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10 Coolest Small Towns: Yellow Springs

By Peter Mandel
August 2, 2008
These towns all have fewer than 10,000 people—but they can rival larger cities when it comes to good food, culture, and quality of life.

Yellow Springs, Ohio
Population: 3,675
Nearest City: Dayton, 21 miles

Yellow Springs has been a beacon for artists, activists, and creative thinkers since progressive Antioch College opened in 1852. "You can breathe here and feel very comfortable expressing yourself," says Kim Korkan, co-owner of The Winds Cafe & Bakery, which serves dishes using ingredients mostly from local farms (215 Xenia Ave., 937/767-1144, windscafe.com, rhubarb halibut $24).

Although the college was forced to close this summer because of financial problems, Yellow Springs is thriving: The main drag, Xenia Avenue, is lined with shops, cafés, restaurants, and galleries. No Common Scents sells more than 250 varieties of herbs and spices from across the globe (1525 Xenia Ave., 937/767-4261, nocommonscents.com), and Clemente Ullmer's shop, La Llama Place, is stocked with crafts from South America (224 Xenia Ave., 937/767-8650, lallama­place.com). Across town, the Yellow Springs Dharma Center, a Buddhist retreat draped in Tibetan prayer flags, holds meditation and chanting sessions (502 Livermore St., 937/767-9919, ysdharma.org).

Public art has taken on a new meaning in the town, as well. One day, knitting appeared wrapped around a tree downtown, and soon passersby were bringing yarn to add to it. Now, the signposts up and down Xenia Avenue are covered with knitted "graffiti."

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10 Coolest Small Towns: Manitou Springs

Manitou Springs, Colo. Population: 5,038 Nearest City: Colorado Springs, 6 miles One of the things Fred Mutter loves most about Manitou Springs, where he relocated three years ago, is that its residents come from all walks of life. "There's a huge range of people who live here, from scientists and businessmen to new-age hippies," he says. "It's really an eclectic group." His store fits right in: Kinfolks Mountain Shop sells outdoor gear, but it's also a bar and live-music venue (950 Manitou Ave., 719/685-4433, kinfolksmanitou.com). In fact, you won't find any chain stores in the Victorian-era buildings crammed into the narrow valley at the foot of Pikes Peak. WeUsOur Artists Market has unusual art on display, such as giant pottery teapots and portraits painted with coffee (10 Ruxton Ave., 719/685-9702), while Cripple Creek Dulcimers & Guitars is run by a tie-dye-wearing former mayor, Bud Ford, who bears a striking resemblance to the late Jerry Garcia (740 Manitou Ave., 719/685-9655, dulcimer.net). At The Maté Factor café, wraps of hormone-free turkey share the menu with maté, a beverage popular in South America (966 Manitou Ave., 719/685-3235, matefactor.com, wrap $5). Last year, the town's 19th-century former bathhouse was renovated into lofts and a restaurant, Adam's Mountain Café, which offers a hodgepodge of cuisines, including African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian (934 Manitou Ave., 719/685-1430, adamsmountain.com, jerked chicken $19). > See photos of the coolest small towns > See available real estate in the coolest small towns

Trouble in Paradise?

