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America's Coolest Small Towns

September 4, 2009
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Every now and then, you stumble upon a town that's gotten everything right—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. These 10 spots have it all, in perfectly small doses.

CAYUCOS, CALIFORNIA (pop. 3,000)
serious waves and serious food

About halfway between San Francisco and L.A., Cayucos is everything you want in a mellow beach town—an anomaly on the increasingly built-up coast. While the vibe is decidedly relaxed, two things get residents fired up: serious waves and serious food. Surfer Wade Rumble bridges both worlds as owner of Rogue Wave Cafe, where most mornings, after drying off his board, he sells fair-trade, organic coffee beans (72 S. Ocean Ave., roguewavecafe.com). Just off Highway 1, Cayucos requires a dedicated detour, which has helped it remain untouched. "We have beautiful beaches and beautiful people," says Christa Hozie, who runs Brown Butter Cookie Company with her sister Traci Nickson; the duo make super-addictive sea-salt-topped cookies (250 N. Ocean Ave., brownbuttercookies.com, $13/dozen). "I came to visit three years ago and thought it was such a magical place," explains Hozie. Grace Lorenzen had a similar reaction. She moved back to the Central Coast from Seattle in 2002 and now manages the five-room Cass House Inn (222 N. Ocean Ave., casshouseinn.com, from $165). The restored 1860s Victorian has a fitting soundtrack for the coastal town: the lulling surf. Mario López-Cordero

LEXINGTON, VIRGINIA (pop. 6,867)
right out of a norman rockwell

Locals often describe this 19th-century hamlet between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains as "right out of a Norman Rockwell painting." Lexington is the kind of place where people are invested in making sure history is paid real respect. Take Hull's Drive-In Theatre: When the 1950s institution was in danger of closing in 1999, a group of 50—dubbed the Hull's Angels—banded together to save it; they succeeded after raising an initial $10,000 selling popcorn (2367 N. Lee Hwy., double feature $6, open season­ally). Meanwhile, family-owned B&Bs like the 1868 Magnolia House Inn dot Main Street (501 S. Main St., magnoliahouseinn.com, from $139). "It's like a movie set," says resident Siobhan Lomax. While history has a hold, modernity has entered in just the right way, in part thanks to Lomax, whose two clothing boutiques, P.S. Pumpkinseeds (1 N. Main St., 540/464-5007) and George and Bob (20 W. Washington St., 540/464-5015), stock labels such as Trina Turk and Penguin. At the year-old Red Hen, chef Tucker Yoder, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute, creates dishes like pork belly with garlic scapes (11 E. Washington St., redhenlex.com, entrées from $16). The sense of community has proven fertile ground for his business—and family. "I have three kids, and I don't have to worry about them riding their bikes down the street," says Yoder. Norman Rockwell indeed. Mario López-Cordero

BREAUX BRIDGE, LOUISIANA (pop. 8,200)
big crawfish in a small pond

In the world's crawfish capital, an hour southwest of Baton Rouge, days revolve around Cajun meals and music. Locals two-step to upbeat zydeco tunes at places like Café Des Amis, a brick-walled space that's famous for its crawfish étouffée and where the dining room doubles as a dance floor (140 E. Bridge St., cafedesamis.com, entrées from $16). The music is what drew long-time New Orleans resident Ellen Wicker back to the area from Maryland five years ago. "I was out dancing, and I met a guy who knew of a B&B that was for sale," Wicker recalls. She picked up the converted 1860s French Creole-style house and opened Maison Des Amis, a B&B with a half acre of landscaped gardens and a gazebo looking out on the bayou in the back (111 Washington St., maisondesamis.com, from $100). "Locals in Breaux Bridge are just friendly and generous," she says. "Right after the hurricane, families took in people they didn't know from Adam and put them up." While his New Orleans shop was being reconstructed after Katrina hit, decorator Patrick Dunne opened satellite locations of his culinary antiques store Lucullus in Breaux Bridge, upon a friend's recommendation (107 N. Main St., lucullusantiques.com). Now Dunne and his French bulldog, Clovis ("He's very much into zydeco"), split their time between city and country. Says Dunne: "It's fun being a big crawfish in a small pond." Maria Ricapito

