ADVERTISEMENT

10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2011

July 27, 2011
The winners in our sixth annual celebration of great hometown escapes may be short on people, but they’re long on personality. Small wonder—the 437,480 votes from Budget Travel readers cheering on their favorites can’t be wrong.

Once in a while, you discover a town that has everything—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. Each year, the Budget Travel team celebrates these places with our "Coolest Small Towns in America" competition. It starts with a call to you—our readers—to nominate the most interesting towns you know with populations of less than 10,000. From there, our editorial team whittles the selections down to the three most promising contenders. It's then up to you to vote on your favorite.

This year's winner was Lewisburg—an irresistible small town in West Virginia. Each of the nine runners up has something special to offer, from the quiet, artistic enclave at La Pointe, Wisconsin to the scenic beaches of Astoria, Oregon. In honor of the sixth anniversary of our "Coolest Towns" franchise, we've also compiled a slideshow of all of the contenders from previous years. You won't find a more charming slice of small town Americana than you will right here.

1. LEWISBURG, WEST VIRGINIA (POPULATION 3,830)

Arts in Appalachia
A small town is usually lucky if there's a decent one-screen movie theater, maybe a community dance troupe. But a Carnegie Hall? This speck on the map in the Greenbrier River Valley lays claim to one of only four in the world (105 Church St., carnegiehallwv.com, ticket prices vary). The 1902 building now serves as Lewisburg's creative control tower, attracting an unlikely band of artistic characters, back-to-the-land types, and retirees.

Jeanne and Michael Christie embody Lewisburg's blend. The duo run the Davenport House B&B, where guests can bottle-feed one of the property's baby lambs after taking coffee and breakfast on their private patio (Tibbiwell Lane, off of Davis Stuart Rd., thedavenporthouse.com, one-bedroom cottage from $120). Michael is a painter whose work has shown in New York City's Hoorn-Ashby gallery, and Jeanne is the former director of front-office operations at the Greenbrier hotel, 10 miles down the road. "You know, you always think of the ideal American town, where the kids are safe, the streets are clean. We have that, but we also have Wynton Marsalis coming through," says Jeanne, who'd just finished a morning of shearing sheep. While Michael is a seventh-generation West Virginian, many of their friends and neighbors are newer to the community, drawn in large part by the creative atmosphere anchored by Carnegie. For example, Hall Hitzig, who goes by the moniker the Crazy Baker, came in 1986 and "never looked back" (thecrazybaker.com). Now, he makes granola in the nearby mountains—and sells it everywhere from Puerto Rico to Arkansas. Hitzig's sticky toffee cake also wins raves at Lewisburg's sunny Stardust Café (102 E. Washington St., stardustcafewv.com, cake slice $8). At Stardust, co-run by Hitzig's twin sister, Destiny, and her daughter Sparrow, glasses are filled with "local spring water" (don't call it tap), and the greens are cultivated largely in local gardens.

Lewisburg's arts scene is hardly limited to traditional performers like Marsalis; next door to Stardust, for instance, Tamera Pence identifies the potter of each espresso mug at her year-old emporium, Bella the Corner Gourmet (100 E. Washington St., bellathecornergourmet.com, mugs from $14). "We're very locally driven here," she explains. "And we're also a central hub. I have clients bringing their coolers in all the way from Charleston, more than two and a half hours away." -Nina Willdorf

2. ASTORIA, OREGON (POPULATION 9,477)

Pioneers on the Pacific
Astoria has always been on the frontier, both the Lewis and Clark variety (they set up camp here in 1805) and the geographic (it sits both at the mouth of the Columbia River and in a teeming temperate rain forest). Sure, the place has prettied itself up nicely since those pioneer days with the addition of aging Victorians and craftsman-style bungalows, but the folks in sleepy coastal Astoria have never lost touch with their rough-and-tumble side.

