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The Nominees for America's CoolestSmall Towns

February 5, 2009
Strawberry Festival in Owego, N.Y.
tioga
We've pulled together a list of 22 nominees from coast to coast. Cast a vote to determine the readers' top 10 American small towns—and check the October 2009 issue of Budget Travel Magazine to see if any reader choices made the final cut.

How do we define 'Coolest Small Town'?

See the 152 reader nominations

Go to our interactive map to vote and explain your choice

Berlin, Md.
Berlin is a great spot for water and land lovers alike. Surf, sunbathe, or fish at Assateague Island National Seashore, located on one of the few remaining natural barrier islands, or cycle along the 63-mile "beach to bay" trail nearby. Visit the Globe for an eclectic dinner and live music five nights a week. Chef Brook T. Lamar's Globe Crabcakes have won him the American Culinary Federation's Gold Medal. —reader burleybrown

Jim Thorpe, Pa.
Located at the base of a valley in the Pocono Mountains, Jim Thorpe is known for its scenic landscape and historic architecture. Experience a bit of Jim Thorpe's history with a ride on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. For a look into a darker part of the town's history, take a ghost tour of the Old Jail, allegedly haunted by 17th-century murderers. Sample Eurasian-inspired vegetarian cuisine, like Thai papaya salad or stuffed whole portobello mushroom, at Café Origins. —reader dhugos

Owego, N.Y.
On June 20, the streets of Owego will be packed for the annual Strawberry Festival. With over 150 vendors and artisans lining the streets, visitors can explore what has been called the best-kept secret in the area of New York. Downtown shops and galleries stay open late for the monthly Third Friday Art Walk, featuring art, entertainment, and refreshments. At the Jailhouse Restaurant—the former county jail, transformed into an eatery in 1998, complete with cell blocks and prison-bed dining tables—try the pulled pork sandwich in the company of a ghost named George. —reader tioga

Onancock, Va.
There's not a chain store in sight in Onancock, an old-school fishing village on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Roseland Theatre, the town's retro movie theater, shows first-run films and an international film series, and the North Street Playhouse has 12 to 15 theatrical productions each season. Grab a hand-dipped cone at Scoops Ice Cream and take the historic downtown walking tour, which includes a half dozen churches and Ker Place Historic House. If you prefer the water, take a guided kayak tour with Mary and Bill Burnham—some say the best way to see the Eastern Shore is from the water. You'll soon be on a first-name basis with the shop owners and artists in this friendly town, where the family-owned pharmacy is housed in the oldest bank building on the Eastern Shore. —reader BurnhamInk

Jacksonville, Ore.
You'll feel like you've been transported back in time in this Gold Rush town—yet this well-preserved 19th-century locale has a 21st-century vibe. In summer, the annual Britt Festival features more than 40 performances from internationally renowned musicians, as well as dance, musical theater, and Broadway musicals. Stop by MacLevin's Whole Foods Deli, which serves delicious kosher food like open whitefish sandwiches with a side of potato latkes and matzo ball soup. For the town's best cup of coffee, visit Good Bean Coffee, a café and roaster located in an 1859 billiards hall. —reader jillcobb15

Eureka Springs, Ark.
A self-proclaimed shopper's paradise, Eureka Springs has no chain stores. At the boutique Bath Junkie, you can create one-of-a-kind gifts—and suds for yourself, too. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Sweet's Fudge Kitchen with award-winning, handmade fudge and hand-dipped chocolates. Penuche, the kitchen's newest flavor of fudge, is made from brown sugar. For a glance at lions, tigers, and even bears, visit Turpentine Creek, a 450-acre wildlife refuge for big cats. Life doesn't stop once the sun goes down: Check out Chelsea's Corner Café for drinks and live music or try the "speedy martini" at Henri's Just One More. —reader gojigirld

Port Royal, S.C.
Located between the Beaufort River and Battery Creek, this charming fishing village is a great place to spend a slow day. Take a walk on the town's boardwalk or along Sands Beach. Stop by Bateaux restaurant for mouth-watering seafood specialties like bacon-wrapped scallops. April 18 brings the town's annual Soft Shell Crab Festival, which offers a variety of seafood, beverages, vintage automobile exhibits, live music and handcrafted arts. And for a look at Port Royal's aquatic life, take a tour of the Lowcountry Estuarium. You can observe local species, become acquainted with local shrimping practices, and learn how to cast a net. —readers shannonerickson and CharlotteGonzalez

Huntingdon, Pa.
Located along the Juniata River, the town is the center of culture and business in Huntingdon County. The antique trains on the East Broad Top Railroad tour will take you back to the time of coal-fueled steam engines. Visit Juniata College's Baker Peace Chapel, a granite circle that sits atop a secluded hill, which was designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. In the evening, dine at Boxer's Café, a local favorite for a large selection of microbrews and live music. The home-cooked meals appeal to many and include vegetarian options. Drop by Mimi's, a cosmopolitan restaurant and bar known for its desserts and martinis—and dessert martinis. —reader rberdar