TUBAC, ARIZONA (pop. 1,900)
galleries are framed by mountain views

Over the years, everyone from Spanish missionaries to maverick cowboys has called this high-desert town—25 miles north of the Mexican border—home. These days, you're most likely to find artists roaming the streets of Tubac, where dozens of galleries are framed by rugged-mountain views. "Not only is there no traffic, there's no traffic lights," says Dennis Rowden, who runs Spanish-meets-Western housewares store Pancho's with his interior decorator wife, Lorraine (Tubac Golf Resort & Spa, panchosdesign.com). While the Western charm is obvious, Tubac's sophistication is a subtler surprise. "People underestimate us," says jeweler Martita Foss, who moved to Tubac last year from southern California to work at the Tubac Center of the Arts, a 4,000-square-foot space for concerts, lectures, and gallery shows (9 Plaza Rd., tubacarts.org). "They may say, 'Oh, it's just an old historic town,' but we're really pretty hip." Foss discovered Tubac on a road trip with friends. "The light is amazing, and the sunsets are phenomenal," she says. The long wooden porch at the five-room Tubac Country Inn (13 Burruel St., tubaccountryinn.com, from $85) is the perfect place to see the orange-and-red-streaked sky at sundown as it casts its shadow on the area's cacti. Notes Foss: "It's not hard to see why painters and photographers have been drawn here." Keith Mulvihill

WALLACE, IDAHO (pop. 1,000)
a place that mines its own history

Preservation and industriousness are key in Wallace, a former mining town in northwest Idaho where every single building (including a brothel that closed its doors in 1988 after pressure from the Feds) is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Oasis Bordello Museum remains trapped in time, from a bra air-drying on a lamp to the list of previously available services (605 Cedar St., 208/753-0801, guided tour $5). Bicyclists setting off on the roughly 87 miles of area trails fuel up on huckleberry shakes at Red Light Garage, a café decorated with vintage musical instruments (302 5th St., redlightgarage.com, shake $4.50). The café is run by musician turned contractor Jamie Baker and his wife, Barbara, who have made a second career out of restoring Wallace's 100-year-old buildings. Their latest, Hercules Inn, opened to visitors this summer, and each of the four units has a kitchen (15 2nd St., 208/556-0575, from $75). "Some folks would call this retirement," says Chase Sanborn, who ran a snowboarding-apparel company before opening Wallace Brewing Company, where you'll find him filling kegs seven days a week (610 Bank St., wallacebrewing.com, pints $3). True to the town's roots, he gives the drafts names like Dirty Blond and the Red Light. Jason Cohen

SAUGERTIES, NEW YORK (pop. 5,000)
shop owners extend the welcome mat

Don't be surprised if you're invited into someone's house the minute you set foot in Saugerties, 100 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Richard Frisbie operates Hope Farm Press & Bookshop out of his converted living room (15 Jane St., hopefarm.com). "We're the book capital of the Hudson Valley," says Frisbie, who often shares anecdotes from some of his 3,500 books, which focus on the region. It's not uncommon for other shop owners to extend the welcome mat, too. In their two-story 1826 building, chef-owners Marc Propper and Michelle Silver serve homemade brown-sugar ice cream at long, wooden farm tables downstairs at Miss Lucy's Kitchen; upstairs they rent out two warmly inviting apartments, each with a kitchenette (90 Partition St., misslucyskitchen.com, rooms from $150, desserts $7). Saugerties can feel so much like home for weekenders that some have made it official. On a mushroom-foraging trip in the Hudson Valley, friends Mark Grusell and Juan Romero decided to plant themselves for good and opened Love Bites Cafe, a cozy, 16-seat café with an open kitchen that serves dishes like coconut-carrot French toast with vanilla-citrus butter (85 Partition St., 845/246-1795, $7). Thisbe Nissen

