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5 Ways to Experience Oahu From Above

By Kyle Ellison, Viator.com
May 2, 2014
View of Hawaii from above
Courtesy <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/ornellas/2833903611/sizes/l/" target="_blank"> Justin Ornellas/Flickr</a>

This article was written by Kyle Ellison on behalf of Viator.com.

In a word, the island of Oahu is gorgeous. Yes, there are freeways, high-rises, and sprawls of development which climb like ivy up the terraces of the Ko’olaus, but there is also the ever-present fusion of nature where sky, sea, shoreline, and summit all form a tableau of tropical perfection. While you can experience this beauty in many forms on all different corners of the island (a sunrise from the shoreline of Kailua comes to mind), one of the best places to bear witness to the island’s beauty is with a bird’s eye view from above.

More so than on any other Hawaiian island, Oahu has opportunities to soar high above the peaks for an aerial view of the island. So whether it’s whirring above the battleships of Pearl Harbor, silently gliding over the beaches of the North Shore, or plummeting through the air at cheek-flapping speeds, here are some of the best ways to experience Oahu from above.

Parasailing
When it comes to parasailing, many people erroneously equate the activity with being scary, terrifying, and extreme. On the contrary, instead of looking at the height of the parachute and immediately thinking “scary”, you should instead be looking at your private perch and instead be thinking “silent.” Think about it—when was the last time you were 500 feet away from even the slightest sound? As your toes are tickled by the moving breeze and the royal blue waters of Maunalua Bay stand in contrast to the green of the mountains, parasailing on Oahu becomes one of the most serene ways to get an aerial view of the shoreline.

Skydiving
If you’d rather crank the adventure dial all the way to the realm of the extreme, Oahu is the most popular place in Hawaii to throw yourself out of an airplane. Much of the skydiving takes place on the North Shore above reefs which thunder with surf, and you can also get views of Mt. Ka’ala as it rises gently from seashore to summit. From the brisk altitude of 14,000 feet where you’ll exit the door, you can occasionally see Honolulu, where the pace of the city moves as quickly as the thump of your adrenaline-fueled heart.

Gliding
If flapping cheeks and ultimate free fall seem just a bit too intense, a more mellow way to experience the beauty of the North Shore is with a calming glider ride above Dillingham airfield. From an elevation of about 3,000 feet, slowly glide back down to the airfield without the use of a motor or propellers. These rides can be as “mild or wild” as you want them to be, and while many people opt to simply take in the sights from high above the North Shore, there are also the options to do acrobatic loops or even pilot the glider yourself. Soaring above the shoreline of Waimea Bay and gazing towards the wilds of Ka’ena, this is a panoramic journey of Oahu’s beauty that is as silently stimulating as it is scenic and serene.

Seaplane
Unlike Alaska, Canada, or even the Caribbean, one type of plane you rarely see in Hawaii is an old-fashioned seaplane. With these “flying boats”, you have the chance to explore the perimeter of the island after a take-off from Ke’ehi Lagoon. On a one-hour Oahu seaplane tour, you can circle the island from the crater of Diamond Head to the island of Chinaman’s Hat. Soar above the peaks of the jagged Ko’olau mountains, and gaze down on fields which are pregnant with pineapples as they tan in the sunshine below. On your return to the waters of Ke’ehi Lagoon (which is conveniently located next to the airport), you can also fly over the waters Pearl Harbor where it’s still possible to see the outlines of ships as they rest in their watery graves.

Helicopter
Of course, when it comes to viewing the island from the air, few things will ever be able to rival the sights on a helicopter tour on Oahu. These whirring choppers can hover in valleys where fixed-wing aircraft can’t venture, and it’s the hands-down best way to get views of waterfalls which are otherwise completely inaccessible. From the comfortable confines of the helicopter cockpits with their expansive, wrap-around windshields, this is truly an experience where you can spend an hour not knowing which way to look. After all, when you have morning clouds tickling the peaks of the mountains off the left side of the chopper, and ribbons of surf which are breaking on the reefs so clearly it seems you could touch them, a helicopter tour is a visual feast of color, topography, and adventure.