Rockland, Maine
Rockland is located in an enclosed bay, and life revolves around its rocky shore. Take a walk on the waterfront boardwalk and tour the Breakwater Lighthouse at the end of the mile-long breakwater. Visit the Maine Lighthouse Museum to see the largest collection of lighthouse artifacts in the country. From July 29 until August 2, the annual Lobster Festival takes place. You can enjoy lobster dishes, lobster-crate races, and live music. For a meal with a view, make reservations at Amalfi on the Water, and be sure to order the crème brûlée. —reader CaptBren

Crested Butte, Colo.
If Aspen is the glitzy Colorado locale, Crested Butte (just a six-hour hike away from Aspen) is its authentic counterpart. Nestled in a remote valley in the Rocky Mountains, this small town steers clear of commercialism, and its modern amenities often hark back to the town's mining and ranching history. In the winter, take advantage of the snow to ski or go on sleigh rides. Outfit yourself with clothes and equipment for the mountain at Alpineer. Interested more in local culture? Take the ArtWalk on the third Thursday of the month and see the galleries around town. Indulge in gourmet French food at Soupçon, a small bistro situated in an old miner's cabin. Or for more casual dining, visit Secret Stash, where you'll sit on pillows and dine on pizza made by New York natives. You can forget about finding a Starbucks in this mountain village. Instead visit Camp 4 Coffee, where the owner roasts his own beans and has his own special-recipe chai. —reader bethbuehler

La Conner, Wash.
Located in the Skagit Valley, La Conner has become an artist colony for Northwest painters, and plenty of galleries line downtown streets. Try the oyster dinner at Nell Thorn Restaurant, serving all organic, locally grown produce, seafood, fowl and beef. Or you can pick your own apples, strawberries, raspberries, or blueberries from Skagit Valley's local farms. Explore one of the five small islands nearby, treat yourself at one of the town's eight spas, or watch migrating birds. —reader marciplank

Dubois, Wyo.
Life moves at a slower pace in this wildlife, culture, and relaxation spot on the Wind River. Downtown Dubois still looks like it did in the 1800s. You can experience fine dining, unique shops, and a hospitable small-town atmosphere. Try the Wind River burger at Sundance Café on a deck with views of Horse Creek. Or pick up a picnic lunch at Paya and take it with you on a wildlife tour at the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. Then talk with friendly locals and linger in shops like Spin a Yarn. —readers Leah and klc203

Silverton, Ore.
In this old lumber town, known as the Mural City, you'll find large-scale paintings on the sides of local buildings. The most famous mural is Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms. Stroll through nearby Silver Falls, Oregon's largest state park, where you can see 10 waterfalls. Back in town, visit the Stone Buddha for Asian antiques and jewelry, and for a homey breakfast go to O'Briens, but beware that the signature hotcakes are huge. —reader stargazer

Pahoa, Hawaii
Downtown Pahoa—only about a block long—boasts great restaurants, wooden sidewalks, and a charm you won't find anywhere else in Hawaii. Main Street has maintained its Western-style storefronts and boardwalks. There are also performances on Main Street and at the Akebono Theater, the state's oldest theater. If you're planning on visiting Pahoa overnight, stay in the historic Kapoho Village Inn, which housed some of Puna's earliest travelers; the spacious rooms have antique furnishings. —Budget Travel

Vevay, Ind.
Located along the Ohio River, Vevay is home to the first commercial winery in the United States. For a sip of that history, stop by the Ridge Winery tasting room. Sit on the riverside deck and enjoy free samples of the wine as you watch the river flow by outside. On the first Friday of each month, Main Street stays awake with late-night shopping and dining, gallery openings, live entertainment, and free carriage rides. And if you're in town on the last weekend of August this year, check out the highly regarded Swiss Wine Festival. Try the riverboat cruise, visit the beer garden, or watch the fireworks on Saturday night. Don't forget to stop by G.G.'s Grill before you leave town; order the handmade sweet-potato fries. —reader SwitzCntyTourism

Mineral Point, Wis.
Mineral Point, once a mining community, has a long history but still looks to the future. Architectural walking and driving tour booklets are available for $3 at the Chamber of Commerce office, so visitors can enjoy the well-preserved historic buildings. Take an art class at Shake Rag Alley to experience the offbeat creativity of the town. The Alley Stage has a new performance each month. For a lunch break, head to the Red Rooster Café for a traditional Cornish pasty with a figgyhobbin for desert—both were staples in the miners' diets. —reader minpt

Port Austin, Mich.
Just over 100 miles from Detroit, this old farming town is called one of the state's best-kept secrets. On Saturday mornings, visit the Farmer's Market, where you can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables and even handmade games and clothes. Afterward, order pecan waffles at the Lake Street Emporium. At the Farm Restaurant, all menu items are made from seasonal herbs and produce from the restaurant's own garden. And if you'd like to experience the lake, visit the marina to rent a boat or arrange a fishing charter—or, if the water's too chilly, see a show at the Port Austin Community Playhouse. —reader meb

