America's Coolest Small Towns 2014

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
March 2, 2014
Courtesy Worcester County Tourism
Who wouldn’t want to live in the Coolest Small Town in America? Budget Travel's 9th annual contest saw some of the liveliest competition ever, with some of the nicest folks you'll ever meet creating videos, songs, and mobilizing their fans all in the name of getting their town to the top. Here, the results.

#1 Berlin, MD

(Population: 4,563)

If you found yourself admiring the scenery in the films Tuck Everlasting and The Runaway Bride and thought to yourself, why can't I live somewhere as beautiful as that, you might consider visiting Berlin, MD, where both movies were shot. Not far from Maryland's teeming Ocean City and gorgeous Assateague Island, Berlin's downtown is a National Register Historic District and plays host to fun events all year long, from the regular farmers market to one-of-a-kind bashes like the Berlin Fiddlers Convention, New Year's fireworks, Victorian Christmas (complete with horse-drawn carriages), and, yes, even bathtub races. The town draws beach lovers, hikers, kayakers, and bird watchers-and history aficionados will want to stop by Merry Sherwood Plantation, Taylor House Museum, and the historic downtown.   

#2 Cazenovia, NY

(Population: 2,756)

If Central New York isn't already on your travel radar, get ready for a big, and very pleasant, surprise! Cazenovia, on the shores of Cazenovia Lake, may make you feel like you've discovered the perfect small town you thought didn't really exist. Start with a stroll down Albany Street to get a sense of the community's long history, with architectural styles dating back to New York's colonial days. The Scottish-themed Brae Loch Inn only increases your sense of having escaped the "real world" (or at least its cares), and the inn serves an exceptional Sunday brunch.  

#3 Buckhannon, WV

(Population: 5,645)

Whether you're rafting down the Buckhannon River, delving into local Civil War History at the Latham House, or tucking into a "hot belly" BBQ pork sandwich at CJ Maggies American Grill, Buckhannon is a charming host. Smack dab in the heart of West Virginia, Buckhannon received the most nominations of any town in this year's Coolest Small Towns preliminary round. With an artsy Main Street (with specialty shops, antiques, and galleries), historic downtown, and a paradise for nature and wildlife lovers just outside of town, Buckhannon just may be "the little town that could."  

#4 Travelers Rest, SC

(Population: 4,750)

Travelers Rest gets its travel-mag-ready moniker from the pioneer days, when travelers followed a trail dotted with the occasional tavern or inn. But the town offers not only restful, comfy lodgings but also world-class outdoor activities. Nearby state parks and bike trails (including the legendary 13.5-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail) basically invite you stay outdoors all day long. TR's vibrant downtown is the place to browse for antiques, sip from artisanal coffee, and indulge in Southern faves like BBQ, fried chicken, and waffles. We congratulate Travelers Rest on its succeeding in making the Coolest Small Towns list of 15 finalists for the second year running!

#5 Mathews, VA

(Population: 8,884)

Mathews is not just a town but also Virginia's second smallest county, with just 84 square miles and no traffic lights. But we know "small" and "cool" go together like beaches and cottages. Speaking of which, Mathews includes miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline that make it a prime summer destination for beachgoers, bird watchers, cyclists, fishermen, and kayakers. The General Store of your small-town dreams has been converted into a visitor center that's also devoted to the work of local artists. Don't miss Point Comfort Lighthouse, and the overflowing seafood (including fresh fish, blue crab, clams, oysters, and mussels).

#6 Nevada City, CA

(Population: 3,046)

Nevada City may be a little off the beaten path (60 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), but residents value the Gold Country town for its music and art scene, food, and proximity to some of California's amazing rivers, lakes, and the Sierras. For live music, locals swear by the Miners Foundry. For a Sundance feel without the hordes, savor the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. And if you're hankering for a pro cycling race and don't plan on dropping in on the Tour de France anytime soon, hightail it to the Nevada City Classic.  

