The 14 Most Beautiful Home and Garden Tours in America
You might think home and garden tours are merely a superficial pleasure (the kind Grandma might enjoy), but you're only half right. Sure, these estates offer their fair share of sensory pleasures—the scent of blossoming flowers, the gurgle of fountains, the warmth of the sunshine as you traverse the grounds—but their beauty is far from skin-deep. To make our list, a property had to be as interesting as it is beautiful, and the result is a collection of homes with real stories to tell. A Georgian Revival mansion that housed descendants of Abraham Lincoln, a palatial, Charles II-style mansion so striking that three classic Hollywood films were shot there—these are the kinds of places you'll still be talking about long after you've left. And then there are the gardens—romantic, Italian-inspired grounds, tropical forests, the gardening world's versions of the Mona Lisa and David. Yes, Grandma would like these places, but who wouldn't?
1. FILOLI, WOODSIDE, CALIFORNIA
Husband-and-wife gold-mine owners built this Georgian-inspired 36,000-square-foot house between 1915 and 1917, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. But the property's star feature is the 16-acre English Renaissance garden, which was completed in 1929. The 654-acre Filoli estate is known for its bonsai and magnolia collections, as well as the largest heirloom orchard in private hands in the United States.
Best time to visit: In February through August on the fourth Wednesday of every month (and the third Wednesday in September and October), Filoli hosts afternoon teas, where visitors snack on scones with fresh lemon curd and sip tea out of china cups. Open Tuesdays-Sundays (except holidays) until October 21 in 2012, 86 Cañada Rd., 650/364-8300, filoli.org, admission $15, tea $45 (including admission).
2. HILDENE, MANCHESTER, VERMONT
The 107-year-old Hildene is a must-see for presidential-history buffs: After all, it was built by Robert Lincoln, the only son of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive into adulthood. Set on a promontory 300 feet above the Battenkill Valley in Vermont's southwest corner, the Georgian Revival mansion housed descendants of the president until 1975 and still contains Lincoln family heirlooms, such as a 1,000-pipe organ installed in 1908, as well as one of only three of the President's iconic stovepipe hats in existence today. Hildene's gardens are notable for their multi-colored flowers, including more than 1,000 peony blooms, planted to resemble a cathedral-style stained-glass window.
Best time to visit: Mid-June marks the start of peony season; visit the Hoyt Garden to see Hildene's massive collection of the flowers (many from the original plantings) in bloom. Open daily (except for major holidays), 1005 Hildene Rd., 800/578-1788, hildene.org, admission $16.
3. VILLA TERRACE DECORATIVE ARTS MUSEUM, MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN
Built in 1923, the Villa Terrace was once owned by Lloyd Smith, president of the A.O. Smith Corporation, which made bicycle parts, hot water heaters, and later heavy munitions during World War II. The place now serves as a decorative arts museum, housing pieces from the 15th to the 18th centuries, including an extensive collection of artisan iron crafts. The estate's grounds, which overlook Lake Michigan, are known for the Renaissance Garden, which was modeled after 16th-century Tuscany and restored in 2002. Highlights include bushes that sprout culinary and medicinal herbs and the Scaletta d'Aqua, a water stairway that flows down past three terraces of crab apple trees into a fishpond.
Best time to visit: Every year, on the first Sunday in June, the Renaissance Garden celebrates its official opening with free admission. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., 414/271-3656, villaterracemuseum.org, admission $5.
4. MONTICELLO, CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA
Designed by Thomas Jefferson in the neoclassical style, this plantation home sits on a mountaintop 70 miles northwest of Richmond. From oval flowerbeds to winding paths, Jefferson designed every fruit, vegetable, and flower garden over two centuries ago. Today, those gardens are planted up to three times per year to let seasonal flowers shine, including bee balm and calendula. Don't miss the home itself, where you can see Jefferson's 18th-century furniture, books, and gadgets such as the polygraph, a device which used pens and ink to make exact duplicates of his letters as he wrote them.
Best time to visit: Spring and early summer bring the prettiest blossoms. Vibrant tulips reign late April; ornamental Sweet William and delicate Canterbury bells bloom in May. Open daily except Christmas, 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, 434/984-9822, monticello.org, admission $17-$24 (depending on the season).
5. BILTMORE ESTATE, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
Set against the Blue Ridge Mountains, George Vanderbilt's 250-room chateau-style estate ranks as the largest private home in America. The 75 acres of formal and informal gardens—from a tree-specked shrub garden with meandering paths to a manicured Italian garden dotted with pools—were designed by master landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for creating New York City's Central Park. There's also a conservatory filled with tropical plants and a rose garden, which houses more than 250 varieties of the flower.
Best time to visit: During the annual Festival of Flowers (April 7-May 20), Biltmore's gardens burst with color as tulips and azaleas start to bloom. Open 365 days a year, 1 Lodge St., 800/411-3812, biltmore.com, admission varies by season and ranges from $35-$64.
6. BARTRAM'S GARDEN, PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA
Located less than 15 minutes from downtown Philadelphia, this 45-acre farmstead's bucolic vibe belies its urban surroundings. Not only do the grounds hold native species of ferns, wildflowers, and trees, including America's oldest gingko, but they're also home to the country's oldest living botanical garden, which botanist John Bartram started in 1728.
Best time to visit: In past springs, boats to Bartram's have departed from Philadelphia's Central City, though prices and dates have not been set for this year. After a cruise down the Schuylkill River, visitors are led on a tour of Bartram's grounds. Open year-round (except holidays), 54th St. and Lindbergh Blvd., 215/729-5281, bartramsgarden.org, admission $10; boat tour tickets available at schuylkillbankstours.tix.com.
7. MAGNOLIA PLANTATION & GARDENS, CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
A former slave plantation established in 1679, Magnolia contains America's oldest public gardens. They were constructed in 1840 by John Grimké Drayton, the original estate owner's great-great grandson, and opened to visitors three decades later. Today, the English-style gardens feature winding paths lined with native azaleas (Grimké Drayton is said to have introduced the flower to the U.S.) and antique camellias, as well as a pre-Revolution-era plantation house and a petting zoo with African pygmy goats and whitetail deer.
Best time to visit: Magnolia is known for its azalea collection—the biggest in the U.S.—so go in late March or early April when the flowers start to pop. Open year-round, 3550 Ashley River Rd., 800/367-3517, magnoliaplantation.com, admission $10.
8. VIZCAYA MUSEUM AND GARDENS, MIAMI
Biscayne Bay glitters just beyond the 10 acres of European-inspired gardens and native forest at Vizcaya, an opulent, European-style villa built in 1916 as a winter home for agricultural industrialist James Deering. The mansion-turned-museum houses international antiques and art from the 15th through 19th centuries. But the real scene-stealer is the outdoor sculpture garden, which features artifacts like a Roman altar from the second century AD and the 290-year-old Sutri Fountain, imported from Italy especially by Deering.
Best time to visit: Romantics will dig Vizcaya's moonlight garden tours, which offer live music and a chance to gaze at flowers under the stars and are scheduled around full moons. Check the website for dates. Open daily (except Tuesdays and Thanksgiving/Christmas), 3251 South Miami Ave., 305/250-9133, vizcayamuseum.org, admission $15.
9. NAUMKEAG, STOCKBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS
This Gilded-Age mansion in the Berkshires was completed in 1886 as a summer retreat for prominent New York attorney Joseph Choate and his family. The 44-room house—which contains the Choates' furniture and artwork from Europe and Asia—sits among 10 acres of terraced gardens designed by America's first Modernist landscape architect, Fletcher Steele. Of particular note are the Blue Steps, four tiers of fountain pools surrounded by a grove of white birches.
Best time to visit: The fall foliage in the Berkshires is considered some of the most stunning anywhere in America. The leaves hit their peak in October so head to Naumkeag as close to the end of the season as possible to see the leaves beginning to turn. Open daily, Memorial Day through Columbus Day, 5 Prospect Hill Rd., 413/298-3239, thetrustees.org, admission $15.
