The Sierra’s Crown Jewels

The Sierra's Crown Jewels

August 2, 2019

Look out over the north shore of glistening Lake Tahoe this August and you’ll undoubtedly squint. The vast body of crystal mountain water shines, as do the nearby snow-topped Sierra Mountains. And then there’s the impressive glare generated by sunlight reflecting off the 20 or so coats of varnish applied to many of the dozens of pristine and fabulously expensive, show-ready, wood speedboats. The boats you see are here are at the end of their annual migration to the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance, a highly contested competition, now in its 42nd year, that features some of the world’s finest and most beautifully preserved waterborne craft. While judges begin their duties on the preceding Thursday, the show is open to the public all day on Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9. Walking the docks, as well as chatting with these prized boats’ restorers and owners, instantly transports a viewer back to an earlier era where vessels were as prized for their meticulous details and handcrafted workmanship as their size and speed.

San Franciscans reverently speak of the lake and its surroundings simply as Tahoe, and the term has been in the Bay Area vernacular for over a half-century. Lake Tahoe, which lies approximately 200 miles northeast of San Francisco (or about an hour’s drive from the RenoTahoe International Airport), straddles the California-Nevada border and is the second-deepest lake in the United States with an average depth of 1,000 feet. At 22 miles long by 12 miles wide, the lake is also vast, and it sits amid many small towns and communities as well as 72 miles of shoreline.

Native Americans were early Tahoe inhabitants, and by the beginning of the 20th century mining and railway industries brought more attention and people to the pristine, high-elevation (6,200 feet) waters. Many of the first Tahoe enthusiasts to build vacation homes on the lakeshore among the granite boulders and evergreens were the Bay Area’s elite and very wealthy. They also brought boats, including the wood speedboats that enjoyed a heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. At the time the boats were costly— they could be as expensive as a house—and would ultimately become toys for silverscreen celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. Helping fuel the boom; Tahoe’s dry alpine air proved hospitable to the wood boats, which in more humid conditions were susceptible to rotting. Time ticked by, Squaw Valley’s Winter Olympics in 1960 came and went, and fiberglass emerged as a superior material for making speedboat hulls. Then in the summer of 1972, a dozen or so owners of wood boats along the lake brought their old rigs together for drinks and a casual gathering along the shores of Homewood, a west Tahoe community.

Since then, the meeting place, the scope of the meeting and the Tahoe area have all changed. Now called the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Elegance, the threeday affair is yet one more compelling attraction in a summer playground that nowadays tempts visitors with worldclass mountain biking, lake-view golf courses and spa treatments at the RitzCarlton. The Concours is currently held at Homewood’s Obexer’s Boat Company, which coincidentally became Tahoe’s first wood-boat dealership back in 1928. The Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation, the nonprofit organization that hosts the Concours, saw about 60 boats entered last year and expects roughly 50 entries this year. In 2013, approximately 5,000 people gladly paid $25 to $35 each to enjoy intimate looks at the exotic collection of polished wood and gleaming chrome. “We had entries that came from as far east as Florida and as far north as Seattle,” says Tahoe Yacht Club Foundation president Dave Olson. “The Tahoe show is known as shutterstock one of the most prestigious of all.”

Floating Artifacts

Spend an afternoon or two at the wood-boat show and your eyes will encounter beauty that’s as seamless as the massive lake. The Tahoe show stands apart from the dozens of other woodboat shows held annually across the country because much of the watercraft you’ll encounter are a step far beyond what are called “user boats,” or boats that may be well-loved but are also regularly used. Many of the Concours boats, courtesy of careful restoration and/or preservation, are really pristine objets d’art and are judged appropriately. Boats don’t necessarily win awards at Tahoe when they’re better than the competition. They win for having been preserved at—or more likely returned to—showroom condition, even if those boats haven’t seen a showroom for a century. Walk down to the dock during the show and the first thing you’ll notice is the deep, rich wood used on the boats’ decks and hulls. You won’t find prettier wood on a Steinway. Whether it’s Spanish cedar, Honduran mahogany or timber from the Philippines, the vessels’ wood skins glisten under layers of marine varnish. The silhouettes are equally diverse and fetching. Some boat transoms are squared off , while others are rounded or shaped like torpedoes. There are many types of boats on display, from lakers, launches and runabouts to commuters. The boats can come with one, two and even three “cockpits,” or compartments with seats. Entries run as small as 16 feet and well over 30. Spotless chrome and brass hardware and trim shine brilliant against the deep blue sky. The engines gleam, as well. In fact, it’s really the unseen and seemingly prosaic mechanicals inside the motors that command the most attention and respect from the Concours connoisseurs and judges. 

“Engines are the biggest challenge to restore. Back when these boats were built there were a wide variety of manufacturers,” says Terry Fiest, who’s been the Concours d’Elegance’s chief judge since 2008. “It’s hardest to come by the old parts.” Between the efforts made to scour docks, marinas and barns for usable parts, and the time and labor involved in custom fabrication of whatever can’t be found, Fiest says that an engine rebuild can cost upwards of $100,000. Complete, Concours-ready boats can take years to prepare and are valued anywhere from $40,000 to more than $700,000. Some boats featured at Tahoe are one-of-akind. Others might only have been made for one year as part of a limited edition, 100-unit production run.

Like Tahoe itself, some of the Concours boats seem almost too good to be true, and occasionally, in fact, they are. For all of the owners’ painstaking restoration eff orts, their boats may no longer carry the identities they once did. Sometimes engines are “overrestored” according to Fiest, with brass and copper parts that have been polished to look better than the original stock. “We always have to ask, ‘How close is it to how it left the original factory?’” Fiest says, who has competed in the Concours himself, and knows the anxiety of a snooping judge deducting points on a score sheet. “What we’re always looking for is authenticity.” The best in show is therefore the craft that best captures a very special place in time on the lake, back when it was less crowded, slower, quieter, but no less spectacular. If you’re lucky enough, you will be there when an owner fi res up the engine, and if you close your eyes, listen to the simple, throaty rumble of the engine and breathe in the crisp, clear air, you’ll transport yourself back to a simpler, and dare I say, more elegant time on Lake Tahoe.

Playground of the Fit:

Bike: Rent a mountain bike and ride the spectacular 22-mile (round-trip) Flume Trail high above the east side of the lake. 
Golf: Tee off at the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, on Tahoe’s south shore.
Spa: Choose from the skin, water, touch and nail therapies available at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, located at the
Northstar California Ski Resort near Truckee, Calif.
Dine: Make reservations cat Zagat-rated Evan’s American Gourmet Café, in South Lake Tahoe, for excellent seafood entrées and its wine selection.
H
ike: Local favorites include hikes around the lake’s iconic Emerald Bay and up,-foot Mt. Tallac in the Desolation Wilderness. “Gamble: The casino at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, situated along the lake’s gorgeous northeast shore, is a scenic drive from either of Inspirato’s luxury destinations in the area. 

Make Yourself at Home: 

Lake Tahoe Squaw Valley or Northstar at Tahoe? Members can take their pick. The 5,000-square-foot Apex Signature Residence in Squaw Valley hosts 10 guests spread between five bedrooms in a secluded mountain-side setting. At Northstar, three Inspirato Signature Residences with two- or three-bedroom options await members who want to be at the center of the ski area’s summer activities. Both locations are a scenic drive to the crystal blue waters of Lake Tahoe.

Andie Johnson’s picks Inspirato Personal Vacation Advisor  

Eat: Drive a car or rent a boat and cruise to the dock for lunch at Sunnyside Restaurant on the lake and take in one of the best views you can find in Tahoe.
D
ay Trip: The aerial tram at Squaw Valley takes you to 8,200 feet and the High Camp Pool and Spa. Take a dip, soak in the hot tub and breathe in the crisp, cool air.

