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10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2012

By Nicholas DeRenzo, Robin Macklin, Rachel Mosely, Ryan Murphy, Marc Peyser, Valerie Rains, and Debra Weiner
August 28, 2012
1209_CST_Hammondsport_Snug_Harbor_Inn
Arion Doerr
We logged 368,000 votes in our seventh annual contest to choose the best hometown escapes in America. This year's twist? A nail-biter of a finish that crashed our website (temporarily, of course!) and resulted in our first-ever tie for first place.

What’s your idea of cool? How about a place where the local dump doubles as an art gallery. Or a town that’s helped spawn a major foodie movement. A Gold Rush outpost with an unsung history of ethnic tolerance would certainly qualify, right? So, too, would a New York village where they make wine served at the White House—yet tastings at the winery are still free. How about two towns that wanted to win our seventh annual Coolest Small Towns contest so badly, they launched a last-minute voting frenzy that crashed our website. That wasn’t so cool at the time, but now we love it—so much so that we declared those two towns co-Coolest. You know what else we love? All those places out there that are already clamoring to enter next year’s contest.

SEE ALL OF THE TOWNS!

#1 (tie) Beaufort, N.C.: Pop. 4,039

Southern charm with a dash of salty seaside spirit

Captain Horatio Sinbad is what you might call a friendly pirate. He's got six cannons on his 54-foot brigantine, the Meka II, but he's also got Wi-Fi. He's got a gold tooth and a gold hoop in his left ear, but his mate lovingly wears the matching earring on a chain around her neck (and brings him coffee on deck). He makes his living as a pirate, sailing the East Coast to lead mock invasions—"historical entertainments," as he calls them—then dutifully returns to Beaufort, N.C., every chance he gets. "The water is clean, the fishing is great, and the people are friendly," he says. "This is home port for me."

If you'd just dropped into Beaufort, you might be surprised to find that a pirate has weighed anchor there. Perched on an especially serene stretch of the North Carolina coast, the town has an air of Southern gentility about it, from the restored 17th- and 18th-century buildings that flank the local historical society to the Confederate jasmine and animal topiaries that frame the Langdon House B&B (135 Craven St., langdonhouse.com, doubles from $108). Feeling a shiver in your timbers? A cup of rich gumbo and a slice of salty, pillow-soft French bread at the Beaufort Grocery restaurant and bakery will warm you up nicely (117 Queen St., beaufortgrocery.com, cup of gumbo $4.25). There's even a thriving health-food store, the Coastal Community Market (606 Broad St., coastalcommunitymarket.com, locally made hummus $4).

And yet Beaufort's got a wild side, starting with the undomesticated horses you'll see roaming just across Taylors Creek. Blackbeard himself sailed those waters, and his spirit pops up at the North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front St., ncmaritimemuseums.com, admission free), the Queen Anne's Revenge restaurant (510 Front St., qarbeaufort.com, crab-stuffed shrimp $15), and beyond. If he were alive, you'd almost certainly find him on a stool at the Backstreet Pub, a dive-bar-like joint that also serves as a live-music venue and a lending library for sailors. Owner Liz Kopf likes to call her place the funkiest bar from Maine to Venezuela: "I always say there are more characters per capita in here than anywhere in the state" (124 Middle Lane, historicbeaufort.com, beer $2 on Mondays and Tuesdays).

Getting there: Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, New Bern, N.C. (37 miles); Wilmington International Airport (98 miles)

#1 (tie) Hammondsport, N.Y.: Pop. 661

Wine country history on the banks of the Finger Lakes

Hammondsport, N.Y., may well be the recycling capital of America. Not garbage recycling (though they do that, too). We're talking about the vintage seaplanes restored and flown by the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (8419 State Rte. 54, glennhcurtissmuseum.org, admission $8.50). The birdhouses made of scrap wood in front of the Aroma Coffee Art Gallery (60 Shethar St., 607/569-3047, birdhouses from $40). The spiral staircase, crown moldings, and bits of vintage wallpaper in the octagonal 1859 home that has been converted into the Black Sheep Inn (8329 Pleasant Valley Rd., stayblacksheepinn.com, doubles from $149). Even the cypress paneling in the Bully Hill Vineyard's lower dining room came from old wine barrels (8843 Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Dr., bullyhill.com, smoked pulled pork sandwich $13). "When my husband and I came back to live here the first thing he did was start restoring old boats," says Nancy Wightman, whose husband, Ed, grew up in the Finger Lakes region. "It's not just about loving history. You get the sense that's who the people here are."

It's tempting to say that there's something in the water, but Hammondsport's passion for the past really comes via the wine. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company, opened in 1860, was the first in the Finger Lakes region (8260 Pleasant Valley Rd., pleasantvalleywine.com, bottles from $6). In 1962, a Ukrainian viticulturist further transformed the local wine industry at his Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars by successfully planting European grapes in the colder New York climate (9749 Middle Rd., drfrankwines.com, bottles from $9). Today, both those wineries—and several more—are mainstays of the landscape. That's literally true of Dr. Frank's, which sits on an impossibly green piece of land overlooking its vineyards and sparkling, Y-shaped Keuka Lake. The vineyard is run by Fred Frank, Konstantin's grandson. "I enjoy hearing stories about children sitting on my grandfather's knee 40 years ago," says Fred. "That's very rewarding."

Also rewarding: After all these years, tastings at Dr. Frank's are still free. In fact, many of the best things in Hammondsport are. Sunbathing on condo-less Keuka Lake, kicking back on the town square for outdoor summer concerts on Thursday nights, jam sessions in the basement of the Union Block Italian Bistro-though do spring for one of the plus-size meals, such as linguini and clam sauce (31 Shethar St., unionblockitalian.com, linguini with clam sauce $19). "We're pretty darn proud of what we've built here," says Mayor Emery Cummings, who has lived in Hammondsport for every one of his 54 years, "and we're hoping to keep it the way it's always been."

Getting there: Elmira Corning Regional Airport (40 miles); Greater Rochester International Airport (87 miles)

#3 Weaverville, Calif.: Pop. 3,600

Far East meets Old West

You expect certain trappings in any Gold Rush town. A saloon, a main street, maybe a hitching post. Also a 138-year-old working Chinese temple. No? You'll find one in Weaverville, where the Joss House State Historic Park is a testament to the town's unsung history of tolerance (630 Main St., parks.ca.gov, admission $4). Chinese immigrants, facing discrimination in ports such as San Francisco, were welcomed here and ultimately accounted for up to 25 percent of the Rush-era population. "Some of our staff looks at this place as a museum piece you just have to keep clean and take care of," says guide Jack Frost. "But Chinese people who work in the parks system say it's a national treasure."

Maybe it's the mining connection, but Weaverville is a place where you often strike it rich in unexpected places. The 1854 drugstore and bank are now home to the La Grange Cafe, which features a wildly creative menu of boar, rabbit, and buffalo-as well as an impressive wine cellar in the old bank vault (520 Main St., 530/623-5325, buffalo burger $11). Mamma Llama Eatery & Cafe hosts a surprisingly funky roster of live musicians: Gypsy jazz, junkyard percussion, even didgeridoo (490 Main St., mammallama.com, hoagie $5.75). One place that hews to a more period Old West experience is the 132-year-old Weaverville Hotel, which features four-poster beds, clawfoot tubs, and a peaceful Victorian library (481 Main St., weavervillehotel.com, doubles from $99).