Take, for example, the surfers off of Astoria's scenic beaches, where ocean temperatures rarely break 60 degrees until midsummer. "You really have to suit up," says Mark Taylor, owner of Cold Water Surf (1001 Commercial St., coldwatersurf.com). "We're talking five-millimeter wet suits, gloves, and booties—but Astorians have always been a tough bunch!" Even the city's swankiest design hotel, the Commodore, embraces a decidedly masculine and nautical aesthetic (258 14th St., commodoreastoria.com, from $89). Reopened two years ago after being shuttered since 1966, the property pairs modern furnishings with sly nods to the city's history as a seaside cannery hub: thick braided ropes, nautical charts, and fishing floats.

As afternoon rolls around, locals gather at the four-year-old Fort George Brewery + Public House for burgers made from local beef, as well as pints of the hoppy Vortex IPA, the Belgian-style Quick Wit ale, and as of this year, the 1811 Pre-Prohibition Lager, created in honor of Astoria's bicentennial (1483 Duane St., fortgeorgebrewery.com, pints from $4.25). You didn't really think these former pioneers would celebrate with champagne, did you? -Beth Collins

3. CLAYTON, NEW YORK (POPULATION 1,978)

A River Runs to It
Some shore communities take their location for granted. Not so with Clayton. "I have lunch on the river every day," says Gregory Ingerson, a guide at the 320-ship Antique Boat Museum (750 Mary St., abm.org, admission $12). The curators are so proud of their nautical heritage that they use Q-tips to clean the exhibits, right down to the well-preserved heel marks in the floor of one turn-of-the-century houseboat.

Clayton sits on a peninsula that juts out into the St. Lawrence River, so far north that the fire department's boat flies the American and Canadian flags. One of the benefits of that isolation is that the river itself is like a neighbor. In the summer, the old ferry terminal, where wealthy visitors once caught rides to their cottages on the Thousand Islands (birthplace of Thousand Island salad dressing), now hosts concerts. Out on the water, the family-run Ferguson Fishing Charters offers morning fishing trips followed by picnics on a private island, where a guide cooks the day's catch over a fire for lunch (fergusonfishingcharters.com, half-day charters for a group of four $325). Back on dry land, K's Motel & Cottages' two-night "ship watch special" includes a room, a two-and-a-half-hour boat cruise, admission to the Antique Boat Museum, and two meals (1075 State St., thousandislands.com/k, $159 per person). -Ray Pagliarulo

4. EUREKA SPRINGS, ARKANSAS (POPULATION 2,073)

Honeymoons and More
Sure, you could sleep in one of the Queen Anne-style B&Bs, visit the monumental 67-foot-tall hilltop Christ of the Ozarks, catch a Branson-style show, or hunt for ghosts in the historic downtown. You could easily spend a week on the tourist circuit in this late-1800s Victorian spa retreat. But you'd never get to meet the real Eureka Springs.

Eureka Springs may be the honeymoon capital of the Ozarks, but don't let the kitschy, heart-shaped Jacuzzis fool you. "The guy on the street corner playing fiddle?" says local artist Cathy Harris. "He is a trained concert violinist." "And those men at the bar just may be geniuses," adds Harris's husband, J.D., a sculptor with beaded gray dreadlocks. "We had a team win the international Mensa competition two years in a row."

The current of creativity bubbles up just about everywhere, if you look hard enough. At the Eureka Thyme gallery, Marsha Havens skips the trinkets of other tourist traps in favor of works that draw on Ozark inspirations: wooden bowls made from found downed trees and clay bird whistles that warble like the real thing (19 Spring St., eurekathyme.com, wooden bowls from $50). You might even say that an artisan spirit is part of the recipe of Garden Bistro, where partners Lana Campbell and Robert Herrera draw from local ingredients for their Amish-style bread baked in flowerpots and unfussy plates of family-style veggies grown on her farm (119 N. Main St., 479/253-1281, pork chops $19).