Modern Classics

Modern Classics

August 1, 2019

Nestled in the most traditional of landscapes—the pastoral central Italian region of Tuscany—sit two reconstructed villas that embody a luxurious modern style all their own. Meticulously rebuilt and impeccably curated, La Galleria and Monticelli are part of a collection that will eventually include another nearby villa, San Bartolomeo. “Our vision is that of a new way of living the timeless beauty of Tuscany,” says Massimo Lauro, owner and designer of the villas, along with his wife of 35 years, Angela. “The striking contemporary art, iconic design and the latest technology lead to a different style of understated elegance that blends with local culture and lifestyle and fulfills the fantasy of la dolce vita.” Restoring the historic properties according to a comfortable, contemporary aesthetic is a shared passion for the couple. A scion of a prominent family of former ship owners in Naples, Lauro grew up in a home filled with works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and other pop art masters, which his parents collected during the 1960s. Along with his wife, Lauro began collecting art in earnest during the 90s. “Massimo has a very good eye,” she says. “He can spot a great artist years before he becomes famous.”  

In 2009, the Lauro family began spending less time in Naples and more at a family property in the ancient comune of Città della Pieve, near Perugia, the capital of Umbria, which is known as “the green heart of Italy.” Nearby, they renovated a winery formerly run by Lauro’s father into an art space called Il Giardino dei Lauri to house their now-sizeable collection, which includes significant works such as New York-based artist Banks Violet’s Untitled (Horse), a galloping white horse projected onto a wall of vapor. 

Inspired by the beauty of the area, especially nearby Val d’Orcia, a scenic valley and UNESCO World Heritage site that is “one of the few wild and unspoiled areas of Italy,” Lauro says, the couple bought two old country homes and began a new shared passion: restoring historic residences. “In the 18th century, the properties hosted both stables and farmers’ homes,” says Lauro. “The homes were not habitable, so we started off by tearing them down. As we rebuilt both houses, we ensured that they would fit beautifully into the gorgeous landscape.” Following strict local historic preservation rules, La Galleria was reconstructed in the traditional stone-and-mortar style with redtiled roofs. Because environmental concerns were a priority, the home, as well as Monticelli, boast energy efficiencies that earned both an AAA energy rating. 

The interiors, however, are another story. In contrast to the local tradition of using antique furnishings, the villas’ interior spaces are bright, open and filled with a mix of contemporary art, furniture and the latest modern amenities. “I want the houses to be as comfortable as possible,” says Angela Lauro. “I think about what I would want to find in a house. One must feel at home inside.” Working with local artisans and craftsmen, Lauro designed the windows, doors, beds, tables, white-upholstered couches and armchairs, kitchen cabinets, stone sinks and even the fireplaces. “The process was long and difficult because we wanted everything to be custom made,” he says. Interspersed with the contemporary furnishings, such as Philippe Starck bathtubs, are Biedermeier pieces from the mid-1800s. 

Completed in 2009, the 6,400-square-foot La Galleria can comfortably host 12 guests with six bedrooms and 6.5 baths. The 1,700-acre estate features a private infinity-edge pool, bocce ball court, rare rose gardens, a vegetable garden and a magnifi cent 400-year-old oak tree that “fascinated me from the start,” says Lauro. The expansive patio and lawns offer a majestic view of Val d’Orcia— green rolling hills, bright red poppy fields and the old volcano lava dome of Monte Amiata—stretching all the way to the ancient towers and cathedrals of Pienza, another World Heritage site that is considered the ideal representation of a Renaissance-era town. Located nearby on the same estate, the recently completed 6,450-square-foot, 6-bedroom Monticelli offers similarly delightful touches, including a color therapy shower in the bedroom beside the infinity pool. Lit by lamps, the rain-effect shower water changes colors (yellow, green, blue and red). Angela Lauro created two distinctive rose gardens at the house. “Everyone here has wild herb gardens with rosemary and lavender,” she says. “I thought, ‘what’s the most different thing I can do?’” Roses were the answer. The smaller walled garden features languid shades of red and pink. In the westfacing terrace garden, pink, orange and yellow blooms reflect “the same fantastic sunsets you find in Renaissance paintings, with very wild, bright colors,” she says. 

Guests at La Galleria and Monticelli enjoy a unique opportunity to live with museumworthy contemporary art curated from the Lauro’s private collection. For instance, over Monticelli’s fireplace hangs Massimo’s favorite painting, Young Lonely Palm, done by his close friend, American artist Aaron Young. Nearby hang two works by another American painter, Richard Aldrich. Rashid Johnson’s Run Jesse Run, the title’s words spray-painted white on a large mirror, animates La Galleria’s dining room. Other artists represented include Brendan Fowler, Piero Golia, Matthew Chambers, Nicola Pecoraro and Sam Falls. Massimo inherited his passion for art from his parents, who discovered contemporary art and began collecting it during travels abroad. “I learned to love beauty in general and to search for the very best—that one can afford,” he says. He still keeps updated on emerging young artists, “which is not that easy living in Italy,” he says. “But I manage.” 

After completing the third residence later this year, the Lauros’ twin passions of art and architecture will turn to an even more ambitious project. Close to home in Città della Pieve and Il Giardino dei Lauri, they have purchased a parcel of land where Perugino painted his famous fresco, Il Battesimo di Cristo. There, they plan to build Art Borgo. “A borgo is a group of houses around a church or council, but in this case, it’s a museum,” says Lauro. Internationally known architect Piero Sartogo, who designed the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C., is currently working on a very contemporary plan. “It’s something not seen here,” Angela says. 

When asked why they go through the expense and time to carry out their ambitious projects, Massimo and Angela respond with the passion for which Italians are famous. “I try to offer as much as I can. I want our guests to have a special experience in my house,” says Angela. “The houses aren’t built to be rented; we create them as if they were our own home,” Massimo adds. “Many of our guests say the house is even better than the photos. We try to take you to a more passionate place and every small detail contributes.” 

Make Yourself at Home

Tuscany The Lauros’ homes in Val D’Orcia are just two of the more than 12 Signature Residences available in the general area of Tuscany that also includes Chianti and Siena. Members can choose from the sprawling 12,700-square-foot Il Campanile villa in Siena with its nine bedrooms to host a family reunion or the more intimate Cottage Chianti and its two bedrooms and 2,370 square feet of charm. Between the two, members can pick from villas with three, four, six, eight and nine guestrooms.

Elda Cannarsa’s Picks; Inspirato Destination Concierge 

Eat: A former 16th-century convent, Relais Santa Chiara in Sarteano serves local classics in its elegant courtyard. In the ancient walled village of Monticchiello, seek out the trattoria, La Porta. The restaurant inside the castle La Locanda del Castello is famous for its white truffle dishes, the best in Montalcino. Day Trip: The road to a wine tasting at Montalcino winds through the vineyards that produce one of Italy’s most exquisite wines, Brunello di Montalcinao.

Seaside Sanctuary

Seaside Sanctuary

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-andbeverage 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.

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, fromthe-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 liesurely five-minute walk from either house.

Kayla Vahling’s List; Personal 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.
L
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.  

Nature’s Riches

Nature's Riches

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.

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 definitively explain the connection between zip lining and Costa Rica, though the most reasonable sounding 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.

