5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year

5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year Yellowstone

5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year

February 21, 2020

America’s first national park opened to the public in 1872 under President Ulysses S. Grant. At that time, a period of unprecedented westward expansion meant that more Americans than ever were setting off into our country’s vast wilderness— and threatening to permanently alter these precious ecosystems. Impassioned conservationists championed the idea of a national park system to protect our most remarkable landscapes before it was too late, and thus, in 1916, the modern National Park Service was born.

More than a century later, in 2018, a total of 318 million visitors set foot inside a park operated by the National Park Service. The national parks are open to—and belong to—all of us, beckoning adventurers from around the world.

Even as the parks attract record-setting numbers of visitors, there are plenty of corners to explore, pockets where you can still feel like the first-ever explorer of a captivating landscape. That’s the eternal promise of the national park system, which documentarian Ken Burns once dubbed “America’s Best Idea.”

I’ve always been a fervent fan of our national parks, dating back to my childhood when my parents would take the family on weeks-long road trips, trying to visit as many parks as possible in one cross-country swoop. As an adult, I’ve come to cherish our public lands even more as wild, sacred spaces that represent the best version of our collective humanity—one in which we act as gentle stewards and respectful observers who leave no trace. There’s always an adventure to be had in our national parks. Here are a few of my favorites.

5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year Haleakalā National Park

See the Sunrise in Haleakalā National Park

One of the last places on United States soil to witness the sunrise each morning takes place in Haleakalā National Park on Maui. It’s worth the wait. A massive volcanic crater (which last blew its top 500 years ago), Haleakalā is the highest point on Maui at 10,023 feet above sea level. It’s surrounded by a cinder desert landscape that makes the island’s sugar-sand beaches and swaying palm trees feel like a distant memory. With a lack of light or environmental pollution, it’s an ideal vantage point to witness the sun crest above the horizon.

That’s just what I did on a work trip one September day last fall with my colleagues, when our alarms sounded at 2:30 a.m. for a bleary wake-up call and we shuffled onto a tour bus for the 90-minute winding drive to the summit.

We joined a small group of onlookers gathered in anticipation, facing out toward the inky blackness. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out the outlines of the vast crater that loomed before me; everyone adopted hushed, reverent tones. The sunrise happened so gradually that it was almost imperceptible: the faintest hint of red warming up on the horizon. The show had begun, and the crowd fell silent.

Haleakalā means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian. According to Hawaiian lore, the demigod Maui trapped the sun atop Haleakalā in order to make the day longer. It was certainly the longest sunrise I’ve ever witnessed, with time seeming to slow down enough to witness the orb lift higher in the sky inch by inch.

Sunsets on Maui are grand and spectacular, painted across the sky with neon pinks and purples in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. The island’s sunrises have a more dignified beauty, a quieter subtlety that rewards the patient viewer.

Relax in a Secret Hot Spring in Yellowstone National Park

Inside Yellowstone National Park, there’s always something threatening to boil over. Perched atop a volcanic caldera, the park bubbles with more than 10,000 boiling mud pots, hissing steam vents, colorful hot springs, and geysers that rocket through the air like uncorked champagne. These smoking geothermal features—and the telltale sulfuric smell they carry—only enhance the park’s otherworldly atmosphere.

Although Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world, they don’t add much in the way of aquatic recreation. It’s illegal to bathe in hot springs within the park’s boundaries, and for good reason: In certain spots, water can reach temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, I discovered there is one spot within the park where you can freely soak (rangers allow swimming in bodies of water fed by runoff from hydrothermal features). Just across the Wyoming-Montana border, near the park’s northern entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs, the hydrothermal Boiling River meets the refreshingly cold waters of the Gardner River. This mix of temperatures is just right for a long soak to soothe weary muscles.

Tucked in the northwest corner of the park, the hot springs felt a little bit like a secret. We trekked down a rocky, half-mile trail from the parking lot to reach the river, grateful for sturdy water shoes. The hot springs area was cordoned off from the cool river by an improvised rock barrier, cobbled together over time by previous visitors.

As we floated alongside a dozen other bathers, my husband and I chatted with a colorful cast of rotating characters, including an oil executive who owned a ranch in nearby Jackson Hole and a friendly pair of free-spirited European backpackers making their way across the States. The occasional brave teen leapt over the rocky barrier into the freezing waters of the Gardner River, shrieking. As daylight waned and the air temperature dropped, we found ourselves enveloped in rising steam, a subtle reminder of the powerful forces at work below Yellowstone.

Hike to the Top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

When you’re inside Yosemite National Park, Half Dome—the towering granite monolith that rises nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor—is unavoidable. It’s everywhere: plastered on souvenir T-shirts, emblazoned on mugs in the campground general store, and lurking in the background of all your scenic valley photos. In the late 1870s, early settler Josiah Whitney proclaimed that Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible.” It didn’t take long for hikers to prove him wrong.

Today, while many parkgoers choose to appreciate Half Dome from afar, roughly 300 lucky hikers get to set foot on the rock face itself each day from late May to early October. That’s because the hike to the top of Half Dome is protected by a permit system. Each March, would-be hikers sign up for the Half Dome permit lottery, hoping to be one of the chosen few who are allowed to summit.

One summer holiday weekend a few years ago— after scoring permits in the lottery—my hiking party set out in the pre-dawn hours, sporting headlamps to light the way. The Half Dome Trail leads trekkers to the top of the dome on a 14- to 16-mile round-trip course, taking around 12 hours to complete. On the way up, the trail wends past gorgeous waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada Falls), flattens out for a brief reprieve in Little Yosemite Valley, and then switchbacks up to the base of the dome.

