Why Africa Is the Perfect Place for Your Next Family Vacation

Africa-Hero

Why Africa Is the Perfect Place for Your Next Family Vacation

March 18, 2019

Helen and Chris Ireland knew they wanted to take their two kids, Caroline and Thomas, to Africa. Now a primary care physician, Helen worked in a hospital in Botswana during her medical school training. “From then I always knew Africa would be a part of my life and, eventually, my kids’ lives,” she says. “But I knew I couldn’t bring them too early.” After chatting with Inspirato co-founder and chief experience officer Brian Corbett on Inspirato’s 2016 Eastern Mediterranean cruise, the Irelands were inspired. “Brian had just returned from a trip to Africa with his kids, and his advice was to just go,” Helen says. Thomas would be 10 and Caroline, 7. “And it happened to be the year both my husband and I turned 40.”

Because the family wanted to stay at Kenya’s Giraffe Manor, the world’s only hotel with resident giraffes (which often books up one year in advance), the Irelands started planning their July 2018 trip in the summer of 2017. Helen worked with Inspirato’s new Bespoke travel team, which, for custom trips to Africa, partners with Rothschild Safaris. Rothschild has more than 30 years of experience planning trips to Africa and has planned more than 7,000 trips.

Helen says her description to Rothschild Safaris of what the family wanted their Africa trip to be was “comfortably uncomfortable and authentic. I wanted it to be different enough to get [the kids] totally out of their comfort zone while still supportive enough to keep us all smiling, and authentic enough to provide education beyond textbooks in as non-touristy an environment as possible.” Beyond this and the stay at Giraffe Manor, neither she nor Chris had specific directions for Rothschild. “We weren’t completely aware of the options, and that was really the value of working with the Inspirato partner. Rothschild was the one who suggested we do Kenya as our primary safari destination because it is family friendly,” says Helen.

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By September 2017 the itinerary was set: Between June 23 and July 11, the Irelands would travel to a couple of different game reserves in Kenya, and also spend a night in Qatar and a few nights in Nairobi before ending the trip at the Six Senses Zil Pasyon in the Seychelles. About the Seychelles, Helen says, “I wanted to end it with just the four of us and feel like no one could reach us. I had always thought of the Seychelles as a honeymoon destination, but it ended up being lovely for the kids.”

Four months after returning home, Helen says of the whole trip, “It was the best travel experience I’ve ever had and exactly what I asked for.” Of one specific location on the itinerary, Ol Malo Lodge, a privately owned game sanctuary on the banks of the Uaso Nyiro River in Kenya’s North Eastern Province and bordering the tribal lands of the nomadic Samburu people, she says, “It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever done with my kids. It felt like we were going and living with extended family.”

“One of my big takeaways from this trip was that the kids actually liked the people more than the animals,” Helen says. “That had been my experience being in Africa years prior.” At Ol Malo, Caroline was entranced by one of the women in the family who owns the property. “Chyulu is an incredibly strong female and my daughter had such a reverence for her,” Helen says. To Caroline’s delight, the Irelands shared quite a bit of time with Chyulu, her young children, and Marmite, a baby rescue zebra. “There was this weeks-old zebra wandering around with us,” Helen says. “It was amazing, and for the kids a moment of pure discovery of something that was so foreign and priceless and pure. It was moments like that that made this trip, and, thinking back on the trip now, I can’t believe how many of those moments we had.”

One day on safari in the Mara North Conservancy—a private wilderness area bordering the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where Rothschild Safaris recommended the Irelands go because it is dedicated to low-density tourism—the family saw a lioness kill a just-born giraffe. “It was so young it had not even stood up yet,” Helen says. “We saw the kill completely. My son’s reaction was amazement, but Caroline’s initial reaction was tears. Eventually when she saw we weren’t fearful of it and we talked about the circle of life, it became something amazing for her too. It was straight out of the pages of National Geographic.”

Helen says one of the things that bonded them as a family was a long game drive on which they saw little. They were in the Mara and hidden in bushes from which they could see a tree where their guide knew a leopard had stashed a kill. “Once a leopard has put its prey in a tree, it revisits it over the course of a few days,” Helen explains. But the family had spent a whole morning there without seeing the leopard. They left to eat lunch on a bluff overlooking a herd of hippos and, after lunch, would have been fine heading back to Saruni Mara, their boutique lodge. The guide suggested they give the tree and leopard another chance, though. “Probably at the three- or four-hour mark, my son was starting to act up and came out with the best quote of the trip, ‘Seriously, Mom, I have no idea why we’ve been sitting here for four hours watching a dead animal hanging in a tree.’ I looked at him and just started laughing. And then he was looking at me in total shock and then he started laughing. And then all of us, including the guide, started cracking up. It was such a lesson in perseverance and it just bonded us.” They did eventually see the leopard briefly later that afternoon, and then the next day watched it finish the prey, only to be surprised by the leopard’s year-old cub standing directly in front of their truck.

As excited as that guide was for the Irelands to see the leopard in the tree, he was quick to recognize when the kids had had enough. One afternoon, instead of taking them on a game drive, he hung out with Thomas and Caroline and made a bow and arrows for each. “We carried these with us for the rest of our trip and they’ve become irreplaceable souvenirs,” Helen says.

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A safari guide and member of the Samburu tribe at Ol Malo brought the Irelands to his house. “He knew my daughter liked dogs and he had a new puppy,” Helen says. Other Samburu invited the family to their homesteads, market, and school. “They even brought me to the town’s medical clinic, where I was sorely tempted to stay and work for a bit,” Helen says. Four months after the trip ended, Helen and Caroline were still wearing around their ankles the beads the Samburu women gave them.

“We’ve been members of Inspirato since the early days, and the majority of my precious memories, or the ones that warm my heart and still put a smile on my face, have Inspirato as part of them,” Helen says. “The memories from this trip are just a bit brighter.”

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.

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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.

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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.

Summer Vacation Hot Spots for Your Family

Summer Vacation Hot Spots for Your Family

February 19, 2019

Imagine stepping out your front door and inhaling a mouthful of fresh sea-salt air. Or closing the door behind you and strolling on boardwalks past meticulously quaint gardens and picture-perfect cottages. Did you hear that? That’s right. No noise but the breaking of waves and the sound of surf and sand. No honking cars, no milling crowds, just miles of unspoiled views and the glimmer of white-powder sand shining in the early morning sun. 

Known for its 15 beaches, a 26-mile stretch of uninterrupted pure white sand and relaxed family atmosphere, South Walton, Florida, is the ideal place to come together and create lifelong memories. While the pristine beaches will always beckon with their promise of total relaxation, there are plenty of things to do here besides get your feet covered with sand, or your entire body if you happen to be playing with the kids. 

For nature lovers, South Walton is an endless playground with 40 percent of its land area preserved for state parks, dune lakes, and coastal forests. There is no limit to how much one can explore—and in what ways. Biking, horseback riding, or just taking long strolls along the dunes are some of the top pastimes here. To truly experience the scenery of the popular Rosemary Beach area, rent a bike or take a leisurely hike down the Eastern Lake Bike/Hike Trail. With three state parks, one of them being a 2,000-acre beachfront beauty, each park offers amazing wildlife and scenery.