10. OLD WESTBURY GARDENS, OLD WESTBURY, NEW YORK
Hollywood has made good use of this palatial, Charles II-style mansion on Long Island's Gold Coast: North By Northwest, The Age of Innocence, and Cruel Intentions were all shot here. The estate was built between 1904 and 1906 for financier and lawyer John S. Phipps, with elements borrowed from classic British country estates and the medieval Battle Abbey. The collections of English antiques, American furnishings, and Chinese porcelain were amassed over the family's 50-year residence. Westbury House sits on a 200-acre property that once held a number of Quaker farms, surrounded by eight formal gardens, plus wooded paths, ponds, and more than 100 species of trees.
Best time to visit: Over 40 flower varieties (from lilacs to irises to tropical water lilies) bloom April through July, but leaf-peeping is a must in October, when Westbury's grounds burst with bold red, orange, and yellow fall foliage. Open daily (except Tuesdays), April 30 through October 31, 71 Old Westbury Rd., 516/333-0048, oldwestburygardens.org, admission $10.
11. HERMANN-GRIMA, NEW ORLEANS
Built in 1831 by a German-Jewish immigrant, who made his fortune in cotton, the pink-bricked Hermann-Grima house—which still includes its original mahogany dining table and hurricane shades—contains the only horse stable and functional outdoor kitchen in the French Quarter. Outside, the grounds include Versailles-inspired ornamental parterre filled with antique roses and citrus trees.
Best time to visit: Every October, Hermann-Grima commemorates 19th-century Creole mourning rituals with a "celebration" called Sacred to the Memory. The house is draped in black crepe, and a coffin is stationed in its parlor. It's morbid, sure, but it also happens to be the house's most popular annual event—and the closest you'll get to reenacting a scene from 1800s New Orleans. Open Monday-Saturday, 820 Saint Louis St., 504/525-5661, hgghh.org, admission $12.
12. GREEN ANIMALS TOPIARY GARDEN, PORTSMOUTH, RHODE ISLAND
Have you ever seen a tree that looks like a teddy bear, or a reindeer, or a unicorn? You will at Green Animals Topiary Garden, one of the oldest of its kind in the country. Here, more than 80 plants (including California privet, yew, and English boxwood) have been clipped to resemble mammals, birds, and geometric shapes. The garden, which sits on seven acres overlooking Naragansett Bay, shares its land with a rose arbor and fruit trees. The grounds also include a white clapboard house that cotton manufacturer Thomas Brayton bought in 1872—a charmingly meager counterpoint to the ostentatious mansions of Newport, about 10 miles south of here.
Best time to visit: Summertime at Green Animals brings sensory overload: The herb gardens are fragrant, the on-site orchards brim with fruit, and Naragansett Bay is guaranteed to be a picturesque shade of blue. Open May 12-October 8, 380 Cory's Ln., 401/847-1000, newportmansions.org, admission $14.50.
13. HISTORIC DEEPWOOD ESTATE, SALEM, OREGON
The 4.2 acres of formal English gardens and nature trails at Deepwood—a multi-gabled, Queen Anne Victorian home built in 1894—were designed by Lord & Schryver, the Northwest's first female landscape architecture team. The gardens, which are surrounded by the Rita Steiner Nature Trail, are full of romantic touches: gazebos, ivy-covered arbors, and fleur-de-lis-adorned gates.
Best time to visit: TheDeepwood Wine & Jazz Fest takes place in the estate's gardens on June 30; for $10, guests can stroll among the flowers while jamming out to local musicians. Oregon wine and gourmet snacks are on hand, too. Open daily (except Tuesdays), May 1-October 15; open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, October 16-April 30, 1116 Mission St. SE, 503/363-1825, historicdeepwoodestate.org, admission $4, though access to the grounds is free.
14. TALIESIN WEST, SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA
Frank Lloyd Wright's winter home and studio, where he lived from 1937 until his death in 1959, sits at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains in the Sonoran Desert. (The 550-acre property is now the main campus of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the international headquarters for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.) The house, considered to be one of the architect's masterpieces for touches like the cabaret theater and shaded pool, was constructed with native materials such as desert rocks, and its translucent roof and slanted windows let natural light flood in. Wright was so energized and reinvigorated by Taliesin's desert landscape that he designed some of his most renowned buildings, like New York's Guggenheim Museum, in the abode's drafting room. Outside, the grounds include a sculpture garden filled with bronze statues and desert plants.
Best time to visit: The year 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Taliesin, and the milestone is being celebrated throughout the year with a series of symposiums, fundraisers, and concerts (check website for dates). If you want to skip the fanfare, sign up for the Night Lights tour, which runs Fridays from February through October. The two-hour trek starts at twilight and lets you experience Taliesin's grounds under the dusky desert sky. Open daily (except major holidays), 12621 North Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd., 480/627-5340, franklloydwright.org, admission varies by tour ($18-$60), Night Lights, $35.
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12 Elevators You Need to See to Believe
Usually, a ride on an elevator involves pushing a button and zoning out until the ding for your floor. Pay attention on these lifts, though, or risk missing out on one of the most thrilling rides of your life (even if it only lasts 30 seconds). From zooming up an inside-out London landmark to climbing to a scenic overlook in rural China to an ascent up an American icon, these vertical feats of engineering are about way more than getting from point A to point B. SEE THE ELEVATORS 1. THE GATEWAY ARCH St. Louis, Missouri The ascent to the top of America's tallest monument begins in a futuristic, white pod elevator at the base. The mod design feels like something straight out of The Jetsons, but the crowning stroke of genius by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen was the addition of glass doors, which reveal the mechanical complexity of the structure's interior as the cars chug up to the observation deck of the 630-foot high wonder. The ride is over in just four minutes, at which point visitors can make their way out to marvel at how tiny the mighty Mississippi River and all of those cars below appear. How to ride: Skip long lines by buying tickets online or over the phone. 11 North 4th St., 877/982-1410, stlouisarch.com, $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 3-15. 2. BAILONG ELEVATOR Hunan, China Bailong Elevator in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park proves that extraordinary lifts aren't just for cities. In a feat of engineering, glass elevator cars rise nearly 1,070 feet up a sheer cliff as they transport folks to a scenic area overlooking the green-swathed valley below. In two minutes time, guests are treated to some of the park's best scenery, including scenic lakes and the distinct sandstone pillars the region is known for. How to ride: The scenery in Zhangjiajie is spectacular, rain or shine, but be aware that the lifts may shut down for inauspicious weather. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Hunan Province, 011-86/744-836-2222, $39 for a two-day park ticket, lift is $8.90 per person. 3. THE FALKIRK WHEEL Falkirk, Scotland Imagine boarding an elevator...in a boat. It's not as crazy as it sounds. The Falkirk Wheel is exactly that—a lift for boats-and it serves a very practical purpose. It opened in 2002, the long-awaited answer to the question of how to link two canals whose inconvenient, lock-ridden connection had been severed nearly 70 years earlier. Not surprisingly, the lift has become a popular attraction, with 50-minute gondola tours that traverse both canals and include two rides, up and down, on the elevator. At the zenith of the Wheel's rotation, visitors can see as far as two miles outside of Falkirk proper and marvel at both the bucolic countryside and the 115-foot tall contraption swooping them gently through the air. How to ride: Due to the popularity of the Wheel, pre-booking tickets online or over the phone is recommended. Check the weather beforehand—clear days will yield the best views of these pastoral scenes. Lime Rd., Tamfourhill, 011-44/8700-500208, www.thefalkirkwheel.co.uk, $12.25 for adults, $7.75 for children 3-15. 