Costa Rica’s Stunning World of Ecotourism

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Costa Rica's Stunning World of Ecotourism

July 31, 2019

From the slack wood seat of an Adirondack chair, Gil Henry munches popcorn. He flicks every other kernel to a scrum of gulls flittering at his feet as he watches the wan sun emerge from late-day storm clouds and slip back out of view below the Pacific horizon. Henry just finished a blustery round of golf on the Arnold Palmer designed links at the Four Seasons Resort on Peninsula Papagayo, and after he polishes off his Hendrick’s and tonic he’ll head to the nearby town of Playa Hermosa for dinner and then on to his villa in the hills. Just another day in this Latin American Eden. 

“I come every year. Have been for a decade,” he says. “I used to think I should branch out, go elsewhere. But once you find paradise, why change it?” Costa Rica, with its miles of empty beaches and biodiverse forests and easy-to-use infrastructure, inspires loyalty among travelers. With a full 33 percent of its land under some form of conservation protection and everyman’s adventures ranging from cloud-forest hikes to snorkeling and horseback riding, it has become the poster child for ecotourism. In 2012, the latest year statistics are available, some 2.3 million visitors came here to learn to surf and spot birds in the cloud forests and witness sea turtles nesting.

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That’s part of why I’ve avoided visiting the place for years, because no matter how physically endowed or ecologically sensitive a place might be, as far as I’m concerned paradise overrun by crowds is no paradise at all. Besides that, I’ve always scoffed at Costa Rica’s feeble sense of adventure. I once mentioned the place to my parents, and my 68-year-old mother, whose idea of excitement is a social tennis match followed by a glass of sweet rosé, announced that she’s always wanted to go zip lining in Costa Rica. The place must be about as thrilling as a bridge tournament, I decided. But curiosity got the best of me. The millions of people like Henry can’t be wrong, can they? So I booked a ticket to the northwestern town of Liberia, the smaller of the country’s two international airports, and headed up the Pacific coast near Nicaragua in search of the charm of this ecotourism hotbed. Crowds and underwhelming adventures be damned—I would find the secret to this place’s appeal. The only condition: no zip lines. 

Less than an hour’s drive on freshly painted two-lane roads from the international airport, the quiet town of Playa Hermosa and Peninsula Papagayo that wraps away to the north should be overrun with tourist traffic. But unlike the more built-up swathes of beachfront farther south on the Nicoya Peninsula or the hippy traveler hangouts inland in Monteverde and La Fortuna, this northwest Pacific corner of Costa Rica is still mostly undeveloped. A few hotels speckle the waterfront, including the boutique Bosque del Mar that’s literally cut into the jungle on a spit of gray sand. But the land is mostly wild and empty hill country that’s cloaked in an impenetrable canopy of secondary forest tumbling straight down to the untouched edge of the Pacific. “It looked like that was all going to change five years ago. There was a lot of speculation and rumors that half a dozen international hotel chains had plans to open properties here,” says Anne Hegney, a Montreal transplant who moved here over a decade ago and opened Ginger, one of the best restaurants in the vicinity. “But after the global economic crisis in 2008, it really cooled down. Everyone put their plans on hold, and Playa Hermosa has stayed quiet and friendly.” Things look to be picking up again, with the boutique Mongroove Hotel opening in January north of Playa Hermosa and the Hyatt revealing a new property on the Papagayo Peninsula in December. Several other resorts are set to come online in late 2014 or 2015, as well. “But I don’t think it will be that big of a change,” Hegney says. “We’re starting from minimal development. Even the busy towns around here like Tamarindo are relaxed. It’s not like this is ever going to be Miami Beach.” 

 I decide to have a look for myself and set out for Tamarindo early the next morning. Driving in Costa Rica is a little like wandering through a corn maze—you know you’ll eventually get where you need to go, but it’s never clear what route you’ll take or when you might arrive. So vague are the highways that I’m almost surprised to reach Tamarindo, a one-road town sandwiched with surf shops and curio stands and pastel, open-air cafés. It’s busier than Playa Hermosa, but Hegney is right, it’s a far cry from the tawdry visions of Cancún that I imagined.

At Kelly’s, one of Tamarindo’s best-known surf shops, instructor Jonathan Zamora says people keep coming to Costa Rica, crowds or no crowds, because the surfing is that good. “I can put a client in the water on a board, and I guarantee they’ll be surfing by the end of the day,” he says. “But then down the coast, there are breaks to keep me surfing for the rest of my life.” I tag along as Zamora, who’s built like a can of Costa Rican Imperial lager with a crop of shoulder-length hair as curly as Christmas ribbon, guides a couple of clients to the beach for their first-ever session. Zamora leads them through a series of yoga-like drills on land to warm up. All along the beach, I note other neophytes are standing on their boards, moving through similar poses. Within the hour, Zamora’s clients are surfing, grinning and hooting like rodeo clowns. It’s not pretty, but it’s still surfing.

After the lessons are done, strangers gather on the beach and squat on their boards to trade stories, both about the day and their lives back home. Phone numbers are traded. Friends are made. It’s not unlike summer camp for adults, except when the sun sets everyone saunters down the beach to the scatter of restaurants serving icy Imperials and freshfried corn chips to scoop up the lime-tart ceviche. Around dusk, a squall pushes through town dropping rain so heavy that you can’t see from the bar patio to the cars parked out front. Evening plans are scrapped and amended, and another round of Imperial is ordered.

There are two ways to enjoy a stay on the Pacific coast, on the beachfront or in the hills. “The water is nice,” says Kelsey Hill, Inspirato’s destination concierge in Costa Rica. “But the views are what you want.” I’m skeptical. It sounds like marketing spin for, “We couldn’t get beachfront.” Until I visit one of the company’s properties, that is. Set on a finger of wooded land overlooking Playa Coco to the south and Playa Hermosa to the north, the airy singlestory home has a glass-front living space that opens onto an expansive patio and infinity pool with dizzying views to the Pacific. A salty breeze blows all day, making this perch both cooler and more spectacular than the waterfront properties where I’d been staying. It’s just five minutes in the car to surfing, snorkeling and kayaking. Yet the perspective, out over a canopy so thick that it looks like broccoli florets, is worth the extra few minutes of travel time. For the mightiest canopies, however, you must head inland. Arenal, which sits beneath one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanos, is the nearest, biggest rain forest. But it’s a long drive, so I opt for the lesser-known Tenorio Volcano National Park. Farther north, it has a dominant cinder cone akin to Arenal, rain-forest hikes, a spring-fed river that supposedly shimmers as blue as Kool-Aid and fewer visitors. 

The road to Tenorio, as is the case with most byways off the main arteries, is roller coaster steep and covered with boulders big enough to crush a large raccoon-like coati. Along the way is the Celeste Mountain Lodge, a quirky and elegant ecolodge owned by Frenchman Joel Marchal that makes a timely coffee stop and break from the jouncing road. Marchal, whose Canadian-based travel company was one of the first to offer Costa Rican trips, moved here in 2003 to erect his ideal jungle lodge. “It’s not the best-known corner of the country,” he says. “But in our opinion it is the best.” At Tenorio, guide Alex Ordoñez Jarquin meets me at daybreak and leads the way up the steep, rooted national park trail in search of wildlife. There’s the possibility of sighting a tapir, an endangered mammal that, judging by the murals at park headquarters, resembles an overstuffed, cow-size pig with a short trunk. The odd beast proves elusive, though there’s plenty of other fauna, including several beautiful coati and a pencil-thin zopilota snake that Jarquin plucks from a branch for a closer look. He also points out the iridescent blue Rio Celeste, which derives its fantastical color from a chemical reaction that takes place at the convergence of two mineral-rich tributaries. “Last year Paris-Match called the Tenorio waterfall the most beautiful in the world, and most people have never even heard of it,” Jarquin says. “This country is full of untapped spectacles. You just have to look.”

I decide that I owe it to Costa Rica—and to my mother—to see the zip lines. It’s the country’s biggest attraction, and to pass judgment on tourism here without at least trying it would be like going to Peru but skipping Machu Picchu. So I detour eastward toward Arenal where the land turns to pristine, canopied hill country that empties into a broad valley beneath the perfect onyx pyramid of Arenal volcano. No one can explain the connection between zip lining and Costa Rica, though the most reasonable explanation comes from a guide who says that the activity caught on after researchers at the Monteverde cloud forest introduced the cable system for research purposes. One of the biggest operations in Arenal today is a 9-year-old company called Sky Adventures that climbs 775 feet up the mountainside by way of a 1,000-meter-long open-air gondola and then descends on eight lines cut into the canopy, one nearly half a mile long.

A group of twelve visitors conquers the course together, and reactions range from peels of unfettered laughter to screeches of terror. When my turn comes, I zing across the chasms, sometimes as high as 600 feet off the ground and ogle the views. I have to admit that it’s entertaining. But it’s the South African retirees on the excursion who make the experience for me. Having come to Costa Rica for the birding, Pieter and Moira decided they simply had to try the zip lines. Moira, a spry but graying grandmother, is beaming after her first few rides. She later tells me it’s the most thrilling thing she’s ever done. I will forever like the zip lines because of her. We travel to expand our experience, to discover something new about the world and ourselves, and Moira will always remember the day she flew through the Latin American cloud forest. That’s the thing about adventure—you never know where it will take you. It’s also Costa Rica’s secret. Sure the country has world-class surf, rain forest hikes and biodiversity that makes Noah’s ark look like a dinghy. And yes, the northwest corner has some of the most consistently perfect weather of anywhere on the planet, with zero precipitation virtually guaranteed from December through April. Everyone knows these things. But just when you think you have a handle on the place, a tapir will walk out in front of you on the trail, or the dry season skies will unleash a cloudburst so violent you can’t see the car bumper ahead of you, or a volcano will unexpectedly growl and erupt. There are still plenty of spectacles to be found in Costa Rica. You just have to look.  

