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msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: Dozen Distinctive Destinations

  • History buffs, art lovers, architecture nerds, foodies, outdoor enthusiasts, and even the well-traveled may be pleasantly surprised by this year’s list of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations, unveiled Tuesday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

    Destinations range from an East Coast waterfront city that George Washington called home, to an Old West town that was once the unofficial capital of Indian territory, to a laid-back small town in wine country. Some places are off the beaten track. Others are well known, but harbor surprises.

    Vote: What distinctive destination would you most like to visit?

    “We are looking for examples of the American story through many different lenses that bring to life the diversity of our country” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust. The list “reinforces how our history was played out in every corner of this country.”

    How destinations are chosen
    This is the 12th year the National Trust has selected a dozen communities across America that offer visitors authentic cultural and recreational experiences that are different from the typical vacation destination. Those chosen “boast a richness of character and exude an authentic sense of place.” They combine historic appeal and modern culture, Meeks said, featuring dynamic downtowns, attractive architecture, cultural diversity, lively entertainment, and a strong commitment to historic preservation, sustainability and revitalization.

    For the first time, Wyoming made the list, with Sheridan, a town selected for its “authentic Western experience,” Meeks said. Including the current listing, there are 144 “Distinctive Destinations” in 46 states. One goal, Meeks said, is for travelers to find “a source of inspiration close to home.”

    Do travelers benefit?
    “Travelers like the concept that there are special places in the United States and the World that are 'must see, must do' destinations which offer the visitor a special experience,” said Sharr Prohaska, clinical associate professor, Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.

    “Specialized lists also introduce potential visitors to places they never thought of visiting before which creates the impetus for their travel,” said Prohaska, who specializes in cultural heritage tourism and previously served as a National Trust advisor. “People appreciate that others have done the research for them in this age of information overload.”

    Impact on tourism
    Suzanne Cook, a senior advisor to the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group, said several studies have shown that people are relying less on social media and other Internet sites and are “turning back to what they believe are more trusted sources.” Lists from credible organizations like the National Trust, she said, “can have a lot of influence.”

    In addition, studies suggest that more and more people in the U.S., about 40 percent, “are really looking for travel experiences that are unique.” Sun, beach and family remain strong motivators, Cook said, but more people are “motivated to immerse themselves in local culture and history,” experiential travel that is personally enriching.

    Budgetary concerns have also fueled this trend, Cook said. As a result of the economic downturn, research shows that people are being more deliberate about the money they spend on travel, and lists can assist that process.

    The public is invited to vote online to help determine which of the 12 destinations will be the 2011 Fan Favorite. Click here for more information.

  • Alexandria, Va.

    Image: Alexandria, Va.
    Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association

    Urban charm, blending early American tradition with contemporary  chic, and its strong commitment to protecting and celebrating history, helped land Alexandria on this year’s list.

    Located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., and once home to George Washington, this walkable city is recognized for its historic sites (more than 30 are on the National Register of Historic Places) and an eclectic mix of neighborhoods.

    In Old Town, visitors can hop on a free trolley and dine at Gadsby’s Tavern, where Revolutionary War leaders gathered (and where Thomas Jefferson celebrated his presidential inaugural). Museums include one modeled after a Union headquarters, and others that honor African Americans’ history and contributions.

  • Chapel Hill, N.C.

    Image: North Carolina Botanical Garden
    Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Association

    Nicknamed the “Southern Part of Heaven,” this small city was selected for its stately charm, quiet winding streets, dynamic cultural offerings, and well-preserved historic districts.

    “Tree-lined streets shade an architectural heritage spanning four centuries,” the National Trust wrote. Home to the University of North Carolina, known for its high-profile basketball, the campus is a draw.

    Other highlights cited include a bustling downtown, featuring eclectic shops and a vibrant nightlife, with music clubs along historic Franklin Street that have launched many careers (James Taylor, Ben Folds Five), the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Carolina Basketball Museum, Morehead Planetarium & Science Center, and Ackland Art Museum.

