Two Gorgeous Islands on Croatia’s Exclusive Dalmatian Coast

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Two Gorgeous Islands on Croatia’s Exclusive Dalmatian Coast

October 15, 2018

As a New Englander, I’ve been collecting islands all my life. The ones I first fell for were close to home. We went as a family to Nantucket, a misty, sail-shaped, moor- covered patch of sand some 14 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. We also vacationed on smaller, quieter islands like Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island) and Swan’s Island and Isle en Haut, both adrift in Maine’s island-speckled coast.

Thirty-some years ago, I did my junior year of college abroad and lived in London, the vibrant capital of an island nation and also a jumping-off point for getaways to nearby islands like the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Islands, and the Channel Islands. That January, trying to escape the gray skies and damp of London’s winter, two friends and I set out for islands farther afield—Greek islands in the Mediterranean Sea. We expected to find sunshine, wear T-shirts, and maybe even take a swim. But it turns out Greece in winter was barely warmer than Scotland. Broke and chastened by our mistake, we sullenly boarded a train back to London. Thankfully we weren’t so sullen we didn’t talk to fellow passengers.

A pair of Yugoslav Australians on the train were traveling to Split, Croatia. Split, on the Adriatic Sea, they told us, was a fascinating city—Roman ruins, constant sunshine, and good wine. And warmth. The Aussies were getting off the train in Novska and driving to Split in a Volkswagen van borrowed from an aunt. Did we want to come? We could stay with them at a relative’s house, a big place by the sea with beautiful views. Of course we said yes. Walking around Split a couple of days later, the sun so relentlessly toasted the town’s old streets that we were in T-shirts by noon.

Another day, an uncle of our generous new friends said he’d take us to the island of Hvar (pronounced Hwahr) on his fishing boat. He described it simply: “It’s so beautiful it will take your breath away.” We only got to see Hvar from a distance though. Marshal Josep Broz Tito, President for Life of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was vacationing on a nearby island and the country’s coast guard wasn’t letting boats through. They turned us around. The back- up plan was the best consolation prize I’ve ever gotten: We spent the day in the delightful town of Primošten, some 35 miles up the coast from Split. Here we picked up a chicken and several bottles of Babić, a hearty red produced nearby in stone-walled vineyards (that are currently being considered for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). After a swim at Mala Raduča, one of the best beaches in Croatia, we found a quiet cove, put ashore, and had a picnic. We ate fat olives, sharp ewe’s milk cheese, just-baked bread, Croatian ham, and, over a driftwood fire, spit-roasted the chicken and grilled the sardines we’d netted that morning.

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When we had to return to London for the start of the next semester, I left the southern Dalmatian Riviera amazed by the fuzzy, yellow mimosa bushes flowering around Split’s train station. I was determined to come back.

I was, of course, far from the first traveler to fall in love with this littoral. When the first rail lines opened from Vienna and Budapest to the Adriatic port towns of Rijeka and Opatija during the second half of the 19th century, the spectacular beauty of this craggy coastline quickly captured the sun-starved subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The cerulean waters and gentle climate were irresistible. The charm and history of handsome old cities like Split and Dubrovnik offered sophistication.

The most powerful testament to the allure of the Croatian coastline predates this first rush of modern popularity by more than a millennium, however. Roman emperor Diocletian had the vast and varied territories of the ancient world’s largest empire—including much of Britain, Spain, Egypt, and Greece—at his disposal, and chose to retire to what is today Split. Diocletian ordered his retirement villa built there on the water’s edge. (He was the first Roman emperor to abdicate the throne voluntarily.) Diocletian’s palace—“villa” doesn’t do it justice—was completed in 305 A.D. It survives today as one of the best- preserved Roman palaces in Europe and includes both Diocletian’s original residence as well as other structures added over the ensuing centuries like a cathedral, a baptistery created from one of the palace’s original temples, and three 3,500-year-old sphinxes brought to Split from Egypt for the emperor. (If time allows, Split’s Archaeological Museum displays a superb collection of Illyrian, Greek, and Roman artifacts—an elaborately carved, 1800-year-old Roman sarcophagus, a Greek sacrificial altar dating to the 4th century B.C., and gold Roman jewelry from the 4th-7th centuries A.D. Much of the collection was discovered during excavations at Salona just outside of the city.)

Split is also the hub of the ferry and catamaran network linking Croatia’s islands to the mainland. From the Italian border in the north to the Montenegrin border in the south, the Croatian coastline is more than 1,100 miles long.

