Poker Player Antonio Esfandiari Explains the Magic of Las Vegas


Poker Player Antonio Esfandiari Explains the Magic of Las Vegas

November 28, 2018

Taiko drummers in feathered headdresses from Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère pound colossal drums so loudly the Amazon Room at Las Vegas’ Rio hotel vibrates. One of poker’s most charismatic players, Antonio Esfandiari, half dances and half skips in. He has paid $1 million to play in the richest poker tournament ever, The Big One for One Drop, which is raising funds for water development globally. Forty-eight players entered—eight are at the final table. Esfandiari is one of the eight.

ESPN’s Kara Scott pulls Esfandiari aside for a quick interview. “A million dollars to play in a poker tournament is insane,” says Esfandiari. “To be at the final table is really a dream come true.” A dream because one of the eight people at the final table will win poker’s largest prize ever: $18.3 million. Then Scott asks: “If you win…?” Esfandiari breaks in: “I have to correct you. There’s no ‘if ’— there’s ‘when’—so I’ll let you rephrase the question if you like.”

“When you win,” Scott obliges. “When I win,” Esfandiari says with conviction, “I’m just going to take care of my family, travel a little bit more and take it easy.”

That was 2012. When Esfandiari, intensely focused and brashly confident, fulfilled his own prophecy and won The Big One for One Drop, his father Bejan and brother Pasha rushed to embrace him. As confetti rained down from the rafters, Esfandiari gave his dad the $350,000 Richard Mille platinum bracelet that was part of the winner’s prize. Friends, including many pro poker players, hoisted the barefoot champion onto their shoulders as the crowd cheered.

That was the moment Esfandiari became the King of Las Vegas. He was already a celebrity in his adopted town, but winning poker’s richest prize made him Vegas’ poker superstar. Which is somewhat ironic because Esfandiari didn’t plan on living in Sin City. Or even the United States.

“I grew up in Iran in the 1980s in a time of war,” he says. Two months after he was born the Shah was overthrown and the country became an Islamic republic; before
his first birthday more than 50 Americans were taken hostage in Iran and held for more than a year.

During the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, “my dad told me that when the planes would come my little brother and I would say, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb’ and then we’d go look
for place to hide. One time a building four or five houses away was blown up. I thought: that could have been our house. I was 6 years old—it was pretty scary. That’s when my dad decided to get us out.”

Esfandiari, now 36, says he didn’t know much about
the U.S. before coming to live near relatives in San Jose, Calif. He just knew it was “this big wonderful place that you only dreamt of, so I felt very fortunate and lucky.” Enterprising from a young age, he became a paperboy
 at age 9, and though he didn’t speak English well when
 he arrived, the student quickly mastered
the language. But his first year in San Jose wasn’t easy: “Third grade was really tough for me. There I am, a Middle Eastern kid, and Iran wasn’t exactly the USA’s favorite country. I got picked on more than my fair share.”

Making things harder: His mother returned to Iran shortly after the family arrived in the U.S., so Esfandiari was raised mainly by his father Bejan who worked incessantly. “I didn’t have a very happy childhood,” Antonio recalls, “but I made the best of it.”

He focused his energy on helping his family. “At 11, I was a newspaper salesman over the phone for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a little office with a bunch of telemarketers. I was No. 1 in the area—I crushed it. When they found out I was 11, they let me work under my mother’s name to keep my job.”

In his late teens, Esfandiari took up magic. “As soon as I did a couple of tricks, all of a sudden I went from being the most unpopular kid to a very popular kid. Magic helped me feel like The Guy,” he says. Esfandiari’s given first name is Amir, but he changed it then because “Antonio the Magician” sounded better. He practiced relentlessly and says he wanted to be the next David Copperfield—until he discovered poker at age 20. By the time he was 22, he says he was making “pretty good money” playing the game.

A couple of years after he started playing, Esfandiari asked his father to come to a casino and watch. “That day I was so on point: I told him what people had before they flipped their cards over. I was right 90 percent of the time. And my dad—I will never forget—he was sitting behind me and he said, ‘Son, how in the world do you know what they have?’ I don’t know how I know, I told him—it’s just a process. I can sense when someone is strong or weak or lying or honest. It comes pretty natural to me.”

Esfandiari says his father looked over at him and said, “I believe—you have my support.” This meant the world to Antonio. “My dad is my hero, so it was really important when he said he’d support me.”

By 2004, Esfandiari says he was “hungry, very hungry, to make a name for myself.” He’d finished as high as third in
a World Poker Tour tournament but had never won one. “I knew that (to gain recognition) in poker you had to win a major tournament.” Playing poker the night before the L.A. Poker Classic, he’d lost $30,000, about half his bankroll, but that didn’t stop him from playing the next day. “It just felt like my time. I outplayed and outlasted and outhustled hundreds of players. And I won it,” he says. At the time, he was the youngest player, 25, to win a WPT event.

Esfandiari drove home, “I didn’t want him (his father) to hear about my victory from anyone but me. I showed up at his doorstep just after dawn with a backpack filled with $1.4 million—cash! ‘Dad, there’s something I really need to tell you,’ ” Esfandiari told his dad when Bejan groggily answered the door and squinted into the rising sun. “I could sense he was worried. I really like to mess with people. I just showed him the backpack. Then I opened it and said, “Dad, I won.”

He looked down in shock and said, “What did you win?” “This big tournament in L.A.”
“How much did you win?”
“Over a million bucks.”

“I wish I would have filmed it—he almost melted,” Esfandiari says. “He almost fell to the ground in shock he was so happy. He laughed, he cried, he hugged me. It took time for reality to sink
in. But when he looked back down and saw my bag stuffed with packets of hundred-dollar bills, he got it. He believed, and he knew that finally our family’s American dream was coming true.”

After winning this tournament, Esfandiari found himself traveling from his home in San Jose to Las Vegas “all the time,” he says. “I never wanted to live [in Vegas], but I bought a home here to not spend so much money living in the Bellagio, and I ended up moving here. It just kind of happened that way.”

With his black-rimmed glasses, slender physique and casual style, Esfandiari has GQ panache—he’s not a grizzled, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping poker player. “Despite his outward suave, gamblin’ man appearance, in some ways I see Antonio as the antithesis of Las Vegas,” says World Series of Poker broadcaster Lon McEachern. “To the people he knows, Antonio is warm, caring, genuine, vulnerable and a family man.” Bejan is frequently on the rail at poker events, cheering on his son. And when Antonio goes out to celebrate, he insists dad come clubbing with him and his friends.
World Poker Tour broadcaster Mike Sexton, who was there for Esfandiari’s 2004 win, says Esfandiari now treats success differently than in his youthful years. “He was a very Vegas guy early in his career. He was partying in every club in town every night. He got the best tables, and they would welcome him with open arms. He was single, having a big time, living a big life.”

In a post last February on the poker website Bluff Europe, Esfandiari shared his joy: “On January 7th at 8:01 am, I became a father of a beautiful son. It was a moment that truly cannot be explained, only experienced. I am shocked and transformed, and my life has changed forever. The arrival of a child into my world has given birth to an everlasting love, a nurturing love that has weaved itself into the fabric of my being. It happened instantly, and watching my child enter this world was nothing short of a true miracle.” He also recently married but asked the magazine to refrain from sharing further details about his family life.


Though he never planned on settling in Las Vegas, Esfandiari has come to appreciate its allures beyond gambling. Not that he doesn’t gamble at home: when not traveling the world for tournaments, he can sometimes be found at Aria or Bellagio. “Those are the only two poker rooms where you can really find a big game with a buy-in of more than $10,000,” he says. He also plays at the Rio when it hosts the annual World Series of Poker Tour, between late- May and early-July. Esfandiari is a self-described foodie and appreciates that he can find innovative cuisine, from noodle bowls to Wagyu filet mignon, at almost any hour. For the latter, he goes to Jean Georges Steakhouse at the Aria. For Italian, it’s Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at Wynn.

“But really, my favorite places are off Strip. There’s a Japanese grill place called Raku that I think is the best restaurant in the world,” he says. “I am a huge ramen guy—I love soup. I go to Jinya for late-night soup, super good. And there’s a sushi place that’s dynamite called Kabuto.” Though Esfandiari doesn’t go out nearly as often as he once did, his go-to club is the Marquee at the Cosmopolitan, with its indigo-lighted dance floor and sleek design.

And, after years of neglect, downtown Vegas is showing signs of life, Esfandiari says. “There’s a really cool little restaurant called Eat, and there are some speakeasy bars downtown; it’s got a little bit of a London vibe going.” Just
a couple of miles north of the Strip, downtown was once
the heart of Vegas. Remnants of its old hotels remain at the downtown Neon Museum, where, among other relics, you can see the sign for Binion’s Horseshoe, where the World Series of Poker was held from its debut in 1970 until 2004.

Though Esfandiari is not a typical Vegas guy, he and Sin City share “a devil-may-care attitude,” says McEachern. “No matter where he goes, Vegas goes with him. Whether it be his slick, quaffed Rat Pack look, his ability to be the center of the party, or his drop-of-the-hat tendency to accept a bet on just about anything, he is one of those rare people whom everyone knows when he is in the room—and everyone wants to be noticed by him.”