  • Colorado Springs, Colo.

    Image: Garden of the Gods Park
    Colorado Springs CVB

    Nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, with commanding views of Pikes Peak from just about any part of town, Colorado Springs was selected for its walkable historic areas, its commitment to sustainability, and its natural attractions and many recreational opportunities in the nearby Rocky Mountains. These include everything from hiking to taking in the “breathtaking geological wonders” at Garden of the Gods Park, Cave of the Winds and the Paint Mines Interpretive Park.

    Cultural attractions include the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, where visitors can learn about the early history of the area, and at the nearby Air Force Academy, the Cadet Chapel is noted as “a masterpiece of Modernist architecture.”

  • Dandridge, Tenn.

    Image: Douglas Lake
    Courtesy Dandridge Community Trust, Corp.

    The idyllic natural setting in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, a welcoming small town spirit and a charming historic downtown epitomize Dandridge, as “the quintessential Southern Appalachian town,” the National Trust says. 

    “It really is just like that” said Tina Murrow, executive director of Main Street Dandridge. The downtown boasts a variety of  shops, four early 19th-century taverns (one sheltered four U.S. presidents), and a courthouse-turned-museum, built in the Greek Revival style in 1845, featuring genealogical records dating to 1792, including the marriage bond for Davy Crockett.

    Douglas Lake is a must for water activities, Murrow says, as is the 100 year old Tinsley-Bible Drug Company, where an old-fashioned soda fountain serves milkshakes, burgers, and homemade fried apple pie. At the newly opened Visitor Center at Bush Brothers & Company, known for its baked beans, “you can see what your weight is in beans,” she says.

  • Eureka, Calif.

    Image: Sequoia National Park
    Jeff Leonard  /  Redwoods.info

    Tucked away in rural Northern California, Eureka was cited for its rich Victorian-era heritage, its beautifully preserved seaport, and one of the nation's best original 19th century American West commercial districts, with “a lively Old Town that has been bustling since the Gold Rush and a community dedicated to keeping a colorful past alive.”

    “It’s like a living museum,” said Richard Stenger, a spokesman for the Humboldt County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’ve never had to become retro because we never had to update.” Nearby forests “are where the tallest, the most, the oldest, and best preserved Redwoods” in the world grow, he said.

    Eureka hosts more than 50 festivals, including an Intertribal gathering of Native American tribes, a mushroom fair and the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which Stenger said is the original art triathlon.

  • Muskogee, Okla.

    Image: Downtown Muskogee
    Downtown Muskogee, Inc.

    Famous for Merle Haggard’s country western song, “Okie from Muskogee,” and for once being the unofficial capital of Indian Territory, Muskogee was named for its role in American history, its diverse cultural heritage and its commitment to preservation.

    When the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced many Native Americans westward, Muskogee was “the end point along the ‘Trail of Tears,’ for them and the African Americans who journeyed with them,” said Jonita Mullins, executive director of Downtown Muskogee.

    Influences from the Euro-American settlers are also evident. Highlights include dining spots serving Oakie barbecueand other Southern comfort food, historic homes, museums commemorating Native American art, history and culture, and many festivals, like the Annual Azalea Festival and the National Soul Food Cook-Off.

  • New Bedford, Mass.

    Image: Fort Taber Pier
    Waterfront Historic Area League

    Once one of the world’s largest whaling ports, New Bedford, with its historic downtown of cobblestone streets and period gas lamps, was selected for its maritime history, scenic beaches, architectural riches, diverse neighborhoods and a thriving arts community.

    The North End Cultural District, for example, is described as “a hotbed of small ethnic shops, offering such unique items as Azorean hand-stitched fabrics and Mexican pottery,” and exotic cuisine.

    Other highlights include a Civil War-era fort with views of Buzzards Bay, a renovated theatre dating back to Vaudeville days, a working waterfront, and in homage to the city’s seafaring heritage, a national park and museum devoted to its whaling past.

  • Paducah, Ky.