Getting there: Redding Municipal Airport (55 miles); Sacramento International Airport (198 miles)

#4 Damascus, Va.: Pop. 814

The perfect trailside pit stop

If you decide to drive to Damascus, you’ll likely be in the minority. This is hiking and cycling heaven, where seven major trails intersect, including the undulating Virginia Creeper and the granddaddy of them all: the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.

In a nifty bit of irony, six of the seven trails converge in a parking lot, at Mojoes Trailside Coffee House (331 Douglas Dr., mojoestrailsidecoffee.com, lattes from $3.50), where most mornings you’ll find a clutch of locals and through-hikers chatting about travel plans. Breakfast is the big meal in town, and the more energy-boosting calories the better. That’s one reason why the Lazy Fox Inn is famous less for its trailside location than for its legendary country breakfast that includes cheese grits, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy, and sausage (133 Imboden St., lazyfoxinn.com, doubles with private bath from $85).

Yet the carbo-loading, hard-core trekkers you’ll find in Damascus don’t always look as you’d expect. “Mamaw B.” (her adopted trail name) was in town beginning her usual 15- to 18-mile hike. She’s 71 and has been backpacking for 31 years. “The secret to good health is to remain active and to always have something to look forward to,” she says, as she sets off from Mojoes toward—where, exactly? She just smiles and points north.

Getting there: Tri-Cities Regional Airport, Blountville, Tenn. (46 miles); Charlotte Douglas International Airport (134 miles)

#5 Nashville, Ind.: Pop. 803

A music mecca that lives up to its namesake

Nashville didn't start out as a music town-not this Nashville, anyway. For 100 years, this southern Indiana village did just fine as a turn-of-the-century Midwest artists' colony. Galleries and crafts studios still line the streets, the legacy of landscape painters such as T.C. Steele, who moved here in the early 1900s for the "purple haze" over the Brown County hills. The 23-room Artists Colony Inn even has palette-shaped key rings and works from the town's creative founders on its walls (105 S. Van Buren St., artistscolonyinn.com, doubles from $92).

The first artists were also drawn to Nashville's remoteness from urban distractions-which is just what lured singer-songwriter Cari Ray in 2011. Ray was looking for a quiet place to work on her second record, but she ultimately found more stimulation than solitude. "There's so much energy and hidden talent here," she says. "And such a collaborative spirit. Everybody just wants to jam together." True to form, Ray can often be found performing with other area musicians at the once-abandoned Brown County Playhouse (70 S. Van Buren St., browncountyplayhouse.org, tickets from $15).

Supply and demand for homegrown performances has spiked ever since the town's Little Nashville Opry, the only venue big enough to host touring acts, burned down in 2009. Just like that, "local musicians started filling in the gaps," says Eric "Wavy" Rose, who works at the Weed Patch Music Company, a custom guitar and banjo shop (58 E. Main St., weedpatchmusic.com, guitars from $90). After all, who needs an Opry when you can harmonize on a sidewalk, in a wine bar, or even at the go-to breakfast spot-funky, Mexican-leaning Muddy Boots Cafe (136 N. Van Buren St., muddybootscafe.com, sandwiches from $6)?

Getting there: Indianapolis International Airport (55 miles); Louisville International Airport (95 miles)

#6 Port Townsend, Wash.: Pop. 9,113

A foodie find on the shores of the rugged Olympic Coast

Back in the late 1800s, Port Townsend was poised to become America's largest West Coast harbor, nicknamed The City of Dreams. Unfortunately, when the economic Panic of 1893 cut the town off from the expanding rail network, these grand plans went bust. And yet the Victorian-era seaport is still plenty dreamy. Thanks to its rich geographical blessings (mountains ripe for foraging, teeming fishing grounds, fertile farmlands), the region has spawned its own culinary movement: Olympic Coast Cuisine.

Extremely fresh seafood-pulled from the labyrinthine bays that carve into the peninsula-shows up on most menus here. The terrace at Fins Coastal Cuisine offers a front-row seat to the harbor, a perfect perch from which to try their take on chowder-heaping bowls of local Manila clams in their shells with a white wine and thyme broth (1019 Water St., finscoastal.com, chowder $13.50).

In addition to French-style Camemberts and spreadable fromage blancs, Matt Day and Ryan Trail of Mt. Townsend Creamery create a slate of uniquely Northwestern cheeses, with additions like alderwood smoke and Seattle-brewed Scotch ale (338 Sherman St., mttownsendcreamery.com, fromage blanc $5 for 8 oz.). The cheeses make a perfect picnic companion to the French-inspired classics-such as thin ficelle baguettes and custard-filled canelés-being baked at Pane d'Amore (617 Tyler St., panedamore.com, canelés $1.50). Even something as simple as ice cream gets the farm-to-cone treatment. At Elevated Ice Cream Company, seasonal ingredients such as raspberries, strawberries, and lavender are sourced from farms 16 miles west in Sequim, Wash. (627 & 631 Water St., elevatedicecream.com, cone $2.50). But don't worry about packing on the calories: The Olympic Peninsula has plenty of opportunities for sea kayakers, hikers, and mountain bikers.

If your culinary tastes lie more in the DIY camp, the not-at-all-rustic Chevy Chase Beach Cabins offer access to a private beach on Discovery Bay that's home to seven varieties of clams-they even provide plastic diggers and buckets (3710 S. Discovery Rd., chevychasebeachcabins.com, cabins from $110).

Getting there: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (71 miles)

#7 Cape May, N.J.: Pop. 3,607

America's first beach resort, now with a fresh coat of paint

Let's face it: You might be convinced that Cape May, America's oldest beach resort town, is stuck in the past. True, you can still find reminders of the seaside burgh's genteel heritage around every corner, from its rows of pastel Victorians to its butterfly gardens. Local lore has it that refined ghouls even haunt the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate (1048 Washington St., capemaymac.org, tours $10). But Cape May's glory days haven't yet passed it by (to misquote the poet laureate of New Jersey, a certain Mr. Springsteen).

At the Beach Shack hotel, the Rusty Nail surfer bar has been attracting partiers-and fun-loving area lifeguards-since the 1970s. After a major overhaul in 2009, the outdoor sand bar and fire pit make for an ideal cocktail spot. Try the Exit Zero, a refreshing mix of vodka, melon liqueur, pineapple juice, and Sprite, named for the town's Parkway exit number (205 Beach Ave., beachshack.com, Exit Zero $7). Even the Congress Hall hotel, a dignified landmark since 1816, now features a funky nightclub called The Boiler Room that trades in the usual Jersey Shore kitsch for a laid-back speakeasy vibe. The underground bar is built directly into the hotel's foundations, with a stage for live acts next to the original boiler pit (251 Beach Ave., congresshall.com, martini $10). 

