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

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
August 22, 2017
Pintler Route Philipsburg
Donnie Sexton
This former mining town specializes in gems, candy, craft beer and a vibrant, welcoming style.

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: 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.


Get to Know: Mountain View, AR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Mountain View, AR, is no. 5 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Music is everywhere in Mountain View, with locals joining visiting musicians to play traditional mountain music in the town square. Founded in the 1870s, Mountain View has become a major center of traditional Ozark culture and music. The Ozark Folk Center is America’s finest place to experience traditional Ozark culture, music, and more. The Folk Center includes demonstrations of blacksmithing, pottery-making, and other pioneer skills as well as toe-tapping mountain music. You can even sign up to learn to play an instrument like the dulcimer or autoharp, or to dance one of the classic jigs you’ll see here. The Folk Center was founded in 1973, but its origins go back to the first Arkansas Folk Festival in the early 1960s, and of course the music traditions here are (almost) as old as the mountains. The tradition of “pickin’” folk instruments late into the night on porches and front yards around the town square continues to this day during northern Arkansas warm season, which happily stretches from mid-April through late November. Thanks to the local, Music Roots Program, skilled folk musicians visit area schools and teach children how to play traditional stringed instruments so that the vital musical legacy continues to be passed on. Mountain View is surrounded by natural beauty as well. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area offers the chance to see the amazing falls, hike on a comfy paved trail, cycle, or fish for rainbow trout. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is located in the beautiful Ozark-Saint Francis National Forest. A visit to the jaw-dropping caverns in Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is a must. The caverns offer tours, exhibits, and family activities along a hiking trail, and the area includes a popular mountain bike trail too. Mountain View's downtown area is also a bustling hub of music stores, antique shops, and the Arkansas Craft Guild. Popular outstanding local eateries include Tommy's Famous Pizza, Kin Folks Bar-B-Q, and JoJo's Catfish Wharf. Portico Pizza Kitchen also serves up tasty pies, sandwiches, and more and, true to Mountain View’s preservation of folkways, Portico is in the same building as a traditional ironworks.


24 Hours in: Morro Bay, CA

As you approach Morro Bay, California, from Highway 101 in summer, as my family and I did in July, the first thing you’ll notice is that the outdoor temperature drops a few degrees each mile as you head west, over some switchbacks in the coastal range, and down to the lovely little beach town dominated visually by the iconic Morro Rock, a holdover from the region’s volcanic origins. As the environment along the road quickly changed from inland farmland vistas and 97-degree heat to misty seaside hills with breezes bringing temps down into the 60s, we relished what central-coast Californians have known for years but other U.S. domestic travelers are just now getting to know: Morro Bay is a charming beach town that is a real bargain along this beautiful stretch of coast. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING Our lodging for the night, The Landing at Morro Bay, combines the best aspects of a design-forward seaside hotel (mid-century modern interior design and furniture, ample windows and glass doors facing the water) with the comfy convenience of a family-friendly motel (ample parking, friendly staff, excellent local coffee brewed all day at the front desk). We loved that The Landing is a super-short walk from Morro Bay’s scenic wharf and parkland, not to mention our view of the impressive Morro Rock from the second-story balcony. WHAT TO DO There’s enough to do in Morro Bay to keep you busy for days, but our first-ever visit was limited to 24 hours, giving us a chance to get to know the town and add some spots to our “next time to-do list.” Pacific beaches beckon for those who want to catch serious waves (visit AZ.HI.AZ.I.AM Surf Shop first) or just soak up some sun (with some help from Beach Butlerz if needed). The town of Morro Bay and its surrounding area is renowned for hiking in Morro Bay State Park and along the Cloisters Park Trail, kayaking in the bay (or explore via “bay cruisers” or electric boats to see sea otters and sea lions in their beautiful habitat), and golfing on a course affectionately dubbed “the poor man’s Pebble Beach” for its beauty and affordability. Drop by Kites & Surreys to purchase one of the many eye-popping beach-friendly kites on display or to rent a pedal surrey in which to explore Morro Bay’s park trails. And if you’re looking for a splash of urban sophistication amid the natural beauty, we loved Revolve Thrift for its impeccably curated retro-chic collection of vintage clothing, mid-century artifacts, and home decor. WHAT TO EAT The evening we arrived in Morro Bay, we enjoyed dinner at Bayside Cafe, in Morro Bay State Park, serving a nice array of seafood in a family-friendly atmosphere (indoor and patio seating) along the marina. I went with some of my personal “comfort foods,” crab cakes appetizer and fried clams dinner, and was happy that I did. The meal isn’t over until you share some desserts like the outstanding Boysenberry Crips, Key Lime Pie, and (the current frontrunner for my favorite dessert name of all time) Chocolate Oblivion.  Breakfast at popular Frankie & Lola’s is everything you might hope for, with an array of omelet options that include fresh veggies, a reminder of Morro Bay's proximity to the central coast’s incredible farmland. I opted for a massive breakfast burrito, half of which completely satisfied my hunger and the other half of which I packed and happily consumed during our trip down the 101 toward Ventura. Right down the street from Frankie & Lola’s, stop into House of Jerky for artisanal meat snacks made with grass-fed, humanely harvested stock. Don’t leave town without grabbing a meal at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant on Embarcadero, where you’ll find not just a great bustling diner-style eatery specializing in fresh-caught Pacific seafood but also a mini-conglomerate of Tognazzini-branded enterprises that includes the Fish Market & Patio and the Smokehouse & Pub. We enjoyed Dockside’s great sandwiches and salads and savored a relaxing stroll along the wharf watching the fishing boats (you may even spot Captain Mark Tognazzini and Bonnie Tagnazzini’s boat, the Bonnie Marietta), and ogling the fresh-from-the-sea bounty at the fish market.