Sporting enthusiasts and activity junkies will also find plenty to do here. Horseback riding through the local woodlands is a popular pastime, and the area is also known as a haven for paddle boaters. But for those looking for a more relaxing way to explore the water, kayaking across a dune lake is a must-do for the entire family. And last but not least, South Walton just happens to be a mecca for golf enthusiasts. With more than 207 holes of championship golf available here, locals swear by Walton County’s Tom Fazio-designed Camp Creek Golf Club that features a course with its own natural wetland system. 

For kids, highlights include spending the entire day at Treasure Island in the popular Big Kahuna’s Lost Paradise amusement park, a draw for little tykes and bigger kids alike. Another family excursion that gets top billing is the Gulf World Marine Park. Offering a variety of aquatic animals, birds, and a nighttime show, there’s also an option to swim with the dolphins. And while there’s plenty for kids to do here, adults will enjoy getting away for some alone time when night falls. Whether it’s sipping on cucumber martinis at one of the local quaint bars, strolling through the shops and art galleries, or kicking back and enjoying one of the many outdoor concerts in this sophisticated Florida town, there’s something to do for everyone here sunup to sundown.

If your idea of the perfect day sounds anything like this—traveling with the family to a remote village to experience local island traditions, hiking above the highest volcanic peak, and watching a humpback whale migrate in the distant shores, followed by a romantic dinner for two at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago—then Maui is just the vacation you’ve been waiting for. On Maui, families with kids of all ages will thrive due to the natural bounty that awaits and the kid-friendly attitude of the locals. It’s a multigenerational hotspot, allowing for activities that accommodate youngsters, their parents and even their grandparents. This is a place for making memories.

Here, one can choose to kayak toward Turtle Town, where you’ll see green sea turtles swim with tropical fish. For families with older children, no trip to Maui would be complete without trying one’s hand at surfing or hiking up one of the many trails at the Haleakala National Park, Maui’s highest volcano. (For those who want to expend a little less effort, hitch a van ride up to the viewing area and careen down the winding road on a bike.) Families with kiddos in tow need not worry about their little ones braving the surf. Grab a spot at Baby Beach located in Lahaina. A great place for youngsters to wade into the water without large waves scaring them away, families can spend the day relaxing knowing that their kids’ foray into the ocean is both gentle and fun. Another great option for the little ones is the adventure-filled submarine ride excursion from Atlantis Adventures, which offers a unique stop at Carthaginian, a whaling ship replica that lies under 100 feet of water.

For something a little off the beaten path, day trips to Hana, a remote, unspoiled village, are known not only for the uniqueness of the destination, but also for the scenery along the way. Driving the road to Hana is an adventure unto itself—some car rental companies even cite it as a no-no. With gorgeous views, tropical waterfalls and the occasional grassy plain, the road to Hana is a popular excursion for families who are looking for natural thrills and an unspoiled view of Maui. This is one collective family experience not soon forgotten. As night falls and the little ones get restless, treat the entire family to an old-fashioned luau complete with twirling hula dancers, drumbeats, and fire throwing. The whole clan will come together in a fun, festive environment to feast and learn about the local traditions through dance, song, and food.

There’s a reason families return to C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado year after year. Tailored to accommodate every member of the family, the five-star dude-ranch vacation set in a rustic-but-pristine lodge is the perfect glamping (glamorous camping), high-rodeo experience that offers activities for individuals and large groups. From the accommodations to the activities to the location, everything works in tandem for memory-making and vacation-taking.

Think of it as a luxury sleep-away camp for kids (the camp is tailored to children ages 6 and up) that you can actually share with them at the end of the day. From learning to ride horses, to putting on plays, to telling stories by the campfire and operating a real-life carnival for the adults, there’s a sense of pride that comes with getting involved in this old-fashioned, camp-like experience, albeit with all the luxury conveniences modern families have come to expect.

Moms and dads who want some Wild West communion with nature but don’t want to sleep on the ground (and would prefer to have an on-site spa and gourmet restaurant) need not worry. C Lazy U combines country club amenities with all the excitement of the outdoors. At the beginning of your stay, you’re interviewed by the head wrangler, who then hand-selects the horse that matches your equestrian personality, whether it’s cautious never-ever or seasoned thrill-seeker. That’ll be your horse for the duration of your stay, and you can develop a special relationship with it. Riding along on a cattle drive is often a major highlight, as are the scenic trail rides. Still, there is plenty on offer for the non-riders in the group. For those who want to get outdoors in other ways, fly-fishing, zip lining, hiking, and tennis are just some of the active pursuits available here. No matter what a guest’s activity level or personal preference, the on-site ranch concierge works hard to ensure that every member of the family comes away with a happy experience.

Adults will feel as relaxed and catered to as if vacationing completely on their own, but with all the joy that comes from connecting with their children. Spa treatments, lounging by the pool, and gourmet dining are just some of the ways parents will choose to pamper themselves. And there’s no shortage of things to experience as a family. From a lunchtime barbecue to a sunset hike to a nighttime theatrical display, the staff here always plans something to bring families together. Your kids will beg to return every year after forming the kind of family bonds and new friendships that will last a lifetime. What’s really special about the kids’ program at the C Lazy U is that children learn the joys of time together and time apart, taking pride in their newfound independence and new skill sets. 

Claiming 80 miles of pristine shoreline, Nantucket instantly conjures up images of the lazy days of summer: long, endless stretches of time where one has nothing more to do than stroll the beach, take in the historic sights, or immerse oneself in a book. Teeming with history and the nautical splendors of surf, sun, and sand, this is an idyllic family retreat for large groups looking to step into a bygone era when time seemed to move a little slower and the days passed by a little breezier. There’s no doubt as to why families flock to Nantucket. Whether it’s riding bikes on the coast to check out every lighthouse, renting a boat to discover the many inlets and bays, pampering oneself at a deluxe spa, or feasting on the fresh catch of the day in one of the area’s acclaimed seafood restaurants, there is an activity to suit every member of the family.  

Another highlight that draws visitors year after year is the now famous Nantucket Farmers and Artisans Market. Brimming with the freshest vegetables and flowers as well as local handicrafts, there is always something to tempt shoppers here. Stroll the aisles to enjoy a nonstop parade of the sweet, the savory, and the handmade. Kids can pick out their dinner or a special souvenir to take home. Even local chefs come here to pick out ingredients for their farm-to-table creations. From the epicurean delights of the chef’s table at The Pearl to Todd English’s restaurant at The Summer House, the gastro pleasures of Nantucket are both savvy and breezy. The Farmers Market is one reason the local restaurants are some of the most celebrated in this area.

As night falls, romantic duos and fun groups looking to unwind from a long day of meandering head to the Club Car restaurant/bar located on Main Street. This restaurant is situated in an authentic 1800s Pullman train coach and has become a venerable institution, known equally for its engaging pianist Tony as the famous gin and tonics made with Hendrick’s gin. But there’s no reason you can’t kick back in your own well-appointed kitchen, grill up some fish that until that very day was swimming in the sea, and enjoy a simple and delicious meal. And perhaps you should have the kids do the dishes—one of the duties they can tend to in the transformation from swabbie on the deck to captain at the wheel. Even doing dishes can be an adventure on the high sea.

The Event That Turns Austin Into the Liveliest Town in Texas

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The Event That Turns Austin Into the Liveliest Town in Texas

January 31, 2019

“We’re trying to bring a level of an experience a la Monaco to Austin for that one weekend,” says My Yacht Group’s Nicholas Frankl about the Formula 1 race that comes to Texas every fall. And Frankl should know how to do it. The Los Angeles and London-based party-thrower for the rich and famous, like so many people connected to Formula 1 racing and its hyperbolic universe, seemingly lives with his feet off the ground. His specialty: “That client who spends 100,000 euros in an evening,” he says.