It's no wonder Y.B. Eat Place has a playful side. Owner Peter Karapanagiotis named the year-old restaurant after himself—he's the "younger brother" of John Karapanagiotis, who owns the nearby George's Place. The menu is full of unusual takes on Jersey diner classics: Rice Krispies-crusted French toast, a swordfish BLT, duck-fat fries (314 Beach Ave., 609/898-2009, duck-fat fries from $3). "The best compliment," says cook Tom Fala, "is that it feels like home to Philly residents."

Though the color scheme at the Star Inn leans toward the Victorian-daffodil yellow, robin's egg blue, coral red-the furnishings are decidedly more up-to-date. In place of doilies and damask patterns, you'll find crisp, white bedding, modern kitchenettes, and posters of starfish and horseshoe crabs that evoke the area's longtime connection to the sea (29 Perry St., thestarinn.net, suite with kitchenette from $129). Glory days indeed.

Getting there: Atlantic City International Airport (45 miles); Philadelphia International Airport (96 miles)

#8 Jerome, Ariz.: Pop. 444

A copper mining village that struck gold as an artists' retreat

Home to the largest copper mine in Arizona, Jerome was once dubbed "The Wickedest Town in the West" for its abundant brothels, saloons, and opium dens. Today, the mine is a park and the Victorian-era bordello has been transformed into the tasteful Mile High Inn (309 Main St., milehighgrillandinn.com, double with private bath $120). But the unsavory types haven't been replaced so much as upgraded to the gentler end of the bohemian spectrum. Today, Jerome belongs to artists.

"We like to say we're all here because we're not all there," says Christy Fisher, who got her start sewing costumes for rock icons like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and is now owner of the stylish Magpie boutique. Fisher follows the ethos of the shop's namesake bird-which she calls "a collector of weird things"-with quirky designs that include skirts emblazoned with Ann-Margret on a motorcycle or a "trashion" line of jewelry made from recycled soda cans and steel (510 Main St., magpiejerome.com, soda can ring $14).

Even the food bursts with color here. At 15 Quince Grill & Cantina, the authentic New Mexican cuisine on the plate-blue corn enchiladas, red Chimayo chiles, green Hatch chiles-is almost as artful as Chef Vlad Costa's heavily tattooed arms. Housed in a former Safeway market, the turquoise walls are lined with a grid of painted steer skulls, each done up by a different area artist (363 Main St., 15quincejerome.com, blue corn enchiladas $13).

Jane Moore of Made in Jerome Pottery takes the concept of local art down to a new level-to the clay. "I'm getting it out of my backyard!" she says. The works, made by Moore and other area potters, often draw inspiration from Native American rock art or incorporate ancient techniques. To make horsehair pots, for example, artists use burnt mane or tail hair to leave dramatic black carbon imprints on the clay (103 Main St., madeinjerome.com, Native American-inspired bowls and plates $18).

The Old Jerome High School, built in the 1920s, now houses artists' work spaces spread over three buildings, including the 20,000- square-foot Anderson-Mandette Gallery, the largest privately owned art studio in the United States. Robin Anderson, who offers etching demonstrations, used to look toward the Old Masters for inspiration: "At first I thought I would have to move to Italy," he says. "But this is my little Italian town on a hill" (885 Hampshire Ave., anderson-mandette.com, etchings from $50).

Getting there: Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (53 miles); Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (117 miles)

#9 Ste. Genevieve, Mo.: Pop. 4,410

French colonial life on the Mississippi? Mais oui!

The first thing you'll notice is how much Ste. Genevieve looks like a French village. And with good reason: This Mississippi River town was founded in 1740 by French Canadians, making it the first European settlement west of the Mississippi. They left behind colonial houses, built in the poteaux-en-terre (or "post-in-ground") style-also seen in Louisiana, Normandy, and Quebec-defined by covered porches and timber beams. The 1792 Bolduc House Museum is a perfect introduction to the style, with 18th-century furniture and a garden under shady pecan trees (125 S. Main St., bolduchouse.org, $8).

The Rosemary & Thyme Cooking School often features French-inspired dishes, such as souffles or Alsace onion tarts (20 S. Main St., rosemarythymecookingsch.com, classes from $50). And, because no French experience is complete without wine, the town sits on the Route du Vin. Unlike the majority of the state's wineries, which trace their history to German immigrants, this loop of six vineyards is known for Gallic grape varieties and wines inspired by Burgundy and Provence (rdvwinetrail.com, tasting prices vary). Built in 1848 by a rich merchant family, the Inn St. Gemme Beauvais is the state's oldest B&B (78 N. Main St., innstgemme.com, doubles from $99). You'll be on a strict schedule of indulgences: breakfast at 8:00, tea at 2:00, hors d'oeuvres and wine at 5:00, then dinner in the onsite restaurant, which serves-well, you can probably guess.

Getting there: Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (75 miles)

#10 Cooke City, Mont.: Pop. 75

On the doorstep to Yellowstone, a gem in the rough

Names on the map tell it all. To the north sits Froze-to-Death Lake. Off to the east stretches Hellroaring Plateau. Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, 18 miles southwest, sounds tranquil enough, but it's home to one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears and wolves in the Lower 48. "This is the last place I know in the West that's still the West," says Troy Wilson, owner of the 1886 Cooke City Store, founded during the town's brief stint as a gold-mining settlement (101 Main St., cookecitystore.com, hiking maps from $6).

From your base at the High Country Motel in the Beartooth Mountains, snowmobiling and skiing are steps away (113 W. Main St., cookecityhighcountry.com, doubles from $88). It's cozier inside, but the vibe at the Miners Saloon is no less wild. Beers like Moose Drool Brown Ale and Trout Slayer Wheat Ale often share the menu with hand-tossed pizzas and specials like chicken with wild morel mushrooms (208 Main St., 406/838-2214, pizzas from $18).

There are other diamonds in this rugged rough. The town's trash and recycling station doubles as the local library and art museum, filled with books, paintings, and even cuckoo clocks rescued from refuse bins. Across
town, 88-year-old Birdie Williams runs the F. J. Williams Primitive Western Art gallery (407 Skunk Hollow, 406/838-2333, admission free), showcasing art by her deceased husband in the century-old log house where the two lived for nearly 50 years-without indoor plumbing.