For the past couple of years, Esfandiari has joined McEachern in the broadcast booth for WSOP’s Main Event final table. “He has treated me like a friend from the first moment we met and continues to do so,” McEachern said. “He’s always on time, ready to go. Antonio will use his ‘cold read’ on those in a hand, and more often than not, give us a pretty darn good read on the cards they hold. It’s impossible to be spot-on 100 percent of the time, but he’s right enough to drop the jaws of us neophytes around him and those watching on ESPN.”

Esfandiari now has earned more than $26 million in sanctioned tournaments, according to the poker magazine Bluff, and who knows how much more in cash games. “He wants to be best at anything he does,” Bejan said.

Despite his success, Esfandiari remains down-to-earth. “Antonio is just so good with the people,” says Sexton, the WPT broadcaster. “There are very few players who are really fan favorites, and he’s in that elite group. He takes photos with them, he laughs with them, he jokes with them, and he gets along with them.” In 2013 Esfandiari traveled to Central America to meet people benefiting from the water projects the One Drop tournament helped. “I was very touched by this trip. I will never forget those families,” he says.

Esfandiari realizes how lucky he is to be playing a game he’s so passionate about, and to be making a good living from it. “Antonio is one of those guys who gets it,” Sexton says. He’s fortunate to have found his calling, and Vegas is lucky this one-time magician has made this city of illusion his home.

Why Jake Burton Says Vermont is Snowboarding’s Spiritual Birthplace


Why Jake Burton Says Vermont is Snowboarding's Spiritual Birthplace

November 26, 2018

Jake Burton Carpenter once said Stratton Mountain Resort, its 3,875-foot summit lording over southern Vermont, had probably done more for snowboarding than any other mountain on the planet. Still, in the mid-1970s—when he was an early 20-something freshly escaped from Manhattan’s corporate culture— testing prototypes of snowboards he made in a barn in nearby Londonderry, Carpenter had to sneak onto the mountain in the dark after lifts had closed. “Jake would take each new design up after the lifts closed and hike up Suntanner, which is one of our central runs, to test his boards,” said Myra Foster, Stratton’s director of PR for more than 25 years.

Eventually the resort, which has a 2,003-vertical foot drop, agreed to allow Carpenter to ride his creations during the day. “When he became confident that he or anybody else would be able to turn and stop on a snowboard, he came to our director of operations and said, ‘We’d love to be able to ride these on the mountain.’” Stratton’s answer was, “Why not?” “He seemed to be on to something exciting,” Foster said. “We wanted to be a part of it. We were one of the first resorts in the country to allow snowboarding.”

Stratton was right. Burton, who early on decided his middle name “Burton” made for a better brand name than his last “Carpenter,” was on to something. Forty years later, five different snowboarding disciplines, from half pipe to snowboard cross and freestyle, are Olympic sports. Burton Snowboards, which Burton still owns with his wife Donna, is estimated to be worth more than $100 million (privately held companies don’t have to disclose financials) and employs more than 900 people around the world. Half of everything snowboarding-related sold—from clothing to boots, bags, bindings and boards—bears the Burton name.


While Burton has stores around the world, its world headquarters remain
in Vermont. Not in the barn—which belonged to Stratton’s ski school director—where Burton first toiled
over prototypes, but on a campus for roughly 400 employees that includes an 84,000-square-foot prototyping facility, a flagship store and a 68,000-square-foot office complex.

Walking into the lobby of the office complex, you’re greeted by a timeline display of wall-mounted snowboards dating back to the company’s founding in 1977 and a simple message: “You need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going.”

It’s an important reminder for Burton as the brand closes in
on its 40th anniversary. Sliding down mountains sideways on a snowboard may still be a relatively young sport, and progression and innovation are still the name of the game, but four decades of dominance in the industry is also cause for celebrating some deep roots.

Burton would be the first to tell you he didn’t invent snowboarding. He skied as a kid and got his first taste of carving slopes sideways when he was 14, on something called a Snurfer. A rudimentary precursor to the modern snowboard, Snurfers were patented by Sherman Poppen in 1966. Among the many historic items in the Burton collection on display
in the flagship store are a pair of even more rudimentary snowboards patented even earlier—in 1939 by the Bunker Sno-Surf Company.

Despite Bunker and Poppen, it is Burton’s name that has become synonymous with snowboarding. After he first got hooked on the experience of surfing on snow, the self-identified “loser shop class kid” experimented with different materials, shapes and manufacturing processes, trying to figure out how to make snowboarding even more fun. And he’s been at it—“it” being making the sport fun—ever since.

Though Burton, 61, is a New Yorker by birth, briefly went to college in Colorado (he graduated from NYU) and has lived abroad, the Burton Snowboards story is pure Vermont. The first official board he launched his brand with in 1977—after spending a few years making hundreds of prototypes in that Londonderry barn—was dubbed the Burton Backhill, “BB1.” It’s at the beginning of the headquarters’ timeline wall and is also prominently featured in a small museum gallery of the Burton archives that is open to the public by appointment. A limited-edition model based on the company’s early boards, the Throwback, sold out in 2015 and is in wider release this season. After nearly 40 years of innovation, its popularity proves there’s still plenty of fun to be had in stripped-down simplicity, even as the company leads the charge in technical and technological innovation elsewhere in its line.

“Since day one, we’ve charged ahead to innovate and give as much back to snowboarding as we’ve gotten out of it,” reads the manifesto summarizing the company’s goals Burton wrote himself. “We answer to no one but snowboarders, and support everything we do with the quality and service that shops and riders have grown to expect.”

In 1978, after the success of the Backhill, Burton moved the business out of the barn and set up a more proper shop in Manchester, 20-some miles west. In 1992 the company moved again, this time to the Burlington campus it still calls home. Although Burton is sold worldwide and is expanding into new markets like China—according to Bloomberg Business, as much as 10 percent of Burton’s business will be in China by the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing—the company’s home will never be anywhere but Vermont. Nearly all of the company’s first-hand testing with its research and development team still happens on the nearby slopes of Stowe. While Burton and his employees want the company to be profitable, they spend less time thinking about market share and growth strategies than they do thinking about the soul of snowboarding—how to define it, nurture it, protect it.

“Progression on the mountain and innovation really go hand in hand,” said Burton archivist Todd Kohlman while leading a tour of the company archives and the company’s Craig Kelly Prototype Facility. The latter is named after a former, long- time sponsored rider and collaborator who died in 2003
in an avalanche outside Revelstoke, British Columbia. To employees, the prototype facility is simply “Craig’s” and it’s where tomorrow’s designs are born. “Jake always says the riders are in the driver’s seat,” Kohlman said. “They’re the ones directing the way snowboarding will go. They tell us what they need from us in order to do what they want to do.”

Inside Craig ’s, next to a small museum display honoring the first 30-odd years of Burton Snowboards history, Kohlman took us past a crew making boards marking
the 20-year anniversary of rider Terje Håkonsen’s iconic 1995 signature board. The new boards are built with contemporary specs, but the Sprocking Cat design is vintage. Norweigen Håkonsen, who picked up the nickname Sprocking Cat because he always lands on his feet, signed with Burton in 1989, when he was only 15, and has worked with the company, designing boards ever since.

“The boards we’re making right now were designed by Terje, using the trickiest materials and the newest shapes, with
just a nod to the history,” said Chris Doyle, Burton’s head of Prototyping R&D, as he waited for a rapid 3D prototyping machine to mock up a new helmet shape, while a high-tech CNC router in another room shaved and shaped ultra-thin milled wood cores into precise dimensions for a new whimsical-looking asymmetrical board design.

The bulk of Burton’s manufacturing has moved overseas, both to China and Austria, but Craig’s remains the heart and soul of the company. It’s here where all of the new products get their beginning, where special projects like Terje’s anniversary board are produced, and where personal boards for team riders like Olympic gold medalists Shaun White and Kelly Clark are made to spec.

Next up on the facility’s docket are custom boards that team riders like White, Mark McMorris, Clark, Danny Davis and Enni Rukajarvi will use in upcoming competitions. Each rider collaborates and consults throughout the design and production process for their board(s).

Prominently displayed on a wall inside Craig’s is another recently completed project, the very first signature deck designed by and for Jake himself. It’s named “The Stone Hut” after a favorite, 80-year-old backcountry hut of Burton’s near the top of Stowe Mountain Resort’s Mt. Mansfield. Its design is meant for powder and the deck features artwork from Burton’s favorite Jimi Hendrix album “Valleys of Neptune.”

Craig’s is a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for snowboarders. Burton likes to think Kelly would approve. “Craig was an engineer at heart,” Burton said shortly after the center opened in 2010. “It was what made our relationship tick once he got involved with Burton. He was so into board design, and he brought us so far. It seemed only appropriate we would name this place after him. I mean, I owe so much
to that guy for teaching me to listen to riders and just what
he did himself, pushing our board designs. There’s no other name that should be on the door than his.”

