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The Best Places to Live

Sheila J. Gibson et al.

Recognizing the truth to the adage that home is where the heart is, we have assembled a selection of 10 American cities, towns, and other locales best suited for specific tastes and preferences or for pursuing individual passions. Therefore—based on months of research, dozens of interviews, and our staff’s own firsthand knowledge—we present our choices, among others, for the best island on which to own a home, the superlative setting for rustic living, the preferred place for those who love to golf, the ideal address for skiers, and the seaside community capable of addressing a megayacht owner’s every need. While acknowledging that every heart beats differently, we also selected one town possessing so many aesthetic and social attributes that anyone would be happy calling it home, or calling it home to one of his or her residences. We designate that town, La Jolla, Calif., as simply the best place in America to live.  

Many residents of La Jolla, a town located in the greater San Diego area, like to believe that it derives its name from la joya, the Spanish word for jewel. This story, however, may be no more than an etymological urban legend; a competing theory claims that the name comes from a word meaning hidden cave or hollow in the language of the Kumeyaay, the Native American tribe of the region.

Word-nerd quibbles aside, La Jolla is indeed a jewel, as precious to La Jollans as any that can be found at the local Cartier boutique on Girard Avenue. Like those jewels, it is comfortably sized (20 square miles, a population of about 35,000), multifaceted, and placed in a beautiful setting.  

La Jolla’s gloriously mild Southern California weather and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean are essential components of its identity and appeal. Its seaside location also sets La Jolla apart from a nearby noteworthy affluent community, Rancho Santa Fe, which lies about five miles inland.  


Although the average temperature is 74 degrees, and the sun shines more than 300 days a year in La Jolla, few homeowners install swimming pools. With such a diverse selection of beaches at their disposal, there is no need to.  

La Jolla Cove, for example, is an underwater nature preserve forested with kelp and teeming with sea life. Secluded Black’s Beach is a favorite with the clothes-optional crowd, and surfers still flock to Windansea Beach almost 35 years after Tom Wolfe portrayed its surf scene in his book The Pump House Gang. La Jolla has more than a splash of literary cachet. Raymond Chandler spent the last 13 years of his life here, and Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was also a resident.  

La Jolla’s many facets enhance its luster. Shoppers, diners, and art and antiques collectors will all come away satisfied. Golfers have several options, including the Torrey Pines Golf Course, one of the top municipal courses in the country. It hosts the Buick Invitational, a PGA event, on its South Course every February, and the sixth hole of its North Course offers a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla.  

Live theater is served by the La Jolla Playhouse, founded by native Gregory Peck and now run by two-time Tony Award–winner Des McAnuff. The playhouse is located on the campus of the University of California at San Diego, which has impressive credits of its own: U.S. News & World Report ranks its biomedical and biomedical engineering programs second in the nation, ahead of those of MIT, Northwestern, Duke, and Stanford. The university’s presence has helped make La Jolla a leading center for biomedical research. Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, spent his later years here researching a cure for AIDS, and his local namesake institute continues his important work.  

Mind you, this gem is not absolutely flawless. There are the occasional traffic problems in the busier areas, and it is afflicted by the Southern California phenomenon known as June Gloom, when cold marine air collides with hot inland air to create a fog that usually clears by midmorning. Still, no matter how you tilt it, La Jolla shines brightly. —sheila j. gibson

Cultural Offerings

If there are 8 million stories in the naked city that is Manhattan, there must be at least as many cultural attractions. We’re not talking about mere things to do, we’re talking about institutions that are legendary, celebrated, respected, in-a-class-by-themselves entities that the rest of the world aspires to emulate. Carnegie Hall, the Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum, Broadway, Lincoln Center, the Museum of Natural His-tory, the New York Public Library, Rockefeller Center, and the Metropolitan Opera are just some of the more famous ones. 

Highbrow, lowbrow, or nobrow, Manhattan delivers the cultural goods, and its status as the country’s cultural center is long-standing. This is where the Algonquin Round Table held court, where Billie Holliday enthralled audiences at the Apollo Theater, where George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue and with his brother Ira wrote Porgy and Bess, where Weegee made his photographic career, where Jack Kerouac met William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg, where Andy Warhol built his Factory, and where Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese made some of their most important films.  

Today, Juilliard, New York University, and the Pratt Institute—among many other institutions—are incubating the talents of the next generation of outstanding musicians, filmmakers, and artists. —s.j.g.  

Skiing

Aspen, Colo., has a mountain for a skier’s every mood. Before beginning the workday, you can grab a coffee, hop the gondola for Aspen Mountain, which rises from the downtown area, and get in a few runs. But no matter how many runs you make, you must be up for a challenge, because Aspen Mountain is covered with mogul-ridden steeps. If you don’t view skiing as a spectator sport, you can head to Aspen Highlands, which can be reached only by hiking and is home to the 45-degree pitches of Highland Bowl.  s
For those days when the brain craves to be on auto-pilot, there is Snowmass Mountain, where you can carve turns on its endless selection of wide-open cruisers. Gentle Buttermilk Mountain is the place to entertain out-of-town beginner friends, to take powder runs down Tiehack, or to try the latest snow-riding toys in the world’s longest (two-mile) terrain park.  

