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

cape-cod-hero-lighthouse

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.

Paul-Theroux-Featured-1

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.”

cape-cod-featured

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

Nantucket-Hero

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.

Nantucket-1

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.

Nantucket-2

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.”

Adventures Abound on Kauai, Hawaii’s “Garden Isle”

Kauai-Hero

Adventures Abound on Kauai, Hawaii's "Garden Isle"

March 19, 2019

Yes, it rains about 15 days of every month on Kauai, the northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands. The entire island averages about 43 inches of rain annually, compared to 17 inches on Oahu.

Dubbed “The Garden Isle,” 97 percent of Kauai is covered by forests or mountains—rain-fed canopies so dense, and rain-eroded valleys that you can’t imagine anyone having ever lived in (although up to several thousand people did live in different valleys as recently as the early 20th century).

But all this rain has an upside: It’s responsible for the island’s distinctive landscape. The rain helped create the Waimea Canyon, the biggest gorge in the Pacific. The rain also feeds thousands of magnificent waterfalls, while light, misty sun-showers create some of the most spectacular rainbows on earth.

Today, the island’s 67,000 residents are clustered in small, laid-back towns on the coasts. Much of the 3 percent of the island that isn’t forest or mountains is beach. Kauai residents like to claim their island has more beaches than any other in the chain. Whether this is true or not, it’s not difficult to find a small beach you can have all to yourself. And unlike some of the more popular islands, Kauai’s beaches are made up of soft sand rather than lava, and easily accessed from the road that circumnavigates the island—the island’s only road that takes about 2.5 hours to travel by car.

Kauai-Featured-1

The 4,000-foot red cliffs and cavernous canyons of the island’s north and west coasts are too treacherous to build a road on, but they make ideal locations for filming adventure movies and shows set in remote locations or prehistoric times. More than 70 Hollywood movies and television shows have been filmed on Kauai, including classics such as Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While your own time on the island likely won’t include such harrowing adventures as these movies do, you’ll certainly find no shortage of fun excursions and breathtaking sights.

Kayak the Napali Coast

The Napali Coast is spectacular. On one side is a tangle of thick vegetation; on the other side are steep, sheer cliffs—napali means “many cliffs” in Hawaiian—that end in roiling ocean. National Geographic once described it as “the finest coastal hike in the world.” The hike, while unforgettable, is a multi-day affair that requires camping and securing a permit several months in advance.

In contrast, you can kayak the Napali Coast in just a day with much less planning, and without much ocean kayaking experience. If you’re comfortable in water and generally fit, you’ll be just fine, even if the trip is a somewhat daunting 17 miles long.

You’ll gear up at Ke’e Beach and set out onto the water with an expert guide. Along the way, you’ll likely pass sea turtles floating lazily near the water’s surface, and channel their energy as you bob up and down on the ocean’s gentle swells. Following the path of your guide will take you close enough to the shore’s soaring cliffs to wave to the hikers above, or out a couple hundred meters into the open ocean, where you can marvel at the island’s remarkable landscape from afar. You’ll stop for lunch on Milolii Beach, which is accessible only by boat, and where you might just stumble upon a Hawaiian monk seal. A few hours later, the trip wraps up at Polihale Beach State Park.

Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

Set off from Shipwrecks Beach on the flat, 4-mile, out-and-back Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail to Punahoa Point. The trail, along the last stretch of undeveloped coastline on Kauai’s southern shore, passes 350,000-year-old sand dunes, cultural and geological sites, sturdy Kiawe and Ironwood trees, hillsides blanketed in colorful ilima flowers, limestone pinnacles, rocky inlets, tide pools, and the cliff that actors Anne Heche and Harrison Ford famously jumped from in the 1998 movie Six Days, Seven Nights. Jumping from this cliff, Makawehi Point, isn’t just a movie stunt: Brave Hawaiians and tourists do it too, timing their leaps with the waves. You can decide for yourself whether to take the plunge or simply peer over its sheer edge.

Past Makawehi, groupings of fragile-looking limestone and sandstone pinnacles rise from the ocean. According to the trail guide, in the 1970s paleontologists from the Smithsonian Institution discovered bones from two extinct species of birds in these formations.

