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10 coolest small towns in America 2012

We logged 368,000 votes in our seventh annual contest to choose the best hometown escapes in America. This year's twist? A nail-biter of a finish that crashed our website (temporarily, of course!) and resulted in our first-ever tie for first place.

What’s your idea of cool? How about a place where the local dump doubles as an art gallery. Or a town that’s helped spawn a major foodie movement. A Gold Rush outpost with an unsung history of ethnic tolerance would certainly qualify, right? So, too, would a New York village where they make wine served at the White House—yet tastings at the winery are still free. How about two towns that wanted to win our seventh annual Coolest Small Towns contest so badly, they launched a last-minute voting frenzy that crashed our website. That wasn’t so cool at the time, but now we love it—so much so that we declared those two towns co-Coolest. You know what else we love? All those places out there that are already clamoring to enter next year’s contest.

SEE ALL OF THE TOWNS!

#1 (tie) Beaufort, N.C.: Pop. 4,039

Southern charm with a dash of salty seaside spirit

Captain Horatio Sinbad is what you might call a friendly pirate. He's got six cannons on his 54-foot brigantine, the Meka II, but he's also got Wi-Fi. He's got a gold tooth and a gold hoop in his left ear, but his mate lovingly wears the matching earring on a chain around her neck (and brings him coffee on deck). He makes his living as a pirate, sailing the East Coast to lead mock invasions—"historical entertainments," as he calls them—then dutifully returns to Beaufort, N.C., every chance he gets. "The water is clean, the fishing is great, and the people are friendly," he says. "This is home port for me."

If you'd just dropped into Beaufort, you might be surprised to find that a pirate has weighed anchor there. Perched on an especially serene stretch of the North Carolina coast, the town has an air of Southern gentility about it, from the restored 17th- and 18th-century buildings that flank the local historical society to the Confederate jasmine and animal topiaries that frame the Langdon House B&B (135 Craven St., langdonhouse.com, doubles from $108). Feeling a shiver in your timbers? A cup of rich gumbo and a slice of salty, pillow-soft French bread at the Beaufort Grocery restaurant and bakery will warm you up nicely (117 Queen St., beaufortgrocery.com, cup of gumbo $4.25). There's even a thriving health-food store, the Coastal Community Market (606 Broad St., coastalcommunitymarket.com, locally made hummus $4).

And yet Beaufort's got a wild side, starting with the undomesticated horses you'll see roaming just across Taylors Creek. Blackbeard himself sailed those waters, and his spirit pops up at the North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front St., ncmaritimemuseums.com, admission free), the Queen Anne's Revenge restaurant (510 Front St., qarbeaufort.com, crab-stuffed shrimp $15), and beyond. If he were alive, you'd almost certainly find him on a stool at the Backstreet Pub, a dive-bar-like joint that also serves as a live-music venue and a lending library for sailors. Owner Liz Kopf likes to call her place the funkiest bar from Maine to Venezuela: "I always say there are more characters per capita in here than anywhere in the state" (124 Middle Lane, historicbeaufort.com, beer $2 on Mondays and Tuesdays).

Getting there: Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, New Bern, N.C. (37 miles); Wilmington International Airport (98 miles)

#1 (tie) Hammondsport, N.Y.: Pop. 661

Wine country history on the banks of the Finger Lakes

Hammondsport, N.Y., may well be the recycling capital of America. Not garbage recycling (though they do that, too). We're talking about the vintage seaplanes restored and flown by the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (8419 State Rte. 54, glennhcurtissmuseum.org, admission $8.50). The birdhouses made of scrap wood in front of the Aroma Coffee Art Gallery (60 Shethar St., 607/569-3047, birdhouses from $40). The spiral staircase, crown moldings, and bits of vintage wallpaper in the octagonal 1859 home that has been converted into the Black Sheep Inn (8329 Pleasant Valley Rd., stayblacksheepinn.com, doubles from $149). Even the cypress paneling in the Bully Hill Vineyard's lower dining room came from old wine barrels (8843 Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Dr., bullyhill.com, smoked pulled pork sandwich $13). "When my husband and I came back to live here the first thing he did was start restoring old boats," says Nancy Wightman, whose husband, Ed, grew up in the Finger Lakes region. "It's not just about loving history. You get the sense that's who the people here are."