After Kenya's opposition leader lost a disputed presidential election in December, the country descended into chaos. Tribal mobs attacked each other with machetes and clubs in the countryside, while in Nairobi, residents burned tires in the streets. Although none of the thousands of foreign tourists in the country at the time were attacked, many travelers were unprepared to deal with the crisis, as Kenya had been long regarded as one of the safest and most stable countries in Africa. Australian photographer Paul Allen, his wife, and his sister were driving through the Rift Valley at the time and were told by locals that they'd be able to make it to the border. Over the next day, however, they crashed their Land Rover through several roadblocks manned by armed thugs. "If we knew what we know now, we would have done things differently," Allen says. "Given the advice we had at the time, we did what we could." Do your homework Educate yourself about where you'll be going. The State Department's website has information on the security situation in every country, including specific regions to avoid, the dangers you might encounter, and how you will be viewed as an American (travel.state.gov/travel). In addition, read up on the latest news about the country, as this will give you a more comprehensive picture of the place. If you're going on a tour, make sure your operator has an emergency contingency plan and find out what the company will do to protect you. Some operators hired armed guards to take tourists to the airport during the turmoil in Kenya, and others changed itineraries, at no extra cost, to avoid trouble spots. "Any reputable tour company will go above and beyond to make sure that its travelers are taken care of," says Sarah Fazendin, head of the Fazendin Portfolio, which represents African tour operators in the U.S. Consider getting insurance When traveling to a country where political disturbances are possible, look into buying travel insurance. Companies like AIG Travel Guard (travelguard.com) and Travelex Insurance Services (travelexinsurance.com) have policies that offer partial or full reimbursement of your trip if it's interrupted or canceled—just make sure that terrorism and political unrest are covered. Both companies will also change your flights for you and arrange to have you transported to the airport in case of an emergency. You can buy insurance directly from the agencies or through a brokerage firm such as Travel Insurance Center, which will help you select a plan from 14 companies—and it doesn't charge a fee (travelinsurancecenter.com). Keep your distance Even if a demonstration looks peaceful, stay far away. In some countries, the police respond to protesters with water cannons, tear gas, and violence. And there's always the chance that an angry crowd could turn on you simply because you're a foreigner. The last thing you want to do if dramatic events are unfolding around you is to snap a few photos with your camera. During the clashes between soldiers and Buddhist monks in Myanmar last year, a Japanese journalist who was filming the action with his video camera was shot and killed by police in Yangon. Don't bet on an evacuation U.S. embassies will evacuate tourists only if commercial flights have stopped running, and that usually takes a war or a major terrorist attack. (Tourists were not evacuated during the worst of the strife in Kenya, for instance.) And even if an evacuation is ordered, you shouldn't expect to leave the country right away. When war between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israel broke out in Lebanon in 2006, the U.S. government didn't evacuate the first large group of Americans until a full week after the conflict started. "The biggest mistake people make is thinking that the embassy will get them out of the country immediately," says Robert Young Pelton, author of The World's Most Dangerous Places. "But the embassy works on its own schedule." The flight will also cost you—the government bases the amount on the going rate for a commercial plane ticket. Most travel insurance policies cover evacuation flights, but some companies, such as Travelex, will not reimburse you if there was a State Department travel warning for the country when you booked your ticket. Find a spot to wait "My advice is just to stay put—it usually takes about a week for these things to blow over," says Pelton. The best hotel in town is often the safest place to be in a crisis. Major hotels have ample supplies of food and water, and generators in case the power fails. American-brand hotels will also likely be in constant contact with the U.S. Embassy, so you'll be quickly apprised of changes in the country's security situation, and you'll be in a good location if there's an evacuation. During the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, the airport was shut down after it was bombed, and many tourists holed up at their hotels in Beirut. "Most of them were just sitting on the hotel balcony with a drink," says Pelton.