MOUNT VERNON, IOWA (pop. 4,671)
art isn't confined to gallery walls

In Mount Vernon, about a 20-minute drive east of Cedar Rapids, art isn't confined to gallery walls. As you're driving in on Highway 30, a local artist's rendition of Grant Wood's American Gothic, splashed on the side of a barn, immediately sets the town's tone. And at an annual sidewalk-chalk festival, which takes place each May, hundreds of people put their stamp on more than 4,000 square feet of the main drag. "There's a certain amount of culture here that's not as unapproachable as in a larger city," says Matt Steigerwald, a chef from North Carolina who runs Lincoln Cafe, where dishes like the Carolina pork BBQ sandwich draw diners from all over the state (117 1st St. W., foodisimportant.com, $6.50). Due to liquor-license restrictions, the place is BYOB, so Steigerwald opened Lincoln Winebar down the street (125 1st St. W., 319/895-9463). The unofficial clubhouse for Mount Vernon's creative types is Fuel, a 4-year-old coffee shop that doubles as an antiques store. Some of the shop's sofas, tables, and lamps are for sale, along with everything from ceramic tiles to handmade greeting cards (103 1st St. E., 319/895-8429). Thisbe Nissen

JACKSONVILLE, OREGON (pop. 2,750)
a refuge from the tourist whirl of napa

Just across the border from California, this old gold-rush town is getting its second wind from liquid gold. With 17 wineries in the surrounding Applegate Valley, and a climate that's ripe for growing multiple types of grapes, Jacksonville is a refuge from the tourist whirl of Napa. Herb Quady is among the residents integral to the burgeoning scene. Quady, whose father, Andrew, produces dessert wines at Quady Winery in Madera, Calif., opened the Quady North tasting room in April (255 California St., quadynorth.com). "There isn't anyplace in California that's nearly as cute," Quady explains of his move. "We're all about the bucolic southern Oregon life." The best way to tap in is at South Stage Cellars, which stocks bottles from nine area wineries (125 S. 3rd St., southstagecellars.com). The Garden Bistro at the five-room McCully House Inn & Cottages showcases local growers of a different sort, with food products from 27 area purveyors, including cheese from the goats at nearby Pholia Farm (240 E. California St., mccullyhouseinn.com, rooms from $135). The lifestyle drew Constance and David Jesser, a chef and a commodities trader, respectively, from Sonoma five years ago to open Jacksonville Mercantile, where the shelves are filled with provisions like black-truffle-roasted almonds, meant to pair perfectly with a bottle of Quady North viognier (120 E. California St., jacksonvillemercantile.com). Jason Cohen

BT Readers' Choice Pick!
ROCKLAND, MAINE (pop. 7,680)
sophistication mixed with saltiness

You'll find just enough sophistication to balance the saltiness of mid-coast Maine in Rockland, where regional mainstays are reinvented every day. After honing her skills working for Perry Ellis in New York City, Beth Bowley was lured back to Maine four years ago. "Rockland is filled with folks who've seen what the world has to offer and want to be here," says Bowley, who opened the boutique FourTwelve, which she stocks with clothing and accessories like Sea Bags, made from recycled sails (412 Main St., shopfourtwelve.com, bags from $110). Down the street at Suzuki's Sushi Bar, Japanese-born chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger infuses freshly caught lobster, shrimp, and crab with modern Japanese flavors (419 Main St., suzukisushi.com, entrées from $12). Steinberger first came to Rockland to visit a second cousin but stayed after falling for her now husband. As pleasant as a short visit can be, the real risk of visiting Rockland is that you'll do the same and need to move here for good. It's worth testing the waters by renting a house, on vrbo.com, where you can find 19th-century Capes going for $125 a night. Carole Braden