On the day I visited, racks of a limited-run tribute model snowboard marking the 25th anniversary of Kelly’s first signature Burton board greeted us. Kelly was one of the sport’s first superstars and one of its most engaging personalities, winning some of the first major snowboarding contests as he led the movement towards freestyle progression with an ear- to-ear grin pasted across his face. Burton was his board.


But after winning four consecutive World Champion titles (1986–1989) and three consecutive US Open titles (1987–1989), Kelly walked away from competition to pursue big-mountain freeriding and backcountry snowboarding. Common today, such riding was revolutionary at the time. Some of Kelly’s other sponsors balked at this shift. Not only did Burton continue backing him, but they also allowed Kelly to design the gear that would make this new type of riding more fun.

The building, which is available for tours by appointment, is symbolically protected by avalanche fences above the front entrance. Tour groups go into each of the prototyping rooms, but cameras are banned in most of them. During my visit, the engineering team was putting a new boot design to the test in a robotic torture device so classified we were asked to not even describe it here. Other trade secrets, like the process for creating Burton’s trademarked “Channel” binding attachment system, are even more heavily protected.

“I’m a company guy, obviously, but I can honestly say we build the best snowboards and snowboard equipment in the world,” said Doyle. “I respect all of our competitors but I can respectfully say that we’re still the best. Jake is a true believer that last year’s trophies don’t pay this year’s bills,” Doyle said. “He really doesn’t have a whole lot of time for nostalgia and sitting on one’s laurels. This is snowboarding, after all: the whole thing moves very quickly, and you have to stay with it. So when you come in here, what you’re seeing is the future being made.”

“Here’s how I like to look at it: every board being put together is the potential energy for so much fun. Where is that board going to go? Who is it going to take to the top of a podium or somewhere amazing? You can feel that energy when you come through here. We’re not given total carte blanche, but we do have the freedom to try things and to do some weird stuff. We can prototype everything, and it allows us to play in a bunch of different directions. I’m pretty much ruined for working anywhere else.”

Whether a snowboard, boot or jacket, Burton products have one thing in common: the words “Burlington, Vermont.” It’s key to the brand’s DNA. “When I think of Vermont, I think of quality,” Kohlman said. “And when you’re talking about Burton, you’re talking about Vermont: that’s at the core. Jake and Donna are proud Vermonters, and Vermont is really proud of Burton and our culture. It’s a special place, and it ties in heavily to both our history and our future.” And it’s where Burton has always loved to ride.

“I’ve heard him say he’ll ride all over the world, but some
of his best days are still at Stowe,” Kohlman said. “There’s something about your home mountain and your special spots. On any given day at Stowe you could run into Jake out there, trudging up on a splitboard with his dogs in tow, or out testing our latest prototypes, or just riding with Donna and their sons [George, 25, Taylor, 22 and Timi, 19].”

Stowe Mountain Resort is the closest resort to Burton HQ, and Jake and Donna have a home there. “You’d find Jake on the Bruce Trail,” said Doyle. “It’s an old backcountry trail, 
a great, long, fun run. It’s un-groomed, and to get out at the bottom you have to pole out along the cross-country trails, which sends the skiers into fits of apoplexy—we’ve learned to stay out of the groomed cross-country tracks! You better have your board waxed.”

In 2011, Burton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It is now cured, but last March, just after the Burton US Open in Vail, Colorado, he was diagnosed with Miller Fisher Syndrome, an extremely rare type of Guillain-Barre Syndrome that results in the body’s immune system attacking the nerves.
It temporarily paralyzed him. He was on full life support for two months at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, but is now back at home in Vermont focusing on physical therapy. Burton spokeswoman Abby Young said he’s expected to make a full recovery, but it’s been a trying year.

“What he’s done for the sport, his heart and soul, his enthusiasm, his overall drive, his hands-on approach—you see that in how he beat cancer and how he’s fighting this Miller Fisher Syndrome, too,” said Shawn Johnson, Burton’s global development manager. “When he comes through he always asks, ‘What’s hot today? What are you working on?’ That’s where his heart is, and he’s always receptive to new ideas.”

“It’s always been Jake’s passion to develop snowboarding, 
to keep making it better and better so we can get to wherever we’re heading, and to me that’s the heart of what this company is about,” Kohlman said. “The past is awesome and it’s worth celebrating, but Jake is always focused on ‘What’s next?’ ‘How can we make this better?’ It’s the future he’s interested in.”

Enjoy the Best of Mexican Art, Architecture and Food in San Miguel


Enjoy the Best of Mexican Art, Architecture and Food in San Miguel

November 15, 2018

The first time Alma Luz Villanueva wandered into Mama Mia’s in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a decade ago, “I felt instantly that I had journeyed home,” she says. A central fountain was filled with flowers. Birds fluttered from branch to branch in the old growth trees inside the restaurant. (Sometimes a bird swooped down for a tidbit of food.) During the day, the restaurant’s top floor, which looks out on the city’s innumerable, crenelated church spires rising over low-slung houses with famously colorful doors, was open to the sky. At night, if it was clear and warm, the canopy stayed open so you could look up at the stars.

Today, Mama Mia’s is very much the same and Villanueva eats breakfast there most Saturday mornings. For 10 years, the same waiter, Jorge, has allowed her to skip the buffet line. As soon as he sees Villanueva, he makes up a “Big Plate” for her: scrambled eggs in green chili sauce with onions, peppers, cactus, a pot of spicy beans, a pot of rice with onions and peppers and freshly made corn tortillas hot from the griddle. And Villanueva never misses the cinnamon coffee. Served in a clay cup, it’s “my absolute favorite,” she says. “Everyone I bring to Mama’s has at least four cups of it.”

Villanueva eats at Mama’s every Saturday because she loves it so much, not because it’s one of the only restaurants in town. Yes, 10 years ago, Mama’s might have been one of a few options, but that has changed.

Nearly 500 years old, San Miguel was named the world’s best city to live in by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013. Long treasured
for its eclectic population of artists and writers as well as its colonial architecture—its historic center is a World Heritage Site—the city is now the burgeoning hub of a different art form: food. Although it’s one of the latest hot spots on the international food scene, long-time residents know the city has always been a place where dining out with strangers often feels like dining in with family, and where there’s always been good, simple food. That hasn’t changed.

San Miguel-Featured-1

What is changing is the arrival of celebrity chefs, who long- time restaurant owners and the area’s farmers, many of whom have grown organic produce for decades, are welcoming with open arms. This summer, all of these groups came together at the city’s historic Instituto Allende for the first San Miguel de Allende Food Festival. The idea was to showcase the city’s new culinary culture, whether it was high-end cuisine or street food. Producers from around Mexico were invited to exhibit and cook. Cocineras traditionales from Oaxaca and Puebla came as did guest chefs from around the world: Carlo Mirarchi (Roberta’s/ Blanca, NYC), Ted Torrado (Drake Hotel, Toronto) and Lily Jones (Lily Vanilli Bakery, London), among others. It was like the famous writers who come to give presentations at the city’s annual (February) San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival, but with food. Instead of books, it was ingredients such as edible flowers, insects, pork belly, chocolate and octopus. There were mezcals from Oaxaca, cheese from Puebla and wines from Valle de Guadalupe, Baja’s wine country.

There were also chef ’s table lunches and dinners, and, on
the final day, a brunch. Each of these meals, in keeping with the town’s low-key, intimate vibe, was limited to 20 people. Also keeping with the town’s personality was diversity: next door to a five-course meal, which included champagne and wine pairings by top regional chefs Juan Emilio Villaseñor, Armando Prats and Enrique Farjeat, was a laid-back Argentinian barbeque
by Monterrey chef Dante Ferrero. The city’s charm, like its cobblestoned, sun-dappled central plaza, el Jardin Principal, is the same as it ever was. Now there are just more ways to taste it.

In the last two years, the dining has become “as diverse as the population,” says Patricia Wynne, owner of Abrazos, which sells all manner of kitchen and cooking goods. At Casa de Cocinas, bite into chef Michael Coon’s Okonomiyaki pancake—cabbage and shallots topped with crispy pork belly, bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, bull dog sauce and toasted nori—and tell us you don’t feel transported to Japan.

Recently, Italian-born, French-trained Matteo Salas opened Áperi here. It’s not unusual for residents of Mexico City to make the nearly 200-mile trip for a meal at this warm, woody spot, especially if they can reserve the chef ’s table in the kitchen. Latin for “open,” Áperi’s seven-course tasting menu (four courses at lunch) constantly changes but always uses the region’s freshest ingredients. It is “really important to make simple food with a great taste and flavors,” Salas says. Fresh ingredients are one
of the many reasons chefs are drawn to San Miguel. “We can
get crayfish, pigeons, goats, suckling pig, beef and any kind of vegetable,” he says.

It was 2008 when American chef Donnie Masterson, formerly of Bice in Beverly Hills, The Hay Adams in Washington D.C. and Manhattan’s Tavern on the Green, opened The Restaurant. (He had moved to San Miguel several years earlier for the lifestyle.) There guests dine on what Masterson calls “global comfort food”—shaved Brussels sprouts and kale salad; duck confit tacos—served in an 18th-century flagstone courtyard.