Each year, the global racing circus comes to Austin and descends on the 3.4-mile, winding racetrack called Circuit of the Americas that was built for Formula 1 competition. And each fall—mark the dates of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 on your calendar now—all that is over the top about Forumula 1 turns an already spirited town into a mind-blowing, must-experience international destination.

Arrive in Texas for Formula 1 weekend and you’re in for sensory overload. You’ll watch and hear the world’s most sophisticated cars howl around the 20-turn course until they’ve raced for nearly 200 miles. Fantastic Texas barbecue tempts your taste buds. Dancers and musicians inspire you to swing and sway.

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Then there’s the party that is Austin itself. A cultural mecca, it’s host to impressive dining and nightlife. (It bills itself the Live Music Capital of the World.) Mesh these two worlds together and the result is one of the more engaging atmospheres in North America.

The Race

Luckily for Austinites and the many thousands of car racing’s most rabid fans from around the globe, Formula 1 arrived in Austin two years ago, courtesy of some previous U.S. misfires. The racing series, which dates back to 1950 and currently consists of 11 teams traveling to approximately 20 races held on five continents, bounced around U.S. venues for decades before withdrawing from this country after leaving sleepy Indiana and its Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007.

About three years later, Austin developers stood over 1,500 acres of open, rolling land 15 miles southeast of town and envisioned bringing auto racing ’s highest form of competition back to the United States, and specifically to central Texas. Formula 1 cars are wind-tunnel shaped and jammed with circuitry and innovation. Their 1.6-liter, turbocharged V-6 hybrid engines produce obscene amounts of horsepower (try more than 750), and they’ll whine to 15,000 revolutions per minute as they thrust cars weighing as little as 1,500 pounds to 60 miles per hour in around two seconds. An F1 car, which fits its nearly supine driver like a tight carbon-fiber suit and features a steering wheel packed with dials and readouts, can top more than 200 miles per hour and pull in excess of 4 Gs. Annual budgets for Formula 1 teams are outlandish; perennial favorite Scuderia Ferrari has reportedly burned more than $400 million in a season.

The Circuit of the Americas (COTA) was designed with one nod toward Formula 1’s heritage and nuance, and another toward Austin and Texas. Track connoisseurs will tell you that COTA’s turns 3 through 5 were inspired by a sequence of bends from Silverstone (a storied F1 track in England), and that turns 13 through 15 bear close resemblance to a section of Hockenheimring (Germany). Some of COTA’s corners subtly widen upon approach, which invites drivers to take different lines through the turns—and can make for more exciting racing.

The venue is also unquestionably Texan. Enjoy the race while chowing down on barbecued sausage or brisket and stay for the post-event concert held at the Austin360 Amphitheater, which is surrounded on three sides by track, and accommodates 14,000 people. Last year’s race entertainment was the high-profile rapper Pitbull.

But you don’t have to sit still. Walking paths traverse the facility—though it’s best to leave the Italian high heels or loafers at home, and instead hoof it over the long paths in a pair of locally bought snakeskin cowboy boots. Elevation changes throughout the venue make exploration both demanding and worthwhile.

“Folks in high-end hospitality often say ‘I want to get out and walk the track,’” says COTA president and CEO Jason Dial. “There are a lot of amazing vantage points.”

Whether paying $169 for a three-day general admission pass or nearly $8,000 per person for a long weekend’s worth of exclusive and perk-filled opportunities (including skybox seating and access to an open patio overlooking the pit lane, closed-circuit TV race coverage, gourmet food and wine, and the potential to hobnob with celebrities), you should also make a trip to the top of COTA’s 25-story Observation Tower. You’ll find an expansive view of Austin, the Texas Hill Country and, of course, the racetrack.

Austin City Limits

Of course for seasoned Formula 1 fans, some of whom follow the races from Bahrain to Monaco to Singapore, the demand for first-class dining, entertainment and excitement must extend beyond the cars, tracks and Sunday’s race. Fortunately, Austin has what this crowd wants.

Iconic hotels like the W Austin and Four Seasons flank the city’s fairly compact yet vibrant downtown, and make for good jumping-off points. Colorful bars and eateries—including Clive Bar, Craft Pride and El Naranjo—are clustered in the Rainey Street Historic District. Italian (Vespaio), seafood (Perla’s) and gourmet-burger (Hopdoddy) restaurants line South Congress Avenue. Nearby you’ll find incredible sushi (Uchi) and Thai food (Sway).

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But we’re just getting started. Austin is known for its live music (laying claim to music royalty that includes Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely and Gary Clark, Jr.), and the gritty and hopping Red River Cultural District packs together established venues and international crowds into the night. “There’s more than a dozen clubs in four blocks,” says Jennifer Houlihan, executive director for the advocacy group Austin Music People. “They’ll kind of save some of their best performers for that week, so the F1 crowd sees the best the city has to offer.”

Meanwhile, Fan Fest is COTA’s Austin-based party: Last year, the 12-block, four-day-and-night, downtown gathering featured a half-dozen stages with crowds of Brits wearing McLaren shirts and Germans in Mercedes AMG caps mingling with the locals. While some performances were free, a $299 VIP pass put you right next to the Bud Light Main Stage and out of the beer lines.

But this being Formula 1, there’s always entertainment that has aspirations in step with the sport’s own determined and deep-pocketed teams seeking the best at any cost. For $325 you can attend the dimly lit, Monaco nightclub-themed My Yacht Club party at the downtown Ballet Austin building hosted by the aforementioned Nicholas Frankl. The event begins at 10 p.m. and the imported European DJ, as well as the bartenders, don’t stop working until 4 a.m. In 2012, millions of dollars worth of Lamborghinis were parked out front, and private tables, many manned with their own waitresses, went for $4,500 and up.

“We built a custom stage for the client who bought the $50,000 table, and had two security guards looking out for his guests,” Frankl says. “He had two custom 24-carat gold Methuselahs of gold-infused champagne.” One would be hard-pressed to devise a better ending to a trip that’s dedicated to the fast lane.

Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

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Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

December 17, 2018

There comes a point when the speed seems natural. Cruising through the open valleys, banking turns and floating through powder, the snowmobile no longer feels like a separate entity but merely an extension. And that’s when things really get fun.

Vail, the largest ski mountain in the U.S., has the kind of invigorating terrain that draws people back year after year, generation after generation. (And the fleet of non-stop groomers helps.) But beyond the ski runs is a whole Rocky Mountain playground for those who want to venture out of bounds. Snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing all have cult followings.

Whether you call them snow gos, snow machines or snowmobiles, the ones available for rent can fit two people — the driver and the hanger-on. There are advantages to both roles, and it’s easy to swap back and forth. 

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Nova Guides is the largest touring outfit in the Vail Valley, and in this instance, bigger really is better. Headquartered at Camp Hale just a few miles down the road from the Continental Divide, they have a full-service restaurant in their lodge that dishes out hearty lunchtime fare, warm drinks and ambiance from a two-sided fireplace that is perpetually stoked. Though the point of snowmobiling is, in part, to get out there — really out there — it’s easy enough to hightail it back to the lodge if you need a warm-up drink or if you’re done with the adventure before the rest of your group is. Nova Guides has a secondary base camp on the outskirts of Minturn for shorter excursions, too.