One final tip
Granted, there are a number of factors that determine if your session above Oahu is going to be a success. One, of course, is weather, and it’s vitally important to schedule your adventure for the early morning hours. This is when the skies are clearest and offer the best chance for views, and it’s also the time when the winds are light and you can expect the least amount of turbulence. Also, while winters in Hawaii are far warmer than the rest of the mainland U.S., there can still be precipitous winter storms which can roll through during the winter. The thick clouds which linger over the island can greatly reduce the visibility, although the plus side is that the mountains can turn into dripping walls of water. In order to ensure the best conditions for your aerial foray above Oahu, be sure to keep an eye on the near-term weather forecast for and idea of the upcoming conditions. This way, in the event you have to reschedule, you can still do so within the terms of the contract of the tour or activity you book. On most days, however, the skies above Oahu are brilliantly blue and open for aerial adventure, and the myriad jewels of the island of Oahu like a canvas beneath your feet.

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Budget Travel Lists

7 Things to Do in Vernazza (Besides Hiking)

This article was written by Jessica Spiegel on behalf of Viator.com. Most of the people who have been flocking to the pretty town of Vernazza in the Cinque Terre for decades do so because of the famous hike that connects Vernazza with other towns along the coast. Hiking remains the top thing to do in the Cinque Terre, but it’s by no means the only thing to do. Here are 7 other things worth checking out. The BeachBy many accounts, Vernazza has the prettiest harbor of all the Cinque Terre towns—and although none of the beaches in the Cinque Terre are particularly noteworthy, Vernazza’s harborfront beach can be a lovely place to spend a sunny day. The beach in Vernazza has the benefit of being entirely public, so there aren’t any umbrellas or beach chairs set up that you’d have to rent. You just need to find an available spot on the beach, put down a towel, and enjoy the sun and sea. Doria Castle TowerOne of the features that makes Vernazza so picturesque from the trails on either side of it is the Doria Castle Tower that sits on the promontory overlooking the harbor. Built in the 11th century to help protect Vernazza from pirates, it now serves as a gorgeous lookout point. Boat ToursIn addition to hiking or taking the train between the villages of the Cinque Terre, there is also boat service connecting the towns during good weather. You don’t have to think of it as transportation, however. Hop on a boat in Vernazza and ride back and forth along the coast for lovely views of the villages and cliffs from the water, a vantage point many visitors never get. Wine TastingUp and down the cliffs in the Cinque Terre you’ll see vineyards, so why not sample some locally-grown wine while you’re in Vernazza? Much of the Cinque Terre wine is white, and one of the best-known wines is a sweet wine called sciacchetra that’s often paired with biscotti for an afternoon snack. Visit any of the wine shops (called “enoteca”) in Vernazza to see what’s local and get some Cinque Terre wines to bring home. Church of Santa Margherita d’AntiochiaThe bell tower and pretty tiled dome of the Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia are part of what makes Vernazza’s harbor so picturesque, so don’t miss visiting the actual church. No one knows when the original church on this site was built, but it could be as old as the 11th century. Major architectural changes were made in the 17th and 18th centuries, with more restoration work in the 20th century. ShoppingEvery Cinque Terre village has ample shopping options open during the high season, and Vernazza is no exception. In addition to the wine shops listed above, there are shops selling local foods (such as pesto and olive oil) and plenty of postcards and souvenirs. Many of the souvenirs are similar from town to town in the Cinque Terre, so if you’re in the area for a few days you can browse shops in each town to find unique gifts or mementos. VoluntourismIn October of 2011, Vernazza and Monterosso were both heavily damaged by the mudslides that resulted after torrential storms. The towns have recovered incredibly well, thanks in large part to the help of volunteers who spend part of their vacations restoring the villages and the hiking trails. There are still projects that are ongoing in Vernazza and throughout the Cinque Terre, so if you’re interested in doing some good work during your stay check out the Save Vernazza website.