#7 Rockport, TX

(Population: 9.133)

Never heard of Rockport? Well, we hadn't either, which just means it's now not only a candidate for Coolest Small Town but also for one of our best-kept secrets. Here, artists, saltwater fishermen, and birdwatchers have been lured to Texas's warm Gulf coast. That combination of activities and interests makes Rockport that kind of town where people return summer after summer for vacation; and many of them eventually decide to relocate permanently to this friendly place. Rockport is also home to the Texas Maritime Museum, the Rockport Center for the Arts (with changing monthly exhibits by local artists), and of course beautiful Rockport Beach.  

#8 Estes Park, CO

(Population: 6,017)

When your town is the headquarters for Rocky Mountain National Park, you've got a pretty good head start on other cool burghs. Skiing and snowshoeing the surrounding mountains is a must in winter, and rafting, fishing, and wildlife viewing are on tap in warmer months (if you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of the iconic bighorn sheep with its curved horns). Speaking of "on tap," the area abounds with craft breweries and excellent wineries, plus world-class dishes prepared by imaginative chefs that belie the small-town environment. The best news of all may be the, in the wake of last fall's devastating flooding, 90 percent of the area's lodging, restaurants, and attractions are open for business. (Estes Park invites you to "Stay Strong," with proceeds from your stay helping to fund recovery efforts.)   

#9 Galena, IL

(Population: 3,400)

Nestled among rolling hills along Illinois's Galena River, this bustling town has a thriving downtown with unique boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Visit one of the area's three local wineries, hike the easy, beautiful hills just outside town, kayak the gentle rivers, and golf at one of the state's most prized courses. Even non-locals find Galena's history fascinating, with must-sees like the Ulysses Grant Home and Museum, where the Civil War general and 18th president once lived (the museum's exhibits are dedicated to Grant's life and major battles he was involved in, such as the siege of Vicksburg).  

#10 Elkin, NC

(Population: 4,024)

In the lovely Yadkin Valley Wine Region of North Carolina, Elkin is about one hour north of Charlotte in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here, you'll find just about every outdoor activity you might like, including hiking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, bird watching, and cycling. But when you're ready to relax after a day in the wild, the town's galleries, historic sites, shops, theaters, wine trails, and restaurants that offer a wide range of tastes for everyone, from fine dining and gourmet sweets to an old-fashioned soda shoppe with "world famous hotdogs." Fun happenings include the Yadkin Valley Wine Festival, the Yadkin Valley Pumpkin Festival, Elkin Fiddlers music, and fantastic Cruise events.  

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Budget Travel Lists

Our Coolest Contest Ever Ends at Midnight Monday Night!

Wow. Just wow. Budget Travel's Coolest Small Town in America 2014 contest ends Monday night at midnight, and the towns that currently hold the number one and two spots in our voting are sure making things interesting. Berlin, MD, the current frontrunner, has created a music video to promote its campaign, featuring a bluegrass-style song, "Cool Berlin," by Steve Frene (I dare you not to sing along to this catchy ditty). The folks in Berlin also set up a website dedicated to the town's coolness, with a link to our voting page. Meanwhile, in what I like to call "The Tweet Heard 'Round the World," New York State's governor, Andrew Cuomo, endorsed Cazenovia in a Twitter post, urging New Yorkers to rally around the current second-place upstate town. With bragging rights and potential tourism dollars on the line, the mayors of the two towns—two pretty cool fellows themselves—aren't just sitting idly by. Cazenovia's mayor, Kurt Wheeler, and Berlin's mayor, William "Gee" Williams III, have each put a growler of tasty local craft beer on the line. If Berlin wins, Wheeler will deliver a frothy decanter from Cazenovia's Empire Farmstead Brewery. If Cazenovia wins, Williams will serve up suds from Berlin's Burley Oak Brewing Co. You don't have to live in one of our 15 finalists to get in on the action. You have till midnight Monday night to cast your vote for the Coolest Small Town in America. As of Sunday evening, the standings were: 1. Berlin, MD 2. Cazenovia, NY 3. Buckhannon, WV 4. Travelers Rest, SC 5. Mathews, VA 6. Nevada City, CA 7. Rockport, TX 8. Estes Park, CO 9. Galena, IL 10. Elkin, NC 11. Kelleys Island, OH 12. Deadwood, SD 13. Pahoa, HI 14. Huntington Woods, MI 15. Everlades City, FL