The biggest surprise of all may be the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, a palatial ivy-covered grand hotel with claw-foot tubs and manicured gardens (75 Prospect Ave., crescent-hotel.com, doubles from $129). From this perch, you'll be inclined to look back to see Eureka Springs, but the leafy Ozarks keep the valley all but hidden from view—an apt vista for a town dubbed Tree City USA. -Nicholas DeRenzo

5. LA POINTE, WISCONSIN (POPULATION 309)

A Superior Hamlet
It's called the Island Wave, and to the folks on Madeline Island—a quiet, North Woods enclave of artists on Lake Superior—it means you greet everyone, even when you're driving. It's a lovely idea, but in summer it can get, well, dangerous. That's when La Pointe, the island's only town, swells with visitors. "The line goes out the door for hours on July 4th," says Marie Noha, owner of the Mission Hill Coffee House (105-106 Lakeview Pl., on Middle Rd., 715/747-3100, coffee $1.45).

And then there's the winter, when the only way off Manhattan-size Madeline is by wind sled or ice road. Then the Island Wave becomes a way to connect to the outside world. "I don't mind the loneliness," says Amitty Romundstad, manager of the Inn on Madeline Island (641 Main St., madisland.com, doubles from $95). The literary and opera societies meet in the off-season, and occasionally there's a gorgeous show put on courtesy of the northern lights, when hearty La Pointe locals gather on the ice road to be dazzled together. "We're not a community," says novelist and boat captain Richard Coleman. "We're a tribe." -Debra Weiner

6. PHOENICIA, NEW YORK (POPULATION 309)

A Riverside Retreat
The library in Phoenicia burned down this spring, and suddenly there were books everywhere. Not casualties of the fire, but boxes and boxes of donations to replace what was lost. Residents now check out books (and fishing poles) at the temporary library branch housed in the old medical building on Ava Maria Drive. Phoenicia may look like a one-street river town sandwiched between hills in New York's Catskills—it does a wicked tubing business in the summer—but it's got a bookish, cosmopolitan vibe in its soul. "It's not just crazy guys with cars in their yards," says Michael Koegel of Mama's Boy, a hip little cafe and smoothie bar (7 Church St., mamasboymarket.com, mac 'n' cheese $4.95). Like Koegel, many Phoenicians came from Manhattan, and they've brought a healthy dose of quirk with them. For instance, former New Yorker Alan Fliegel, who owns A Community Store, sells locally made clothing and underground comic books—and runs a well-stocked communal art gallery upstairs (60 Main St., 845/688-5395, comic books from $1). Yet like its library that loans fishing poles, Phoenicia hasn't lost touch with its down-home roots. If you spend the night at the cozy Phoenicia Lodge, you may feel like you've woken up in Mayberry (5987 Rte. 28, phoenicialodge.com, doubles from $70). You certainly will after breakfast at Sweet Sue's Restaurant (49 Main St., 845/688-7852, mixed-berry pancakes from $5.25). The pancakes (pumpkin, pineapple-coconut, and 20-plus other varieties) are legendary, as are the lines waiting to get inside. -R.P.

7. NEWTOWN BOROUGH, PENNSYLVANIA (POPULATION 2,384)

Amish Country Charm
Newtown Borough isn't the kind of place where you'd expect to see millionaires tooling around in a fancy car. In fact, the rural Bucks County burg is close enough to Amish Country that most of the convertibles around these parts are horses-and-buggies. But when Rick Krotz and his brother-in-law Bill Kane hit an astounding sort of daily doubl—Krotz won $607,000 on the Cash 5 lottery in 2006, and Kane netted $3 million from a single scratch-off ticket in 2009—this is exactly the place they wanted to be. Both men grew up nearby and had always loved Newtown's well-worn charms. It's home to the nation's oldest movie theater, Newtown Theatre, a 375-seat, red-brick treasure that's been in operation since 1906 (120 N. State St., newtowntheatre.com, tickets $9). The Brick Hotel, built in 1764 and still looking sharp decked out in hunter green shutters and striped awnings, is one of the few places that can honestly claim that George Washington slept here (1 E. Washington Ave., brickhotel.com, doubles from $80). And director M. Night Shyamalan likes the look of Newtown so much, he filmed Signs here in 2002. So last year, the lottery brothers bought Ned's Cigar Store (4 S. State St., nedscigar.com, cigars from $3). It's now filled with mahogany chairs, cherrywood cabinets—and a steady stream of hopeful lotto-ticket buyers. "I guess they think our luck might rub off on them," Krotz says. "That would really be the dream come true—to sell someone else a big winner." -Andrea Minarcek