Uncharted Isles

WALES Skomer Island The secret is out about Skomer—among birds, anyway. Nearly half a million puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars, and razorbills build nests in the lichen-covered cliffs of the 721-acre nature reserve off mainland Wales. The birds far outnumber the dozen or so humans on Skomer, just a 15-minute ferry ride from the town of Martin's Haven (Dale Sailing, 011-44/1646-603-123, $18 round trip). Crisscrossed with hiking trails, the island is protected by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. A maximum of 250 people may visit per day, but there's only room for 15 overnight guests in a converted barn (shown here) where scientists conduct most of their research (011-44/1239-621-600, welshwildlife.org, $139). If you visit between May and July, when the majority of birds are nesting, you'll hear the eerie serenade of the rare Manx shearwater; there are more than 200,000 of them on Skomer. "They have this really wacky call, like a crazy chicken crossed with a pigeon," says Jo Milborrow, the island's wildlife warden. "The legend is that they're the souls of sailors." —Amy Laughinghouse NICARAGUA Corn Islands Even the pirates of the Caribbean took a vacation from plundering, and to this day, their hideaway has remained a fairly hidden treasure. Forty miles off mainland Nicaragua, the Corn Islands are still populated by the descendants of buccaneers. On Great Corn Island—one-hour La Costeña flights depart daily from Managua (011-505/263-2142, from $164)—the only attractions are sand and sea, including a reef that surrounds a 400-year-old Spanish galleon. "If you get bored here, then you don't know how to unwind," says Jeff Johnson, an expat from Washington, D.C. "Not doing anything is the point." Great Corn is a metropolis compared with the 1.4-square-mile Little Corn Island. The $6 ferry from Great Corn drops you off near the two best places to stay: Hotel Los Delfines (011-505/820-2242, hotellosdelfines.com.ni, from $50) and Casa Iguana, which relies on solar power because of spotty electricity (casaiguana.net, from $35). Despite the wonky infrastructure, Little Corn has pockets of sophistication: Paola Carminiani serves up a taste of her Italian homeland with three-course dinners at Farm, Peace & Love (farmpeacelove.com, $15). Just bring a flashlight so you can find your way back through the jungle. —Paul Katz GREECE Kíthira Island Mythical characters dwell everywhere on Kíthira, just eight miles off the tip of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Here's the pool where Aphrodite bathed. Over there, you can see the cave where Helen and Paris are believed to have sought refuge. Except for the six weeks starting in mid-July, Kíthira is a sleepy place with compact medieval villages that are home to ancient grain mills, Byzantine chapels, and cheerful wooden beehives that are painted yellow, blue, or white. (Kíthira's thyme-scented honey is so coveted that the annual production sells out within weeks.) Lodging on the island consists of small hotels and inns. In the whitewashed capital of Chora (shown here), the 12-room Hotel Margarita faces the sea (hotel-margarita.com, from $111). An even better base for exploring is one of the villages in the center, such as Mitata, where a beekeeper has opened Aplinori, an inn where guests can learn how to make honey and cheese (011-30/27-36-033-010, from $79 including breakfast). One-hour Olympic Airlines flights to Kíthira depart daily from Athens (800/223-1226, olympicairlines.com, $263 round trip). —Ann Banks AUSTRALIA Rottnest Island The name Rottnest is unsuitable for such a beautiful place—after all, the island has more than 60 white-sand beaches. Blame Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh, who discovered the island in 1696, mistook the marsupial quokkas for rats, and named the place "rat's nest." After a 70-year stretch as a penal colony, the island, 12 miles off mainland Australia, has become a popular day trip from Perth (rottnestexpress.com.au, $66 round trip). The best way to tour the salt lakes in the interior is to rent a bicycle through Rottnest Bike Hire (rottnestisland.com, $17 per day). The reefs around the island are great for snorkeling; Oceanic Cruises leads excursions to shipwrecks off Kingston Reef (oceaniccruises.com.au, from $22). Most visitors come just for the day, but there are lodgings—cabins and bungalows (shown here) managed by the island authority (rottnestisland.com, from $41). Before heading back to catch the ferry, stop for some Victoria Bitter beer and a platter of fish, scallops, and oysters at the Rottnest Tearooms Bar & Café (011-61/8-9292-5171, rottnesttearooms.com). —Justin Bergman FRENCH POLYNESIA Fakarava Island The island's single road wasn't paved until 2003, in anticipation of a visit by then French president Jacques Chirac (he never arrived, nor did he give a reason why). But that certainly helped put Fakarava on the map—unlike its more populated neighbors Bora-Bora and Tahiti, Fakarava is home to about 500 residents. In the center of Rotoava village is the Relais Marama, the one pension in town with oceanfront bungalows (relais-marama.com, from $106). For divers and snorkelers, the northern Garuae Pass and the southern Tumakohua Pass have pristine coral reefs that are accessible through outfitter Te Ava Nui (divingfakarava.com, from $80). You'll have to travel for a full day to get to and from Tumakohua—the pass is only reachable by boat—but it's worth the trip. The nearby village of Tetamanu has a church built entirely out of coral, as well as several black-pearl farms that give free tours. A pension on the outskirts of Rotoava, Pearl Guest House Havaiki, will even allow you to snorkel to its oyster farm with the owner and keep any pearls you find (011-689/93-40-15, havaiki.com, tours from $40). One-hour flights to Fakarava depart from Papeete, Tahiti, once daily (airtahiti.com, from $437 round trip). —Lynwood Lord INDONESIA Sumba Island Legend has it that Sumba's first inhabitants descended a ladder from heaven, but as soon as their feet hit the ground, they started battling. The natives' reputation convinced European traders to avoid the island in southern Indonesia, leaving it relatively undeveloped for centuries. The warrior culture lives on in the annual Pasola ritual war festival held each February and March, in which horsemen from various tribes joust using spears. For more mellow activities, the island's southern coast has great surfing—12-foot swells are not uncommon—and a community-minded (although expensive) resort called Nihiwatu. The hotel has day trips to nearby villages, where you can chew betel nut with the locals, buy colorful ikat cloth, and volunteer at a clinic funded by the resort (nihiwatu.com, day tours from $25). The more affordable Sumba Nautil Resort is down the coast (sumbanautilresort1.com, from $116). One-hour Transnusa Air Service flights to Sumba depart from Bali (transnusa.co.id, $207 round trip). —Susan Crandell PERU Amantaní Island Few places have a welcoming committee quite like the one on Amantaní, an island in Lake Titicaca: Aymara Indian women wearing embroidered black tunics line the dock and wave to visitors as they disembark from the ferry arriving from the city of Puno. After living in relative isolation for centuries, residents on the island began to allow overnight stays about 10 years ago. There are no cars or roads, and quinoa and barley are grown by hand—as they have been for centuries—on hillside terraces. Stone hiking paths lead to the island's two highest peaks, Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth). During the Fiesta de la Santa Tierra each January, the residents form dual processions from temples built atop Pachamama and Pachatata to the main village, also called Amantaní, where everyone dances late into the night. Tour operator Edgar Adventures will arrange farmstays with several families that take turns hosting visitors (edgaradventures.com, $27 including the four-hour ferry ride). "The Aymara live simply on what they produce," says guide Fredy Manrique. "It made me realize that you can be happy with very little—that you don't necessarily need to have big houses and cars." —Justin Bergman

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