The length of the hike isn’t what makes it such an adventure. The final pitch is what hikers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Yosemite for. The last quarter-mile of the hike spikes sharply upward, where braided metal cables—drilled into the rock by park rangers in 1919—needle up the spine of Half Dome, enabling hikers to make the final ascent without technical rock climbing equipment.

It’s not an excursion for the faint of heart, or the acrophobic. Staring up at the steep cables rising in front of me, I had a moment of wanting to sit this part out. It seemed too treacherous. I sought opinions from some of the hikers who just stepped off the cables; one woman smiled and said cheerily, “Tough, but doable!”

So up we went. It took us roughly 30 minutes to navigate the cables to the top, using our upper bodies to pull ourselves up each gravity-defying step. The cables aren’t a one-way street; hikers going both directions squeeze past one another within the 36-inch corridor. I clung to one side, willing myself not to focus on the downhill slope just inches beyond.

At the top, the view of the valley was surreal, and the sense of shared accomplishment palpable. Hikers toasted to their good fortune with fizzy beers, melting trail mix, and in my case, a surprise marriage proposal. I said yes— but requested the ring remain inside its velvet box until we made it safely back down the cables.

See a Black Bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the most exhilarating parts of venturing into the wilderness is the chance to see wildlife. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, you’d be hard-pressed to spend a long weekend and not catch a glimpse of one of the park’s most famous residents: the black bear. When my husband and I visited during a long spring weekend, we were on a mission to see as many of the species Ursus americanus as we could. We’d come to the right place: The park is home to a population of nearly 1,500 black bears.

As we rode bicycles on an 11-mile loop around Cades Cove on our first morning, we breezed past historic settlers’ cabins, old churches, and a photogenic gristmill. That’s when we spotted our first of the weekend—a mother and her two cubs about a football field away, marching through a meadow and paying us no mind. On a dusk hike to Laurel Falls later that day, we spotted a black bear boulder-hopping in the riverbed beneath the 80-foot waterfall, and yet another munching on leaves high up in a tree.

5 National Park Adventures to Experience This Year Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Up at dawn for a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail through old-growth forest, we spotted another black bear high up in the treetops, watching our car curiously. We had quickly learned that in the Great Smoky Mountains, if you want to see a bear, look up.

The best bear sighting was our last one. We planned to take in the sunset atop Clingman’s Dome—the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet. As we strode up the half-mile paved path leading to the observation tower, we heard a rustling in the bushes off the trail. Careful to keep our distance, we watched quietly as a mother and her two small cubs noshed on grasses. Seeing the black bear family up close was a pinch-me moment and a reminder of just how special these national parks are.

Tour Historic Cliff Dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

Located 60 miles southwest of Telluride, Mesa Verde is one of the most unusual national parks in the entire country, the sole park dedicated to the activity of humans. A crown jewel in the Four Corners area, the park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, built by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived there for more than 700 years, from roughly 600 to 1300 CE. It’s the largest archaeological preserve in the United States.

The cliff dwellings are a relic from another era, constructed ingeniously with sandstone, mortar, and wooden beams beneath the overhangs of grassy mesas. The marvel is that these archaeological sites aren’t preserved under glass to be observed from a distance—visitors are encouraged to explore the sites on ranger-guided tours and learn firsthand how the Ancestral Pueblo people transitioned from semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers to a flourishing agrarian society.

The tours sell out fast—and can only be purchased in person up to two days prior—so I was thrilled to nab a spot for the two largest cliff dwelling tours one busy summer holiday weekend.

Cliff Palace is the perfect place to start. It’s the park’s largest dwelling, a veritable apartment complex with 150 rooms sprawling across four stories and 23 kivas (subterranean rooms used for meetings and religious ceremonies). The small tour group set out from the Cliff Palace Overlook on a short dusty trail that sloped downward toward the mesa. Throughout the tour, we climbed 100 vertical feet on a series of five rickety wooden ladders. It’s easy to imagine the once-bustling scene: men, women, and children scampering up to the top of the mesa to tend to their crops

But it’s the Balcony House tour that offers the biggest adventure in the park. The tour starts with a climb up a 32-foot wooden ladder that prompted the children in the group to squeal with delight and a few parents to murmur nervously. Later, we dropped to our hands and knees to crawl through a 12-foot-long, 18-inch-wide tunnel between homes. In order to exit, we clambered up a 60-foot open rock face, where grooves have been worn into the stone to form a natural staircase. Though it’s often overshadowed by the larger parks nearby (Rocky Mountain, Zion, and Grand Canyon, to name a few), Mesa Verde is well worth the stop.

A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma

A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma

A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma

February 14, 2020

One of life’s simple pleasures is opening a bottle of wine at the end of a long day or workweek, when surrounded by friends, or right before diving into a good book. But have you ever thought about the journey wine takes before it gets to the bottle? For anyone curious about the winemaking process, a one-of-a-kind, immersive experience awaits in Sonoma: a stay at Vintner’s Cottage.

Vintner’s Cottage sits on the property of a family-owned winery: Blue Rock Vineyard. Blue Rock got its start as a winery in the 1800s run by Italian immigrants. Vintner’s Cottage itself was once the site of Villa Maria winery, but that operation was shuttered during Prohibition. In 1987, Kenny and Cheryl Kahn bought the property, which became the sustainability-focused winery that it is today. “It’s a true hidden gem, tucked into a breathtaking section of Alexander Valley. The grounds have an incredible history, dating back to the mid-1800s. The vineyards are speckled with gorgeous blue serpentine rock,” said Carla Jeffries, Blue Rock’s director of hospitality. “In fact, serpentine is used in much of the landscaping throughout the estate and in the walls of the home.”

