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Who's in the Lead for America's Coolest Small Town 2015?

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
February 15, 2015
Washington North Carolina's Historic Harbor District and docks
Courtesy Little Washington NC

Budget Travel's America's Coolest Small Town 2015 contest ends next week, and it's looking like the competition will remain lively and close right up until voting closes at 11:59 p.m. on February 25!

Right now, Grand Marais, MN, is in the lead, with about 24 percent of the tens of thousands of online votes cast by Budget Travel readers. The beautiful, outdoorsy town has a loyal following of not only locals but also vacationers and adventurers the world over who've paddled the area's lakes and rivers and can't wait to tell everybody about this awesome burgh. We're impressed by Grand Marais's ability to mobilize its fans to get out the vote. That's a sure sign of hometown spirit, which is cool in our book.

But a close second right now is Cincoteague, VA, the gorgeous island town on the Atlantic coast known for its beautiful beaches, wild ponies, and awesome views of rocket launches from a nearby space center. And let's not forget the two North Carolina towns that made our list of 15 semifinalists: artsy Hillsborough and historic Washington are right up there in third and fourth places, respectively. With more than a week to go, the voting is guaranteed to get even more exciting as these towns vie for the title of coolest.

When voting closes at 11:59 p.m. on February 25, one town will be named America's Coolest Small Town 2015, and the top 10 towns will be celebrated in a feature story in an upcoming issue of Budget Travel and right here at BudgetTravel.com.

Have you voted? Don't miss out on the fun! And come back each day to check the standings and cast another vote!

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Budget Travel Lists

The Grown-ups’ Guide to Mardi Gras

This article was written by Katie Coakley on behalf of Viator.com. Mardi Gras is as iconic an event to New Orleans as New Year’s Eve is to Times Square: you have to experience it for yourself to truly understand it. However, many of the common images of Mardi Gras include throngs of people hanging off of balconies, begging for beads, flashing various bits of skin, and indulging in every manner of debauchery. However, not everyone who visits for Mardi Gras is intent on devouring hurricanes and making questionable choices. For those who might be feeling a bit to, mature, for the Bacchanalian delights of Bourbon Street, there is a different side of Mardi Gras that is just as memorable. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry While most visitors to New Orleans will be standing six-people deep on the sidewalks, stretching for the strings of beads that are tracing ellipses over the crowds, the discerning diner will be making arrangements at some of the city’s finest restaurants. While places like Gautreau’s or Coquette maintain a business that requires advance reservations, parade times can be a great opportunity to slip off the streets and enjoy a world-class meal. Plan ahead and enjoy dinner at the historic Court of Two Sisters or take a look at these tips on how to skip the lines and snag a table at the best restaurants in New Orleans. Listen to the Music While Bourbon Street is ground-zero for much of the revelry surrounding Mardi Gras, it’s certainly not the only place to find the live music and merriment that New Orleans is known for. Nearby Frenchmen Street is packed with intimate clubs pumping out music that ranges from jazz to rockabilly to country. Spend an evening hopping from venue to venue; there’s enough to keep you entertained for the entire evening (and that’s just the people-watching). Don’t Be Late to the Ball One of the most noticeable aspects of Mardi Gras is the preponderance of krewes. Krewes, which are organizations that organize a parade and/or a ball during the Carnival season, consist of members who pay dues and usually participate in public service projects. Many groups have members who can trace their involvement back through several generations. Attending a ball is an once-in-a-lifetime event as most balls are invitation-only events—you have to know someone. However, tickets for some of the newer krewes’ balls are available to the public for a steep fee. For example, the Krewe of Cleopatra and the Krewe of Endymion open their parties to the public; tickets include live music, dancing, food and drinks. New Orleans is always lively and vibrant; Mardi Gras is just one of the occasions that it puts on a bit more glitz. There’s plenty of entertainment to be had during Mardi Gras—for those looking for a party and for people that might be looking for a more grown-up experience. If you do decide to try your hand at bead accumulation, be sure to get a great seat: reserving a spot on the premium viewing stands is a must.

Budget Travel Lists

Vote NOW for America's Coolest Small Town 2015!