From this ruggedness, the hike takes a jarring, quarter-mile detour onto the Poipu Bay Golf Course, a temporary workaround due to landslides. While the landscape couldn’t be more manicured and civilized, families of nene, an endangered, non-migratory species of goose indigenous to Hawaii and whose population was once as low as 30, seem not to care. They wander the greens like they own them.

Back on the trail, you’ll pass a heiau, a sacred site where fish were offered to Keoniloa, the god of the sea, to ensure a good catch. And gazing out from the trail to the water, you’re likely to see humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea turtles, along with other wildlife. The trek concludes at Punahoa Point, the apex of the oldest sand-dune system in the region.

Tube the Irrigation Canals of Lihue Plantation

Along Kauai’s East Side, also known as the Coconut Coast for the groves of coconut palms that grow there, you’ll find a truly one-of-a-kind experience: tubing down old irrigation ditches on a former sugarcane plantation.

Built deep in Kauai’s lush interior, Lihue Plantation is crisscrossed by a network of canals, tunnels, and flumes that were hand-dug all the way back in 1870. For more than a century, these ditches delivered water to irrigate the plantation’s sugar crops. But after sugarcane was taken out of production in 2000, they sat vacant, collecting rainwater for a few years before Kauai Backcountry Adventures bought the entire property with something uniquely fun in mind.

Today, tourists plunk down into inner tubes and traverse the gently rolling waterways on exclusive tubing tours. Starting near the top of Mount Waialeale, tubers descend through some of the most remote land on Kauai, passing through thick rainforest and sliding down small waterfalls.

Kauai-Featured-2

The water is decidedly more brisk than that lapping up against your favorite beach, as it comes down from Mount Waialeale, Kauai’s second-tallest mountain. But it’s not so brisk that tubers need to wear anything more than their bathing suits. Except, of course, the helmet and headlamp (provided by your hosts), which come in handy as you wind through old irrigation tunnels, which can be up to a mile long.

Ride in a Helicopter above Waimea Canyon

After kayaking, hiking, and tubing—not to mention likely bouts of swimming, snorkeling, and possibly surfing in between—you might be ready to sit back and let someone else take the reins. A helicopter tour provides just such an opportunity, though with no less excitement.

On its west side, Kauai’s tropical rainforest gives way to dryer, more desert-like conditions at Waimea Canyon, once dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain. More than 10 miles long and 3,600 feet deep, Waimea Canyon offers visitors a chance to peer at the topography of the island’s interior, marked by deep valley gorges and crested buttes. Rainbows frequently arch over the canyon, which was carved by the Waimea River long ago. The word “Waimea” is Hawaiian for “reddish water,” referencing the canyon’s red soil.

The only way to truly appreciate the unique complexity of this landscape is with a bird’s-eye view from high above. Tours depart from Lihue Airport on hourlong jaunts. As you take in the untamed land below, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone back to prehistoric times, especially as many helicopters chopper over Manawaiopuna Falls, a 400-foot-tall cascade, made popular by its appearance in the original Jurassic Park in 1993.

Dine at Tidepools

After all these adventures, you earned some time for a refreshing cocktail and a delicious meal. In general, Kauai is not a fancy place. That’s one reason the island’s devotees love it so much. The dining, like most things, tends to be low key—fish tacos, plate lunches (two scoops of white rice, macaroni salad, and a meat—often Spam—might not seem exciting but is the quintessential Hawaiian meal), fresh fruit bowls and smoothies, and shave ice. Often, the best of these places to eat are tucked away in strip malls. But if during a stay filled to the brim with rugged, outdoor adventures, you’re looking for something more formal, head to Tidepools.

Made up of a cluster of open-air hale pili (thatched-roof bungalows) that seem to float like massive lily pads atop koi lagoons within the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, Tidepools is very much “Hollywood Hawaiian.” Flickering tiki torches and dark koa wood create a retro ’60s vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in a mid-century travel brochure. This ambiance pairs perfectly with signature (and slightly over-the-top) cocktails such as the Tai Chi, made with Captain Morgan’s spiced and Malibu coconut spiced rum, along with pineapple and orange juices, and the Lava Flow, which consists of light rum, coconut crème, pineapple juice, strawberry, and ice cream all blended together. You might be lucky enough to be seated at Table #42, which the staff says is the best in the house because of its secluded location in a separate hale, but really, there’s no bad table in the house.