There are a couple of ways to take to the snowfields: by-the-hour rentals for do-it-yourself touring, as well as guided tours with full and half-day options. Guided tours are a good way to get used to the machines, which have a kicky burst of power as soon as you rev them. They also eliminate the need for trail finding, as the guides know exactly where they’re going. And where is that, exactly? Why the top of the Rockies, of course.

“We’ve got 80 miles of trail to choose from,” says Drew Fortner of Nova Guides. “No two tours are alike.”

Guides take the pulse of the group as a whole — who’s gone where before, how fast people want to travel, what they want to see — and then create an itinerary. Camp Hale is a natural starting place, as it’s right out the front door and is a wide-open valley peppered with history. At Vail’s Covered Bridge stands a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper sculpture, replete with M1-Garand semi-automatic rifle, 7’6” skis and white ski suit. During World War II, American soldiers trained at Camp Hale so they could fight the Germans in Italy. They were known as the 10th Mountain Division, and they took the Germans by surprise at Riva Ridge. Though most of the infrastructure that was at Camp Hale is now gone, folks can still cruise by the ammunition bunkers, firing range and the foundations of the barracks. And for those who don’t have much of an interest in history, the endless views and jagged peaks provide some eye candy.

That same valley is an excellent spot for dialing in your snowmobiling technique. Though it’s fairly simple to turn the key, give it gas and make some turns, there is a bit of finesse that comes with experience, especially when you’re dealing with fresh powder. Just as you do on skis or a snowboard, snowmobiles float and swoosh in the powder. Given the size and power of the machines, it seems incongruous that they’d feel so light and airy, but that’s part of the draw. Tours dip up and down over the Rockies, peaking at 12,700 feet above sea level. The wind-scrubbed, open terrain is testament to how harsh the conditions are.

“There are often non-skiers in a group,” Fortner says. “And sometimes, this is the only chance they’ll get to see what it’s like above tree line.” Though the machine certainly does the lion’s share of the work, snowmobiling is more physical than one might expect. Because they respond to conditions, snowmobiles dip and lurch just like your muscles. It’s what makes it more interactive and fun. For those with itty-bitties in the group, or people who are sensitive to the cold, Nova also has snowcat tours, what they call “snow coaches.” Heated, the coaches allow for anyone to tour the highalpine Rockies, though they’re not as exhilarating as the snowmobiles.

Experienced backcountry travelers extol the virtues of the sheer distance the snowmobiles can travel in such a short period of time. From Camp Hale it’s easy to cruise over to Vail Pass or Shrine Pass on a snow go and check out the lay of the land. Mount Elbert and Mount Massive — two of Colorado’s tallest peaks — keep watch over the world. Mount of the Holy Cross, a talisman of sorts for Wild West settlers and adventurers, almost always holds snow in the cross, made by crevasses, on one side. Groups can end up in Red Cliff, a funky town at the end of the Shrine Pass road. Red Cliff doesn’t have any stoplights, but it does have dogs galore, a single liquor store and Mango’s, a multi-story restaurant that specializes in, of all things, fish tacos. And beer, or course. There’s also a rock in the middle of town, which played host to the entire settlement during the mid-1800s. Word of an Indian revolt to the east made its way to Colorado, and the town of Red Cliff ran to the rock, sleeping, eating and drawing water from the river below with a bucket on the end of some rope. The wild Indians never showed up, and eventually the settlers left the rock and went about their business. But the rock is still there, one of countless bits of history scattered throughout the White River National Forest.

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Before skiing became a downhill sport, it was transportation. Scooting across miles and miles of snow, both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are time-honored ways to get exercise and cover some ground. In Norway, there are miles and miles of trails between villages, with little huts along the way that offer spiced wine and lunch, sometimes reindeer. In the U.S., the two activities are more specialized. As such, they require specific trails.

Many golf courses in Eagle County allow both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter months. Some of them, such as Vail, even cater to them. But inside the county lines there is no better place to fall into the groove than McCoy Park at Beaver Creek.

“Most ski resorts have their Nordic courses down in the valley,” explains Nate Goldberg, Beaver Creek’s director of hiking. “But McCoy Park is at the top of Beaver Creek. With a five-and-a-half-minute chair ride you’re there, and it’s so quiet and beautiful. You’ve got three mountain ranges to look at.”

Other than during the occasional snowshoe race, McCoy Park doesn’t see a lot of action. Located at the top of Strawberry Park Express, you can’t see or hear the interstate that runs through the valley, and there’s not much in the way of human company. It is, for the most part, a solitary activity along the crystalline paths that spiral out from the course’s center. A yurt along the way allows for shelter from inclement weather — or simply a rest stop to reapply sunscreen, stretch the hamstrings and relax. The trees are more sporadic up at the top of the world, and the occasional porcupine can be seen propped in those trees every once in a while. Bark eaters, porcupines are oddly comfortable in the snow, and have called Beaver Creek home for longer than the resort has been around. Foxes, weasels and snowshoe hares can also be seen at McCoy, though they often like to stay out of sight.

For those who have both the time and inclination, a morning, afternoon or full day at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is unforgettable. Located at the base of Ski Cooper — the only ski resort in Colorado that is publicly owned, this by the town of Leadville — Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is a secluded network of cross country and snowshoe trails cut into a daddy-pine forest. Loops meet up with other loops, making the breezy 25 kilometers of trails feel like full-on backcountry, albeit with an easy escape. Rated green, blue and black just like downhill runs, folks can choose their own adventure. And anyone who eats, ever, should include a stop at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse on the itinerary.

It was a picnic table that started it. Nothing special, just a wooden rectangle with benches where cross-country skiers would sit and nosh, taking in the wide-open views of the Sawatch Range across the way. But it got Ty and Roxanne Hall, owners of the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, thinking about “expanding” the picnic table. And they came up with a gourmand’s yurt.

The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse has long been a local favorite for birthdays, anniversaries, and run-of-the-mill hoopla among friends. It’s the epitome of living large in Colorado: gorgeous views, alpine activity, good food and excellent friends. There’s even the possibility of a little live acoustic music later at the Nordic center.

“Part of it is our location — the view is exceptional,” Roxanne says. “But it’s also the yurt. It wouldn’t be the same if it were a cabin. It’s so quaint, plus we feel really far away.”

The Cookhouse serves dinner seven nights a week and lunch on weekends. Lunch is a la carte and has two seatings. The four-course dinner only has one seating. Both have cult followings.

“It’s scratch cooking,” says John Fulton, head chef at the yurt.

Though the Halls have a snowmobile that can run people out to the yurt, people are encouraged to get there on their own steam. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are the most popular choices, though lucky children have been known to be dragged in their sleds by parents with moxie (and energy) to spare. The most direct route from the base lodge to the yurt — Cooper Loop — is about a mile. There’s a 300-foot elevation gain. As often as not, though, folks opt to cruise around on some of the other trails, such as Larry’s Loop, The Woods or Griz, before sitting down to a cookhouse feast. Remember that law about food eaten while camping always tastes better? It seems to apply under these circumstances, too.

The feta-stuffed buffalo burger is a lunch highlight that will tempt even those who prefer to skip the red meat. At dinner, wild sockeye salmon is grilled on a plank, giving it a lightly smoked flavor. Colorado rack of lamb is roasted to tender succulence, while the elk tenderloin is seared and served with blueberries and sage. Roasted chicken and curried tofu are also on the menu. 