Will YOUR favorite town be named America's Coolest? Budget Travel's 10th annual America's Coolest Small Town contest is now open—place your vote today! We've assembled 15 semifinalists—cool towns from Hawaii to Maine, from Washington State to Florida, and two from North Carolina!—based on our audience's online nominations. When voting closes at 11:59 p.m. on February 25, one town will be named coolest for 2015, earning themselves bragging rights and the top spot in an upcoming online feature and story in our tablet edition. How can your nominated town win? Vote early and vote often—and remind your friends, family, and neighbors to do the same. And don't forget to talk it up and share photos on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (tag them #ACST2015) to help campaign for your cool town. Check out our profiles of the 15 nominated towns—including photos and videos!—and vote for your favorite. You'll find a superb collection of beautiful American vacation spots, each one a vibrant community where natural beauty, art, music, history, and great food are a regular part of everyday life. The race is on! Which town will win? Now it's up to you!

Budget Travel Lists

Coolest Small Town Nominations End on TUESDAY!

We are thrilled to see so many awesome towns toot their own horns during the online nominations for America's Coolest Small Town 2015! Congrats to Hillsborough and Washington, two towns in North Carolina that have done a truly magnificent job of rallying their supporters—and they sure have gotten our attention! But there's still time to get your town noticed—online nominations run until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, December 2. Will your town join the ranks of Huron, Ohio; Delhi, New York; and Allegan, Michigan? Those burghs are some of the highest ranking in our nominations, and we have enjoyed getting to know a lot more about what makes them so, well, cool. If you think your town has got what it takes, we want to hear about it. Nominate Your Town Now and share what you love about living in—or visiting—your fave town. And don't forget to talk it up and share photos on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (tag them #ACST2015) to help your town's chances of being named a finalist. (When you share photos of your town on Instagram and tag them #ACST2015, you may even see them featured on our "Trending Cool Towns" page!) Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns 2015 contest is looking for American towns with a population under 10,000 and a certain something that no place else has: great shops, food, a unique history, a breathtaking location, peerless music scene, art galleries, or maybe something cool we haven't even thought of yet! We invite you to tell us a little about your town today (click on Nominate Your Town Now). And don't forget to share your town's coolest restaurants, attractions, and lodgings on social media—tag your posts with #ACST2015 to help generate buzz! We'll gather nominations until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, then we'll review them to narrow the list to 15 finalists. We'll use your votes (from BudgetTravel.com and from social media posts tagged #ACST2015) as a guide, and also look for diversity in geography, attractions, architecture, and other factors we consider cool. In January, we'll post the 15 finalists and ask our audience to cast their votes. In February, we'll announce the 10 winners. Is your town already on the list? If not, you know what to do… Nominate Your Town Now!