Only seven months after my promise to return, I was back in Croatia exploring its more than 1,200 islands. An Italian couple taking a two-month-long yachting vacation along the coast hired me as an English tutor for their two children. We spent two weeks between the two islands the couple told me they liked best, Brač (“pronounced Bratch) and Hvar. “They go together like salt and pepper,” said Alessandra, the woman who hired me. These sister islands share a common history— Illyrian, then Greek, then Venetian rule—but are different in terms of their atmosphere, topography, and the visitors they attract. “Brač is primal, rough, and essential, while Hvar is lively, sexy, and fun,” Alessandra said. Both are relaxing in different ways. Brač’s relaxation is in its slow pace; Hvar’s in a day spent on the beach.

That summer I circumnavigated both of these islands by boat several times. With my 13- and 15-year-old charges as guides—they already knew these islands like the backs of their hands—we toured the islands by motor scooter and did long hikes. I helped them with the intricacies of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye; they taught me these two islands so well I still don’t need a map when I return today, which I regularly do. Both Brač and Hvar are reached by boat from Split. If you get an early start, you’ll have plenty of time to discover each in one day. Or both on two different days. Among the hundreds of inhabited islands off the Croatian coast, these two are true gems.

Brač, the third largest of the Croatian islands, is plump and leaf-shaped, rugged and rustic, and has always earned its keep from hard work. Archeological evidence shows humans lived here during the Paleolithic era. During Illyrian, Greek, Roman, and Venetian rule, Bračians were fishermen and sailors; tended olive groves; worked vineyards, at least until phylloxera destroyed most of them in the 19th century; and mined the beautiful, creamy white limestone the island is made of. At quarries, miners cut the stone into blocks and sent them to the mainland as building material. (Sixteen centuries after being used to build Diocletian’s palace, Brač limestone was used to build the White House. Nearly two centuries after that, Brač stone was used in the construction of the United Nations Secretariat Building in New York City.) Brač’s most famous beach, Zlatni Rat, is famous not for celebrity-spotting like Hvar’s beaches are, but for its geomorphology. Changes in tide, current, and wind transform the shape of the spit at the center of the beach.

Supetar, on Brač’s northern coast and the island’s biggest town (pop. about 3,500), rolls down and around gentle hills blanketed with pine trees and wild herbs like rosemary and thyme. It’s peaceful and idyllic. The intimate harbor front, where ferries from the mainland dock, is edged with the island’s creamy white stone and plump palms whose shaggy crowns are often filled with twittering starlings. It was often the cheerful chatter of these birds that woke me in the morning during my summer on the yacht teaching English. Awake, I’d have a quick coffee in one of the cafes overlooking the port and its small, colorful fleet of fishing boats before heading to a bakery for several loaves of fresh bread.

Bistro Palute (Put Pasike 16), one of the places I liked to linger with a novel when I had an occassional afternoon off, is still in business today. Much of Supetar looks the same as it did those many decades ago. The parish church of Mary Annunciation was built in the 18th century. Its pipe organ dates from 1737 and, with a little luck, you might show up during a service when it’s being used. Next to the church, there are some early Christian mosaics from the 6th century.

Konoba Vinotoka is the village’s best restaurant, whether you choose its cozy, whitewashed tavern with a wood-burning fireplace or the large, modern, airy dining room with views over the town. The same menu is served in both and the catch-of- the-day options are always impeccably fresh, because they’re what local fishermen brought in that morning. I’d start with a plate of Croatian prsut, the country’s rich, savory country ham, and then go for grilled dentex (crimson sea bream), served here with spinach and potatoes.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be served by Bubi, a young waiter who speaks perfect English and has an irrepressible desire to share his love of Brač. Most recently when I ate here, I almost missed my return ferry because of Bubi. When he insisted on serving a complimentary plate of pastries with my coffee at the end of the meal, I insisted on knowing more about the sweets and the conversation became very engrossing.

As cute as Supetar is, Bol, a village on the island’s southern coast that’s long been an artists’ colony, is an operetta set come to life. And the drive there—twisting through a rural, mountainous countryside dotted with small, stone bunje shelters dating back to prehistoric times, and tiny villages (the whole island only has 14,000 permanent residents)—is the stuff car commercials are made of. The landscape is a patchwork of silvery-green olive groves, vineyards, and scrub forest with live oaks and pines. Along the way are two stops, each with a serious sense of place: the village of Škrip and the Blaca Hermitage.

Škrip is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on the island, and it’s a moody, mineral-hard place. Literally. The homes here are built entirely from stone—both walls and roofs. The Museum of the Island of Brač is in Škrip, and the whole village feels a bit like an open-air museum. Walk around, dodging the donkeys and sheep of the village’s contemporary residents, and see remnants of 5,000-year-old walls built by Illyrians and the island’s largest Roman cemetery. Archeologists believe that buried somewhere near the cemetery are the ruins of a Roman temple.

Compared to Škrip, Blaca Monastery is modern: it was founded in the mid-16th century by Glagolitic priests fleeing the Ottoman invasion of the Croatian mainland. For several years they lived in caves carved out of the cliffs here, but eventually began building the monastery still standing today. The last priest of the order died in 1963 and the monastery has been preserved as a museum since. Its library has more than 8,000 volumes, there is an impressive armory collection, and the monks’ cells and a schoolroom for local kids look like they were used only yesterday.