A Wine Lover’s Paradise: The Dreamy French Cottage in Sonoma 2

Serpentine rock—so named for the group of minerals that make it up—is both the winery’s namesake and California’s state rock. It plays a distinct role in California’s plant life, with 10 percent of the state’s native flora growing on serpentine soils.

Yet what makes Blue Rock truly different, Jeffries said, is that walking through its gate is like being transported to a different place and time. “Time truly seems to stand still here. We like to say our guests are hugged—figuratively and literally—by the land, and by those of us who are its stewards,” Jeffries said. “We’re passionate about this special place—the grapes we grow, the wines we craft, and the guests we meet.”

Blue Rock is also about 15 minutes north of downtown Healdsburg, a charming Sonoma County stopover with a beautiful town square, art galleries, boutiques, antique shops, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Anyone who has stayed at the historic home—a French stone cottage reminiscent of the European countryside, boasting its own pool and a bocce ball court—has loved the opportunity to be in the midst of the action of a working vineyard.

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Michelle T. usually travels to Napa Valley for wine-tasting excursions, but she and her group opted for Sonoma on their recent trip for a new experience. Michelle had high praise for the home—“French country expertly crafted with luxury amenities”—and said the entire property has an air of magic about it. Her group also loved getting the chance to sit down with Blue Rock staff to learn more about the ins and outs of winemaking.

“We spent two hours with our hosts by the fireplace learning the history of the vineyard and gaining insight to the complexity of the winemaking process, starting with the soil nurturing the grapevines,” she said.

Another visitor, Rebecca M., chose an off-season stay at Vintner’s Cottage for her first visit to wine country. “The cottage was quaint, beautifully decorated, very comfortable—absolutely amazing,” she said. “The grounds were breathtaking, even though we stayed there (at the) end of January, first of February.”

And a trip to Vintner’s Cottage during the fall provides a special opportunity: getting to see the harvesting of the grapes up close, a treat Bruce M.

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“We had the opportunity to join an early-morning harvest, and we enjoyed a truly exceptional farm-to-table lunch in a dining room built for that purpose, overlooking the vineyard through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows,” he said. “Carla and the rest of the Blue Rock team were extraordinarily hospitable, and very accommodating.”

Bruce also said he was perfectly happy to stay on the property in the evening—members have free rein to explore after the winery closes at 6 p.m.—and grill up some steaks, pairing them with Blue Rock wines. (He recommends the Best Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Wine aficionado or not, anyone with an interest in the winemaking process should consider a stay at Vintner’s Cottage for their next trip to wine country.

“My only regret is that our stay ended before we had a chance to try out the bocce lawn,” Bruce said, “but we’ll make a point of that the next time we stay here!”

Where to Relax and Recharge in Telluride

Where to relax and recharge in Telluride

Where to Relax and Recharge in Telluride

January 31, 2020

After a day on the slopes, it’s time to slow down, relax, and indulge. Here are the best places in Telluride to do just that.

Spas

The Peaks Resort and Spa: Towering over the ski area’s mountain village, the 8-story- tall Peaks Resort houses a sumptuous and sprawling retreat, complete with an oxygen bar, 32 treatment rooms, avocado/citrus scrubs, every imaginable kind of workout facility, and a 2-story waterslide. And, yes, the helipad is just outside the door, so you can go straight from skiing to a massage.

Where to relax and recharge in Telluride Spas

BreatheFor a more intimate, but no less luxurious spa experience—and one that can anchor a day spent in the historic heart of Telluride— book an appointment at Breathe for a Brazilian Propolis Facial, created specifically to thwart the cold and dry winter air.

Dining

221 South Oak: Known locally as “221,” this unassuming bistro near the gondola plaza is symbolized by its overstuffed couches that envelop diners sipping a Manhattan or Cosmopolitan before setting off for tables serving a mélange of seafood, game, and poultry. Don’t miss the sausage sampler with house-made spicy pork, chicken cranberry, duck mushroom, elk garlic, and beef with cheddar cheese.

Cosmopolitan: Diners can guess at Cosmopolitan’s attention to detail and flavor just by looking at the menu: grilled pork porterhouse with vanilla sweet potatoes, bacon- braised Swiss chard, and apple cider gastrique. Cosmo, as the locals call it, only seats 70 at the restaurant, and a few more at its cherrywood bar, so make sure to reserve a seat in advance.

La Marmotte: La Marmotte’s chef/owner, Mark Reggiannini, a former sous chef for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, employs a simple and very French cooking philosophy to go with his three-course prix-fixe menu. Local gourmands arrive early at La Marmotte’s century-old brick building to ensure they can order the duck breast with reduction sauce and black truffle- crusted scallops before they’re gone.

Honga’s Lotus Petal: The toughest reservation in town is a table at this bistro specializing in organic Thai and Japanese cuisine where Tokyo- trained sushi chefs slice and dice a variety of sashimi-grade fish. Try the caterpillar roll: avocado, eel, and flying-fish roe. Hot dishes include red and green curries with shrimp or tofu. Beware the little bit of Cuba here: Honga’s tasty mojitos are legendary—it’s impossible to drink just one.

Allred’s: Fine dining at 10,551 feet? Yes, that’s Allred’s, located at the top of the town gondola. Take in some of the most dramatic mountain views in the country from its window-side tables while dining on Colorado rack of lamb with watercress smashed potatoes and fennel puree or the roasted chicken with brocollini.