Getting there: Yellowstone Regional Airport, Cody, Wyo. (80 miles); Gallatin Field Airport, Bozeman, Mont. (143 miles)

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Destinations

11 Best Winter Getaways to Lock in NOW

We know, we know: You've probably still got some sand in your shoes. Who wants to think about winter? But you might want to reconsider because we've got 11 irresistible winter getaways that can put you on world-class slopes or white-sand beaches. There's just one catch: If you want a price as dreamy as these trips, don't wait for the first snowfall to make your reservation. SEE OUR BEST-EVER WINTER GETAWAYS! 1. ORLANDO, FLORIDA. Theme Park Heaven There's a good reason folks around the world book theme park vacations a year or more in advance: While admission to the parks ain't cheap—often topping $80 per day for adults—you can get a break on airfare and hotel reservations by booking early. Orlando, Fla., is the epicenter for park sharks—it's home to Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld Orlando, and Walt Disney World. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to Orlando on JetBlue start at $218. Stay: Best Western Plus Orlando Gateway Hotel is near all Disney parks, Universal, and SeaWorld—truly a "gateway" to Orlando attractions (7299 Universal Blvd., bestwestern.com, doubles from $78). GET EXPERT TRAVEL TIPS AND DEALS WITH OUR FREE E-NEWSLETTERS! 2. LAGUNA BEACH, CALIFORNIA Surfin' Safari You're under no obligation to actually catch a wave just because you visit Laguna Beach, an iconic seven-mile stretch of sea and sand in Southern California's Orange County—most visitors are content to swim and soak up the warmth of the sun. But if you're so inclined, lessons with a champion surfer come with a money-back guarantee that you'll "get up"—surf slang for standing on the board on your first lesson (lagunabeachsurfinglessons.com, group lessons from $75 per person). If you can bring yourself to towel off and put your shoes back on, good vibrations can also be found in nearby Laguna Village, a prime spot for browsing quality art galleries and other shops—a reminder of the town's roots as an artists' colony. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to Los Angeles on JetBlue start at $336; round-trip flights from Chicago on Frontier start at $288. Stay: Pacific Edge Hotel on Laguna Beach is right on the beach and walking distance from Laguna Village (647 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, pacificedgehotel.com, doubles from $140). 3. TULUM, MEXICO South of the Border Tulum invites you to do as much, or as little, as you like. On Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, the seaside community is home to pristine Caribbean beaches famous for their giant sea turtles and the site of pre-Columbian Mayan ruins, including temples and castillos dating back to the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Admission to the cliff-hugging ruins is only about $5. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to Cozumel on American start at $438; round-trip flights from Los Angeles on United start at $535. Stay: Palms Tulum Luxury Hotel is near Tulum National Park and the Mayan ruins (Calle Escorpion Sur Esquino Con Calle Andronmeda Oriente, 52/984-878-1016, doubles from $180). 4. PUERTO RICO Caribbean Dream Where can you prowl the winding streets of an old-world-style city, explore a rain forest, and pay an eerie nighttime visit to a bay that glows in the dark, all without leaving the United States? Only Puerto Rico offers historic Old San Juan, the teeming, colorful El Yunque Rain Forest, and the hauntingly beautiful La Parguera bioluminescent bay. Oh, and there's also the world-class beaches if you insist on doing nothing much at all. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to San Juan on JetBlue start at $335. Stay: Embassy Suites Dorado Del Mar Beach & Golf Resort, just outside San Juan, includes an 18-hole Chi Chi Rodriguez-designed golf course built along the rocky cliffs and jetties of Puerto Rico's Atlantic coast; complimentary cooked-to-order breakfast is included (201 Dorado Del Mar Blvd., Dorado, Puerto Rico, embassysuites.hilton.com, doubles from $159). 5. OAHU, HAWAII  Pacific Paradise In the dead of winter, the classic image of Oahu's hotel-lined Waikiki Beach can either haunt your dreams or, if you book now, be yours to savor in person. The Waikiki neighborhood of Honolulu stretches from the Ala Wai Canal to Diamond Head, a volcanic cone misnamed by 19th-century explorers who believed the rocky cone held diamonds. Take a stroll on Beach Walk, where you'll find gift shops and art galleries (including a ukulele shop) and casual dining options that include traditional Hawaiian dishes and live music. Get There: Round-trip flights from San Jose, Calif., to Honolulu on United start at $502. Stay: Coconut Waikiki Hotel is an Art Deco-style boutique hotel with a tropical pool; it's a short walk from Waikiki Beach Walk (450 Lewers St., Honolulu, hotels.com, doubles from $169). 6. BOZEMAN, MONTANA Rocky Mountain Skiing For those who'd prefer not to escape winter but rather to plunge deeper into it, Montana throws its arms open wide. The minute you step off the plane in Bozeman, the cold, pine-scented air will remind you that you're not in Wherever You Came From anymore. Powder hounds swear by Bridger Bowl ski lodge, in the nearby Bridger Mountain range (part of the Rocky Mountains). The lodge offers ski lift/lodging packages with local hotels starting at $139/person for two days of skiing and one night's lodging. If you decide to mix your powder with a spoonful of learning, drop by the Museum of the Rockies, at Montana State University, to delve into Montana's Native American and pioneer history and to see some of the world's finest dinosaur fossils. Get There: Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Bozeman on Frontier start at $350. Stay: Homewood Suites by Hilton Bozeman provides a cozy home away from home in the heart of this college town (1023 Baxter Lane, Bozeman, Mont., homewoodsuites.hilton.com, doubles from $104). 7. ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO Southwestern Sun A winter sojourn to the Southwest doesn't have to mean just golf courses and exhibition baseball. Albuquerque presents an eclectic dance card to visitors: The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum is a hotspot for hot-air balloon enthusiasts—and also for those content to just watch those gentle giants take flight. The Pueblo Cultural Center presents one of the world's most impressive collections of Southwestern Native American art, including changing exhibits by contemporary artists. If, after soaking up New Mexico's distinctive desert landscape, you want to find out more about how the land took the shape it did, head to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Get There: Round-trip flights from Chicago to Albuquerque on United start at $408. Stay: Nativo Lodge features an indoor and an outdoor pool, a fitness center, and spa (6000 Pan American Freeway North East, Albuquerque, N.M., nativolodge.com, doubles from $59). 8. COSTA RICA Tropical Fun This Central American nation's reputation for all-around beauty, adventure, and affordability is well deserved. Start with the markets, museums, and nightlife of capital city San Jose, then head to Arenal—the kind of rumbling, lava-spewing volcano you may have thought existed only in movies. And if an active volcano isn't enough to get your adrenaline flowing, dive into Manuel Antonio national park to cavort with monkeys, or just go take a hike—no, we really mean take a hike—in the cloud forests near Monteverde and Santa Elena along the continental divide. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to San Jose, Costa Rica, on Spirit start at $441; round-trip flights from Denver to San Jose, Costa Rica, on Frontier start at $429. Stay: Hotel Presidente, in San Jose, offers boutique hotel style in a convenient central-city location and includes a complimentary continental breakfast buffet (Central Avenue Blvd., 7th Street, San Jose, Costa Rica, hotel-presidente.com, doubles from $89).  9. CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, ITALY Italian Skiing This stunning region of Italy's Dolomite Mountains—featuring peaks over 9,000 feet above sea level—was the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics and has always attracted a swanky European crowd, including movie stars and royals. But strict zoning has kept the area true to its surprisingly Teutonic roots, and you'll see white-timber houses that look as if they were transplanted out of a fairy tale. The popular Cortina d'Ampezzo ski resort offers a seven-day Dolomiti Superski pass, which gives you access to all the area's slopes for about $40 a day, and booking your trip now can nab you reasonable airfare and hotel rates for this tony enclave. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to Rome on Alitalia start at $1,071. Stay: Domina Home Alaska is centrally located in Cortina d'Ampezzo and offers complimentary breakfast and a fitness center (39 Largo delle Poste, Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, hotels.com, doubles from $150). 10. SMUGGLER'S NOTCH, VERMONT Northeast Skiing With incredible ski destinations in the American west and the mountain ranges of Europe, it's easy for easterners to forget that there are some awesome slopes under their noses. For one-stop shopping, Smugglers' Notch, in Vermont's Green Mountains, is convenient, affordable, and regularly ranks among the top favorites of ski enthusiasts. Here, a little more than an hour's flight from New York City, you'll find weeklong packages that include a mountainside condo, lift tickets, snow tubing, and a family entertainment and recreation center. Get There: Round-trip flights from New York to Burlington, Vt., on United start at $152. Stay: Smugglers' Notch ski lodge basic packages include a studio condominium and lift tickets (4323 Vermont Route 108 South, Jeffersonville, Vt., smuggs.com, doubles, including lift package for two, from $297). 11. NHA TRANG, VIETNAM The Perfect Beach Yeah, the airfare to Vietnam from the U.S.'s West Coast is not cheap, averaging between $900 and $1,300 round-trip, but once you get there, food and lodging can be quite reasonable. The beaches of Nha Trang, on the country's south central coast, are a major wintertime draw, and many visitors are more than happy to skip major cities like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi in favor of this laid-back beach town. Besides superb surf, scuba, and sunbathing, Nha Trang offers a number of temples dating as far back as the 9th century and Vietnam's signature cuisine, which blends French Colonial influence with traditional Southeast Asian claypot and noodle dishes. Get There: Round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Nha Trang, Vietnam, on China Southern start at $991. Stay: Novotel Nha Trang has an outdoor pool and a spa (50 Tran Phu St., Nha Trang, Vietnam, novotel.com, doubles from $82).