Petoskey, Mich.
The Little Traverse Bay Area provides residents of Petoskey (and visitors) with some amazing natural vistas. On some nights, you can even see the northern lights. The town also has great shops and restaurants. Have a cup of coffee at Roast and Toast, where they roast their own beans, or try some Italian gelato at American Spoon Foods. For shopping, walk over to the Gaslight District, and don't forget to buy a Petoskey stone at Bailey's Place. The stone, which is actually petrified coral, is found in the bay on which the town is located. —reader ChristieStruck

Grinnell, Iowa
Founded in 1854, Grinnell maintains its historic architecture. The town is filled with residential architectural beauties—most buildings in downtown date back over 100 years. Take a tour of the Grinnell Historical Museum, which holds artifacts of the town's past, such as one of the first 50 electric refrigerators made by the Grinnell Washing Machine Company in 1932. Attend Date Night at the Bourbon Street Restaurant and enjoy an elaborate Cajun meal. The Happy Days Festival in August includes a carnival and a car show. —reader bmenner

Montpelier, Vt.
Located in a valley on the Winooski River, this intimate town hosts the New England Culinary Institute and the annual Green Mountain Film Festival. The Dairy Creme, open seasonally to serve super-thick shakes and blizzards, is a local favorite. And of course, a state capital wouldn't be complete without a stop by the home of Vermont's State House, complete with a gilded dome. Free guided tours are given every half hour July through October. —Budget Travel

Vergennes, Vt.
At the Vergennes Opera House, locals participate in everything from karate lessons to performances by the Little City Players, a community theatre company. The Opera House also shows a different movie every week in its Friday Night Flicks program. At the Black Sheep Bistro on Main Street, visitors can dine on affordable French food and wine. —Budget Travel

Guerneville, Calif.
Take a drive along River Road to see the scenic Russian River, which traces one side of town, or canoe along the river for great views of the surrounding hills. Just five minutes outside of town is the 6,805-acre Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve. Back in town, Stumptown Brewery and Smokehouse brews its own beers and features beer from other local breweries on tap. This year marks the seventh annual Beer Revival and BBQ Cookoff, where 25 brews and 25 BBQ recipes are served up all afternoon. Get your $50 tickets early—last year's event sold out beforehand. —Budget Travel

How do we define 'Coolest Small Town'?
The town must have a population under 10,000—we're talking small towns, not big cities. It's also got to be on the upswing, a place that's beginning to draw attention—and new residents—because of the quality of life, arts and restaurant scene, or proximity to nature. And cool doesn't mean quaint. We want towns with an edge, so think avant-garde galleries, not country stores.

Keep reading

Table of Contents: March 2009

Dream Trips 2009 Even in these scary economic times, you can still pull off a big-deal trip. Let us show you how to follow your fancy, spend less—and sacrifice nothing. • Float Over Cappadocia: see the slide show • Witness a Total Eclipse: six upcoming eclipses • Scale a Volcano in Ecuador: see the slide show • Conquer a Forbidden City: interactive map Why Haven't You Heard Of... Los Santos, Panama Los Santos, the country's idyllic Pacific coast region, has spectacular rolling farmlands and blissfully empty beaches. Los Santos, the country's idyllic Pacific coast region, has spectacular rolling farmlands and blissfully empty beaches. Trendspotting: Underground Supper Clubs The masked man in the corner isn't the entertainment. He's your chef. And that's just one of the delicious mysteries behind underground supper clubs. Industry Watch: Hotel Loyalty Programs As the big hotel chains glam up their loyalty programs to boost business, you'll find more ways than ever to stockpile points—and nab a free room. Test Lab: Luggage-tracking Tags We "lost" our bags to see if luggage-tracking tags actually reunite people with their errant belongings. Road Trip: Southern Louisiana Reader Eliana Osborn and her friend were psyched for the zydeco music and plantations of Cajun country. But who knew they'd soon be eating alligator? • See the slide show 40 Best From our March issue: Deals for Las Vegas, Portugal, Jamaica, and 37 other fascinating destinations worldwide.