All the food and water used at the yurt is schlepped in by snowmobile. That means the “facilities” are two outhouses, riding high above the snowpack. Sometimes it can be an adventure, dashing out into a snowstorm to use them. But coming back into the yurt afterwards is rather friendly. Heated by an old pot-bellied stove that came from Camp Hale, the cozy space is filled with antique tables and mismatched chairs. If meteors obliterate the world or global warming washes away the continent, that solid stove will remain intact. It keeps the yurt downright balmy even on the coldest of nights. Those in the know usually bring house slippers or booties to wear during mealtime, as heavy winter boots aren’t necessary — or particularly comfortable — inside. 

The trick is not to eat too much for the trek back to the car. Primarily downhill, it’s easy to make it to the base lodge as long as you stay awake and upright. Otherwise, all bets are off. And those who decide to nap in the forest will certainly awaken to a different type of adventure entirely. But hey, at least it’s an adventure. And that’s the stuff memories are made of.

Experience Washington D.C. Like a Local

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Experience Washington D.C. Like a Local

December 11, 2018

Mexico native Christian Martinez knows more about American history than you do, but then that’s his job. Martinez, who is set to take his citizenship exam this spring, moved to Washington, D.C., in 2005 in pursuit of the American dream. He first worked as bartender, and then a bar manager, but, by 2007 was giving tours of his adopted city. In 2009, he became part-owner of Congressional Tours. It’s this métier, he says, that instilled his passion for this country.

“My work made me American,” Martinez says. “Everyone needs to know their history, and I’ve got a great appreciation for this country because of what I do.” This zest translates into dynamic tours that cultivate an intimate appreciation for America’s capital and surrounding areas.

Guide Bill Wadsworth (Wadsworth Limousine and Tours), agrees. Wadsworth’s tours incorporate his refined knowledge of art and architecture and their influence on America’s history. Wadsworth, a D.C. native, attributes his curiosity about his hometown to a childhood spent playing with his siblings at the Smithsonian, where their mother worked in the natural history building. As an adult, he worked for the Washington Star paper for almost 14 years, which delivered “a great window to the city and its life.”

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“The world comes to you when you live in Washington, D.C.,” he says. Wadsworth has been showing D.C. to the world for 25 years now. The challenge with a destination as diverse and significant as D.C. is staying focused. “Most people come without realizing the scale,” says Wadsworth. “There is so much to see here that you could get lost.” Allow for surprises, but don’t overload yourself. So, where to go (beyond the obvious) when in the nation’s capital? Read on.

Christian Martinez’s Must-Sees:

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: The grounds and mansion of George Washington’s farm have been restored
to what they were in 1799, the last year Washington resided there. As soon as you walk through the front gate, you feel it too—you’re back in the 18th century. Watch blacksmiths forge nails in their shop.

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA: With 25 to 35 funerals per day, Arlington might be the world’s busiest cemetery. The final resting place for those who served the United States of America, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the cemetery is among the most beautiful properties in the city (as macabre as it sounds). Catch the changing of the honor guard and John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, selected for its superlative view of the entire Washington, D.C., skyline.

Pentagon Memorial: An elegant and simple memorial honors the 184 people who perished when hijacked American Airlines Flight
77 crashed into the Pentagon in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “This was such a significant moment in history,” says Martinez. “Youngsters don’t always realize there were four planes kidnapped that day; we tend to remember the twin towers.”

United States Supreme Court: The courtroom is open on a first-come, first-served basis when oral arguments are in session (October until late June/early July). This extraordinary access is not available in many parts of the world, says Martinez. “When you see the actual courtroom and the chairs of the nine justices, you understand justice in a new and different way.”

Bill Wadsworth’s Highlights:

National Gallery of Art: Forget, for a moment, that this building houses one of the greatest art collections in the world, including Ginevra de’ Benci, the only Leonardo da Vinci portrait in North America. “The gallery is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world,” says Wadsworth. It was a gift of Andrew Mellon, Secretary of Treasury during the Great Depression.

Library of Congress: The library was built in 1897 and features “the greatest neoclassical interior in the country,” says Wadsworth. “This building sums up America’s confidence as it moved into the 20th century. There’s little difference between the most beautiful opera houses in Europe and the Library of Congress,” says Wadsworth.

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U.S. Capitol: “In addition to acting as an incredible repository for American painting, the Capitol is the very core of our experiment in democracy,” says Wadsworth. Indeed, for almost 200 years, the Senate and the House of Representatives have met here. The top of the Capitol is the second-largest cast-iron dome in the world.

Washington National Cathedral: The nation’s church is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the last Gothic cathedral ever built. Construction spanned almost a century (1907-1998), and was conducted medieval style, which means there were never more than 40 people working at a time.

Fly-Fishing South Carolina’s Kiawah Island

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Fly-Fishing South Carolina's Kiawah Island

December 10, 2018

As we round a grassy, flooded corner of Kiawah Island, moving slowly in Capt. John Irwin’s flats boat, all three of us onboard begin scanning the shoreline for fish. Irwin spots one first. “We’ve got a belly-crawler at 2 o’clock, about 20 feet in,” he announces. “You see him?”

Charleston-based angler/artist/musician Paul Puckett is standing on the bow, fly rod in hand. He sees the fish a split-second after Irwin does, and makes a perfect cast, landing the fly 6 inches in front of the feeder’s nose. It pounces without hesitation, coming clear out of the water to eat the fly and connect Puckett with 5 pounds of hard-fighting red drum, a.k.a. redfish, one of the most popular game fish in America.

As he’s bringing it to the boat, a man yells “Fore!” from an adjacent golf course, and I instinctively duck my head. Such are the risks of fishing in coastal South Carolina.

Kiawah is a barrier island along the South Carolina coast, sitting about 20 miles south of Charleston. It is known primarily as a golf destination—a fair assessment, considering that five acclaimed courses weave around the island’s 11 square miles, including the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course, host of the 2012 PGA Championship. But many anglers have discovered that Kiawah and the surrounding area is also an exceptional fly-fishing destination, especially for tailing redfish found in the Spartina-grass salt marshes.

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“The endless interconnected creeks and rivers here make it easy to forget that you’re fishing close to civilization,” says Puckett. “Even with some of the best shops and restaurants really close by, Kiawah’s not quite as developed as other towns, so whether you’re wading or in a boat, you feel like you’re on your own private island.”

Indeed, most of Kiawah is a private island. Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, through a partnership with Kiawah Development Partners, offers a beautiful public beach on the west end of the island called Kiawah Beachwalker Park. But beyond that, Kiawah is essentially a gated community, albeit one with many rentable vacation properties, where it’s possible to find fish on foot or in a rental car without even leaving dry land.

“There are brackish ponds on Kiawah that hold lots of big redfish,” says local photographer Jason Stemple, who spent five years as the staff photographer for Kiawah Development Partners, exploring the island every day, including its creeks and marshes. “It’s pretty hit or miss. Sometimes you can pull up to a pond, hop out and see fish right away. Other times you can cast for hours and never see a thing. But each little creek is unique, and has the possibility of holding belly-crawling, shrimp- gobbling redfish.” (Kiawah also has a few freshwater-fed springs and ponds with good largemouth bass fishing, along with other fish that can survive in brackish water, like carp and tarpon.)