    Image: Shoppers in Paducah
    O'neil Arnold  /  Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau

    Named in honor of a legendary 19th century Native American chief and situated in the heart of Kentucky’s Four Rivers region, Paducah was chosen for its rich heritage, its vibrant historic districts filled with turn of the century architecture, and its commitment to celebrating its cultural and artistic past.

    This “remarkably creative town,” was noted for its one-of-a-kind shops and eateries, hands-on workshops with resident artists, and its many festivals celebrating everything from quilts to visual arts and barbecue.

    Featured institutions include the National Quilt Museum of the United States and the River Discovery Center, where exhibits tell regional stories, folklore and history. 

  • San Angelo, Texas

    Image: San Angelo Memorial Day celebration
    M.w. Erb  /  Downtown San Angelo, Inc.

    Sitting along the banks of the Concho River in West Texas, this “frontier city with a storied past,” was picked for its authentic Old West heritage — from its beginnings as a military fort during the Civil War to its farming and ranching traditions — its revitalized downtown historic district, and its dedication to preservation.

    Visitors to Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum can no longer enter by underground tunnel as former patrons did, but  at  Miss Hattie’s Restaurant and Saloon, listed on the National Register, they can enjoy“some of the best food in Texas,” according to theNational Trust.

    Other memorable stops include an old preserved fort, M. L. Leddy’s, a family-owned fourth-generation store offering handmade western wear, a theatre boasting the state’s oldest running troupe (founded in 1865), and the annual Cactus Jazz & Blues Festival.

  • St. Paul, Minn.

    Image: St. Paul capitol
    Historic Saint Paul & Minnesota Landmarks

    Home to some of Minnesota’s most famous historic buildings — including the Cass Gilbert-designed State Capitol, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s home and the stunning Beaux-Arts Cathedral of Saint Paul — the city was selected for its thriving historic  districts, its stately collection of Gilded Age Victorian mansions on Summit Avenue, a restored warehouse area downtown, and its many festivals celebrating the city’s diverse cultural heritage.

    Visitors can also take in the city’s abundant cafes, restaurants and boutiques, and during cold-weather months, attend the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, or check out the Wabasha Street Caves, where gangsters like John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis once hung out.

  • Sheridan, Wyo.

    Image: Mint Bar, Sheridan, Wy.
    Sheridan Travel and Tourism
    Mint Bar, Sheridan, Wy.

    This classic Western frontier town stood out for its ranching, farming and mining heritage, its vibrant Main Street commercial district, and its abundant outdoor recreational opportunities including hiking, hunting and fishing and rock climbing, all set in “the shadow of the Big Horns.”

    The mountains “are so much fun because you can get out and wonder around, see the wildflowers, and elk and moose,” said Judy Taylor, chairman of the board for Sheridan Travel and Tourism, a government office. History buffs are in luck, too. “There are lots and lots of important cavalry Indian battle stands,” nearby, including the Battle of Little Bighorn.

    The downtown boasts a variety of shops that specialize in all things Western, many housed in original brick and iron-clad storefronts; a Western museum; a professional rodeo; and the Sheridan Inn, a National Historic Landmark, where Buffalo Bill once lived.

  • Sonoma, Calif.

    Image: Farmer's Market
    Robbi Pengelli  /  Sonoma Index-Tribune

    A short drive from San Francisco, set amid winding country roads in the heart of wine country, Sonoma’s role in American history, its superior green ethic, and its laid back vibe and small-town ambiance were acknowledged by the National Trust.

    Known for award-wining wine and food (26 restaurants in just over two square miles; and chocolate, cheese, and of course, wine tastings), the area’s many other cultural experiences were cited: historic lodging, vineyard biking tours, hiking trails, the Sonoma State Historic Park, and sites like the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, dating to the early 1800s, and the mid 19th century Blue Wing Adobe, which housed and entertained miners seeking their fortunes, and soldiers like Ulysses S. Grant.

Vote: What distinctive destination would you most like to visit?