Where to relax and recharge in Telluride Dining

Celebrations

New Sheridan Bar: Located inside the New Sheridan Hotel, the bar was opened in 1895, making it Telluride’s oldest watering hole, and it still shows off its 19th-century elegance, with mahogany paneling, a hand- carved bar, lead-glass divider panels, and a giant, vintage painting of a Reubenesque nude. The bar area is the place to be seen; the back room is for more intimate gatherings.

Tempter House: For a party on top of the world, you can’t beat the Tempter House perched on a 12,200-foot high knoll overlooking a sickeningly steep cliff that drops more than 2,500 feet. To reach the highest residence on the continent, guests can travel by snowmobile or skis from the groomed slopes of the ski resort. The house’s five levels can accommodate up to 30 for a private party that can spread across its billiards room, full kitchen, and living room anchored by a massive stone fireplace.

Divers of All Levels Can Enjoy Anguilla’s Sunken Ships

Diving All Levels Anguilla

Divers of All Levels Can Enjoy Anguilla’s Sunken Ships

January 27, 2020

A stingray materializes from the sandy sea bottom like a phoenix rising from white-hot ashes, flapping its wings as it prepares for underwater flight. Behemoth lobsters, more than 2 feet in length, clack their claws aggressively at divers before scuttling back to their hideouts. And that’s just a taste of what lies beneath the surface just offshore Anguilla’s Atlantic side.

Anguilla Diving

Thanks to six freighters ranging from 110- to 250- feet long sunk just off the coast to create artificial reefs, the Caribbean isle is a veritable scuba theme park. Most sites are a short 15-minute boat ride from shore and depths start in as little as 30 feet of water, but mostly average 60-80 feet, which makes them accessible to beginners and seasoned divers alike.

At the Oosterdiep, 3-foot-long sea turtles settle lazily on the bow and a spotted moray eel often snakes its way around the periphery. Schools of mercury-hued jacks, neon-yellow French angels, steel-eyed barracuda, and yellowtail snappers swim nearby.

On calm current days, divers can float through the remains of the MV Commerce, a rich backdrop for underwater photography—and home to 10-pound lobsters. At 250 feet from bow to stern, the Sarah wreck is the largest of all the submerged ships. 

The Meppel, also called the Hilda, may have the best story. It served as a ship-to-shore transport during World War II, vanished in a hurricane in 1995, and was only rediscovered three years ago. According to All at Sea, “Once the true history of the Meppel was learned, I (Anguilla sailor Steve Donahue), along with Marine Archeologist Lilli Azevedo and dive operator Douglas ‘Dougie’ Carty, began a further search for the wreck. In October 2009, the Governor’s Office arranged for the loan of the helicopter from the visiting HMS Iron Duke in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the wreck from the air. Dougie continued the search on many of his dive trips at his own expense, and finally – on 23 March, 2010 – he located the wreck by chance off the north coast of Anguilla. The wreck is in an upright position and in excellent condition in 80 feet of water.”

Anguilla Family Dive

Native Douglas Carty of Special ‘D’ Diving and Charters guides tours of these sunken paradises from his dock in Sandy Ground. According to their website, “Special ‘D’ Diving & Charters owns and operates a 30 foot Monohull Fiber Glass Boat and is conveniently situated in Sandy Ground where we offer daily scheduled dives and private dive charters with over 18 years diving experience in Anguilla. Open 7 days a week.”

These Arctic and Antarctic Cruises Combine the Best of Adventure and Luxury

Scenic-Eclipse-Hero

These Arctic and Antarctic Cruises Combine the Best of Adventure and Luxury

December 19, 2019

Picture yourself breathing in the salty ocean air with the morning sun on your face aboard the worlds only yacht designed for ultimate luxury and adventure. It doesnt get much better than that, does it? Life aboard the Scenic Eclipse is one-of-a-kind, and if youre curious what its like to sit in a private whirlpool in your personal suite while staring out at the water after a full day of exploring some of the most remote places on earth, you finally can.

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Theres no ship in the world like the Scenic Eclipse. With only 228 guests on board (200 in the polar regions), it feels more like a boutique hotel than an overcrowded cruise. And although it might feel like you just boarded a private yacht, youll feel the stability of the ships extra large stabilizers. At only 20% smaller than what youd find on a large cruise ship, the stabilizers provide an extra smooth and safe ride even in the roughest waters and most remote destinations. Click here to learn more about booking your trip.

The luxury aboard the Scenic Eclipse only begins with the stable ride. Each guest suite has a private veranda offering a panoramic view and an espresso machine for the mornings youd rather stay in and watch the ocean pass by with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. Suites are among the most spacious at sea and start at 344 square feet for a Verandah suite and go up to 2,099 square feet with the Owner’s Suite. Given the size of the ship and small number of guests, you’ll enjoy twice the amount of space at sea than you would on a large cruise ship. And with high-end spa services available each day, there will be no shortage of space and relaxation.

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With eight different restaurants, room service, and a cooking school on board, guests can satisfy any craving at any hour. Service is exceptional with an almost one-to-one staff to guest ratio and butlers assigned to each cabin. Premium beverages are also included for every passenger, and theres no need to worry about tips or gratuity because theyre always included, so guests are free to eat and drink as they please. For a unique experience, guests are invited to dine in the only dining room on the seas where you can look directly into the kitchen as you enjoy your meal.