6 Easy Safe-Eating Tips I Wish I'd Known Before My Last Trip

I'm planning a trip to Peru. Is it inevitable that I'll get diarrhea? What's that I hear? A collective "Ewww, gross"? Let's settle down and demystify this common travel ailment, officially called travelers' diarrhea (TD) but also known by a variety of colorful nick-names, including turista, Montezuma's revenge, Delhi belly, and the Turkey trot, depending on where you are in the world. Whatever you call it, the symptoms are, alas, universally awful: urgent sprints to the bathroom, abdominal cramps, sometimes nausea and vomiting, and in serious cases dehydration and fever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that TD hits up to 50 percent of international travelers and up to 70 percent of those visiting high-risk regions, including most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America. But TD is not inevitable. The main cause is food and water contaminated with bacteria (such as E. coli and salmonella), viruses, and parasites from animal feces. When those pesky microorganisms hit your gastrointestinal tract, your gut essentially erupts in an effort to get rid of the invaders. Your odds of getting sick are higher when a rudimentary water system—such as those in developing regions—fails to adequately separate tap water from waste water. What's more, food-safety standards from farm to table are usually less stringent than in the U.S., Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Meat can become contaminated at the slaughterhouse, fruits and vegetables come in contact with manure-based fertilizers, and restaurant workers often aren't taught to wash their hands before handling food-even after using the toilet. What can I do to stay safe? One easy rule of thumb: If your lodgings don't allow you to flush toilet paper, don't drink the water. It's a sign you're visiting a region with an unsafe water supply. That also means no ice cubes or diluted juices or cocktails with water or ice, no swallowing shower water, and no brushing your teeth with tap water (a BT reader recently recommended placing an airline luggage tag over your hotel bathroom's faucet as a reminder). Instead, drink bottled sodas and carbonated waters (unfortunately, some bottled still water may be contaminated in some countries). Or purify your own water: One option is to bring an electric kettle and boil tap water for at least one minute. Stuart Rose, M.D., founder of the Travel Medicine Center of Western Massachusetts, suggests that you bring iodine tablets, which kill bacteria in about 10 minutes. As for food, "Boil it, peel it, or forget it" has been the standard recommendation. It means you should eat only foods that are thoroughly cooked (that goes for vegetables as well as meats, since raw veggies were likely washed in tap water) or that you yourself have to peel (like oranges and bananas), which ensure that only your well-washed hands have come in contact with the fruit. In high-risk regions, packaged foods—especially those that you bring with you from home—are going to be your safest eating option. (See below for our list of "Credible Edibles.") Oh, and I should also mention: Your mom was right when she insisted you wash your hands before dinner. Pack a bar of soap and hand-sanitizing wipes or alcohol-based gel such as Purell. You may have no say in whether a restaurant worker washes his hands before handling your food, but keeping your own paws pure will go a long way toward keeping invaders out of your GI tract. Cleaning hands with soap and warm tap water (even in high-risk regions) is safe, says Cedric Spak, M.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease specialist at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, as long as you wash your hands vigorously and thoroughly dry them. Are street food carts off-limits? No, but (of course) there's a caveat. Food prepared at a street cart is not inherently more or less safe than food at the upscale bistro around the corner, says Spak. What matters—and this goes for any restaurant, cart, or home-cooked meal—is how scrupulously hands, surfaces, and food are kept clean and how efficiently the food is served. Here are the things you want to watch for when deciding whether or not to eat from a street cart: Pick a cart with a long line and quick turnover, which means food is hot and fresh. Certain vendors are popular because their food is tastier and safer-it's worth the extra minutes in line. Bring your own bowl and utensils. It may sound impractical, but in developing regions, improper washing of serving dishes may transmit microorganisms that can make you sick. Make sure food is served piping hot. If it's been left out to cool, it could be harboring a growing colony of bacteria. Fly from flies. Never eat food that isn't protected from insects, which can contaminate even freshly cooked dishes. Go with your instincts. If surfaces don't look clean and you don't see a place where workers can wash their hands, pass. Return to a cart you've enjoyed. Finding a vendor serving safe, delicious food can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship-he may even share recipes if you ask. Are there medications I can take while traveling that will make me immune to TD? Some people swear that taking Pepto-Bismol may reduce TD risk, and Rose says that the active ingredient, bismuth, has some antibacterial properties. However, the product is meant to treat stomach upset, not prevent it, and you should check with your doctor before loading up your suitcase with "pink magic." Likewise, probiotics ("good" bacteria) found in yogurt have not been clinically proven to prevent TD (the CDC says evidence is "inconclusive" to date), and taking antibiotics preemptively is not recommended for most travelers. Readers of BT's blog, This Just In, recently posted their own TD remedies, including ginger and cayenne pepper pills, but research doesn't yet support those remedies either. One reader suggested that drinking alcohol after every meal helps keep her safe. Spak jokes that, like chicken soup, "It couldn't hurt." Are there any apps that can help me vet restaurants for safety? At the moment, DineSafe.com covers more than 250,000 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada and offers an Android app (an iPhone app is under development) that allows you to find a restaurant's health rating, with explanations of what the ratings mean and a record of recent inspections. Hopefully similar apps are being cooked up that will help vet eateries in regions with health-inspection protocols less vigorous than ours. What should I do if I get traveler's diarrhea? Because it may be possible to follow food-safety rules strictly and still be struck down—whether it's at a sketchy dive or a four-star restaurant—there are some must-pack meds you'll need to help you bounce back. Imodium, or any other over-the-counter product containing the active ingredient loperamide, may help control diarrhea. Spak says you should take diarrhea seriously, making sure you treat it yourself or seek medical help because it can lead to dehydration and other serious conditions. Before you leave for your trip, ask your doctor if she'll prescribe an antibiotic, such as ciprofloxacin or azithromycin, and whether taking an antibiotic along with loperamide is appropriate for you. Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest so you can enjoy the remainder of your vacation. Although travelers' diarrhea can last several days, it's usually not dangerous if treated properly. But if your TD is accompanied by a fever of 101˚F or higher, bleeding, or severe abdominal pain, see a doctor—there may be something more serious afoot and you'll likely have to stop taking loperamide. It's also worth remembering that you can get TD-like symptoms from a major change in your diet—which is what can happen when you take an exotic trip. If you're a relatively healthy eater who switches to an all-ice-cream-and-chorizo meal plan the minute you're away from home, don't blame the restaurant or street vendor for your bellyache!