From Blaca, meat-lovers and adventurous eaters should head to the village of Donji Humac where Konoba Kopačina serves the best version of Brač’s signature dish: vitalac. Cooked over a wood fire in a big open hearth, vitalac is a spit-roasted preparation of lamb’s offal wrapped in caul fat. The restaurant also does less exotic grilled dishes like lamb chops, sausage, and fish, and its terrace has beautiful views over the countryside.

Just before the road begins a series of hairpin curves that zigzag down to Bol, keep your eyes peeled for a view of Zlatni Rat, the geomorphing beach. The cobalt-blue waters of the Adriatic lap at both sides of its arrowhead- shaped, white-sand spit. Just beyond it, built right up to the water’s edge, is Bol. If you want a swim before exploring Bol, look for the sign that indicates the Zlatni Rat parking lot. The beach is about a 10-minute walk.

Bol’s most interesting attraction, aside from Zlatni Rat and the town itself, is the Branislav Dešković Museum, housed in a Renaissance villa on the harbor-front. The museum is named for a Croatian sculptor, but displays more than 300 works by dozens of Croatian artists active in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dešković was best-known for capturing the expressions of animals, and there’s a bronze of a hunting dog just inside the front entrance to the museum. The English-speaking docents are friendly, but they’re no Bubi.

If plump and rugged Brač is a loving babushka, Hvar is a supermodel—long and thin and, thanks to its popularity with Dalmatian nobles in the 18th and 19th centuries, cultured with an aristocratic gloss. (In 1869, Empress Elisabeth of Austria visited and liked Hvar so much she helped finance the construction of the Hotel Palace.) In the island’s main port and biggest town, also named Hvar, buildings date to Venetian rule. Today, during the summer, yachts fill the harbor, and the café terraces around the port are packed with a glamorous, international crowd that has included Beyonce, Tom Cruise, and Oprah.

Depending on the season and the direction of the wind, it’s possible you’ll discover Hvar’s signature scent before you actually arrive on the island. The perfume of the lavender fields planted along the main road that runs from Hvar Town east sometimes wafts out to sea. Otherwise, the breeze coming into the harbor may be laced with the fragrances of pine trees or fig leaves. Whatever scent is in the air, the arrival of every ferry has an opulently festive feel. Passengers on foot and in cars, impeccably dressed, spill onto the stone-edged wharf and air kiss friends accessorized with bright silk scarves and oversized sunglasses, or quickly pop into one of the cafes that line the eastern edge of the port.

While Brač is an island to explore, Hvar is an island to be. To do this, you don’t have to leave Hvar Town, which is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved port towns in Croatia. If Bol is an operetta set, Hvar is an elegant open-air baroque salon perfect for wandering—there are boutiques, restaurants, and museums. The Venetians rebuilt the town—the earliest settlement of note in the area was Roman—in the early 1600s, adding the Pjaca, a rectangular stone-paved main square that is still the area’s heart, and in miniature, recalls some of the refinement of Venice’s Piazza San Marco. At one end of the Pjaca is the harbor and an old arsenal building whose second floor is one of the oldest Baroque playhouses in Europe. The main market and Saint Stephen’s church are at the other end of the Pjaca. You’d think St. Stephen’s Dalmatian Renaissance exterior its most remarkable asset, until you step inside and see artwork that predates Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas: the 13th-century icon The Madonna and Child and a 15th-century pieta.

Out of the square, wander the narrow lanes of Groda, old town, and make the hike up to the Fortica. Venetians built the Fortica with the help of Spanish engineers in the 1550s; today it has superb views over town. I never look down on the flotilla of yachts, each grander and more gilded than the next, without feeling an affectionate nostalgia for the handsome, white, mahogany-trimmed 1930s yacht that first brought me here more than three decades ago. Notwithstanding my New Englander’s preference for things both simple and plain- spun, I love gawking at this mid-summer magnificence. In both human and nautical terms, it’s one of the best shows to be found anywhere in Europe.

After looking at this show, become part of it. People come to Hvar for the same reason they go to Saint-Tropez—to be a part of one of the world’s most stylish beach scenes. As in Saint-Tropez, the owners of the extravagant craft anchored in the harbor spend their days at glamorous beach clubs.

Hula-Hula Hvar has a party vibe with piped music and a gorgeous young crowd tossing back Austrian sparkling wine. Built in 1927, Bonj les Bains was recently renovated and is more formal. Rent a cabana with chaise lounges and an umbrella here, swim off the pier, book a massage, and tuck into a plate of spaghetti with lobster sauce in its restaurant. Afterward, bring the best of Hvar and Brac together: punctuate the deliciously lazy hours of a long, nose-stuck- in-a-novel afternoon with a plunge into the Adriatic and a glass or two of Stina Winery’s Pošip, a white wine made in Bol of Bračian- grown grapes.