Float Over Cappadocia

Your first question: Have I landed on another planet or woken up in a Salvador Dalí painting? Spread across 1,500 square miles in the middle of Turkey, Cappadocia (which locals pronounce "cap-pa-doe-ki-a") might be Mars: Picture naturally formed drip castles the size of apartment buildings, meringue-like hills, and fields of capped stone cones aptly called fairy chimneys. Standing amid it all, you can't help but wonder how such a landscape came to be. It's thanks to a perfect storm of sorts: The soft, porous rock that covers the region is the deposit of volcanoes that erupted as many as 70 million years ago. Over the aeons, wind and rain carved it into curious shapes. And so, too, have the many people who have taken shelter here in man-made cave dwellings. In the eight centuries after the birth of Christ, hordes of Christians literally holed up in Cappadocia to escape Roman persecution. They created some 150 subterranean settlements, complete with churches, monasteries, and trapdoors to block invaders. Skip to the present and you'll come across people who continue to live as their ancestors did. But all is far from archaic: Canny locals and foreigners have been turning abandoned cave dwellings into smartly designed hotels, with bold contemporary touches like Dutch chandeliers and swooping lounge chairs. Still, Cappadocia has yet to be overrun by tourists. Until recently, the area's biggest fans were archaeologists, geologists, and backpackers. And it took a soap opera that was shot in a tiny Cappadocian village in 2002 and 2003 for Turks themselves to start making the pilgrimage. Ready to join them in the heart of fairy-chimney country? Take in this mysterious place by car, by hot-air balloon, and on foot, following our three-day plan. Day 1: The big-picture tour Fly into Cappadocia, via Istanbul, in the morning and arrange a straight-from-the-airport outing with Argeus Tourism & Travel. Thirty minutes in, you can see your first cave construction, Snake Church. The crumbling chapel is decorated with Greek and Armenian graffiti—and a 10th- or 11th-century ceiling painting of Saint George slaying a serpentine dragon. (According to legend, the actual slaying took place in Cappadocia atop Mount Erciyes, the highest peak in central Anatolia.) Nearby, in the rock-hewn village of Soganli, time seems to bend more than a little. Locals moved into dwellings with electricity and plumbing only within the past decade, and some remain in hillside caves. At the small market, you'll notice piles of colorful rag dolls—believed to have been first created to memorialize a lost child, they've since put Soganli on the crafts map. Townswomen here still bake their family's pide (flatbread) in community ovens; each household has an assigned day. If your guide spots one of the telltale smoke plumes, he'll take you to the source so you can taste the delicious sourdough-like results. But don't fill up: A midday feast awaits at the family-run restaurant Aravan Evi. Sit under a grapevine-covered pergola and admire the whitewashed hamlet of Ayvali. The cooking here is wonderfully homey Turkish fare made by the wife of the owner: bulgur wedding soup, white beans in tomato sauce, and lamb stews cooked in a tandir, a traditional earthen oven. After four courses, you might be inclined to nap; instead, let a cup of rich, sweet Turkish coffee revive you. You're on your way to the underground city of Kaymakli, which once sheltered 3,000 beleaguered Christians. Prepare to duck and crouch: A low passage leads from aboveground stables to eight subterranean levels, four of which are open to the public. Inside, a maze of tunnels connects dark caverns that hold identifying clues: Churches have carved-out altars, kitchens come with fire-pit remnants, and rooms with basins cut into the ground were wineries (judging by the sheer number of these, wine was both a sacrament and a saving grace). You can stay in caves in far better condition at today's final stop: either the intimate and upscale town of Ürgüp or, 20 minutes away, the bustling, backpacker destination of Göreme. Both are well-located places to book a room. Ürgüp is home to Serinn House, the area's first high-style hotel; designed by Istanbul architect Rifat Ergör, its interior is largely sculpted out of a sandy cliff. (Among Serinn's other pluses: the daily breakfast spread of cherries, apricots, yogurt, cheeses, and tomatoes.) In Göreme, Kelebek Pension has 16 grottoes kitted out with antique rosewood chests and locally woven kilim rugs, as well as views of the town and surrounding mountains from its two-tiered terrace. Budget aside, the question is how you like your Flintstones-style dwelling: timelessly cozy or gorgeously up-to-date? Day 2: Take off Today's hot-air balloon ride requires a dawn launch, but it's worth it: Cappadocia's spectacular topography puts it at the top of every balloonist's list. There are scores of outfitters; among the most respected is Kapadokya Balloons, run by British expat Kaili Kidner and her Swedish husband, Lars-Eric Möre. As you float 1,500 feet above the earth, villages look like giant anthills, green gardens hidden in narrow canyons reveal themselves, and you can see that entire valley walls are pocketed with pigeon roosts. When your balloon dips near the ground, you can even reach out and pick apricots from the trees. On clear days, the view stretches hundreds of