If adventure is a priority as you cruise in luxury, then youll find all you need on the Scenic Eclipse. Guests are welcome to explore the water by kayak, the land by e-bike, and the skies by helicopter. For those feeling extra adventurous, submarine rides are also available so you can observe deep sea marine life up close. Helicopter and submarine rides are an additional expense.

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Thrill seekers and luxury lovers will strike the perfect balance on one of the Scenic Eclipse Cruises to the Arctic or Antarctic. In the polar regions, there are sixteen expedition leaders on board who give guests the experience of a lifetime exploring some of the least visited places on earth. To cap off a full day of discovery and awe, adventurers are guided safely back to the ship to resume their luxury cruise experience.

For those wanting to explore the Arctic region, there are multiple itineraries from which to choose. The Arctic in Depth voyage allows nature to be your guide as you navigate the frozen tundra in the Arctic wilderness. Youll search for the elusive Polar Bear in the endless summer daylight with views of sparkling glaciers, icebergs and snow-capped mountain ranges. If the final frontier is calling your name, youll love the Arctic in Depth experience.

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If youre interested in exploring the least populated and the most remote wildlife rich place on earth, then Antarctica is your destination. After passing through the notorious Drake Passage, cruisers will marvel at the great white wonder. Your imagination (and even photos) will never do this strikingly beautiful, untouched continent justice. You truly do have to see it to believe it. Mountains rise out the sea, and diverse wildlife is on display as soon as you approach the shore. On the Scenic Eclipse Antarctica in Depth cruise, youll wake up to the most spectacular icescapes in the world. On expeditions, youll explore ice-filled channels and marvel at the many wonders of the Antarctic Peninsula. To add to the adventure, the constantly changing weather, scenery and colors of the land will captivate you every hour.

The luxury lifestyle aboard the Scenic Eclipse and its adventurous cruise options are unique to the industry, making them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those looking for a unique and immersive experience. Floating the world with Scenic is smooth down to the last detail with all-inclusive amenities, one-to-one service, spacious suites, and engaging excursions.

Can you picture it? There you are, enjoying your morning coffee with a full day of off-ship adventure ahead, knowing you have every luxury waiting for you when you get back. It doesnt get much better than that.

The Euro-Centric Island Charm of St. Martin

St. Martin French West Indies

The Euro-Centric Island Charm of St. Martin

December 11, 2019

Rain begins to faucet from the sky minutes after I’ve landed on St. Martin. It’s light at first, then steady enough that at the car rental agency I don’t bother walking around the vehicle to inspect for damage. “Don’t worry, it never rains more than a few minutes,” says the rental agent. My few days on this Caribbean island won’t be what I expect, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s still pouring 30 minutes later when I reach my Inspirato villa, a whitewash, 4,600-square-foot, plantation-style man- sion with a red tile roof and huge infinity pool that peers out over a cliff to the Caribbean. Though the views from the patio are painted in slates and grays, it’s stunning nonetheless, and I muse to my Inspirato concierge, Steven Calder, that one could probably happily spend an entire week on the patio eating seafood and watching the water.

“Never mind that. There’s plenty to do,” Steven assures. He describes top-notch snorkeling on Pinel Island, near St. Martin’s northern tip, and catamaran trips around the island.

St. Martin Destination

There’s shopping in Philipsburg and Marigot, nightclubs on the Dutch side, idyllic beaches on the French half and countless dining options in the sleepy fishing village of Grand Case. “And the forecast is better tomorrow.”

I’ve come for here for the island’s perfect, crystalline beaches, quaint bistro-style restaurants with Michelin stars and a healthy dose of vitamin D for the early winter doldrums. The beaches, the food, the tax-free shopping, the nightlife—that’s why you visit this little drop of land at the head of the Leeward Islands. That plus, in a space about half the size of West Palm Beach, Florida, you can tick off not just one, but two European countries.

By some strange historical machinations, the island is divided. To the north is French St. Martin, a collectivity of France with the same status as, say, Alsace or Burgundy. And Dutch Sint Maarten sits to the south, an independent country that, together with Aruba, Curaçao and the Netherlands, forms the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Few places can boast so much exotic bang-for-the-buck, especially just three hours from Miami.

Belmond La Samanna, the resort where the villa is located, is situated on Baie Longue, a ribbon of silky white sand that curves to the horizon. The villas, eight of them in all, perch atop a milky white, limestone promontory at the southeast end of the beach. Once the storm moves out, iguanas materialize from the rocks and alight in my villa’s back- yard, a grassy verge as neatly manicured as a polo field. I notice them as I explore the property. Eventually I take the iguanas’ lead and switch my internal clock to languid island time and sit down in the gathering sun. Slowly, my American-bred need to “do something!” melts away. For hours, these prehistoric-looking beasts, some as long and thick as missiles, loiter motionless. I, too, begin to nod in and out of consciousness, easing down from the stress and frenetic work routine, and it feels good. Nothing like life lessons from small-brained reptiles.

Later, I head down to the beach, Baie Longue, and continue my reverie, loitering in the sun. It’s a stunning strand. Except for a few guests snoozing under hotel umbrellas, the seaside is empty and broad and pristine, and it feels like my own private paradise.