Discover the Best Beach in Nicaragua

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Discover the Best Beach in Nicaragua

September 26, 2018

As co-founder of the New York City-based luxury travel blog Compass + Twine, I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting hotel and destination experiences around the world. From Zanzibar, Tanzania, to Jaipur, India, it’s my job to seek out the true character of a location— as well as the best place to stay while immersing oneself in a new place. Mukul Resort, on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, had quickly climbed onto our radar over the past year; so when I saw that Inspirato recently added it to their collection, I had to check it out. 

Situated on a private, secluded bay only two hours south of the capital, Managua, Mukul was built by the Pellas, a fifth generation local family involved in everything from rum to hospitals. It is the country’s first truly five-star resort and home to one of the best surf breaks in Central America.

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Convincing Daniel, my husband, to go for the world-class surfing was easy. The relatively simple 4- to 5-hour flight from New York City didn’t hurt either. We flew direct into Costa Rica’s Liberia Airport and drove north into Nicaragua (this route better matched our schedules than the direct flights to Managua). This was where Inspirato’s level of service showed its worth: They steered us toward using the hotel’s car service to cross the rather chaotic border and helped with all the transportation arrangements. With long lines and redundant checkpoints, traversing this particular crossing would have been an arduous task to tackle on our own.

As we drove down the coastal hills to the resort, it was like entering a time warp; we saw an emerald paradise of lush tropical foliage with very few commercial developments. Rather than coming up on an imposing resort complex, Mukul’s bungalows and beach villas were tucked unobtrusively into the jungle. My husband and I both thought that perhaps this is what Costa Rica looked like 15 years ago.

The star attraction at the resort is the secluded beach on Bahia Manzanillo: it lives up to the hype. With stunning turquoise water and silver-white sand, it’s one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen. Best of all, the entire stretch is almost always empty aside from the occasional hotel guest or two. 

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The surf break at Mukul pumped out consistent 3- to 5-foot waves across the bay. Beyond pleased, my husband happily reported that you could catch full “30-second rides.” That’s a thrill for any surfer, but it’s that much better when you have the wave all to yourself. While I didn’t take advantage of the resort’s surf school or surfboard rentals, I did hop on one of their body boards to experience the awesome break for myself and enjoyed every minute.

The family that owns Mukul also produces the best rum in the country, Flor de Caña, and they celebrate this synergy with an open-air rum-tasting cigar bar. Every day they offer both cigar and rum tastings, where guests can sample the family’s famed rum, including, if you’re lucky, a taste from their coveted 33-year-old bottle. 

As for the food, breakfast was our favorite meal of the day and included some of the freshest fruit we’ve ever tasted. Opting to dine each morning on the terrace, we enjoyed all the local, tropical ingredients the kitchen had to offer. Come lunchtime, we couldn’t get enough of the chilled gazpacho, usually served poolside with a side of plantains. That was plenty to keep us going for the rest of the day.

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As a romantic getaway over a long weekend, Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast is just about perfect. It’s far enough away to feel truly adventurous without being so far as to wear you out with travel or jet lag. Between the golf, the surf, and the amazing spa (the couple’s treatment room came with a private plunge pool on the deck overlooking the jungle), Mukul feels best suited for adults.

Back home, reflecting on our incredible trip to the Emerald Coast, what sticks with me most is the genuine pride Mukul’s staff had in Nicaragua, along with their passion for showcasing their beautiful country. They are truly excited to share Mukul and Nicaragua with the world. It reminds me of why I love to travel and discover new places: There’s something magical about getting to a place before it becomes overly developed as a tourist destination. Fortunately, as long as Mukul can keep Bahia Manzanillo to itself, this little bit of paradise should stay that way.

The Insider’s Guide to Park City

Park City Utah Hero

The Insider's Guide to Park City

September 7, 2018

Skis are on the roof. Johnny Cash is walking the line on the radio. There’s hot coffee in the console. The drive to Park City’s first entrance is 25 minutes from my garage door in Salt Lake City and today I’m counting every second. Last night, a monster winter storm passed through and left a 12-inch carpet of fluffy, dry Utah powder: the “Greatest Snow on Earth” as proclaimed by my license plates. And, like so many Wasatch storms, it quickly cleared out, polite as a preacher on Sunday. I’m racing to a perfect powder day under a bluebird sky.

I crank up the Cash, step on the gas, and Jennifer, my partner, and I start plotting our day like NYSE commodities traders before opening bell. It’s essential to have a plan on a powder day at Park City, or any day really. It is, after all, the largest resort in the United States of America. With 7,300 acres of skiable terrain, its only
rival on the continent is its Canadian cousin (by Vail Corporation marriage) Whistler-Blackcomb, which is 700 acres bigger. Park City has four base areas, one high-speed gondola connecting its two halves, and 41 lifts accessing more than 300 trails (and that’s just counting the trails they label on the trail map).