4. AQUADOM Berlin, Germany It resides in the lobby of Berlin's Radisson Blu Hotel, but the AquaDom goes where few hotel elevators have ever dared venture: the middle of the sea (or close enough, anyway). A lift rising through the hollow center of a cylindrical, 82-foot tall aquarium transports visitors through a full panorama of tropical sea life. Fish festooned with vibrant colors nibble at the aquarium wall inches from their human admirers. Almost a hundred different species, including blow fish, silver moonfish, and humphead wrasse, are represented in the tank, which holds over a million liters of water and is the largest cylindrical tank aquarium in the world. The ride is decidedly leisurely—perfect for reveling in the sensation of floating in an underwater wonderland. How to ride: The AquaDom is one attraction in Sea Life, an aquarium complex within the same property as the hotel. To ensure quick entry—and to shave a few bucks off the walk-up price—purchase your tickets online. 3 Spandauer Str., 011-49/180-5-66-690-101, visitsealife.com, $15.35 for adults, $9 for children 3-14. 5. HAMMETSCHWAND LIFT Lake Lucerne, Switzerland It looks like a rocket ready to blast off into the unknown, but the Hammetschwand Lift offers far more colorful vistas than anything you could find in the emptiness of outer space. The elevator opened in 1905 as an addition to the Bürgenstock Resort and its birds-eye views of the rugged Alps and Lucerne's blue waters have been wowing visitors ever since. The years have done nothing to diminish its impact—the 499-foot, 48-second ride is still the tallest outdoor lift in Europe. And while the structure's spiderweb latticework might seem precarious, the engineers behind the project clearly knew what they were doing because the lift has stood the test of time. Today, modern cars traverse the distance at a brisk speed of 10 feet per second, making this hotel elevator a legitimate thrill ride. Ready for liftoff? How to ride: The lift shuts down for the winter months, so plan your visit between mid-May and mid-October. It stays open late on Saturdays in summer, making it the perfect venue for enjoying a sunset. Bürgenstock Resort, Obbürgen, 011-41/612-9090, buergenstock.ch, tickets are $14 for adults, $7 for children 6-16. 6. SKYVIEW Stockholm, Sweden There is no better way to take in the sights of Stockholm than a ride along the Ericsson Globe. Gondolas attached to a track run along to the exterior of this spherical structure (361 feet in diameter). The glass lifts trace a twenty-minute curve to the very top of the orb and back down, giving visitors a constantly evolving panorama of the city's skyline. The only downside is that it doesn't give you a view of the Globe itself; the clean, white structure dotted with porthole windows is one of Stockholm's most striking landmarks. How to ride: There are only two gondolas for the popular ride, so reserve your spot online in advance to ensure a seat. 2 Globentorget, 011-46/771-811-000, globearenas.se, tickets are $22 for adults, $15 for children 3-12. 7. LLOYD'S BUILDING London, England The Lloyd's of London building on Lime Street was designed inside out, thrilling passersby with massive piping curving around the exterior. The twelve glass elevators are outside as well, gliding smoothly up the side of the building. They might not be the fastest or the tallest, but for these lifts, it's all about the view. The Thames River is only a quarter mile away and some of London's other eminent sights—including the spire at St. Paul's from one side of the building, and the celebrated Gherkin from another—are even closer, making a 30-second trip up those crystal pods is one of the best ways to savor the city. How to ride: This one will be the hardest to check off the list: Lloyd's lifts are only open to employees and official visitors and security is tight. But don't give up hope. The building is usually included in London's annual Open House, when the public gets free access and tours to places normally off-limits. One Lime St., 011-44/20-7327-1000, lloyds.com, free during London's Open House, September 20 and 21, 2014. 8. TAIPAI 101 Taipei, Taiwan Tearing along at almost forty miles per hour, the tower's lifts reach the 89th-floor observatory in just 37 seconds, leaving riders well over a thousand feet above the city. From this viewpoint, every corner of the sprawling metropolis is tiny by sheer distance. Parks, temples, and even other skyscrapers and distant mountains are practically Lilliputian. And the journey is only half over—the stomach-dropping return trip is just as thrilling. How to Ride: The ticket office is found on the tower's fifth floor. Tickets are only sold on-site, so be prepared to wait in line. 7 Hsin Yi Rd., Sec. 5, 011-866/2-8101-8899, www.taipei-101.com.tw, tickets are $13 for adults, $12.35 for children under 12. 9. LUXOR INCLINATOR Las Vegas, Nevada Don't call it an elevator. The Luxor's "inclinators" transport guests up the side of the hotel's iconic pyramid at a sharp 39-degree angle. Unlike others on this list, the cars lack observation windows, and they can't compete with other famed elevators in height (they only span 30 floors). But like so much of Las Vegas, the inclinators are all about standing apart from the crowd. There are also great views from the top floors of the faux Egyptian universe below, especially at night, when the decadent lights of the lobby flash to life. How to ride: Access to the Luxor's higher floors via the inclinators is restricted to guests, so the best way to take a ride is to spend the night at the 4,400-room hotel. 3900 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 702/262-4444, luxor.com, from $89 per night. 10. LONG ISLAND CITY BUSINESS CENTER Queens, New York For most of the lifts on this list, the thrill comes from the view outside the walls. But for this elevator, it's all about the view inside. Don't be fooled by the building's businesslike façade or its no-nonsense entryway. A psychedelic scene awaits behind the deceptively unadorned doors of the elevator near a small entrance on 31st Street. The one-of-a-kind interior is painted with the massive, twisted visage of a grinning dragon with grotesque 3-D beasts bursting from its eye sockets. The effects are striking (made even more disorienting by the small fish-eye mirror on the back wall). The journey up the building's six floors is quite a trip, indeed. How to ride: Anyone who works in the building should be able to point the way. 30-30 47th Ave., Long Island City, free, if you can get to it. 11. MERCEDES-BENZ MUSEUM Stuttgart, Germany With their stark, curving metallic exteriors and glowing visor-shaped windows, the elevators at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart are as much fun to watch rise and fall along tracks in the museum's atrium as they are to ride. The trip only takes about 30 seconds so feel free to ride multiple times. You might want to pop off every once in a while to see the exhibits covering 125 years of motoring landmarks—and to see the inspiration behind the elevators' uber-modern look. How to ride: The museum itself is worth a visit, but if you are really just there for the elevators (and we wouldn't blame you), tickets are half price between 4:30 p.m. and when the ticket booth closes at 5 p.m. (the museum is open until 6 p.m.). 100 Mercedesstrasse, 011-49/711-17-30-000, mercedes-benz-classic.com, half price tickets are $5.15 for adults, $2.60 for teens 15 to 17 after 4:30 p.m. 12. SKY TOWER Auckland, New Zealand The view from this tower's observation level (610 feet in the air) is impressive for sure, but watching it unfold in front of you on the 40-second ride up is even more magical. The glass-fronted elevators have views of the harbor and Auckland's modest cityscape, as well as the green countryside unfurling like a quilt in the far distance. If you can tear your eyes away from the view out the sides, look down through the glass floor for the extra thrill of seeing the ground speed away from you—and come rushing back towards you on the descent. How to ride: Sky Tower is located at the corner of Victoria and Federal Sts., 011-64/800-759-2489, skycityauckland.co.nz, tickets are $23.50 for adults, $9 for children 6-14.
