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Get to Know: Indianola, MS, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

By Liza Weisstuch
January 12, 2022
Indianola, Mississippi, Club Ebony
Courtesy Visit Mississippi
B.B. King's legacy brings soul to this modest Mississippi Delta town.

Indianola, Mississippi, is no. 10 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Asbury Park, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen; Muscle Shoals, Alabama has Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Indianola, Mississippi has blues maestro B.B. King. It seems like the entire city, which is known as the Crown of the Delta and measures less than nine square miles, is a shrine to him. First and foremost, of course, is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a $14 million institution that opened in 2008. In addition to being a tribute to an American legend, who’s buried in the museum’s memorial garden, the exhibits chronicle an entire history of the blues. If you’re not there during the museum’s B.B. King Homecoming Festival each May, there are plenty of clubs around the city, some of which are so old school they don’t even have websites, where you can see—rather, hear— King’s legacy in action. Even the streets here are named after him and Lucille, his guitar. But blues isn’t the only history to learn here. The town’s historic district, a showcase of Victorian era-style and Tudor Revival homes, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Like nearly every city in the South, Indianola delivers on meals to remember. The Blue Biscuit is easily one of the most visited joints, what with its high-profile location across from the museum, and Betty's Place is a classic, historic diner, but veer off the well-trod path and chances are high you’ll be richly rewarded. 

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Get to Know: Cannon Beach, OR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Cannon Beach, Oregon is no. 6 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Here’s the magic number to remember when you think about this breathtaking oceanside town: 363. That’s how many miles of shoreline there are here, each mile as stunning as the last, especially the stretch where you can take in the views of the iconic Haystack Rock, a majestic millions-years-old boulder 235 feet from the shoreline. Colorful tidepools swirl around it and all sorts of birds as well as puffins gather there and you can walk right up to it in low tide. But any of the many places to stay along the water, from rustic B&Bs to more posh resorts, offer quite a vista to wake up to. Needless to say, Cannon Beach is a mecca for outdoor sports. There are plenty of spots for surfers to catch waves and calmer areas for kayakers. Hiking amid some of the world’s tallest trees in Ecola State Park or bike rides along the local expanse of the 382-mile Oregon Coast Trail are ways for landlubbers to spend the days.  The Lost Art of Nursing Museum, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a treasure trove of maritime objects, are just a few of the institutions that give visitors a sense of the area’s rich and varied history. But to get back to the future, this being Oregon, there are vast dining and drinking options that far exceed what you’d expect for such a small town. Pig N Pancake and Crepe Neptune are among the tempting options for breakfast fare. Dinner is a thrilling array of everything from family-owned Ecola Seafood, which specializes in the local catch, to the elegant, chill Seasons Café, known for its elevated, creative twists salads and sandwiches along with local beer and wine, and the quirky Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House, where you can chow down on pub grub and shop for tools, camping gear, and paint supplies. The originality of that spot alone is enough to have us booking our ticket.

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Get to Know: Philipsburg, MT, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Philipsburg, MT, is no. 7 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017.  Anyone traveling from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone, as I did with my wife and kids last summer, will be grateful for the town of Philipsburg, a little mining town in Granite County, a short drive south of Interstate 90. Especially if you’re driving with kids, Philipsburg may be the town of your dreams: Stop here to learn how to pan for gems and chow down at "The World’s Greatest Candy Store." Any questions? The Sapphire Gallery will teach you how to turn a pile of dirt and rubble into a much smaller pile of beautiful raw sapphires: You purchase a bag of gravel mined from the nearby mountains, then swirl it around in a pan to align the gravel so that the raw sapphires (much denser than the surrounding debris) sink to the bottom center. Then you turn your sieve upside down and pick out the raw sapphires. Staff is on hand to help, and you can then take your favorite sapphires to be analyzed to determine which ones are candidates for heat-treating, which gives sapphires their shine and their color. We ended up with three good candidates, paid to have them heat treated, and they arrived in the mail a few weeks later, even more beautiful than we’d hoped. Even if we weren’t a little peckish after our sapphire activity, it’d be difficult to say “no” to The Sweet Palace, billed as “The World’s Greatest Candy Store” and located right next door to the Sapphire Gallery. As you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the unmistakable aroma of taffy, fudge, and other other delights all blending together in way that takes you back to your childhood, or the childhood of your dreams. Rows and rows of candy jars, ranging from well-known favorites to unusual regional treats, invite you to overindulge. We did. I handed each of my daughters a candy bag and instructed them to pick out no more than one pound each. I thought I was being a bit strict. But it occurred to me only later, as they spread their bounty on their hotel beds, that one pound of candy is, well, a pound of candy; oh well, we were on vacation, right? For dinner, we enjoyed Tommyknockers, across the street from our hotel. The burgers and lemonade were just what we needed after a day on the road, and I especially enjoyed a refreshingly light craft beer, brewed just down the street at Philipsburg Brewing Company. We bedded down in style at The Broadway Hotel, where each room is decorated in the style of a particular travel destination. Appropriately enough for us, we got a U.K.-themed room, which suited my family's literary taste (Dickens, Austen, Rowling) perfectly. In the morning, we joined other hotel guests in a hearty breakfast of home-baked quiches, pastry, and more. Even though we weren't traveling with a dog, we appreciated the hotel's pet-friendly policies, and we loved chatting with the staff about Philipsburg's mining history and very cool comeback in recent years.