Wynne, who moved here 15 years ago from north Berkeley, says The Restaurant “exceeds anything you will find in Berkeley or Mexico City for a fraction of the cost.” (Masterson also chairs San Miguel’s largest annual culinary event, Sabores San Miguel, another summertime festival.) His newest venture, Tacolicious, opens in November.

Ten kilometers outside of the city at B’ui, restaurateur Daniel Estebaranz, one of the founders of the San Miguel de Allende Food Festival, tapped Mexico City superstar Marko Cruz to be executive chef. In the Otomi Equestrian Center, B’ui is ranch-to- table: think whole artichokes in creamy goat’s milk mozzarella and roasted chicken.


Don’t expect to have to make reservations months in advance for any of these though. The only place you’ll likely have to
wait is at Andy’s Taco Truck. (But it’s worth it. Wynne says Andy’s serves the world’s best al pastor tacos.) Another one of the busiest places is the city’s Saturday morning market. In el Jardin Principal, purveyors sell produce alongside traditionally prepared foods. Nicholas Gilman, the author of Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining and a writer for the New York Times says he recommends the market for those looking for authentic Mexican food. Don’t be surprised to find yourself picnicking next to local families and some of the 10,000 strong expat community. San Miguel now has celebrity chefs and “Top Chef ” might have filmed three episodes here in January, but there’s still no pretension.

This being Mexico, tequila rules. Müi Bar inside the boutique Hotel Matilda is one of the few places in town offering Casa Dragones, a small-batch, limited-edition tequila created by Mexico’s only female master tequilera, Bertha Nieves. If you’re not into tequila, Müi’s mixologist Alberto Morales Perez Riesler’s cocktail menu is as creative as the dining menu at the hotel’s Moxi Restaurant. In 2012, Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol, which is currently ranked as the 16th best restaurant in the world on San Pellegrino’s annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, took over the menus at both Moxi and Müi. Olvera had no problem finding local purveyors that met his exacting standards for organic herbs, vegetables and fresh goat cheese. With as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, Olvera creates traditional Mexican dishes, but uses the latest techniques and cosmopolitan concepts. The end result is a changing menu with a Mexican soul and an international palate.

Susan York, a San Miguel food blogger, also recommends La Azotea for drinks. The sleek rooftop bar off the Jardín doesn’t just have phenomenal people watching—the fashionable Mexico City set, sporting Mexican designers like Alejandra Quesada and MíTu Calzado—but also extraordinary views of the pink, spired Parroquia church. Come here at sunset, order a jicama taco “they’re a truly authentic experience,” York says—and watch the sun set over the Guanajuato Mountains.

“I saw [Chicago] evolve into a major food powerhouse,” says York, who lived in that Midwest city for 25 years. “San Miguel is fast becoming a new culinary center in Mexico and it is so exciting to watch.”

Sustainably Harvested Seafood is Changing Vancouver’s Food Scene


Sustainably Harvested Seafood is Changing Vancouver's Food Scene

November 14, 2018

Veteran Fisherman Peter Muursepp has just docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in Vancouver with a haul of albacore tuna. The Pacific Ocean shimmers in the bright morning sunlight; just across False Creek, less than a mile away, rise the skyscrapers of the city. Ned Bell, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, bolts out of his shiny white Prius and trots over to Muursepp’s fishing boat, takes one look at his catch and says, “Peter, your tuna is going to be served at YEW (the Four Seasons’ flagship restaurant) tonight.”

This intimate connection between fishermen and chefs is a key part of Vancouver’s burgeoning sustainable seafood movement. Fishermen do their best to catch responsibly, and chefs work directly with them to put fresh, local and remarkably flavorful seafood on their diners’ plates.

“The lucky thing for us as chefs in Vancouver is that we have Fisherman’s Wharf right here,” Bell says. “The boats go out and come back with their catch, and they bring it right to our restaurant kitchens; it’s on the plate that night.”

Muursepp, with twinkling eyes and an unkempt white beard, looks like a fisherman from a bygone era. He says his goal is to leave the fishery intact for generations to come. “I don’t want to leave too big a mess behind—I want it to last,” he says, noting that oceans have been overfished for decades and some stocks are nearing collapse. He’s gratified to be working with Bell, who has become a leader of Vancouver’s sustainable seafood movement.

The goal, Bell says, is “wild, well-managed fisheries and responsible aquaculture.” Canada’s movement toward sustainable seafood began in Vancouver in the early 2000s when marine advocates and chefs sought solutions to overfishing worldwide. In 2005, the Vancouver Aquarium partnered with local chefs to launch the Ocean Wise conservation program (, modeled on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a guide to sustainable fish consumption.

“Vancouver was the natural birthplace for the sustainable seafood movement,” says Teddie Geach, seafood specialist for Ocean Wise. Most Vancouverites are environmentally conscious, she says, and “the ocean is right there on our doorstep. Sustainability is just good business strategy for a lot of these chefs.” Of Ocean Wise’s 650 partners, which range from restaurants to fish sellers, universities and private clubs, 168 are in Vancouver, she says, more than three times as many as Toronto, second on the list.


Chef Rob Gentile, the executive chef of the Buca restaurants that set the culinary standard in Toronto, credits Vancouver with leading the way toward a more sustainable seafood ethic in Canada. “Vancouver has always been a leader in educating the public,” he says. “Between the incredible work of (chef) Robert Clark and now Ned Bell they have really got the attention of many important people that can truly make a difference in what is brought to our tables.”

Though Bell is now the face of the movement, he says
no one has done more to promote sustainable seafood in Canada than Clark, the “godfather” of the effort. “It’s on his shoulders that I stand.”

When Ocean Wise launched a decade ago, sustainable seafood wasn’t “fashionable,” says Clark, co-owner of The Fish Counter and founding chef/partner of Ocean Wise. 
In 2013, Clark, the former executive chef at the highly lauded C restaurant (which closed after he left) opened The Fish Counter with former Ocean Wise manager Mike McDermid.

In a recent Vancouver Sun profile, Clark is credited with “making Vancouver the strongest sustainable seafood city in Canada, setting examples for other cities.” Clark consulted with the Vancouver Aquarium since before Ocean Wise launched, McDermid says, as he slices fresh salmon on a wooden cutting board at The Fish Counter. “Rob and I worked to build awareness about sustainable seafood. We started with a few local restaurants and now have a national network.”

The Fish Counter is a neighborhood place where
you can get a plate of sizzling fish and chips (try the lingcod) or buy raw halibut to cook at home. Feisty and cantankerous, Clark came to Vancouver from Quebec in 1993. Despite Vancouver’s close proximity to the ocean, “the fish was crap here in 1993—the best fish used to be exported,” he says. He discovered that the salmon served in restaurants was mainly farmed Atlantic, and not the wild species for which British Columbia is famous. In
the past decade there’s been a sea change in Canada, with Vancouver leading the way, as more diners have come to appreciate local fish in season. Palates have become more sophisticated, Clark says; patrons at fine restaurants as well as shoppers buying fish to cook at home have developed a taste for high-quality seafood.

Consumers want to know more about where their food is coming from, Geach says, “how it’s being harvested and how it’s being caught or farmed. Chefs are in a unique position to tell that story.” Frank Pabst, executive chef at the city’s Blue Water Cafe, presents an “Unsung Heroes” menu every February featuring unusual or underutilized species, like sea cucumber or jellyfish or sturgeon liver.

Because chefs have become so influential, says Ocean Wise’s Geach, they’re able “to challenge our palate and introduce us to new and different things that we wouldn’t necessarily try at home. These are things I definitely would not cook at home, but when I go out to a restaurant I know that the chef is going to make something amazing out of it. So I step outside of my comfort zone and try something new and discover something delicious.”

Even sushi chefs at major hotels are getting into the game. A native of Japan, Taka Omi worked for several years in Toronto before moving to Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel. He was drawn by the wide variety of local fish in the coastal city. “So many choices we have,” the sushi chef says, citing albacore tuna, sablefish, scallops and prawns. “I think we have more variety than anybody else.”

At the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s RawBar, Omi has long had an interest in preserving fish stocks. In 2014, RawBar went from simply featuring responsibly harvested fish to serving only Ocean Wise- approved seafood. It became Vancouver’s first sushi restaurant to do so. The Pacific Rim’s executive chef Nathan Brown fully supports Omi’s vision. “If a supplier says, ‘Sorry, it’s not Ocean Wise,’ then I reply, ‘Sorry, then we won’t be buying it.’ It’s as simple as that.”

After working as a chef in Toronto and Calgary, The Four Seasons’ Bell moved to Vancouver with his young family in 2010 and “started to hyper-focus” on sustainable seafood. “I thought that if I am going to do a seafood restaurant, it’s going to be 100 percent sustainable. It’s really the only seafood we should be consuming,” he says. Boyish and exuberant, Bell, 42, is so passionate about consuming seafood responsibly that he founded the advocacy group Chefs for Oceans ( and rode his bicycle 5,400 miles across Canada, hosting 24 events along the way, to raise awareness about the issue.