Budget Travel Lists

10 Most Romantic Islands in the World

1. ST. LUCIA To give you an idea of how verdant St. Lucia's tropical vegetation is, in the film Superman II, Christopher Reeve flew all the way to the Caribbean island's Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens to pick two bird of paradise flowers for Lois Lane. Frequent sun showers (the locals call them "liquid sunshine") sparkle and descend over abundant waterfalls and crystal-clear bays, all under the watchful eyes of the island's two iconic volcanic landforms, Petit Piton and Gros Piton. SEE THE ROMANTIC ISLANDS! The eco-friendly resort Fond Doux Resort & Plantation, in the town of Soufrière, is nestled among fruit and vegetable trees including breadfruit, pawpaws, and mangoes (fonddouxestate.com, from $230 per night). Another option: Staying at Stonefield Estate Resort is well worth the splurge, with its ultra-private villas, each equipped with its own swimming pool, outdoor garden shower, and porch hammock (stonefieldresort.com, from $225 per night). We're not telling you to go skinny-dipping in your private pool, but if you've never tried it before, now would be the time. The property's free made-to-order breakfast—which includes local juices like tamarind and passionfruit, and specialty dishes like scrambled eggs and bacon nestled in a fresh-baked baguette—are served at Stonefield's Mango Tree restaurant, overlooking Soufrière Bay with an impeccable view of Petit Piton. Handsy lovebirds can head to the dormant volcano Sulphur Springs (billed as a "drive-in volcano") to rub handfuls of mud over each other's bodies, then submerge themselves in the Black Pool's legendary healing mineral waters (soufrierefoundation.org, $5). The benefit: baby-soft skin. Go on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, when foot traffic is light. The island is famous for its hardcore four-hour hike of Gros Piton, but the Tet Paul Nature Trail (called the "Stairway to Heaven" walk), with its panoramic island vistas as a reward, is doable even for non-athletes (soufrierefoundation.org, $5). While you're near Soufrière's town square, pop into Alin's Fast Food for roti (curried chicken and potato wrapped in unleavened bread) and a cold Piton beer (across the street from the Church of the Assumption, $7). In the mood for a charming candlelit dinner? Try The Hummingbird restaurant, specifically the coconut curry shrimp or the fisherman's catch, both served with cooked breadfruit and root vegetables, and a fresh-lime daiquiri to wash it down—plus the decadent chocolate rum cake for dessert (hummingbirdbeachresort.com, entrees from $10 to $15). Pro tip: Spray yourself down with mosquito repellent before you go. 2. FIJI If getting away from it all—far, far away—with your main squeeze is your fantasy, flying to Fiji fits the bill. The collection of 333 islands boasts so much untouched natural beauty that the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away was filmed here. (Talk about secluded.) If that's not tempting enough, the Fiji tourism board claims there were 600 proposals in Fiji last year...and 600 yeses. The rain-forest-rich island of Taveuni, with its coconut plantations and waterfalls, has much to offer lovers seeking beauty in nature. Every room at Garden Island Resort has an ocean view and outdoor space—plus you can take diving courses right on site (gardenislandresort.com, from $189 per night). Scuba-diving the colorful coral-blanketed Rainbow Reef—including the famous perpendicular Great White Wall of luminescent coral—for an up-close-and-personal peek at sea life, including barracuda and parrotfish, is a tradition for couples (taveunidive.com, from $114). If you venture off property for dinner, the menu at Vunibokoi Restaurant, part of the Tovu Tovu Resort, is chock-full of local eats like taro leaf and coconut cream soup and shelled mangrove crabs (tovutovu.com, entrees from $15 to $20). For an aboveground excursion, take a leisurely nature walk on the wooden-planked boardwalk through one of the world's largest Asian orchid collections at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, 10 miles north of the town of Nadi (gardenofsleepinggiant.com, $16). Tranquility is easy to come by via the garden's massive lily pond and lush Fijian rain forest. But back to Cast Away: If you want to explore the beach where Tom Hanks taught himself to spearfish, take a boat ride to uninhabited Monuriki island and join the other movie buffs basking in the sun. 3. BORA BORA Bora Bora isn't nicknamed "The Romantic Island" for nothing. The six-mile-long French Polynesian island's overwater bungalows are the stuff postcard pictures are made of. Hotel Maitai Polynesia (bora.hotelmaitai.com, from $233 per night) offers both quintessential overwater bungalows—complete with glass coffee tables to spy the tropical fish flitting about in the turquoise lagoon below—and wallet-friendly garden-view rooms situated among exotic mountainside plants. Every room includes a bed strewn with local flowers. By day, an outfitter like Moana Adventure Tours or Bora Bora Romantic Tour can schedule private excursions ranging from a snorkel safari to a pricier private "motu" picnic, in which you dine à deux on Polynesian barbecue on a tiny islet, snorkel with manta rays, and feed sharks by hand. That's only if you're feeling flush, though. To offset the activities' cost, go with a group instead (boraboraromantic.com, moanaadventuretours.com, from $50 per person). On a special night, you can sample the prime rib at Restaurant Fare Manuia (689-67-68-08)—visitors rave about it—but the food trucks (called "roulottes") by the pier in Vaitape have delicious options too. One popular choice is Roulotte Matira ("Chez Sam"), which serves up tandoori chicken and curry. No matter what's on your itinerary, pencil in time to savor one of the island's vivid sunsets...kissing encouraged. 