Mark Ury’s list Personal 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 

Experience Austin Like a Local

austin-hero

Experience Austin Like a Local

July 24, 2019

In Austin, nothing is strange at all,” muses alto powerhouse and beloved local crooner Shelly King. She’s referring to the eclectic music scene on which Austin has built its reputation. But these days the notion sums up a city that’s evolving from a musical melting pot into a chic cosmopolitan metropolis with swagger, where you’re as likely to see a dressed-to-the-nines socialite as a rough-hewn cowboy. The passing traffic I observe while lingering over a cup at Jo’s Coffee, a buzzing, laid-back watering hole on perpetually hip South Congress, illustrates Austin’s multifarious makeup: There’s a pedi-cab pedaled by a guy named Rags Olsson (who I happen to know sports a business card that reads “funk guitarist/ pedi-cab driver/artist/golf caddy”); a fleet of Zipcars; a trio of serious road bikers spinning like it’s the Tour de France; some cruising Harley-Davidsons propelled by chunky, bearded drivers; and a black convertible Ferrari 458 Spider.

That last one slips into a parking slot as nimbly as a stalking jungle cat. A nattily dressed man steps out and heads toward Enoteca, an Italian osteria with Romanstyle pizza, dishes to go and a stellar wine list. Since I’m bound for the same place for some antipasti (fire roasted peppers, pistachio-speckled mortadella and the kind of lemony-garlic olives you can usually find only in Tuscany), I catch up with him and strike up a conversation. Turns out, he doesn’t own the car. Rather—and even better— he belongs to écurie25, a supercar club that debuted its Austin chapter last fall. The other seven locations can be found spread around the globe. Membership entitles access to a collection of more than 50 of the world’s most desirable cars, as long as you happen to be in one of the écurie25 cities. This rare Ferrari 458 Spider is available in Austin, but members living or visiting here can also take a Lamborghini Gallardo, an Aston Martin Vantage, or even a McLaren MP4-12C out for a spin. 

Austin-Lake-Travis_Dest_iStock_000003800544Large

The club also organizes social gatherings, motor sport events, parties and Grand Prix experiences for like-minded enthusiasts, visiting and local members alike. In November, when Formula 1—with its festive parties, bottles of gold-flecked Champagne, automotive demos and racetrack madness— takes over Austin, these automobile folk, and the rest of Austin, are in their luxe motor-head element.

Exploring SOCO  

Bag of antipasti in hand, I leave the Ferrari driver to his pizza and meander up South Congress. Called SOCO, located across the river and south of downtown, this area was once a dilapidated, deteriorating bit of the city awash in flophouses, decaying buildings and the sort of questionable characters that keep local police on their toes. Now gentrified, revived and buzzing with vitality, SOCO is chock-full of independently owned boutiques, unique cafes and compelling bars. 

With casual see-and-be-seen verve, it’s where the cool kids of all ages congregate. Here, you’ll find the iconic Continental Club, a boozy speakeasy that draws from deep Southern juke joint roots and hosts live musical acts every day of the week. Stores like Allen’s Boots, with shelves and shelves of jaw-dropping cowboy boots; Lucy In Disguise With Diamonds, a vintage clothes and costumes boutique; Parts & Labour, peddling clothing and accessories by some of Austin’s coolest designers; Blackmail fashion designers’ workshop with an all-black theme; and Stag, a menswear shop with a James Dean-meets-hipster-aesthetic define the drag. Home Slice Pizza, Guero’s and Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar offer plenty of places to nibble. On the first Thursday of the month, pedestrian-friendly SOCO revs up the action with its First Thursday street party. Stores stay open late and many offer free snacks and libations. Most restaurants, including food trucks, lure folks to stay awhile with extended happy hours or food specials. Throughout, on bare bits of sidewalk and in parking lots, a coterie of artisans set up booths to hustle their wares. It’s an inviting scene that unveils Austin’s creative, ebullient spirit—one that makes tourists feel like insiders.

But SOCO’s a bit quieter on this Thursday after – noon, which makes the sidewalk easier to negotiate and the shop fronts simpler to peruse. I’m en route to Kendra Scott Jewelry—perhaps the district’s most glamorous, glittering gem in Austin’s proverbial crown. A favorite stop for visiting celebrities, Kendra Scott brand has six stores nationally and a seventh slated to open in Newport Beach, Calif., this spring. Her successful flagship studio, however, sits in an airy gallery on South Congress. Opened in 2010, one year after Austin held its premier fashion week, its success reflects the burgeoning vim and vigor of Austin’s style scene.

Here, Kendra Scott herself custom cuts and hand sets colorful, textured stones into craftsman sculpted metal. Her designs, born from her personal style, embody a bold fusion of vintage and contemporary that’s both avant-garde and elegant— truly an evocation of Austin chic. “I take inspiration from Austin’s art, architecture, food, landscape and people,” she says. “Austin has an unlimited supply of all. It’s a mecca for art, and I don’t mean in the traditional sense.”  

Indeed, art in Austin is not limited to museums or galleries. It’s ubiquitous: as murals, outdoor statuary, graffiti in the experimental style of its populace and, as Scott says, among the “young artists selling their treasures on the street.” Already an Austin tradition, a stop at Kendra Scott’s to purchase jewelry appeals to women—and their escorts—of all ages. 

Wine & Dine

To reward myself for resisting a Byzantine-style necklace with purple stones, I cross the Congress Avenue Bridge and park myself at riverside TRIO at the Four Seasons for a glass of wine. At a table with a view, I natter with my friend, sommelier Mark Sayre, who helms the wine program here. He tells me his restaurant sells about 700 bottles of wine a month. “Austin’s wine scene is fearless,” Sayre says. “Buyers are unafraid to experiment, and diners are willing to do the same. Winemakers worldwide want to sell their wine in Austin because of this vibe.” Known for its wine events and dinners, TRIO pairs clean, contemporary small plates with wine that Sayre has carefully curated from small vineyards around the globe. “Dinners here are a communal celebration of what is right in the world of wine, regardless of region,” he says.

Think wines from Walla Walla, Wash., (Pepper – bridge or Waters) or Champagne and rich Bordeaux by the Gonet Medeville family. “My goal is to deliver producers who are on the cutting edge,” he says. I stay at TRIO just long enough to see the bats roll out en masse from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, like an undulating curtain of purplish black twilight. Their otherworldly chattering is a dissonant symphony and everyone watches in awe. Most people don’t know it, but Austin has the world’s biggest urban bat colony. At dusk, from April to October, they pour out from under the bridge to sate their hunger. A crowd-pleasing nightly tradition, the bats alone bring more than 50,000 tourists to Austin. To view this odd ritual, join the throngs atop the bridge, or do as I do and take a gander, glass of wine in hand, from TRIO’s lawn. Besides the bats and Austin’s touted live music scene (the city boasts more than 250 bona fide venues and hosts renowned music festivals like South by Southwest), Austin has most recently earned attention for gastronomy. 

With James Beard award winners and Bravo “Top Chef” participants, the city’s epicurean sensibilities lean toward the sophisticated. Take Lenoir, a Lilliputian bistro composed of repurposed wood and adorned with billowing fabrics. It delights local gourmands with a seasonal prix fixe menu that might include dishes such as fish curry with roasted squid and heirloom tomatoes. Or consider 24 Diner, bent on turning comfort food upside down. Not your granddaddy’s hangout, this all-day-and-all-night eatery stars “Top Chef” competitor and CIA New York valedictorian Andrew Curren, whose dedication to local products means farm-to-table cocktails at the bar and noshes like bruschetta with cauliflower puree, roasted mushrooms and herb salad. 