Chef Kevin Horan, who came to Tidepools after stints in Las Vegas at Restaurant Guy Savoy and Mandarin Oriental, presents a contemporary Hawaiian menu. He uses traditional ingredients like opah, a fish with a rich, creamy taste, macadamia nuts, fresh-caught seafood, and beef, but does not necessarily prepare them traditionally. Adventurous palates will enjoy the opah topped with papaya-habanero sauce or caught-that-morning macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi topped with a roasted banana-macadamia nut sauce and papaya-avocado relish. Foie gras isn’t a traditional Hawaiian food, but Horan brings an island influence to the dish by pairing it with macadamia-nut mousse and strawberry-papaya jam. The fresh greens are grown on-site in the resort’s 4,000-square-foot hydroponic garden, which is open to resort guests for tours twice a week.

Sitting here, cocktail in hand, watching the colors of the sunset streak across the sky behind the gently swaying palms makes for a fitting end to a day exploring this natural-born island paradise.

How Country Music Star Brett Young Likes to Vacation

Brett-Young-Hero

How Country Music Star Brett Young Likes to Vacation

February 27, 2019

Three years ago, Brett Young was just another anonymous singer/songwriter hoping to make it in the country music business in Nashville. Today he’s the owner of a platinum album, Brett Young, and the recently released Ticket to L.A. He’s also newly married to his long-time girlfriend, Taylor Mills. Days after returning from his honeymoon and before he kicked off his winter tour across the United States, Young took some time to share how his overnight success, 10 years in the making, was due to hard work and the generosity and resolute support of Inspirato members Rutherford and Rhonda Polhill.

You were born and raised in Huntington Beach, California, aka Surf City, U.S.A. How did you ever become a fan of country music?

It was because of my older sister. We’d battle for shotgun in the car, and when I’d win she’d kick the back of my seat to annoy me. To get her back, I’d turn on the country-music station in the car. She hated country back then. (Now, she loves it.)

Then I heard Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl,” and I was like “Whoa, what’s going on here?” And I started listening to the storytelling in the songs and soon enough I was getting into artists like BlackHawk and Shenandoah. Country music just made sense to me.

It went from there. I was a bit of an outlier among my friends who were all into Southern California punk.

Brett-Young-Featured-1

Where and how did you develop your love of writing and performing music?

My dad is a pastor, so I grew up going to church and playing guitar at church services, learning to play worship songs. When I got to high school, which was a church school, I was performing in front of the whole student body on Friday mornings, playing worship songs, so that’s how I grew into a performer.

But music wasn’t my thing. I was on track to play pro baseball.

I was a pitcher for Fresno State University in California, but an elbow surgery put an end to that. About that time, I heard Gavin DeGraw’s Chariot, and he doesn’t do country, but I still fell in love with the songwriting—to be honest and vulnerable like he was.

It showed me that there was a path out there to write the songs I wanted to write. So, I set out to do it.

How did that go?

I was making a living as a bartender and resident musician in restaurants and bars around Los Angeles, mostly playing covers. One of the gigs was in the lobby bar of the Montage Beverly Hills, playing every Wednesday night from 8 to midnight. After paying my backup band and buying dinner, I nearly always lost money playing there, but I kept at it because everyone who was anyone would come through that lobby eventually.

One night, Rutherford “Ruddy” Polhill, a guy from Atlanta who was in town for an eye-surgery consultation, sat down to listen and told me he believed I could make it in the music business. Then a month later, he brought out his wife and daughters to hear me play, and soon after that, they flew me to Atlanta to perform at their birthday party. That’s how much the whole family believed in me.

We worked out an arrangement where they staked me, and we were going to figure out how to hack the Nashville music scene and get a recording contract for me.

What’s the first step to hacking Nashville?

Well, we eventually figured out you really can’t hack the system. It works like it does for a reason. What we did figure out, though, was that success starts with songwriting. In June 2015, we set up a weeklong songwriting retreat at a huge beachfront Inspirato house, Casa de Colores, outside Puerto Vallarta, figuring it’d be easy to get great songwriters to come down to Mexico for a free beach vacation and to collaborate with me on new material. And being an Inspirato set-up, we didn’t have to worry about anything except getting to know each other and writing music.