8. CEDAR KEY, FLORIDA (POPULATION 896)

Unspoiled on the Gulf
If someone asked you where to get the best New England clam chowder, you might be inclined to say, "Duh, New England." You'd be wrong—by over 1,000 miles. For the past three years, the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I., has been won by Tony's Seafood Restaurant of Cedar Key (597 2nd St., tonyschowder.com, cup $4.65). In fact, the town is America's second-largest producer of farmed clams, one of many surprises in this two-square-mile hamlet 130 miles north of Tampa. Despite its prime location on the Gulf of Mexico, Cedar Key has escaped the pull of developers-its spit of beach isn't long enough to attract large-scale building projects. Instead, it still feels like a ramshackle, old fishing village straight out of Hemingway. "People always say it's like Key West 30 years ago," says innkeeper Ada Lang. Built in 1919 and restored in 2004, Ada's Wabi Sabi Cottage is a time-capsule example of a "Cracker" cottage, a style of wood-frame house popular in the 19th century (689 4th St., 352/543-5696, from $130).

The last time outside developers set their sights on Cedar Key was in the late 1880s, when pencil makers carted off the island's namesake cedars. (There's still a bit left in the worn wooden exteriors of tackle shops and clam shacks on Dock Street.) If you're looking to catch your own lunch, Kayak Cedar Keys offers boats specially equipped with rod holders and anchors, perfect for whiling away hours in search of redfish and trout (kayakcedarkeys.com, rentals $50 per day). Weary paddlers can rest up at Point Cottage, an octagonal stilt house overlooking Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (12218 Franko Circle, pointcottage.com, $179 a night, sleeps six). And there's always dinner at Tony's. The menu is extensive, but don't you dare skip the chowder: The recipe has been entered into the Great Chowder Cook-Off Hall of Fame. -N.D.

9. RIPON, WISCONSIN (POPULATION 7,733)

College Town Perfection
They must have made odd neighbors: the Utopian Socialists on the prairie and the entrepreneurial abolitionists up on the hill. The socialists lived on a commune. The abolitionists later founded the Republican party. And yet, in the 1850s, they joined forces to found Ripon (the town) and then Ripon (the college). Town and gown have been intertwined ever since, proudly perched in the middle of the cornfields 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

In some college towns, the locals and students get along like rivals at the Michigan-Ohio State football game. Not in Ripon. The professors sit on the local school board. The students sing in the church choirs, and church folk welcome the school's 1,000 or so students with a potluck every fall. Friday evenings in summer, across from the college president's office in the old public library, townies and academics alike turn out for concerts on the Village Green. "My favorite is Tuba Dan's polka band," says Professor Mary Avery, who oversees a student group that helps local businesses, such as the Watson Street Sub Shop, create financial plans (314 Watson St., watsonstreetsubs.com, subs from $6.75). Watson Street in turn lets the students use its storefront for fund-raisers. "We are the quintessential college town," says David Joyce, president of Ripon. "Or maybe it should be the quintessential town with a college?" -D.W.

10. GREENSBURG, KANSAS (POPULATION 777)

The Real Emerald City
When you pull into Greensburg, you may well think you're not in Kansas anymore: Elegant wind turbines and LED streetlights have replaced cornfields and barns. After a 2007 tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, those who stayed vowed to build the ecofriendliest town ever. "Being green is such a part of our identity that people assume we changed our name after the storm," says Ruth Ann Wedel, site manager of GreenTown, the city's rebuilding campaign. (For the record, the "green" comes from stagecoach driver D.R. Green.) Like the name, the idea of going green dates back further than you'd expect. "These are not hippie-dippy concepts," says Stacy Barnes, director of the 5.4.7 Arts Center (204 W. Wisconsin Ave., 547artscenter.org, free). "These are the same tenets used in pioneer days—south-facing windows in chicken coops to increase sunlight, reusing everything like Mennonites do. We got lazy over the past century." The gallery, named for the day the storm hit, houses contemporary art from around the U.S.

