“Not just quaint, but beyond that.”

That’s how Brian Hodges begins to describe the coolest town in America. He hopes.

“We stand apart because we have all interests represented. Outdoor recreation four seasons out of the year . . . significant cultural activities . . . the prettiest harbor in Maine,” he continues.

I’m sitting with Hodges, the development director for the town of Camden, in his office in the historic Camden Opera House on Main Street. I’m visiting on a recent Friday to get the answer to one specific question: What makes Camden so cool?

The question is more than curiosity. The town is in the running to be named America’s Coolest Small Town, a distinction bestowed by Budget Travel Magazine and voted on by its readers. Nearly 1,000 small towns were nominated for the honor, but Camden is one of only 15 that made it to the finals — the only Maine town — along with the likes of Flagler Beach, Fla., Glenwood Springs, Colo., and Gulf Shores, Ala. (See the accompanying list.)

So what makes Camden so darn cool?

Hodges has answers galore.

“A very wide range of recreational activities. You can go skiing here and get mountaintop views of the ocean. We’re one of only two places on the East Coast where that’s applicable.”

“It attracts entertainment. We hold conferences on an international level. We’re also home to the Camden International Film Festival, one of the top 20 film festivals in the world for documentaries.”

“We were named the prettiest harbor in Maine.” (This distinction came from a Down East magazine readers’ poll taken in 2009. In 2012, another Down East magazine readers’ poll ranked Camden as the No. 1 prettiest village in Maine.)

And on top of all that, says Hodges, “Camden is an economic driver for the region.”

Cool stuff indeed. And not nouveau cool either.

According to historical records, the town started out humbly enough. Settled in 1771, it didn’t take long for it to become a busy mill town thanks to its location by the sea and on the Megunticook River. Shipbuilding became one of its biggest industries.

But by the 1880s, sportsmen and rusticators discovered Camden, its beauty and natural resources. Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett and paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, Frederick Church and Childe Hassam added to its allure and soon “cool” flowed into this harbor town on ships from Boston and by rail, in the form of wealthy visitors looking to stay at inns and build “cottages” along its shoreline. 

But history is just part of Camden’s coolness, Hodges says. So is the future. In recent years, “we’ve been having discussions about what we want to be.” Those discussions have led Camden to invest in projects that have put it at the forefront of innovation.

A town full of history, innovation, beauty and culture? I want proof. Would Hodges be willing to show it to me firsthand? Absolutely.

Touring  ‘cool’

Getting to our first stop is effortless. We’re sitting in it. The 118-year-old Camden Opera House, once the tallest building in Knox County, has functioned as an entertainment venue and community center for its entire existence. Camden’s first town meeting was held there in 1895 and — benefiting from careful renovations — the Victorian building still houses the town offices, while hosting entertainment events and conferences.

The same is true next door, at the offices of PopTech, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting social innovation. I meet Ollie Wilder, the organization’s senior program manager. Sitting in Wilder’s office, surrounded by modern white-washed archways, large, colorful wall art and unfinished wood flooring, it is hard to remember I’m sitting in a 100-year-old building whose brick facade epitomizes the architecture of centuries past.

But it’s the future we’re here to talk about, and Hodges says PopTech is a Camden original (and helping the town earn its “cool” credentials). It began in 1996 as an annual conference, Wilder explains, and has evolved “into being a real network (concerned) with social innovation.”

The group focuses on using technology to influence social change. “Right now, we’re working on PeaceTXT, using mobile technology in the fight against violence,” says Wilder.

It looks like we’re on board the cool train. But as we leave, Hodges tells me he wants to stop by the library and I begin to wonder.

On the way over, we walk through Harbor Park, with views of Camden’s highly rated harbor. As we enter the park, Hodges stoops down and snaps a picture of something with his phone. It’s a QR code, he explains, one of those little black-and-white hieroglyphics you shoot with your camera phone to quickly link you to information. “We have these all over the downtown,” he says.

The codes are one of the projects the town is investing in. Each code gives visitors information on historic sights, businesses and public spaces. “You can take a historical walking tour of the town,” says Hodges.

OK, that’s pretty cool.

Before visiting the library, we stop in the Camden Amphitheater. This 80-year-old park hosts community events and dramatic performances in the summer, though it’s currently home to the public skating rink.

Cool? Cold at the very least.

In the library, we meet briefly with Director Nikki Maounis.

“The library is fortunate to be in this community,” she says. “We don’t have a movie theater or a really active community center, so (the library) fills that role.”

The library is a beautiful structure, offering another modern interior with a Victorian finish. It’s as old as the neighboring park and amphitheater, and the land for each was donated to the town nearly 100 years ago.

The library — like every other thing in this town, I am learning — has earned its honors. The Camden Public Library is one of six libraries in the state, and only 262 in the country, to be designated a “Star Library” by the industry’s leading periodical, Library Journal. Moreover, it is a “5-Star Library,” having earned the journal’s highest distinction based on number of visits,  circulation, programs and attendance, public internet computer use and the library’s budget.

All right, pretty impressive.

We leave the library and Hodges shows me some of the sights in Camden’s “campus-like” downtown, with its many shops and eateries. We visit Knox Mill, a former woolen mill that is now a business and residential space. “It used to be one of those ginormous empty factories,” says Hodges. Now the space is an integral part of the downtown community.

Nearby is the Bamboo Bike Studio, where you can build your own bamboo bike. “That’s been pretty cool to have,” Hodges says.