Budget Travel Lists

5 Tips for Navigating NYC's Outdoor Food Markets

When it comes to artisan food in New York City, summer means one thing: a myriad of open air food markets, [our favorite is Madison Square Eats, visit #MadSqEats for more info] where small batch food purveyors and local chefs serve up everything from ice cream sandwiches and wood-fired pizza to charcuterie and macaroons. But you'd better get there fast: just like the warm weather, these temporary markets only last so long. Here are five tips to help you fill your plate this season. Be Part of the CrowdSince each of the city's outdoor food markets is a showcase for several dozen different food vendors, deciding which to choose can be a real challenge. However, don't be afraid to follow the crowd. When it comes to food, New Yorkers have seen it all, so if a particular vendor boasts a lengthy line, there is probably good reason. After all, some things in life—especially savory bites and sweet treats—really are worth the wait. Paper or PlasticMany of us don't think twice about swiping our debit cards. However, be sure to visit the ATM before making a market trip. While some vendors are equipped to accept plastic, many run cash-only operations. Having cash in hand will ensure you avoid a worthless wait in line. Plus, you'll have a few spare dollars to add to the tip jars (you'll want to after tasting the delicious food!). Think SmallThe only real problem with open air food markets is that there is so much excellent food to try! Avoid the temptation of purchasing a full meal and instead give yourself the space to sample a variety of offerings. Many vendors offer half sizes of their well-known menu items, or single servings of their most popular specialties (think one cookie versus a package of three). There's no need to choose when you can have a small bite of it all! Ask QuestionsWhen eating out, diners do not often have the chance to step inside a restaurant's kitchen. However, at the city's open air food markets, the kitchen is on full display, and the chef is typically the one serving your food. While you wait and watch him assemble your order, don't be shy about striking up a conversation and asking questions related to the dish, the ingredients, or even the chef's inspiration for his menu. Embrace the opportunity to learn something new about your food and the people preparing it. ExperimentThink of the city's open air food markets like playgrounds for chefs: unlike at their brick and mortar storefronts, these temporary markets are an opportunity for them to experiment with new menu offerings with very little risk. Say so long to all your culinary inhibitions and take advantage of unusual seasonal ingredients, new cooking traditions, and eclectic menu offerings while they last! Who knows: you may just be biting into the next big thing! This article was written by Angela Brown, a freelance writer and a co-owner of Mayhem &amp; Stout, a New York City-based artisan sandwich company. She is the voice behind the food blog The-Chefs-Wife.com, where she writes weekly narratives inspired by her experiences owning and operating a piece of the NYC food community.