Many businesses here pay tribute to the past. Green Bean Coffee Co. serves milkshakes to fill the void left by the destruction of the old soda fountain (105 E. Kansas Ave., notyourmommascoffee.com, shakes $3.50). Nearby, you'll find innovations both high-tech (solar panels) and low (banisters made from tractor parts) at the Silo Eco-Home B&B (402 S. Sycamore St., 620/723-2790, doubles from $110). Just goes to show: It's not so hard being green after all. -N.D.

Keep reading
Inspiration

World's Weirdest Hotels 3.0

1. LA VILLA HAMSTER, NANTES, FRANCE Ever wonder what life is like for a hamster? If so, you're not alone—ever since it opened in 2009, La Villa Hamster has been booked almost every night. The owners, a local businessman and an interior designer, spared no expense when it came to the details of their property, an unusual addition to the town of Nantes in western France. Wrought iron has been affixed to the walls to suggest a cage, and, if they so choose, guests can drink water out of a tube attached to the side of the wall. Naturally, there's a large, fully functioning hamster wheel (consider it the hotel's gym) located on one side of the cage, ahem, room. 011-33/6-64-20-31-09, uncoinchezsoi.net, doubles from $136. • Photos of La Villa Hamster 1 of 2 2. CAN SLEEP, LAKE SKANDERBORG, DENMARK Beer lovers of the world unite at Lake Skanderborg for a full-immersion experience: drinking by day and sleeping in a giant beer can by night. No, we weren't imbibing the sudsy stuff when we found this one. The collection of 121 aluminum Royal Unibrew beer cans is known as Can Sleep, and it's only open one month out of the year during the Skanderborg Music Festival every August. The cans are clustered in sections of six (six pack, get it?), and each has a loft and is 12 feet high with a "lid" that cracks open. The loft is the sleeping area, and the Ikea furniture-bedecked bottom floor is a living-room-type space, complete with a minibar that's restocked each day with Royal Unibrew products. 011-45/8793-4444, smukfest.dk, doubles from $336. • Photo of Can Sleep 1 of 1 3. PALACIO DE SAL, BOLIVIA If you're one of those people who believe you can never have too much salt, then we've got the place for you. The luxurious Salt Palace, located on Bolivia's vast salt flats, is made entirely out of the mineral. From floor to ceiling, including the walls, beds, and chairs, it's all salt, all of the time. And the 16-room property offers dishes like salt-encrusted lamb, of course. Sufferers of high blood pressure should probably look elsewhere for a room. 011-591/2- 62-2951, palaciodesal.com.bo, doubles from $135. • Photos of Palacio de Sal 1 of 3 4. FREE SPIRIT SPHERES, VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA A whole new approach to tree houses has taken shape in an old-growth forest on Vancouver Island. Set on five acres, Free Spirit Spheres consists of three pods (made of cedar, spruce, or fiberglass, respectively) that are suspended 10 to 15 feet in the air and accessed by staircases that wind around the trees. The heated interiors are surprisingly comfy—and are even equipped with an iPod docking station. The pods sway gently, so those prone to motion sickness should take note. But look at it this way: At least a bear or other wild beast won't be able to get you. 250/757-9445, freespiritspheres.com, doubles from $135. • Photos of Free Spirit Spheres 1 of 2 5. HOTEL UTTER INN, SWEDEN What's so weird about this pint-size property in Sweden? At first glance, the one-room hotel appears to be a cheery red house in the middle of the lake—yes, it's in the middle of a body of water but how strange is that, really? Don't be fooled: The room isn't actually in the house; it's 10 feet underwater. It's also the only functioning underwater hotel that started out as an art installation. Designed by artist Mikael Genberg, the 10-year-old inn's sole room consists of two twin beds with panoramic windows on all sides. There is no electricity, but there is lighting and a portable gas heater. When ready to come up for air, guests can relax on the deck or take the dinghy out to one of the nearby uninhabited islands. 