In the evening there’s a rum tasting at La Samanna’s cave, which houses the biggest wine collection in the entire Carib- bean, some 12,000 bottles. But I’m not here in the dark, cool cellar for the wine. Instead, sommelier Christian Mirande lines up bottles of rum from light to dark and pours snifters of the sweet nectar as he explains the differences in the casks and aging processes. When I ask him about the best rum from St. Martin, he laughs. “We have no sugar cane,” he says, though he adds that there’s a local woman named Ma Doudou who’s gained notoriety for her rum infusions. “But the Caribbean’s finest rums come from Martinique.” He pours a taste of the La Samanna-branded rum, produced by Martinique distillery Habitation St. Étienne. Aged in port casks, the spirit is sweet and spicy and tinged with cherry over- tones, and it finishes like good bourbon.

I dine at La Samanna’s Trellis restaurant that evening, where chef Gil Dumoulin prepares French classics with modern and Caribbean influences. The marinated herring appetizer, for instance, is a hearty, comfort-food mainstay of Alsace and northern France, but here it’s deconstructed into tiny bites of tart, succulent fish offset by creamy, bright periwinkle Vitelotte potatoes. And the foie gras, some of the richest and smoothest I’ve ever tried, is balanced by a surprising mango chutney.

St. Martin Woman swimming underwater

“The French take influences that we find in these places, like conch and lobster and creole spices, and we make them our own,” Dumoulin tells me after the meal. I ask him where he would suggest for some distinctly local Caribbean cuisine, and he mentions a few French spots in the north shore town of Grand Case: l’Estaminet, Auberge Gourmande and Ocean 82. “As for the food of St. Martin … Bof!” he says, with that typical cheek puff. “There’s not so much tradition here.”

Three days after I arrive, I venture to Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch side and the island’s only anchor- age for cruise ships. Steven says there’s not much more to see than a bit of shopping, but it feels important to see the island’s first city. The visit, however, is short-lived. Back Street is a patchwork of colorfully painted but run-down Caribbean tenements, while Front Street is dominated by curio trinket shops catering to the cruise ships that dock in the marina at the east end of town. The stores are worse: There’s the Yoda Guy Movie Museum, the Dirty Sanchez Crew Bar and Tees By The Seas, where I watch a man buy a T-shirt that reads, “My parents said I could become anything, so I became an asshole. — St. Martin.” On the way out of town, a threadbare Rasta with salt-and-pepper dreads on a Segway with a license plate that reads “We Be Jammin’” circles me twice. Philipsburg, check. I can’t get back to French St. Martin fast enough.

On Steven’s advice, however, I stop at Sunset Bar & Grill on Maho Bay, halfway between Philipsburg and La Samanna. It’s set on the beach at one end of the airport runway, whose proximity to the water jangled my nerves when I arrived. The place is a tourist dive, crawling with snockered holiday makers, and I can’t really understand why Steven suggested it. Then a Boeing 737 buzzes the beach at around 50 feet off the ground, the entire place erupts with cheers like it’s New Year’s Eve, and the good, unpretentious humor of the place sinks in. I order an icy Presidente and one of the island’s specialties, BBQ chicken, which turns out to be pretty good, and settle in for the show.

I order another beer and watch the parade of planes come and go, so close and so loud that I feel like I’m on the open deck of an aircraft carrier, albeit one with a bar. It’s fun, but somehow I can’t help but think that Dutch Sint Maarten got the short end of the island division.

Georgia’s Best Kept Seaside Secret

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Georgia's Best Kept Seaside Secret

August 1, 2019

Sea Island is not a new resort. All the way back in 1928, two months after the flagship Cloister hotel opened on the privately-owned island, then-president Calvin Coolidge became the first visitor to plant a commemorative oak tree on the hotel’s lawn. General Dwight Eisenhower and his wife followed suit, vacationing there in 1946, just a year after a lanky young veteran named George Bush honeymooned there with his new wife.

For generations now, Sea Island has been a genre-defining destination for both genteel Southerners and Yankees seeking the year-round comforts of the Georgia coast. In fact, the island’s reputation as a leisure destination extends even beyond the 20th century—and beyond recorded history. Before the arrival of the first Europeans, the island was the site of a Native American hunting and fishing camp known to Georgia natives as Fifth Creek. When European settlers—first the Spanish and then the English—colonized the area, establishing missions and later plantations, they used the scraggly stretch of land as a place to pasture animals. It was briefly a hunting preserve at the end of the 19th century, but that venture was short-lived and it was, once again, a sandy strip overrun with livestock by the time that Alfred William Jones and his moneyed cousin thought it might be the spot for their next project.

His cousin, Howard Coffin, was a mild-mannered auto magnate from Ohio who had purchased large swaths of land in coastal Georgia and planned to open a hotel for well-to-do travelers arriving on a newly constructed causeway. At the time, Sea Island did not make much sense for the luxury destination that Coffin and Jones had in mind. It was undeveloped and wild, lacked basic utilities, and the road across the marsh needed serious improvement. And yet within a matter of years, Coffin and Jones strung power lines across the marsh and hired wellknown architect Addison Mizner to construct the low-slung, Spanish-style Cloister, which would thereafter anchor a lush island of pools, tennis courts and second homes. 

Today, nearly a century later, the old Cloister has been razed and replaced by a palatial structure with a red-tiled roof similar to that of the original. Residents and vacationers have constructed and reconstructed hundreds of homes on the shady avenues past the hotel. Countless feet have hustled down the well-kept paths that connect the hotel and the equally venerable Sea Island Beach Club, which has also played host to several generations of visitors: roaring-twenties capitalists sipping champagne by the pool; Eisenhower-era parents trusting burnt but happy children to the watchful eyes of the staff while heading off to play a game of golf or a round of tennis; iPhone-equipped teenagers tanning by the Beach Pool, sipping non-alcoholic daiquiris and sneaking dips in the adults-only hot tub.