Budget Travel Lists

6 of the World's Best Biking Destinations

With spring just around the corner, it's hard not to fantasize about the days when the sun starts to dry the road, offering optimal conditions for hours of cycling. If you're serious about riding, no doubt you have a few go-to spots within an hour or two from home, if not right outside your doorstep. Of course, there are also times when you itch to travel farther afield for a little more adventure. Here, six fantastic travel destinations for cyclists, whether you're ready to pack up your bike and take it across the country—or perhaps across an ocean. Superb Scenery: Villefranche-sur-Mer, FranceThis commune in the south of France is the perfect starting point for exploring the French Riviera by bike. There are several routes you can choose between Nice, which adjoins Villefranche, and Monaco roughly 20km away. As one might expect, the coastal routes are fairly heavy with traffic, but if you take the inland routes, you can ride all day without seeing a single car. And of course, there are the amazingly quaint French villages, which are great for family activities or a post-ride stroll. A must-visit on this trip is Èze, a small village on the cliffs above Monaco, where there are amazing walking paths, lovely cafes, and of course, great wine. Unexpected Solitude: Malibu, CaliforniaYou probably wouldn't think of Los Angeles as a cycling-friendly getaway, but you'd be surprised. Once you get into the mountains above Malibu, you can really disappear. And there's virtually no traffic up there—definitely not what one expects in L.A. It's a great place to train, because there's lots of climbing and the weather is great year-round. There are also many camping options in the area, and the kids will love the beaches. Plus, it's not too far from the hustle and bustle, in case you want to go out for incredible Mexican or super-fresh sushi after a long day of riding. Country Roads: Greenville, South CarolinaI may be a little biased, because I live in Greenville, but it really does offer some of the best riding on the east coast. Plus, the area has plenty to offer for other outdoor sports as well, including some beautiful hiking trails. You can ride straight from downtown and be at Paris Mountain in 20 minutes and there are countless miles of country roads to choose from. On a single visit, you could easily go without riding the same road twice. Downtown is also home to tons of of bars and restaurants downtown—two of my favorites are the Sip rooftop wine bar and Soby's. And of course, you'll find plenty of nice places to rest your head, including Hotel Domestique. A True Escape: ColombiaColombia is still way off-the-beaten path for a lot of travelers, but it's truly a unique destination worth exploring—especially by bike. The people here are some of the nicest I've ever met, and if you know the right places and the right people, you can really have some great support along the roads. Cycling is the second largest sport in the country (behind football—as in soccer—of course), and the scenery is as varied as it is spectacular. Also, two words: The Andes. If you're after challenging climbs, this is the perfect spot. Post-ride Relaxing: Blackberry Farm, TennesseeBlackberry Farm resort reallly is in the middle of nowhere, so you can imagine the kind of traffic you'll find on the surrounding roads (read: little to none). The roads themselves are great: it's a fairly hilly area, and you can ride a nice climb from the resort up into the nearby state parks. Of all the cycling trips I've taken, Blackberry Farm offers the best place to unwind, thanks largely to their amazing spa. Who wouldn't want a massage after a long day of riding? Cycling on the Side: Gargas, FranceProvence is one of best places to ride if you're not really looking for a lot of climbing. The area features plenty of easy riding for all levels. In addition to being bike-friendly, Gargas offers plenty of indulgent activities for the whole family. Stroll around vineyards, eat world-class food, or have lunch by the pool at La Coqillad's bar. George Hincapie is one of the most recognized professional cyclists in the world with numerous national championships and professional victories to his credit. He has traveled around the world devoting time to his passion for riding and has created a line of custom professional sportswear for cyclists, available at More recently, along with his brother Rich, the Hincapies opened Hotel Domestique in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills, drawing inspiration from George's world travels.