10 Record-Breaking Bridges
Too often, man-made structures mar the landscape around them. A factory cuts a harsh silhouette against a once-picturesque riverbank; a gaudy hotel sprawls onto an otherwise pristine beach. But somehow, bridges do the opposite. Instead of detracting from the view, they enhance it. A valley that you might have overlooked on its own is suddenly breathtaking with a gleaming white bridge spanning it; an uninspiring river becomes grand when traversed by an elegant steel structure. Add to that the engineering prowess that goes into building them, and bridges become destinations in and of themselves. We've rounded up 10 of the most remarkable examples here, along with insider tips on how best to experience them. SEE THE BRIDGES THAT MADE THE LIST. 1. TALLEST: MILLAU, VIADUCT, FRANCE Not long ago, Millau—a provincial town set between two limestone plateaus in the South of France—was known for little more than its traffic jams. Every July and August, the village would become jammed with travelers en route to their summer vacations in Spain. But thanks to the Millau Viaduct, the town is now home to one of the country's major tourist attractions. Seventeen years in the making, from the first sketches in 1987 to the final touches in 2004, the Millau Viaduct is an architectural feat in more ways than one. Sure, it is held up by the highest pylons in the world (803 feet high) and has the highest road-bridge deck in Europe (886 feet). But, most importantly, it reaches 1,125 feet at its highest point, making it the tallest bridge in the world (for reference, New York's Chrysler Building is only 1,046 feet tall). Impressive stats, to be sure, but it's the bridge's visual effect that has the most impact. Gleaming white and ultra-sleek, it cuts a striking figure against the green valley below and the blue skies above.Best Vantage Point: Millau Viaduct is closed to pedestrians, but if you're a runner you can sign up for La Course du Viaduc de Millau, a 14-mile race that crosses the bridge. Barring that, hop in a car. The bridge was designed with a slight curve, so you can see it in its entirety just before you cross over. course-viaducdemillau.org. 2. WIDEST: SYDNEY HARBOUR BRIDGE, AUSTRALIA Measuring 160 feet across, this suspension bridge has room for eight lanes of traffic, two railroad tracks, a pedestrian walkway, and a bicycle path. A bit much? Not when you consider that the bridge connects Sydney's business district with the residential North Shore, making it the primary route for the city's commuters. A bridge built to accommodate such volume would seem a modern-day creation, but Sydney Harbour Bridge opened back in 1932—it will celebrate its 80th birthday in 2012.Best Vantage Point: On the walkway at the eastern side of the bridge, you'll find the entrance to the Pylon Lookout, a tower with some of the best views of Sydney and the harbor. As you climb the 200 stairs to the top, stop on each of the three levels to check out the exhibits on the history of the bridge. pylonlookout.com.au, $11. 3. LONGEST: DANYANG-KUNSHAN GRAND BRIDGE, CHINA When it comes to bridges, China doesn't mess around—the country is home to 11 of the world's 15 longest. Three of the top five bridges are part of the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, a $33 billion project that will nearly double the capacity of the route to 80 million annual passengers. Opened to the public in June 2011, the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge ranks as the world's longest. It stretches an astonishing 102.4 miles—that's longer than the distance between New York City and Philadelphia!Best Vantage Point: This is a railroad bridge, so the only way to experience it is by hopping aboard the train. Thankfully, the high-speed rail travels up to 186 mph, cutting what used to be a 10-hour trip to a much more manageable five hours. trains.china.org.cn, from $89 one way. 4. MOST TRAFFIC: GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE, NEW YORK Last year, 51 million cars, buses, and trucks traveled eastbound across the George Washington Bridge, which connects Manhattan and New Jersey over the Hudson River. Every one of New York City's 8 million residents would have to cross the bridge over six times to hit that number. Fortunately, the bridge is built to accommodate this kind of record-breaking activity, with a total of 14 lanes of traffic (eight on the upper level, six on the lower level). Of course, this statistic only takes into account motorized vehicle traffic. If you count absolutely everything that crosses the bridge, the unofficial winner is the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. The eight-laner is traversed by an estimated 80,000 vehicles, as many as 1 million pedestrians—and countless cows each day. Best Vantage Point: There are additional lanes on either side of the George Washington Bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, but that puts you too close to the action to get a good view. Instead, take the Circle Line's Full Island Cruise, a three-hour tour that circles the entire island of Manhattan and passes under seven bridges, including the George Washington Bridge. Boats leave throughout the day, but hold out for an evening departure so you'll be able to see the bridge lit up against the night sky. circleline42.com, $36. 5. LONGEST SUSPENSION: AKASHI KAIKYO (OR PEARL) BRIDGE, JAPAN Imagine an iconic bridge (the Golden Gate, for example), and chances are you've thought of a suspension bridge. These elegant structures are formed by literally "suspending" the road deck from steel cables strung between towers. This style will never measure as far as other types—viaducts like the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge are supported from below by pylons and can thus stretch as long as needed—but suspension bridges rank among the lightest, strongest, and most beautiful bridges in the world. At nearly four times the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, Japan's Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (also known as the Pearl Bridge) is the clear winner in this category. With three connected spans—two at 3,150 feet and one at 6,532 feet—the Pearl stretches a total of 12,831 feet across the Akashi Strait from the cosmopolitan port city of Kobe to Awaji Island (which, not coincidentally, is the hub of Japan's pearl industry). Japan gets hit with extreme weather conditions, and this bridge, completed in 1998, was built to withstand them all, including winds up to 179 mph and earthquakes up to 8.5 on the Richter scale. But that doesn't mean this bridge isn't a beauty: In addition to its connection to the Japanese pearl industry, the bridge gets its nickname from the lights on its cables, which are said to resemble a strand of colorful pearls at night.Best Vantage Point: From the Kobe side of the bridge, take an elevator to the Maiko Marine Promenade. The 984-foot tubular observation deck offers views of the strait, the bridge's interior, and Osaka Bay. 6. MOST PHOTOGRAPHED: GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, CALIFORNIA With its trademark "international orange" paint, its picturesque surroundings, and the daily rolling in of the morning fog, it should come as no surprise that the Golden Gate Bridge is said to be the most photographed in the world. David Crandall, assistant professor of informatics and computing at Indiana University, thinks the numbers back up this claim. In a recent study, he tracked text tags for nearly 35 million images on Flickr to determine which world sights were shot the most. While other bridges—namely London's Tower Bridge, Florence's Ponte Vecchio, and New York's Brooklyn Bridge—were close runners-up, two simple facts gave the San Francisco structure a winning edge: geography and size. The City of Hills has so many vantage points—and the bridge is such a looming presence in the skyline—that the Golden Gate manages to sneak into scores of photos, even when it's not the intended subject. Trying to take a shot of the Presidio? The harbor? The city skyline? There's a good chance the Golden Gate might make an appearance, whether as the main focal point or just a happy accident.Best Vantage Point: At Kirby Cove, in the Marin headlands north of the city, you get the trifecta: a spectacular view, a healthy dose of nature, and no crowds. To get there from Highway 101, take the last exit for Sausalito and follow Conzelman Road until you reach the parking area on the left. From there, walk down the steep dirt path lined with eucalyptus and cypress trees until you reach the cove. 7. LONGEST COVERED: HARTLAND COVERED BRIDGE, NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA When the Canadian government was being wishy-washy about whether or not to build a bridge across the St. John River, a group of private citizens took matters into their own hands. They formed the Hartland Bridge Company and opened the 1,282-foot-long bridge in 1901. Five years later, in what had to be a vindicating we-told-you-so moment, they sold it to the government, who took over all maintenance. Though covered bridges are now seen as quaint and old-fashioned, the icon's construction was not without its share of controversy. Shelter made sense in terms of weather—snow and ice are a sure thing throughout the winters here—but the public worried it would encourage risqué behavior among the town's youth. In the end, it was covered, and perhaps their fears were warranted: Legend has it, men would train their horses to stop halfway across the bridge so they could sneak in a kiss before crossing over to the other side.Best Vantage Point: There's something about a covered bridge that demands you take it slow. Rather than speed across in a car, take the walkway that was added in 1945. 