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Get to Know: Milford, PA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Milford, PA, is no. 8 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017.  A village since 1796, Milford is something of a time capsule today, not least because its streets are lined with Victorian homes and regal mansions designed by some of the best known 19th century architects. About $5.5 million has been invested to enhance and refurbish its heritage, so the streets, with their well-kept trees and restored streetlights and sidewalks, are almost an attraction unto themselves. Milford’s historic district includes 655 buildings. Four hundred are officially “historically significant.” And then there’s the Hotel Fauchere, a nearly 130-year-old institution that was rejuvenated in the mid aughts. Since Milford, which is part of the Poconos, is only 85 miles east of New York City, it became a posh summer resort town for the cultural and political illuminati in the early to mid 1900s, so the Fauchere’s guestbook includes Mae West, JFK, and Andrew Carnegie, to name a few.  Things quieted down after WWII, but got lively again after 9/11 when urbanites sought quiet respite, but despite this influx of cityfolk, the dining scene retains its old-school charm. The Hotel Fauchere’s Delmonico Room, named for the legendary Manhattan restaurant where the hotel’s founder worked as a master chef before arriving here, upholds its tradition of classy American fare, but the chefs here jazz up the dishes with modern creativity. The Jive Bar and Lounge, which is so old school it doesn’t even have a website, has music on the weekends and the iconic Milford Diner, set in a charming colonial building, is everything you’d expect of a classic breakfast grub go-to. The Waterwheel Cafe Bakery & Bar, a local favorite since 1989, offers wholesome dishes with international twists.  The nature is something to behold, too, what with its setting 100 feet above the Delaware River, which is ideal for kayaking as well as hiking along its shores. The Knob, a noted natural attraction, is a 400-foot bluff at the end of the town’s main boulevard, affords views of the warren of streams flowing in and around the town, forming a web of waterfalls as they go. The town is actually billed as the birthplace of the American Conservation Movement, as Theodore Roosevelt appointed its founder’s son as the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. The way the natural beauty here is woven into a cityscape makes for a solid microcosm of America itself.

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Locals Know Best: Fargo, North Dakota