Sea Island is already many small renovations and one major overhaul into its existence. Still, under all of the new construction, the island has not lost its wild character. It’s in the bones of the new Cloister, where several rooms were built in part from planks of native heart pine and pecky cypress that were salvaged from old buildings and riverbeds. And it’s in the grounds, which are neither as tightly manicured as those of chillier resorts nor as breezy and paradisiacal as those of beachside getaways in Florida or the Caribbean.“There’s a certain mystique to coastal Georgia,” says Bill Jones III, grandson of Alfred William Jones and former CEO of the resort. “It’s unspoiled, with the moss and the live oaks and that rugged coastline.”

While other beach resorts preside over spreads of gleaming sand and gin-clear water, the colors of Sea Island are muddied tropical greens and muted shades of brown and opaque blue. At night, the moon casts Southern-gothic shadows over gnarled trees, palmettos, white-capped ocean and hanging curtains of Spanish moss. Inside The Cloister, however, the atmosphere is considerably different: glasses clinking, piano playing, forks settling onto plates and guests murmuring as they head back to their rooms or their homes after dinner. Officially, Sea Island claims seven restaurants. Counting the kiosks scattered throughout the resort and the food truck parked May through August on the beach, the number is considerably higher than that—at the height of the tourist season, more than 700 people work on the food-and-beverage side of Sea Island.

But three of the most noteworthy restaurants on the island are inside The Cloister. The River Bar is a cozy brasserie that overlooks the marsh and the Black Banks River, with a menu that nestles old-time favorites such as shrimp nachos and fried green tomatoes alongside airy profiteroles and duck cassoulet. Another continental eatery, Tavola, serves rustic Italian food helped along by sheets of house-cured meat and from-scratch pasta. The crown jewel of dining in The Cloister, however, is the Georgian Room. There, yes, jackets are still required in the dining room, but chef Daniel Zeal is not mired in white-tablecloth standards. His tasting menu explores the flavors of coastal Georgia with meticulous attention to detail and quality ingredients—and the occasional wink. Take, for example, the Southern-inspired pork bun at the top of the menu, stuffed with bacon, coleslaw, fried pickle and pimento cheese. (For guests in search of a more casual experience, the Lounge next door serves small bites from Zeal’s kitchen as well as craft cocktails.)

Come morning, after The Cloister staff has set out the stacks of newspapers, trays of pastries and urns of coffee in the glass-walled solarium, guests stream through the front doors of the hotel toward the beach, the spa, the tennis courts, the golf courses, the shooting school and the hunting preserve, or the marina where boats leave for deep-sea fishing. And then, if it were not already evident at dinner the night before, a guest realizes how Sea Island has changed over the past few decades. It may still be grounded in its founders’ vision, but a recent push to reinvigorate the place has sent new blood pumping into old veins. The children’s program, long a Sea Island hallmark, has developed a full-on curriculum. A typical day might begin with tie-dying shirts, progress into instruction in sailing or on the air rifle range, and transition into a hands-on lesson in biology from one of the resort’s naturalists, who come equipped with nets and microscopes, among other things. “We’ve got live animals, we’ve got shells, we’ve got skulls,” says Mike Kennedy, Director of Recreation. “We want kids to learn things that they can take home with them, which is an experience that we try to give to every guest.”

In keeping with Sea Island’s all-things-to-all-people approach, the fishing guides are trained as naturalists, too. When the fishing isn’t good, they’ll take guests out to see the dolphins, or to explore the barnacled exterior of a commercial crab trap. For most of the year, though, the fishing is just fine. Guests have been known to haul in as many as 100 fish in a day—catch-and-release, of course—although the chefs at Sea Island will clean, cook and serve a freshly caught fish to order. They’ll also cook game birds for guests coming back from Broadfield, the relatively new hunting preserve where the resort is cultivating an Edenic array of activities for the sporting set: five-stand shooting, a rifle and pistol range and 500 acres of quail and pheasant habitat where hunters can pursue birds with a guide or hunt alongside trained Harris hawks, goshawks, and peregrine falcons overseen by Sea Island falconers. (The beehives, chicken coop, smokehouse and gardens at Broadfield supply the restaurants back at the main resort, and it will soon help stock The Market, a gourmet general store at the entrance to the Sea Island causeway.) 

For those more interested in learning to shoulder a shotgun than taking it to the field, the Sea Island Shooting School, an institution nearly as old as The Cloister, keeps an experienced team of teachers on staff. The most junior instructor among them has been teaching for 15 years. “We can teach people who have never touched guns in their life,” says Jon Kent, a longtime instructor who is now Sea Island’s Director of Outdoor Pursuits. “We go through the safety, and then get them out there, and they’re usually hitting targets within five or 10 minutes.” 

Golf, too, has been an integral part of the Sea Island experience since the resort’s founding. Today, three courses built around the beaches, marshes and woods of southern Georgia draw visitors from all over the world. The Seaside Course is home to an annual PGA tournament, the McGladrey Classic, organized by professional golfer and Sea Island resident Davis Love III. At the golfing school guests can fine-tune their mental games with sports psychologist Dr. Morris Pickens while new converts practice on their swings with the pros. At the end of the day, sore shoulders and tired arms find relief in the 65,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, home to an indoor waterfall and an experienced team of nutritionists, trainers and masseuses.