“We are very fortunate to be able to eat the last wild protein on the planet,” Bell says. “When is the last time you had wild chicken, wild beef or wild pig? You don’t, you eat farmed animals. We have this wild resource still available to us, although 90 percent of the large ocean predators are overfished, and humans are foolish enough to take until there is no more. But we still have the opportunity to affect change. I recognized that six years ago and wanted to do something about it.”

At The Fish Counter, Clark and McDermid practice “transparency and traceability,” Clark says. “Our concerns are sustainability, quality and taste. Traceability develops pride in producers and delivers quality to consumers. ‘This fish is going to be sold as my fish.’”

“Everyone down the chain of custody has a vested interest in maintaining quality. This brings customers closer to the source of their seafood.” And when that happens, fantastic flavor follows, Clark says. “All I’ve been doing is sourcing the best fish I could and telling people where I got it from.” His approach is simple: “Get good food, and do as little as possible with it. All I have to do is buy great fish.”

Fresh fish in season is typically the tastiest fish one
can get, Clark notes. Because Vancouver’s citizens are environmentally aware, the sustainable seafood movement is now so important that chefs have to pay attention, 
he says. “Chefs who don’t think it’s relevant soon leave. 
In some cities it would have been impossible to start a sustainable seafood movement, but here people were open to the idea and concerned about the fisheries.”

Sushi chef Omi says unagi, the popular freshwater eel from Japan, came off the RawBar’s menu because it’s severely threatened. But Omi found a workaround: he lightly smokes sustainable sablefish and prepares it like unagi. Customers enjoy it because the fish is delectable, Omi says, and most of them want to do the right thing. “Ninety-nine percent of customers are happier (with a sustainable menu). So we (chefs and restaurant patrons) can control it. That’s the most important thing,” he
says. “We cannot close our eyes. We have to educate the customer. Our hand has so much responsibility for the future of the fish and ocean.”

The Pacific Rim’s pièce de résistance is the Ocean Wise Roll, the RawBar’s presentation of 15 types of sustainable seafood, says executive chef Brown. “Anything that’s in the sushi window that evening gets put into that roll, even Dungeness crab, then you have a piece of salmon, a piece of steelhead,” and other fresh local specialties.

The Fairmont has supported executive chef Brown to the point where he can serve bycatch, the unintended fish caught when pursuing other species. In Canada’s Pacific waters, fishermen can’t legally throw fish back into the ocean so Brown has found ways to use bycatch. “It’s a shame if it were to go into the garbage because nobody’s buying it,” Brown says. “My fish supplier, Steve (Johansen) from Organic Ocean, he’s constantly calling me, telling me what he’s caught. It allows us more creativity, to (serve) what the ocean is providing for us.”

One example of bycatch is a British Columbia rockfish, Brown says. “It’s a little bit meatier. We pan roast it at really high heat then baste it with a lot of butter. It’s a very rustic presentation, with crushed potatoes and ratatouille. It tastes great and it’s just very country style, like black cod.”


Beyond using bycatch, Brown says, he’s committed to serving as much of the whole fish as possible. “Everybody wants that perfect fillet, but what do you do with the ends of the fish? We do a bouillabaisse soup, turn them into fish and chips, make fish fingers for kids, handmade so you know you’re controlling the ingredients.”

Bell, too, believes his commitment to sustainable fisheries does not require any compromise on quality. In YEW’s gently lit, wood-paneled dining room, Bell and his crew prepare
a medley of fish: the Tackle Box with raw albacore tuna (which reproduce faster than other tuna and thus are more sustainable), spot prawns, oysters and steamed Dungeness crab. Entrees include salmon, sablefish and Arctic char, all plump and moist, bursting with flavor and lightly cooked to perfection. The menu, depending on the season, might also include any of the five types of salmon that live off Canada’s west coast.

The Fairmont’s Brown is from the tiny town of Lucan (pop. 1,200) in the province of Ontario and grew up with a close connection to the land. He traded vegetables his family cultivated for neighbors’ berries. When he went fishing he got to know other fishermen and learned early that fresh, local food is best. “Bringing that approach to hotels isn’t always the easiest,” he says, but the Fairmont has backed him all the way.

Bell, executive chef at the Four Seasons, had a rural background too. Growing up in the rustic Okanagan Valley, about 200 miles east of Vancouver, he developed a taste for homegrown food. “The Okanagan is basically orchards and vineyards and farms,” he says. Then he moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where he’d go fishing with his dad, and later lived in Vancouver. “So being a coastal boy I just always connected to the ocean and the mountains.”

The morning I meet Bell at Vancouver’s Fisherman’s Wharf, he takes a deep breath of the briny air and says: “We are blessed to live on the coast, to live on the ocean. We are really blessed to have relationships with these fishermen and serve their catch the same day, dock to dish.”

At the wharf, Bell meets with a longtime partner, fisherman Shaun Strobel. “I’m a little short of pinks (a type of salmon). Can I throw in some sockeye?” asks Strobel. Bell answers, “You can throw in whatever you like.” After years of working with Strobel, he knows that whatever the fisherman caught will be flavorful and responsibly harvested. And that night when Bell and his crew work their magic on his catch, YEW’s patrons will come away delighted.

After working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, Frank Pabst became the top chef at Blue Water Cafe in 2003 (where he created the Unsung Heroes event). Fish are served only when abundant, he says. “As chefs we want to have species around for generations to come.” By paying a premium for sustainable fish, he says, restaurants have helped steer demand toward species that are plentiful or less threatened.

“It started 15 years ago with chefs who wanted to do the right thing with the Chilean sea bass,” Pabst says. “Many years ago there wasn’t so much information so as chefs we wouldn’t be able to know what was sustainably harvested and what was harvested nearly to extinction.” But when Chilean sea bass became nearly extinct, Pabst says, that sounded the alarm for chefs, many of whom felt they had to get involved in preserving wild fisheries.

The sea bass crisis led Pabst to become a founding member of Ocean Wise and commit to serving sustainable fish at
Blue Water Cafe. Though this might surprise some diners, sometimes the most sustainable—and succulent—options are responsibly farmed fish and shellfish, Pabst says. The sturgeon and caviar served at the Blue Water Cafe (as at YEW) come from a British Columbia fish farm that eschews antibiotics. And the flavor is so spectacular that, if blindfolded, most patrons would probably be unable to say which is wild and which is farmed.

The Blue Water Cafe dining room is elegant without being formal. A tasting menu there last fall began with the halibut tataki, a sashimi-style starter. A crisp and crunchy Dungeness crab salad with mango, jicama and pumpkin seeds followed. The entrée was miso-glazed sable, paired with a chardonnay, followed by pumpernickel-crusted sturgeon, served with a Russian River pinot noir.

Pabst likens the nascent sustainable seafood movement to the trend toward organics. “Once the public starts demanding sustainable seafood, fishermen can charge a premium. So now the fishermen, at least in Canada, are very eager and keen to make sure their stuff is sustainably caught. That’s why it’s getting easier for us (chefs) too.”
Fairmont sushi chef Omi agrees. His brother is a fisherman in Japan, and they speak frequently about how to enjoy the ocean’s bounty without exploiting it. Omi’s brother says that
if suppliers order threatened fish, the fishermen have to catch those species, so it’s up to chefs to educate customers so they can make sustainable choices.

Clark is proud of how far sustainable seafood has come during the past decade. “It’s encouraging,” he says, not just because The Fish Counter can sell responsibly harvested fish at a neighborhood outlet, but “because Ned (Bell) can do this at the Four Seasons” whose patrons expect nothing but the best.

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


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

November 9, 2018

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nantucket’s Most Loved Coastal Activity


Nantucket's Most Loved Coastal Activity

November 6, 2018

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Nantucket Sound is just a glorious sailing location,” says Diana Brown, the chief executive of Nantucket Community Sailing. “There are steady breezes every day and the water is clear.” Founded in 1994, Nantucket Community Sailing is dedicated to teaching sailing and making it accessible to people who live in or visit Nantucket. It offers weekly classes for children in season, all taught by instructors certified by US Sailing. Adults and kids alike can sign up for private lessons. “Our primary focus is children,” says Brown. “But we work with sailors from age 5 to 95.”

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

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

All of Jetties Sailing Center’s introductory sailing lessons, as well as rentals, stay inside the protected waters of the harbor. From the center, you can sail past the historic Brant Point Lighthouse, first established as an aid to navigation in 1746. The interior harbor offers protected water where first-timers can learn basic skills such as how to set and trim a sail so that it works to move the boat no matter the wind direction, how to tack and jibe, control the centerboard and how to come about, which is how you change direction. A lesson aboard the 35-foot J/105 can involve leaving the harbor and exploring the waters surrounding Nantucket. And there is no better way to see the island than from the deck of a boat.


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

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

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

Sailors with serious experience can venture about 20 miles offshore to the whale feeding grounds, where it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the massive humpback and finback whales that pass through these waters throughout the summer season. And whale watching brings the Nantucket experience back full circle to its days of Captain Ahab and the majestic whaling fleet. As Melville wrote in Moby Dick of the Nantucket sailor, “For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.”