Make Yourself at Home 

Costa Rica Nestled into the soaring hillside along the Cacique Peninsula, Inspirato’s three Signature Residences offer private pools, a daily housekeeper and a chef (for breakfast and lunch). Homes range from the 4,000-square-foot, 4-bedroom Villa Vientos and Villa Altamira residences to the sprawling, modern 4,600-square-foot, 3-bedroom Serena abode. New this year, Inspirato members can settle into two residences on Peninsula Papagayo with access to the golf course at the Four Seasons Resort.

Must-Do List from a Vacation Advisor 

Day Trips: To get the best of Costa Rica, plan on exploring the country. Travel by horseback to a waterfall close to the Borinquen Resort, and then fly through the jungle on their zip line. Return for a large lunch and spend the rest of the day at the spa. Take the Jungle ATV tour of the rain forest and prepare to get muddy from stream crossings. Want less adrenaline but no less awe? The Palo Verde Tour boat trip up a river through a wildlife sanctuary passes crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas and thousands of birds—on a good day the monkeys will jump into your boat 

Whale Tales from Punta de Mita​

Whale Tales from Punta de Mita

July 31, 2019

To celebrate my 44th birthday last February, my wife and four of our friends booked a last-minute Inspirato Jaunt™ vacation to Punta de Mita on the Pacific side of Mexico, 10 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. We enjoy vacations near water, and I’ve gotten into sport fishing the past few years, so it seemed like a perfect fit for our first Inspirato trip. 

We arrived at our five-bedroom Vista Bahia residence at Los Veneros Resort Residences and Beach Club to fresh margaritas, martinis, beers and meat prepped for grilling. There were floor-to-ceiling accordion doors leading outside, and the whole front of the residence opened up to a patio and a private pool overlooking the ocean. There seemed to be an endless supply of chips and salsa available at all times.

Each morning we awoke to the smell of breakfast being prepared by our personal chef who started our day with delicious pancakes, waffles, quiche and huevos rancheros. During the day we enjoyed couples’ massages and specialty cocktails while looking out over the Playa de Estiladeras. The nights that we weren’t grilling and relaxing by the pool, we went out for lobster dinners along Puerto Vallarta’s famed malecón, or boardwalk, a short drive away.

They took care of everything—I was never left wondering what would happen next. We even had a rental car delivered to us with such detailed instructions on where to go and how to get there that we had no problem navigating our way around the scenic peninsula. Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking trying to navigate in another country, but everything went incredibly smooth during our five-day stay.

The highlight of our visit was day three, when we took an all-day fishing charter out of the marina at Punta de Mita on a 35-foot-vessel. There were huge swells out on the open ocean, but our captain did a phenomenal job of maneuvering us through the chop. I can’t say enough about how fantastic the captain and crew of the Banderas in Paradise (BIP) charter were that day. I’ve been on fishing boats where no one really talks and there’s no effort to connect with you. This team was super supportive and made an effort to get to know us. They seemed to be having just as much fun as we were out there on the ocean. 

When I started reeling in a fish, the crew ran around the boat making sure there were no obstructions. I welcomed their assistance since I lost a marlin after 30 minutes of serious effort during a previous fishing charter because I gave the line too much slack. I didn’t want that to happen again. I was lucky enough to snag the largest of the four fish caught that day: a rooster fish that was about 4 feet long. My adrenaline was pumping. It was quite a birthday catch. On the water later that day, we also spotted two large humpback whales and a baby whale a mere 20 yards from the boat. 

Our boat looked small compared to this trio of giants. They swam right by us and would breach, splash, drop and shake their tails. It was very like something out of a National Geographic documentary, one mashed up with a SeaWorld show. At one point the whales glided through the water side-by-side, jumping and weaving back-and-forth between one another and truly showcasing their playful side. It was as if they knew that we were there to watch them and decided to put on a show for us.

Back at our residence, we sat out on the balcony and spotted a few more whales and dolphins popping up out of the water. We were thoroughly impressed. While talking with locals about our great sightings, we learned that we witnessed the tail end of the annual whale migration. The height of migration is a few weeks earlier and most whales have moved on by late-February.

If we’d come just a little bit earlier, we might have seen ten times the number of whales. Whenever Kim and I get together with the other couples from the trip, we always talk about our day out on the boat and our desire to head back to Punta de Mita to see the whales again. In fact, by the time you read this, we’ll have probably already returned. 

Sailing Through the British Virgin Islands​

Sailing Through the British Virgin Islands

July 30, 2019

On the morning of Friday, April 4, the waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, which runs through the heart of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), will be teaming with cruiser-racer and bareboat sailboats, all waiting for the blast of an air horn and wave of a flag that signals the start of the 43rd Annual BVI Spring Regatta. The captains aboard the boats will have their sails set and bows pointed to cross the starting line and gracefully carve through the Caribbean’s stunning cobalt waters. Several races will stretch over the next three days, but for many, the fun starts five days earlier at Nanny Cay Marina on Tortola when the annual Sailing Festival begins and the party scene kicks into gear, fueled by a generous helping of painkillers, the signature rum-based drink of the BVI. 

As sailing events go, the regatta and festival may just be the most democratic and accessible in the world. It has something for everyone from America’s Cup and Olympic sailors to neophytes who want to give competitive sailing a try and even for people just looking to enjoy those painkillers and hitch a ride on a boat. The attraction: The BVI’s geography makes it a veritable theme park for the sailing set.

Warm Water, Hot Sailing 

The British Virgin Islands’ archipelago consists of 60-odd islands nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, about 70 miles east of Puerto Rico. Christopher Columbus came across this collection of long-dormant volcano remnants in 1493. Notorious pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, Blackbeard and Black Sam Bellamy, credited with capturing 53 ships in his day, all sought refuge in the numerous coves and anchorages hidden throughout the BVI during their careers.  Fast forward to 1972 when members of the BVI Hotel and Tourist Association decided to put on a regatta to bolster the growing recreational sailing community.

One of them, Peter Haycraft, served as the regatta’s chairman for 25 years and has the distinction of sailing in every race to date. It started off small, consisting of roughly 20 boats; mostly tiny one- or two-person boats such as Squibs and Sunfish racing between islands over the course of a weekend. This year more than 3,000 people will flock to the Sir Francis Drake Channel for the Regatta and Sailing Festival, with 125 boats expected to participate. What draws them? Phenomenal sailing in an incomparable setting.

“We’re very fortunate to have constant trade winds and fair seas,” says Judy Petz, director of the BVI Spring Regatta. In late March and early April, when it’s still frigid in much of the northern hemisphere, the BVI enjoys days with temperatures in the 80s (F), but the sea breeze keeps it comfortable. That same breeze blows steady through the islands, which form a protective circle around the waters between St. John to the west, Tortola to the north, Virgin Gorda to the east, and a string of close-together islands to the south. The Drake Channel, a deepwater straight that’s roughly nine miles long and four miles wide, runs between Tortola and the southern chain and bisects the territory. In all, the BVI offers nearly 60 square miles of nautical paradise.

For the week of March 31 through April 6, the spiritual home of island sailing sets up on the docks of Nanny Cay Marina, just west of Tortola’s main city, Road Town. By 6 p.m. on that Monday, the docks will be shaking from the good vibrations of a reggae backbeat, as the first Mount Gay Welcome Party kick-starts the week’s festivities.   On Tuesday morning you can participate in the Round Tortola Race, which doesn’t earn points in the regatta but is a cherished part of the weeklong festival. Boats that enter are trying to win the Nanny Cay Challenge for the fastest sailing time around the island. (The current record is 3 hours, 29 minutes, 41 seconds.) There’s another “pre-race” race for fun on Wednesday that ends in a beach barbecue. On Friday, with the start of that first official regatta race, it’s game on.

Sailing’s Caribben Open 

Fortunately, you don’t even have to know your spinnaker from your jib to take part in the BVI Spring Regatta. “There are all kinds of people involved, from Olympic and America’s Cup competitors to people who have never been on a boat before,” Petz says, going on to point out that the event has drawn competitors from as many as 17 different countries including the U.S., Canada, Italy, China and Croatia.

In all, there are 16 classes of boats that race in three different areas throughout the islands. Because the water is so protected—and land is almost always on the horizon—sailors rarely find themselves in adverse situations.  Experienced sailors without their own vessel typically charter a race ready bareboat, which is the equivalent of renting a car from the airport: You pick it up, sail off and return it when you’re done. It’s a family sailboat, with no crew or captain provided, and no spinnakers (the big billowy sails that are used to sail downwind). Most charters start on Tortola, the most populous island and the home of the international airport. 

“The BVI is a great place to try your first regatta,” Petz says. “It’s very relaxed and many of the boats are a lot smaller, maybe 40–50 feet.” With an experienced captain, it’s a safer endeavor, and you can bring along some of your own crew and participate as much as you want, from learning how to work the sails and man the tiller to simply moving from one side of the boat to the other to maintain the proper keel angle (the way the boat leans as it glides through the water).  