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“Town Lift,” Jennifer says. “Today is made for Town Lift.”

This is why I love this woman. Jennifer, a transplanted New Yorker, still thinks like she’s moving upstream in midtown Manhattan at 4 p.m. on a Friday. Town Lift is a back-pocket trick we deploy sometimes, but it is a gamble. It’s farther up the road—it’s the last of four base areas as you travel to Park City Mountain from Interstate 80—and requires we ski a throwaway run to get to the good stuff, and it’s a slow lift. Today, however, all these drawbacks mean nobody will think of it. It’s like taking the G into Brooklyn while all the hipsters are packed onto the L train.

We blow past the hundreds of people lining up at the main base areas, Park City and Canyons Villages (holdover names from when the resort was two separate entities) and pull into a parking garage on Park City’s Main Street that I’m not going to tell you about. (Sorry, a local must keep some secrets.) From here we walk onto the Town Lift right as it’s opening. To reiterate: we don’t walk to stand in a line (like the masses of skiers at the lower base areas), but onto the lift. And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Of course, not every day in Utah is a powder day. Amazingly, it’s when there isn’t a foot of fresh, dry snow that Park City really shines. The Greatest Snow on Earth falls
at all 14 of Utah’s ski resorts, but it’s only Park City that has this much lift-served terrain, this much choice of terrain, and a historic mining town at its base. Other ski resorts
have ski-in, ski-out access to homes and hotels. Park City’s downtown is ski-in, ski-out. Park City Mountain is the kind of sprawl—across four 9,000-plus-foot peaks—you want: the quantity and quality of the terrain means there’s always good snow somewhere. And if you get a little lost along the way? High West Distillery, which claims to be the world’s only ski-in, ski-out distillery and whose much-loved Rendezvous Rye and innovative bourbon-rye blends have won almost as many awards as Park City Mountain has runs, is 25 steps from the base of the Town Lift. (If you’d rather a glass of pinot, Old Town Cellars, a local blender, beckons from across the street, as does the whole of Park City’s central strolling, eating, and drinking district.)

Sadly, Park City’s awesomeness long ago ceased being
a secret. Last season, the resort accounted for more than one-third of the lift tickets bought at all of Utah’s ski resorts combined. Just 35 minutes from Salt Lake International Airport, the town of Park City is a famed destination in and of itself, having been part of the 2002 Olympic Games and also thanks to the annual star-studded Sundance Film Festival in February. Also, visitors love that Park City is an actual place where actual people live. Venturing beyond the resort confines and out of the well-trodden Main Street area will easily lead you to friendly pockets of mountain-town life. Stop into White Pine Touring and get some gear and advice to access Park City’s extensive Nordic skiing trail system. Meet the local ski moms (and dads) and drop into a class at Park City Yoga. Take the kids bowling at swanky Jupiter Bowl at Kimball Junction and finish with New York-style pizza at Maxwell’s.

“I moved here because it’s a real town and a ski area grew up around it,” says 60-something Dottie Beck, a 28-year veteran ski instructor at Park City resort who skis year- round thanks to a “summer” job as an instructor in New Zealand. “Even in a lean year, you can find good snow. I grew up in Colorado but this is where I wanted to live.”

As an instructor, Beck likes that her students benefit from a diverse portfolio of terrain. At many resorts, learners are limited to one or two areas, but not at Park City. “I’ve got lots of options for every level and we’re not confined to one itty- bitty area, we can go all over,” she says, “That makes my job easier; it’s a great teaching mountain.”

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But still, as many of Park City Mountain’s terrain secrets you unlock, you want at least one of your
days here to be a powder day. After our throwaway run—Treasure Hollow—from the top of the Town Lift, Jennifer is still in a New York state of mind: chomping
to get up to the top of the resort, the big daddy peaks Jupiter Peak (9,998′) and Ninety-Nine 90 (9,990′).
Both of these summits reward hiking from their access lifts (McConkeys and the eponymous Ninety-Nine 90) with fresh lines in high alpine bowls. I talk her down though, and instead we opt to hang back and work the Crescent Lift, a high-speed four-pack that, on powder days, is almost as overlooked as the Town Lift. I learned this Crescent trick from Bagel Boy or, as some call him, Adam Fehr. Fehr is the 35-year-old proprietor of Park City Bread & Bagel (hence the nickname) whose townie status as the king of carbs allows him to average 100-plus days every season.

“On a powder day, it’s important to have patience,” Fehr once imparted to me. “Everybody is racing to get to Pioneer and McConkeys [the lifts that service the Jupiter Peak area]. But they’ll just have to wait for those chairs
to open while ski patrol clears things out. Meanwhile you can sneak in a few laps on Ski Team Ridge.”

