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

By Liza Weisstuch
August 25, 2017
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: Glens Falls, NY, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Glens Falls, NY, is no. 9 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017.  If you take the long view, the Adirondack region is essentially a mosaic of heart-stoppingly gorgeous small towns, but Glens Falls, situated at the southern edge of Adirondack Park in the Hudson River’s “Big Bend” and first settled in 1763, stands out for a few reasons. A magazine in 1944 christened it “Hometown, USA,” and the name has stuck ever since. Some of the area’s largest firms have their headquarters here, yet it’s just a quick trip to nearby caves and waterfalls, which novelist James Finimore Cooper extoled in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Today you can visit the cave, named for the writer, where Hawkeye and his cohorts tried to escape. Glens Falls, it seems, proves nature and commerce can coexist. It’s easy for music, art and theater lovers as well as history buffs to stay entertained here. The Adirondack Theatre Festival performers from Broadway and regional theater for six weeks each summer; the Crandall Public Library and Folklife Center features a chronicle of the region’s rich cultural heritage; the Glens Falls Symphony performs throughout the city; and the Hyde Collection Art Museum, set in an historic house, displays works by Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, and other iconic virtuosos, as well as antique furniture and decorative objects. All that and it's close to all the offerings of the Catskills.  

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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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Three-Day Weekend: Monterey, CA

Approaching Monterey from the north remains one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. My wife, Michele, and I spent part of our road trip honeymoon in Monterey years ago, and the trip down from San Francisco still gives me a thrill: I love everything about the drive - from the top of Monterey Bay near the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz, southward through the agricultural vistas of the Salinas Valley, and into the bustling coastal city that inspired literary heroes of mine, including Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck. We visited Monterey this past July, and it was all the more special because we’d been away for more than a decade and were essentially introducing both of our daughters, now 10 and 14, to this special community, bursting with local history, incredible seafood, local wines, and the opportunity to drink in the gorgeous Monterey Bay (mysteriously misty in the morning, shining bright turquoise at midday, achingly beautiful at sundown) at every turn. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING We were among the first guests to stay at the just-opened Wave Street Inn, conveniently located (as the name “Wave Street” might suggest) near the water. We loved waking up to views of Monterey Bay, the songs of seagulls, and the friendly, attentive hotel staff. The design of the hotel was so eye-popping, a playful homage to the industrial and maritime spaces in downtown Monterey, that my daughters, who don’t normally notice such details, were tossing around phrases like “exceptional interior design” and “imaginative architecture.” WHAT TO DO Our comfy, design-forward room was also just a few minutes’ walk from Cannery Row. In the first half of the 20th century, “Cannery Row” was a nickname for the hub of the sardine fishing and processing industries that made Monterey the busy, culturally diverse city that it remains to this day. Cannery Row is also the title of a hilarious, touching John Steinbeck novel, which famously opens, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise…”. A far cry from those noisy, smelly cannery days, the street is now the epicenter of incredible fresh-from-the-bay seafood, local wine-tasting, unique shops, family-friendly activities, and exhibits devoted to the history of the region’s Native peoples, Spanish colonists, and 19th- and 20th-century settlers. Start with a walking tour along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, with stops along the water to savor what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” The trail is easily walkable from Cannery Town down toward Fisherman’s Wharf or up toward neighboring Pacific Grove, offering frequent overlooks, unbeatable photo opps, and (often) sightings of sea lions, sea otters, and even porpoises and dolphins. If you find yourself staring a bit too long at the water, don’t worry - it really is that beautiful and, no, it can’t really be captured in photographs. You’ll carry the memory home with you, I promise. Of course, if you’re visiting with kids, they’re eventually going to ask you to stop staring at the bay and “do something.” Cannery Row obliges with a seemingly endless array of unique shopping - way beyond the customary T-shirts and sweatshirts you’ve come to expect in other destinations, Monterey’s shops offers quality arts and crafts, jewelry, and a great selection of literature and local history books too. For a deeper dive into local history, book a visit to the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum. My younger daughter and I also enjoyed the Monterey Mirror Maze - we “escaped” the maze in minutes on our first try, then got more and more (pleasantly) lost in the maze on each subsequent visit. My only advice to newbies is to hold hands, but that’s (almost) always good advice, right? Getting out on the bay is more ambitious, and very rewarding. Adventures by the Sea offers the chance to explore the water and waterfront. Founded by local Frank Knight, the company has several locations around town where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, bicycles, and surreys. I recommend that you book a kayak tour, in which a knowledgeable guide will take you out on the bay and talk about the wildlife and history, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting up-close-and-personal (safely) with sea lions, seals, and sea otters. You may find the sea lions lounging on the decks of fishing boats, as my wife and daughter did, while the seals love to hide in the seaweed and slyly peek out at visitors. Sea otters, on the other hand, may swim right toward your kayak or even swim under you. Of course you’ll want to take pictures: Adventures by the Sea supplies you with a “dry bag” to keep valuables like cameras and smartphones safe. You’ll also get a waterproof jacket and pants to wear over your clothes, but do consider kayaking barefoot or in water-safe shoes because your lower legs and feet will almost certainly get wet out there. Our visit to Monterey was very much centered around Cannery Row and the outdoor activities nearby, but if you’re in town long enough, you ought to consider a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in a former cannery and hosting sea life from the bay plus a variety of changing exhibits, presentations, and events. Fisherman’s Wharf, a few blocks north of Cannery Row, boasts some fine restaurants and a fun party scene in the evenings. And the entire Monterey Peninsula, including the quiet Victorian beauty of Pacific Grove, the drop-dead-gorgeous Carmel Valley, the town of Carmel, and the Pacific coastline to the south of Lovers’ Point, is the kind of place you may never want to leave. WHAT TO EAT Sipping from a flight of local Pinot Noirs while looking out at the impossible turquoise of the Monterey Bay in the late afternoon is just one reason to stop by A Taste of Monterey Wine Market and Bistro, on Cannery Row. In addition to the awesome wine tasting for grownups, the whole family loved passing small plates like crab dip, local artichokes, and hummus, and entrees like flatbread pizzas, New England clam chowder, and panini. Lunch at Lalla Oceanside Grill, including incredible calamari (“Wow! It’s bigger than back in New York!”) and fish tacos, was a pleasure not only for the food but also for the sleek mid-century modern decor inside and the bayside views out the window. When visiting Monterey, resistance to Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is futile. By all means go, sit down, and indulge in one of the shop’s yes-it’s-too-big-and-yes-you’re-going-to-finish-it-anyway treats, towering ice cream concoctions named for Cali landmarks like the Golden Gate banana split and the Muir Woods black cherry vanilla sundae. (Experienced travelers, including yours truly, also note that the lines at the Monterey shop are much shorter than those at the Ghirardelli’s at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.) We celebrated our final evening in Monterey at The Fish Hopper, also on Cannery Row. The appetizers are incredibly satisfying, offering a medley of prawns, calamari, and crab in a variety of imaginative relishes like mango and papaya, plus awesome (and massive) local artichokes. Entrees like a bread bowl New England clam chowder, steaks, and sustainably sourced fish make this a nice place to end your day. We loved watching sea otters eating their own dinner right outside the window - floating on their backs and cracking clam shells on rocks on their chests. It crossed our minds that, this evening before we had to pack up and leave Monterey, the sea otters might have been putting on a little show for us, perhaps their way of saying, “Goodbye.” We decided that it’s much more likely they were saying, “Until we meet again...”

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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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