miles to Mount Erciyes and beyond. Back on terra firma about three hours later, return to your hotel in time for breakfast. Consider a nap and then an outing to the Göreme Open-Air Museum. This extraordinary monastic complex dates back to A.D. 900–1200 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You don't need a guide; just wander through its 10 excavated churches and refectories, ending at the Girls' Tower, a six-story convent that once housed up to 300 nuns. As you go, look for examples from two major eras of art history: Geometric patterns brushed directly on the rock (the best of which are in St. Barbara Church) are said to date back to the iconoclastic period, when the depiction of living forms was forbidden; plaster frescoes of the life of Christ (such as the Nativity and Crucifixion scenes in the Dark Church) are representative of Byzantine-era painting. Notice the vandalism: Many years ago, locals wary of the evil eye scratched out the eyes of the saints. Back in Göreme, have lunch on the terrace of Alaturca, a lively restaurant with a menu that zigzags from mezes to Italian pasta. Next door, at Gallery Anatolia, you can watch women extracting silk from cocoons, dyeing and spinning wool, and weaving kilims. Devote the evening to poking around the boutiques and jewelry shops of Ürgüp. End the night at Ziggy's, a popular café and gift shop in a stone house with carved decorations. Sofas and tables are set on three open-air terraces, and there's a great meze menu—plus a mille-feuille pastry with a secret, addictive filling for dessert. Day 3: Walk this way Approach Cappadocia on foot, and the cliffs and ravines that look impenetrable from a distance turn into fruit-tree fields, rivers, and vineyards. You'll be in expert hands if you sign on for a half-day hike with guide Mehmet Güngör. A Göreme native, Güngör is a one-man operation, Walking Mehmet, with a sales pitch: "I bet walking with me will be the highlight of your trip." He's right, especially if you ask him to lead you from Göreme to the astonishing red-banded pillars and chimneys of Rose Valley. Along the way, you'll pick walnuts from trees, stop to chat with farmers, and hear about Mehmet's childhood escapades. Be sure to ask him to show you the White Church, a cave with high ceilings and soaring columns that look as though they're made of ivory. Ease back into city life with a visit to the slow-paced village of Mustafapasa. In the 19th century, many Ottoman Greek Orthodox families inhabited the town, and although they were expelled in an agreement between Turkey and Greece in 1924, their legacy remains in the intricately decorated stone mansions lining the streets. Check out the grapevines carved on the colorful façade of the Church of Constantine-Elene, and then sip mint tea at a café on the main square, where village elders play backgammon all day. You'll witness the region's mixed heritage firsthand at the Old Greek House, a hotel in a mansion full of tiled arches and Turkish carpets that was built by a Greek family more than 250 years ago. The in-house restaurant serves first-rate stuffed vine leaves and meatballs in a large courtyard. But its claim to fame is that it was the main set of Asmali Konak, the soap opera sensation that introduced contemporary Turks to Cappadocia. Early Christians would be incredulous to learn that their dark lairs are now the inspiration for the travel plans of thousands. But then again, they weren't able to get out much to appreciate the views. GETTING THERE Turkish Airlines flights leave up to six times a day from Istanbul to Cappadocia's Kayseri Airport (thy.com). The trip takes about 80 minutes and costs from $65 round trip. WHEN TO GO Cappadocia's summers are scorching, and its winters decidedly raw; the best months to visit are April through early June, and September. Days are typically in the 70s, but the temperature drops after dark. WHAT TO PACK Hiking shoes, a sun hat, and shorts, plus a sweater for cool nights and cave prowling. TOUR OPERATORS Argeus Tourism & Travel (011-90/384-341-4688, argeus.com.tr, daylong tour with airport transfer, lunch, entry fees, and an English-speaking guide—ask for Edip Özcan Arslan—$340 for two people). Kapadokya Balloons (011-90/384-271-2442, kapadokyaballoons.com, 90-minute flight $350 per person). Walking Mehmet (011-90/384-271-2064, walkingmehmet.com, half-day guided hike $50). SOUVENIR A rag doll with bright embroidery from Soganli's daily market, about $15. WHERE TO SAVE If you're willing to brave the extreme temperatures of the off-season, you'll cut your hotel bill by up to 40 percent. LODGING Serinn House 36 Esbelli Sokak, Ürgüp, 011-90/384-341-6076, serinnhouse.com, $150 including breakfast Kelebek Pension 31 Yavuz Sokak, Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2531, kelebekhotel.com, $60 including breakfast FOOD Aravan Evi Ayvali, 011-90/384-354-5838, entrées from $15 Alaturca Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2882, entrées from $5 Ziggy's Shoppe & Café 24 Yunak Mahallesi Tevkif Fikret Caddesi, Ürgüp, 011-90/384-341-7107, entrées from $16 Old Greek House Mustafapasa, 011-90/384-353-5306, oldgreekhouse.com, prix fixe menu $17 ACTIVITIES Kaymakli Nevsehir, 011-90/384-218-2500, entry from $9 Göreme Open-Air Museum Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2167, entry from $9 SHOPPING Gallery Anatolia Göreme, 011-90/384-271-2005, rugs from $150