5 Unusually Dangerous—and 5 Especially Safe—Places to Drive

Regardless how "streetwise" you are at home, "streetwise" means something very different when the streets you're traveling are unlit or risky ribbons of roads, clinging to a cliff top. In many parts of the world, roads are poorly maintained and you'll have to share the lane with beasts, bikes, and abandoned vehicles. Even here in America, there are places where drivers should pay extra attention to the road. We wanted to get to the bottom of exactly where caution should be taken, and found five places with perils you may not have ever considered, from South American back roads with poor track records to the most dangerous driving destinations in the U.S. We've also found five destinations that are a delight to drive, from shiny European superhighways to some of the finest roads in the Americas. So, whichever direction you're headed in, buckle up and have a safe trip. SEE THE BEST PLACES TO BE ON—AND OFF—THE ROAD 5 Unusually Dangerous Places to Drive JohannesburgCarjacking capital of the worldSouth Africa has some of Africa's most beautiful coastline, a stunning subtropical climate, and an abundance of wildlife. It also has one of the world's highest rates of carjackings. According to police statistics, 10,627 carjackings occurred in the country of 50 million last year—half in tiny Gauteng Province, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria. But before you cancel your flight, keep in mind that most victims are not seriously injured and that there are things you can do to decrease your carjacking odds. The situation is so dire that residents can legally attach small flamethrowers to cars to repel carjackers (this is definitely not standard on rental cars). Less extreme precautions include watching for signs marking "carjacking blackspots or hotspots," keeping doors locked while driving, and not stopping for apparent accidents, vehicles that have broken down, or even cars with blue lights—they're not necessarily police. Weigh up whether to stop at red lights in high-risk areas, especially at night; risk a fine instead of a hijack. More than 8.3 million people visited South Africa last year, over 432,000 of them from the Americas. Well over a third of those visitors from the Americas were repeat visitors, proving South Africa's appeal outweighs its potential risks. MississippiThe nation's most dangerous roadsIf you're making for Mississippi, slow down and buckle up. Statistically, with almost 27 road deaths per 100,000 Mississippians, the state languishes at the bottom of the list in the U.S. when it comes to safe roads. Unlit rural roads, high speeds, and lack of seatbelt usage are prime culprits. More than half of those who died on Mississippi's roads in 2010 were not wearing a seatbelt and, according to a Reader's Digest study, Mississippi was one of the deadliest states due to speeding. It is also one of 11 states where texting while driving is not against the law (though it is illegal if you are driving with a learning permit or temporary license). The state senate approved bans on texting as well as using handheld phones while driving in 2011, but the bills were rejected by the House Judiciary Committee in July 2012. Back Roads of BoliviaSome of the world's most perilous back roadsThe quality of back roads of Bolivia is far from what we're used to in the US. The landlocked South American nation's thoroughfares tend to be narrow, two-lane roads with bone-jarring potholes, no shoulder, aggressive drivers, and a melee of donkeys, ox carts, dogs, horses, and pedestrians sharing roadways. One—North Yungas Road—has been nicknamed "El Camino del Muerte." In other words, Road of Death, due to the shocking numbers of buses, cars, and trucks that have plunged over the edge and into the valleys below. Clinging to near sheer cliff-faces, with no guardrails and 2,600-foot drops yawning below, the road has become notorious for its high death count. A sliver of a 43-mile track built by Paraguayan prisoners in the 1930s, El Camino has claimed thousands of victims as it snakes its way round hairpin bends from capital La Paz to the Amazon town of Coroico. PennsylvaniaThe deadliest animal in North AmericaEvery year, there are about 1 million collisions with deer on U.S. roads, more than 100,000 of them in Pennsylvania, where the odds of hitting a deer are one in 86. The deadliest month for deer collisions is November, when male deer have fighting and mating on their minds. So turn up your high beams and watch for posted deer crossing signs, particularly between 6 and 9 p.m. While deer hit the headlines in Pennsylvania as well as neighboring West Virginia, Alaska had a grim bumper winter for moose collisions. By February, over 600 winter moose collisions had been recorded. Back on the East Coast, New Hampshire is a bad state to be a moose, with around 250 moose-car encounters annually; a hefty figure considering the state's moose population is only 6,000 strong. IndiaRoads with the most chaos—and the most cowsNotorious for its chaotic traffic, India might well be the most terrifying place to drive. Gargantuan traffic jams, six cars crammed into the three lanes, and a complete disregard for traffic signs and markings: These are just a few of the travel hazards you'll face on India's city streets. The noise of car horns is deafening as streets seethe with cars, cows, mopeds, bikes, and pedestrians. Outside the cities, ancient, precariously held-together vehicles hurtle along poorly maintained roads at breakneck speed. Drivers often leave car lights off at night when driving poorly or unlit streets and sometimes shut off engines completely when going down hills. If you have to drive in India—it's an experience you'll never forget. 5 Especially Safe Places to Drive CanadaFirst choice for first-time driving outside the U.S.An ideal choice for first-time driving outside the U.S., our neighbor to the north drives on the same side of the road as we do and road signage is in English in 12 of Canada's 13 provinces and territories. The exception to this is the staunchly French-speaking province of Quebec, where other than some bilingual signs in Montreal, road signs are exclusively in French. Canada's roads are safer than south of the border, with a 8.8 in 100,000 chance of being killed on the roads, compared with the U.S., where odds are 14 in 100,000. Just remember that road signs are in kilometers, not miles. NorwayOne of the lowest rates of traffic fatalities in the worldWith one of the lowest rates of traffic fatalities in the world, Norway is another excellent driving destination. Factors responsible for the Nordic nation's stellar safety record include very strict rules about mobile phone use, keeping headlights on at all times, safety gear you must have in your car, and even the types of tires you must use. At 0.02 percent, Norway's is also one of the lowest blood alcohol limits, although the low figure doesn't concern all that many Norwegians. One survey found that 91 percent of Norwegians wouldn't drink any alcohol at all if driving. GermanyLife in the fast laneIf you think driving in Germany involves careening along hair-raising (or exhilarating, depending on your attitude) 20-lane, speed-limit-free autobahns, think again. In fact, a third of the autobahn has speed limits—some as low as 37 mph—and many look much like four-lane highways back home. Almost 2,000 miles of the nearly 8,000-mile autobahn network has "dynamic speed limits," adjusted to match traffic and weather conditions. Whether you're in a section with a speed limit or not, Germany keeps roads safe with strict rules, including stringent vehicle inspections, obligatory third-party liability coverage, and a point system that keeps dangerous drivers off the road. All cars must carry specific safety and first-aid equipment, and switch to snow tires in winter—or face steep penalties. Once you've got all that in place, driving in Germany is a pleasure; roads are impeccably maintained using high-tech road scanners, and feature landscaped medians, long acceleration and deceleration lanes, gentle curves, and freeze-resistant surfaces. You might just want to slow down to enjoy the drive. ItalyWorking to become one of Europe's safest places to get behind the wheelGiven myriad movie images of chaotic, narrow, twisting Vespa-crammed Italian streets, it might be a surprise to see Italy listed as a safe place to drive. But Italy has successfully put the brakes on the once-soaring road accident and fatality statistics that even provoked Pope Benedict to issue "Ten Commandments" for safer driving. Now, Italy has raced from a position as one of Europe's more dangerous places to be on the road (or sidewalk) to one of its safer options. New laws introduced heftier fines for driving with blood-alcohol levels of 0.05 percent or for being on the road without a reflective safety vest in your car. Now, convicted drug users have their licenses revoked if they are caught driving under the influence of drugs. Whether it's the new traffic laws or the might of the Pope's car commandments, deaths on Italian roads have decreased 43.7 percent in the last decade. PanamaSome of Latin America's safest roadsWith 1,000 miles of coastline, 1,500 islands, and 954 bird species, you're going to want to drive to see this stunning country of 2.8 million. It has a land area smaller than South Carolina, so you can easily drive to a slew of scenic spots; the canal is just 20 minutes from Panama City, while the rain forest is a 45-minute drive, and Pacific Coast beaches are only 90 minutes away. With the exception of gridlocked Panama City, Panama has some of Latin America's best roads. The modern, four-lane Pan-American Highway crosses the western side of Panama, from the capital to the second-largest city, Colón, with a plethora of gas stations and eateries en route. Once you veer off the major highways, however, roads are not always well maintained. That said, there was a 47 percent decrease in road accidents between 2010 and 2011 according to the National Department of Transit, and continuing efforts are underway to improve roads, plus plans to install helpful road signage toward sites of interest to visitors.