Telluride’s Lesser Known Winter Activity Travelers Should Try


Telluride's Lesser Known Winter Activity Travelers Should Try

November 5, 2018

The hardest thing about catching a trout on Telluride’s most popular tailwater is learning how to pronounce its name: Pa-Co-Chu- Puk. This mile-and-a-half stretch of the Uncompahgre River flows from the bottom of Ridgeway Reservoir, keeping it a near constant 50 degrees and allowing for a year-round fishery. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk is a Ute Indian term—for either “water buffalo” or “cow creek,” depending on the source—and is pronounced “Pa-co-chew-puh.” But non-linguists needn’t fear, as locals long ago shortened the name of the tailwater to “Paco” and the river to “Unc.”

The Uncompahgre is one of the “big four” fly-fishing rivers near Telluride, the other three being the San Miguel, the Dolores and the Gunnison. The Paco tailwater on the Unc is about an hour away from Telluride, located inside Ridgeway State Park. It’s the closest year- round fishable water from town, and offers a more intimate walk- and-wade experience than the other year-round fishery—the lower Gunnison, which is mostly fished from a drift boat. For such a short, shallow section of river, Paco holds some surprisingly large rainbows and browns, with four-pounders not uncommon.

Since both the Gunny and the Unc are typically fishable throughout the winter, they are favorites of many skiers/flyfishers looking to squeeze a day of fishing into their ski vacation (or vice versa). “Mid- March is tough to beat for both fishing and skiing in Telluride, because there’s usually the greatest amount of snow on the mountain and the least amount of snow along the river,” says 23-year veteran Telluride fly-fishing guide Frank Smethurst. “You can try to do both in a day—and many do—but the fishing is often best right about when the corn snow is peaking, so it’s usually better to just rest your ski legs and focus on fishing for a full day.”


Regardless of the season, Smethurst’s ski-or-fish dilemma highlights another challenge of chasing trout in Telluride: choosing fly-fishing over the many other world-class activities waiting out your front door. When summer rolls around, even the most hardcore flyfishers must admit that the alternative activities in Telluride—from music festivals to mountain biking to backpacking—rival those of any mountain town on Earth. And I hate to disappoint you indecisive types, but even after settling on fly-fishing for the day’s activity, your options are far from limited.

For those wanting a natural, free-flowing fishing experience, the
two most popular freestone rivers are the San Miguel and the upper Dolores. (“Freestone” is an undammed river; “tailwater” is a section of river flowing below a dam.) The San Miguel is definitely Telluride’s local river, starting high above town in the San Juan Mountains and flowing northwest through town and along the valley below, toward Placerville. The South Fork of the San Miguel, a great fishery in its own right, joins the main branch just outside of town. About five miles up the South Fork from the confluence, the Nature Conservancy has a 67-acre preserve, where catch-and-release fishing is allowed.

The upper river can be covered with snow for much of the winter, but the San Miguel River usually offers Telluride anglers their first freestone fly-fishing of the season. “March
is my favorite time of year to fish it,” says John Duncan, co-owner and general manager of Telluride Outside, a local fly-fishing guide service since 1984. “I love the process of inspecting the San Miguel when the ice starts melting away, it makes me feel like I’m searching a new river each season.”

Smethurst also likes late-winter fishing near Telluride, but for different reasons. “The best thing about it is spending time in the high desert,” he says. “Many people don’t even realize that Colorado has a desert, and it’s a 20-minute drive west from downtown Telluride. I think the best two rivers for winter fishing are the Unc and the lower Gunnison, where you’re fishing a few thousand feet lower than the elevation in Telluride, which is 8,750. So it’s usually much warmer than town, and there are big fish to be had.”

The “Lower Gunny” is basically anything below the bottom of Gunnison Gorge, but usually refers to the section from the Gunnison Forks—near the Gunnison River Pleasure Park—down to the Austin Bridge, a float of about 5 miles. This is the stretch that is most often floated during winter—an area Duncan describes as “the stark and stunning landscape of high-desert canyon country.” When summer rolls around, the Gunnison has several other float or hike-in sections, including Almont to the town of Gunnison, Gunnison to Blue Mesa Reservoir, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge, just below the National Park.

If you’ve got a car in Telluride, and are looking for a good one- day road trip, Colorado State Highway 145 (CO-145) is one of the country’s best state highways for fishing. The 116-mile- long roadway follows the San Miguel River northwest from Telluride for 50 miles, and follows the Dolores River southwest from Lizard Head Pass for 45 miles. There are
a few bits of private land along both rivers, but most of it is public and remote, making it easy to lose the crowds. “There are few fly-fishing destinations with the amount of public access that we have here,” says Duncan. “Most anglers are accustomed to fishing around other people, but we are spoiled by solitude in Telluride. Any extra effort—a short hike, a four- wheel-drive road or even just the creative use of a map—will probably result in all-day solitude.”

Besides solitude, another thing the San Miguel, Uncompahgre and upper Dolores have in common is a fairly reliable mayfly hatch—the Pale Morning Dun in early July. Though caddisflies come first, they often show up during runoff, when the San Miguel and Dolores are too dirty to fish. The San Miguel is a nymphing river in February and March (the “window” before runoff), but despite a lack of prolific surface hatches, trout will still key on dry flies. Best bet is to fish a dry fly with a nymph dropper, so you’re covering both zones. And if we’re discussing hatches in this part of Colorado, then—sorry, PMDs and caddisflies—but you play second fiddle to the famous salmonflies of the Gunnison.

The salmonfly is one of the country’s most famous hatches, and the Gunnison has some of the country’s most famous salmonflies. It’s always in the conversation with other top salmonfly rivers like Oregon’s Deschutes or Montana’s Madison, Yellowstone or Big Hole. If you’re in good physical shape, hiking down to the river in Black Canyon National Park is a rewarding experience. It’s also a lot of work, and if you go during the June salmonfly hatch, you won’t be alone on the trail. Fishing during the emergence of these 2- to 3-inch-long bugs is considered a rite of passage for many flyfishers, so the salmonfly event can sometimes draw a crowd. Another option is to fish the Gunny later in the summer, after the salmonflies have gone but while grasshoppers are still around.


I was fortunate to join a private group from Telluride a few years back on a three-day August float down Gunny Gorge. It turned out to be perfect time to do it, especially if you’re more into the fishing and less into the big-water rafting of spring. (Don’t wait until too late in the summer, though, because passage gets pretty tight in the narrow part of the gorge when flows drop below 1,000 cubic feet per second.)

As for the classic, sometimes-technical tailwater experience near Telluride—
the lower Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir—anglers must understand that this special section of river is not “on the way” to anywhere. But neither is Telluride, so if you’ve made it that far, what’s a day trip to the Dolores? (The drive is a little more than 60 miles from Telluride, so a bit farther than going to Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. But don’t be afraid to stop along the way for photos at Trout Lake, or for fishing at Snowspur Creek or Lizard Head Creek.)

Duncan’s favorite time on the Dolores tailwater is early summer. “There’s no other river in my experience that comes to life quite like the Dolores,” he says. “You’ll be blown away by the number and variety of hatching bugs. And there are so many shades of green, it confuses the eye.” Duncan adds that high water on the Dolores recedes a couple weeks earlier than on the San Miguel, so it’s the first river they fish after runoff.

And finally, while tailwaters are sometimes the only fishing available during winter, it’s the free-flowing rivers that many of us desire. “Our local fishing is more focused on freestone streams than tailwaters,” Duncan says. “The San Miguel and upper Dolores are not trophy fisheries like the Frying pan, Yampa or Platte, but they run wild and free, and fishing these rivers re-immerses anglers in the natural variables of a trout stream, things like flow, temperature and clarity. I think many flyfishers feel a reawakening of their fishing senses on these streams.”

Inside the Most Iconic Midcentury Modern Homes


Inside the Most Iconic Midcentury Modern Homes

October 22, 2018

Robert Imber slows his silver Honda Odyssey to a stop in front of a one-story white slump stone wall perched in the foothills of Palm Springs. This, he says to me and two other passengers, is a classic example of midcentury modern architecture—think Mad Men style. “This is minimalism at its finest,” Imber says. “It’s all about symmetry and balance. Constraint.” Imber, 65, is the city’s premiere architectural aficionado. He’s been hosting this three-hour, 35-mile minivan tour since 2001. His enthusiasm is captivating. I just didn’t realize there’d be so many walls involved.

Not long after seeing the white wall, Imber will stop the van in front of a similar brown wall. It’s the front of a home that I’ll admit, I find less than inspiring. A large front lawn, some hedges and palm trees soften the bricks up a bit, but it’s a plain brown wall nonetheless—or so it seems. With the help of iPad photos and the gusto of a magician performing sleight of hand, Imber reveals the walls are not in fact just walls; they are an expertly planned architectural element concealing two of the world’s most exquisite midcentury modern homes.

“The no windows in the front is a privacy thing—it’s a celebrity home,” Imber says. “In addition, it’s a statement. It’s the angularity of it; it’s the situation. It’s about the allure, the sense of arrival and expectation, and [he pauses] the drama. And, of course, when you get through the doors, it’s an endlessly large glass house!”

This house in particular belongs to one Leonardo DiCaprio, who, much to Imber’s delight, has restored that brown wall with adobe bricks matching the originals used in 1964, when the house was built for Dinah Shore. The white-walled home? That was Max Palevsky’s, the late billionaire tech pioneer. It still houses what’s left of his storied art collection.

