THE COOLEST SMALL TOWNS IN THE U.S.A.

Your Suggestions

Read about towns in Maine, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, Washington, and New York

By , Monday, May 22, 2006, 11:13 AM

Downtown Rockland

(Joshua Bright)

In April, we chose the 10 coolest small towns in the U.S.A. Expecting disagreements, we asked for your suggestions. Read the best response--and the runners-up.

The Winner: Rockland, Maine

I think you missed Rockland, Maine, in your list of America's 10 Coolest Small Towns. I live here so I'm probably biased, but Rockland really is pretty cool. Our downtown has undergone a huge transformation from being a smelly fish-processing waterfront to being a hip art community. The Farnsworth Art Museum is in the heart of downtown, with art shops and galleries popping up all around. Our downtown movie theater was closed for a few years and recently reopened after an extensive renovation. The Strand is once again alive and well and showing unique films and live stage performances at reasonable prices. You can even order wine or beer in the balcony seating area! The downtown building where our local paper used to be published is now our visitor information center and the Maine Lighthouse Museum, a wonderful new facility. The waterfront boardwalk is frequented by locals walking their dog or by visitors taking in the beauty of our large natural harbor gated by a mile-long breakwater with a distinctive lighthouse at the end--the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, currently undergoing restoration and open for tours on summer weekends. There are lots of great shops, restaurants, and cozy B&Bs in town.

My favorites?

Planet Toys--where you can play for hours!

Second Read--a great used book store with a funky wooden floor. Their café-style pastries and drinks are delightful.

Waterworks--a local hangout serving pub-style fare and always-free popcorn!

The Brass Compass--no place better for breakfast.

The Brown Bag--no place better for lunch (okay, occasionally Wasses Hot Dogs).

The Limerock Inn, The Old Granite Inn, Berry Manor Inn--all wonderful downtown B&Bs.

Thorndike Creamery--great ice cream, as well as New York-style pizza by the slice. Yum!

And there's so many more, too many to mention. In Rockland, you can find anything from clothing, toys, jewelry, and appliances to great food. (A sushi restaurant will open soon.) You're just as likely to be walking down Main Street next to a lobsterman as you are someone from New York. We are both the Lobster Capital of the World, and the Schooner Capital of the World; there's even a boat-building school.

But what makes Rockland so cool is that there's all this change, but it's still a hotbed of commercial fishing, windjammer sailing, and traditional wooden boat-building. Somehow it all coexists. --Brenda Walker

Fairfield, Iowa

Fairfield, Iowa, nicknamed by some as Silicorn Valley, sits in the southeast corner of Iowa. It has a population of about 10,000, and one-third of the population is associated in some way with Maharishi University of Management, a bastion of the Transcendental Meditation organization.

In Fairfield, creativity rules. It has nearly everything: the largest greenhouse operation in Iowa (organic too!); the highest per capita concentration of restaurants in the country; one of the most popular art events in the state, 1st Fridays; the newest city in Iowa, Maharishi Vedic City, just north of Fairfield; and a multitude of new businesses that have sprouted all around town.

It is indeed a wellspring of creativity and energy in the midst of a typical midwestern farm town. You'll find dozens of companies and organizations oriented around natural health care, education, and a healthy environment, including a very active trails program with 33 miles of trails surrounding the entire town and the first eco-friendly pet shelter in the world, Noah's Ark. Also, check out The Raj, a premier Ayurvedic health spa attracting visitors from around the world.

The town was recently awarded the Grassroots Entrepreneurship Award by the National Council of Small Cities. About 50 companies now make their headquarters in Fairfield. One of the most recent developments is the announcement by ReFuel Amercia that it plans to build a biodiesel plant in town that will have an estimated capacity of 60 million gallons.

Unlike many small midwestern towns, the town square is filled with thriving businesses and restaurants. One could visit for a week, eating at a different restaurant every meal! And the summer concerts on the square rock. There are special visitor weekends for tours of the University and Maharishi Vedic City, and plans are underway to build a $6-million-dollar County Civic Center that will house a 520-seat auditorium and a 12,000-square-foot event pavilion.