Budget Travel Lists

20 Fabulously Free Things to Do in D.C.

1. CHERRY BLOSSOMS! After a long winter, these beautiful blooms make April the coolest month Where: National Mall The gorgeous tableau of Washington decked out in its spring finery—thanks to its countless cherry trees in bloom—could melt the heart of the coldest-hearted politician. The trees were given to Washington in 1912 by the city of Tokyo and attract about a half-million visitors each spring to blossom hotspots like the Tidal Basin. The National Cherry Blossom Festival traditionally runs through mid-April, with a grand parade this year on Saturday April 12 from 10 a.m. to noon. But your best bet for viewing the trees crowd-free is to hit the Mall before dawn to catch the blossoms as they're caressed by the dawn's early light. nationalcherryblossomfestival.org 2. LINCOLN MEMORIAL Not just a history lesson in marble, but an emotionally charged work of art Where: 2 Lincoln Memorial Circle Prepare to be surprised by the Lincoln Memorial. Most visitors find it unexpectedly moving, and the sculpture of Lincoln himself, by American master Daniel Chester French, is much more than a monumental work of public art. The 19-foot marble statue of the 16th president draws viewers deep into the thoughts and feelings of the president who led our nation through the conflict that nearly destroyed it and still manages to define it. This is not just a check on your must-see list. Reserve at least a half-hour to read Lincoln's immortal words, see the sculpture from different angles, and reflect on what has and has not changed in the 150 years since his presidency. nps.gov/linc 3. NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART America's only Da Vinci painting is just the beginning of this immense trove Where: 6th Street and Constitution Avenue The National Gallery of Art opened in 1937 and continues to hold its own even with such famous neighbors as the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Its extensive collection of Italian Renaissance masterpieces and works by Impressionists and early 20th-century painters is worth a stop. Don't miss Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de'Benci (the only da Vinci painting in the U.S.), Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing a Letter, and Paul Gaugin's Self Portrait. nga.gov 4. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN Think you know the history of Native America? Think again Where: 4th Street and Independence Avenue Art, culture, history, and even food come alive at this exceptional museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. With hands-on programs for families and a mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions, this is the definitive place to learn the true story of America's native peoples, from the earliest times to the present day. The museum's distinctive Mitsitam Native Foods Café is unlike any other D.C. restaurant, serving fry bread, buffalo, and other Native American classics. nmai.si.edu 5. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY From serious history to classic TV props, America's attic has something for everyone Where: 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Here, you'll find countless artifacts from the nation's history, ranging in gravitas from battle-scarred flags to the inaugural gowns of First Ladies to Archie Bunker's living room chair. Especially noteworthy at the moment are the excellent exhibits "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" and "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963. americanhistory.si.edu 6. UNITED STATES CAPITOL More than just the place where the Senate and Congress convene, this building is a living history museum Where: Visitor center at 1st Street and East Capitol Street From the Senate and House chambers to the pageantry of the building's dome and art collection, this majestic building deserves at least an hour of your time. If you'd like to see a congressional session in action, your best bet is to contact your senator or congressperson well in advance of your trip to see what options there might be. Hour-long Capitol tours are offered Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, and it's best to reserve a spot on one of these popular tours in advance. visitthecapitol.gov 7. WALKING TOUR OF THE NATIONAL MALL Get an expert's-eye-view of the monuments and memorials Where: Tours meet at southwest corner of 15th Street and Constitution Avenue and end at the Lincoln Memorial Okay, this isn't exactly free. DC by Foot operates a two-hour walking tour of the National Mall that invites you to "pay what you like" when the tour is over. In money-mad Washington, that's close enough to a freebie for us! Our one suggestion is: Don't be a jerk. dcbyfoot.com 8. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. MEMORIAL This memorial to the civil rights movement's leader in this once-segregated city is a must Where: 1964 Independence Avenue This four-acre memorial site between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial is the first on the central axis of the Mall that doesn't commemorate a war or a president. It features a 28-foot-high granite sculpture by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, along with a crescent wall engraved with King quotations chosen by historians and writers. nps.gov/mlkm 9. VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL This memorial transforms a painful era in U.S. history into a beautiful touchstone Where: 5 Henry Bacon Drive This deceptively simple wall, designed by American sculptor Maya Lin, lists the names of more than 58,000 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War. The enormity of the loss and the presence of visitors searching for a loved one among the names, which are listed chronologically, make this understated memorial unique and unforgettable. nps.gov/vive 10. JEFFERSON MEMORIAL The author of the Declaration of Independence stands watch over the capital's ups and downs Where: 900 Ohio Drive Whether you think of Thomas Jefferson as the third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the hypocrite who opposed slavery but was himself a slaveholder, or the guy who implores Lisa to tell the truth in a memorial episode of The Simpsons, there's no denying that his memorial is beautifully designed and enjoys a particularly pleasant piece of real estate. nps.gov/thje 11. NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM From the Wright Brothers to the moon landing and beyond, this