It's tempting to say that there's something in the water, but Hammondsport's passion for the past really comes via the wine. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company, opened in 1860, was the first in the Finger Lakes region (8260 Pleasant Valley Rd., pleasantvalleywine.com, bottles from $6). In 1962, a Ukrainian viticulturist further transformed the local wine industry at his Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars by successfully planting European grapes in the colder New York climate (9749 Middle Rd., drfrankwines.com, bottles from $9). Today, both those wineries—and several more—are mainstays of the landscape. That's literally true of Dr. Frank's, which sits on an impossibly green piece of land overlooking its vineyards and sparkling, Y-shaped Keuka Lake. The vineyard is run by Fred Frank, Konstantin's grandson. "I enjoy hearing stories about children sitting on my grandfather's knee 40 years ago," says Fred. "That's very rewarding."

Also rewarding: After all these years, tastings at Dr. Frank's are still free. In fact, many of the best things in Hammondsport are. Sunbathing on condo-less Keuka Lake, kicking back on the town square for outdoor summer concerts on Thursday nights, jam sessions in the basement of the Union Block Italian Bistro-though do spring for one of the plus-size meals, such as linguini and clam sauce (31 Shethar St., unionblockitalian.com, linguini with clam sauce $19). "We're pretty darn proud of what we've built here," says Mayor Emery Cummings, who has lived in Hammondsport for every one of his 54 years, "and we're hoping to keep it the way it's always been."

Getting there: Elmira Corning Regional Airport (40 miles); Greater Rochester International Airport (87 miles)

#3 Weaverville, Calif.: Pop. 3,600

Far East meets Old West

You expect certain trappings in any Gold Rush town. A saloon, a main street, maybe a hitching post. Also a 138-year-old working Chinese temple. No? You'll find one in Weaverville, where the Joss House State Historic Park is a testament to the town's unsung history of tolerance (630 Main St., parks.ca.gov, admission $4). Chinese immigrants, facing discrimination in ports such as San Francisco, were welcomed here and ultimately accounted for up to 25 percent of the Rush-era population. "Some of our staff looks at this place as a museum piece you just have to keep clean and take care of," says guide Jack Frost. "But Chinese people who work in the parks system say it's a national treasure."

Maybe it's the mining connection, but Weaverville is a place where you often strike it rich in unexpected places. The 1854 drugstore and bank are now home to the La Grange Cafe, which features a wildly creative menu of boar, rabbit, and buffalo-as well as an impressive wine cellar in the old bank vault (520 Main St., 530/623-5325, buffalo burger $11). Mamma Llama Eatery & Cafe hosts a surprisingly funky roster of live musicians: Gypsy jazz, junkyard percussion, even didgeridoo (490 Main St., mammallama.com, hoagie $5.75). One place that hews to a more period Old West experience is the 132-year-old Weaverville Hotel, which features four-poster beds, clawfoot tubs, and a peaceful Victorian library (481 Main St., weavervillehotel.com, doubles from $99).

Getting there: Redding Municipal Airport (55 miles); Sacramento International Airport (198 miles)

#4 Damascus, Va.: Pop. 814

The perfect trailside pit stop

If you decide to drive to Damascus, you’ll likely be in the minority. This is hiking and cycling heaven, where seven major trails intersect, including the undulating Virginia Creeper and the granddaddy of them all: the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.

In a nifty bit of irony, six of the seven trails converge in a parking lot, at Mojoes Trailside Coffee House (331 Douglas Dr., mojoestrailsidecoffee.com, lattes from $3.50), where most mornings you’ll find a clutch of locals and through-hikers chatting about travel plans. Breakfast is the big meal in town, and the more energy-boosting calories the better. That’s one reason why the Lazy Fox Inn is famous less for its trailside location than for its legendary country breakfast that includes cheese grits, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy, and sausage (133 Imboden St., lazyfoxinn.com, doubles with private bath from $85).