Vista San Jacinto in Palm Springs, California

If you want a peek behind those private, dramatic walls—a taste of the well-preserved desert lifestyle that has lured Hollywood stars and dignitaries for more than half a century— you could park in the driveway, ring the front doorbell and hope for the best. (“Private homes, public streets,” Imber says. “I can count on one hand the number of gated communities in Palm Springs.”) Or you can come back when the owners of midcentury gems like these open their doors to the public—and double- decker tour buses roll in for a better vantage point—during Palm Springs Modernism Week.

Palm Springs Modernism Week

The event had humble beginnings 15 years ago as a furniture sale. Since then, it’s exploded into an 11-day annual celebration of all things midcentury modern, now attracting more than 60,000 attendees from all over the world. The double-decker bus tour is a must, but that’s just one of more than 180 official events. There are also lectures, retro cocktail parties (costumes highly encouraged), antique furniture and car sales—even a Kodachrome slide-assisted humorist—all celebrating the designs of the mid-’40s to the late ’60s. And then there are the home tours. 

Epic home tours, including a look at Frank Sinatra’s infamous Twin Palms estate (complete with original twin palm trees), and, when President Obama isn’t staying there as he did in 2013 and 2014, the Sunnylands Estate in nearby Rancho Mirage (its pink roof matches the color of the sunset on the nearby foothills).

“It’s people who are having a good time and love to revel in all of the classic design,” says Daniel Salzman, a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based green home builder and Modernism Week devotee of the past six years. “Take some of these iconic figures, the designers, builders and architects, the landscape and the Hollywood lore of it all, and it makes for some pretty awesome storytelling.”

The tales of silver screen stars and the blooming of Palm Springs’ iconic architecture are, in fact, intertwined. “Some of the big stars—and there were hundreds of them, some big names— they had a 100-mile clause in their contract; they weren’t to be more than about 100 miles from Hollywood,” Imber says. “So in case Mr. Mayer need them for a lunch or something they wouldn’t be off in Africa on a safari. So they came here just to party and hang out.” (Some celebrities who’ve owned houses in Palm Springs: Bette Davis, Gene Autry, Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, Liberace and Frank Sinatra.)

Midcentury modern designs were going up all over the country, Imber says, “but Palm Springs was such a moneyed and social place that it was particularly abundant.” Architects who were drawn to Palm Springs for its dramatic landscape—10,833-foot Mount San Jacinto looms in the background of the Sonoran desert— were given the financial freedom to experiment.

Bob Hope’s John Lautner-designed estate is perhaps one of the best examples of star money creating something spectacular. The hillside 23,366-square-foot manse was designed to resemble a volcano, though to many it looks more like a spaceship or a giant mushroom. “The dome sheath in copper was painted over because it was blinding the airline pilots,” Imber says.

Architects not working on star homes found the plentiful and cheap desert land offered them creative freedom as well. “The early modernists are the original green builders,” Salzman says. “The topography and weather necessitated a totally different approach to home building.” The 15 or so architects now called the “desert modernists” championed the idea of incorporating the local landscape and bringing the outside in, whether by designing homes around trees and boulders, or crafting disappearing walls for unobstructed views. They also promoted energy efficiency through proper positioning of windows, walls and brise-soleils.

Arches in San Diego, California

Stunning examples of these concepts abound, both private and civic. Architect Albert Frey is the mastermind behind about 200 Palm Springs buildings, including City Hall and Frey House II. Frey fashioned his 1,100-square-foot personal home around a hillside boulder in the mid- ’60s. “He left it to the art museum with the stipulation that people live there from time to time,” Imber says. As a sometimes residence, it’s rarely open to the public—except during Modernism Week, when Frey II becomes a tour highlight. As does Vista Las Palmas, an entire neighborhood filled with butterfly roofs, breezeways and backyard pools—all still largely intact thanks, in part, to a period during the ’80s and ’90s when Palm Springs fell out of favor with elite seasonal residents.

“The McMansion is the enemy of midcentury architecture,” says Lisa Vossler Smith, Modernism Week’s executive director. People seeking larger, more opulent homes in those decades began building in less developed Coachella Valley cities. But being unpopular for a while turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it left thousands of Palm Springs’ midcentury modern buildings alone. The city is now home to the world’s highest concentration of midcentury modern architecture, a veritable treasure trove rediscovered—and restored—over the past decade.

“People have been living the midcentury modern lifestyle for a long time,” Salzman says; “clean lines never really go out of style.” But since Mad Men, AMC’s show set in the 1960s advertising world, came out in 2007, “it’s just pervasive.” Furniture store Design Within Reach began reissuing classic modern designs, like the famous Eames chair, making the look more attainable for the masses, while baby boomer nostalgia, Imber says, also played a role in modernism’s resurgence.

As a testament to the style’s revival, other cities, including Tucson and Detroit, now host modernism weeks. But ultimately it’s the “extreme terrain, natural light and resort lifestyle,” Vossler Smith says, that continue to make Palm Springs the premiere destination for modern design, inspiring architects, builders, decorators and anyone with an eye for style. Or a Zillow obsession. The laid-back attitude, Miami-based collectible designer Lina Hargrett adds, is another big draw. “The beauty of Palm Springs is that it’s so chill,” she says, after visiting for the first time during the 2015 Modernism Week.

While the week is certainly an open, fun celebration for all ages, it’s not all parties and tours and costumes and hanging out at base CAMP (Community and Meeting Place), the hub of all daily activities. It’s also an opportunity to give back to the city and the people working to preserve its unique features. Though there are more than 20 free events, the average activity costs $25. Revenue from 2015 tour ticket sales alone “generated more than $463,000 for the neighborhood organizations and HOAs to fund improvements such as landscaping, new signage and common area restoration,” Vossler Smith says. The non- profit organization also awards scholarships to high school graduates going on to study architecture and design.

There’s just nothing quite like Palm Springs, Imber says, from its friendly locals to the dramatic landscape to, of course, the special party-slash-architectural education that is Modernism Week. “Everywhere you go is something quite amazing,” he says. “Quirky, one-of-a-kind and amazing.”

Why Travelers Who Visit Alaska Return Over and Over Again


Why Travelers Who Visit Alaska Return Over and Over Again

October 18, 2018

Once in Alaska, it doesn’t take long to understand how the place can upend a person’s travel life. In a good way. Alaska either grabs your heart and your imagination, or it doesn’t. (When it doesn’t? Well, I don’t understand that, but it happens.) But if it does? There’s a good chance future vacation planning conversations will start with, “Well, we could go back to Alaska again.” 

The more you learn about Alaska, the more you want to see of it. A cruise is a great sampler platter, but don’t expect it’ll make you cross off Alaska from your “to see” list. It will rev up your hunger for more of this most dramatic, diverse state.


Ask around when touring the state and you’re sure to meet other travelers who came to gaze out on a pod of orcas swimming around Prince William Sound or to see bears or a massive bull moose, the latter’s antlers weighing up to 80 pounds, from a cruise ship. They visited for the chance to step out on a glacier with a guide leading the way or to try their hand at salmon fishing, hoping to ship enough reds back home for an elaborate dinner party.

That all stuck with them when they got home. So, another Alaska trip. And then another. Visitors here return again and again because their fishing skill exceeds their expectations (and the taste of the salmon is even better). They want more of the quiet they experienced while hiking through the thick of an old growth forest, dense with more greens than one could ever imagine—from dark green spruce tips to bright green mosses. 

They return for the unexpected variety: The public art in Ketchikan; the lazy paddling around Sitka’s islands; the chance to learn about Alaska’s rich Native heritage in some of the finest small museums imaginable and the stories of the Tlingit and Haida people who have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.

That all, of course, is both an endorsement and a warning. Your future may require more rain gear. I was a return tripper myself. Now? I still call myself a New Yorker, but I’m a full-time Alaska resident.

But first, the cruise, an introduction to one of Alaska’s many regions. Watch for a circle of bubbles rising up in the water—a sign that a group of humpbacks is feeding below. Bubbles. Bubbles. Bubbles. And then a massive burst of energy as the whales come to the surface to catch the fish caught in their “net.” It’s always surprising. Also keep watch for the state ferries, dressed up in blue and yellow. The Inside Passage doubles as the Alaska Marine Highway, the only all-water National Scenic Byway in the country. The ferry service—which started in 1949—shuttles nurses to their jobs, basketball teams to tournaments and cargo to the towns that dot the state’s shoreline.

Listen for the sound of giant blocks of ice calving off of Hubbard Glacier. Speed along on a Zodiac for an up-close (but not too close) look at icebergs and South Sawyer Glacier. Visit the wee fishing settlement of Elfin Cove—which blooms to 100 people during the busy summers. Once winter rolls in, making access to Elfin Cove challenging, the population drops somewhere south of 20 hearty souls. Wander the town’s boardwalks before going to visit the area’s other inhabitants by Zodiac—the sea lions and otters await. (And, yes, they really are as amusing as you imagine.)