Curren’s 24 Hash— a concoction of house-cut Idaho potatoes, nitrate-free local pork and two runny eggs—is pure seduction. Just opened, Clark’s, a tiny oyster bar on West 6th Street, does a dazzling Gibson with house-pickled onions, offers plates of briny oysters flown in each day and does caper-topped Shrimp Louie that feels more Gulf Coast than landlocked central Texas. For three decades, Austin’s foodies have flocked to Fonda San Miguel for Mexican cuisine. In an art enveloped setting, mole (Puebla-style) and ancho rellenos stuffed with olives and roasted chicken keep the hoards coming back. Home to the original Whole Foods—along with a profusion of food trucks (more than 2,000 at last count) selling everything from bánh to barbecue—and abundant organic farms, foragers, family-owned food companies and farmer’s markets, the city draws from a food-obsessed foundation. Alchemist mixed cocktails, craft beer, homages to bacon, and sushi concocted from things such as blueberries and beef tongue set a voguish standard. And this liberal leaning town gobbles it up.

One of America's Most Fit Cities

Of course, if Austin’s denizens are going to enjoy food and drink so much, you can bet they’re equally obsessed with burning it off. Capturing a spot on nearly every “Most Fit City” list, Austin residents have earned the honor. There’s the extensive hike and bike path that winds around Lady Bird Lake, smack in the center of downtown. Nearby Barton Springs, a quarter-mile-long, natural spring-fed pool, beckons swimmers with its frigid waters (unceasingly set by nature at 68 degrees). It also harbors its own endangered species—a one-eyed albino salamander. 

A biker’s paradise, with a network of clearly marked paths, Austin embraces the two-wheeled lifestyle with gusto. Bike shops, like Mellow Johnny’s, offer visitors easy rentals, showers for post-workout cleanup and group rides that tour the city. Because so many lakes encircle Austin, water sports enthusiasts can kayak, canoe, boat, water ski—even paddleboard—to beat the heat. Sometimes, though, a gym calls—especially when summer temperatures soar. 

Mecca Gym & Spa, a sleek, urban oasis right downtown, has a mellow, tranquil mood and oodles of state-of-the-art equipment. Owner Jennifer Andrews says: “With our relaxed professionalism, meant to make people feel comfortable, we mirror Austin. Hey, we know you’d rather be doing something else more fun than exercising, but we’ll make the experience as pleasant as possible.” Accordingly, Mecca has a cafe (they even serve wine) and a gorgeous spa with unique treatments. Day passes are available. Lake Austin Spa Resort, a shoreside getaway ensconced within a wildlife preserve, offers another alternative for a day of respite. Posh, a top-rated destination spa, offers à la carte treatments and day packages as well as overnight stays. With a French chef, beautifully manicured grounds, three swimming pools and what may be the biggest spa menu in the world, Lake Austin Spa Resort is a threshold to another sphere. Authentic and as electrifying as a tonic, Austin marches to its own drummer. Visit, and you’ll feel the beat.

Experience San Francisco Like a Local

Experience San Francisco Like a Local

July 15, 2019

Universally considered one of the greatest cities on the globe, San Francisco has an irresistible and international allure. So what’s the best way to enjoy her world-famous splendor? With the wide eyes of a visitor and the leading hand of a knowledgeable local (ahem, that would be me).

I confess… I cannot remember the last time I roamed Fisherman’s Wharf, climbed to the top of Coit Tower or said hello to the chatty sea lions relaxing at Pier 39. However, I have been gleefully shopping, eating and cocktailing my way around town—from South of Market to Pacific Heights and the Mission District—for the better part of 17 years. Ding, ding, ding! Precisely why you should take my proverbial hand and let me steer you toward some of my favorite neighborhood haunts, buzzy dining spots, amazing boutiques and cool cocktail bars not plastered in every guidebook known to man. What of all those world-famous icons, museums and attractions? Absolutely worthy of their acclaim—and a visit. But you don’t need me to tell you that. The ultimate goal of this insider’s tour to the City by the Bay is to help you experience the mind-blowing hills, stunning Victorians and mouthwatering chocolate through the eyes of a still-smitten local—New Yorker by birth, San Franciscan by choice

Get Your Shop On

San Francisco often gets a bad rap for its fashion sense. But one thing is certain: it’s impossible to impeach the city’s shopping scene – one I have been successfully mining over the years. Indeed, the city is a buyers’ paradise, stuffed with an eclectic mix of boutiques and department stores. Here’s an introduction to some of my favorite local shops in neighborhoods you may not know. 

Hayes Valley 

Meet my hands-down favorite place to score giddy-inducing fashions. Think of this neighborhood, anchored by Hayes Street, as the SoHo of San Francisco, except teensier and without a recognizable chain store in sight. In other words, welcome to the coolest cluster of independent boutiques in town. You’ll find hip and sophisticated women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, fabulous footwear, and funky housewares and home furnishings all within five square blocks. The best way to tackle it? Just wander—and lust. 

This airy and still-newish boutique woos both genders with an ultra-chic bounty of coveted clothing from the likes of Comme des Garcons, Acne and Alexander Wang. Excellent customer service and amazing accessories by local artists add to its allure.

A hipster favorite—it’s all about promoting and selling new, emerging and ecofriendly local designers. The perfect spot to purchase gifts, edgy tees with San Francisco graphics, fun jewelry and decidedly cool baby and kids clothes.

The MO of this happy little shop: sleek and simple with a Scandinavian twist. Cool kitchen gadgets, jewelry, home accessories and unique gifts are stylishly displayed along with products by Marimekko, Design House Stockholm and Alvar Alto.

The whimsical windows of this cavernous menswear spot will demand that you enter, while the Americana vintage vibe and fresh mix of denim, sportswear and workwear are sure to keep you interested. Styles run the gamut from fullon fab Zig-Zag shoes for $20 to investment pieces by Rag & Bone and Paul Smith. Crazy-cool curios with a manly-man slant add to the fashion fun.

Don’t forget to cure your shopping munchies! Refuel at these hotspots before you get back to the main course–shopping!

Blue Bottle: A new cult of java lovers can’t get enough of this local, organic coffee. Look for the kiosk (and the queue). 

Miette Confiserie: Kids of all ages will eagerly get their sweet fix on here. Scrumptious candies by the pound, cupcakes and macaroons will have you sufficiently sugar rushed in no time.

La BoulangeThis French cafe is the perfect stop for an au lait and chocolate croissant, salad Nicoise or croque monsieur.

How about a side of Bar – bary Coast history with your shopping? Situated in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid (north and west of the Financial District), this little-known enclave has an Old World feel with its beautiful brick and ornate cast-iron buildings dating back to the Gold Rush days. It’s home to the city’s finest arts and antique dealers, as well as modern design stores and two of the best women’s boutiques in the city. Meandering these historic blocks is a wonderful way to spend a couple of only-inSan Francisco hours. Grab a bite at Bix—a San Francisco institution—or the more casual but equally historic Old Ship Saloon. Prefer a champagne break? Pull up a couch at The Bubble Lounge.

Whether you’re in the mar – ket for a new masterpiece or just window-shopping, take a whirl through this almost-30-year-old gallery, one of the city’s finest, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings with a focus on California artists.

Ladies, prepare for 4,000 square feet of uber-chic fashions in a landmark building, formerly occupied by Ernie’s restaurant, featured in Alfred Hitch – cock’s Vertigo. What’s being served up nowadays is a meticulously edited menu of sophisticated designer clothing. Name-dropping just a bit to whet your appetite… Helmut Lang, Rick Owens, Viktor & Rolf. Throw in gorgeous accessories and footwear? Swoon-worthy is an understatement.

La Boutique L’art et la Mode

A relative newcomer, this insouciant boutique continues to make a positive impression on local stylistas who flock to the bright bi-level space for innovative European designer collections. Another plus: It’s also part contemporary art gallery and event space. Ooh la la!