Yet the carbo-loading, hard-core trekkers you’ll find in Damascus don’t always look as you’d expect. “Mamaw B.” (her adopted trail name) was in town beginning her usual 15- to 18-mile hike. She’s 71 and has been backpacking for 31 years. “The secret to good health is to remain active and to always have something to look forward to,” she says, as she sets off from Mojoes toward—where, exactly? She just smiles and points north.

Getting there: Tri-Cities Regional Airport, Blountville, Tenn. (46 miles); Charlotte Douglas International Airport (134 miles)

#5 Nashville, Ind.: Pop. 803

A music mecca that lives up to its namesake

Nashville didn't start out as a music town-not this Nashville, anyway. For 100 years, this southern Indiana village did just fine as a turn-of-the-century Midwest artists' colony. Galleries and crafts studios still line the streets, the legacy of landscape painters such as T.C. Steele, who moved here in the early 1900s for the "purple haze" over the Brown County hills. The 23-room Artists Colony Inn even has palette-shaped key rings and works from the town's creative founders on its walls (105 S. Van Buren St., artistscolonyinn.com, doubles from $92).

The first artists were also drawn to Nashville's remoteness from urban distractions-which is just what lured singer-songwriter Cari Ray in 2011. Ray was looking for a quiet place to work on her second record, but she ultimately found more stimulation than solitude. "There's so much energy and hidden talent here," she says. "And such a collaborative spirit. Everybody just wants to jam together." True to form, Ray can often be found performing with other area musicians at the once-abandoned Brown County Playhouse (70 S. Van Buren St., browncountyplayhouse.org, tickets from $15).

Supply and demand for homegrown performances has spiked ever since the town's Little Nashville Opry, the only venue big enough to host touring acts, burned down in 2009. Just like that, "local musicians started filling in the gaps," says Eric "Wavy" Rose, who works at the Weed Patch Music Company, a custom guitar and banjo shop (58 E. Main St., weedpatchmusic.com, guitars from $90). After all, who needs an Opry when you can harmonize on a sidewalk, in a wine bar, or even at the go-to breakfast spot-funky, Mexican-leaning Muddy Boots Cafe (136 N. Van Buren St., muddybootscafe.com, sandwiches from $6)?

Getting there: Indianapolis International Airport (55 miles); Louisville International Airport (95 miles)

#6 Port Townsend, Wash.: Pop. 9,113

A foodie find on the shores of the rugged Olympic Coast

Back in the late 1800s, Port Townsend was poised to become America's largest West Coast harbor, nicknamed The City of Dreams. Unfortunately, when the economic Panic of 1893 cut the town off from the expanding rail network, these grand plans went bust. And yet the Victorian-era seaport is still plenty dreamy. Thanks to its rich geographical blessings (mountains ripe for foraging, teeming fishing grounds, fertile farmlands), the region has spawned its own culinary movement: Olympic Coast Cuisine.

Extremely fresh seafood-pulled from the labyrinthine bays that carve into the peninsula-shows up on most menus here. The terrace at Fins Coastal Cuisine offers a front-row seat to the harbor, a perfect perch from which to try their take on chowder-heaping bowls of local Manila clams in their shells with a white wine and thyme broth (1019 Water St., finscoastal.com, chowder $13.50).

In addition to French-style Camemberts and spreadable fromage blancs, Matt Day and Ryan Trail of Mt. Townsend Creamery create a slate of uniquely Northwestern cheeses, with additions like alderwood smoke and Seattle-brewed Scotch ale (338 Sherman St., mttownsendcreamery.com, fromage blanc $5 for 8 oz.). The cheeses make a perfect picnic companion to the French-inspired classics-such as thin ficelle baguettes and custard-filled canelés-being baked at Pane d'Amore (617 Tyler St., panedamore.com, canelés $1.50). Even something as simple as ice cream gets the farm-to-cone treatment. At Elevated Ice Cream Company, seasonal ingredients such as raspberries, strawberries, and lavender are sourced from farms 16 miles west in Sequim, Wash. (627 & 631 Water St., elevatedicecream.com, cone $2.50). But don't worry about packing on the calories: The Olympic Peninsula has plenty of opportunities for sea kayakers, hikers, and mountain bikers.