Is this town cool or what...? --Michael Moore

Gunnison, Colorado

At an elevation of 7,703 feet, Gunnison, Colo. rises above most small towns and epitomizes small-town Colorado. Gunnison, or Gunny, as the locals affectionately call it, offers adventurous visitors much delight. Located in the Gunnison Valley, it provides free-of-charge 360-degree mountain views that enrich the soul. Fishing Gunny's trout-filled rivers, lakes, and streams is a world-class experience. The waters are never crowded. But if you find locals, they will surely offer a quick smile, genuine greetings, and accurate advice about what fish are biting on. Hartman's Rocks is a mountain-biking, four-wheeling, bouldering, hiking paradise that covers more than 6,000 acres, and is merely a short bike ride from the coffee shop downtown (and an equally short trip back to the Gunnison Valley Hospital). Less than thirty miles up the main road from the undulating campus of Gunny's small liberal arts college Western State College is the famed ski resort Crested Butte, or in local-speak CB. It may be necessary to live in Gunny for a while if one wants to sample all it offers, but one trip is all it takes to appreciate this small town's land, people, and shooting-star-riddled sky. --Robert H. Scott III, Ph.D.

Kingston, New York

Visit Kingston, N.Y.--what a lovely place, nestled in the Catskill Mountains. The portico-covered uptown area, with many artists' studios, antique stores, and galleries, is gorgeous! All-natural meat and produce stands are there for the taking. Just two hours from Manhattan, with some of the most beautiful stone houses in the country. The only city in the United States with original stone houses built during the 1600s, on four adjoining corners. The Old Dutch Church, built in 1661, burned to the ground in 1663 during the Indian massacre; it was rebuilt in 1669 of stone, and still stands. Other stone beauties include: the Court House, c.1684; the Senate House, c.1676; The Hoffman House, c.1688; still a working restaurant with original fireplaces. Kingston was the first capitol of New York State, there's loads of history here, and it is charming. Sitting right on the Hudson River with mountain. views, there is ice skating, skiing and winter sports. For weekend visitors in late summer or fall, pick-your-own farms abound, particularly many apple orchards! The bistros, cafés and pumpkin patches lure you back into a forgotten time. Worth the trip for an old-fashioned homemade ice cream cone, or to visit one of the local wineries. Still a bargain to live there, it's certainly worth the trip from anywhere. --Lois Concra

Peculiar, Missouri

When I think of Peculiar, Mo., I don't think it is peculiar. I think it is anything but. We're a small town--with a diner where our whole family meets every Saturday morning for breakfast (usually at least 15 people, sometimes more); where the high school football team has won the state championship two years in a row; where our kids can breathe the fresh country air, have occasional snow days from school in the winter and catch frogs down by the pond on hot summer nights; where you can wake in the mornings and see wild turkeys strutting across your driveway, and squirrels and redbirds practically sharing the same fence post. Things change, but in Peculiar things change slowly. We have yet to get high-speed internet service, but we did recently get our first electric stop light. Peculiar does not have any museums, tourist attractions, or a neat historic shopping district. But what this small town does have is people who sincerely care, root for each other, and are passionate about living the small town life. And Peculiar is a place I am proud to call home. --Rebecca Lowery

South Bend, Washington

We live in the small town of South Bend, Wash. on the bend of the Willapa River. It is a town of 1800. We came here from Seattle in 1954, never dreaming we would spend the rest of our lives here. We raised four daughters who, unfortunately, migrated to bigger towns, went to college, did well, and are all happy--and looking forward to each visit back home. It is a fishing village with lots of fishing boats along the river during fishing season. It is also the home of many oyster beds, claiming to be the largest oyster-growing area in the United States. Oysters from South Bend are shipped all over the world. South Bend also has a shrimp and crab facility. Pacific County's Courthouse is here; it's  one of the few remaining original courthouses in the country. People here are friendly. In the stores, customers are called by their first name. I worked in real estate for 18 years, and during that time, I met many people who were just traveling through South Bend. Some of them stopped and eventually moved here. The prices for real estate are reasonable. There are no big traffic jams, no traffic lights, good water and environment conditions, clean air--what else would you want? One of our greatest achievers was Helen Davis, who wrote the state song "Washington, my Home." A Congressional Medal Winner, Bob Bush (now deceased) is also from South Bend. Actually, many other great people in Washington came from this small town. We are all very proud of our town and of our friendliness. Come visit us and find out why. --Sylvia Halldorson