If you’re a student of American trivia, you might know that Fargo, North Dakota’s most populous town, which sits on the Red River Valley of the Great Plains, is named for William Fargo, the founder of the Wells Fargo Express Company. Or you might know that it was referred to as the “Gateway to the West” once the Northern Pacific Railroad was up and running through the area. Or that it was essentially rebuilt after a massive fire decimated 31 downtown blocks in 1893. But chances are everything you know about Fargo you owe to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 kooky crime drama (and present FX series of the same name) gave the town pop culture street cred. Today, Fargo is an energetic hub of creativity with a youthful vibe. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked it number four among the fastest-growing small towns in the US. To get the lowdown the town, we checked in with Alicia Underlee Nelson, who curates Prairiestylefile.com, a site that focuses on what's unique and local in the upper Midwest and Canada's prairie provinces. She's also the author of “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History.” She grew up about 45 minutes away and just moved back after 12 years in Minneapolis. She’s seen the difference the relatively few years can make.   ARTS & CRAFTS Fargo’s amazingly well-preserved downtown has undergone changes in the past few years, but none of them have impinged on its historic integrity. Where people once went there for basic shopping needs, it’s evolved into an arts and culture district. The Plains Museum is a major local art institution, what with its collection of 20th and 21st century works. But Alicia always tells people to hit the various galleries when they come to town. Gallery 4, which was established in the 1970s and is one of the oldest coops in town, and the sweeping Ecce Gallery have great openings each month, Alicia notes. Translation? Free party. Both feature regional artists and bill themselves as springboards for new talent. But art here is not constrained to the confines of four walls. Or passive viewing, for that matter. Anyone who has chalk or pastels or spray paint can make his mark on the public art wall, a blast of color tucked away in an alley. “Basically, there are very few rules,” Alicia says about it. There’s a longstanding local pride in time-honored crafts here, too. “North Dakota is not pretentious at all. We’re super-open and welcoming and friendly. There’s a strong tradition of craftsmanship here. A lot of people quilt and paint and make their own furniture. There’s a real appreciation for people who make art,” she says. But if classics crafts aren’t your thing, she’ll point you to Unglued, a shop where you can pick up any and all kinds of modern indie crafts from region. Case in point: upcycled bowties by local artist Ashley N. Dedan, who makes accessories with clothing scraps under the label Aendee. Alicia also recommends downtown institution Zandbroz, a mashup of a bookstore, a variety shop, and jewelry purveyor. Browsing around here might seem akin to poking around a museum of curios. Or you could pick up some local goodies at Sweet Dreams Confections. Go for the homemade fudge, gelato, and sodas, stay for the from-scratch soup and salad at the shop's cozy, chill coffee bar.  READ: Locals Know Best: Savannah Maybe the Coen brothers, who are known for their wacky, if often dark, sense of humor, were drawn to Fargo for its quirk factor, and there are indeed a few unusual places to visit. Alicia calls out Scheels, an outpost of a national sporting goods chain, but this locale features an indoor ferris wheel, shooting games, and--wait for it….. statues of US presidents. “You can go for a ferris wheel ride in the middle of winter. You wouldn’t think it if you were going in to buy basketball shorts, but you can. It’s a strange place,” she said, noting that you might spot a bride and groom getting their wedding photos taken there. It’s also the place to go for North Dakota State University gear. The team plays across the street in the Fargodome, but regardless of whether you’re a football fan, if you’re in town during a weekend game, make sure to hit the tailgate party. “It’s seriously one of the best parties in town. There’s a marching band and free games. Plenty of people don’t go to games, they just go to hang out.” NOW THEY’RE COOKING The creative vibe shines through in the restaurants here, too. Rhombus Guys Pizza might throw you for a loop if you go in expecting you basic average pie. Among their extensive veggie pie options is the tater tots hot dish pizza, which Alicia swears is better than a plate of perfectly fried tater tots. Its upstairs patio is another reason it’s worth visiting. Locals here are obsessed with their patios in the warmer months, which Alicia attributes to the winters being treacherous. Blackbird sits on the slightly less eccentric side, offering wood-fired pizzas that are locally minded down to the flour. (“The guy’s obsessed with dough,” Alicia says.) READ: Locals Know Best: Sacramento For something a bit more high-end, Mezzaluna comes highly recommended. But despite its fine dining appeal, the restaurant also offers excellent late-night happy hour regularly and a midnight brunch on occasion in the colder months. “They announce it online, and it’s worth stalking their website for when they announce it.” Speaking of late-night, no matter how fun it is to get caught up in the hype of trendy restaurants, diners remain a beloved here. Krolls Diner, an outpost of a small chain, is a retro dining car where you can kick back in a sparkly booth and order classic diner grub or German staples, like the beloved knoefla soup. The fact that its website is www.sitdownandeat.com should cue you in to the light humored attitude of this joint and its heavy food. German food is also the star at Wurst Bier Hall, which has tons of beers on tap and communal tables. When your sweet tooth gets the best of you, the best dessert in town are found at Sandy's Donuts, which has two locations in town. “Everyone says their own donut place is the best, but this really is,” Alicia declares. “Just get there early,” she advises. The flavors rotate all the time and include special creations for game days and holidays. There’s also an impressive lunch menu of salads and hot and cold sandwiches at the downtown location. And best of all, each meal comes with a free donut. WHAT’S BREWING In summer 2017, Alicia published her book "North Dakota Beer," so she is intimately acquainted with craft brewers in her hometown and beyond. For an understanding of what’s become a strong craft beer scene in North Dakota, you’ll want to pay a visit to Fargo Brewing Company, the first in town. Located about a 10 minute walk north of downtown, it remains a local favorite, drawing people not only for the excellent beer, but also for the food trucks, the chill industrial vibe, and frequent tasting events. Then later, in 2016, they opened Fargo Brewing Company Ale House in South Fargo where they serve food designed to pair with their brews as well as some quirky bites that only true suds lovers could dream up. Case in point: an ice cream sandwich with the cookie part made with spent grains from the brewery. Drekker Brewing, located right downtown, has a more polished appearance. Alicia recommends taking their grain-to-glass tour, not least because all the proceeds go to charity. The brewers’ interest in artistry extends far beyond beer. Local art adorns the walls in the taproom as well as their packaging. (One of Alicia’s favorite local artists, Punchgut, created the dynamic graffiti-style cans for the brewers.) They also host live music each weekend, game nights, and late-night craft fairs. Needless to say, it’s a lively hangout. And although they only have a small snacks menu, you can plan to stay for a while since they encourage ordering from outside restaurants. Kilstone Brewing is less flashy and more tucked away in a low-profile space in an industrial near the interstate highway. Once you’re inside, though, Alicia says it’s really accessible and, what’s more, "they rock bingo," she declares. Speaking of tucked away, if cocktails are more your speed, The Boiler Room is a chill hotspot that draws revelers for its craft cocktails and creative American fare. The basement locale, which you enter through a back alley, also offers cocktail classes.