Budget Travel Lists

6 Ways To Save On A Ski Vacation

Winter is calling your name and the athletes of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have left you inspired. You're ready for a halfpipe or some fast downhill tracks of your own, but unlike sponsored professional athletes, you're going to have to pay your own way to get there. Whether you're young and on a budget, looking to bring the whole family and not break the bank, or just staying smart with your money, there are several ways to make the almighty dollar stretch further when traveling to a ski resort. Lift Ticket DealsBecause of the season's slow start, lodging and ticket deals are more plentiful than usual. Follow your favorite ski resorts on social media as those are often the channels resorts use to post last minute lift ticket deals—these may come in the form of single-day specials, multi-day passes, or buy-one-lift-ticket-get-one-free deals. Some resorts also offer discounted lift tickets when you show your season pass from another resort, an enticing way to get you to ski with them, rather than with the resort that issued the original pass. Of course, if you're not interested in social media, there are traditional ways to find a deal, such as searching the resort's website or calling and asking, especially regarding multi-day passes. Also keep in mind, the more you ski or ride, the more you save. Family-FriendlyIf you're taking the kids, look for resorts that allow children to ski for free or at a discounted price. Often the discount comes with an age limit, for instance, June Mountain allows kids 12 and under to ski for free. Find out which resorts offer this incentive if youngsters are coming along. It's a great way to save money, especially if they grow tired before the end of the day. You won't be bummed that you purchased a full-price lift ticket that only saw half-day use. Do, however, read the fine print. Often these deals come with blackout dates or the need to purchase a certain number of adult tickets to receive free ones for the kids. Getting and Staying There: Look for Package DealsAir packages and/or discounted room rates for staying more than one night are available at many resorts. If you plan to fly to the ski resort of your choice, look for air package deals, or deals that allow you to purchase a pack of flights. Grab an air pack of six flights, use four with the family and have two left over for a second trip down the road—maybe for a romantic trip with the spouse or a weekend adventure with friends. As for lodging, planning to stay for more than one or two nights and will often land you a discount. Many resorts also offer lift and lodging packages based on how many nights you stay, so make sure to ask when you're booking your reservations. Mobile AppsWhen choosing a ski resort to visit, find out if they have a mobile deals app to download to your smartphone (for instance, search for Mammoth Lakes Resort Deals and Coupons in the App Store or on Google Play). Not only will it help you find discounts for local restaurants, shopping, and activities, but it will help you navigate your way through a town you may be unfamiliar with or find new ideas for places to check out even if you've been there before. Deals can range from a discount on your bill to a free glass of wine with a meal purchase, and everywhere in between. Visit MidweekWhen at all possible, visit ski resorts midweek. Not only will there be fewer crowds, but resort towns are often trying to fill beds Monday through Thursday. Trust me, you will find discounted prices and deals to reward you for choosing to visit in the "off" times. Depending on storm cycles, visiting midweek may also help you find fresh tracks. Less people on the hill means also more pockets of fresh powder waiting just for you. This is especially important if you are traveling with the family and may not be able to make "first chair." When you visit resorts midweek, you'll most likely only be competing for fresh tracks with the locals rather than all of the other visitors who are just as eager as you. Buy Gear NowThink you're going to need some new skis or outerwear soon? Now is the time to buy. Visit a resort for spring skiing and peruse local shops. The closer you get to the end of the season, the bigger the deals you are likely to find. Retailers need to get rid of their inventory to make room for next year's newer and cooler items, so you could really score; even more so if the family is with you—update everyone for half the price. This article was written by John Urdi, the Executive Director of Mammoth Lakes Tourism in Mammoth Lakes, California, home of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. He has spent 28 years in the ski industry at resorts across the country.