Family

12 Awe-Inspiring American Castles

Who doesn't go a bit giddy at the sight of a castle? The good news is that you don't have to head to Europe for honest-to-goodness ones of the Cinderella variety—we have plenty right here in our own backyard. Railroad barons commissioned most of these estates, but at least one housed a legitimate king and queen (bet you didn't know this country had its own history of royalty!). Each is an engineering wonder in its own right, with some even constructed out of old-world castles that were shipped across the ocean. And each is open to tours should you decide to make a trip (a select few will even let you spend the night). Read this and you might just discover a side of America you never knew existed. SEE THE 12 AWE-INSPIRING CASTLES 1. GREY TOWERS CASTLE  Most colleges contend to be fortresses of learning, but Arcadia University in the suburbs north of Philadelphia can back it up with battlements acquired in 1929. Grey Towers was built by eclectic sugar refiner William Welsh Harrison between 1893 and 1898 and modeled after Northumberland's Alnwick Castle (a.k.a. the most archetypal expression of the medieval style). The 40 rooms wowed with gilded ceilings, tapestries, ornamental paintings, and hand-carved walnut and mahogany woodwork in styles from French Renaissance to Louis XV—and of course a Mirror Room—while secret passages behind fireplaces and underground tunnels. Self-guided tours of public areas are possible while classes are in session (the building now contains dorm rooms and administration offices). Free brochures outline the history. 450 South Easton Rd., Glenside, PA, 215/572-2900, arcadia.edu. 2.'IOLANI PALACE  Other properties on this list may be bigger and more lavish, but the 'Iolani Palace has one thing above them all: legitimacy. America's only true palace—as in, royalty resided here—was built from 1879 to 1882 by King Kalakua and Queen Kapi'olani. The goal was to enhance the prestige of modern Hawaii in a kind of Victorian-era keeping up with the Joneses. (The palace had electricity and a telephone even before the White House.) Stone-faced with plenty of koa wood inside, the two-floor American Florentine–style building includes a throne room, grand hall, and private suites, including the upstairs room where the queen was imprisoned for five months following the 1895 coup. Today, concerted efforts are underway to find artifacts and furniture (like the king's ebony and gilt bedroom set) that were auctioned off by the post-coup Provisional Government. 364 South King St., Honolulu, HI, 808/522-0832, iolanipalace.org. Admission $12, guided tour $20. 3. HAMMOND CASTLE  Like a modern-day Frankenstein's castle on Massachusetts's rocky Atlantic shore, Abbadia Mare (Abbey by the Sea) served as both home and laboratory for prolific inventor John Hayes Hammond Jr. after it was completed in 1929. Hammond is largely credited as the "Father of the Radio Control," as in tanks and planes and remote-controlled cars. He was also a lover of medieval art, and the castle was designed to showcase his collection. The building itself is a blend of 15th-, 16th-, and 18th-century styles, including a great hall with elaborate rose windows and pipe organ plus a courtyard featuring a two-story meat market/wine merchant's house brought over from southern France. And, yes, like any proper mad scientist, he made sure there were secret passageways. Self-guided tours are available along with annual Renaissance Faire fund-raisers, psychic gatherings, and spooky Halloween events. 80 Hesperus Ave., Gloucester, MA, 978/283-2080, hammondcastle.org. Admission $10. 4. FONTHILL CASTLE  Celebrating its centennial in 2012, the former home of industrialist-turned-archaeologist Henry Mercer is an ode to artisanship: All 44 rooms (10 bathrooms, five bedrooms, and 200 windows), 32 stairwells, 18 fireplaces, and 21 chimneys are hewn from hand-mixed reinforced concrete in a mishmash of medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine styles. Thousands of handcrafted ceramic tiles were inset throughout, including Mercer's own Moravian-style tiles plus Persian, Chinese, Spanish, and Dutch productions he collected. Today, the 60-acre Bucks County estate serves as a museum to pre-industrial life, with 900 American and European prints at Fonthill and even more artifacts (like a whale boat and Conestoga wagon) in its sister building, the Mercer Museum, a fun house–like six-story castle in its own right. East Court St. and Rt. 313, Doylestown, PA, 215/348-9461, mercermuseum.org. Admission $12. 5. CASTELLO DI AMOROSA  Word to the wise: Imbibe the cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio at the Castello di Amorosa winery carefully, because somewhere in the 121,000-square-foot, 107-room, eight-level complex there's a dungeon with a functional Renaissance-era iron maiden. It took 14 years to construct the castle using historically accurate medieval building techniques. The end result is an "authentic" 12th- and 13th-century Tuscan castle with drawbridge and moat. The frescoes in the Great Hall and Knights' Chamber are hand-painted, some 8,000 tons of Napa Valley stone hand-chiseled, the Hapsburg-era bricks, hand-forged nails and chandeliers, and 500-year-old fireplace all tediously imported from Europe. That sense of awe? Very modern. 4045 N. St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA, 707/967-6272, castellodiamorosa.com. Admission $18, including wine tasting. 6. BOLDT CASTLE  What do you do when you come across a heart-shaped isle while vacationing with your wife in the Thousand Islands? If you're upstart industrialist George Boldt, you buy it and hire 300 stonemasons, carpenters, and artists to build a six-story, 120-room testament to your love. There were Italian gardens, a dove-cote, and a turreted powerhouse, plus all the imported Italian marble, French silks, and Oriental rugs money could buy. But when his wife Louise died in 1904, the heartbroken Boldt ceased construction on the Rhineland-style Taj Mahal and left it to the elements for 73 years. Today, tourists can visit from May to October for self-guided tours—or book a wedding in the stone gazebo. +44° 20' 40.29" N, -75° 55' 21.27" W, Heart Island, Alexandria Bay, NY, 315/482-9724, boldtcastle.com. Admission $8. 