WHITEFISH, MONTANA (pop. 7,723)
ski bums and urban refugees congregate

After a frenzied stint on Broadway's 42nd Street, actor Luke Walrath was ready for a quieter pace. His actress wife grew up in Whitefish, so the two decided to make it their new home. "It's at once folksy and stylish," he says of the town, a 35-minute drive southwest of Glacier National Park. The couple cofounded the Alpine Theatre Project, which stages seven shows a year (alpinetheatreproject.org). At the foot of the Rockies, Whitefish has long drawn adventure seekers. Ski bums and urban refugees congregate over red malty Highlanders at The Great Northern Brewing Company (2 Central Ave., greatnorthernbrewing.com, pints from $3.75). To live out a rustic Montana fantasy, book a cedar-walled room at Good Medicine Lodge, which feels like a set from Legends of the Fall (537 Wisconsin Ave., goodmedicinelodge.com, from $95). Kathryn O'Shea-Evans

> Check out last year's winners in the 2009 Readers' Choice poll.

> Plus, nominate a cool small town for consideration in the 2010 Readers' Choice poll.

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8 Things an Airline Would Never Tell You

1. "Airport luggage scales often lie." It's bad enough that the airlines charge a fee for overweight luggage, varying from $39 to $300 per bag industrywide. But it's galling that they may also hit you with the fee by mistake. At JFK last November, New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs found that 14 percent of the airport's scales were not properly calibrated. At Boston's Logan airport, 10 percent of the scales recently inspected gave incorrect readings. The South Florida Sun–Sentinel has discovered numerous busted scales at area airports. And the list goes on. What to do? Stand up for yourself, especially when a scale barely tips the balance into the "overweight" category. Brandon Macsata, executive editor of the D.C.-based lobbying group Association for Airline Passenger Rights advises passengers to weigh their bags at home first, and if the airport scale comes up with a different number, insist that your bags be weighed on a different scale. Yes, it's come to that. 2. "Our air may make you sick." The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether potentially harmful fumes have been circulating in airplane cabins. Between 1999 and 2008, air became contaminated on 926 flights, reports the FAA, without specifying any possible health risks. Currently, the agency is looking at a particular type of "fume event" that involves "bleed air," or air that's been compressed by the airplane's engines. If there's a malfunction in plane equipment, the air that's fed into the cabin can be contaminated with chemical residues from engine oil—specifically TCP, or tricresyl phosphate. "Passengers may have symptoms like tremors," says Clement Furlong, a research professor of genome sciences and medicine at the University of Washington. So far, federal reviews of the research have been inconclusive about whether bleed air actually endangers the health of passengers and flight crews, though two civil lawsuits about fume events are under way. 3. "That nonstop flight you booked? We can add a layover to it—without explanation." Think you scored a sweet fare on that transcontinental flight? Think again. You may be making a previously unscheduled layover. Airlines can cancel your nonstop and rebook passengers onto flights with connections, which are obviously less desirable. Advises Brett Snyder, author of The Cranky Flier and a former pricing analyst at America West: As soon as you find out that your nonstop flight has been canceled, check to see if there's another nonstop option. If there is, call the airline and ask—nicely—to be put on it. But if nonstop service on the route has disappeared, threaten to switch to another carrier for the trip. Major airlines will typically agree to refund your money without any fees if you refuse to accept a new, multistop flight that will arrive at your destination more than two hours later than you were originally scheduled. 4. "We wouldn't tell you right away if there's an emergency." The FAA leaves it up to the airline to decide if it wants to tell passengers about an engine failure or other significant crisis. And many flight crews opt to keep their lips sealed. The reason? Flight crews don't want to scare passengers or say something they'll regret later. "In one recent emergency, the cockpit crew was faulted for making a public announcement before some of the required procedures were accomplished," explains Kent Wien, a pilot for a U.S. carrier. So attendants tend to err on the side of being secretive to avoid trouble. Last June, passengers traveling from Brussels to Newark on Continental Airlines were not informed when the captain died during the flight. The plane continued along its scheduled route with nary a peep from the rest of the crew, beyond a cryptic question: "Is there a doctor on board?" 