Off the slopes, Aspen is a tight-knit community with lush mountain and valley views and an active cultural scene. From international film festivals to restaurants headed by celebrity chefs to the Aspen Institute, which holds seminars for global leadership, Aspen is what one resident calls “a place where people can feel good and think clearly.”   —kim fredericks  

Dining

Although it may never be known for its good taste, Las Vegas can now be heralded for its good tastes. In just 10 years’ time, the gambling mecca has transformed itself from a bargain-buffet wasteland into an exquisite dining destination. Wolfgang Puck pioneered the food revolution when he opened Spago Las Vegas in the Forum, the mall at Caesars Palace, in 1992. The success of Spago convinced other casino owners that good cuisine was a good investment. They began wooing—and winning—top chefs and sommeliers over to the idea of opening eateries and assembling wine cellars in the glitzy desert city.

Today, Puck operates four restaurants in Las Vegas, and his celebrity chef colleagues Emeril Lagasse and Todd English each have two. Sirio Maccioni and his sons (Le Cirque, Osteria Del Circo), the Brennan family (Commander’s Palace), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Prime), and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (Nobu) are also among the stars represented here, with more to come.  

Nothing symbolizes the rise of Las Vegas’ culinary fortunes like the wine tower at Aureole, the local branch of Charlie Palmer’s eponymous New York restaurant. Aureole’s stellar wine list has earned many prestigious wine-world honors despite its rather unorthodox serving technique. The bottles, which currently number 9,865, are stacked inside a climate-controlled steel and glass tower that stands 42 feet tall, and pretty young “wine angels” fly (with the aid of wires) to find your selection and bear it safely to earth. You may be in a New York restaurant, but you’re still in Las Vegas. —s.j.g.

 

Golfing

Is Scottsdale, Ariz., a golf-centric town? Well, one of the most popular stores in town is named In Celebration of Golf and offers valet parking. The Phoenix Open, played at the TPC of Scottsdale, always attracts the largest crowds of any PGA Tour event in part for the golf and in part for the post-golf partying under the tent at the Birds Nest. Karsten Manufacturing, makers of the famous Ping clubs, began in Scottsdale, although it has since moved across the town line into Phoenix. The Valley of the Sun always runs neck and neck with Orlando for being the hometown to the highest number of professional touring golfers.  

In Scottsdale real estate, there’s a simple rule of thumb: The higher the elevation off the sun- baked desert floor, the higher the price per square foot. Whether the plot overlooks a lush green fairway, a Xeriscape of rocks and saguaro, or Pinnacle Peak, in Scottsdale real estate, height is might.

Beyond that, there is something for everyone. Those who seek the ultraexclusivity of a golf-only environment (no tee times, no waiting, no pools or tennis courts) will find it inside the gates of Estancia or Whispering Rock. More social animals, searching for a resortlike community filled with affable types, a full menu of amenities, and locker rooms as spacious as the main lobby at Grand Central, migrate to Desert Mountain or Desert Highlands, developer Lyle Anderson’s award-winning communities. Other golfers hang their visors at such stellar places as Mirabel, DC Ranch, Troon North, and Grayhawk.  


Golf in the high Sonoran Desert is wondrous for those who learned the game in more deciduous surroundings. With state law allowing no more than 90 acres of irrigable area per course, architects are forced to create islands of green enveloped by the sere tones of earth and rock. Water hazards, understandably, are few, but far worse than drowning a ball or two is the experience of being attacked by a jumping cholla cactus while looking for an errant ball. It’s a dangerous world.  

But there are compensations. The way the desert explodes in sudden, grateful color after a brief shower. All that sun. The nightly Technicolor sunset show, as layers of pinks and purples settle over the jagged mountain skyline, before it all fades to indigo. And all those fairways stretching from Mesa to Carefree, green and inviting. In celebration of golf? Pretty good description of life in Scottsdale. —james y. bartlett  

Historical Charm

At one point in Gone with the Wind, native Charlestonian Rhett Butler tells Scarlett O’Hara that he is returning to his hometown. “I want to see if somewhere there isn’t something left in life of charm and grace,” he says.

There is, and it’s still in Charleston.  

The South Carolina city is rich in history and architectural beauty, boasting one of America’s largest and oldest historic districts. A variety of different architectural styles—Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classical Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian, and even Art Deco—can be seen in Charleston. And few places are as pretty in the springtime, when the dogwood trees and the magnolia gardens are in bloom.  

Southern gentility is alive and well in Charleston. Etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart has compiled an annual list of America’s most polite cities for the last 25 years, and Charleston has never failed to make the cut. In fact, for the last eight years, it has placed first.  —s.j.g.

Island Living

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, is exotic enough to deliver the delights you would expect of a tropical island and civilized enough to provide most creature comforts. The 28-square-mile island with a population of more than 50,000 is home to some of the Caribbean’s best beaches and its busiest port, Charlotte Amalie, which is also the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Americans in particular find the islands an ideal destination: They can leave their electrical converters at home, the clocks are just one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and the natives speak English and use dollars.  

