egg. Exhibits include an authentic Russian Fabergé egg, a collection of wild-bird eggs, and the only dinosaur egg on display in the entire state of Wisconsin. This so-called Cape Cod of the Midwest offers the perfect combination of country living and a sophisticated arts and music scene that rivals many urban centers. The nationally acclaimed Birch Creek Music Performance Center offers jazz and classical concerts during summer evenings in its rustic barn performance space. Amazingly, Wisconsin's Door County, where Egg Harbor is located, has the distinction of having more miles of shoreline—including 10 historic lighthouses and more than 35 parks—than any other county in the United States.
At the base of Central Oregon's Three Sisters Mountains—nicknamed Faith, Hope, and Charity—lies Sisters, the Gateway to the Cascades. The nearby Deschutes National Forest attracts hikers, fishermen, and mountain bikers with its pristine landscape of ponderosa pine forests and mountain lakes. In downtown Sisters, the Western clapboard façades of the business district mimic the region's 1880s ranching days. Local restaurants and shops include the self-explanatory Sisters Olive and Nut Co. and the Sno Cap Drive In, which serves up chilly marionberry milkshakes, an Oregon favorite. The familial spirit of Sisters extends well beyond the town's name. Every third Friday during the cold winter months, the owners of Sisters Coffee Company, a local café housed in a cozy cabin, offer Free Soup Night. You provide a loaf of bread to share with fellow diners, and the house provides free soup and live music.
Near the snowcapped Mount Fuji look-alike Mount Edgecumbe, Sitka delivers the perfect combination of pristine Pacific Coast nature and rich Alaskan culture. This former capital of Russian Alaska contains many reminders of the region's past, including the green-onion-domed St. Michael's Cathedral. Sitka National Historical Park offers a scenic array of Tlingit and Haida totem poles amid the rugged island's temperate rain-forest environment. The November WhaleFest celebrates the region's abundant marine life—including humpback whales, sea otters, harbor seals, and Steller sea lions—with whale watching cruises, art shows, a sea chantey concert, and quirky scientific symposia.
Despite its modest size, Stowe contains more award-winning restaurants than any place in New England outside of Boston and Providence. The gourmet Blue Moon Café offers seasonal New American cuisine inside a homey blue cottage decorated with paintings by local artists. The menu, which changes weekly, focuses on the freshest organic ingredients, including foraged mushrooms and Vermont-raised rabbit and venison. The town even managed to snag the beloved von Trapp clan of The Sound of Music fame. After escaping the Nazi takeover of their native Austria, the family moved to Stowe, where descendants now own and operate an alpine ski chalet known as the Trapp Family Lodge.
This town at the southern border of the expansive Los Padres National Forest sits in a tranquil valley dominated by vineyards, olive groves, and aromatic fields of orange trees. With its bright-white mission-revival buildings reminiscent of old California, Ojai's natural and architectural beauty attracts its fair share of artists and new age spiritualists. But don't be scared off by the prospect of healing crystals and incense. Ojai also bustles with a youthful energy. Recently named one of America's Best Tennis Towns by the United States Tennis Association, Ojai has hosted one of the nation's oldest amateur tennis tournaments since 1896. In addition, the town is home to a number of world-class cultural festivals, such as the Ojai Poetry Festival, the Ojai Film Festival, the Ojai Music Festival, and the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which consistently draw the most illustrious artists in their respective fields.
Red Lodge, Mont.
A gateway to Yellowstone National Park, Red Lodge serves as an entrance to the Beartooth Highway, one of America's most scenic alpine roadways. But Red Lodge offers more than just its great location and easy access to outdoor activities. Despite its rustic setting, this ski town actually contains more bars and restaurants per capita than any other place in Montana. Red Lodge mixes small-town charm—a penny candy store, an old movie theater with a classic marquee—with the trappings of a much bigger city, such as fine-art galleries, pottery studios, and a specialty foods store that sells artisanal cheese and chocolate. The award-winning microbrews at Red Lodge Ales are made with Montana barley and Northwest hops, with seasonal offerings like the Ullrfest Lager, named after the Norse god of snow and—believe it or not—skiing.
Medicine Park, Okla.