We had two songwriting teams come down for three days each, and we had a production engineer recording every session. First was Trent Tomlinson and Tyler Reeve. That first day, we wrote “In Case You Didn’t Know.” That song was released as a single about a year later and went to No. 1 on the charts and became a multi-platinum-selling single. [To date, the song’s YouTube video has been viewed more than 210 million times.]

The next songwriting duo to come in was the husband-and-wife team of Ben Caver and Sara Haze. We didn’t get too far, though, as I got my first and only case of sun poisoning in my life on the second day with them. But they’ve stayed close—they even recorded a cover of “Forever Young” for my wedding. Two months after that trip, I signed a record contract.

My career’s been going nonstop in the years since that week in Mexico. Except for a weeklong Inspirato vacation to Cabo last year with the Polhills, my then-fiancée Taylor, and two other couples who are special to us, my wedding and honeymoon this past November was the first time I’ve taken an extended break from music.

Speaking of your honeymoon, how did you and Taylor pick St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands as the destination?

Taylor and I love being warm and near the ocean, and she’d been to the British Virgin Islands before and wanted to show me the Caribbean. We saw the house that Inspirato had available on St. Croix and said, “That’s it!” We arrived in St. Croix and it was just perfect. Warm and sunny, and then we’re driving out to the house, and it’s at the end of this long drive, situated on a cliff with the waves crashing below. It’s just an insane property. The photos of it are incredible, but they don’t do the setting justice.

Brett-Young-Featured-2

And then it started raining—and it never really stopped. But whenever there was sun, we’d dash out to the beach for the hour or two it was out. We did have one perfect beach day at Judith’s Fancy, lounging on the beach with drinks in our hand. That was pretty special.

But as I said before, Inspirato thinks of everything. To distract us from the rain, Sarah, our Destination Concierge, set us up with massages right before dinner on the first night. The second night, we had a chef come to make us anything we wanted. I know it sounds corny, but I wanted chicken parmesan. That paired with a special bottle of wine I’d brought made it a special meal.

The weather wasn’t ideal, but it was still pretty dramatic, and when it’s your honeymoon, it was super romantic, as well. It’s not the worst thing to be stuck inside a gorgeous house over the ocean for a week, knowing that every last detail is, and will be, taken care of.

Can we expect a song to come out of the adventure?

You never know!

Why Baja, Mexico Is Unlike Any Other Destination in North America

Cabo-Hero

Why Baja, Mexico, Is Unlike Any Other Destination in North America

February 25, 2019

From where I sit on this jazz cruise, a “luxury sailing excursion,” I can see pale tourists onshore posing with two caged lion cubs at a pop-up photo stand. And across the bay, at Jack’s Bar & Grill, the faux-swaggering, paste-on mustachioed Captain Sparrow accosting tourists is hardly the exotic character I travel to meet.

Authentic, it turns out, isn’t always a good thing.

This crassness is precisely why I have never before ventured to Baja’s Cabo San Lucas, which I’ve long associated with everything base about Mexican travel. Like its Nevada doppelganger, Vegas, this tourist town at the tip of the Baja peninsula is so hip that it goes just by Cabo. But while the place might be as graceless as the border towns of Nogales and Laredo, it still attracts some 1.5 million visitors each year. And judging by kitsch Cabo San Lucas proper, they’re not coming for the culture.

Proximity is surely an appeal. Hop a flight from L.A. and you can be pink from sun exposure before you’d have even touched down on flights to Hawaii or Costa Rica. And then there are the beaches, which rival the Caribbean. On the 18-mile-long corridor of coastal highway stretching to the northeast, hundreds of hotels and resorts have carved out pristine space on rocky headlands and sugary strands that are inarguably stunning.

Cabo-Featured-1

That’s where I’m staying, at a resort called Esperanza that’s part country club, part beach hideaway; the sort of place you could settle into for a week and never leave. “Many of our clients eat here, sleep here, sun here, and then fly home,” says Lucas Williams, my Destination Concierge. And while that sounds perfectly anesthetizing, I’m curious to know if there’s more to Baja California Sur.