5. "When we let you pick your seat assignment, we were only joking." As the airlines decrease the number of seats they fly in an attempt to eke out a profit, they're swapping out larger planes for smaller ones more often. Whenever fliers are put on a new plane, seat assignments are scrambled. A traveler may end up in a middle seat he or she would never have selected. If it happens to you, there's not much you can do—airlines aren't obligated to honor any seat assignment. "Passengers are actually purchasing a fare and not a seat," says Macsata of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. Checking in online 24 hours prior to departure is often the best you can do to boost your chances of getting the seat assignment you want. Print your boarding pass with your seat assignment on it before you get to the airport as proof in case you need to argue with a gate agent over a last-minute switcheroo. 6. "Our planes are antiques." Compared to the rest of the world, we're flying the airplane equivalent of grandma's Cutlass Supreme—except Uncle Sam isn't interested in paying cash for these clunkers. American owns 268 MD-80 class airplanes, with an average age of 18 years old. Meanwhile, thanks to a geriatric fleet of DC-9s, Delta and Northwest's average fleet age is 13 years old. In contrast, Emirates has an average fleet age of about 5 years. Singapore Air's is 6 years. And, while Ryanair is often faulted for lacking basic amenities, its planes average less than 3 years of age. Luckily, U.S. airlines aren't having problems maintaining their aging aircraft from a safety standpoint, notes Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. "There's no real indication of anyone cutting corners," says Voss. "Planes don't age like wine, but they do remain flight-worthy with proper maintenance." The FAA doesn't have a maximum age limit for planes, though it does require more frequent inspections for planes that have flown for more than 14 years. But aside from safety there's just plain old comfort. If you've ever wished you had a personal seatback flat-screen TV instead of having to share a view of a cathode-ray tube in the aisle—well, now you know the reason. 7. "Our crew is totally exhausted." Airline jobs are famously hard on the Circadian rhythms, and flight crews simply aren't getting enough rest. Pilot fatigue has been a factor in crashes that have led to over 250 fatalities in the past 16 years, including the recent crash of a Colgan Air flight to Buffalo, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The night before that accident, the copilot commuted from the West Coast to Newark while the pilot slept on a couch in a crew lounge at the airport. Crews on reserve (that is, crews readily available for service on short notice) don't have it much better. "On reserve, we don't have control over what we're doing," says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a U.S. carrier and a contributor to travel blog Gadling. "One day we're flying a 5 a.m. departure, and the next day we're working a red-eye. Do this for a few trips in a row—add the delays in there—and that's when it gets bad." Working reserve can stretch crews to the limit. "Once during a terrible reserve month, I remember staring at my emergency exit door, thinking, Is it armed? Is it armed? Is it armed? I could see that it was, indeed, armed (the evacuation slide was attached to the door properly). But it wasn't clicking in my brain because I was so tired." 8. "Your ticket might not be with the airline you booked." Two airlines may sell seats on the same flight, a sales strategy called code sharing. You may think you'll be traveling on one airline, but you actually fly on another. The situation seems harmless enough but can cause major headaches for passengers. For example, most major airlines farm out their short, commuter flights to regional airlines. "By and large, you haven't heard of Chautauqua or Republic, but you may be flying them when you click to buy a ticket on Continental," explains Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer. "With two airlines involved, there's a constant passing of the buck. Worse, many regional carriers operating on code shares are exempt from reporting their on-time statistics. And God forbid if you need to file a claim with them for lost baggage."

I Bought an Offset and I Feel...