011-46/21-39-0100, vasterasmalarstaden.se, from $328 for two people, open April–Oct. • Photos of Hotel Utter Inn 1 of 2 6. HOTEL KAKSLAUTTANEN, FINLAND It's hard enough to pronounce "Kakslauttanen" sober, so don't even think about attempting it after a shot of Finlandia vodka (we do, however, recommend a few glasses of the stuff to keep warm while staying at this Finnish resort near the North Pole). The snow igloos here are cool (pun intended), but what really caught our eye were the futuristic glass igloos, which guarantee unrestricted views of the aurora borealis from the comfort of your zebra-striped bed; the phenomenon turns the night sky dazzling shades of green, red, and blue from late August to April. (The special thermal glass doesn't frost over—even if outdoor temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius.) Staff supply wool socks and down sleeping bags for guests who opt for one of the 12 "real" igloos, where the interior temperature hovers between 21 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit. If you get cold feet, the property also features more conventional accommodations like wood cabins. 011-358/1666-7100, kakslauttanen.fi, glass igloos from $468 for two people. • Photos of Hotel Kakslauttanen 1 of 2 7. JUMBO STAY, STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN For most jet-setters, getting on a big jet plane and going nowhere might seem like a prank of transatlantic proportions. Then again, most people have never boarded Jumbo Stay at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport. The 450 seats on this retired Boeing 747 have been replaced by 27 rooms, all of which, we assure you, have plenty of legroom. To fly really high, book the cockpit-located suite, where you can move the controls and push as many buttons as you'd like without ever worrying about crashing. 011-46/8-593-604-00, jumbostay.com, doubles from $149. • Photos of Jumbo Stay 1of 2 8. LES ROULOTTES DE LA SERVE, PROVENCE, FRANCE Gypsy (Roma) circus performers once traveled through the French countryside in the three restored caravans that now welcome guests at Les Roulottes de la Serve. It's run by Pascal and Pascaline Patin, who bought this lush plot of land for their horses more than 20 years ago. They outfitted the caravans (roulottes) with eclectic bohemian and Indian touches: lanterns, garlands, woven carpets, framed images of deities, and plush armchairs. Guests share bathrooms, a kitchen, and a campfire—a communal setup that's gypsy-like indeed. 011-33/04-74-04-76-40, lesroulottes.com, doubles from $87, open early Apr.–late Oct. • Photos of Les Roulottes de la Serve 1 of 2 9. WIGWAM MOTEL, SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA The Wigwam Motel—located on Route 66—feels less like a place one might commune with Native Americans and more like a quirky stopover on a 1950s road trip. But whatever authenticity this hotel lacks, it makes up for in serious kitsch, starting with the tepees themselves. The western-themed interiors are simple: Each wigwam is outfitted with a wagon-wheel headboard as well as air-conditioning, a 25-inch TV, free Wi-Fi, and an in-tepee bathroom. There's also a kidney-shaped pool, a barbecue pit, and a gift shop stocked with Americana. 909/875-3005, wigwammotel.com, doubles from $66. • Photo of Wigwam Motel 1 of 1 10. ELEPHANT SAFARI PARK HOTEL LODGE, BALI  The first confirmation that you're not at just any old luxury resort comes when pachyderm "chauffeurs" show up to transport you to your room at the Elephant Safari Park Hotel Lodge. The 26-room property is adjacent to an 8.5-acre sanctuary for the largest herd of rescued Sumatran elephants in the world. The rooms feature elephant art—literally painted by the park's pachyderms—and elephant-inspired decor and artifacts. Guests can hang out in the on-site baby nursery and catch the 29 resident Sumatran elephants performing in four shows per day. They roam the property, and you can admire them while you're lounging in the pool or dining in the restaurant. 011-62/36-172-1480, elephantsafariparklodge.com, doubles from $260. • Photos of Elephant Safari Park Hotel Lodge 1 of 2 STILL WEIRD! • A wine cask, a hotel that defies gravity, and more from 2009 • A beagle-shaped B&B, a sewer-pipe hotel and more from 2008 MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL • Photos: 8 New Natural Wonders • Best Places You've Never Heard Of • For more travel inspiration, deals, and news, sign up for our E-mail newsletter