Depending on the boat’s size, a crew consists of anywhere from two to 22 people. If you don’t want to charter an entire boat, there are ways to sign up to be a part of someone else’s crew, with spots available for any skill level from novice to expert. After the last race on Sunday, everyone makes their way over to Regatta Village on the beach at Nanny Cay for the awards ceremony where the winners pick up their trophies and relive their experiences, while the revelers try to remember theirs.

 With first, second and third place prizes given out for all 16 classes, there’s plenty of love to go around, starting with the winners who pick up bottles of champagne or top-shelf rum and quickly disseminate it to their crews. It may be the only time all week where a captain’s shout, “Bottom’s up!” is met with a cheer instead of fear.

Sailor’s Paradise 

The same characteristics that make the BVI ideal for a regatta make it easy for newbies to give cruising a try. For one, it’s hard to get lost. “It’s mostly line of sight sailing,” says Bob Friel, the former editor in chief of Caribbean Travel & Life magazine about the friendly confines of the Drake Passage. “It works for sailors of any experience level.” “Every day you’ve got a pretty straight forward plan,” Friel says. “You wake up in a gorgeous anchorage with a beach bar and sail to another gorgeous anchorage with a beach bar.” Many charter companies such as Palm Yacht Charters offer three-day sailboat charters that give you a taste of the island cruising life. Or opt for a day-cruise outing that involves snorkeling, island hopping and a stop at a popular restaurant or beach bar.

The bars of the BVI are stuff of legend, starting with the Soggy Dollar Bar in White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. Set back from the white sand beach in a canopy of palm trees, the Soggy Dollar earned its name from patrons paying for their drinks with wet money from swimming in or falling off their dinghies—there’s no dock so you have to anchor off the beach. The Soggy Dollar lays claim as the home of the original painkiller. Just around the corner in Great Harbour, there’s Foxy’s Bar. The key is to go in the daytime and hope the legendary proprietor, Foxy Callwood, is performing. Callwood has called himself the laziest man on earth, but his bar and musical performances have attained cult status. “He’s the most famous raconteur in the BVI and will make up a song about you and your crew on the spot,” Friel says. Those lucky enough to earn an original composition leave with some of the same sailing street cred attained from a weathered Mount Gay hat. 

If bar-hopping BVI style isn’t your style, book one of the best dives in the entire Caribbean, the wreck of the Rhone, a British mail ship that sunk during a hurricane in 1867. Pirate enthusiasts and literary types can investigate Norman Island, the place that reputedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island. Or cruise over to the natural wonder of The Baths on Virgin Gorda, where giant boulders along the beach trap secluded pools of water. And there’s the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda, perhaps the most well known sailing destination in the  BVI with its sheltered North Sound, an ideal playground for small boats.

A Personal Vacation Advisor’s Must-Do List

Beach: The best is going to be the sugar-white sand and aqua-blue waters of Cane Garden Bay on Tortola. 
Eat:  You can’t beat the local flavors of the Banana Keet Café located in the hills above Cane Garden Bay  
Spa: At Serenity Spa inside Sopers Hole Marina, they’ll pamper you with everthing from massages and facials to yoga and acupuncture. 
Day Trip: Hop over to Virgin Gorda and explore The Baths, a collection of giant boulders along the beach. It’s the BVI’s signature natural wonder and photo op.

Why Puerto Rico is the Most Underrated Tropical Destination

Why Puerto Rico is the Most Underrated Tropical Destination

July 29, 2019

Before you choose your next Caribbean vacation, scribble a list of what you’re after on a piece of paper. It might go something like this: shimmering seas and sugar-sand beaches; balmy weather; breezy luxury accommodations; surfing, diving, sailing, jungle hiking, and a round of golf; food culture, including a rum or three; a touch of the exotic; and, since you’re headed to the Caribbean, not the South Pacific or Asia, easy access.

Next, off the top of your head, pin some destinations to those desires. Turks and Caicos have some of the most sparkling beaches in the West Indies. St. Lucia is swathed in jungle and exploding with mountains for tropical adventures. Cuba is a cultural time capsule. The Caymans have teeming reefs and vibrant waters. But if you want to roll all those elements into one destination and make it as easy to get to as flying to Miami, there’s only one place to go, Puerto Rico—the United States’ nearest tropical escape and perhaps one of the most overlooked destinations in the Caribbean. 

The Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Mexican Riviera often draw more travelers annually. And where Curaçao conjures visions of beach cocktails and Saba or Montserrat sound as exotic as the South Pacific, for Americans, Puerto Rico often evokes the mainland; it’s too close and too easy to feel like a true escape. “Those associations are understandable, but I don’t see it that way,” says Mari Jo Laborde, chief sales and marketing officer at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “The fact that we are part of the U.S. means that travelers can get here quickly and easily without the headaches of a passport or immigration. But the island is a whole different culture than anything on the mainland, and we have more diversity of things to do than any other place in the Caribbean.” And judging by recent trends, Puerto Rico’s stature might be on the rise. 

Though the slump in tourism that washed over the Caribbean after the economic crisis in 2007 hit Puerto Rico hard, visits to the island have been on a steady rise since 2011. “There has been a major reinvestment in hotels and infrastructure in the last few years,” Laborde explains. “We’re also seeing a resurgence in the luxury market and a renewed effort to recapture some of the old glamour that started in the 1920s and lasted through the 1950s.” 

The idea of Puerto Rico as an exclusive escape isn’t something new: In the 1920s, the island was once considered as exotic as Hawaii and as glamorous as St. Tropez. Even then, Dorado Beach sat at the heart of that dazzle. The property was a citrus and coconut plantation owned by New York physician Alfred Livingston. It was Livingston’s daughter, Clara, the 200th female pilot in the world, who brought celebrity to the place. Clara’s good friend Amelia Earhart visited occasionally, including an overnight in 1937 on the first leg of her fateful attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Laurance Rockefeller purchased Dorado Beach and opened it as a hotel in 1958. It was a prescient venture. 

Around the same time, hostilities fired up between Cuba and the United States, and the socialites and Hollywood stars who were frequenting Havana as a playground suddenly turned to Puerto Rico. Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Joan Crawford, and presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy all visited during the heyday 

It’s this Golden Age mystique that Ritz-Carlton is chasing with the reopening of Dorado Beach. The hotel owners spent $342 million on the project and crafted a property befitting its celebrity past. It tapped Spanish culinary phenom José Andrés to run Mi Casa, the gourmet Puerto Rican-fusion restaurant on property, and brought in Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program to guide its diving and underwater ecology programs. The property is an Eden of lush waterfalls and gardens, and the bungalows and suites, which are tucked beneath the old growth trees and coconut palms redolent of the Livingston days, feel as if they’ve been there for centuries.

Helbling will tell you that the time is ripe for a tourism boom in Puerto Rico. In the past five years, the Puerto Rican government has instituted a generous program of tax and housing incentives to lure investors and high-net-worth individuals to move to the island. Plans are afoot for a major renovation to the airport at San Juan that will accommodate new routes from the mainland. “We now have direct flights to most major cities: New York, Washington D.C., several airports in Florida, Chicago, Houston,” says Laborde. “In just three or four hours from home, you can be on the beach. That’s less time than many Americans spend commuting each day.”

The payoff for that short vacation commute to Puerto Rico is an island packed with history, culture and natural beauty. The island’s history starts at the centuries-old stone fortifications and bluestone cobbled streets of the old city that transport visitors into a different time and culture. First stop, a stroll atop the ramparts of El Morro, the walled fortress built on the high promontory overlooking San Juan Bay, which evokes 400 years of Spanish rule and all its history. The island’s modern history dates to 1952, when Puerto Rico became a United States commonwealth. Just outside the ramparts, a World Heritage site since 1983, the narrow grid of streets is packed with cafés, galleries, antique shops, stone plazas, and hundreds of pastel-splashed 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Colonial buildings that have been fully restored. Officially this is America, but it’s arguably the most exotic and authentic corner of the Union this side of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

After dark, the streets echo with live salsa music, the brassy screech of horns and incessant thrum of pianos and congas dancing off the ancient streets. Outside the time capsule of Old San Juan, however, the quaint little corners of this city of more than 2 million, half the island’s population, have sprung to life in recent years. Condado, once a tacky touristy strip of hotels east of the old town, has been resurrected with boutiques amid lush, tree-shaded parks. The gorgeous renovation of the beachfront Vanderbilt Hotel, originally built in 1919 and host to no less than Bob Hope, Errol Flynn, and president Franklin D. Roosevelt, has only added to the district’s renaissance. Ocean Park, at the east end of Condado, draws discriminating visitors with luxury guest houses and one of the hippest beaches in the city. And straight south is Santurce, a slightly gritty working class neighborhood that’s becoming the Chelsea of San Juan as it fills with trendy 20-somethings and cutting-edge galleries showcasing contemporary Puerto Rican art.

It would be regrettable to miss out on the sexy, Spanish influenced, metropolitan side of Puerto Rico, but talk to anyone who lives there, and they’ll tell you that much of the island’s charm lies outside San Juan. “Visitors should really explore the rest of the island,” says Chelsea Harms, a marine scientist who lives on the west coast and author of the lifestyle and travel blog Sea, Field, and Tribe that documents life on this Caribbean outpost. “Outside the metro area, you get a better feel for how different this place is from the rest of America.” The quickest introduction is along La Ruta Panorámica, the island’s answer to Maui’s Hana Highway, with 165 miles of meandering switchbacks through the countryside. The road— it’s actually a linkage of 40 secondary roads—traverses Puerto Rico’s central spine through heavily forested hill country from Maunabo in the east to Mayagüez in the west. Though it’s not even an hour’s drive from the capital, this Puerto Rico is a lifetime removed from Dorado Beach, with field-workers harvesting sugarcane in the humid south, verdant coffee plantations in the highlands, and chickens and goats to dodge the whole way. A blanket of rain forest that looks like broccoli from a distance covers most hills, and, for the intrepid, trails that dead-end at deserted waterfalls speckle the countryside.