I bought an offset and I feel... VINDICATED I had always assumed that it would be too expensive—and time-consuming—to buy a carbon offset for a trip. But when I bought my first offset through leading U.S. seller TerraPass (terrapass.com), the cost to cover a round-trip flight between Kansas City, Mo., and New York City was a piddling $6. And I was happily surprised to find that it took only about 10 minutes to complete. Before I clicked to buy an offset, TerraPass provided a quick overview of where my money would go, with a reminder that it conducts annual third-party audits of the programs it funds. This information reassured me that my money would actually go toward a wind-power project as promised. I never feel too guilty when I fly, but this time around, I did sleep better on the plane knowing I had offset some of its destructive fumes. Given how affordable offsets are, I'm sure I'll buy others. I also expect that my next purchase will be faster given that I have already done the hard work of setting up an account with TerraPass. —JD Rinne I bought an offset and I feel... RIPPED-OFF I gave $60 to myclimate (myclimate.org). Based on the simple drop-down menus, I learned that my nonstop flight from New York City to Oakland, Calif., was the equivalent of 1.833 tons of carbon dioxide. I was flying JetBlue, which has a young fleet compared with the industry average, and it bothered me that the myclimate calculator didn't seem to factor that in. I'm pretty sure newer models have better fuel efficiency. Shouldn't that reduce the emissions by a little bit? The whole process left me with more questions than answers. But what bothered me most was the lack of transparency. I wanted to know how the money would be spent. What project would my money contribute to? What percentage of it would go to administration? The site didn't provide satisfactory answers to those questions. When the final invoice arrived, it said: "Your contribution to carbon offsetting goes toward myclimate carbon offset projects in developing countries and emerging markets. All projects reduce emissions by replacing climate-impacting fossil fuels with renewable energy or energy-efficient technologies. For example, you support the local production, distribution, and use of solar cookers and efficient cookers in southwest Madagascar." That's just way too vague for me, and I won't be purchasing a carbon offet again anytime soon—through this organization or any others that offer similar services. —Amy Chen I bought an offset and I feel... AMBIVALENT Because of a confusing layout, it took a few moments for me to find the American version of JPMorgan ClimateCare (jpmorganclimatecare.com)—by clicking on a tiny U.S. flag icon—so that I could pay in U.S. dollars. I plugged in my travel info: one passenger flying nonstop between New York (JFK) and Rome (Fiumicino). The carbon calculator tallied 8,531 miles traveled, 1.92 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted, and an offset cost of $24.74. That was less than I had expected to pay, especially considering that my airfare had cost $667. On the next screen, the company promised to put my money toward greenhouse-gas reductions through an array of projects that meet international standards. It hadn't dawned on me until then that if my $24.74 went to one project exclusively and that project fell through, my offset would fall through with it. I was pleased by the notion that my money was being spread out among a variety of projects, which seemed a safer strategy. I paid by credit card in U.S. dollars, and the confirmation—which immediately landed in my inbox—included two brief examples of the types of projects that might get my money. A second e-mail arrived with a certificate. I appreciated the company's enthusiasm, and the certificate made me smile a little sheepishly because the whole thing required so little effort—which didn't make me feel particularly certificate-worthy or deeply involved in improving the environment. I didn't understand, either, how the company had calculated the emissions of my trip. The print explanation didn't say much beyond "calculations are based on the best available information." —Kate Appleton