8. MOST BRICKS USED: GOLTZSCH VALLEY, GERMANY At 1,860 feet long, or about one third of a mile, the Goltzsch Valley Bridge in the eastern German state of Saxony may seem like a minor player in the bridge world. But the length isn't what sets it apart; it's the material. At a time when most bridges were built with stone or metal, this one was built with bricks—20 million of them. It would be an odd (and costly) choice of material in most places, but in this area of Saxony, where there were several large clay deposits, it was an economical one. In fact, it's thanks to those same clay deposits that the second-largest brick bridge in the world, the Elster Valley Bridge, is also in Saxony; it's a quaint counterpart, made with only 12 million bricks.Best Vantage Point: Take the autobahn to the town of Mylau, and follow the signs to the bridge from there. You'll find a designated parking lot, but don't stay there. Instead, take the path on the left-hand side just before the lot. It will lead you to a meadow, where you'll get spectacular views of the bridge. 9. LONGEST FOOTBRIDGE: WALKWAY OVER THE HUDSON STATE HISTORIC PARK, NEW YORK When this 6,767-foot-long steel cantilever railroad bridge opened in 1889 over the Hudson River, it ranked as the longest bridge in the world. It carried trains across the river for 85 years until a fire damaged the tracks in 1974, forcing it to close. Thirty-five years later, after several false starts at restoration, a nonprofit group called Walkway Over the Hudson reopened the bridge, this time as a pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, in October 2009. Now a state historic park, the Walkway Over the Hudson is the longest footbridge in the world, serving as a link between trails on both sides of the river for walkers, runners, cyclists, and rollerbladers.Best Vantage Point: In the fall, the leaves turn the banks of the Hudson into a collage of reds, oranges, and yellows. Picnic on one of the tables at either end of the bridge before strolling across, giving yourself plenty of time to snap photos along the way. walkway.org. 10. OLDEST: CARAVAN BRIDGE, TURKEY At first glance, there's nothing remarkable about this bridge. The arched stone slab straddling the River Meles, in Izmir, Turkey, extends only 42½ feet and is about as simple as they come. But it's the age, not the physical aspects, of the Caravan that sets it apart. Built in 850 B.C., the bridge is 2,861 years old and has reportedly been crossed by the likes of Homer and Saint Paul. As impressive as some of the other bridges on this list are, it's hard to imagine they'll last even half that long. Best Vantage Point: Located in old Izmir, the bridge is best reached by taxi. Simply ask your driver to take you to "Sarnic," which is the Turkish name for the bridge. We recommend going during the afternoon, when the light is best for photography. SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15 10 Most Interesting Beaches 8 Items You Never Pack...But Should Best Travel Confessions of All-Time 8 Most Complicated Countries to Visit
12 Best Places You've Never Heard of
1. LORD HOWE ISLAND, AUSTRALIA RECOMMENDED BY Charles Veley, founder of most traveledpeople.com. Trekked more than 2 million miles (so far) on his quest to see each country, territory, dependency, and island in the world. Charles Veley likes Lord Howe Island so much that he's been there twice. That means something for a man on a mission to collect every passport stamp in the world. The crescent-shaped island, a two-hour flight northeast of Sydney, is just seven miles from tip to tip, with a long white stretch of lagoon beach at its center and emerald green mountains at either end. Veley recommends renting a bicycle at Wilson's Hire Service (011-61/2-6563-2045, bikes from $5 a day), picking up lunch at Thompsons General Store (011-61/2-6563-2155, wraps from $6.75), and circling the island. Don't miss the starfish in the tide pools near the lagoon and the hand-fed fish at the lovely and secluded Neds Beach. Wherever you go, you're not going to get lost; there's just one main street and only 18 small-scale hotels such as the 19-room bungalow-style Leanda Lei Apartments (leandalei.com.au, doubles from $165). "It's just you and fabulous white sand with the most beautiful palm trees all around." CLICK HERE TO SEE THE 12 SECRET DESTINATIONS YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF 2. SAINT-SAUVANT, FRANCE RECOMMENDED BY Zane Lamprey, host of Spike TV's Three Sheets. Hunts for bars, beers, drinking customs, and all things alcoholic for his televised, around-the-world pub crawl. He's downed Mekhong whiskey in Bangkok and vodka shots in a Moscow bathhouse. Yet for all the cocktailing bluster, it comes as a surprise that Zane Lamprey's favorite destination is quiet Saint-Sauvant (population: 517), in the heart of cognac country: "It's my fantasy version of France." Saint-Sauvant is a quintessential 14th-century village, with a fortified tower, four winding streets, and only one place to stay, the Design Hôtel des Francs Garçons. Outside, the hotel looks like any medieval building: thick walls, wood shutters, and a tiled roof. But inside, a team of seven French, American, and British architects has transformed everything. The reception is a modernist forest with black-and-white wallpaper hand-printed with leafless trees. Out back, a swimming pool abuts the village's 12th-century Romanesque church, a French cultural monument. There's not much else to Saint-Sauvant, which is fine with Lamprey. "They have a pace of life I could get accustomed to," he says. "Lunch lasts for at least two hours, and it may just be two pieces of bread and some ham and cheese. But for some reason, it takes the French a long time to eat a sandwich." francsgarcons.com, doubles from $127. 3. KEAHIAKAWELO, LANAI, HAWAII RECOMMENDED BY Valerie Yong Ock Kim, film-location scout and professional photographer. Has scouted exotic spots for scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean, The Tempest, and Batman Forever, among other films. You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to Keahiakawelo, which could easily stand in for the surface of Mars in a Hollywood blockbuster. On the northwest side of Lanai-the least populated of the Hawaiian Islands-the sweep of red rock gardens and giant boulders pops against a backdrop of blue skies and ocean. "I don't know of any place else like it," says Valerie Yong Ock Kim. "The wind actually rolls the rocks around." Being in Hawaii, you can certainly decamp to the beach, but it's far more interesting to visit with Kepa Maly, the executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center (lanaichc.org, admission free). "He makes the trip worth it," Kim says. "He knows all the stories." You can also get your fill of Hawaiian culture at Hotel Lanai's Lanai City Grille, where the menu is the work of Beverly Gannon, a founder of Hawaii's regional-cuisine movement (hotellanai.com, doubles from $99, pulled-pork wontons $11). From your table, it's just steps to a plantation-style room at the hotel, where your dreams will likely be the stuff of fiery myths. 4. SUCRE, BOLIVIA RECOMMENDED BY Laura Aviva, owner of L'Aviva Home. Tracks down indigenous, handcrafted housewares for hotels and interior designers, and for her online boutique, lavivahome.com. Sucre has year-round high temperatures in the mid-70s and a collection of whitewashed buildings that have earned it the name La Ciudad Blanca. But it's the culture that Laura Aviva found most alluring on a recent trip. "Even functional items like potato sacks were woven with lovely striped patterns," Aviva says. After checking into the Parador Santa María La Real, "a little hidden gem of a place" with vaulted brick ceilings and interior courtyards, Aviva headed to nearby Potosí and Tarabuco: "The women emerged from their houses and started asking if I wanted to see their tejidos ['weavings']. It's a great cultural exchange-and an opportunity to pick up some amazing textiles." parador.com.bo, from $78. 