Near the end of La Ruta Panorámica, on the snout-shaped peninsula at the island’s northwest tip, sits Rincón, a dozy town of 15,000 whose population multiplies during the winter surfing season. The place gained a bit of an international reputation in 1968, when the World Surfing Championships came to town. Since then it’s lured surfers from all over the globe with stretches of lonely sand and swells that can reach 25 to 30 feet. CNN Travel rated it No. 27 on the list of world’s best 50 places to surf. It’s the laidback opposite of San Juan, with good waves and pristine reefs and a far-flung vibe quite apart from Laguna Beach or Nags Head. Harms agrees that it’s the chilled-out West Indies attitude that draws people. “It’s just a friendly little beach town,” she says of her adoptive town of Rincón. “You can walk to the beach from your house, leave the windows and doors open for the breeze, and basically have the best ocean, from the surf to the reefs, this side of Hawaii.”

A Personal Vacation Advisor's List

Eat: Don’t miss the award-winning wine list and dishes such as freshly made gnocchi with organic beef tenderloin in a cabernet sauvignon sauce at Marmalade Restaurant in Old San Juan. // Stay close to home for a Caribbean spin on Italian cuisine at the Grappa Ristorante in Dorado. Try the fresh, locally sourced grouper served over wild mushroom risotto.  

Explore: Set off in a kayak or paddle board for the full moon paddle departing from Cafe Barlovento in Condado. // Visit the El Yunque National Forest, the only rainforest on U.S. soil. Well-marked paths lead to waterfalls and observation towers scattered throughout the park. //  Inspirato’s residences are located inside the Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach, a 45-minute drive from the San Juan International Airport. Vacationers can choose from either a multi story penthouse with four bedrooms and a 2,700-square-foot private terrace, or a fourth-floor, three-bedroom condominium residence. Both are situated within the exclusive Plantation community along the golf course’s renowned fairways with views of the mountains and ocean. // First Sunday of every month Mercado Urbano Head to La Ventana del Mar in Condado where more than 40 farmers and artisans from across the island sell their wares.

The Intersection of Nature and Luxury in the Galapagos

Galapagos-Hero

The Intersection of Nature and Luxury in the Galapagos

July 25, 2019

The sleeping baby sea lion doesn’t budge as I take its picture, although its mother raises a wary eye. A pair of blue-footed boobies shelter their newborn as I pass and, farther down the path, I give a wide berth to bull sea lions fighting for dominance. Welcome to the Galapagos Islands—where up-close encounters with an amazing array of wildlife are a daily occurrence.  

Undersea volcanoes formed this isolated string of islands some 600 miles west of Ecuador. Temperatures rarely vary, given that the Galapagos are situated on the equator. The nutrient-rich Humboldt current that flows north from Antarctica during the summer and fall and the warmer Panama current that dominates the climate through May converge here, creating the conditions that support one of the world’s most diverse and unique ecosystems.

The Galapagos are a photographer’s paradise. Made up of 13 major islands, 17 smaller ones and some 40 massive rocks that jut out like garden sculptures from the water, these islands and the surrounding sea are home to some 9,000 animal species. Birds, lizards and sea lions display no fear as humans walk among them. You might see pink flamingos and penguins in the same day, spot fleet-footed Sally Lightfoot crabs scurrying across the sand and male frigate birds that puff up their red breasts to attract females. And of course there are the islands’ famous giant tortoises, the world’s largest. It’s no wonder the Galapagos are a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated as a unique “living museum and showcase of evolution.” 

Visiting the Galapagos, you’ll wonder why no country claimed them for centuries. In 1535, the Bishop of Panama described the landscape as “worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles.” Spain later claimed the islands that, over time, were home to privateers and whalers. Finally, no one raised any real objections when Ecuador laid claim to the archipelago in 1832. 

Not long after that, in 1835, Charles Darwin famously visited here and, though he only went ashore four islands for a total of 19 days, the rich samples he collected formed the heart of his theory of evolution. Most visitors today still visit the Galapagos by boat, albeit with far more conveniences and amenities than Darwin ever imagined. The Ecuadorian government created the Galapagos National Park in 1959, and later added the Galapagos Marine Reserve, to avoid overcrowding and overuse. Cruise ships are given permits to visit specific islands and limit the number of people who can go ashore to 11 guests and one naturalist guide. Every ship’s itinerary is designed to reveal a mix of islands, animals and marine life, but larger islands such as Santa Cruz are on almost every ship’s itinerary. 

While sailing between islands, you’ll pass smoking volcanoes and watch frigatebirds—sailors call them “pirates” of the sea—dive-bomb to steal fish plucked from the sea by other birds. After a day visiting the islands, you can relax on the deck and watch dolphins and whales cruise by the ship. For adults and children who love animals or just have a zest for learning, the Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s best open-air classrooms. After returning home, many visitors describe their Galapagos cruise as one of the top trips of their lifetime. 

Santa Cruz 

The fishing boats are in on Santa Cruz. A knife slashes through a freshly caught fish, cutting off a fillet for the evening meal while a pelican waddles down the gangplank and tumbles into a fishing boat in search of fish scraps. You wander through the fish market on Puerto Ayora’s waterfront, dine in local restaurants, and shop in stalls filled with souvenirs, clothing and swim gear. The village is also home to the Darwin Research Center, where scientists and volunteers conduct research and offer environmental education that encourages conservation. Santa Cruz is a must-stop on the cruise circuit; travelers come to learn about the islands, Darwin’s research and to see Diego, a centenarian giant tortoise from Española who has sired dozens of offspring. An island tour also may include a trip into the island’s interior, where giant tortoises wander freely in the native grasses and lumber past the guayabillo and pega pega trees. So few giant tortoises and turtles are left because their meat was a major part of the diet for pirates, whalers and early residents.

Bartolomé

On a Barren Spit of Land Called Bartolomé, you can hike to the tip of a volcanic cone that offers a panoramic view that includes Pinnacle Rock, which U.S. airmen used for target practice during WWII, as well as nearby Santiago and other islands in the distance. Walking up, you pass lava rocks in red, orange and green hues. The black lava is so slick you can almost see your face in it. If you sunbathe on the crescent beaches near Pinnacle Rock, you may share the sand with sea lions. Bartolomé is the mating and nesting site for the green sea turtles between November and January.

Española

Step on Española’s shore and look around the black lava rocks for Christmas iguanas, so nicknamed because their skin takes on a blotchy, reddish tint during mating season. As you walk toward the island’s steep cliffs, don’t be surprised if a brazen hood mockingbird lands on your shoulders in search of food. The blue-footed boobies, with their black faces rimmed in white feathers, might remind you of a mime. When the waved albatross run toward the cliff and leap off, don’t hold your breath wondering if the birds are going to fall into the ocean. It’s just the way these large birds start their flights. Native to Española, the waved albatross abandon the island from January to March, returning in April for the nesting season. 

Rabida Island

The pink flamingos feeding in the saltwater lagoon on Rabida Island ignore you as they feed on the tiny shrimp larvae that give these birds their color. Rabida is a multicolored island, with a maroon-tinted beach and scarlet cliffs courtesy of the lava that once spewed from a volcano’s spatter cones. High on the cliff, blue-footed and Nazca boobies nest in the cracks in the rocks. While snorkeling, you might see a baby sea lion toss a sea cucumber around just like a youngster throwing a rubber ball up then catching it. You might even see manta rays and sharks.

Isabela Island

Seahorse-shaped Isabela Island was formed by the merging of six volcanoes, some of which are still active. When cruising past, watch for fumaroles, or steam vents, rising from the Volcan Chico area on the Sierra Negra volcano. Although there are four permanent settlements on Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago, cruises often stop at one of the secluded coves and beaches. Isabela is a birder’s paradise: Keep an eye out for flightless cormorants, mangrove finches, Galapagos hawks and blue herons, and look for Galapagos penguins bobbing in the water as you kayak through a quiet cove.

Fernandina

At 700,000 years old, Fernandina is the youngest island in the archipelago. One of the calderas on an active volcano blew in 2009 and created pyrotechnic images for people cruising by the island. When you get off the zodiac that ferries you from the cruise ship to shore, step onto the rocks carefully so you don’t hurt those scarlet and yellow Sally Lightfoot crabs scurrying by your feet. Look at the tiny lizard sunbathing as it sleeps on the head of a motionless iguana. In the water, hungry iguanas are swimming, heads bobbing underneath as they find food in the water. With bodies that don’t hold heat well, these marine animals huddle together on the rocks to soak up sun. As you follow a path going higher on the island, your naturalist guide points out the cactus growing in cracks between the pile of lava rocks. Look at the flightless cormorants, birds endemic to Fernandina and Isabela. These birds with scruffy-looking tiny wings can no longer fly, but they’re stellar at swimming and diving for prey.

3 Tropical Family Getaways for Relaxation and Adventure

3 Tropical Family Getaways for Relaxation and Adventure

July 19, 2019

Families who vacation together, stay together. And whether they’re adventurers or relaxation-seekers, the following three locations have a variety of activities for everyone to enjoy.