These belly-crawlers that both Stemple and Irwin refer to are redfish that have come into very shallow water at “flood tide” to feed, swimming half-exposed—sometimes even their eyeballs are above water—through stretches of Spartina grass that look like a flooded hayfield. A flood tide is the term for the highest high tides of each month. The food chain on these flooded flats goes something like this: flyfisher chasing redfish; redfish chasing blue crabs or fiddler crabs; crabs chasing the snails that cling to the stalks of grass. The result is a unique and challenging visual fishery for three or four days on both sides of a new or full moon. “Tailers” are redfish that are nose-down, eating in the mud or grass, with their tail sticking above the water, often wiggling from side to side.

“We usually get two sets of flood tides each month between
May and November, which keeps us pretty satisfied,” says Puckett. “There’s just something special about being able to see a fish before you catch it.” Stemple adds that shooting pictures of redfish during a flood tide offers the best opportunity to photograph them without a human involved. “It’s the only time they take a part of their body and place it in our world,” he says. “Flood-tide tailers give you the best chance, whether fishing or photographing, of stalking an individual fish in the most visual way possible.”

As great as flood tides are, they’re certainly not the only time to catch redfish. Nor are redfish the only quarry worth chasing around Kiawah Island. On two consecutive mornings fishing with Irwin and Stemple, a black drum at low tide was my first fish of the day. Black drum are a close cousin to red drum, but grow even larger, with a few recorded catches of more than 100 pounds. Mine were both about 4 pounds, and were just losing the vertical dark stripes they sport as juveniles— markings that sometimes cause them to be mistaken for another Lowcountry specimen, the sheepshead.

The state fish of South Carolina is the striped bass, but with stripers falling on hard times of late, visitors to Kiawah target everything from dorado to cobia to seatrout to sharks to amberjack to false albacore— even the occasional tarpon. We saw several fishermen targeting sharks close to shore, but offshore options are also available, especially during summer months, when bluewater captains use bigger boats to target species like wahoo, snapper, grouper, tuna, mackerel and billfish.

We caught redfish each day on both dropping and rising tides. Some were tailing in the shallowest water of a small bay, some were milling about near the mouths of creeks, waiting for the tide to rise, and a few bigger fish were found cruising alone or in pairs, looking for unsuspecting shrimp, crabs or glass minnows, or working the oyster beds, which they love. All of this was sight-fishing—the best kind of fly-fishing—and would not have been possible without clear water, which doesn’t always occur, especially in summertime. Nor is it possible without the eyes of a competent guide, which Irwin certainly is. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he grew up spending summers on Kiawah, or that his father still lives there, giving him easy access to boat ramps, as well as the occasional golf game.

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“I spent seven years guiding for trout in southwest Montana,” Irwin says. “But I decided to return home in 2001, get my captain’s license and focus on the fish I grew up with. Plus, it’s warmer here.”

Trading south Montana for South Carolina also allows Irwin to
guide year-round—a huge bonus for a career that’s often seasonal. To accommodate both inshore and near shore clients, he has an 18-foot skiff for redfishing and other shallow-water endeavors, and a 23-foot V-hull boat for trips to the ocean side of the barrier islands, when chasing migrating fish like dorado (also called mahimahi or dolphinfish.)

Come fall, flood tides in South Carolina can last longer than in spring or summer, which keeps most fly-fishers targeting redfish. But as temperatures drop during winter, crabs start hibernating, causing fewer redfish to feed on the flats during high tides. While this reduces the number of tailing redfish, it causes them to school up into larger groups. Winter is when some of the biggest schools of reds can be found, sometimes along the beach, but also in the same marshes they occupy the rest of the year. It’s also when redfish will push into very skinny water to try to avoid dolphins (the mammal, not the dorado)—one of their major predators. If you’ve ever seen an Internet video showing dolphins “herding” redfish and mullet onto dry land, chances are it was filmed near Kiawah Island.

The climate of Kiawah makes redfishing a year-round sport, and with several guides offering early morning or late afternoon options to match the best fishing conditions, it’s possible to get in nine holes or a game of tennis and still have time for fishing the same day.
Three great fly shops in the area—Charleston Angler in Charleston, Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant and Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort—all have knowledgeable staff that can outfit you or connect you with a guide. In addition to Irwin, Captain Mike Tucker lives and works on Kiawah, offering anglers both fly and light-tackle charters.

If you’re interested in lessons instead of, or in addition to,
a chartered trip, Bay Street Outfitters offers several one-day “Redfish Schools” throughout the year, focusing mostly on casting, knots and flies. Irwin teaches seminars as well, which are run through Charleston Angler. He also hosts several two- day redfish schools throughout the year, scheduling them to coincide with flood tides. “Having the two-day classes works best,” Irwin says, “because it allows people to screw everything up on the first day, and still redeem themselves on the second.” It also provides what all anglers want from every redfishing trip we take: one more day on the water.

This Beautiful Spanish Island is a Local Favorite

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This Beautiful Spanish Island is a Local Favorite

November 12, 2018

The Mediterranean Sea does not want me to go swimming. Walking down a staircase carved out of a cliff, the waves below are undeniably angry. If the swells were smaller, I’m sure there’d be dozens of swimmers waiting to dive off these steps directly into the water. Instead, I have the cliff to myself. Waves crashing into them spray me, even though I’m standing 15 feet above. It’s magical, in
a mysterious, moody way.

Mallorca has hundreds and hundreds of miles of coastline. In the western Mediterranean, nestled off the east coast of Spain almost equidistant between Barcelona and the northern shore of Algeria, the island is famous for its beaches, aquamarine waters and sheltered harbors. It has more beaches than anyone seems to have been able to count—I ask around and get answers from “about 100” to the very specific “218.” There are white sand beaches, dramatic beaches perched beneath cliffs, beaches you can only get to by boat or by foot, long beaches, beaches at the end of dead-end roads, beaches where celebrities like Claudia Schiffer or Michael Douglas hang out (both own homes on the island) and secret, little-known beaches.

During my week on the island—my very first time there—I spend, in total, less than half-a-day on beaches. And I don’t care. By day three the island has so engaged me, I start to plan a return trip. At least I think it will be just a trip, but the locals warn me that it could turn into something else.

“Be careful,” says Rory Lafferty, founder of the Vespa rental company Bullimoto, in Sóller and Palma and formerly of Sussex, England. “We came here for my sister- in-law’s wedding, stayed for five days and decided to give up the UK and move here.”

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That was in 2011. My tour guide around Palma, the southern city home to half of Mallorca’s population, had a similar story. Teresa Solivellas, who, with sister Maria runs Ca Na Toneta, a restaurant their parents opened 20 years ago in Caimari, an unassuming village on the southern slopes of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains says, “This is not the Caribbean. Mallorca has millennia of history shaped by its complex landscape.”

One of the 151 Balearic Islands—only five are inhabited—Mallorca is a geological, archaeological
and cultural playground. Bronze Age tribes lived here
and conducted primitive trade around the western Mediterranean. The island was under Phoenician and then Carthaginian rule in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. For five centuries, the Romans, who founded the city that grew into Palma, ruled. Next came Vandals, then Byzantines and, at the end of the 8th century, Moors. In 1229 the Catalan King Jaume I conquered the island and gifted it to his youngest son as an independent kingdom. Independence lasted
only briefly. Within a century the island was forcibly re- incorporated into the Kingdom of Aragon and, in the 15th century, made part of Spain. Fast-forward 300 years to the 18th century: The island is still Spanish, but in constant fear of raids by North African pirates.