That’s what led to the evening jazz cruise, which at first doesn’t give me much hope. But then the local Kool-Aid starts to kick in. The boat motors into Bahía Cabo, where the Arch of San Lucas, a natural limestone passage cut from the sea, is backlit in golden God-light, and everyone quiets the genuine awe. The moment is legitimately stirring. There’s authenticity to be found in Cabo if you’re willing to look for it.

I go searching up the west coast the next morning on a day trip to the village of Todos Santos. The Cabo circus act disappears as soon as I crest the first hill out of town, and I’m suddenly speeding through desolate high desert scratched with thorny acacias and topsy-turvy cardón cactus reminiscent of Arizona’s saguaros.

Little more than a pocked double track a couple years ago, the road has lately been paved and widened to four lanes. The hope is that once the bypass around Cabo San Lucas is complete, developers will be inclined to build on this stretch of coast since travelers could reach it from the international airport in about an hour. For now, it’s just open highway with the occasional dusty side road trailing off to the Pacific.

Todos Santos is dozy too, with a single strip of pavement through town and a quaint little Catholic church the color of whipped egg yolks overlooking a cobbled plaza. Three wrinkly old men in scuffed boots and battered cowboy hats sit so still on a palm-shaded bench that I have to walk closer to make sure they’re not statues.

The only real action is down the street at The Hotel California, which owner Debbie Stewart claims (but can’t prove) is the establishment that inspired the song, though she’s quick to emphasize that’s where the connection ends. “We’re not selling the Eagles. We’re selling real Mexico,” she says, explaining that Todos Santos is part of a Mexican tourism initiative called Pueblos Mágicos to promote the country’s most culturally compelling towns. The plaza was recently spruced up, several new boutique hotels have opened in renovated, 100-year-old buildings, and a few art galleries have popped up in anticipation of the increased traffic. “Mostly though people still just come here to surf and relax,” Stewart says.

She suggests a trip to Playa Los Cerritos, 10 minutes down a sandy track from the highway. When I arrive, 30 or so cars are parked beside a thatch-roof bar, with a dozen white umbrellas facing the sea. I take my place under a free umbrella among the crowd of mostly Mexican families, and a waiter is soon plying me with margaritas, icy bottles of Sol beer and totopos and guacamole. He keeps up a steady flow of refrescos as I read, nap and listen to the thrum of the sea, and before I know it evening has come.

Back in town, the trio of gauchos on the plaza hasn’t moved. I take their cue and settle in on the covered, street-front arcade to watch life go by. Stewart tells me that if I’d come a month ago, I could have watched whales steaming past town from shore, but they’ve already moved north for the summer.

A stooped old man leads a donkey down the opposite side of the road by a frayed rope. Then a procession of churchgoers singing hymns in Spanish tread slowly the other direction toward the church. It’s nothing but everyday life here in Baja, but to me it’s both exotic and deeply quieting.

“Cabo is about the party. La Paz is about the water,” Stewart says.

“We’re just a quiet little town with history and a sense of place.” This laidback vibe is exactly why Todos Santos is seeing an increase of both development and visitors. And the sublime mix of vast desert and sea helps, too. It’s the same trifecta—sand, sea, culture—that has always drawn people to Baja, long before, and perhaps in spite of, the development of Cabo. On the dark desert night’s drive back, I roll down the window to get the cool Pacific wind in my hair. Cabo San Lucas might be only an hour down the road, but it feels decades away.

The next day, I drive the other direction up the highway to San Jose del Cabo. And I’m glad I do. If Cabo San Lucas is the Disneyland of Baja, San José del Cabo is Santa Barbara, with a prim little downtown, endearing shops that don’t revolve around T-shirts or gaudy ceramics, and a modicum of self-respect. Even the local tequila shop, Los Barilles de Cuervo, forgoes the overbearing eat-the-worm bravado and pours up tequila tastings from its 260 varieties.

Cabo-Featured-2

Midmorning, I walk down quiet avenues admiring pink bougainvillea that climb up whitewashed Spanish revival façades and stop to pet the occasional cat—even the strays here feel approachable. I like to think that it’s just this charming, small-town atmosphere that brings so many foreigners to Baja, both as travelers and expatriates.