1. Rosemary Beach, Florida

Idyllic. Charming. Timeless. All words often used to describe Rosemary Beach, a sandy-shore escape upon the warm waters of northern Florida’s Gulf Coast. Picture old world architecture reminiscent of Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and even parts of the colonial Caribbean. Stately homes are interlaced by cobbled walk ways, sunny pools, pocket parks and grassy knolls—all within a short walk to the lovely downtown, where boutiques, cafes, art galleries and a day spa present a chance to relax while away.

Located along scenic Highway 30-A, an 18.5-mile stretch of road that wends along strips of fine-sand coastline, through marshes and wetlands, past hardwood forest and coastal scrubland, Rosemary Beach is one of 11 communities connected by four state parks, 27 miles of greenway paths and dozens of beaches. In Rosemary Beach, favored for its sugar-sand and family embracing ethos, there’s much to do and see. Homeowners and guests receive a secure passcode for the beach gate, keeping crowds minimal. The fine sand trickles through your toes en route to the warm, crystalline water. Once in the ocean, you can see your toes, as well as the dozens of species of fish swimming alongside you, making for excellent snorkeling.  

An avid golf community, Rosemary Beach is close to several renowned local courses, including the Fazio-designed Camp Creek and the stunning Santa Rosa, with two holes abutting the Gulf of Mexico. And with water as clear as the Bahamas’, aspiring fishermen can catch a boutique charter right out of Rosemary Beach for an intimate ocean-fishing excursion, or make the 45-minute trip into Destin for a deeper-sea option. Expect plentiful cobia, tuna, amberjack and snapper. Those seeking time away from the sand will find refuge in one of Rosemary Beach’s four unique pools (see sidebar). A sure hit with kids of all ages, the pools are open to all Rosemary Beach homeowners and guests. A highlight here is sampling each pool and soaking in its unique flavor and vibe. Summertime family themed pool parties are always a hit, followed by beach bonfires with s’mores and moon – light crabbing on the wet sand with flashlights in hand. 

Ideal for families with school age children, the summer high season also brings kids camp sunny days filled with activities designed to introduce the younger set to the joys of the beach, from snorkeling to fishing to stand-up paddle boarding, a new sport that’s become a Rosemary Beach staple. Concerts on the Great Lawn, movies out under the stars and family-centric performances all summer long perpetuate Rosemary Beach’s idyllic summer ambience.

And while everything in Rosemary Beach is walkable, getting around is more fun on a beach cruiser. Local cycle shop 30-A Bikes will drop off and pick up cycles at your residence, and the more adventurous cyclists should know that all 18.5 miles of Highway 30-A is paved from end to end. Pedaling it—all or in part—is a great way to get the lay of the land. But the real Rosemary Beach magic transcends the golf, the fishing, the snorkeling and the sugary beach. At the end of the day, time spent in such a special place creates family memories worth keeping.  

Locally owned cafes and restaurants—no drivethroughs allowed here—offer a down-home culinary scene with something for all comers.

Places to Eat

  • Restaurant Paradis: Serves steaks and seafood in a fine dining setting. 
  • La Crema: This fun tapas bar serves up diverse wines, small bites and tempting chocolate desserts in an outdoor cafe style setting. 
  • Summer Kitchen Cafe and Restaurant: A casual cafe serving three meals a day. Also a popular brunch spot.  
  • Wild Olives Market: Stop at this market and deli for fresh soups, salads and sandwiches made in-house.  
  • George’s: Located in nearby Aly’s Beach, this seaside restaurant focuses on fresh ingredients and is known for its famous grouper sandwich.
  • Caliza: Also in Aly’s Beach, Caliza offers waterside dining surrounding its sleek infinity pool. 
  • Cafe Thirty-A: About 15 minutes from Rosemary Beach, this restaurant in Seagrove Beach consistently offers up some of the best food and service in the region.  

Where to Swim

  • Cabana Pool: Next to a playground, Cabana Pool has a shaded 12-inch-deep children’s wading pool and a large main pool that boasts a colorful Mediterranean design. 
  • Coquina Pool: Sitting beachside, Coquina is simple yet beautiful with an infinity edge and a large shallow end that makes it a family favorite.  
  • Sky Pool: This unusual pool features a closable roof that allows it to stay open year-round. 
  • Barbados Pool: With two pools inside a gated structure, this complex has a distinctive Caribbean design with plenty of shade and a vestibule fountain

2. Punta De Mita, Mexico

The wild, rugged beauty of Punta de Mita is often the first thing visitors notice. Only 50 minutes from the tourist capital of Puerta Vallarta, Punta de Mita seems a world away—which is exactly what makes it so special. 

We can thank, in part, geography: Punta de Mita sits on a 9-milelong peninsula that juts into the Pacific, replete with hidden coves, craggy coastline and sandy bay-front beaches perfect for lounging, splashing and sunning. One of Punta de Mita’s finest is Veneros Beach, on the northern edge of Banderas Bay. One mile of soft sand meets the gentle, warm waters of the bay and serves up all the activities a beach-seeking family with adolescent and teenage kids could want: boogie boarding at low tide, kayaking out past the breaks, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, digging in the sand or just lounging in a chaise with a good book on an uncrowded strip of Pacific coastline. 

Punta de Mita is also one of Mexico’s top diving spots thanks to an underwater topography of arches and caves and plentiful coral reefs that attract diverse marine life. Even novice divers and snorkelers will find an excursion that meets their needs, including a tour to Las Marietas, rugged, uninhabited islands known as the “other Galapagos” thanks to their unique birdlife. Beneath the waves, look for dolphins, manta rays, sea turtles and colorful tropical fish such as pufferfish and damselfish. From December through March, whale-spotting cruises take over as the destination’s most popular diversion. The waters of Punta de Mita also hold a bounty for deep-sea fishermen hoping to catch their limit of sea bass, tuna, black and blue marlin, and red snapper.  

This beach vacation isn’t all about the water, though. Families with older kids can partake in a popular eco tour. These excursions introduce families to Punta de Mita’s pristine forests and inland parks of the verdant Sierra Madre Mountains. Visit up-and-coming San Pancho (also known as San Francisco), a quaint, artsy Mexican village still frequented by the native Hiuchol tribe. Or arrange for a hike or bike ride along the trails between Punta de Mita and surfing village Sayulita, then reward your brood with a taste of the local specialty: fresh coconut ice-cream pops dipped in Mexican dark chocolate. In or out of the water, you can’t go wrong.

Hot Tables 

  • Cafe des Artistes del Mar: Head to this gourmet bistrostyle restaurant for classically prepared fresh seafood and lovely views over the water. 
  • Señor: The Mexican menu features a healthy selection of seafood dishes in a space where almost every table enjoys an oceanfront view. 
  • Mariscos Tino’s: Savor very local flavors and preparations at this seafood restaurant, especially its pescado zarandeano, grilled sea bass with native spices.    
  • Casa Teresa: Homemade pastas and family recipes passed down through the generations characterize this cozy Italian cafe. Try the gnocchi or the eggplant Parmigiana.
  • Casiano’s: The epitome of the local experience; dine on Mexican tapas.  
  • Frascati Ristorante: This Italian clay oven puts out excellent pizzas and homemade pastas. 

The Price is Right 

  • Farmers’ Market in Punta de Mita: Local artists come here every Sunday from November through April to display their wares. Also try some fun regional tastes, such as banana cakes. 
  • Local Market in Bucerias: This is where you’ll find wood art sculptures, handcrafted silverware, pewter pieces, handmade bedspreads and all manner of Mexican artistry on display year-round. 
  • Galleria Tanana: Located in Sayulita, this spot is known for its authentic Huichol beadwork. 
  • San Pancho galleries: Local artists display their own work at several galleries in the craftsy town. 

3. Anguilla, British West Indies

What’s there to do on a coral-sand island a mere 16 miles around and 3 miles at its widest point? Plenty. Or, if you prefer, nothing at all. Tiny, laid-back Anguilla, located a few miles from St. Martin in the Caribbean Sea, is the northernmost island in the Leeward chain. On paper, this flat swath of beach doesn’t boast the geographical riches of some of its neighbors. It’s a good thing, then, that vacations don’t take place on paper. First among Anguilla’s assets are its 33 powder-sand beaches, gateways to the warm turquoise water that’s 80 degrees year round. Ideal for families with very young children, the gentle waves here invite sandcastle-making and safe splashing just off the shoreline. Families looking for some adventure can join a sailing or snorkeling excursion, perhaps coming face-to-face with historic shipwrecks (El Buen Consejo, a Spanish ship wrecked in the 18th century, is worth checking out), or boarding a Panga boat for a day of angling with a local captain. Not that you have to exert yourself. 

Anguilla’s crushed coral beach sand is slip-through-your-toes luxurious, and the island’s remoteness keeps the beaches blissfully uncrowded, even during high travel times. The largest beach is Rendezvous, wide and inviting, where one of the best beach bars on the island, Dune Preserve, provides a reggae soundtrack. Shoal Bay’s 2 miles of beachfront is known as one of the best in the world, where the water is so clear and blue it seems almost unnatural. More low-key and perfect for young families, Mead’s Bay offers a safe swimming area that’s separate from the rest of the beach. Moms and dads looking to get farther afield have more than a dozen near-deserted island cays at their disposal (see details above). 