Even though the best way to sop up the local flavor is to hit the boutiques and neighborhoods, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Union Square a proper nod. It is, after all, the city’s central shop – ping hub overflowing with department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Mar – cus, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys New York and Nordstrom) and designer storefronts (Prada, Gucci, Hermès, Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton and just-opened Mulberry). Also noteworthy: Maiden Lane, just off the square (between Geary and Post Streets from Stockton to Kearny Streets), a cobble – stone, pedestrian-only street clustered with more luxury stores (Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Diptyque and Tory Burch) and outdoor cafes. Local highlights include Manika Jewelry, Glory Chen and Gump’s, the 150-year-old legendary retailer that sells artful objects, jewelry and home décor. (Just look for the red awnings.) 

Around the City in 5 Plates: 

San Francisco is a veritable foodie heaven with an innovative and ethnically diverse restaurant scene, an excess of superstar chefs and a gastronomic reputation that rivals the best in the world. The perfect way to get a taste? Eat like a local and chomp your way through the city from taco truck to Tony hotspot, one palate-pleasing meal at a time.  

Chef Thomas McNaughton brings us upscale Cali cuisine married perfectly with a desirable location in the center of culinary hipsterdom—the Mission District’s 20th Street corridor. The bright space has a rustic-urban feel with equal parts indoor and outdoor dining. Refined yet simple dishes with an emphasis on local ingredients will have you at first bite. Two to try: ham, greens, herbs, marinated bread and white cheddar; and squid, avocado, celery and pine nut mousse. More adventurous types should go for the daily tasting menu—you don’t know what you’ll get until it’s served.

Location, location, location. That and a mean latte have made this coffee-shop-cum-bistro the go-to hangout for venture capitalists, techie bloggers and tech rockstars themselves. It all makes sense when you consider that the eatery sits across from the Caltrain station (the commuter hub between the city and Silicon Valley), nearby AT&T Park and a slew of startups. The deal-making all goes down in a hip industrial space (carved from the refrigerated room of a one – time creamery) with both indoor and outdoor seat – ing. Best bets on the menu: breakfast sandwiches, salads and savory crepes. Also find a selection of beer and wine.

All hail the city’s first permanent food truck pod. Finally, we truckie devotees can stop stalking and obsessively checking Twitter to find out what abandoned space or hidden alley is the location du jour for scrumptious falafels, tamales, pies or po’ boys. The park is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and you’ll find a rotating group of six to 10 trucks at any given time. (Curry Up Now is my fave.) No doubt, this is food truck dining deluxe— there’s covered seating, free WiFi and on-site park – ing, regular movie night screenings for clarity and a soon-to-open beer garden.

Finding a tasty burrito in San Francisco, especially in the city’s Latin-meets-hipster Mission hood, isn’t exactly like discovering the Holy Grail. But if dining among locals at an authentic, colorful and comfort – able taqueria that delivers consistently fresh and flavorful food sounds appeal – ing, this one’s for you. You can’t go wrong with anything on the extensive menu— enchiladas are universally lauded, but I say fish tacos all the way. And make sure to order one of the signature (yummy) agua frescas.

I have a special place in my heart for Charles Phan’s Vietnamese restaurant, which opened the same year I moved to the city. There is one reason I have remained loyal over the years as it moved locations and welcomed siblings and accolades galore—the food has never failed me. Now, long settled in its stunning Ferry Building location, with breathtaking views of the Bay and its namesake bridge, it has solidified itself as one of San Francisco’s culinary gems. What to order? Daikon rice cakes, shaking beef and cellophane noodles with Dungeness crab. And that’s just for starters.

San Francisco 101: A Nugget of History

Right around the same time those 13 colonies were declaring their independence, Spanish settlers were building a church near a beautiful bay, 3,000 miles away. That house of worship was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, nicknamed San Francisco. Fast-forward 75 years or so and the Gold Rush was on, Levi Strauss was selling his first jeans to the miners and California became the 31st state (1850). The 20th century began with a tragedy: the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed 80 percent of the city. But the tide had turned by 1915, when a newly reconstructed and grander metropolis debuted at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. 

Lay of the Land 

San Francisco proper consists of 40-plus diverse and distinct neighborhoods, plus an ever-evolving crop of trendy, new micro-hoods. Daunting for visitors? Perhaps. But the good news is that many of the must-explore neighborhoods are clustered together and easily accessible by car, taxi and public transportation (bus, cable car, streetcar and underground). Most areas are walkable, but hills of varying steepness will greet you at some point during your travels. Here are your options: Inhale and take it one block at a time; find an alternate route to your destination (there usually is one); or hop back in your car (or hail/call a cab).

When to Go

The best time to visit is between September and November, when Northern California is at its warmest and sunniest. Of course, every time of year has its own appeal. The holiday season through February is the least touristy, most rainy and best for fog watching (you have to see it to believe it). Spring is lovely and dry although still quite cool. Summer is the busiest time with visitors, so be sure to make reservations for must-do, -eats and -sees well in advance of your trip. Warm layers are another must. That famous quote about the coldest winter being a San Francisco summer is so brilliant because it’s true. 

The Clock Strikes Cocktail Hour

San Francisco has long loved its cocktails. Today, it’s home to an ever-burgeoning scene where cocktails-from classics to cuttingedge and complex varieties – are stealing the spotlight. Thirsty? Mix and mingle at this trio of utterly unquenchable nightspots. 

Slip on your fedora and take a trip back in time to Prohibition days at this stunning speakeasy. An incognito entrance, passwords and a revolving bookcase are all part of the fun… and kitsch. Bourbon and Branch is known for its curated offering of hand-selected spirits and an extensive menu of cocktails, from old-school classics to market-fresh varieties made with produce from the morning run at local farmers’ markets. Knowledgeable slingers are always game for creating personalized libations (order a cosmopolitan at your own peril). Reservations and taxis are highly recommended; food is not served.

Lion Pub

It’s always a roaring good time at this unmarked lounge, beloved by pretty much all who know about it. You’ll find a chill scene complemented by a cozy fireplace, dim lighting and non-blaring dance music; things tend to get more hopping as the night progresses. But the ambience wouldn’t mean much, of course, without the signature libations (ahh! those cocktails) made with fresh-squeezed juices (orange, grapefruit, cantaloupe, strawberry, mango and watermelon). Mojitos, margaritas and, my favorite, the fresh basil vodka gimlet are all simply delish.

Après work to late night, every hour is happy at this Financial District favorite. Lots of wood, exposed brick walls, a fireplace and vaulted ceilings decorated by 300 Kentucky-imported whiskey barrels add to the cozy-slash-hip ambience. Bourbon lovers, especially, will be in their element as it’s the bar’s raison d’être. Not a fan of the hooch? No worries. The massive menu is loaded with amazing local beers, superstar artisanal cocktails and boutique California wines. Like me, most regulars flock for the specialty punches, intended for four, served in oversized glass bowls. Cheers!

Experience Toronto Like a Local

Experience Toronto Like a Local

July 3, 2019

Toronto, the capital of Ontario, is known for its stunning skyline, with endless tourist attractions and greens paces to explore. If you’re lucky enough to visit this enchanting metropolis, here are the foods you have to eat, the places you have to see, and the activities you have to try. 

You don’t want to miss these Toronto restaurants where the city’s top chefs put their skills to work in kitchens across the city, testing the boundaries and pushing the limits of cuisine.  

Toronto Restaurants

Pizzeria Libretto: Staying true to Neapolitan  tradition, this pizzeria ordered its wood oven from a thirdgeneration pizza oven maker in Naples, Italy. Pizzas rely on authentic ingredients baked in a 900-degree oven

Acadia: This East Coast-inspired restaurant serves up dishes with fresh, sustainable ingredients that travelers love. The menu is rooted in the Atlantic provinces, with specialties like Lois Lake Steelhead and skillet cornbread. The drink menu lives up to the food.