An hour and a half southwest of Oklahoma City, Medicine Park was founded on the Fourth of July in 1908 as the new state's first planned resort. The town is notable for its cannonball-size red-granite architecture, a style unique to the region. Check out the nearby Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, nearly 60,000 acres of prairie where the buffalo roam and the deer play. Medicine Creek runs through the middle of the town and is stocked yearly with trout, while two dams form the popular Bath Lake Swimming Hole. The Winery of the Wichitas, which opened its doors in October 2005, offers panoramic vistas of the community and the neighboring hills from the deck of its on-site Buffalo Bistro. Sip a glass of wine, munch on a cheese plate, and listen to some live red dirt music—a subgenre originally based out of Stillwater that is said to mix rock, western swing, folk, country, bluegrass, blues, and honky-tonk, with the occasional Mexican influence thrown in for good measure.
The waves of modernization and urban development that swept through the Midwest in the mid-1800s with the expansion of the railroad missed this sophisticated beach village on the shores of Lake Michigan. As a result, eclectic 19th-century architectural styles abound, from colonnaded Greek Revival homes to palatial Italianate mansions. Wedged between steep lakeside dunes and verdant apple orchards, Saugatuck has been a favorite weekend getaway destination for Midwesterners for over a century. Downtown is full of independent retailers and not a single chain restaurant, a badge of honor that many of even the smallest towns can't boast. Saugatuck's laid-back, progressive ideals have earned it the nickname "The Provincetown of the Midwest." The town also hosts the renowned Waterfront Film Festival each June, named one of the world's five best film festivals by the Screen Actors Guild's magazine alongside Sundance and Cannes.
Kennett Square, Pa.
This town outside of Philadelphia holds the distinction of being the Mushroom Capital of the World, as over a million pounds of the tasty fungus are grown in the region each year. An annual Mushroom Festival draws locals and visitors alike with a parade, a mushroom soup cook-off, tours of area farms, and even bobbing for mushrooms—an alternative to apple-bobbing for the dentally impaired. The nearby Longwood Gardens, one of the nation's premier botanical gardens, can trace its long history to 1798, when Quaker landowners began planting an arboretum on their farm. Now, this 1,050-acre idyllic compound of gardens, fountains, forests, and meadows boasts magnificent renovated greenhouses dedicated to tropical and arid landscapes as well as an extensive orchid collection and a stately brick farmhouse from 1730. The on-site 55-ton pipe organ, with an astounding 10,010 pipes, ranks among the largest musical instruments in the world.
Less than an hour north of New York City, Nyack sits on a natural swelling of the Hudson River called the Tappan Zee. Known for its thriving theater scene and tiny antiques shops, Nyack delivers stunning views of nearby Hook Mountain and sailboats drifting up the river. The town's Edward Hopper House Art Center was the birthplace and boyhood home of the famed realist painter known for his melancholy urban nightscapes and lonely sun-drenched lighthouses. The facility offers changing exhibits and summer jazz concerts in the garden. History is alive in this village of stately yet colorful Victorian homes. Perhaps too alive. In the landmark 1991 New York Supreme Court case Stambovsky v. Ackley, a Nyack house seller was sued by a buyer for not disclosing the home's "phantasmal reputation." In other words, the property was allegedly haunted by two female ghosts in hoopskirts and a Revolutionary-era male ghost. The court ruled in favor of the buyer, who was allowed to legally break his contract. The existence of ghosts in Nyack should come as little surprise—Sleepy Hollow lies directly across the Hudson.
Home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum this town in central New York is arguably the spiritual home of America's favorite pastime. The summer induction ceremony for new Hall of Famers swells the town's population into the tens of thousands, with the 2007 inductions of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn drawing a record-breaking crowd, estimated 75,000. What goes better with baseball than beer? Built on a former hop farm, Brewery Ommegang crafts seasonal and year-round Belgian-style ales, including the dark, foamy Chocolate Indulgence Stout and Ale 2009, more commonly known by its nickname, Obamagang. The Fenimore Art Museum, one of many impressive galleries in this so-called Village of Museums, boasts outstanding collections of American folk art, Native American art, life masks cast from a number of famous Americans, and romantic landscapes from the famed Hudson River School.
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.