Thanks, Bagel Boy. Crescent doesn’t disappoint. While the sound of avalanche guns echo from higher up, we take laps on Silver King, Willy’s Run, and Erika’s Gold, steep black-diamond runs that we’d skip on a groomer day but are forgiving in the deep Utah powder. At the bottom of each lap, we practically
ski right back onto Crescent. Maybe later we’ll join the lines of skiers and boarders crawling around Jupiter and Ninety-Nine 90 peaks. Or not. Park City’s immensity makes it easy to get pleasantly sidetracked and it’s one of those blue-sky days where our best- laid plans dissipate like the smoky powder under
our skis. Following Bagel Boy and Beck’s best advice, our ramblings take us from boundary to boundary.

Why Scottsdale Is the Spa Capital of the World

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Why Scottsdale Is the Spa Capital of the World

August 20, 2018

My four-day Scottsdale spa vacation had a serious itinerary. Trying something I’d never done before—not committing to a single spa but visiting a different one every day, or even two different spas in the same day—it would be the busiest spa vacation of the dozen or so I’d been on. But
I was up for the challenge, especially since
snow was starting to fall in Jackson, Wyoming, where I live, and the Scottsdale weather forecast called for five months of low humidity and high temperatures in the 80s and 90s. (Yes, winter and spring in Scottsdale are that predictable and that perfect.)

Scottsdale and neighboring Paradise Valley are home to dozens of spa resorts that together include more than 1 million square feet of treatment rooms, saunas, steam rooms, and pools. And then there are the area’s day spas, which are so numerous not even the city’s ultra-organized tourism bureau, Experience Scottsdale, can keep count. They’re as ubiquitous as saguaros. Scottsdale has the highest density of spa resorts of anywhere in the country, and the greatest number of spas per capita. And I couldn’t pick just one.

Multiple spas had treatments that interested me. Also, each spa had its own personality. Well & Being Spa at the Fairmont Princess is massive, 44,000 square feet,
and encourages wandering from treatment 
to pool (including a rooftop adults-only
 pool) to sauna to hot tub to waterfall pool 
to exercise class to patio café. Beyoncé and Jay-Z enjoyed the Asian vibe of Sanctuary Spa when they honeymooned at the attached resort more than a decade ago. More recently, the girlfriend who usually accompanies me on spa vacations raved about an hour-long foot treatment (the Sabai Foot Ritual) at Sanctuary and mentioned that the spa’s redesign was almost complete, and that it was very well done. (Since I thought the “old” Sanctuary Spa was pretty perfect, hearing that it was being updated had made me nervous.) “It’s still the most serene spa I’ve ever been to,” my friend reported.

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At Four Seasons, the spa is intimate and results-driven
and situated at the base of Pinnacle Peak, which I wanted to hike one morning. North of Scottsdale proper, up in Carefree, 12-million-year-old boulders dramatically dot the landscape around Boulders Spa, and its café serves entrees made with produce grown in the organic garden behind it. Boulders offers rock climbing classes and rappelling adventures on-site. Spa Avania at Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch has a Himalayan salt room. Royal Palms’ Alvadora Spa has a citrus grove facial that sounded like exactly what my dull skin needed. Just reading about the juniper cleanse massage at Palo Verde Spa & Apothecary at the new and hip Andaz Scottsdale relaxed my muscles.

Picking just one of these resorts wouldn’t have been Sophie’s Choice, but it certainly wouldn’t have been easy. So I didn’t, and the idea of spa speed dating was born.

I planned an itinerary of body treatments, facials, and massages at eight different spas over four days. Friends accused me of going overboard. I said I was optimizing my opportunities for wellness. Because I am not a golfer—there are more than 30 courses in the Scottsdale area and most of the spas I booked treatments at are part of resorts that also have golf courses—I instead planned time for a hike every morning. There are easily more than a hundred miles of trails of varying difficulty that start right in Scottsdale.

The night of my arrival, it dawned on me that, as much as I had planned, I had not planned meals. Thankfully Bourbon Steak at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess had a table available. I spent the time I wasn’t eating a nine-ounce prime skirt steak topped with creamy blue cheese—so tender no knife was needed to cut it—studying the restaurant menus of the other resorts I’d be visiting. The brunch menu at Proof at Four Seasons included lemon ricotta masa cakes and
a sandwich with five-hour slow cooked pork, blue cheese coleslaw, and house-made pickles. Elements at Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain had a lobster carbonara dinner entrée with an Asian twist, udon noodles instead of spaghetti.
Scottsdale Spa Article 2
With the addition of meals—at the Boulders’ spa café it was an omelet with vegetables grown in the spa’s organic garden; at Proof I went for duck pastrami salad—the first two days went better than planned. (Full disclosure: I slept in the first morning rather than go for a hike.) Day one—a Desert Radiance body treatment at the Boulders and a facial at Fairmont’s Well & Being Spa—left me relaxed and my skin more hydrated then it’d been since a trip to the Amazon four years ago. As good as day one was, day two might go down in history as one of the greatest ever days of spa-ing.