Endless Summer: 8 American Islands That Are Warm NOW

You don't need to splurge on a trip to the Caribbean to spend time on the beach this winter. These eight U.S. islands have the sandy shores, seafood shacks, and sunny skies that will have you thinking it's summer—even when there's snow on the ground back home. TAKE A TOUR OF THE ISLANDS AMELIA ISLAND, FLAverage highs of 65/71 in February/March About as far north as you can go and still be in the Sunshine State, Amelia Island's 13 miles of beaches are mostly deserted until March—so it's easy to find a spot where there are no other people in sight. Horseback riding along the sand is one of the most popular off-season activities. Kids have a blast exploring the nooks and crannies of Fort Clinch, one of the country's best-preserved 19th-century fortifications. It was also one of the last of its kind, as new weapons made brick forts obsolete during the Civil War. Boutiques and lovingly restored Victorian mansions make up the historic district.Sleep The Seaside Amelia Inn is steps from the beach and has a rooftop terrace perfect for taking in the sunset. Rooms start at just $69 a night.Refuel Grab one of the umbrella-shaded tables in the courtyard of Joe's 2nd Street Bistro, where the menu leans, naturally, toward seafood.Easy Escape From Jacksonville (33 miles), Gainesville (101 miles). AVERY ISLAND, LAAverage highs of 65/72 in February/March Things get hot here, and not just because of the steamy weather. It's home to the Tabasco Pepper Sauce Factory, where you can taste the fiery mixture during the free daily tours. (If you come on a Friday, you won't see the sauce being made, however.) E.A. McIlhenny, son of the company's founder, converted his private estate into a bird sanctuary, which he opened in 1935 as Jungle Gardens. McIlhenny was intent on saving snowy egrets, then endangered because their plumage was popular for ladies' hats. You can still see the brilliantly white birds inside the sanctuary and out. Surrounded by bayous, the mostly undeveloped island is also a great place to spot alligators, deer, and raccoons. You'll want to base yourself in one of the nearby communities; New Iberia, a half-hour drive north, has a good selection of restaurants and gracious homes transformed into B&Bs.Sleep A bungalow dating from the early 1900s, the Estorge-Norton House in New Iberia is chock-full of antiques. Rates start at $85.Refuel Landry's Cajun Restaurant specializes in Cajun camp cooking with a menu offering all the classics like gumbo, crawfish etouffee, and oyster po'boys.Easy Escape From Baton Rouge (85 miles), New Orleans (140 miles). CALADESI ISLAND, FLAverage highs of 73/77 in February/March The three miles of white-sand beaches on this pristine barrier island offer some of the best shelling on the Gulf of Mexico. And because it's a state park, you won't search for sand dollars in the shadow of high-rise hotels. In fact, there's not a single place to stay on the island, unless you count the 108-slip marina. There are no cars, either. Once you disembark the ferry ($14 roundtrip from Honeymoon Island, a short drive from Dunedin), the only way to get around is with your own two feet. Not a bad way, actually, as the boardwalk nature trail passes through stands of mangroves and around sand dunes. As you stroll, you may spot one of the rare gopher tortoises. Kayaking around the bay side of the island is a popular pastime, as the sea-grass flats are populated with ospreys, herons, and other birds. Pack a picnic lunch because there's just one small concession stand on the island.Sleep You can fish from the dock at the Sea Captain Resort on the Bay in nearby Clearwater, a small city popular with water sports enthusiasts. Winter rates start at $101 through the end of January and at $122 for February through April.Refuel: On the mainland, very close to Caladesi Island, Dunedin's kitsch-filled Casa Tina serves surprisingly authentic Mexican fare. A local favorite is the Veracruz-style fish, sautéed with tomatoes and onions.Easy Escape From St. Petersburg (20 miles), Tampa (24 miles), Orlando (103 miles). CATALINA ISLAND, CAAverage highs of 64/65 in February/March You won't entirely escape the state's notorious traffic on this island 22 miles off the southern California coast. But since golf carts are just about the biggest things on the road, you probably won't mind. You can get your own cart through Island Rentals ($40 for an hour rental plus a $40 deposit), but to explore the island's rugged interior, you'll need to rent a two-wheeler from Brown's Bikes ($20 per day) or enlist the help of an outfitter like Discovery Tours. Spotting one of the island's bald eagles, which were almost entirely wiped out by chemical contamination a few decades ago, will put a feather in your cap. The island is an hour and a half from Dana Point on the Catalina Express ferry ($74.50 round-trip), which drops you off at the town of Avalon, a pleasant place for window-shopping. That cylindrical building on the edge of the harbor is the Casino, an art deco movie house that still screens the latest releases.Sleep On Avalon's main drag, the Hermosa Hotel welcomed its first guests in 1896. Standard rooms start at $75 per night from December through February and $100 March through November. Cottages with their own kitchens start at $100 from