If your culinary tastes lie more in the DIY camp, the not-at-all-rustic Chevy Chase Beach Cabins offer access to a private beach on Discovery Bay that's home to seven varieties of clams-they even provide plastic diggers and buckets (3710 S. Discovery Rd., chevychasebeachcabins.com, cabins from $110).

Getting there: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (71 miles)

#7 Cape May, N.J.: Pop. 3,607

America's first beach resort, now with a fresh coat of paint

Let's face it: You might be convinced that Cape May, America's oldest beach resort town, is stuck in the past. True, you can still find reminders of the seaside burgh's genteel heritage around every corner, from its rows of pastel Victorians to its butterfly gardens. Local lore has it that refined ghouls even haunt the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate (1048 Washington St., capemaymac.org, tours $10). But Cape May's glory days haven't yet passed it by (to misquote the poet laureate of New Jersey, a certain Mr. Springsteen).

At the Beach Shack hotel, the Rusty Nail surfer bar has been attracting partiers-and fun-loving area lifeguards-since the 1970s. After a major overhaul in 2009, the outdoor sand bar and fire pit make for an ideal cocktail spot. Try the Exit Zero, a refreshing mix of vodka, melon liqueur, pineapple juice, and Sprite, named for the town's Parkway exit number (205 Beach Ave., beachshack.com, Exit Zero $7). Even the Congress Hall hotel, a dignified landmark since 1816, now features a funky nightclub called The Boiler Room that trades in the usual Jersey Shore kitsch for a laid-back speakeasy vibe. The underground bar is built directly into the hotel's foundations, with a stage for live acts next to the original boiler pit (251 Beach Ave., congresshall.com, martini $10). 

It's no wonder Y.B. Eat Place has a playful side. Owner Peter Karapanagiotis named the year-old restaurant after himself—he's the "younger brother" of John Karapanagiotis, who owns the nearby George's Place. The menu is full of unusual takes on Jersey diner classics: Rice Krispies-crusted French toast, a swordfish BLT, duck-fat fries (314 Beach Ave., 609/898-2009, duck-fat fries from $3). "The best compliment," says cook Tom Fala, "is that it feels like home to Philly residents."

Though the color scheme at the Star Inn leans toward the Victorian-daffodil yellow, robin's egg blue, coral red-the furnishings are decidedly more up-to-date. In place of doilies and damask patterns, you'll find crisp, white bedding, modern kitchenettes, and posters of starfish and horseshoe crabs that evoke the area's longtime connection to the sea (29 Perry St., thestarinn.net, suite with kitchenette from $129). Glory days indeed.

Getting there: Atlantic City International Airport (45 miles); Philadelphia International Airport (96 miles)

#8 Jerome, Ariz.: Pop. 444

A copper mining village that struck gold as an artists' retreat

Home to the largest copper mine in Arizona, Jerome was once dubbed "The Wickedest Town in the West" for its abundant brothels, saloons, and opium dens. Today, the mine is a park and the Victorian-era bordello has been transformed into the tasteful Mile High Inn (309 Main St., milehighgrillandinn.com, double with private bath $120). But the unsavory types haven't been replaced so much as upgraded to the gentler end of the bohemian spectrum. Today, Jerome belongs to artists.

"We like to say we're all here because we're not all there," says Christy Fisher, who got her start sewing costumes for rock icons like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and is now owner of the stylish Magpie boutique. Fisher follows the ethos of the shop's namesake bird-which she calls "a collector of weird things"-with quirky designs that include skirts emblazoned with Ann-Margret on a motorcycle or a "trashion" line of jewelry made from recycled soda cans and steel (510 Main St., magpiejerome.com, soda can ring $14).

Even the food bursts with color here. At 15 Quince Grill & Cantina, the authentic New Mexican cuisine on the plate-blue corn enchiladas, red Chimayo chiles, green Hatch chiles-is almost as artful as Chef Vlad Costa's heavily tattooed arms. Housed in a former Safeway market, the turquoise walls are lined with a grid of painted steer skulls, each done up by a different area artist (363 Main St., 15quincejerome.com, blue corn enchiladas $13).