That morning, I did get up at sunrise to hike six miles on Pinnacle Peak, the mountain just behind the Four Seasons with a well-maintained trail of middling difficulty that winds through the area’s full catalog of cacti. Brunch was on Proof ’s deck followed by 80 minutes of full-body exfoliation and massage using various products made with cocoa. It was the most scent-ual spa treatment I’d ever gotten. But, because I spent an hour post-cocoa walking the Four Seasons’ grounds
and admiring the blooming cacti, which was not part of my itinerary, I did arrive at Hyatt’s Spa Avania for 30 minutes of halotherapy and a 60-minute facial a few minutes late and not quite as relaxed as someone on a spa vacation should be.

But one of the purported benefits of halotherapy—in which you inhale pure, dry, micronized salt particles—is a reduction in stress (another is an improved immune system). In a private, dedicated room with walls made of thick salt tiles, I reclined on a chaise lounge and, within five minutes, fell into a deep sleep that ended only when an esthetician gently woke me up. The final activity for the day was lobster carbonara with Jay-Z and Beyoncé, or at least at the restaurant attached to the resort where they honeymooned (Sanctuary).

The following day, I popped the bubble of wellness and relaxation the prior days of spa-ing had gifted me by shattering my wrist. While hiking down Camelback Mountain shortly after sunrise and a couple of
hours before my Sabai Foot Ritual, I slipped. The
 day’s treatments were replaced by a visit to the emergency room at Scottsdale’s Osborn Hospital.

Scottsdale Spa Article 3
That evening, with no spas to immediately comfort me, I fed my sorrows and distress with a return visit to Elements for dinner (a bacon-wrapped filet) and practiced gratitude that it was a spa vacation on which I had hurt myself.

Day four dawned with my arm throbbing. I briefly wanted the sunrise to acknowledge this unplanned and painful change in my situation and be muted and moody, but, like Scottsdale’s weather all winter and spring, it was reliably, spectacularly perfect. Thankfully, the surrounding mountains were still glowing pink when, instead of seeing this gorgeous sunrise as traitorous, I transitioned: It was proof that life goes on, and also that my life at the moment, despite a club- like cast on one arm, was still pretty amazing. I had broken my arm in between spa treatments, and it would heal, and, in the meantime, Sanctuary had been able to rebook me for its Sabai Foot Treatment without encroaching on my already- scheduled afternoon facial at Joya Spa. As the pink light turned orange, I vowed to never suffer an illness or injury at any time other than when on a spa vacation. I
 also vowed to return to Scottsdale sooner than later for the treatments and relaxation I missed the day prior.

Sanctuary’s Sabai Foot Ritual lived up to my friend’s
review and to its name, which, in Thai, means to relax and be comfortable. As a therapist massaged my feet, shins, and calves with a heated poultice filled with fresh herbs, I both relaxed and got more comfortable. Of course I wasn’t as relaxed and comfortable as I would have been without a freshly broken wrist, but I was much more relaxed and comfortable than I would have been anywhere else, even in my own home. I was also sold on the ideas of 1) Future spa vacations would involve multiple resorts,
and 2) Every future vacation would 
include at least one element of self-care
or wellness, just in case I did something
 stupid again.

Rent This Private Caribbean Enclave in Unexplored Punta Cana

Rent This Private Caribbean Enclave in Unexplored Punta Cana

Fine white sand and warm water are just two of the charming elements travelers encounter when they explore Punta Cana, the easternmost region of the Dominican Republic. And if visitors are looking for both seclusion, beauty and stunning balcony views, their own private Caribbean enclave isn’t far away. 

Three new oceanfront villas were built exclusively for travelers looking to book an extended family reunion, multi-family vacation, or corporate retreat in the privacy of the Punta Cayuco section of the extensive Cap Cana luxury resort. Interested in visiting? Explore the private Caribbean enclave below.

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There's no better place for a sunset swim than Villa Bagua in Punta Cana.

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Open-air floor plans allow guests to soak in the fresh air in the comfort of their home.

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With a private beach in the enclave, you'll never have to see another tourist during your stay.

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High-end appliances and countertops make meal prep in Villa Caona's kitchen a breeze.

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After a day at the beach, relax in one of the villa's oversized tubs or steam in the shower.

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Evenings in Punta Cana have never been more luxurious or breathtaking.

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Comfortable accommodations with great views will make any stay restful.

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With the perfect ocean view, swimming in a private pool has never felt more adventurous.