December through February and $150 March through November.Refuel This is California, so the home cooking at Original Jack's Country Kitchen includes free-range chicken, and beef and pork raised without antibiotics or hormones. Sound too wholesome? Try one of the gooey doughnuts from its adjoining bakery.Easy Escape From Los Angeles (60 miles), San Diego (66 miles). DAUFUSKIE ISLAND, SCAverage highs of 61/67 in February/March Still weaving baskets from the sweetgrass that grows wild along the coast, Daufuskie Island's tiny Gullah population—descended from slaves—carefully tends to its traditions. You can take a peek into local life at landmarks like the white clapboard First Union African Baptist Church, built in the 1880s and still in use today. Less than a quarter of this 5,000-acre island has been developed, leaving plenty of open spaces to explore. (And we mean exploring by foot or by golf cart, as no cars are allowed.) One especially nice excursion point is the Haig Point Lighthouse, which has a tower extending from the roof of an antebellum-style house.Sleep As you might guess, Daufuskie isn't an all-inclusive-resort kind of place. A good option is the two-bedroom Daufuskie Island Cottage, a vacation-rental property that's on a quiet dirt lane in the historic district. In January and February, the rate drops to $115 (two-night minimum), including use of a golf cart.Refuel There's nightly live music at Marshside Mama's, which one local calls a "put-your-feet-up place." The ladies in the kitchen ladle out a tasty low-country gumbo.Easy Escape From Savannah (44 miles), Charleston (116 miles). MOLOKAI, HIAverage highs of 76/77 in February/March When Hawaiians talk about Molokai, they often say it's "how the islands used to be." It's true that there are no traffic lights or sprawling hotels. The least visited of the major Hawaiian islands has a rugged northern coast with the world's highest sea cliffs, a southern coast that gently wades into the sea, and a rocky interior punctuated by three extinct volcanoes. The biggest town, Kaunakakai, has barely 7,000 people, along with a three-block-long main street and a tiny airport. The top tourist attraction is the former leper colony in what is now Kalaupapa National Historic Park, a peaceful place reachable only on foot or by mule. The scenery is exhilarating, and the remaining buildings, such as the pair of squat churches, are thought-provoking. There's also a nearly endless string of beaches, including the lovely Papohaku, a three-mile-long stretch of glimmering gold sand.Sleep Lodgings are limited and can be expensive. Try Kaunakakai's Hotel Molokai, a cluster of A-frame buildings set in a tropical garden. Winter rates start at $159 if you book online.Refuel A local favorite is the Paddlers Inn in downtown Kaunakakai. Enjoy island specialties like mahi-mahi on a breeze-cooled patio.Easy Escape From Honolulu (50 miles). SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TXAverage highs of 70/75 in February/March Here's one place where the building industry is in full swing—if you count building sand castles, that is. Professional teachers have specialties ranging from one-on-one instruction to creating huge sculptures for weddings and other special events. Sons of the Beach, which has been around for more than 20 years, charges $25 for private lessons. This barrier island off the southern coast of Texas also attracts kids with rowdier activities in mind—spring breakers. Don't worry, though. Get there before the college crowd, and it's still a sleepy beach town. Among the dive bars are boutiques selling goods like rustic pottery and silver jewelry, much of it from Mexico.Sleep The Palms Resort is a hipped-up beach motel with an oceanfront café and a heated pool. Off-season rates start at $75 a night.Refuel The menu at Cap'n Roy's is exactly what you would expect from a pirate-inspired restaurant on a barrier island. Try the famous Camaronitas Diablitos—shrimp wrapped in bacon with cream cheese, jalepeño, and pineapple.Easy Escape From Brownsville (26 miles), Corpus Christi (179 miles). TYBEE ISLAND, GAAverage highs of 61/67 in February/March Unlike many nearby islands with higher profiles (and higher prices), Tybee Island isn't out to impress anyone. It's more akin to Coney Island than Jekyll Island, and therein lies its nostalgic charm—imagine boardwalks, food vendors, and stalls selling beach-themed kitsch. This is the kind of place where the restaurants have place-mat menus and the lodgings are of the park-at-your-door variety. There's a wooden pier where you can stroll and five miles of sugary beaches fringed by sea oats. The Tybee Island lighthouse was picture-perfect enough to make it onto a postage stamp. On nearby Cockspur Island is Fort Pulaski National Monument, where you'll find a magisterial brick fort used during the Civil War.Sleep The Ocean Plaza Beach Resort has been thoroughly updated, but it still reminds many people of beach hotels from when they were kids. Even the rates are retro, starting at $69 in low season.Refuel The Crab Shack is a local institution that's all it's cracked up to be, serving you-shuck-'em steamed oysters. One favorite is the seafood low-country boil, filled with shrimp, sausage, and potatoes.Easy Escape From Savannah (17 miles), Richmond Hill (34 miles), Charleston (124 miles).