Mallorca’s is a knotty history, to say the least. Traveling the island—driving, biking or hiking—you see evidence of all of these cultures: Bronze Age rock temples, Phoenician citadels, well-laid Roman roads, graceful Arab arches
and the Gothic Le Seu cathedral in Palma, which took more than two centuries to construct and was finally consecrated in 1601.

“Our history is a crazy one and doesn’t always feel so much in the past,” says Pep Solivellas, cousin of Teresa and Maria and, with his father and brother, the maker of the olive oil, Oli Solivellas, served at Ca Na Toneta. “I think there are olive trees up in the mountains here from more than 2,000 years ago,” he says.

The oldest trees in Pep’s 21-acre Oli Solivellas grove
were planted in 1999 but the land has been in his family “since ancient times, I don’t even know how long,” he says. While we talk, we sit in his kitchen and he shows me how to smash a tomato onto a slice of fresh bread, sprinkle it with salt and drizzle it with olive oil for the ultimate local’s breakfast. The olive tree—gnarled and sculptural—that greets visitors to his farm is about 600 years old, but isn’t original to the property. “It was transplanted from the mountains,” Pep says. “All of the ancient olive trees you will see around the island—in Palma, on the plains, on golf courses—are originally from the mountains. People moved them down to be decorative. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Yes, but all of Mallorca’s landscape is beautiful.

On the flight into Palma, I pressed my face against the window. Below, the Mediterranean was dozens of different shades of azure. Sunlight glimmered off the tops of rolling waves and strips of sand of varying sizes popped into and out of view. Before I could even begin to count them, they, along with the sea, were gone. Snaggly, forested, wild mountains, the Serra de Tramuntana, replaced them.

As historic as they are rugged, the range is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beneath my window it exploded, almost directly from the sea, up several thousand feet. 
No foothills temper this range as it runs for 50 miles
along the island’s northwest coast. And then, as quickly
as the Tramuntanas appeared, they were gone and we touched down in a flat plain dotted with windmills. If
sea, mountains and plains are not enough variety, the passenger next to me told me about Cuevas Drach, a series of underground caves with millions of stalactites and an underground lake on the island’s southern coast.

“Mallorca is its landscape and its landscape is a diverse mix,” Teresa says. “The mix explains us—our lifestyle, 
our gastronomy.” As eloquent and impassioned as Teresa’s words are, Maria wants to explain in greater detail. “You must eat,” she says. “I explain Mallorca with its flavors.” Okay!

Absolutely everything on Ca Na Toneta’s menu is
grown raised or caught locally. Pep makes the olive oil. 
His traditional Mallorcan oil is guaranteed through the Protected Designation of Origin “Oli de Mallorca” and sold in gourmet shops around the island and at the family farm. The sisters’ mother Catalina, the restaurant’s original chef, grows much of the produce in a garden a 5-minute drive from the restaurant. The menu changes weekly. “There
is no compromising on ingredients. Except for coffee, chocolate and sugar, its only Mallorca flavors,” Maria says.

Six courses—including cuttlefish and hake and rosemary, artichokes, unleavened bread made from grain endemic to the island and pork loin—and a bottle of wine later, I have 
a burgeoning idea of the island’s flavors, and full awareness that I’ve just had one of the best meals of my life. Maria’s food is rustically delicate. I’ve never before been a fan of cuttlefish—bitter and tough—but Maria slices it paper thin to add a lovely texture and saltiness to her fish soup with watercress. Dishes are beautiful, but not fussy. Flavors are simple, but strong. The first time I had a truly farm-fresh tomato, it was revelatory. Every dish at Ca Na Toneta is like that.

Leaving, I can’t help but wonder if the meal, and the restaurant, is a dream. There are certainly restaurants
that enjoy being off the beaten path, but the Solivellas sisters seem to actually be hiding. Caimari has a population of around 700. When I leave the restaurant, only a few streetlights illuminate the town’s cobblestone streets, which are so narrow I have to pull my car’s side mirrors in or risk scraping them on centuries-old buildings on either side of the road.

“It is not very touristic. It is not rich or fancy,” Teresa says of Caimari. “It is one of the places that is deep Mallorca.” If Caimari and Ca Na Toneta are deep Mallorca, I want more. I start by hiking up to the 2,800-some foot Coll de l’Ofre, in the Tramuntana Range at the back of the Biniaraix Gorge. “These mountains dominate our landscape and this area of them is the most special,” says the guide I consult at Hiking Mallorca.

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Many villages tucked between the Tramuntana Range, “mountains of the north wind,” and the sea cascade down hillsides in a series of terraces ending just above precipitous drop offs. The range is the island’s heart and backbone but also a geologic noose, separating the towns and villages in the north from those in the south. Several peaks are more than 4,000 feet tall and often snow-covered in winter.

Until 1912, when the first safe route through the mountains was completed (it had 13 tunnels and took seven years to build), the north was more influenced by France than by the rest of Mallorca. France was easier
to get to than Palma. If you had to go to Palma, a boat was the safe option. There was an overland route, a narrow path up and over the Coll de Sóller, but at its best it was harrowing and at its worst, dangerous. A road elsewhere in the range built in 1932, Ruta de Sa Calobra, is, to this day, considered among the most dangerous drives in Spain. It is also considered one of the world’s great road bike rides, if you hit it when there’s little car traffic. Professional cyclists often train in Mallorca before
their race season starts in early spring. Sa Calobra’s eight miles—it dead-ends at the sea—include 50 curves and no tunnels. (The former allowed the latter.) One turn curves 270-degrees and then goes under itself. From top to bottom the elevation change is 2,200 feet. Thankfully my walk up to the Coll de l’Ofre is not dangerous, although the elevation gain is about the same as Sa Calobra.

Leaving Biniaraix, a French-feeling village above the bigger and even more French-influenced town of Sóller, the path is a tidy cobblestone with a border of boulders. 
The Hiking Mallorca guide says the uniqueness of the Biniaraix Gorge is how well-preserved its dry stone trail
is. This hike is only one part of the longer, multi-day Dry Stone Trail. Formally known as GR221, that trek is, without question, the island’s most famous long-distance walk. The Dry Stone Trail name comes from how the trail was constructed, without the use of mortar.

When the cobblestones start switch-backing to climb
up the gorge, stone stairs appear. You would think such
a well-constructed and orderly trail would make for comfortable hiking. My feet, in thin-soled running shoes and unaccustomed to walking on stones, no matter how smooth, disagree. The beginning of a blister festers on the ball of my right foot. I keep waiting for the stonework to end and the trail to turn to dirt. The effort behind building such a trail for any serious distance is unimaginable. But one mile and 600 vertical feet up the trail is still stone. Two miles and 1,500 feet and there’s no dirt yet in sight. When I begin to feel fatigued, I remind myself what I’m doing is nothing compared to the labor it took to make the trail. Dry stone is among the longest-lasting types of construction, but building it is backbreaking labor.

Dry stone structures—terraces, roads and fences in addition to trails—are visible throughout Mallorca’s mountainous northwest. Arabs are credited with introducing the agricultural technique of dry stone terracing to the island in the 10th century. The provenance of the Dry Stone Trail itself is murky, but most people agree it’s a route that has been used for centuries. I’ve only been hiking it for an hour, and it feels like centuries. This is only partly because of my sore feet. Mostly it’s because of Mallorca.