4. NORTH BIMINI, BAHAMAS A two-hour boat ride from Miami, North Bimini, Bahamas, allows for an island experience—minus the price of a long-haul plane ticket. The island offers a particularly enchanting piece of American history: Author Ernest Hemingway considered it his favorite escape, namely for the island's fishing. Marlin Cottage, where he stayed with his wife Pauline during his first summer on the island, is still available for rent at Bimini Blue Water Resort, a no-frills, tried-and-true fisherman's complex with 32 slips, ideal if casting and reeling is your shared passion (800/688-4752, from $101 per night). To up the bling factor, couples can book their own private guest villa at Resorts World Bimini (rwbimini.com, from $180 per night)—or wait until winter 2015 when the property's sleek Marina Hotel opens, offering high-end amenities like floor-to-ceiling windows, marble bathrooms, and an expansive rooftop pool and bar. One sentimental must-do: Visit the otherworldly-looking, undulating Love Tree, atop a rocky outcropping right on the beach. Several couples have gotten engaged under it, and it's a lovely photo op to boot—local Bahamian legend says it brings good luck and fortune to those who kiss beneath it. To win your lover over forever, tote along a slice of sweet cinnamon-raisin or coconut Bimini bread from A Taste of Heaven Bakery and Take-Away (Kings Highway). If the lure of Hemingway whets your and your partner's appetite for adventure, check with your hotel to find an outfitter who can take you snorkeling at the eerie shipwreck site of the SS Sapona, which functioned as a booze repository during Prohibition before a hurricane obliterated it in 1926. Afterward, clamber up a giant rope swing and jump off the wreckage together into the blue ocean. Come dinnertime, share a lobster pizza at Edith's Pizza, not far away from the bakery (Kings Highway). Bonding has never been so delicious. 5. CURAÇAO Part of the fun of this island is saying its name: CURE-uh-sow. Planners with tight schedules and trim budgets can hit Curaçao almost anytime: This Dutch Caribbean island is one of the three A-B-C islands—along with Aruba and Bonaire—that you can book without bad-weather concerns: They're situated below the weather "belt," making them essentially immune to hurricane season. Once you're in Curaçao, strolling hand-in-hand seaside in the historic capital city of Willemstad among the brightly colored buildings, the Queen Emma pontoon bridge in the background, is like being on your own romantic movie set. Kayaking Spanish Bay is another film-perfect experience for couples. Outfitters like Adrenaline Tours Curaçao will take you out for an afternoon of kayaking and snorkeling among the coral and scorpion fish (adrenalinetourscuracao.com, from $45). Take bets on who can spot the most live lobsters under the sea. For a private sanctuary feel, Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort sits on 27 acres of exotic natural preserve (santabarbararesortcuracao.com, from $189 per night)...and serves up blue curaçao cocktails in the lobby (of course). Check "eat fresh seafood" off your list at local favorite Sea Side Terrace, a restaurant housed in a shipping container that cooks up fresh lionfish and dishes out fish soup and other inexpensive dishes (599-461-8361, from $4.50)—all while you lounge under straw umbrellas with your feet in the Caribbean sea. 6. BORACAY Loafing is encouraged on Boracay, a teensy four-mile island in the Philippines lauded for its beautiful pristine beaches. Expansive White Beach is the most popular (read: touristy), but peace and quiet can be had at Puka Beach for the price of a tricycle ride to reach it (about $3). Those in search of relationship zen can seek it at the Argonauta Boracay boutique hotel, surrounded by tropical gardens bursting with ferns and heliconias and an indoor garden with koi pond, where you can sip your morning coffee or an evening cocktail. Lounge on the roof deck to soak in panoramic ocean views (argonauta-boracay.com, from $125 per night). When you've had enough sunbathing, take the plunge with your lover at eco-adventure locale Ariel's Point, where you can climb up a bamboo ladder and cliff-dive in tandem, as part of a daylong excursion (arielspoint.com, $46). The flat fee buys you a boat cruise to and from the destination, cliff-diving, snorkeling, kayaking, hammock lounging, an open bar serving local spirits and beers (San Miguel and Red Horse), snacks, and an ample lunch buffet of traditional Filipino dishes like longaniza sausages and pancit noodles. A traditional candlelit dinner it's not, but D'Talipapa, a cook-it-yourself "wet market," allows you to choose your own raw seafood and have it cooked in a nearby stall. We hear great things about the garlic and butter prawns and the lobster. To whittle the price further, impress your companion by bargaining with the sellers. 