Inspiration

Witness a Total Eclipse

When the moon slides between the earth and the sun at just the right angle to create a total solar eclipse, astonishing things happen: "As the sun disappears, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," says Vicki Buchwald, a dental hygienist from Crystal Lake, Ill. "I've cried and screamed. It's like looking into the eye of God." She and her husband, Greg, an electrical engineer, have traveled to see five eclipses and can't get enough. Let others chase tornadoes or the northern lights; for these fans, there is no better show, and the next one to catch is July 22 (July 21 if you're in the South Pacific). What makes this eclipse extraordinary is that it'll create the longest stretch of darkness in the daytime that the planet will see for more than a hundred years. Even though it takes about three hours for all the phases of an eclipse to unfold, totality (when the moon entirely blocks the sun) is stunningly brief. This year, it'll last up to 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The next one to come close isn't until 2132. Of course, being in the right place at the right time is key. As July's occurrence travels from India to the South Pacific, it will be visible along a 150-mile-wide swath. Since eclipses are lengthiest at the midpoints of their routes, the prime viewing destinations this summer will be on the coast of eastern China, a day trip from Shanghai. There, you'll see how local perceptions have also come a long way: What was once considered a bad omen is now cause for celebration. Eclipse viewing 101 No matter how well you plan, catching an eclipse is a game of chance—clear skies are hard to predict a week ahead, much less months in advance. Nor does it help that the event takes place during monsoon season. Uncontrollables aside, here's how to maximize the marvel: Reach for higher ground Head to a roof or a mountain to get away from buildings and ambient light that interfere with visibility. Wear protection It's safe to look at the sun only when it is completely obscured by the moon. Staring at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can give you retinal burns and even cause temporary or permanent blindness. Regular sunglasses won't protect you, so play it safe and wear a pair of eclipse-viewing glasses—they may look like 3-D movie specs, but they actually contain specialized filters (seymoursolar.com, shades $1.50). Snap away Regular digital and film cameras are fine for capturing the event, as long as you place a filter on your viewfinder to shield your eyes while shooting the partial stages (rainbowsymphonystore.com, filters from $10). For best results, use manual focus, turn off the flash, and remove the filter for totality. First-time viewer? Put down the camera and just take it in. Be at ease Since you'll be staring skyward for hours, bring along snacks and a pillow or a folding chair. Then get comfy. Let them take you there These outfitters are offering expert-led eclipse trips in July: TravelQuest International has a 15-day cruise through the South Pacific with lectures by Harvard astronomy professor Owen Gingerich and former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine Rick Fienberg (800/830-1998, tq-international.com, from $6,995 without airfare). Spears Travel hired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak to head a 10-day trip from Beijing to Shanghai, with stops at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. On July 22, the group will be in the seaside town of Haiyan, on a hotel roof directly in the path of the eclipse (800/688-8031, spearstravel.com, from $3,695 without airfare). Ring of Fire Expeditions called on Paul Maley, expedition coordinator for NASA's Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, to guide a 10-day journey through China and Tibet. The itinerary includes a ride on the Xining–Lhasa train, a visit to the Wolong panda reserve, and an eclipse-viewing at a spot determined by Maley on the day of the event (281/480-1988, eclipsetours.com, from $3,789 without airfare).

Inspiration

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Note: Author J.K. Rowling has created a world filled with unexpected magic and tongue-in-cheek humor. All the details found in this travel guide, written by Steve Vander Ark, come from Rowling's books. If you're curious, you can learn more at Vander Ark's unofficial fan site, harrypotterlexicon.

