Is Hot Springs the Coolest Small Town on the East Coast? A Short Investigation

On June 20th of this year, Travel and Leisure named Hot Springs, NC, one of the “10 best small towns on the East Coast.”

Naturally, as the premier lifestyle influencer in Asheville and the surrounding WNC mountains, I needed to see if this coronation rang true, so I immediately booked a stay in Hot Springs for the following weekend. Jkjk. But seriously, jokes aside, it was pretty fortuitous timing as I’d previously booked a weekend stay at one of the Limestone Cabins to “relax and unwind in some of the most beautiful scenery in the country” months with some friends for the weekend of June 26th and thus, was able to investigate whether or not I felt Hot Springs lived up to its newly minted title just a week after it was announced.

Spoiler alert: it did not. That’s not to say that Hot Springs doesn’t have its merit or that I’m not already eagerly anticipating a return visit to the same Limestone Cabin come fall/winter, but when you compare Hot Springs to the other “cool small towns on the East Coast,” it just seems like it doesn’t fit. There are plenty of other small towns in the greater Asheville area I’d send visitors to above Hot Springs, namely Black Mountain, Brevard, Lake Lure, Fairview, Sylva, or even Marshall. 

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. 

We had booked the Limestone Cabins (we’d specifically booked the Mountain Rock Cabin as it was the only dog-friendly option of the bunch) from Saturday to Monday and arrived in Hot Springs an hour too early to check in, so went to Big Pillow Brewing, which was one of the highlights of the trip (second only to the cabin, which I’ll get to momentarily). The brewery has a great outdoor space, solid beer, one of the quickly multiplying Grey Eagle Taqueria outposts, and was playing a 90’s country playlist that afternoon, the ideal muggy summer day-drinking soundtrack.

We arrived at the cabin a little after three, and as mentioned, I’m already planning a fall/winter trip in my head. The cabin was up a winding mountain road, seventeen minutes from the town of Hot Springs, but easy to find, easy to access, and perfect for a small group (also, the price was reasonable and as advertised—no bullshit AirBnB-style upcharges that triple the initial quote). There’s nothing fancy about the cabin, but the kitchen was big and equipped enough to easily prepare meals, there’s a nice hot tub, a grill, and a firepit we sadly didn’t use. The house is situated on a dirt road, and while it rained the entire weekend we were there, I was able to go on a short walk up said road with the dog during one quick dry break (which was suitably picturesque). 

The house’s outstanding feature was its front porch, where I could’ve spent all weekend and where we spent the entirety of Saturday afternoon into the night (before adjourning to the hot tub, naturally). The next day, we woke up early and headed down into Hot Springs to check out the town before planning on coming back early and doing more porch sitting. 

We arrived downtown around 9:45 AM, and nothing was open besides one coffee shop. Here’s my quibble with putting Hot Springs on the “Coolest Small Towns” list. I get that some small towns want to emphasize their quaintness or “quieter way of life,” but not when you bill yourself as a tourist destination, and that’s precisely what the Travel and Leisure list entailed. Other entries included Gettysburg, PA;  Martha’s Vineyard (which, Travel and Leisure, is an entire island and not a town), Cape May, NJ; and Kennebunkport, ME, all proper tourist towns I’ve been to and are confident you can find breakfast at before 11:00 AM. 

Here’s where whoever included Hot Springs on this list did it dirty. Hot Springs is small. The downtown is essentially one set of crossroads that includes the brewery, one coffee shop, two restaurants, a fancy deli, and outdoor outfitters. Outside of the downtown are the eponymous hot springs, a cleaner portion of the French Broad River that passes through Asheville, and some solid hiking, but the rain did Hot Springs dirty that weekend because we were only able to experience the town. 

Let’s put it this way, Hot Springs is in over its head regarding its fellow “cool small towns.” Hot Springs had a population of 530 in 2020. Gettysburg was 7,684, Cape May was 3,446, and Kennebunkport was 3,639. 

I also need to point out that if you’re going to play with the big dogs, your Cape May’s and Gettysburg’s, you need to up your hospitality. Big Pillow aside, which we visited again once it opened at 11:00 AM, the service everywhere we stopped in Hot Springs could be described as “indifferent” at best. Was it because it was a rainy Sunday morning, and waiting on tourists while making minimum wage is soul-sucking? Sure. Sure! But again, if you’re going to throw out that you’re the “coolest,” I will judge you on a bit of a curve. 

Is Hot Springs a cute little mountain town I had a blast staying in? Yes. But that had a lot more to do with the cabin and company than it did being charmed by the town itself (although Hillbilly Markets, where we stopped Monday on our way out, was very cute, had great snacks, and somewhere I want to do our shopping for the fall/winter trip). 

Is it the coolest? No. But that’s fine, and kudos to whatever Hot Springs PR maverick got it included in a list where it’s punching beyond its weight class.

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