We know Anguilla has killer beaches, but where this little island surprises most is what it offers on solid ground. Or rather, below it: caves. When the kids want a little mystery, families can seek out Big Spring Cave, a collapsed cavern that hides a natural spring where the native Arawak people sourced their fresh water more than a thousand years ago. The walls of the cave are covered with ancient petroglyphs called Spirit Eyes. One of the most dramatic caves is Fountain Bay, descending almost 100 feet into the earth. For young families, Cavanaugh Cave is ideal thanks to its smaller size and layout. Back in the sunshine, whether on beach or deserted cay, one thing is for sure: For all families, an Anguilla vacation promises as much adventure—or lack of adventure—as desired. 

Table Talk

  • Smokey’s at the Cove: Casual, on the beach, and serving local cuisine from pigeon peas and rice to jerk chicken to coconut shrimp, all accompanied by the beat of live island music. 
  • Picante: Hit up this Caribbean taqueria for fresh Mexican cuisine amped up with island spices. 
  • Blanchard’s: This is perhaps the classic Anguilla restaurant, located on the water in Mead’s Bay, known for stellar service and excellent American-Caribbean cuisine.

Paradise Found 

  • Sandy Island: As the name implies, this cay is made entirely of sand and is completely barren save for some palm and coconut trees. 
  • Prickly Pear Cay: Home to a reef that offers snorkelers the chance to see plenty of colorful fish, this little cay also has a restaurant that specializes in fish grilled over local coals. 
  • Scilly Cay: Smallest of the cays, Scilly has a restaurant known for its lobster and rum punch and a super-small but tranquil beach for sunning and swimming. 
  • Dog Island: Rocky and low-lying, Dog Island is home to several species of nesting sea birds, including Sooty Terns, Brown Boobies and Laughing Gulls.
  • Scrub Island: Lovely beaches and calm waters are the only amenities on this tiny, tranquil paradise at the eastern tip of Anguilla.

Why Turks and Caicos Should Be Your Next Beach Vacation

Why Turks and Caicos Should Be Your Next Beach Vacation

July 10, 2019

A short flight to worlds away, Turks and Caicos boasts endless stretches of secluded white sand beaches, world-class diving and a true island life demeanor. Visit Turks & Caicos Islands, and you’ll need to pack a color chart along with your swimsuit. How else to name the dozens of variations of blue that radiate out from the islands’ beaches? First, you’ll wade through inch-deep aquamarine. Then you’ll splash through cerulean, pale turquoise, light jade and cyan, before reaching a 7,000-foot-deep coral wall bathed in Prussian and cobalt blue. Out of the water, vast reaches of white sand beach, as fine as confectioner’s sugar, seduce visitors into long leisurely strolls. 

Whether you seek relaxation or ocean adventure, opportunity abounds—above and below the waves—in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Here is your guide to the best of this Caribbean jewel. 

Grace Bay Beach

Twelve-mile-long Grace Bay Beach earns its fame for wide, white stretches that go on and on, but it’s hardly Turks & Caicos’ only option. You’ll want to rent a car to visit Providenciales’ less-frequented gems. Here’s our Provo beach primer. 

Named for Lady Grace Hutchings, who honeymooned on the island in 1892 and reportedly charmed everyone she met, Grace Bay Beach is both the busiest part of the island and its most open and serene. Turtle Cove Marina gives the beach’s western end a more nautical feel, while the Leeward area on Grace Bay’s northeastern tip occasionally attracts a few scofflaw nude sunbathers. 

Long Bay Beach

For isolation, there’s no better choice than this three mile stretch along Provo’s southeastern shore, which opens onto the glimmering Caicos Bank. Instead of sacking out on a towel, consider a horseback ride in the surf with Provo Ponies.

Chalk Sound Area Beaches 

The small beaches at Sapodilla Bay and Sunset Bay (a.k.a. Taylor Bay) on Provo’s southern shore are mostly used by nearby villas. Just behind them, the road cuts through Chalk Sound National Park, a three-mile inland waterway, where locals like to say there’s a cay for each day of the year. Once you’re done driving, swimming or sunbathing, stop at the bottom of Sapodilla Hill on South Dock Road and follow the trail to the top to find rocks engraved by shipwrecked sailors, dating back to 1767. 

Malcolm’s Road 

This comparatively “short” two-mile beach is the hardest to reach on the island, but that’s how it stays pristine. To find it, take the nominally paved Blue Hills Road past Wheeland, and then follow signs for Northwest Point Marine National Park. Scuba divers visit daily for the coral, but the above-water beach is just as pretty. The chaises on the beach’s southern tip belong to the Amanyara resort, an ideal stopping point for lunch.

Blue Hills Beach

At 161 feet above sea level, Blue Hills isn’t just the oldest settlement in Provo, it’s the highest spot in all of Turks & Caicos. Take in vast views of the coast from Blue Hills Road, which runs along the coast, and enjoy a swim at any of the pocket beaches along the way. Stop for a tasty conch dish at any of the local shacks dotting the roadside to refuel. 

Singin’ the Blues

The 40-island, 100-mile archipelago has 230 miles of white sand beaches. Visitors tend to stay on Providenciales (better known as “Provo”) and the legendary Grace Bay Beach (left). But all of the islands are equally accessible by air or ferry, each offering its own unique charms. 

Diving

This morning, I’m on Big Blue Unlimited’s 40-foot Live & Direct, racing across the Caicos Bank, off Provo’s southern shore, to neighboring French Cay. Perhaps I’d be feeling more serene if the dive master hadn’t just told us the island was once home to 17th-century pirate François L’Olonnois, who used it as a base for plundering passing Spanish ships. As the story goes, L’Olonnois was such an accomplished torturer that he wouldn’t just cut the hearts out of prisoners; he’d eat them, still beating, while others watched.

Of course, all of that washes away as we descend beside the boat. Beneath the water, 80 percent of French Cay is encrusted with coral. We start at a site called Double D (named for two large underwater humps), where we swim past three-foot groupers, four-foot barracudas and barrel sponges the size of cars. A trumpetfish cruises by, big as a bassoon, and the horse-eye jacks number in the thousands. Spiny lobsters and green moray eels lurk inside holes, while purple-and-yellow fairy basslets, blue chromis and bright red cardinal fish transform the water into a confetti of color. Our second dive is at G-Spot (this time named for the gorgonian corals, the size of garage doors), and we immediately descend upon a passing Caribbean reef shark, which graciously fins out of our way. Then a spotted eagle ray swims past us, followed by a pair of hawksbill turtles. Three more reef sharks glide over the wall; another ray trails behind, with a remora dangling from it. Yet back on-board the Live & Direct, no one is impressed. A “good” dive here, I’m told, starts with a dozen eagle rays or sharks.

What makes diving in Turks & Caicos so stunning is the combination of clear water with visibility sometimes topping 150 feet, the planet’s third-largest reef system with 196 square miles of reef, and the fact that there are so many distinct marine parks and sites in the archipelago to explore. After French Cay, my favorite area to dive is Northwest Point Marine National Park, off Provo’s northwest tip, where getting caught in the eye of a few hundred spiraling jacks is fairly typical, and I’ve sometimes felt stuck inside a fish stampede. But there are also the dozen sites in West Caicos Marine National Park, chockablock with snappers, stingrays, hogfish and puffers, and Princess Alexandra Land and Sea National Park, which encompasses Grace Bay Beach, and is ideal for novice and night dives alike. The last time I dived there, after dusk, the trevally were so plentiful I could actually reach out and touch them 

And that’s just the western chain of islands. Heading east across the 22-mile-wide Turk Island Passage (you’ll want to go by plane), the archipelago’s capital of Grand Turk sits high atop many must-dive lists, while Salt Cay, eight miles south, is the archipelago’s best place to spot the North Atlantic herd of 2,500 humpback whales each year, from early January to mid-April. Turks & Caicos is one of the few places in the world where captains and snorkelers are legally allowed to approach the whales—and even if you don’t see them, you can’t miss hearing their songs underwater. 

Beyond Provo, the other islands of Turks & Caicos are worth exploring, either as day trips or overnight. Here are some favorites you need to see.

Little Water Cay

Home to 2,000-plus endangered rock iguanas, many measuring two feet in length. The horned creatures mostly scurry across rocks, while visitors stick to a well-maintained boardwalk, five minutes by boat from Provo’s Leeward Marina. 

North Caicos

A 12-minute flight from Provo or 25-minute ferry from the Leeward Marina, North Caicos is home to most of the archipelago’s farms. But you’ll also find a few thousand pink flamingos, outstanding snorkeling at Three Mary Cays, jaw-dropping Horsestable Beach and eerie plantation ruins at Wades Green; Big Blue Unlimited runs day trips on bikes.

Salt Clay

Once the world’s leading salt producer, the 2.5-squaremile island today is a quiescent collection of salt ponds, 19th-century stone and stucco buildings, and wild donkeys and cows (which have the right of way). From midJanuary to early April, Salt Cay is also Turks & Caicos’ prime spot for watching whales.

Middle Caicos

The largest of the chain, 48-square-mile Middle Caicos is a 15-minute flight from Provo, or a half-hour drive from North Caicos’ ferry terminal. Hike the five-mile Crossing Place Trail, swim and snorkel in the natural lagoon at Mudjin Harbour, or explore three-square-mile Conch Bar Caves, the largest above-ground cave system in Turks & Caicos or the Bahamas, with blind fish and shrimp, and several thousand flapping, squealing bats. 

Big Sand Cay

Seven miles south of Salt Cay, this island’s beach is one of Turks & Caicos’ least visited and finest. Loll on the sand, and then explore the lighthouse ruins and two abandoned bunkers marked “Keep Out. U.S. Government Property.” Whether you do is strictly up to you. Trips leave from Salt Cay. 