Inspiration

Mozart Mania Sweeps Vienna

Wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's brief and tempestuous life has all the makings of a rock star biopic--a driven father who paraded him across Europe; an output of more than 600 pieces yielding spectacular successes and flops; a mischievous streak and bouts of profanity, drinking, illness, and poverty; and an untimely death shrouded in conspiracy theories. Stifled by his native, provincial Salzburg, Mozart settled in Vienna for his final 10 years, getting married and composing many of his finest works. He died penniless at 35 while finishing his Requiem, and lies in an unmarked grave at the city's St. Marx Cemetery. Under appreciated by many of his Viennese contemporaries, Mozart gets his due with a yearlong birthday blowout in 2006. EXHIBITIONS Mozarthaus, the composer's home from 1784 to 1787, reopened with a permanent exhibition on his birthday, January 27, 2006. The first floor apartment recreates the family's private rooms while upper floors have a multimedia installation on The Magic Flute, an analysis of the Da Ponte trio--Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, and Le Nozze di Figaro--and insights into Mozart's psyche and circle of friends and patrons. "MOZART. The Enlightenment: An Experiment," on view at the Albertina, March 16 - September 20, is an eclectic show bent on depicting the Enlightenment's heady days and any parallels in the present. Its mishmash of 18th-century and contemporary works includes a giant installation by Klaus Pinter and rococo haute couture. CLASSICAL MUSIC & OPERA Vienna's grand Staatsoper (State Opera) is the city's leading venue for classical music and opera, on par with La Scala in Milan and the Met in New York City. Its Mozart-packed repertory covers Le Nozze di Figaro in April, a kid-friendly "kinderopera" Bastien und Bastienne, April through June, The Abduction from the Seraglio in May, and The Magic Flute and Idomeneo in June. Vienna's Volksoper, second-fiddle to the Staatsoper, is staging The Magic Flute and the ballet Nicht nur Mozart, March - June, and La Clemenza di Tito, April - May. After a summer break, the season starts up again with Don Giovanni in September and Così Fan Tutte in December. During its heyday, the Theater an der Wien premiered blockbuster operas such as Mozart's The Magic Flute and Beethoven's Fidelio. After years of showing musicals, the Theater has reopened as an opera venue just in time for a Mozart spree. April brings the OsterKlang Wien (Sound of Easter) showcasing Mozart's The Obligation of the First Commandment--composed when he was 11--and his final three symphonies. In May and June, the Vienna Festival puts on two of Mozart's most popular operas, The Magic Flute and Così Fan Tutte, and there's a coproduction of Idomeneo with the Vienna State Opera through June. In July and August, the KlangBogen Festival features Don Giovanni and Die Flammen; American choreographer John Neumeier presents a dance piece inspired by Mozart's Requiem. The Theater concludes Mozart's birthday year with another go at his final three symphonies, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic in early December. Home to the Vienna Philharmonic, the Musikverein concert hall has an extensive, ongoing lineup of concertos, violin sonatas, and symphonies. The high points are in May: a performance of his oratorio La Betulia Liberata; Cecilia Bartoli singing a program pairing Mozart with his supposed rival, Salieri; and Zubin Mehta conducting the Prague Symphony alongside Mahler's Fifth Symphony. On the day of Mozart's death, December 5, the Philharmonic plays his Mass in C Minor. FESTIVALS & MORE Marionettentheater Schloss Schonbrunn mounts both full-fledged and abbreviated "kinder" productions of Mozart's The Magic Flute with lavishly costumed marionettes, March - September. Mozart is the theme of this year's free Rathausplatz Music Film Festival, July 1 - September 3, held on the imposing City Hall's lawn. Ballets based on the composer's works, documentaries of his life, and screenings of international opera performances as well as the Oscar-winning film Amadeus are on deck. American theater and opera director Peter Sellars (not to be confused with the late British comedian Peter Sellers!) is spearheading the New Crowned Hope festival, November 14 - December 11. Sellars has called on artists from the worlds of music, opera, visual arts, and film to reinterpret themes from three masterpieces Mozart composed in his final year: The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, and Requiem. For more goings-on in Vienna and Salzburg, visit mozart2006.net.

ADVERTISEMENT