5. TUSHETI, GEORGIA RECOMMENDED BY Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers adventure travel company. Explores Niger, Laos, Pakistan, and beyond for trips to the world's most remote locations. You won't want to go to Tusheti if you're afraid of heights. Hidden deep in the Caucasus Mountains, the region's villages cling to dizzyingly steep slopes that are as picturesque as they are precarious. That's all part of the allure to Jonny Bealby, a Brit who has trekked across the Hindu Kush and journeyed on horseback along the Silk Road. Of Georgia's Tusheti region, the inveterate adventurer describes a land "with centuries-old defensive towers, mountaintop castles, and stone shrines," some of which, like Guest House Lamata, are being transformed into basic lodgings with simple wooden furniture. Newly open to visitors after the dissolution of the USSR and Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003, Tusheti can now be explored on foot or from the saddle of a sure-footed horse. In fact, livestock is as common here as the fog. There are sheep grazing in almost every nook and cranny, from the rolling grasslands up near the ridged peaks down to the glacial lakes below them and all around the gorges coursing with white-water streams. You'll also pass through hamlets like Shenako, with a rough-hewn stone church and houses adorned with lacy wood balconies. At night, you'll be well entertained by the locals, whom Bealby describes as "the most hospitable and fun people in the world. There will be lots of toasting and playing of accordions. And you will find yourself drinking chacha, the local firewater, out of a ram's horn. You will just have to go with it." tourism-association.ge, doubles $15, doubles with three meals $30, horse rentals $21 a day, guides an additional $21 a day. 6. EASTERN ANTIOQUIA, COLOMBIA RECOMMENDED BY Marta Calle, director of CB2. Commissions craftsmen and manufacturers across India, China, and Europe to create housewares for Crate & Barrel's lower-priced line. Marta Calle is on the move so much that it's fitting her favorite place is a road-the Vuelta al Oriente, in Colombia. The looping, daylong drive starts in Medellín at the Vía Las Palmas and heads southeast into the surrounding Andean towns before circling back to the city. "I've never seen so many shades of green in my life," Calle says. "Everywhere you look, there are flowers-orchids literally growing on trees." In El Retiro, 21 miles from Medellín, a sweet little guesthouse called Hotel La Antigua sits amid historic districts flanked by plazas and caballeros on horseback (hotelantiguacasona.com, doubles from $65). Calle's favorite stop is Artesanías Caballo de Troya, a shop filled with watertight woven baskets, ponchos, and birdhouses (artesaniascaballodetroyamedellin.com, ponchos from $7). The rare restaurant with a name, Queareparaenamorarte, has the feel of a colonial house and is run by Julián Estrada, a self-proclaimed food anthropologist who sources traditional Colombian dishes (arepamor.com, lunch from $12). The arepas are served with butter, filled with cheese, or paired with chicharrón-crispy fried pork rinds. "Wherever you go, three old guys with guitars come up and they play," Calle says. "They all sound the same, they all look the same, and they all know the same songs. No matter how old you are, everyone starts singing." 7. VERDUNO, ITALY RECOMMENDED BY Rob Kaufelt, owner of Murray's Cheese, a New York fixture for 70 years. Explores cheese-making regions—Ireland, France, England, Spain, Italy—for artisanal products. One of the best dinners of Rob Kaufelt's life-and as a guy who essentially eats for a living, there have been plenty of great ones-was in the Piedmontese village of Verduno. "I was staying at the Castello di Verduno, and the restaurant there was just incredible," Kaufelt says. He describes plates full of white-truffled pasta dishes. Dinner was served in a red-walled dining room with soaring ceilings in a crumbling 18th-century castle. In good weather, you can decamp to the palm-dotted garden to sip Barolo made from local grapes and cellared in barrels beneath the hotel. The Castello makes an ideal base for a foodie pilgrimage through Piedmont. "The whole region is teeming with good food-I almost smashed up my car when a family of wild boars went running across the road in front of me once," Kaufelt says. castellodiverduno.com, sage-grilled trout, $24. 8. DOE BAY, WASHINGTON RECOMMENDED BY Alex Calderwood, founder of Ace Hotels. Converts distressed properties (a bus station, a Salvation Army depot) into boutique hotels in New York and along the West Coast. Before he opened his first Ace Hotel in Seattle in 1993, Alex Calderwood threw a popular series of warehouse parties. His ability to define and create "cool" has organically grown into not just the Ace franchise, but also Rudy's, an old-school barbershop with 14 locations across the West Coast; and a marketing agency called Neverstop. To fuel all of his endeavors, Calderwood travels constantly, collecting ideas on what he likes-and doesn't. Over time, a theme has emerged: He's drawn to laid-back spots that blend high- and low-culture influences. Doe Bay, on Washington State's Orcas Island, is just his kind of place. "It's got a great blend of hippie kids mixed in with older hikers and naturalists," Calderwood says. The small inlet on the Pacific Ocean is home to an unassuming resort of the same name. "Doe Bay isn't a design spot. You're not going there to get pampered. There's nothing pretentious about it-and that's exactly what makes it great," Calderwood says. "It just feels right." Doe Bay's reception building looks like an old general store-albeit one festooned with colorful flags-and beyond that there's a small clutch of yurts, campsites, and old-fashioned cabins sprinkled through the woods and along the shore. For Calderwood, it's the sauna and hot- and cold-water soaking pools that bring him back. "The pools sit on a platform that overlooks the most incredible view of the bay, with other islands off in the distance. When you're done with the pool, you can run down a little path and jump straight into the sound." When not taking the waters, Calderwood takes a hike-to the top of Mount Constitution or to Mountain Lake in Moran State Park. "If you imagine a quintessential 1940s postcard of a fishing lake," Calderwood says, "this is it." doebay.com, campsites from $45, cabins from $80, yurts from $85. 9. WUPPERTAL, SOUTH AFRICA RECOMMENDED BY Sarah Scarborough, buyer for the Republic of Tea company. Works with the Rainforest Alliance and the Ethical Tea Partnership to find new products worldwide. Sarah Scarborough has lived from Alaska to New Zealand, and she's touched down on all continents. But the one place that thrills her every time is the South African town of Wuppertal, four hours northeast of Cape Town. She happened upon it while sourcing rooibos tea, which is made from bushes that grow in the surrounding Cederberg Mountains. "It's a pure, wild scene," says Scarborough, who is often greeted by farmers lugging their produce to market on donkey carts. "The air has a very minerally quality, and you can see forever." Despite the arid landscape, there's water everywhere. "My favorite swimming hole on the entire planet is outside of town. It's a bit of a treacherous climb down the side of a cliff to reach the water, but once you descend you can sunbathe on a water-worn rock in the shallows, play under the waterfall, then rest in the shade of cedar trees with the big blue sky above you," Scarborough says. For the evening, she recommends staying in one of the town's several cottages or pitching a tent at the Algeria Campground on the Rondegat River. "I've never been to a more perfect place to gaze at the stars." capenature.org.za, campsites from $24, four-person cottages from $62. 10. NAMJE, NEPAL RECOMMENDED BY Stephanie Odegard, founder and president of Odegard Inc. Works with craftsmen to create a line of hand-knotted carpets that preserve native handicraft traditions. there are No roads to Namje. The only way to get to the Nepalese village is along a series of footpaths with views of Mount Makalu, the world's fifth-tallest peak. Not that getting to those footpaths is easy; you'll have to wrangle a flight from Kathmandu to the town of Biratnagar, which is itself an hour's drive from the trailhead. Buddha Air offers daily flights from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, the closest access point to Namje (buddhaair.com, one-way $125). It's no surprise that the place only sees a handful of outsiders a year. Stephanie Odegard came upon it while she was searching for local women to harvest fiber for her rug company. "After my trip to Namje," she says, "I felt like I'd never been farther away from home." Namje's isolation has been its saving grace. "The native Magar people live very close to nature, and there's an incredible amount of spiritual activity," Odegard says. You can climb to the top of Thumki Hill and visit the sacred burial ground where the villagers, who still practice animism, worship their ancestors. Odegard suggests staying at the Hotel Himalaya and trekking the footpaths between villages to catch the stunning sunrises and sunsets (firstname.lastname@example.org, doubles $8). 11. BUFFALO, WYOMING RECOMMENDED BY Andy Holak, cofounder of the Adventure Running Company. Searches for backcountry tour routes that feature grazing bison, mountain lakes, and stunning peaks. An accomplished ultramarathoner, Andy Holak thinks nothing of running 50 miles in a day. On a recent long-haul race to Dayton, Wyo., he discovered Buffalo and immediately decided it was one of his favorite outdoorsy gems: "Buffalo has that nice mix of cowboys and kayakers." The town's undiscovered status means you'll have the trails to yourself, and its superb location at the foot of the Bighorns offers immediate access to some of the best recreation areas in the country. "It's one of the closest jumping-off points for climbing Cloud Peak," Holak says; at 13,167 feet, Cloud Peak is the highest point in the Bighorn range. But even mellow day hikes are rewarded with dramatic endings here, such as the one found at Bucking Mule Falls, which plunges 600 feet down a steep rock face into Devil Canyon. Drives, too, are almost distractingly scenic. It's hard to top a cruise in the car out to Crazy Woman Canyon, where a narrow dirt road hugs a creek and steep rock walls cast a golden glow. Then there's the excellent rock climbing at Ten Sleep Canyon and the plentiful cross-country skiing trails in winter. It doesn't hurt that Main Street is movie-set picturesque, with rows of well-preserved mercantile shops and saloons from the late 1800s now transformed into art galleries and outdoor outfitters. Holak's evening routine: bison burgers at the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse (888/351-6732, bison burger $13), ice cream from Dirty Sally's (dirtysallys.com, cones from $2), and a room at the awesomely Old West Historic Occidental Hotel (occidentalwyoming.com, doubles from $50). 12. ILES DE LA MADELEINE, SENEGAL RECOMMENDED BY Anne-Laure Behagel, kiva.org's regional development officer for West Africa. Arranges micro-credit loans for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and alleviate poverty. Anne-Laure Behagel has always loved islands. "I'm a sailor, and I'm impressed at how these marvels just pop up ou tof the sea," she says. Her current obsession? The Iles de la Madeleine, a pair of spiky, uninhabited outcroppings 2.5 miles off the coast of Dakar in Parc National des Iles de la Madeleine (admission and boat trip $9). "You'll wonder how on earth you'll manage to disembark with all those cliffs, but just when you expect it the least, a narrow passage opens onto a small lagoon," Behagel says. Climb the black volcanic peaks to spy on nesting cormorants and rare, red-billed tropic birds in the dwarf baobab trees. Once the sunset, La Cabane du Pêcheur, back on the mainland, provides an excellent refuge (011-221/33-820-7675, doubles from $77). SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 10 New Wonders of the World 15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15 10 Islands to See Before You Die 4 Most Common Reasons Airlines Lose Luggage 5 Credit Cards Every Traveler Should Consider