La CarnitaWhat started as a pop-up taco food truck soon became a Toronto sensation. Now permanently located in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, dine in this avant-garde space and enjoy authentic Mexican dishes with a hint of North American flair. 

Wine BarSet near the city’s unique Distillery District, Wine Bar offers an extensive wine list and locally sourced, artisanal foods served tapas style. With exposed brick, an open kitchen and a giant wall of pickled ingredients, this restaurant and lounge is a must-see. 

Bier Markt: With more than 100 beers from 24 countries, this is one place every beer lover should visit in the city. But the food holds its own with a bountiful mix of European favorites like Vienna schnitzel and a wurst board, along with lighter fare like Arctic char.  

If shopping is more of your forte, Toronto offers a wide range of shopping districts that offer everything from fashion to hard goods. 

Toronto Shopping

Yorkville: This snazzy district is the epicenter of high-end shopping in Toronto. Yorkville Avenue itself consists of elegant cafes, boutiques and galleries. South to Bloor Street and north to Davenport Road hosts everything ritzy from Holt Renfrew and Louis Vuitton to the Hazelton Lane shops and any designer store you can dream of.  

Kensington Market: For a completely different experience, visit the eclectic neighborhood of Kensington Market. Running along three streets in the downtown core, the area offers everything from distinctive art galleries to incredible independent cafes, stores and restaurants. 

The Distillery District: The historic Distillery District is unique in look and feel. Restored brick-lined streets of old breweries and Victorian warehouses create an inviting Old World charm highlighted by restaurants, theaters, shops and galleries. The Boiler House restaurant epitomizes this lively part of town with exposed brick-and-beam architecture and an innovative menu. 

The Toronto skyline at sunset on a calm summer night.
Toronto Skyline Sunset
toronto,  ontario,  canada,  sunset,  dusk,  sunrise,  dusk,  night,  cn,  tower,  rogers,  center,  island,  lake,  water,  mirror,  flat,  calm

Toronto is an eclectic blend of bustling markets, old world charm, and a worldly cosmo flair. For travelers looking to get the most out of the city, the activities are endless.

Toronto Activities

Farmers’ Markets: Pick up farm-fresh ingredients for dinner or stop for a local, artisanal snack while walking through a park. Check out the seasonal markets at Trinity Bellwoods, Dufferin Grove, Evergreen Brickworks (to name a few) and the yearround St. Lawrence Market. 

HikingExtensive trails meander through the city and surrounds. Set out on the paths from High Park and enjoy more than 400 acres of rolling hills, ornamental gardens, rare oaks and even a zoo. If you left your gear at home, stop in to Mountain Equipment Coop to satiate your outdoor apparel needs. Discovery Walks is a system joining the city’s hundreds of acres of ravines, beaches and parks. Follow the signs for a self-guided adventure as long or short as you want. The Belt Line and Beaches are great choices. 

Gardens: Previously a garden estate, Edwards Gardens boasts wild flowers and mature trees along winding trails that span 35 acres. The Toronto Botanical Garden sits on the property, showcasing award-winning themed gardens.  

Get the Goods: The St. Lawrence Market offers an enormous array of fresh foods and personalities. A longstanding locals’ favorite, the market is a must-see for any visitor to get the true flavor of Toronto. 

Experience Chicago Like a Local

chicago-river-hero-3

Experience Chicago Like a Local

May 13, 2019

I worked pretty damn hard to get to Chicago for the first time. I was cycling across the country, from west to east, with a group raising funds for global hunger relief, and we didn’t have a day off between Salt Lake City and the Windy City. With each pedal push across Nebraska, Iowa and finally Illinois, Chicago—with its famed barbecue joints, soul-satisfying blues music and the jewel that is Wrigley Field—got a little closer.

The “City of Big Shoulders” as poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago, did not disappoint. As luck would have it, my hometown San Francisco Giants were in town to play the Cubs at Wrigley on July 17, 1986, and when a Cubs official heard we were riding across the country, (I think our police-escorted entrance into town made the local news), he promptly offered us free tickets above third base.

Walking to Wrigley for the first time made me feel like a kid with off-the-charts anticipation. There it all was: the big red sign out front reading “HOME OF CHICAGO CUBS,” the ivy-covered outfield walls, the classic green scoreboard with an analog clock on top and the buildings beyond the bleachers where people picnicking on rooftops watched the games for free.

“What makes Wrigley Field unique to me is the location. It’s a neighborhood ballpark that suddenly appears amid the brownstones,” says Carrie Muskat, author of Banks to Sandberg to Grace: Five Decades of Love and Frustration with the Chicago Cubs. “If you go to a game and have a sense of baseball history, Wrigley is even more special,” adds Muskat, who covers the Cubs for MLB.com. “Babe Ruth played there; Ernie Banks wanted to live there. And someday, the Cubs might win a World Series there.”

Wrigley Field has been showing its age, but that’s part of its charm, and a new Jumbotron installed this year adds 21st-century technology to the creaky yard. Mark Gonzales, who covers the Cubs for the Chicago Tribune notes that baseball is “deep-rooted” in Chicago and that loyalty is passed down through the generations. “You can always sell hope, and hope remains strong with the Cubs.”

That hope is captured in Norman Rockwell’s 1948 painting The Dugout. It focuses on a slump-shouldered bat boy with dejected Cubs players sitting in the dugout behind him. Above are several jeering fans, but there’s one smiling kid, thrilled just to be at the game. That’s the symbol of the true Cubs fan.

My 1986 visit to Wrigley was a day game, a couple of years before the ballpark installed lights. I soaked up sun and suds, cheering as my favorite pitcher, Vida Blue, hit a home run and pitched the Giants to victory. Welcome to Chicago.

chicago-skyline-hero

A human-scale park (not a stadium) that holds about 40,000 people, Wrigley opened in 1914, and, astonishingly, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in the century they’ve played there. Their last champion- ship came in 1908. The closest they’ve come in recent years was in 2003 when they were five outs away from reaching the World Series. A fan interfered with a foul ball that may have been caught; then the floodgates opened. The Cubs lost that game and the next, ending their season.

Across town two years later, however, the Chicago White Sox won the World Series, and South Side fans, including an Illinois senator who’d be elected president in 2008, rejoiced.

Chicago knows how to celebrate. “This is possibly the last city in the world where you can see blues seven nights a week,” says Marc Lipkin, a spokesman for Alligator Records, a Chicago blues label. He ticks off the city’s famed blues clubs: Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, Rosa’s Lounge and Buddy Guy’s Legends, which opened in 1989. Guy typically plays a series of dates at his club in January. At other times of the year, if he’s not touring, Guy often joins whoever is on his stage for an impromptu jam. “To see Buddy at his own club is spectacular,” Lipkin says.

People in this traditionally blue-collar city have worked hard and danced into the wee hours at clubs featuring some of the best blues music in the country. It’s music that comes from the Deep South, songs meant to ease hardship and bring joy. “When people from the South got to Chicago, they electrified,” says Ed Williams, a Chicago native and bluesman known as Lil’ Ed. “Electrified blues gave people a lot of feeling—that’s what made Chicago blues so special. And it was up-tempo too. The south blues was slow. In Chicago we started to put a little buff on it.”