Grand Turk

Scuba divers flock here and cruise ships dock here, but Grand Turk’s charms extend beyond both. Founded by Bermudian salt rakers in 1681, the island’s capital, Cockburn Town, is the archipelago’s historic, political and administrative center, with weathered colonial buildings and the national museum along its streets.

Watersports

 Beyond diving and snorkeling, Turks & Caicos is famous for other watersports, especially fishing. For light-tackle trolling, deep-sea-, fly-, bottom- or bone-fishing in Provo, try Silver Deep or Hook’em Fishing Adventures. Dedicated anglers should also consider spending a few days at North Caicos’ Bottle Creek Lodge. For wakeboarding, surfing, kiteboarding, waterskiing and tubing, try Nautique Sports. For sailing, Beluga Private Charters is ideal. Top dive center Big Blue Unlimited also offers stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. Bred-in-the-bone extremists need look no further than Caicu Naniki for guided swim safaris and free-diving classes or excursions—as well as for Middle Caicos trail treks or runs. But if your goal is simply to relax, the open-air cabanas at Provo’s Thalasso Spa at Point Grace will keep you floating blissfully. 

Why Travel Writer Paul Theroux Visits Cape Cod Every Summer

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Why Travel Writer Paul Theroux Visits Cape Cod Every Summer

May 10, 2019

At first glance it might seem surprising to find the roving travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux spending his summers on Cape Cod. Best known for unflinching accounts of extended, gritty journeys, Theroux helped redefine modern travel writing with his 1975 book, The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of his train journey across Europe and Asia.

A sharp counterpoint to much of the travel writing of the time, Theroux called it as he saw it, and if readers found him cranky or harshly critical, so be it. That didn’t stop them from buying his books, including novels such as The Mosquito Coast, by the millions. “I think the people who read my books and like them, and there are plenty of them, wouldn’t read me if I were merely a bad-tempered person,” Theroux told Salon.com.

Into his later years, Theroux has sought rigorous overland trips, such as a journey that took him across thousands of miles of rutted roads in Africa, recounted in 2002’s Dark Star Safari. So why does this itinerant scribe keep coming back to Cape Cod? There’s fresh air, sand and sea (he’s an avid kayaker), and, of course, history (it’s where the Pilgrims landed in 1620), but most of all it’s become his home. “What a writer needs most is solitude, monotony, routine, security, encouragement and happiness—and, for me, sunshine and the comforts of home,” he tells me. “All my life I have worked to create an ideal place to live and work in, a happy house in a pleasant place.”

Theroux, who turned 74 in April, and his extended family gather on the Cape each summer; he lives with his wife Sheila on Oahu during the winter months. He wouldn’t compare his family to the Kennedys, who famously shared a compound on the Cape in Hyannis Port, but there are some similarities. Like the Kennedys, the Theroux clan has more than one shining light: Paul is the brother of authors Alexander Theroux and Peter Theroux, and his sons Louis and Marcel are successful writers as well.

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When I interviewed Theroux in February, the family was preparing to celebrate the 104th birthday of his mother, Anne Theroux. But she died less than a week shy of that birthday, in Brewster on Cape Cod. “My mother’s extreme longevity has kept the family together,” he tells me just before she passed. “We are still children, still siblings.” After she died, Theroux says: “The fact that she was with us for so long makes it all the harder to contemplate her passing.”

Paul Theroux says he’s been able to travel roughly for months on end because of the sense of place, of belonging, he’s found at his home, located near Sandwich on the Upper Cape, quite close to the residences of other family members. In an essay in Sunrise with Seamonsters, Theroux writes that were it not for the cozy contentment he finds on Cape Cod, “I think it would have been impossible for me to travel or stay away for any length of time.”

And in Fresh Air Fiend, he notes that the Cape has been a lodestone for him, its magnetic allure pulling him back into the fold after every extended journey. “It is my home, so it is in my dreams,” he writes, “a landscape of my unconscious mind, per- haps my mind’s only landscape.”

The writer Nicholas Delbanco, who lives part-time on Wellfleet, on the Cape’s wilder eastern side where the land juts north into the Atlantic, says that although his friend Theroux is a “high-profile” author, he doesn’t seek attention or the perks of fame. “That’s congenial to the New England sensibility and Cape Cod in particular,” says Delbanco, author of the recently released novel, The Years. “For New Englanders, that sense of rootedness is crucial. And for a guy who has spent so much of his life wandering, it’s no surprise that he would also have a place where the roots go deep.”

Naturally, Theroux isn’t the first writer to find solace on the Cape, which he calls “this handle-shaped piece of geography, swinging from the crankcase of the Bay State.” With its golden beaches, windswept shorelines, whitewashed clapboard houses, spirit-lifting vistas and promise of solitude, the hooked peninsula has long been a summertime getaway for artists, writers and others who seek to escape the hubbub and frenetic pace of urban life.

Since the formation of the Provincetown Players in 1915, the first theater company devoted to producing original works by American playwrights, the Cape has opened its arms to writers, establishing a tradition of appreciation for the arts. Among those who have spent time on the Cape over the years: Henry David Thoreau, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and poet Mary Oliver.

But perhaps none of these writers has been as intrepid as Theroux. Known locally for paddling his kayak around the Cape, he has embarked on potentially treacherous solo journeys to the nearby islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The naturalist Edward Hoagland recalled that Theroux used to paddle from Hyannis Port to the Martha’s Vineyard home of author William Styron and pull up his kayak on Styron’s beachfront yard.

Theroux said the potential dangers of paddling around the Cape tuned his senses to hazards while traveling abroad. “This complex landscape has taught me ways of measuring the world of risk,” he writes in “The True Size of Cape Cod,” an essay in Fresh Air Fiend. “But the word ‘landscape’ presents a problem on the Cape. I find it hard to separate the land from the water, or the water from the winds.”

In our interview Theroux notes that the “Cape waters, and Nantucket Sound especially, can be dangerous in a small boat—even in a big boat, if we consider the currents at Woods Hole.” The ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II ran aground 10 miles west of Martha’s Vineyard in August 1992, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,800 passengers, according to the New York Times, and knocking the ship out of commission for a year.

“The real challenges are the tides,” Theroux says in our interview, “the strong winds and the shoals. … Understanding and overcoming these facts of nature is one of the satisfactions of being on the water.”

A decade ago, when I asked Theroux (for my collection of interviews with travel writers called A Sense of Place) why he spends summers on Cape Cod, he replied, “Is that a serious question?” I responded by saying I understood that the Cape is a lovely place but that the world is full of lovely places. Why migrate yearly to the Cape?

Theroux says he enjoys spending time near where he grew up (he spent his youth in Medford, a suburb of Boston), and that he loves the sunny weather and the quality of the ocean-reflected light on the Cape. “There is something magical about marine sunlight,” he says, then adds, “I also subscribe to the ancient Phoenician belief that a day spent on the sea is a day that is not deducted from your life.”

His love affair with the Cape began when he was a boy and his family vacationed there. “It would have been the late 1940s, because gasoline rationing was still in effect. The weeks we spent there bewitched me,” he says. “I longed to go back—and we did. As soon as I made some money I bought a house on the Cape (in the early 1970s) and have spent every summer there since. I work, paddle a kayak, row a boat, grow tomatoes and am visited by my children and grandchildren, nearly always in sunshine,” Theroux tells me. “This is bliss.”

Perhaps Theroux’s enjoyment of the good life on the Cape is enhanced by the rigors of the life he’s led. In 1963, after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he en- rolled in the Peace Corps and was assigned to work in Malawi as the country was gaining its independence.

After almost two years there, Theroux was discharged from the Peace Corps amid allegations he aided a coup. When asked about this, Theroux says he was simply taking the mother of Malawi’s ambassador, and her dinner service for 12, to Uganda. On the way back he was asked to deliver some money and a message, which, though he says he didn’t know it, was part of a plot to kill Malawi’s president.

From 1965 until 1968, Theroux taught at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where he wrote his early novels, met his first wife, and introduced himself to the author who would become his mentor, V. S. Naipaul. Theroux and Naipaul later had a falling out, a tale recounted in Theroux’s 1998 memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

Theroux has traveled relentlessly and written prolifically into his seventies. His latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, about travels in the U.S. South, will be published this September.

But as far and wide as he’s ranged, he keeps coming back to the Cape. In his essay “Summertime on the Cape” in Sunrise with Seamonsters, Theroux says: “Most people go away for a vacation; I go home.” And that seems true for many perennial visitors—even if they haven’t grown up on or near the Cape, each time they come back they enjoy a sense of homecoming. Robert Finch, an author whose tales about the Cape are broadcast on the local public radio station, WCAI, and are collected in A Cape Cod Notebook, moved here in 1971 after spending his boyhood in New Jersey. “I grew up in a place where rivers were littered with broken glass and oil spills, and marshes were usually on fire,” he says. “So coming to the Cape was something I’d never experienced before—the beauty overwhelmed me.”

Theroux believes visitors can fully appreciate Cape Cod without spending the entire summer there. But he ad- vises vacationers to stay longer than a few days. “The only thing that matters on the Cape is that you stay a while,” he writes. “A week is not enough, two weeks are adequate, three are excellent, a month is perfect. This isn’t travel, remember; this is a vacation.”

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Spending extended time on the Cape gives visitors a sense of its rhythms and unusual attractions. Theroux has written that several towns on the Cape have auctions, and that the one in Sandwich run by the Sandwich Auction House (sandwichauction.com) since 1974, is among the best. “Inevitably, some of the items are junk, but just as many are valuable,” he writes, “and some are treasures.”