Jane Moore of Made in Jerome Pottery takes the concept of local art down to a new level-to the clay. "I'm getting it out of my backyard!" she says. The works, made by Moore and other area potters, often draw inspiration from Native American rock art or incorporate ancient techniques. To make horsehair pots, for example, artists use burnt mane or tail hair to leave dramatic black carbon imprints on the clay (103 Main St., madeinjerome.com, Native American-inspired bowls and plates $18).

The Old Jerome High School, built in the 1920s, now houses artists' work spaces spread over three buildings, including the 20,000- square-foot Anderson-Mandette Gallery, the largest privately owned art studio in the United States. Robin Anderson, who offers etching demonstrations, used to look toward the Old Masters for inspiration: "At first I thought I would have to move to Italy," he says. "But this is my little Italian town on a hill" (885 Hampshire Ave., anderson-mandette.com, etchings from $50).

Getting there: Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (53 miles); Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (117 miles)

#9 Ste. Genevieve, Mo.: Pop. 4,410

French colonial life on the Mississippi? Mais oui!

The first thing you'll notice is how much Ste. Genevieve looks like a French village. And with good reason: This Mississippi River town was founded in 1740 by French Canadians, making it the first European settlement west of the Mississippi. They left behind colonial houses, built in the poteaux-en-terre (or "post-in-ground") style-also seen in Louisiana, Normandy, and Quebec-defined by covered porches and timber beams. The 1792 Bolduc House Museum is a perfect introduction to the style, with 18th-century furniture and a garden under shady pecan trees (125 S. Main St., bolduchouse.org, $8).

The Rosemary & Thyme Cooking School often features French-inspired dishes, such as souffles or Alsace onion tarts (20 S. Main St., rosemarythymecookingsch.com, classes from $50). And, because no French experience is complete without wine, the town sits on the Route du Vin. Unlike the majority of the state's wineries, which trace their history to German immigrants, this loop of six vineyards is known for Gallic grape varieties and wines inspired by Burgundy and Provence (rdvwinetrail.com, tasting prices vary). Built in 1848 by a rich merchant family, the Inn St. Gemme Beauvais is the state's oldest B&B (78 N. Main St., innstgemme.com, doubles from $99). You'll be on a strict schedule of indulgences: breakfast at 8:00, tea at 2:00, hors d'oeuvres and wine at 5:00, then dinner in the onsite restaurant, which serves-well, you can probably guess.

Getting there: Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (75 miles)

#10 Cooke City, Mont.: Pop. 75

On the doorstep to Yellowstone, a gem in the rough

Names on the map tell it all. To the north sits Froze-to-Death Lake. Off to the east stretches Hellroaring Plateau. Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, 18 miles southwest, sounds tranquil enough, but it's home to one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears and wolves in the Lower 48. "This is the last place I know in the West that's still the West," says Troy Wilson, owner of the 1886 Cooke City Store, founded during the town's brief stint as a gold-mining settlement (101 Main St., cookecitystore.com, hiking maps from $6).

From your base at the High Country Motel in the Beartooth Mountains, snowmobiling and skiing are steps away (113 W. Main St., cookecityhighcountry.com, doubles from $88). It's cozier inside, but the vibe at the Miners Saloon is no less wild. Beers like Moose Drool Brown Ale and Trout Slayer Wheat Ale often share the menu with hand-tossed pizzas and specials like chicken with wild morel mushrooms (208 Main St., 406/838-2214, pizzas from $18).

There are other diamonds in this rugged rough. The town's trash and recycling station doubles as the local library and art museum, filled with books, paintings, and even cuckoo clocks rescued from refuse bins. Across
town, 88-year-old Birdie Williams runs the F. J. Williams Primitive Western Art gallery (407 Skunk Hollow, 406/838-2333, admission free), showcasing art by her deceased husband in the century-old log house where the two lived for nearly 50 years-without indoor plumbing.

Getting there: Yellowstone Regional Airport, Cody, Wyo. (80 miles); Gallatin Field Airport, Bozeman, Mont. (143 miles)

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