Williams, the nephew of the late blues legend J.B. Hutto and front man for Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, laughs easily and smiles often. “Musicians like to see people have fun, so blues is not all about just cryin’ and woo-woo-in’ and talkin’ about my baby’s gone, but a lot of blues is about gettin’ up and shakin’ your tailfeather,” he says. “Most people that’s got the blues, they’re looking for a way out. If you give them that way out through music, that helps them along because people don’t want to be miserable all the time, they want to be happy.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, when the acoustic Delta blues of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon moved north to Chicago, the musicians plugged in “to compete with the volume level of the city,” says Alligator Records’ founder Bruce Iglauer. “You couldn’t play an acoustic guitar under the L tracks and expect to be heard.”

Iglauer calls Chicago blues the “toughest, hardest-edged, most visceral style of electric blues, because it grew out of the acoustic Delta blues sound which was the hardest, most rhythmic, most intense of the blues styles around the country. So Chicago, being a rough, tough city, nurtured a rough, tough blues sound.”

Billy Branch, a blues harmonica player who played with Willie Dixon in the late 1970s and early ’80s, believes most people don’t understand how much Chicago blues influenced rock music since its beginnings. He calls Dixon “one of the most influential musical composers of modern times,” but says that he’s not as well known as he should be. “You look at all these Led Zeppelin records and Rolling Stones songs, most of their early music was covers, including a few Willie Dixon songs. That’s not common knowledge to the general public.”

Branch hopes to spread awareness about Dixon’s contributions at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, a free event held in Grant Park. “We are bringing back many of the musical players that are still around that played with Willie,” Branch says, but “that’s not a lot.”

Dixon and fellow blues legend Muddy Waters were born in 1915. The City of Chicago is honoring the centennial of their births at this year’s blues festival, says city spokeswoman Mary May. Some sources say Muddy Waters, whose real name is McKinley Morganfield, was born in 1913, but no definitive records exist. “Muddy said he was born in 1915 and that’s the date on his tombstone,” which is good enough for the city, May says.

Two of Muddy’s sons will be part of the tribute, she says, and Buddy Guy will headline the festival. The setting is ideal, she adds, with views of Chicago’s skyline and Lake Michigan. And because it’s free, some people who can’t go to blues clubs can enjoy the music.

Branch notes that Muddy Waters defined the Chicago blues sound in the mid-20th century, and that it’s this sound that so many rock bands sought to emulate. He recalls that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named their band after Muddy’s song “Rollin’ Stone” and in 1981 came to Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge to pay homage to him and serve as his backing band.

Gospel and soul singer Otis Clay, who like so many others journeyed to Chicago from the South as a teenager, says blues isn’t the only roots music in Chicago. “When they talk of Chicago as being the blues capital of the world, it’s hard to say that without thinking of it as the gospel capital.” Clay says blues has borrowed heavily from gospel, the music of Southern church- es. “You’ve got to follow that path from the South,” Clay says. “When they brought the blues in here, they brought the gospel as well.”

The transcendent gospel singer Mahalia Jackson came to fame in Chicago, Clay recalls. Chicago disc jockey and oral historian Studs Terkel was credited with “discovering” Mahalia because he played her records on his radio show, but he dismissed that, noting that she was filling black churches and concert halls in the city before most white people had heard of her.

Ultimately, Clay says, good music is good music, whether it’s soul, gospel or blues. “So when people start defining this music, it’s not an easy thing to do, I wouldn’t even try to do it. You know, if you like it, good.” Alligator’s Lipkin says that even people who think they don’t like the blues change their minds when they come to Chicago. “When somebody says, ‘I don’t like blues’ and you put them in front of a live blues band, they will leave that club a blues fan. It almost never fails.”

The blues scene in Chicago has certainly changed since the days when Muddy and Dixon played to predominantly black audiences, and Bud- dy Guy and Junior Wells jammed at the now-defunct Theresa’s. “I do feel something has been lost,” Iglauer says. “When I used to go to blues clubs on the South Side or the Westside, the people in the audience and the people on the stage were basically the same people. They all shared a culture. Most had grown up in the South; they were working-class people, and they were sharing a style of music they have been listening to their whole lives. They had an ownership of the music. Even if they didn’t play it, it was their music.”

In sharp contrast to big arena shows, at blues halls you can get close to the performers. At B.L.U.E.S., “you can sit three feet from the stage,” Iglauer says. “At Kingston Mines you can sit 12 feet from the stage. At Legends, if you get a good table you can put your feet up on the stage. It’s music that is right there. The music is not showbiz; Chicago blues is the opposite of slick.”

Which is a fitting way to describe the barbecue and soul food that gives Chicago’s cuisine its distinctive flavor. This is down-home food, meant to satisfy hard-working people without breaking the bank.

Soul food and barbecue have been “hugely important in keeping Southern traditions alive,” says Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. “What we understand as soul food is really the immigrant cuisine of the African-Americans who left the South. They did what any other immigrant group does: You land in a new place, and you try to re-create home.”

Otis Clay offers this advice for finding good soul food: “If it’s a soul food restaurant, it’s gotta have a woman’s first name.” The soul singer says he used to eat at Edna’s or Alice’s several times a week. Al- though their namesakes have passed on, Clay says, “sometimes I still go back; they left good recipes. They’re still going well.”

chicago-bbq-ribs-featured

Miller agrees. “After eating my way through the country, I think Chicago has the best soul food scene outside of the South. What’s special about Chicago is that it’s a close approximation of what people were eating in the South.”

He also appreciates the barbecue options and says the city’s iconic dish is rib tips. Decades ago rib tips, which can be tough and chewy, were so unpopular that meatpackers would trash them or sell them for pennies per pound, so they became a staple for those with limited means. Today they’re a delicacy.

At Lem’s Bar-B-Q on the city’s South Side, manager Lynn Walker can spare only a minute to talk—she’s busy making sure the boisterous crowd that’s already arrived at the restaurant at 5 p.m. is getting fed.

What makes Lem’s ribs and tips so special? “It’s the sauce,” Walker says, “and the seasoning. They’re smoked, and you can feed your family with them.” Then Walker turns away to serve the next customer in the squat brick building with the big neon sign. Ribs and tips, because they’re not naturally tender, need to cook for a long time. But what once seemed like a curse turns out to be a blessing, as the slow cook- ing infuses the meat with smoky flavors.

Barbecue has come a long way from its roots as affordable meat. Carson’s, founded in 1977, elevated barbecue to fine dining “when no one else was doing that,” says Carson’s owner and operator Dean Carson. He says Chicago is a “great food town” especially for meat. “Everything went into Chicago alive, and everything left Chicago butchered to parts everywhere and unknown,” he says, recalling the town’s role in meat processing. “Chicago is a meaty town in all ways.”

And like all the best barbecue purveyors, Carson’s has a credo: “We stand firm in this: We do not boil or steam our ribs in any way; we do not bake them; we do not marinate them. We do not put a dry rub on them. To me those are euphemistic words for chemical tenderizer. End of story.”

Carson notes that ribs aren’t cheap anymore. You can pay as much for a plate of ribs as for a steak, but the lines out the door at his restaurant show many people are happy to spend the money.

I ask the owner to recommend his signature meal: “Cornbread, coleslaw, slab of ribs, au gratin potatoes,” all made on the premises, he says. When I ask about sauces, Carson stops me. “I got one sauce. I always think that if I go to a restaurant and they have eight different kinds of barbecue sauces that maybe they don’t have one great one,” he says. The bill for this abundant feast is about $25 and worth every penny.

With so many great chefs and bluesmen having passed, some may wonder if the traditions that have given Chicago such visceral vitality can live on. Muddy, Mahalia and Willie are long gone, yet traditions are being kept alive by Chicago stalwarts such as Lil’ Ed, Otis Clay and Buddy Guy, and so many others who learned from the masters.