As we walk, Hodges mentions an idea the town is looking at: town-wide wi-fi. “Because of the shape of Camden, we’re in a bowl,” he says, “so we were thinking of putting the wi-fi hub (on an island) in the harbor.” If the plan goes through, boaters docking in Camden’s harbor will get access to free wi-fi, along with the rest of the town.

Before we wrap up the tour, Hodges drives me out to Ragged Mountain Recreation Area. This four-season spot is “town-owned and self-sustaining,” he notes. In the summer, the area is a park where concerts are held and the town runs a summer rec program.

But this time of year it is home to the Camden Snow Bowl, a ski area that offers views of the ocean. It is also home to the annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships, which Chute Master Stuart Young is preparing for as we arrive.

While icing the toboggan chute, Young informs me of the history of the competition. “It was originally built in the ’30s,” he says, “and lasted to the early ’50s. We rebuilt the whole thing in 1990.”

Young is running a water-filled “sled” back and forth over the top of the chute. The sled, which is intentionally cracked along the bottom, is slowly leaking water onto a developing layer of ice in the chute. You need that, apparently, for the toboggans to hit top speed.

“It’s part of the Snow Bowl,” he says of the competition this weekend (Feb. 8-10), “but this is the town of Camden. It’s us, if that makes sense.”

This year, 425 teams will participate, bringing about 1,500 competitors and 9,000 spectators to the Snow Bowl. They hope the event will raise $60,000 for the recreation area.

I ask Beth Ward, acting general manager of the Camden Snow Bowl, what makes Camden so cool.

“For me, it’s the recreation,” she says. “It’s huge. You really have four-season recreation. You’ve got the sea and you’ve got a ski resort in the back yard.”

‘Experimental’ community

There’s more of Camden still to see.

Like Camden Hills State Park, with its scenic views from Mount Battie and Mount Megunticook, its campground and its miles of multi-use trails.

Like the town’s many inns, the highly rated restaurants, the opportunities for boating, beaching and biking, and both a winery and brewery in nearby Lincolnville.

Like a history of quaintness that has attracted Hollywood for “Peyton Place” and the movies “Carousel” and “In the Bedroom.”

But on this day, those will have to wait. Hodges has appointments. Likely more interviews to do, more votes to get. Feb. 15, the deadline for the contest’s online voting, is coming right up.

I thank Hodges for the tour and start to walk to my car. On the way, I stop in a local cafe, Zoot Coffee. The woman behind the counter is owner Sondra Hamilton. She moved to Camden seven years ago from San Francisco. I ask her what prompted the move. “I think people are attracted to the natural beauty,” she says. For her, however, the impetus was social. “I thought, in San Francisco, there were so many connections. But I find that here, in Camden, I’ve come to know so many like-minded people.”

She adds, “There’s culture here, though it’s still slow and sleepy in the winter.”

True, compared to a winter in San Francisco, but Camden is a town that also seems to be on a constant simmer, thinking, improving.

As I drive away, I remember something Hodges said earlier. While heading back to the Opera House, he had told me he is involved in trying to bring a beer and wine event to the Toboggan Championships.

“It’s experimental,” he said. “But we use that word a lot here.”

Very cool.

To cast your vote for America’s Coolest Small Town, visit http://www.budgettravel.com/contest/americas-coolest-small-towns-2013,14/

There’s still time to vote

Voting for Budget Travel’s 8th annual America’s Coolest Small Towns contest ends Feb. 15th. As of Friday, Camden, Maine’s only entry in the final, was 10th in the voting, trailing the very popular Lititz, Penn.

The other towns in the running are:

Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Camden, Maine

Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Flagler Beach, Florida

Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Greenville, Kentucky

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Le Claire, Iowa

Lititz, Pennsylvania

Mount Carroll, Illinois

Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Quincy, California

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Travelers Rest, South Carolina

Watkins Glen, New York

Read more: http://www.budgettravel.com/contest/americas-coolest-small-towns-2013,14/#ixzz2K2uYtI95

The pitch

Here is the summary of why Camden should be America’s next Coolest Small Town, found on Budget Travel’s website for its 8th annual America’s Coolest Small Towns contest.

Population: 3,570

“We’ve all been faced with the classic vacation dilemma: the mountains or the beach? But there’s no need to settle, Camden’s got them both covered. This mid-coastal town located on Penobscot Bay is one of only two places on the Atlantic seaboard where the mountains meet the sea. Those gorgeous vistas have been attracting vacationers to this former ship-building town since the 1800s, when wealthy families snatched up properties to build summer homes. Today, many of those mansions and estates have been converted to inns and bed and breakfasts, most within walking distance of the harbor. Go ahead, it’s not cliche to dine on Maine lobster paired with a local wine at Fresh, a waterfront restaurant on Bay View Landing. Afterwards, browse the galleries, antique shops and general stores on Main Street for one-of-a-kind crafts, clothing and jewelry. When the ocean is calling, take sail from Camden Harbor on a tall-masted schooner cruise that explores the Maine coast, lighthouses, islands, and coves. Left your sea legs back at the B&B? No problem. Camden Hills State Park offers 30 miles of hiking trails in 5,700 acres of wooden hills including Mt. Battie, an 800-foot summit with stunning views of the bay.

Read more: http://www.budgettravel.com/contest/americas-coolest-small-towns-2013,14/#ixzz2K2v5JgsF

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