10 Engaging Spots for Popping the Question

THE CLASSICS La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, Paris Proposing in Paris may be a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason, especially this one. Near dusk, head to the top of Montmartre; if you can tolerate the steep streets and steps, which aren't too difficult, skip the funicular and go by foot. Walk through Le Moulin de la Galette (the setting for Renoir's masterpiece of the same name), but avoid Pigalle (the setting for Paris's red-light district). Head to the illuminated Basilique du Sacre-Coeur and relax on the white stone steps of the famed church. From here you'll get the best view of Paris that doesn't require an admission fee or lengthy wait. If that vista doesn't inspire love, tell your sweetheart it was the setting for U2's "Two Hearts Beat as One" video. And while it might make that engagement ring you bought dim in comparison, time your walk back so that you see the Eiffel Tower after nightfall: At the start of every hour until 2 a.m. (1 a.m in winter), its 20,000 bulbs glitter for 10 minutes. Central Park, New York City With 843 acres of lawns, woodlands, and lakes, Central Park is a relaxing retreat in the middle of Manhattan. If you can't find a romantic setting here, it's your fault, not that of the park's main designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, whose general plan for the park persists today despite many additions. In the winter, ice-skating at Wollman Rink is a great way to get your beloved's heart racing. Later, take a break for hot chocolate and popping the question. When the weather's warmer, the Conservatory Garden's six acres make a great proposal site—they're filled with hedges, as well as an impressive number of roses. Or propose marriage on a rowboat rented from the Loeb Boathouse. And if you're afraid that a proposal in a free public park might seem cheap and less than romantic, don't be—Central Park's property value was appraised at $528 billion in 2005. Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence This 19th-century terrace with a sweeping view of Florence, framed by the Arno River and the Tuscan countryside, is one of the most romantic sites in a country full of them. (While on a solo trip through Italy, I almost proposed to myself here.) The plaza attracts a lot of tourists, however, so make sure the subject of your wooing is looking out to the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, rather than at people dripping gelato on their jean shorts. Guidebooks suggest riding local bus No. 13 to Piazzale Michelangelo, but it's better to go by foot; it's a romantic 30-minute stroll through a charming part of Florence's Oltrarno district that you wouldn't otherwise visit. And public transportation is rarely romantic. EVEN GREATER ESCAPES Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz. There's something about looking into a gaping display of two billion years of the Earth's history that says, "Hey baby, we can make it until death do us part." The colors brought out at sundown give the Grand Canyon one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world (try to catch it at Hopi Point on the South Rim, which has a view that stretches at least 30 miles and includes a glimpse of the Colorado River). At 277 river miles long, as much as 18 miles across, and a mile deep, the canyon's got plenty of secluded spots of proposing. And if getting to such a place on foot or by mule doesn't appeal to you, there's always helicopter: Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, a tour company, has had many customers get engaged during a romantic picnic on the canyon floor (just make sure your intended is comfortable hovering 5,000 feet above the ground on the trip there and back). Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Authors' Lounge, Bangkok, Thailand Is sipping afternoon tea on white rattan furniture as Siamese umbrellas, bamboo, and palm trees shield you from the sun coming in through the translucent roof romantic enough for you? Frequented by Joseph Conrad, Noël Coward, and Barbara Cartland, the Authors' Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental hotel is the perfect place for a sophisticated proposal that says, "I'm literate and classy" (but not out loud—that would be creepy). While all this atmosphere doesn't come cheap, you'd be hard-pressed to find its idyllic combination of colonial East and West elsewhere. Afterward step outside and buy your betrothed flowers from a wooden long-tail boat as you walk along the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Siasconset, Nantucket Island, Mass. 'Sconset, as it's sometimes called, is so quaint, rustic, and free of brash day-trippers from Cape Cod that it makes Nantucket's other villages seem like Tijuana. Rent bikes at Young's Bicycle Shop near Steamboat Wharf ($25 for the day), but avoid the tandem models, which are romantic in theory only. From there pedal to Siasconset, on the island's eastern shore. Buy some picnic food at the 'Sconset Market, and head to one of Nantucket's most secluded and beautiful beaches. It doesn't matter whether you face the ocean or the bluffs—both are gorgeous. On your way back, stroll along Baxter Road, a grassy lane, to admire the picturesque cottages. It's best in the late summer, when the hydrangeas are blooming. Wailua Falls, Kauai, Hawaii There are almost as many places in Hawaii for a kitschy proposal as there are for a romantic one. Stay away from man-made attractions like Don Ho's Island Grill and instead opt for a natural setting. Wailua Falls, on the east side of Kauai, is one of the best. Although the 173-foot-high falls are in a lush green setting, they are easily accessible by car. And Wailua Falls has a long history of being a choice spot for romantic bravado: In ancient times, Hawaiian men leapt from the top to prove their manliness (unfortunately, they often killed themselves in the process). And while your friends might not have heard of Wailua Falls, getting engaged here will impress them once you tell them it was in the opening credits of the frequently romantic (and even more frequently campy) TV show Fantasy Island. MODERN LOVE Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nev. Held annually in late summer since 1986, this eight-day festival's intention, as stated on its website, is to "generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society." (You may also know it as a New Age event where a bunch of naked people come together to make art and party.) And you might expect Burning Man to disavow a tradition like marriage. But it can be the perfect place for a romantic and symbolic proposal: Its principle of communal effort is the pillar of a strong marriage; it's in the beautiful, often very warm outdoors; and its emphasis on gifting means you'll have one heck of an engagement party. But why stop there? Weddings are common enough here (there are about 35 a year) that the official website has a page devoted to how to get hitched there. You may want to propose earlier in the festival rather than later, though—showering can be difficult. Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky. Thoroughbred horse racing is the sport of kings, so what better way to make your would-be spouse feel like royalty than by proposing at the Kentucky Derby, one of the world's premier horse races? Held annually on the first Saturday in May "the most exciting two minutes in sports" provides all the pageantry needed for a memorable proposal. While general admission tickets to the infield (a mob of alcohol-infused barbarians enjoying things other than a horse race) are easier and cheaper to acquire than grandstand tickets, get the latter. There you can sip $9 mint juleps out of commemorative glasses and check out the expensive, and frequently bizarre, hats. And with plenty of celebrities in attendance, you'll have a great story to share with your friends. For example, if you'd proposed at the Derby in 2007, you'd have been able to brag that you'd gotten engaged in the presence of Queen Elizabeth (probably best not to mention that it would have happened in the company of O. J. Simpson too). Macworld Conference & Expo, San Francisco This one's strictly for the fanboys. If you're an Apple-lover and want your love life to be as integrated as your hardware, propose at Macworld. The world's largest trade show dedicated to Apple technology has been held annually since 1985, most recently in San Francisco this past January. Before going, make sure you've saved on your iPhone the Robert Hess Macworld Memorial Events List, which catalogs the parties and other events taking place, and you'll have lots of options for a fun, fully geeky place to propose. If the conference itself isn't romantic enough for you, take a break and propose nearby while hiking in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, or while looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge from Crissy Field. Regardless of where you propose, we hope you'll be as self-satisfied about your choice of a spouse as you are about your computer.

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