St. Thomas is the most developed of the three major islands (the others are St. John and St. Croix), so it won’t pass muster with would-be Robinson Crusoes. On the other hand, there is more to do on St. Thomas. You can fish for blue marlin, charter a yacht, embark on a walking tour of centuries-old historic sites or a bicycle tour of the island, feed hibiscus blossoms to iguanas, visit the birthplace of Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, play a round at the Mahogany Run golf course designed by George and Tom Fazio, visit the Clinton Phipps Racetrack, shop, dine, parasail, ride horses, play tennis, and order a milkshake with a splash of rum.  —s.j.g.

 

Equestrian

Bedminster, N.J., might have more horse trails than roads. Locals believe there are at least 100 miles of horse trails, many of which cross private land and are open to leisure riders at the discretion of the property owners. Even with all of those trails, many township roads remain unpaved out of deference to the horses, which find the earth gentler on their hooves than asphalt. 

Bedminster is an ideal environment for equestrians, and it’s likely to stay that way. Somerset County, the rural northern New Jersey region where Bedminster is located, has an abundance of wetlands that render the area unattractive to large-scale developers. However, building a single-family home on a minimum 10-acre parcel, as most Bedminster residents are required to do, works just fine.  

While the county is dappled with horse farms and homes that have their own stables, paddocks, and riding rings, Bedminster holds extra cachet in the form of its Hamilton Farm Golf and Equestrian Club, which is the home of the United States Equestrian Team.  

Yachting

A megayacht allows its owner to reside wherever his whims take him, but of all the ports in the world, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stands out as the most yacht-friendly. When Roger Callahan first visited the city, it was to purchase a yacht at the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. After Callahan closed his deal, he boarded the yacht prepared to travel, but as he says, “Fort Lauderdale has so much to offer, I ended up staying a year.”
Why would a yacht owner ever leave? Fort Lauderdale features more than 100 miles of navigable waterways that are as placid as a lake even when the seas are crashing offshore. The town has a staggering array of waterfront restaurants, world-class resorts catering to the needs of yacht owners, and enough chandlers, boat yards, and crew to redecorate, resupply, or even rebuild a yacht. Add to those attributes a climate where the temperature rarely drops below 65 degrees and sunny days far exceed rainy ones. Finally, mix in hundreds of golf courses, major art and entertainment events, an international airport and several private airports, offices of all the world’s major yacht builders, and a location 30 minutes from Miami or Worth Avenue, and it’s no wonder that Fort Lauderdale is considered the yachting capital of the world. —bill lindsey  

 

Raising a Family

Forbes magazine recently named Cincinnati the worst place for young singles to live, writing, “As bland and inoffensive as the Ivory soap it produces, Cincinnati has held fast to values from another era.” What’s bad for singles might be ideal for parents, and just a few miles northeast of Cincinnati lies Indian Hill, Ohio, a village of about 5,900 that attracts well-heeled parents seeking a quiet, safe setting to raise children. About 25 percent of its 191⁄2 square miles is village-owned open space, and much of the land was donated by locals concerned with preserving Indian Hill’s small-town atmosphere. Like any small town, there is a strong sense of community here that is fostered by such town-wide activities as the annual Easter egg hunt, the Fourth of July parade, and Memorial Day celebrations. If you’re looking for things for children to do during the summer months, the local high school hosts one of the country’s largest camp fairs, where representatives from as many as 100 national and international summer camps show what they have to offer.   

The real test of a family-friendly community is the quality of its schools, and Indian Hill certainly passes. The district spends more than $10,000 per pupil, with an average class size of 20. Students consistently score high on national and state proficiency tests, and 96 percent of Indian Hill’s high school graduates go on to four-year colleges. —s.j.g.

Rustic Living

Unlike other places on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Kula is not much of a tourist trap. In fact, few tourists ever realize that they pass through the tiny town on their way to visit Haleakala National Park, which is a 45-minute drive away. However, it’s easy to see how they could fail to notice the place. There aren’t any “Now Entering Kula” signs posted at the city limits, and the town consists mostly of large cattle ranches and a few small farms that grow flowers and vegetables. Kula has no souvenir stands, no T-shirt shops, and no theme restaurants. When residents need an item that the few local stores don’t carry, they must drive to the more developed neighboring towns of Makawao or Pukalani.  

When you’re in Kula, you don’t feel as though you’re in Hawaii. The village lies in an area that locals call upcountry Maui, where the temperature is 10 to 15 degrees cooler than at the lower-lying beaches, and the landscape resembles California’s Sonoma County more than it does a tropical paradise. The views are what draw its residents. Most Kula homes offer stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the southern coast of Maui. A two-acre parcel of land, sans house, typically sells for $350,000.  

Word of Kula’s rural beauty has begun to spread beyond the islands. During the last two or three years, several new million-dollar homes have been built here, mostly by mainlanders. —s.j.g.

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