7. GILLETTE CASTLE  It's elementary: Get famous (and rich) by playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage; build your own Baskerville Hall. Pet project of campy eccentric William Hooker Gillette, the 24-room castle was completed in 1919 by a crew of 20 men over five years using the actor/playwright's own drafts and designs. It's also the focal point of his 184-acre Seventh Sister estate, a forested bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. Outside, the local fieldstone reads like crumbling medieval; inside, the built-in couches, curious detailing, and inventive hand-carved southern white oak woodwork is all arts and crafts. As for cat images? There are 60. (Gillette had 17 feline friends.) Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Rd., East Haddam, CT, 860/526-2336, ct.gov. Grounds open year-round; interior tours available Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Admission $6. 8. OHEKA CASTLE  Second behind Asheville's Biltmore as the largest private estate in the nation, OHEKA—an acronym of Otto Herman Kahn, its millionaire financier original owner—ended up abandoned in the late 1970s and sustained extensive damage from fires, vandals, and neglect. After a 20-year renovation, it's back in form and is now a 32-room luxury hotel. Think Downton Abbey just an hour from Manhattan (themed packages available), or for that matter, Citizen Kane (photos of it were used in the film). Originally set on 443 acres, massive tons of earth were moved to make the hilltop location of the 127-room, 109,000-square-foot manse the highest point in Long Island. The Olmsted Brothers planned the formal gardens, the Grand Staircase was inspired by Fontainebleau's famous exterior one, and 126 servants tended to the six-person family when they came for weekends and summers. The 1919 price tag: $11 million. That's $110 million in today's money. Sounds about right for a man whose likeness inspired Mr. Monopoly. 135 West Gate Dr., Huntington, NY, 631/659-1400, oheka.com. Admission $25. Double rooms from $395 per night. Guided tours available. 9. BISHOP'S PALACE  Of all the Gilded Age Victorians built by Nicholas Clayton along Galveston's Gulf Coast, the Bishop's Palace (née Gresham Castle, 1893, after its original owner, Santa Fe railroad magnate Walther Gresham) remains the grandest—and not just because its steel and stone hulk survived the Great Storm of 1900. Its small lot and oversized proportions with château-esque detailing of steeply peaked rooflines and sculptural chimneys still dominate the street, while inside the 14-foot coffered ceilings, 40-foot octagonal mahogany stairwell, stained glass, plaster carvings, and Sienna marble columns exude richness. Keep a lookout for the bronze dragon sculptures. After serving as a Catholic bishop's residence for 50 years, the house is now open for tours. Book a private guide to see the usually off-limits third floor. 1402 Broadway, Galveston, TX, 409/762-2475, galveston.com. Admission $10, private tours from $50. 10. CASTLE IN THE CLOUDS  Location, location, location—as important in castles to fending off conquers as forgetting Gilded Age woes. And for millionaire shoe baron Thomas Plant, that meant setting his 1914 Lucknow Estate (named after the Indian city he loved) on the rim of an extinct caldera high in the Ossipee Mountains with unbroken views over 6,300 private acres of woods and lakes. The mansion by comparison is relatively subdued: A mere 16 rooms, it's practically minuscule compared to the other castles on this list. Throughout, the arts and crafts philosophy of artisanship and living in harmony with nature is expressed in the stone walls, inventive handiwork like the jigsaw floor in the kitchen, and functional decor that eschews ostentation—all planned at Plant's 5-foot-4 height—plus a few technological innovations like a needle shower, self-cleaning oven, brine fridge, and central-vacuuming system. Much remains wholly preserved today. Route 171, 455 Old Mountain Rd., Moultonborough, NH, 603/476-5900, castleintheclouds.org. Admission $16. 11. THORNEWOOD CASTLE  It's not every day Stephen King chooses your luxury B&B as setting for his haunted-house TV miniseries Rose Red. Then again it's not every day that a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor house is dismantled brick-by-brick and shipped round Cape Horn to be incorporated into an English Tudor Gothic castle in the Pacific Northwest, as Thornewood was from 1908 to 1911. The property was a gift from Chester Thorne, one of the founders of the Port of Tacoma, to his wife and apropos of its origin, the 54-room castle is now a prime wedding venue, with antiques and artwork galore plus an Olmsted Brothers–designed garden and three acres of fir-dotted grounds overlooking American Lake. Book a room to get an inside look at the building; there are also tours and events that are occasionally open to the public. 8601 N. Thorne Lane Southwest, Lakewood, WA, 253/584-4393, thornewoodcastle.com. Double rooms from $300 per night. 12. HEARST CASTLE  Understatement of the millennium: William Randolph Hearst's 1919 directive to architect Julia Morgan to "build a little something" on his ranch in San Simeon. Then again, a 115-room "Casa Grande" inspired by a Spanish cathedral is a relatively modest proposition compared to the 250,000 acres and the 13 miles of coastline it's set on. It's when you add in the three additional Mediterranean Revival guesthouses (46 more rooms total), 127 acres of gardens, the Neptune pool with authentic Roman temple pediment, the zoo with roaming reindeer and zebra, Egyptian Sekhmet statues on the terraces, and the private airstrip that things get a bit over-the-top. Magnificent doesn't begin to describe the museum-quality artwork, which drove the architecture as much as anything, from Renaissance statuary to Gothic tapestries and entire ceilings, nor the palatial scale of the publishing magnate's vision for "La Cuesta Encantada" (The Enchanted Hill)—still unfinished upon his death in 1951. 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, CA, 800/444-4445, hearstcastle.org. Admission from $25.

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