Theroux recognizes that part of the Cape’s appeal is the sense of revisiting the joys of childhood. “Ever since I was an ashen-faced tot, I have regarded the summer as a three-month period during which one swam, fished, read comic books, ate junk food and harmlessly misbehaved,” he writes in “Summertime.”

For him, summer begins when he crosses the Sagamore Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal, and lands on the Cape. What happens when he crosses that bridge? “I feel happier, more content, younger, more hopeful,” he tells me. The appeal of this homecoming hasn’t dimmed for Theroux; if anything it has brightened. “Anyone who grows tired of Cape Cod needs his head examined,” he writes, “because for purely homely summer fun there is nowhere in the world that I know that can touch it.”

Theroux enjoys simple pleasures: picking wild blueberries, taking a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard (“full of interest and beauty spots”), or walking along the shoreline and gazing out at the ever-changing sea. He’s spoken over the years of his concern that the Cape would suffer from overdevelopment, but is pleased to see that much of the Cape has retained its essence. The National Seashore has preserved the eastern Cape and zoning restrictions have limited growth elsewhere.

“The National Seashore is a great thing, but what really does the trick is severe zoning restrictions,” Theroux tells me. “Look at Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and you will not see a McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC or any other fast-food chain, but you will see many mom-and-pop burger places, run by locals. This is also true of Route 6A (on Cape Cod), the Cranberry Highway that runs from Sagamore Bridge along the North Side of the Cape: no honky-tonk. On the other side of the Cape, Route 28, there is unchecked development and fast food. There are salutary lessons all over the Cape.”

Even after decades of summers on the cape, Theroux keeps making new discoveries. Delbanco, the novelist, recalls that a couple of years ago he took Theroux to a house where Henry David Thoreau, best known for the 19th-century classic Walden Pond, stayed during a visit to the Cape in the 1850s. Theroux wrote the introduction to the 1987 edition of Thoreau’s book Cape Cod, but he’d never been to this privately owned home in the Wellfleet woods. “It was wonderful to watch him sniff his way around that particular structure,” Delbanco says. “He responded as might a pointer with a bird in the bush. You could see him take in everything about the house.” Delbanco adds that “witnessing Theroux’s attentiveness enhanced my appreciation of the writer’s noticing eye.”

When Henry David Thoreau wrote about Cape Cod in the 1850s, he said he came to the Cape to get a better view of the ocean. In his introduction to Cape Cod, Theroux says that the 19th-century writer’s “modest wish” gives the book its power. “Thoreau discovered that the only way to know the sea was to study it from the shore. He seems to raise beachcombing to a priesthood,” Theroux writes about this spit of land, the eastern- most place in the United States, excluding Maine.

“When at the end Thoreau says of the Cape, ‘A man may stand there and put all America behind him,’ he is expressing the yearning of Ishmael. In this trip more than any other, Thoreau discovered a sense of freedom. To him, Cape Cod was not a territory to be explored; it was a vantage point.”

More than 150 years later, Cape Cod remains a vantage point for one of the most accomplished travel writers of our time. It’s not just a place for Theroux to relax, recover and reconnect with his family. It’s a place of perspective for him, a safe harbor where he can gaze upon tempestuous seas, reflect upon his life and plot the journey ahead.

Why Nantucket Is a Vacation Oasis

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Why Nantucket Is a Vacation Oasis

April 22, 2019

In the summer the prevailing winds blow across coastal Massachusetts and Cape Cod from the southwest. The gentle morning sea breeze often builds throughout the day into a stiff wind that wafts across the exposed crescent that is the is- land of Nantucket. The Wampanoag were the first to ride these winds and settle Nantucket, the “far away land” in their language. European explorers used these winds to sail past the island in the 17th century, and the great whaling ships that once chased sperm whales across the globe called Nantucket harbor their home port. While this glacial remnant that juts out of the ocean 30 miles south of Hyannis is now known for its sandy beaches and stunning vacation homes, sailing—more than anything—defines the Nantucket way of life.

When spending time on the island, it is impossible not to feel the urge to hop aboard a boat and hoist the mainsail. The best place to get a sailing lesson or send the kids to sailing school is Nantucket Community Sailing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching and providing sailing opportunities. Once you learn how to sail, the waters around the island open up to a whole new world.

Oddly enough, Herman Melville had not set foot on Nantucket before writing Moby Dick in 1851. But he knew the history of the infamous whaling ship the Essex from Nantucket, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific. And his book, hailed by some as the Great American Novel, foisted both sailing and the island of Nantucket into the national consciousness.

Nantucket was the hub of America’s whaling fleet from 1715 until the eventual demise of commercial whaling 150 years later. (The last whaler reportedly left the harbor in 1869.) At its peak in the mid-19th century, 72 whaling ships listed Nantucket as their home port. The ships had three masts that hoisted square-rigged sails; three-dozen crew-members would board and set sail from the island on expeditions that lasted as long as three years. That’s quite the contrast from the fleet of recreational day sailors that flit about the harbor or swing with the tide on moorings today.

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Nantucket took to its present-day incarnation as a vacation oasis not long after those whaling ships faded into history, with visitors flocking to the island for the same reason as the original settlers—rugged yet picturesque beauty and a large protected harbor.

The island is actually part of a glacial moraine, formed at the forward edge of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that retreated at the end of the last ice age more than 20,000 years ago. It left behind a 50-square-mile chunk of land in the shape of a crescent moon off the coast of Cape Cod. Melville described it in Moby Dick as an “elbow of sand,” but that’s not exactly right. Parts of the island’s sandy shoreline are still littered with boulders and rocks from the leftover glacial till. Much of the island rises up from the beaches in the form of vast bluffs that provide high vantage points for gazing far across the surrounding waters. The opening to Nantucket Harbor sits in the middle of the crescent, facing north into Nantucket Sound and across to the Cape. There is always at least a little wind.

“Nantucket Sound is just a glorious sailing location,” says Diana Brown, the chief executive of Nantucket Community Sail- ing. “There are steady breezes every day and the water is clear.”

Founded in 1994, Nantucket Community Sailing is dedicated to teaching sailing and making it accessible to people who live in or visit Nantucket. It offers weekly classes for children in season, all taught by instructors certified by US Sailing. Adults and kids alike can sign up for private lessons. “Our primary focus is children,” says Brown. “But we work with sailors from age 5 to 95.”

Youth classes range from absolute beginner all the way up to advanced racing level, and adults can sign up for private lessons at all skill levels. There’s also a woman’s sailing clinic and an adult racing program. Last year, the organization provided sailing opportunities to more than 1,000 kids and 2,000 adults over the season, which lasts mid-June through August, with rentals available through mid-September.

For rentals and lessons, head to Jetties Sailing Center, where Community Sailing keeps its boats. It’s on the beach just off Bathing Beach Road, about a mile from downtown and the docks for the ferries from Oak Bluff and Hyannis. Prospective sailors can rent or take lessons in small one- to two-person boats such as Sunfish and Lasers or larger Rhodes or Marshall Cats or take a trip with a captain aboard a J/105.

All of Jetties Sailing Center’s introductory sailing lessons, as well as rentals, stay inside the protected waters of the harbor. From the center, you can sail past the historic Brant Point Lighthouse, first established as an aid to navigation in 1746. The interior harbor offers protected water where first-timers can learn basic skills such as how to set and trim a sail so that it works to move the boat no matter the wind direction, how to tack and jibe, control the centerboard and how to come about, which is how you change direction.

A lesson aboard the 35-foot J/105 can involve leaving the harbor and exploring the waters surrounding Nantucket. And there is no better way to see the island than from the deck of a boat.

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Heading west along the shoreline leads to the smaller Madaket Harbor, which is more exposed to the elements but offers the best view of Nantucket’s sunset. Sailing farther west and to the north provides the best opportunity to see the privately owned summer community on Tuckernuck Island, or sail beyond to the neighboring Muskeget Island to view the largest population of grey seals in the United States. (Don’t try to swim near them; it’s illegal to get within 150 feet of one, and seals attract sharks.) An article from the Cape Cod Times described the seal-viewing experience this way, “On a foggy day you can smell the island before you can actually see it.” But the chance
to see roughly 3,000 seals in the wild is worth the olfactory assault.

Heading north and east outside of the harbor entrance leads to the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, a pristine stretch of grassy sand dunes and marshes that juts north into the ocean, protected at its tip by the Great Point Light, built in 1785 to guide sailors in from Cape Cod. As Ezra G. Perry wrote in his 1898 book A Trip Around Cape Cod, “The long-drawn sandy shores of Great Point are among the first land of the real island sighted on the trip across,” from the Cape. This is another place to watch seals flopping on and off the beaches into the surf, as well as several species of migratory shore birds like American oystercatchers, piping plovers or snowy egrets.

The south shore of Nantucket is exposed to the whims of the Atlantic Ocean, and subject to much larger seas. (It holds great surfing spots, if you want to try that.) But on calm days sailors can cruise along the sandy beaches and observe the famous Nantucket summerhouses perched atop the bluffs.

Sailors with serious experience can venture about 20 miles offshore to the whale feeding grounds, where it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the massive humpback and finback whales that pass through these waters throughout the summer season. And whale watching brings the Nantucket experience back full circle to its days of Captain Ahab and the majestic whaling fleet.

As Melville wrote in Moby Dick of the Nantucket sailor, “For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.”