California's Ventura County Coast: Surf, Style & Shakespeare

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you.” The words, written by William Shakespeare around 1598, resounded in the small theater, a converted church, on a balmy July afternoon, beautifully and simply spoken by an excellent young actor, Seryozha La Porte, playing Signor Benedick opposite the equally excellent Juliet Johnson as Beatrice. I brushed away a tear and smiled, not only because Rubicon Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most energetic, polished, and insightful productions of the play I’d ever seen, but also because those words were not being delivered at the Globe Theater in London or in New York’s Central Park, but in beautiful Ventura, California, a few blocks from a perfect Pacific beach and a short walk from a vibrant, bustling historic downtown. As I learned firsthand this summer, the entire Ventura County Coast, comprising the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo, and Hueneme, on the southern end of California’s central coast, offers many such glorious juxtapositions, embracing surfing, style, Shakespeare, and much more. VENTURA From our spacious room at the Ventura Beach Marriott, my family and I were able to walk to the beach - a bracing, foggy place to start your morning, or a relaxing, sunny place to spend an afternoon or early summer evening. We loved wading in the relatively calm waters, standing on the jetty, and engaging in searches for cool rocks and shells with other visiting families. The Ventura Beach Marriott was a great base of operations for exploring the Ventura County Coast region, with a big courtyard that includes a pool, hot tub, and koi pond with waterfalls. We also really appreciated the on-site laundry facilities and round-the-clock services. As lovely as the property is, I got a sneak peek at an upcoming renovation that will bump every room up in terms of eye-popping, contemporary beach-inspired design. If you can ever pull yourself away from the beach, the Ventura Beach Bike Trail is pedestrian-friendly and leads you past breathtaking ocean views, the historic 1872 Ventura pier and promenade, and to the city’s wonderful downtown. My kids loved visiting City Hall for the great view back down toward the ocean, and we enjoyed family-friendly comfort food at the Busy Bee Cafe, which sports retro-chic decor and an old-fashioned jukebox that feels like a neon-colored time machine. (“Yes,” I explained, “a jukebox was like Spotify for Baby Boomers.”) For more grown-up fare, I relished Anacapa Brewing Company’s beer-tasting flight and satisfying (to say the least) brewhouse burger. If unique-yet-affordable shopping is your thing (it’s ours), drop by Rosie Lee Imports for British foods, teas, and nicknacks (my kids insisted that I honor my favorite author by browsing the Dickens-themed souvenirs) or Iron & Resin Garage for great original T-shirts. From Ventura Harbor to San Buenaventura State Beach and beyond, the city offers great seafood, fine local wines, and the chance to watch truly accomplished surfers in action. OXNARD Neighboring Oxnard, a quick drive south on Highway 1 from Ventura, is home to a busy harbor and beautiful beaches. Known as the gateway to the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Oxnard also offers the annual California Strawberry Festival (trust me, you haven’t tasted a strawberry until you’ve tasted a fresh-picked California strawberry), kayaking in the harbor (you may get up-close-and-personal with a harbor seal), and the Henry T. Oxnard National Historic District and Heritage Square, including the rich collection at the Carnegie Art Museum. Fuel up at Seafresh Grill, rent a paddle boat or electric boat to explore the harbor, stop by the Channel Islands Maritime Museum for its cool models of sailing ships, or just relax at Oxnard Beach Park. CAMARILLO Camarillo may be best known for the Premium Outlets, which draw an international crowd of visitors for more than 150 designer and name-brand stores. But the city is also a beautiful weekend (or longer) escape, offering gorgeous views of central coast farmland, a Commemorative Air Force Aviation Museum featuring vintage aircraft, and (speaking of vintage) great wine bars spotlighting the local vino scene in Old Town. You can also get a taste of local produce at the farmers market, sip local craft beers, tour a restored ranch house, visit the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, and find unique boutique hotels that match the city’s historic vibe. PORT HUENEME We love the origin of this beach city’s name. “Hueneme” is derived from the native Chumash people’s word for “resting place.” Needless to say, you’ll relax here visiting 50-acre Hueneme Beach Park with its walking paths, fishing pier, seafood snack bar, and ample picnic table and barbecue pits; touring the Naval Battalion Construction Center; or sightseeing at the Port Hueneme Lighthouse, built in 1941, with its scenic shorefront Promenade Walkway. CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK My visit to Ventura County Coast this summer was too short to include a trip to the Channel Islands National Park, 11 miles offshore and accessible by ferry or small plane, but it’s on my list of must-sees next time I’m in the area. Nicknamed the “American Galapagos” for its diversity of unique species of animals and plants. Almost any outdoor activity you can name can be found here, including hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, birdwatching, and camping. Bicycles are not allowed, and you won’t find cars or public transportation here either, so peace and quiet are almost guaranteed. When you’re ready for your Channel Islands adventure, book an excursion with Santa Barbara Adventure Company.