Another warning: Alaska is both a photographer’s delight and greatest frustration. Even for pros. It doesn’t take long to realize that, despite the oohs and aahs your photos will garner back home, they don’t capture that the glacier stretching across the frame sits 1,800 inches thick and 32 miles long. Or the details of wildlife. Puffins in particular all too frequently end up as blurry blobs in images. These birds, which stand only 10 inches tall, jet past at speeds up to 55 mph.

No matter, memories both large and small will forever stay in your mind. And your urging of friends to make the trip themselves—“You can’t understand until you see Alaska for yourself ”—will probably include a follow-up sentence: “Hey, we should all go together.”

Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries


Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries

October 16, 2018

“Go get ’em, Bruno!” winemaker Bruce Cohn calls to his old black lab as the dog chases a rubber bung (a stopper for a wine barrel) across the olive tree-shaded courtyard at the B.R. Cohn winery in Glen Ellen. “He’s 14 and he thinks he’s 3!” Cohn exclaims. “He drank red wine all his life, that’s why.” Bruno barks excitedly when he hears the word “wine” as Cohn notes that the dog has his own wine, called Bruno’s Blend.

These are good days for Cohn, 69, a Chicago native who has had two successful careers, the first as the manager of the rock band The Doobie Brothers and later Night Ranger, the second as a winery owner in Sonoma County. Cohn’s family relocated to San Francisco when he was 10 and a year later moved an hour north to rural Forestville where his father, who had been in the shoe business in Chicago, started a goat dairy. The family lived in an old farm- house, and Bruce had to get up at 4:30 every morning to milk the goats—he also picked grapes on a neighbor’s vineyard.

But he never imagined that one day he’d be a winemaker. It happened almost by accident. He’d become the manager of The Doobie Brothers in 1970 when he was just 22. “We had 38 guys on the road, two planes and four semis, it was a lot of responsibility for somebody that young.” The Doobie Brothers “were pretty crazy, wild guys at that time. Now they’re just crazy,” he says with a laugh, “boring and crazy.”

Cohn also worked as the sound mixer at the Doobies’ shows. After four years of incessant touring he decided to buy some land in the Valley of the Moon, a crescent of paradise in eastern Sonoma County. The idea was to have a place to decompress. “I was on the road with the band about 250 days a year,” he says, “and I just wanted a place where I could raise my kids like I was raised.”


“I call this the center of the earth,” Cohn says. “This is like Tuscany. I tell people, don’t go to Italy, just come to B.R. Cohn. We have better wines; we have great olive oils.” That sounds boastful, but Cohn seems like a down-to-earth guy who can’t quite believe his luck and is grateful for how well his life turned out. When he acquired the property, some of the land was planted with grapes that were sold to Sebastiani, a nearby family winery. The patriarch, August Sebastiani, sagely told Cohn he wouldn’t make much money on the grapes, but that he’d do well with the land. “When I got my first check for the grapes,” Cohn says, “I understood what he meant.”

In the early 1970s, Cohn read thick books about viticulture on flights with the Doobies. Not long afterward, he was introduced to Charlie Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, and asked the veteran winemaker to mentor him, but Wagner was taken aback by Cohn’s appearance. “I sure didn’t look like a farmer,” Cohn says. “I had an afro up to here, leather pants, high-heeled boots.” Cohn soon won him over, and Wagner, who died in 2002, tutored Cohn for four years. “In 1978, I’d brought him three tons of pinot and three tons of cab grapes,” Cohn says. “I drove a ’48 Dodge over the mountain” to Caymus in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa’s wine country. “I burned the brakes up going down the Oakville Grade.”

Six months later Wagner called Cohn and said: “Get over here, you gotta try this wine.” So Cohn drove back over the Mayacamas Mountains, and Wagner poured him some pinot. “I didn’t know anything about red wine. I was drinking tequila and Dos Equis with the band,” Cohn says.

“So, I tried the pinot and said, ‘oh that’s good.’ He said ‘yeah, it’s pretty good. Now try this cab of yours.’ He poured me a glass of the cab. I said, ‘Oh, that’s real good.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not real good. That’s the best cab I’ve ever had from Sonoma County.’” Wagner advised Cohn to have Sebastiani make the wine under Cohn’s Olive Hill name, “but August laughed and said, ‘Bruce, I don’t even have a tank small enough to put your grapes in.’” So Cohn had other local wineries do it and started winning gold medals.

In 1982 The Doobie Brothers broke up; the next year Cohn began managing the band Night Ranger. In 1984, he decided to launch his own winery and named it B.R. Cohn. “It was my second chance with enough money to do it,” he says. “But it takes a lot more money than I thought.”

His first year, Cohn made 900 cases of cabernet and 2,000 cases of chardonnay. “The chard you could take the paint off your car with, literally. I couldn’t sell it,” he says. “And the cab got a 94 rating from Wine Spectator. Nobody in Sonoma had gotten a rating that high for cab.” Cohn says he’s fortunate to have purchased land in an area that’s perfect for cabernet, not the just warm days and cool nights but where frost is rare. He has hired talented wine- makers but says, “The vineyards make the wine. If you don’t have great grapes, you’re not going to have a great wine.”

Dan Weiner, a booking agent for the Doobies, Foreigner and other bands, has known Cohn since 1972 and says, “He has laser vision. He looks out at the horizon and sees a future that no one else can even imagine. He bought a farm, but in his eyes he could see the grapes, the vines; he was seeing it all. That’s just the way he is.”

Cohn inspires intense loyalty in people with whom he works. “I love the man. I’d take a bullet for him,” says Tom Montgomery, B.R. Cohn’s chief winemaker from 2003 until last year. “He does practice what he preaches. He believes in rock ’n’ roll music, truth, justice and the American way. I don’t know of any- body who better describes the lifestyle I’d call the good life.”

In 1990, Cohn decided to use the olives that were dropping off his eight acres of 140-year-old French Picholine trees. “The kids were staining the carpet with black olives in the house over there,” he says pointing to what is now the tasting room. “It was pick up the olives or buy new carpet. So I picked up the olives and shipped them to Modesto to the only guy making extra-virgin olive oil in California.”

He didn’t have enough olives on his property to distribute nationally so he began buying from throughout California to make a blend of oil, vinegar and spices for dipping. He launched an olive oil festival in his grove that initially attracted about 10 producers but soon grew so large that it’s now held in downtown Sonoma. The 15th annual Sonoma Valley Olive Festival was held last January.


Cohn’s success is “no freaking accident,” says Herbie Herbert, who managed Steve Miller and Journey in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s a marriage of determination, talent, organizational skills and management skills. There are a lot of people who may not realize it, but Bruce Cohn is the most important person they’ve ever met in their life. The guy is a seriously gifted entrepreneur.” Starting in the 1970s when Cohn was still in his 20s, he wanted to share his good fortune. He held a golf tournament to benefit the United Way and had members of The Doobie Brothers sing Christmas carols for gravely ill kids at Stanford Children’s Hospital.

In 1987, Doobies drummer Keith Knudsen wanted to help Vietnam veterans so Cohn suggested he try to reunite the band, which had split up five years before. Cohn says the Doobies felt their time had passed, but they agreed to do one show at the Hollywood Bowl. “It sold out in two hours,” Cohn says. “So they said maybe we should do one for Stanford Children’s Hospital. So I booked Shoreline (in nearby Mountain View, California), and it sold out, 19,000 seats.” They ended up doing 10 shows, all benefits, raising millions of dollars. The band played on, going back into the studio to record and continuing to tour; they now play about 85 shows a year.

Cohn next wanted to do something closer to home. He rented the field at Sonoma High School and held a benefit with Graham Nash and Little Feat. But there was “no ambiance,” so Cohn built an amphitheater on a gently sloping hill at his winery and got permits for 3,000 people to come onto his land one weekend a year. The B.R. Cohn Charity Sonoma Music Festival has attracted such legends as Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Chicago and Gregg Allman, and naturally The Doobie Brothers. Last year Ringo Starr performed. “We had a Beatle in Sonoma!” Cohn says.

In 2015, the Sonoma Music Festival moved to downtown Sonoma. Toby Keith will play at this year’s festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the festival has raised almost $7 million for veterans, food banks and other worthy causes. Today, though the winery still bears his name, Cohn no longer owns it. He sold 70 acres of vine- yards and the rights to his name last year to Vintage Wine Estates, but he retained 21 acres and still lives in a home on the property. “I grew the winery from 500 cases a year to almost 85,000. That took a lot of money that I didn’t have so you take on a lot of debt,” he says. “Pretty soon you got a great lifestyle, but you’re working for the bank. There isn’t that much profit in wine.”

Costs were “going through the roof,” he says. “Dollar-wise, it was just too much pressure. I was like the hamster on the wheel and never knew from one year to the next if I was going to be able to make it. Family wineries are selling out. Corporations are coming in and buying market share. It makes it hard on the little family guys; we couldn’t compete.” So now Cohn is a consultant paid by Vintage. “I am the spokesman, the figurehead. I’m on the payroll, but I have almost no responsibilities,” he says, surveying the land he owned for 41 years. “It’s kind of wonderful,” he says with a laugh, “kind of great.”