10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2011
Once in a while, you discover a town that has everything—great coffee, food with character, shop owners with purpose. Each year, the Budget Travel team celebrates these places with our "Coolest Small Towns in America" competition. It starts with a call to you—our readers—to nominate the most interesting towns you know with populations of less than 10,000. From there, our editorial team whittles the selections down to the three most promising contenders. It's then up to you to vote on your favorite. This year's winner was Lewisburg—an irresistible small town in West Virginia. Each of the nine runners up has something special to offer, from the quiet, artistic enclave at La Pointe, Wisconsin to the scenic beaches of Astoria, Oregon. In honor of the sixth anniversary of our "Coolest Towns" franchise, we've also compiled a slideshow of all of the contenders from previous years. You won't find a more charming slice of small town Americana than you will right here. 1. LEWISBURG, WEST VIRGINIA (POPULATION 3,830) Arts in AppalachiaA small town is usually lucky if there's a decent one-screen movie theater, maybe a community dance troupe. But a Carnegie Hall? This speck on the map in the Greenbrier River Valley lays claim to one of only four in the world (105 Church St., carnegiehallwv.com, ticket prices vary). The 1902 building now serves as Lewisburg's creative control tower, attracting an unlikely band of artistic characters, back-to-the-land types, and retirees. Jeanne and Michael Christie embody Lewisburg's blend. The duo run the Davenport House B&B, where guests can bottle-feed one of the property's baby lambs after taking coffee and breakfast on their private patio (Tibbiwell Lane, off of Davis Stuart Rd., thedavenporthouse.com, one-bedroom cottage from $120). Michael is a painter whose work has shown in New York City's Hoorn-Ashby gallery, and Jeanne is the former director of front-office operations at the Greenbrier hotel, 10 miles down the road. "You know, you always think of the ideal American town, where the kids are safe, the streets are clean. We have that, but we also have Wynton Marsalis coming through," says Jeanne, who'd just finished a morning of shearing sheep. While Michael is a seventh-generation West Virginian, many of their friends and neighbors are newer to the community, drawn in large part by the creative atmosphere anchored by Carnegie. For example, Hall Hitzig, who goes by the moniker the Crazy Baker, came in 1986 and "never looked back" (thecrazybaker.com). Now, he makes granola in the nearby mountains—and sells it everywhere from Puerto Rico to Arkansas. Hitzig's sticky toffee cake also wins raves at Lewisburg's sunny Stardust Café (102 E. Washington St., stardustcafewv.com, cake slice $8). At Stardust, co-run by Hitzig's twin sister, Destiny, and her daughter Sparrow, glasses are filled with "local spring water" (don't call it tap), and the greens are cultivated largely in local gardens. Lewisburg's arts scene is hardly limited to traditional performers like Marsalis; next door to Stardust, for instance, Tamera Pence identifies the potter of each espresso mug at her year-old emporium, Bella the Corner Gourmet (100 E. Washington St., bellathecornergourmet.com, mugs from $14). "We're very locally driven here," she explains. "And we're also a central hub. I have clients bringing their coolers in all the way from Charleston, more than two and a half hours away." -Nina Willdorf 2. ASTORIA, OREGON (POPULATION 9,477) Pioneers on the PacificAstoria has always been on the frontier, both the Lewis and Clark variety (they set up camp here in 1805) and the geographic (it sits both at the mouth of the Columbia River and in a teeming temperate rain forest). Sure, the place has prettied itself up nicely since those pioneer days with the addition of aging Victorians and craftsman-style bungalows, but the folks in sleepy coastal Astoria have never lost touch with their rough-and-tumble side. Take, for example, the surfers off of Astoria's scenic beaches, where ocean temperatures rarely break 60 degrees until midsummer. "You really have to suit up," says Mark Taylor, owner of Cold Water Surf (1001 Commercial St., coldwatersurf.com). "We're talking five-millimeter wet suits, gloves, and booties—but Astorians have always been a tough bunch!" Even the city's swankiest design hotel, the Commodore, embraces a decidedly masculine and nautical aesthetic (258 14th St., commodoreastoria.com, from $89). Reopened two years ago after being shuttered since 1966, the property pairs modern furnishings with sly nods to the city's history as a seaside cannery hub: thick braided ropes, nautical charts, and fishing floats. As afternoon rolls around, locals gather at the four-year-old Fort George Brewery + Public House for burgers made from local beef, as well as pints of the hoppy Vortex IPA, the Belgian-style Quick Wit ale, and as of this year, the 1811 Pre-Prohibition Lager, created in honor of Astoria's bicentennial (1483 Duane St., fortgeorgebrewery.com, pints from $4.25). You didn't really think these former pioneers would celebrate with champagne, did you? -Beth Collins 3. CLAYTON, NEW YORK (POPULATION 1,978) A River Runs to ItSome shore communities take their location for granted. Not so with Clayton. "I have lunch on the river every day," says Gregory Ingerson, a guide at the 320-ship Antique Boat Museum (750 Mary St., abm.org, admission $12). The curators are so proud of their nautical heritage that they use Q-tips to clean the exhibits, right down to the well-preserved heel marks in the floor of one turn-of-the-century houseboat. Clayton sits on a peninsula that juts out into the St. Lawrence River, so far north that the fire department's boat flies the American and Canadian flags. One of the benefits of that isolation is that the river itself is like a neighbor. In the summer, the old ferry terminal, where wealthy visitors once caught rides to their cottages on the Thousand Islands (birthplace of Thousand Island salad dressing), now hosts concerts. Out on the water, the family-run Ferguson Fishing Charters offers morning fishing trips followed by picnics on a private island, where a guide cooks the day's catch over a fire for lunch (fergusonfishingcharters.com, half-day charters for a group of four $325). Back on dry land, K's Motel & Cottages' two-night "ship watch special" includes a room, a two-and-a-half-hour boat cruise, admission to the Antique Boat Museum, and two meals (1075 State St., thousandislands.com/k, $159 per person). -Ray Pagliarulo 4. EUREKA SPRINGS, ARKANSAS (POPULATION 2,073) Honeymoons and MoreSure, you could sleep in one of the Queen Anne-style B&Bs, visit the monumental 67-foot-tall hilltop Christ of the Ozarks, catch a Branson-style show, or hunt for ghosts in the historic downtown. You could easily spend a week on the tourist circuit in this late-1800s Victorian spa retreat. But you'd never get to meet the real Eureka Springs. Eureka Springs may be the honeymoon capital of the Ozarks, but don't let the kitschy, heart-shaped Jacuzzis fool you. "The guy on the street corner playing fiddle?" says local artist Cathy Harris. "He is a trained concert violinist." "And those men at the bar just may be geniuses," adds Harris's husband, J.D., a sculptor with beaded gray dreadlocks. "We had a team win the international Mensa competition two years in a row." The current of creativity bubbles up just about everywhere, if you look hard enough. At the Eureka Thyme gallery, Marsha Havens skips the trinkets of other tourist traps in favor of works that draw on Ozark inspirations: wooden bowls made from found downed trees and clay bird whistles that warble like the real thing (19 Spring St., eurekathyme.com, wooden bowls from $50). You might even say that an artisan spirit is part of the recipe of Garden Bistro, where partners Lana Campbell and Robert Herrera draw from local ingredients for their Amish-style bread baked in flowerpots and unfussy plates of family-style veggies grown on her farm (119 N. Main St., 479/253-1281, pork chops $19). The biggest surprise of all may be the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, a