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Island is greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, the golf courses and sparkling activity centers and hunting properties and five-star restaurants do not make the resort what it is. Rather, it is the overarching focus on quality that has been at Sea Island’s foundation since the resort was only a sketch in Coffin’s notebook—and, just as importantly, the timeless Southern hospitality that has been drawing vacationers to rugged coastal Georgia for all these years. “People say to us sometimes, ‘You must have a great training program,’” Jones says. “My answer is, ‘No. We have a great hiring program.’ You can’t train warm, from-the-heart service. And whether we have movie stars, or big businessmen, or whoever they might be, those people don’t get treated any differently than any other guests here at Sea Island.”

Make Yourself at Home

Sea Island Inspirato members can settle into any of four Spanish-style luxury homes, including the Estuary or the Tidewater, situated in The Cloister at Sea Island. Both offer 3,700 square feet of comfort, along with 4 bedrooms, 4.5 bathrooms and a heated pool. The Cloister’s restaurants, spa, Beach Club and other amenities—all available to Inspirato members—are a leisurely five-minute walk from either house.

Must-Do List from a Vacation Advisor

Day Trip: Head to the historic St. Simons Island lighthouse and museum close to the pier. Then peruse the village’s boutiques. If time permits, grab a boat to wilds of Little St. Simons Island.
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ocal Fare: On St. Simons Island stop into Barabara Jean’s for seafood and homestyle cooking. Get your ‘cue fix at Southern Soul BBQ or try Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon and Twin Oaks BBQ in Brunswick.  

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 

What It’s Really Like Taking a Trip on a Mega-Yacht​

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What It's Really Like Taking a Trip on a Mega-Yacht

July 31, 2019

In a corner of the economy that few get to see and even fewer get to experience, there exists a conveyance known as the mega-yacht. Nothing short of castles upon the sea, these vessels are more than 100 feet long, 25 feet in beam, and more than 50 feet tall. Bulging with four decks and more than 5,000 square feet of living space, they are multilevel Park Avenue penthouses—that float.

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Lady J, at 142 feet, is the definition of mega-yacht; and what better place to show it off than the island of Providenciales, part of the Turks and Caicos archipelago. As we walk the pier to board, Lady J’s crew of nine, including captain Steve, snap to sharp attention to welcome us. The yacht has a capacity of 12, but its passenger list seldom exceeds 10, meaning the ship’s ratio of crew to guest is roughly 1:1 so there is no wish left unanswered or, more impressively, unanticipated. A few steps up to the main deck and we are given cool towels and still cooler champagne. While the captain explains the vessel’s safety features on our introductory tour, I can’t help but eye both the collection of wines and the collection of water-born sea toys that includes two jet skis, a 32-foot, fishing/waterski/do-whatever-the-hell-you-want speedboat, and an arsenal of associated apparatus from paddle-boards to wakeboards to banana boats, all accessible from a hardwood sports deck that extends invitingly off the stern a foot or so above the water.

Morning begins with a breakfast of smoked salmon, eggs Benedict and cappuccino as we cruise toward our anchorage off a lovely coastline on the west side of the island. Once there, the crew squires us aboard the tender for a day on a deserted beach where upon arrival we find beach chairs arranged, umbrellas unfurled, and champagne on ice. The beach itself is beyond pristine, having been raked by the crew hours earlier.

The staff of Lady J operate in a manner that combines the most important elements of white glove service (in some cases even including white gloves), the U.S. Secret Service (each wearing an earpiece to assure that a guest’s mildest requirements can be promptly met) and of traditional hospitality (“Is there anything at all I can get you?”). When one evening a guest decides to have an unannounced midnight swim, it seems as if two of the crew arrive with waiting towels even before he hits the water. “We have a swimmer!” is quietly heard over the radio to a listener being poured some chamomile in the main parlor.

We spend the morning speeding on jet skis, falling off paddle-boards, and snorkeling on the reef. Given the choice of lunch on the beach or back at Lady J, the guests agree to return to the ship for chef Nate’s ministrations, which this time included a lovely quinoa salad and some perfectly seasoned grilled chicken. While some of our group elect to spend the afternoon on the sun deck replete with a hot-tub and comfy chaise lounges, Captain Steve suggests we try our hand at some game fishing. Thirty minutes later, we are off in Lady J’s powerboat equipped with tackle well suited for Moby Dick. Steve, who’s an angler by heart, put us on fish almost immediately, and we return with both fresh mackerel and some very tired arms.

Fatigued from a full day of indulgence, we assemble in the formal dining room for a carefully crafted sauté of diver scallops, shrimp, and lemon flounder.  It is delectable, as is the freshly baked bread, in which Nate takes particular pride With the exception of some unexpected rain which the crew handles with the deftness and coordination of a race car pit crew, our cruise on Lady J is a mix of luxury, excitement, relaxation, and service that leave us thinking only of the next time we might be aboard.

Providenciales: Jewel of the West Indies 

The gleaming, reef-enclosed island of Providenciales sits at the northwest corner of the Turks and Caicos island chain, yet it’s neither Turk, nor Caico. It’s not technically part of “the Caribbean” either according to purists who claim that the Turks and Caicos, along with the Bahamas, are not Caribbean islands. 

Whatever the case, to most visitors the warm, gentle and gin-clear water that explodes in turquoise and surrounds Providenciales is a decidedly Caribbean experience. What’s not Caribbean about it? That Turks and Caicos appears to be relatively underdeveloped with respect to other islands, which are both farther away from the United States and no more beautiful. “Provo”—as the locals call Providenciales—lies a mere 500 miles from Miami, and the airport’s 9,000-foot runway can serve the largest jets in the world. The islands are also possessed of the earth’s third-largest barrier reef (behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and that of Belize) and offer some of the best diving and fishing in the Americas.