I start to notice galleries all around, full of paintings that make you stop and look, such as the mod, mixed-media piece at the O Gallery that depicts, among other things, an anthropomorphic Easter Bunny on a crucifix. It’s weighty stuff, especially in a country as Catholic as Mexico, and I can’t resist going inside. The owner, a stubbly, ponytailed Parisian transplant from Los Angeles who goes only by François, describes a nascent art scene in San José del Cabo. “We still get the tourists coming here looking for cheap ashtrays, but there are more and more proper buyers,” he says. “Most of Baja is just stunning physically. The desert next to the sea … it’s like another planet.”

In that sense San José is still catching up. With the art and the investments in the place, it’s becoming beautiful. He invites me back in two days for the monthly Thursday-night art walk, promising cocktails, good conversation, and a handful of openings.

Around the corner, artist Frank Arnold’s airy home is part of his gallery, and it’s not until I’m leaning across a bed staring at a dark interpretation of a bull that it occurs to me that I might be intruding. Then Arnold’s assistant, a short little Mexican fellow who speaks so fast I never catch his name no matter how many times I ask, appears from around a corner and assures me that I’m welcome to traipse all over the home and admire the artwork. Arnold has stepped out, though a palette sits waiting on a side table and the canvas he’s painting is still wet. His assistant introduces me instead to his Bichon Frisé poodle named Picasso, and encourages me to sample from any of the decanters of tequila (Granada, almond, and regular) around the studio. When I try to beg off because of the early hour, he acts almost wounded. “It is past 11 o’clock,” he says.

In the end, what I appreciate most about San José isn’t the friendly reception or the significant artwork—though both are a pleasure. What’s nice is coming across something unexpected. For me, travel is about experiencing things I couldn’t otherwise at home: sipping fine liquor in the morning, listening to François’ story of driving a moving truck down the Baja peninsula and simply knowing that Los Cabos isn’t only about spring break hedonism and tropical escape. You can find something true here if you’re willing to scratch around for it.

After my tour of town, I stop at a taco shop called Rossy’s and gorge on fresh tortillas stuffed with smoked marlin, tempura fried fish, and marinated octopus. The seafood is so fresh I go back for a second serving. I also order an Ojo Rojo, the classic Mexican cocktail I’ve always wanted to try that blends Tecate and Clamato, that strange-sounding mix of tomato and clam juices. When it arrives, I’m as expectant as a serious buyer waiting for a new piece from my favorite painter. I taste it, and I almost spit it out.

Authentic, it turns out, isn’t always a good thing.

The only thing left is to experience Cabo as most visitors do: From the comfort of an all-inclusive resort. And it’s easy at Esperanza, where a concierge caters to everything.

When I mention that I’d like to go kayaking, Williams, the Desination Concierge, selects a nearby trip and has a guide waiting for me at 9 o’clock the next morning. We put in at a limestone-protected cove 10 minutes east of the resort, and though I imagine that waters this close to town will be turbid and denuded of any marine life, I see fish flash like sun-catching prisms below my hull as soon as we push off.

At Bahia Santa Maria, another calm bay, the corals are vibrant shades of blue and green, and schools of striped grunt flicker in the morning sun. I follow a pair of bumphead parrotfish as big as dorm-room refrigerators and try to catch up with a sea turtle, which easily fins away. “Jacques Cousteau didn’t call the Sea of Cortez ‘the world’s aquarium’ for nothing,” the guide says. It’s a line he must use often.

After a few hours on the water, I’m ready for lunch, and Williams encourages me to try the resort’s beach club. I’m convinced I’ll get a better meal if I drive back to San José and seek out a local joint, but the sun has made me lazy. So I order lunch at the resort club and settle into a fluffy, bleach-white towel under a thatched palapa. And if I’m honest, the grilled fish and I wouldn’t trade my meal at Rossy’s—nor the tequila with Picasso the poodle or my classic rock desert sojourn to Todos Santos. But neither would I give up a single bite of these luscious Esperanza tacos, not even if my wife begged. Baja is a place of sharp contrasts—the craggy, little-explored desert peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains tumbling straight into crystalline seas—and no trip here would be complete without the push and pull of these natural and man made forces.

After picking over the taco plate for every last morsel, I order a margarita. And as I’m lingering on the sun-splashed, cloudy-brain edge of a nap, I’ll be damned if I don’t see three whales breaching a few hundred meters out at sea. I consider rushing back to the villa to get my binoculars. Instead, I just watch them steam away to the south until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer and drift asleep.