Budget Travel Lists

5 Places Every Beatles Fan Should Visit

Whether you're a die-hard Beatles fan (like me) or just becoming aware of the musical genius that is the Beatles, we've got five places every Beatlemaniac should visit, whether you're planning a trip to London, a pilgrimage to Liverpool, or happen to be in the New York City area. IN LONDON The British LibraryWhen I went to London for Contiki's London and Paris tour two years ago, we were given some free time the first day to check out the city. My first stop? The British Library, one of London's best—and free—attractions, where you can view napkins and old birthday cards covered in scribbled lyrics to now-famous Beatles songs that John, Paul, and George had jotted down whenever inspiration hit them. Stop by the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to view lyrics from "Help," "A Hard Day's Night," "Yesterday," "Michelle," and "Ticket to Ride," among others, and to view photos of The Beatles with original bandmates Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. You can also see an original Beatles fan club membership card, a 1963 Christmas record cover, and listen to your favorite Beatles songs via headphones while you check out the memorabilia—just don't try to take any photos. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the Gallery, also home to popular British artifacts including The Magna Carta. Free. Abbey RoadThere comes a time in every Beatles fan's life when this photo just needs to be taken. Grab your friends, hop on the Tube's Jubilee line to the St. John's Wood station, and take a 5-10 minute walk down Grove End Road to Abbey Road Studios, the place where the magic happened. Chances are you'll spot the crowd lined up to cross the street long before you see the Studio, so join in the Beatles-inspired merriment and help a fellow pilgrim get the perfect shot (they'll most likely assist you as well). A word of caution: this is an active street and there are cars full of people going about their day who will honk at you for blocking the road, so work together and wait for gaps before jumping into the middle of the road. No photo is worth compromising your safety, but with a little patience and creativity, it works. After your moment of Beatles-fan glory, walk by the Abbey Road Studios entrance gate to read song lyrics and graffiti messages left by thousands of fans from around the world, all lovingly written in sharpie along the front wall. Free. IN LIVERPOOL The Beatles Story If you're making a Beatles pilgrimage day-trip to Liverpool and short on time, The Beatles Story is the perfect way to get your fix before heading back to London. Located along the Liverpool Waterfront's Albert Dock, the museum offers several exhibits that let you look behind the scenes of Beatlemania—view 38 black and white images taken by photographer Paul Berriff between 1963 and 1964, the height of Beatlemania; and learn about the lives, music, and history of the Fab Four. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Nov. 1st thru Mar. 31st; open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Apr. 1st thru Oct. 31st. Admission starts at $24 for adults and $14 for children ages 5-16. The Magical Mystery TourAnother great option of you're only in Liverpool for a limited time but want to get in on all the Beatles fanfare is The Magical Mystery Tour, a two-hour guided bus ride through the streets of Liverpool and through Fab Four history. View Ringo Starr's childhood home, St. Peter's Church Hall—where John and Paul first met—John Lennon's childhood home, and schools like the Art College and the Liverpool Institute where the lads were educated. You'll also be able to stop for photo-ops by the Penny Lane sign, outside George Harrison's birthplace, outside Paul McCartney's childhood home, and in Strawberry Field. The tour ends with a trip to the legendary Cavern Club and your ticket includes admission to an evening show. Tours take place from 10:30 a.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. on weekends, daily except on Dec. 25th, 26th, and Jan. 1st. Tickets are from $26 per person. If you wish to see the inside of John and Paul's childhood homes, please consider this National Trust tour of the Beatles' Childhood Homes. IN NEW YORK The Imagine Plaque in Strawberry Fields, Central ParkOne of my all-time favorite spots in the Big Apple is Strawberry Fields in Central Park, home to the Imagine plaque, a must-see for anyone who is a Beatles fan. Located across the street from the Dakota, the former home of John Lennon and current home of Yoko Ono, the Imagine plaque can be found along Central Park West between 71st and 74th Streets, just inside Central Park. Fans can be seen daily leaving flowers on the plaque, taking photos of it or on it, and otherwise paying homage to the legendary Beatle. For a special treat, visit the site on December 8th, the anniversary of John Lennon's death, to see hundreds of people—New Yorkers and tourists alike—gathering with instruments to sing and play Beatles songs day and night in John Lennon's honor. Truly an amazing experience. Free.