is a favorite with kids from 1 to 100 Where: Independence Avenue at 6th Street Home to vintage flying machines like Charles Lindburgh's 1927 Spirit of St. Louis plane and the 1969 Apollo 11 command module, the National Air and Space Museum is one of the most kid-friendly branches of the Smithsonian. Its lineup features a 20-minute planetarium show starring Sesame Street characters, and air-travel-themed story times, where little ones can keep their hands busy building model planes and rocket ships. And don't forget to stock up on the astronaut ice cream at the gift shop! airandspace.si.edu 12. NATIONAL ZOO While most zoos come with a beastly price tag, this one's free—and open to visitors in the early morning! Where: 3001 Connecticut Avenue There's more to the always-free National Zoo than giant pandas (though, c'mon, what's not to love about wild animals that look like stuffed toys?). Looking for an early-morning destination to hit when the museums are shuttered? The 163-acre grounds of the zoo generally open by 6 a.m.-ish—four hours before its exhibits officially come to life. Stick around and you'll be rewarded with the sight of six resident orangutans making their way—hand over hand—across an almost 500-foot-long stretch of cables connecting two areas. nationalzoo.si.edu 13. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY Long before our ancestors walked this land, there were dinosaurs—and their fossils are just one of the attractions here Where: 10th Street and Constitution Avenue The nation's natural history museum will get its first-ever T-rex on Tuesday April 15! It will be in august company, joining other fossils, animal exhibits, geologic formations, and much more. And while the phrase "natural history" may not immediately bring to mind French royalty, you can ogle the 45-carat Hope Diamond, which once belonged to Louis XIV, here. mnh.si.edu 14. THE WHITE HOUSE You might call it the world's most coveted address—here's how to nab a free tour! Where:1600 Pennsylvania Avenue It's not impossible to do a tour of the White House, but it does take some planning. And a lot of patience. Once you know when you are going to be in D.C., contact the office of your Member of Congress to request tickets. Requests can't be made more than six months in advance, but no less than 21 days before your trip. It can take five months to book one of the self-guided tours, though. Worth it to get access to the country's most important residence. whitehouse.gov 15. NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY See pics of every American president—who apparently have never been publicity shy Where: 8th Street and F Street The stately Old Patent Office Building is a lovely showcase for portraits of every president, plus celebrated athletes, artists, and many more notable Americans. npg.si.edu 16. WASHINGTON MONUMENT We cannot tell a lie: The view from up here is unbeatable, but the monument is closed until May 14 Where: The National Mall This immense obelisk was damaged by the earthquake of 2011 and is slated to reopen to visitors on May 14. If normal hours and admission procedures are resumed, you can obtain free tickets on a first-come first-served basis starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Washington Monument Lodge at 15th Street adjacent to the monument. (Advance tickets are available for a nominal service charge.) nps.gov/wamo 17. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Shh! There's more than just books in this spectacular collection! Where: 101 Independence Avenue Just a taste of what the Library of Congress has to offer includes: a first edition of L. Frank baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an early Wonder Woman comic book, the 85,000+ pages of comedian Bob Hope's joke file, and, oh yeah, a Gutenberg Bible of 1455 printed on vellum and one of the world's only perfect remaining copies. Rotating exhibits on literature, history, and the arts are ongoing. loc.gov 18. FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY Whoa. Betcha thought the world's greatest collection of Shakespeare manuscripts was across the pond... Where: 201 East Capitol Street Words, words, words, as Hamlet cryptically muttered, are the stuff of this place, which is home to a copy of a 1623 First Folio (the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays), an Elizabethan-style theater that regularly stages the Bard's work (not to mention music and the work of, y'know, lesser-known playwrights), and the world's finest collection of Shakespeare-related materials and other Renaissance-era books and manuscripts. folger.edu 19. NATIONAL ARCHIVES You, the people, should see "We the People" in person! Where: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue Sure, the name may sound ho-hum, but you may have heard of some of the manuscripts on display in the rotunda of the National Archives: The U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence archives.gov/nae 20. ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY A stirring reminder of the heroic sacrifices that have been made—and continue to be made—to defend our freedom Where: Arlington, VA. Unfortunately, most visitors make a rather disrespectful dash across the Potomac for quick photo ops on this hallowed ground, where more than 300,000 American heroes are buried. Instead, set aside part of a day for a 2.5-hour name-your-own-price walking tour that includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the grave of John F. Kennedy, and the Robert E. Lee Memorial (dcbyfoot.com). arlingtoncemetery.mil WHERE TO STAY While so many D.C. attractions come without a price tag, hotel rooms aren't one of them. On the contrary, lodgings in this town can be expensive. But these reasonable residences in the hip, lively Dupont Circle neighborhood will serve you well on your stay: The Normandy offers European style and comfort near the great food and nightlife scene around Dupont Circle (2118 Wyoming Avenue, thenormandydc.com) Tabard Inn, named for the inn in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, has welcomed visitors for nearly a century and offers a Cherry Blossom Festival Special (1739 N Street, tabardinn.com) Akwaaba Bed and Breakfast is comfortable and reliable in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood a short walk from the Mall (1708 16th Street, dcakwaaba.com).

Budget Travel Lists

America's Coolest Small Towns 2014

#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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