palatial ivy-covered grand hotel with claw-foot tubs and manicured gardens (75 Prospect Ave., crescent-hotel.com, doubles from $129). From this perch, you'll be inclined to look back to see Eureka Springs, but the leafy Ozarks keep the valley all but hidden from view—an apt vista for a town dubbed Tree City USA. -Nicholas DeRenzo 5. LA POINTE, WISCONSIN (POPULATION 309) A Superior HamletIt's called the Island Wave, and to the folks on Madeline Island—a quiet, North Woods enclave of artists on Lake Superior—it means you greet everyone, even when you're driving. It's a lovely idea, but in summer it can get, well, dangerous. That's when La Pointe, the island's only town, swells with visitors. "The line goes out the door for hours on July 4th," says Marie Noha, owner of the Mission Hill Coffee House (105-106 Lakeview Pl., on Middle Rd., 715/747-3100, coffee $1.45). And then there's the winter, when the only way off Manhattan-size Madeline is by wind sled or ice road. Then the Island Wave becomes a way to connect to the outside world. "I don't mind the loneliness," says Amitty Romundstad, manager of the Inn on Madeline Island (641 Main St., madisland.com, doubles from $95). The literary and opera societies meet in the off-season, and occasionally there's a gorgeous show put on courtesy of the northern lights, when hearty La Pointe locals gather on the ice road to be dazzled together. "We're not a community," says novelist and boat captain Richard Coleman. "We're a tribe." -Debra Weiner 6. PHOENICIA, NEW YORK (POPULATION 309) A Riverside RetreatThe library in Phoenicia burned down this spring, and suddenly there were books everywhere. Not casualties of the fire, but boxes and boxes of donations to replace what was lost. Residents now check out books (and fishing poles) at the temporary library branch housed in the old medical building on Ava Maria Drive. Phoenicia may look like a one-street river town sandwiched between hills in New York's Catskills—it does a wicked tubing business in the summer—but it's got a bookish, cosmopolitan vibe in its soul. "It's not just crazy guys with cars in their yards," says Michael Koegel of Mama's Boy, a hip little cafe and smoothie bar (7 Church St., mamasboymarket.com, mac 'n' cheese $4.95). Like Koegel, many Phoenicians came from Manhattan, and they've brought a healthy dose of quirk with them. For instance, former New Yorker Alan Fliegel, who owns A Community Store, sells locally made clothing and underground comic books—and runs a well-stocked communal art gallery upstairs (60 Main St., 845/688-5395, comic books from $1). Yet like its library that loans fishing poles, Phoenicia hasn't lost touch with its down-home roots. If you spend the night at the cozy Phoenicia Lodge, you may feel like you've woken up in Mayberry (5987 Rte. 28, phoenicialodge.com, doubles from $70). You certainly will after breakfast at Sweet Sue's Restaurant (49 Main St., 845/688-7852, mixed-berry pancakes from $5.25). The pancakes (pumpkin, pineapple-coconut, and 20-plus other varieties) are legendary, as are the lines waiting to get inside. -R.P. 7. NEWTOWN BOROUGH, PENNSYLVANIA (POPULATION 2,384) Amish Country CharmNewtown Borough isn't the kind of place where you'd expect to see millionaires tooling around in a fancy car. In fact, the rural Bucks County burg is close enough to Amish Country that most of the convertibles around these parts are horses-and-buggies. But when Rick Krotz and his brother-in-law Bill Kane hit an astounding sort of daily doubl—Krotz won $607,000 on the Cash 5 lottery in 2006, and Kane netted $3 million from a single scratch-off ticket in 2009—this is exactly the place they wanted to be. Both men grew up nearby and had always loved Newtown's well-worn charms. It's home to the nation's oldest movie theater, Newtown Theatre, a 375-seat, red-brick treasure that's been in operation since 1906 (120 N. State St., newtowntheatre.com, tickets $9). The Brick Hotel, built in 1764 and still looking sharp decked out in hunter green shutters and striped awnings, is one of the few places that can honestly claim that George Washington slept here (1 E. Washington Ave., brickhotel.com, doubles from $80). And director M. Night Shyamalan likes the look of Newtown so much, he filmed Signs here in 2002. So last year, the lottery brothers bought Ned's Cigar Store (4 S. State St., nedscigar.com, cigars from $3). It's now filled with mahogany chairs, cherrywood cabinets—and a steady stream of hopeful lotto-ticket buyers. "I guess they think our luck might rub off on them," Krotz says. "That would really be the dream come true—to sell someone else a big winner." -Andrea Minarcek 8. CEDAR KEY, FLORIDA (POPULATION 896) Unspoiled on the GulfIf someone asked you where to get the best New England clam chowder, you might be inclined to say, "Duh, New England." You'd be wrong—by over 1,000 miles. For the past three years, the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I., has been won by Tony's Seafood Restaurant of Cedar Key (597 2nd St., tonyschowder.com, cup $4.65). In fact, the town is America's second-largest producer of farmed clams, one of many surprises in this two-square-mile hamlet 130 miles north of Tampa. Despite its prime location on the Gulf of Mexico, Cedar Key has escaped the pull of developers-its spit of beach isn't long enough to attract large-scale building projects. Instead, it still feels like a ramshackle, old fishing village straight out of Hemingway. "People always say it's like Key West 30 years ago," says innkeeper Ada Lang. Built in 1919 and restored in 2004, Ada's Wabi Sabi Cottage is a time-capsule example of a "Cracker" cottage, a style of wood-frame house popular in the 19th century (689 4th St., 352/543-5696, from $130). The last time outside developers set their sights on Cedar Key was in the late 1880s, when pencil makers carted off the island's namesake cedars. (There's still a bit left in the worn wooden exteriors of tackle shops and clam shacks on Dock Street.) If you're looking to catch your own lunch, Kayak Cedar Keys offers boats specially equipped with rod holders and anchors, perfect for whiling away hours in search of redfish and trout (kayakcedarkeys.com, rentals $50 per day). Weary paddlers can rest up at Point Cottage, an octagonal stilt house overlooking Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (12218 Franko Circle, pointcottage.com, $179 a night, sleeps six). And there's always dinner at Tony's. The menu is extensive, but don't you dare skip the chowder: The recipe has been entered into the Great Chowder Cook-Off Hall of Fame. -N.D. 9. RIPON, WISCONSIN (POPULATION 7,733) College Town PerfectionThey must have made odd neighbors: the Utopian Socialists on the prairie and the entrepreneurial abolitionists up on the hill. The socialists lived on a commune. The abolitionists later founded the Republican party. And yet, in the 1850s, they joined forces to found Ripon (the town) and then Ripon (the college). Town and gown have been intertwined ever since, proudly perched in the middle of the cornfields 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee. In some college towns, the locals and students get along like rivals at the Michigan-Ohio State football game. Not in Ripon. The professors sit on the local school board. The students sing in the church choirs, and church folk welcome the school's 1,000 or so students with a potluck every fall. Friday evenings in summer, across from the college president's office in the old public library, townies and academics alike turn out for concerts on the Village Green. "My favorite is Tuba Dan's polka band," says Professor Mary Avery, who oversees a student group that helps local businesses, such as the Watson Street Sub Shop, create financial plans (314 Watson St., watsonstreetsubs.com, subs from $6.75). Watson Street in turn lets the students use its storefront for fund-raisers. "We are the quintessential college town," says David Joyce, president of Ripon. "Or maybe it should be the quintessential town with a college?" -D.W. 10. GREENSBURG, KANSAS (POPULATION 777) The Real Emerald CityWhen you pull into Greensburg, you may well think you're not in Kansas anymore: Elegant wind turbines and LED streetlights have replaced cornfields and barns. After a 2007 tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, those who stayed vowed to build the ecofriendliest town ever. "Being green is such a part of our identity that people assume we changed our name after the storm," says Ruth Ann Wedel, site manager of GreenTown, the city's rebuilding campaign. (For the record, the "green" comes from stagecoach driver D.R. Green.) Like the name, the idea of going green dates back further than you'd expect. "These are not hippie-dippy concepts," says Stacy Barnes, director of the 5.4.7 Arts Center (204 W. Wisconsin Ave., 547artscenter.org, free). "These are the same tenets used in pioneer days—south-facing windows in chicken coops to increase sunlight, reusing everything like Mennonites do. We got lazy over the past century." The gallery, named for the day the storm hit, houses contemporary art from around the U.S. Many businesses here pay tribute to the past. Green Bean Coffee Co. serves milkshakes to fill the void left by the destruction of the old soda fountain (105 E. Kansas Ave., notyourmommascoffee.com, shakes $3.50). Nearby, you'll find innovations both high-tech (solar panels) and low (banisters made from tractor parts) at the Silo Eco-Home B&B (402 S. Sycamore St., 620/723-2790, doubles from $110). Just goes to show: It's not so hard being green after all. -N.D.