7. LANAI, HAWAII Hawaii, that quintessential honeymoon destination, is indeed within a budget traveler's grasp in Lanai—no plunking down a high-limit credit card for a pricey resort necessary. Hotel Lanai, an 11-room inn originally built as lodging for Dole Plantation execs in the 1920s, has cozy, plantation-themed decor and a free continental breakfast (from $149 per night, hotellanai.com). For lunch, settle in at Lanai Ohana Poke Market and try multiple types of the Hawaiian pupu seafood dish poke, including spicy ahi and mini octopus (808/559-6265, facebook.com/lanaiohanapokemarket, entrees $7 to $14). Go early, around 10:30 a.m., before the poke runs out. Your own relationship will hopefully turn out better than the tragic one credited with the legend of Sweetheart Rock (Puu Pehe), a heart-shaped sea stack you can view from the 15-minute hiking trail leading up from Hulopoe Beach Park (gohawaii.com). According to local lore, a warrior from Lanai captured a beautiful princess from Maui, married her, and imprisoned her in a sea cave close to the rock in order to discourage potential suitors from laying eyes on her. Bad weather kicked up one day, drowning the princess. Anguished, the warrior plummeted from the top of the rock to his own death. On a more uplifting note, if you peer closely from the breathtaking hilltop vantage point, you might see spinner dolphins frolicking in the waves. 8. LOMBOK Couples looking for an unconventional trip, take note: The tropical island of Lombok, Bali's quieter next-door neighbor, is known for its unspoiled white-sand beaches, sea turtle-rife waters for scuba-diving, and righteous waves ideal for surfing. Scuba Froggy has three locations and will take you scuba-diving among a range of sea creatures, from clownfish to coral fans (scubafroggy.com/en; from $25). Chic boutique hotel Qunci Villas in Senggigi offers a number of "romantic moments," from vow renewal to a romantic dinner decorated with local flowers—or just grab a cocktail and tapas at the outdoor lounge bar for sunset happy hour and watch the sun dip down beneath a deep-orange horizon (quncivillas.com; from $189 per night). For an authentic local food, Warung Hesty, in Pujut, doesn't look like much, but travelers say dishes like Lombok curry and spicy chicken fried rice are excellent—and affordable (0818546441). If you desire a bit more atmosphere, dine in a private outdoor bamboo hut at Coco Beach restaurant, in Senggigi. Fresh fish and chicken, Indonesian eats like gado gado (mixed vegetables and eggs with peanut sauce), and herbal teas are all on the menu (628175780-055; entrees from $5 to $10). 9. MALLORCA This Spanish island located in the Mediterranean Sea offers a wallop of art and history along with its jet set-approved culture. The HM Balanguera, in the city center of Palma de Mallorca, offers contemporary design—bright-white interiors with rustic wood accents—and a chic rooftop pool with lounge chairs and private cabanas suitable for cuddling with a cocktail in hand (hmbalanguera.com, from $112 per night). For your daily dose of culture, take a tour of the Majorca Cathedral, right on the sea, built over more than 400 years and completed in 1601 (catedraldemallorca.info or spain.info, $8). Or pay a visit to famed Mallorcan artist Joan Miró's museum and his studio—left just as it was when he died (miro.palma.cat, $8). For pure fun farther north, charter a 50-foot schooner for a three-hour sunset sail including platters of tapas and cold drinks and ample opportunity for a dip in the Bay of Pollensa (tudordawnyachtcharters.com, from about $65). If the beach is your preferred scene, Cala Major is the one closest to the city center. It's equipped with public restrooms, showers, and chairs and umbrellas for rent. When sightseeing has left you famished, duck into Celler Sa Premsa with your date and sample authentic Mallorcan cuisine, including tumbet(cooked potatoes, eggplant, and red peppers with tomato sauce), frito mallorquín(fried lamb liver with potatoes, peppers, and herbs), and local wines, amid warm rustic décor including vintage bullfighting posters and walls fashioned out of wine barrels (cellersapremsa.com, entrees from $11 to $17). 10. MALDIVES There's something about these sinking islands that gives them a romantic it's-now-or-never vibe, perfect for couples crazy in love. On the other hand, when travelers think "Maldives," they also think "expensive," but that doesn't have to be the case. The recent government-sanctioned rise of informal guesthouses with local families as the hosts has presented an alternative to ultra-expensive resorts. The Amazing Noovilu guesthouse on Mahibadhoo, for example, starts at $125 per night for accommodations and all meals, and your host, Mazin, will take you on-shore fishing and give you Maldivian language lessons for free (theamazingnoovilu.com). Resort-wise, the luxe Kurumba Maldives, located on its own private island, offers a variety of last-minute and holiday deals, plus flexible meal plans if you want to dine on-property; breakfast is always free (kurumba.com, from $260 per night). Whale shark excursions are huge in the Maldives. Swim right next to this (harmless) biggest fish in the world with an outfitter like Blue Tribe, which also offers low-key romantic stargazing cruises complete with sparkling wine and petit fours if whale-spotting isn't your thing (bluetribe.biz). For authentic food at a joint frequented by local fisherman, hit up the Dawn Café tea house on the heavily Muslim island of Malé for dishes like chicken briyani and curries (960/331-2286). A more romantic atmosphere can be found on Malé at Sala Thai Restaurant, which counts classic Thai dishes like masaman and panang curries and stir-fried noodle dishes among its extensive menu items (salafamilymaldives.com).

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