Blues players and the people who put out their records are confident the music will endure because it keeps changing with the times. Lipkin, the spokesman at Alligator Records, notes that artists such as Lil’ Ed are “playing the blues the way it’s supposed to be played,” writing lyrics that are “meaningful now.” To this day, Lipkin adds, Chicago blues remains “a sound that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

Lil’ Ed himself remains optimistic about the future of Chicago blues: “A lot of people say that the blues might die away, but I think blues, all blues, will last forever,” he says with a smile. “You know why I say that? Because everybody has the blues, and the blues is going to be here all our lives. Even the young generation has got the blues. It’s something that will never go away.”

Then Lil’ Ed ends on a hopeful note. “You might be sad today, but the grass is always greener on the other side.”

Experience New York City Like a Local

Experience New York City Like a Local

February 7, 2019

Excited for the long weekend ahead, we woke up early on our first morning at the Dominick and ordered room service. It was the best way to savor our suite’s Hudson River view before a busy day in Brooklyn. Since it was warm outside, we decided to meander through Soho toward the Canal Street station, where we’d pick up the Q train. As we walked, the streets thrummed with life: Against a cacophony of traffic noise, bike messengers whizzed by and shoppers jockeyed for space on the crowded sidewalk. Once we were on the subway, we couldn’t help getting giddy when the train came above ground onto the Manhattan Bridge and we caught a glimpse of the skyline. 

Ascending the station stairs in Park Slope, where most buildings don’t exceed five stories, we were struck by how much more light and air there seemed to be. We felt our pulses slow as we crossed Flatbush Avenue to Prospect Heights and walked along a quiet, tree-lined block to James, a small New American restaurant. The chef, Bryan Calvert, is an alum of the Manhattan foodie temple Bouley, but here his cooking is sublimely straightforward. 

Our lunch of black kale salad, truffle fries, and burgers topped with speck fortified us for our next stop: Prospect Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, about a decade after they completed Central Park. We could see immediately why the pair called this less-touted oasis their masterpiece. The grassy, gently undulating Long Meadow is expansive but also feels completely sheltered from the busy streets beyond the park’s borders. A walk through the ravine area, with its 100-foot gorge that connects a waterfall, pools, and the lake, makes you feel like you’ve left Brooklyn for the mountains upstate. And with its thick tree canopy, the park is also home to the only remaining natural forest in Brooklyn. We spent the next few hours exploring and left through the gates at Ninth Street, which leads to the center of Park Slope. It was only 5:30, but we were trying to get a table at Talde, the cultishly popular Park Slope restaurant run by former Top Chef contestant Dale Talde. Most nights, he can be found in the open kitchen (look for his baseball cap) turning out flavorful Pan-Asian dishes like oyster-and-bacon pad thai, Korean fried chicken, and pretzel pork-and-chive dumplings. After sampling, we realized that we would have happily waited longer for food this good. 

After dinner, we called a car service for the short drive to the Old American Can Factory, a restored complex in the adjoining Gowanus neighborhood. The factory is one of the venues for Rooftop Films, an outdoor summer festival that showcases groundbreaking new movies. Looking out over the neat rows of Brooklyn brownstones and the twinkling lights of Manhattan in the distance, it seemed fitting that we began our day with one striking panorama, and were ending it with another.

Today we opted for a slower pace and started the day with brunch at The Dutch, where reservations are encouraged because pretty much every New Yorker has become obsessed with Andrew Carmellini and his modern take on American regional food. The toughest part was deciding what to order from the Southern-inflected menu: We settled on cornmeal flapjacks and scrambled eggs with smoked sable, but couldn’t resist adding a curry sugar doughnut and honey-butter biscuits. (Can you ever have too much at brunch?)

We left delightfully sated and glad that we’d planned to spend the rest of the afternoon on foot exploring shops and galleries in SoHo and the Lower East Side. We were overwhelmed (in a good way) by Intermix, a boutique clearinghouse with wares from nearly 200 American and European designers, and A Second Chance, a discriminating consignment shop known for stocking fashionista finds like Hermes bags, Chanel dresses, and Prada shoes for well-below-retail prices.

Overcome by shoppers’ exhaustion, we refueled with thick Aztec hot chocolate at the MarieBelle chocolate shop’s Cacao Bar before continuing east toward the Bowery. Once the city’s skid row, and later home to tattoo parlors, dive bars, and the infamous punk club CBGB, this thoroughfare has seen rapid gentrification in the last decade as luxury condos sprung up and the opening of the New Museum drew gallery owners to the area. Though the Sperone Westwater gallery’s graphite drawings and twisted bronze sculptures were intriguing, we were most fascinated by the room-size elevator that blends with the rest of the exhibition space—until it starts moving between floors. 

We returned to the hotel to relax before taking a taxi to Pier 11, just south of South Street Seaport, to board a ferry to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Taking a subway would have been just as easy, but we wanted to get out on the water and see the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge and the sun setting behind the Statue of Liberty. We disembarked at Williamsburg’s North Sixth pier and walked to Zenkichi, a sexy Japanese brasserie with booths so cozy and private each one comes with a buzzer to get the staff’s attention. Since we were feeling adventurous and didn’t want to think too hard, we ordered the chef’s omakase (tasting menu), which features the day’s freshest sashimi with an assortment of dishes like yellowtail with pickled cherry leaves and grilled Berkshire pork. 

The hostess called a car service to take us back to SoHo, and we asked the driver to drop us at Pegu Club, a dimly lit second-floor bar with Asian-style decor and a speakeasy feel. (The downstairs door is unmarked except for the bar’s green lion crest.) This is not a place to order wine or beer, as the mixologists—don’t call them bartenders—have elevated cocktail-concocting to an art form. We each tried the Whiskey Smash, a potent blend of rye, whiskey, simple syrup and the freshest lemon juice and mint we’ve ever tasted. Our drinks, like everything else that day, more than lived up to the hype.

We started our final day with a subway ride up to the Flatiron District, named for the area’s famously triangular turn-of-the-century building. But it was Mario Batali’s Eataly, currently the world’s largest Italian food and wine emporium, that lured us there. Tourists mob the food halls during the weekend, so we were headed straight up to Birreria, the rooftop brewery. It’s a casual spot, with bright red chairs, simple wooden tables, and a retractable glass roof that makes it feel like a greenhouse. 

The restaurant’s three house-made ales are brewed in a small room just steps from the main dining area. The creamy, full-bodied beers paired beautifully with the housemade sausages, cured meats, and artisanal Italian cheeses. We could have easily spent another hour enjoying the view of the Met Life Tower, one of the city’s early Renaissance-Revival skyscrapers. But we’d planned another outer-borough excursion to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. (We opted to book the Noguchi’s Sunday shuttle bus service from the Upper East Side.) 

The museum showcases the sculptures, furniture, and public works models of Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi, who collaborated with dancer Martha Graham and designer Charles Eames, among others. (If the Akari Light Sculptures look familiar, it’s because they’ve been widely copied by retailers like Ikea.) We loved the intimate feel of the cleverly designed museum, which is housed in a converted industrial complex that has a sculpture garden in the middle featuring Noguchi’s large-scale pieces.

We headed back to the Upper East Side, hailed a cab, and zoomed down to The Modern, the French-American restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. We settled in at the bar room, a clubby space that serves small plates of updated Alsatian fare like buckwheat spaetzle with yellowfin tuna. The museum was hosting one of its free summer concerts in the sculpture garden that night, featuring musicians from Lincoln Center. As a breeze rustled across the reflecting pond and birds chirped quietly, we waited alongside locals for the music to begin, all of us smug in our knowledge that on a warm summer night in the city, there was no lovelier place to be.