Nearly at the top, the breeze smells of rosemary and piñon and my only visible companions are wild goats scampering between exiguous holds on the craggy cliff walls on either side of the gorge. The nooks and crannies between the stones beneath my feet are full of fallen Mallorquina olives, ripened to a dark brown after they weren’t taken in the most recent harvest. Nowhere ahead or on any of the peaks that rise above is there any sign of modern civilization. I’ve hiked back in time. Or maybe I’ve just found one of the rare places in the world so connected to its landscape, time becomes irrelevant.

The World Hiding Beneath the Waves in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

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The World Hiding Beneath the Waves in Mexico's Riviera Maya

November 9, 2018

“The caves are a gateway to the underworld,” says guide Pablo Salce Zambrano as our group of eight visitors prepares to descend into a series of caverns called Rio Secreto beneath the Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. “When you go down, you die,” he says, pausing, “and then you get reborn.”

The underworld was sacred to Mayas, a place of renewal used for rituals. Much of their fresh water came from underground rivers and cenotes, natural pools formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, creating sinkholes that fill with water and become oases for swimming or snorkeling.

So what better way to go deep in the Riviera Maya than to die and be reborn in its caves and cenotes? My husband and I start at Rio Secreto, near Playa del Carmen about 50 miles south of Cancun. The guides are knowledgeable and eager to protect the underground caverns and the water that flows through them, asking all guests to shower off any sunscreen and hair products that could contaminate the Secret River. “Our job is to preserve this place,” Pablo says.

The caves were discovered about a decade ago on private land; at the time of our visit, more than 10 miles of caverns have been mapped. The Rio Secreto tour only covers about 700 yards, but sloshing and swimming through the water that goes from ankle-deep to chest-high makes it feel longer. We follow a rope line along waterways (and some dry sections) through caves illuminated by colorful lights. Rio Secreto is draped with so many natural wonders it almost seems like it was designed by Disney animators. It’s a full immersion into this limestone-rich region. Literally.

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We get into wetsuits and life jackets, then put on helmets and headlamps and drop into a nondescript passage. At the entrance is a Mayan altar with candles and totems. The yellow beam of my headlamp illuminates the icicle-shaped stalactites hanging like daggers from the ceiling of the cavern as I wade into transparent blue-green water. The subsurface water found in caves, we learn, is especially clear because after filtering through the ground it’s mostly free of particulates. The water is “fresca no fria” Pablo says, then he quickly returns to English: “cool not cold.”

We learn to read the structures as we walk, wade and swim through the ancient spaces. Artful lighting—in bright blue, orange and red—highlights nature’s cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites. Pablo gives us a quick lesson about how the caverns, stalactites (which hang down) and stalagmites (mounds of mineral deposits that rise from the caverns’ floor) are formed. In brief, erosion of the relatively soft limestone creates the caverns: the ’tites and ’mites grow from thousands of years of drips, each one leaving infinitesimal amounts of minerals behind.

Overhead is a natural chandelier, white with age. A bat flits over my head, flying by an orange-tinged stalagmite. Blue reveals manganese in a stalactite group that looks like a flag sculpture. Some dripstones look like a wavy curtain, an indication that somehow a slight breeze had sneaked in, shaping the structures little by little.

When we reach a cavernous room, deep inside Rio Secreto, Pablo suggests we sit down in the water. He turns off the light—we find ourselves wrapped in silence and impenetrable darkness. But I’m not scared. As the first few minutes pass, I wonder what would happen if none of our headlamps come back on. Becoming a sacrifice to the Mayan gods crosses my mind, but calm and peace take over. “Leave your worries behind,” Pablo says. “The cave can hold them.”

As soon as Pablo turns his headlamp back on, we see a tiny moth flutter by—a sign that the outside world is near. We follow the rope line until the odorless cave gives way to the earthy scent of the living land. We see a speckle of light ahead and ascend, soon trampling over deadened leaves ground into dirt. The world seems greener, bluer and so much brighter, more vibrant.

Though I had moments of trepidation, I never felt the Rio Secreto tour was risky. Rather, I reveled in getting beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula, revealing layers most visitors don’t see.

Beyond the wondrous caves are cenotes, natural pools formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock. In parts of the Yucatan, cenotes are linked by creeks; you can paddle a kayak from one to the next, then jump out and explore. No trip to the Yucatan is complete without a dip into the cool, cobalt-blue waters of a cenote.

Many Riviera Maya resorts, such as the Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa, about 30 miles south of Cancun, offer cenote tours where you can swim and snorkel your way from one limestone sinkhole to the next. But hotel tours aren’t the only way to see cenotes. If you have a rental car you can drive to places such as Cenote Dos Ojos, a pool ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling, but perhaps not the best choice for those who just want to swim.

My husband and I take a dip at Cenote Ik Kil, a sacred cenote in the interior of the Yucatan, about 3 miles from the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. From a height of about 85 feet above, I look down into the giant hole filled with crystalline water. Skeins of tree roots, vines, palm fronds and other lush vegetation tumble over the opening and straight into the cenote. These frame a waterfall. A shaft of sunlight makes the falling droplets dance and spotlights swimmers as they float among schools of fish. The sides of the cenote are sheer limestone walls that rise up and up. To get from our vista to the water, we first descend a grand stone spiral staircase then climb down a wooden ladder. Finally, we splash into the cenote. Bliss. Fed by crystal-clear, fresh water rivers, cenotes are simultaneously refreshing and bracing, the ultimate antidote to a hot day. I float under the waterfall and close my eyes. When I pop back up, fish dart below me. As
 I swim from one end of the 200-foot-wide pool to the other, it appears fathomless, but I know the bottom is 130 feet below.

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Near Playa del Carmen, we bike to several different cenotes and snorkel and then paddle in one that flows
to the ocean. In the latter, the water is so clear that my shadow reflects on underwater rocks. We follow black- striped yellow fish down the current, floating past fallen trees, roots and algae, then kayak along the river as a family of coatis follows alongside on the branches of the mangroves. The coatis look like a cross between raccoons and anteaters. My amateur paddling startles a flock of white egrets, which fan out, only to circle back to their mangrove perches.

We can’t leave the Riviera Maya without touring the ruins at Tulum. The structures there may not be as majestic or historically important as those at Chichen Itza, but Tulum certainly has the better view. Perched on bluffs overlooking the coast, Tulum towers over an azure sea. A mostly flat trail traverses the compact compound, making it easy for families to walk among its various constructions. Prehistoric-looking iguanas patrol the ruins while adventurous swimmers bob in the choppy waters below.

Just south is the Sian Ka’an wetlands reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and, at 1.3 million acres, the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. It offers numerous opportunities for going deep into the Mayan world. One is a snorkel tour of a colorful coral reef that’s home to dolphins and sea turtles.

Another is the Sian Ka’an and Muyil Tour, which follows a canal Mayas built over a thousand years ago. The excursion traverses the turquoise Chunyaxche waterway by boat with opportunities to explore the Xlahpak temple complex and climb El Castillo, a break from the below-the-surface explorations that offers a commanding view of the region.

Our week in the Riviera Maya ends in Tulum. On our final night we walk on the beach and notice that outside lights have been dimmed. The eco-conscious area wants to avoid confusing sea turtle hatchlings that rely on moonlight to find their way to the sea. Looking back on a week of adventures on the Yucatan’s east coast, perhaps the most memorable moment is when we emerge from the caves of Rio Secreto into the light of day. As Mayan legend predicts, rising from the depths gives us a sense of renewal. We surface from our all-too-brief time in the Riviera Maya rejuvenated and refreshed—and ready for whatever lies ahead.