How to Be a Perfect Houseguest

Finesse an Invite Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies, suggests a subtle approach to feel out whether a family member might be up for hosting you. You could start by asking, "Gee, when I'm in town, maybe I can come by? Can you suggest any hotels in the area?" "It's not OK to hint that you should be invited to spend the night," says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette authority Emily Post and author of lifestyle guide How Do You Work This Life Thing? "But it can happen through conversation. You might call a friend and say, 'Hey, we're coming through town and we'd really love to see you. Could we get together?' Then, leave it up to them to take the next step. Don't get upset if they're not rolling out the welcome mat." Keep Your Visit Brief "At the very start, deal with the exact start and end date of the visit," says Post. "Personally, I think no one should stay more than three days—you know the saying that both fish and houseguests stink after three days. It's true." If you want to visit the area longer, bite the bullet and split your stay between your friend's place and a hotel. Be Clear and Up Front About Everything Hosts do not deserve to be surprised that you've brought two German shepherds and your latest biker boyfriend, when they expected only you. "Never assume that bringing your pets, children, friend, or family member is acceptable if you're not directly told or invited to bring them," says Fox. "You must also be up front about any dietary issues. It's awful when a guest shows up and says, 'I forgot to tell you I'm a vegan,'" says Norine Dresser, author of Multicultural Manners: Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century. Maintain Contact in Advance "Check in a few days before the visit to get directions and double-check the dates," advises Post. "And most definitely touch base on the morning of the day you're supposed to arrive. If anything changes your planned arrival time, you absolutely must call your hosts. It's rude to have people waiting around for you." BYO Amenities "Hosts will generally provide you with towels," says Dresser. "But ask before you take just any towel from the closet. In some families, each person has his or her own towel, and you don't want to upset anyone by drying off with the wrong one." As for pretty much everything else you'll need in the bathroom—shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, a special soap if you're particular—bring your own. It's OK to ask to use some toothpaste if you've forgotten yours. Acknowledge Everyone in the House Pet the hosts' dog, say hello to their aunt who lives above the garage, and most of all, make an effort to be nice to the hosts' children. "You don't have to get on your knees with the kids or play board games the entire time you're there," says Post. "But you should pay attention to the kids, even if you're not a 'kid person.' Every parent loves it when other people enjoy spending time with their kids." Make It Look Like You're Not There Wipe down the sink after you shave. Make the bed. Tidy up every chance you get—especially if you have children. "Don't leave toys in a pile, or worse, scattered all over the place," says June Hines Moore, author of Manners Made Easy for the Family. If you're in a makeshift bedroom in an office or the living room, fold up the futon. The goal is to make it look like no one is even visiting. Offer a Helping Hand This may be your vacation, but the host is not a combo cook-maid-butler-concierge. Offer to pick up groceries, do the dishes, mix some margaritas, chop vegetables for dinner, or take the dog for a walk, and make your offer an earnest one. "Let me help with that" is better than "You're all set in the kitchen, right?" But don't be pushy. "Some people are weird about their kitchens," says Post. "They don't like other people messing with their spices. So if they turn down your request to help, back off." Respect House Rules and Schedules "Watch what the host family does," says Dresser. "If they take off their shoes, you take off yours." Be especially respectful if your hosts have to work during your visit. "Ask about your host's morning routine," says Post. "Then stay clear of the bathroom when your host needs the shower." Spend Some Time With Your Hosts "It's assumed that guests and hosts will hang out and share some meals together," says Dresser. "The host's house is not a hotel. It's not just a place to crash. It's offensive if you show up, disappear, and only come back to sleep and shower." You should still be able to find plenty of time to sightsee, with or without your host. Get Out of Your Host's Hair Don't expect your host to be a tour guide for the entire visit. When you arrive, plan a rough itinerary for what you want to see and let the host know that he or she is welcome to come along. Include some downtime in the itinerary, along with some time apart. "If your host has work to do, or even if you just feel like everyone needs a break, disappear for a little while," says Post. "Read a book, explore town by yourself, or go for a walk." Give a Good Gift "Do you have to show up at the host's house with gift in hand?" asks Post. "No. Absolutely not. Do you have to buy something? Again, no. A nice gift could be something you make—a pie, a scarf. Taking your hosts out to a nice dinner can also count." Fox suggests bringing a bottle of wine, a flowering plant, or some gourmet chocolates. "Special blends of coffee and tea are acceptable too," she says. The key is knowing what your hosts like and don't like. If you're unsure what to give, listen for cues during your visit. Make a mental note when your host mentions loving a restaurant or shop, and get a gift certificate. Handwrite the Thank You "An e-mail thank you is still a no-no," says Post. "It's OK to jot off a quick thanks on your Blackberry from the airport, but you must follow that up with a handwritten note within a few days afterward." It's also nice to return the hospitality by extending a hearty "If you're ever in our neck of the woods..." invitation to the folks who just graciously hosted you.

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