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There are plenty of dining spaces in the enclave, so guests can choose based on their mood.

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The patio is the perfect lookout for guests who want to soak in the natural beauty.

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Large groups can comfortably stay in the enclave with plenty of beds and bathrooms.

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Rest, recharge, and bask in the beauty of Punta Cana in your own private enclave.

Designed and constructed according to high standards and specific direction, the Villa AnaVilla Bagua, and Villa Caona homes—each with its own pool—share landscaped grounds, a fitness room, a game room, and on-site staff and cooks who stay in separate quarters within the estate. 

The idea behind the enclave was to better enable large groups to enjoy their own private homes with easy proximity to friends and family. And Punta Cana’s easy access (only 3.5 hours by plane from Atlanta’s international airport), tropical beauty, and diversity of available activities make it the perfect choice for this concept.

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On this low-lying stretch of the Dominican Republic, a consistent breeze mitigates the tropical heat, keeping the average year-round temperature in the mid-80s (F). Guests can enjoy the perfect weather while accessing what are arguably considered the Caribbean’s best golf courses, including Punta Espada, the oceanfront Jack Nicklaus-designed stunner that’s a regular stop on the PGA Senior Tour. 

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Offshore, scuba fans and snorkelers can dive into the technicolor magic of the reef while anglers test their mettle on a deep-sea fishing adventure. Kids can head to the protected waters and pristine beach at the Eden Roc Beach Club attached to the five-star resort hotel located just a five-minute golf-cart drive away from the enclave. 

The only one thing missing from this Caribbean paradise? You.

The Four Best Caribbean Beaches in Turks and Caicos​

The Four Best Caribbean Beaches in Turks and Caicos

May 21, 2018

It’s not surprising that travelers love to visit the islands of Turks and Caicos. Crystal blue waters surround white-sand beaches as fine as confectioner’s sugar and seduce visitors into long leisurely strolls. But it’s not just the beaches that are beautiful; the people are too, cultivating a culture of warm hospitality. 

Whether you seek relaxation or ocean adventure, opportunity abounds—above and below the waves—in the Turks and Caicos Islands. But before you plan your next beach trip to one of these four Caribbean beach destinations, be sure to check out the best accommodations in Turks and Caicos in the slideshow below.

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Caya Hico is a stunning beachfront home just 15 minutes from Grace Bay.

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With four bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms, Caya Hico can accommodate up to eight people.

Amanyara, Turks and Caicos, Exterior

The Amanyara Luxury Hotel offers open-air villas that are just steps away from the Caribbean Sea.

Amanyara, Turks and Caicos, Bedroom

Amanyara's villas won Condé Nast's Best of the Best 2015 and Readers’ Choice Award 2016.

Gansevoort Hotel, Turks and Caicos

Gansevoort is a boutique island property known for its minimalist design and luxury amenities.

Gansevoort Hotel, Bedroom, Turks and Caicos

This hotel option is perfect for romantic getaways and beach lovers alike.

Gansevoort Hotel, Pool Night Exterior, Turks and Caicos

Guests will never get bored with two pools and a beach service with complimentary water rentals.

Sommerset on Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos

The Somerset on Grace Bay is another gorgeous rental option in Turks and Caicos.

Sunset Dining, Sommerset on Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos

Romantic sunset dinners and ocean views set the mood to unwind and relax.

Infinity Pool and Beach, Sommerset on Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos

Guests will love the amenities at The Somerset on Grace Bay. The pools, spa, private terraces, and restaurants are second to none.

Grace Bay Beach

Named for Lady Grace Hutchings, who honeymooned on the island in 1892 and reportedly charmed everyone she met, Grace Bay Beach is both the busiest part of the island and its most open and serene. To see the area’s less-frequented gems, visitors will have to rent a car. Twelve-mile-long Grace Bay Beach earns its fame for wide, white stretches that go on and on, but it’s hardly Turks and Caicos’ only option.

Little Water Cay

This beach is home to 2,000+ endangered rock iguanas, many measuring 2 feet long. The horned creatures mostly scurry across rocks while visitors stick to a well-maintained boardwalk, but they make Little Water Cay a must-see. It’s also a five-minute boat ride from Provo’s Leeward Marina.

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North Caicos

A 12-minute flight from Provo or a 25-minute ferry from the Leeward Marina can get you to North Caicos, home to most of the archipelago’s farms. You’ll also find a few thousand pink flamingos, outstanding snorkeling at Three Mary Cays, jaw-dropping Horsestable Beach, and eerie plantation ruins at Wades Green. Just looking to make a day trip? Big Blue Unlimited runs day trips on bikes.

Grand Turk

Scuba divers and snorkelers flock here and cruise ships dock here, but Grand Turk’s charms extend beyond the coast. Founded by Bermudian salt-rakers in 1681, the island’s capital, Cockburn Town, is the archipelago’s historic, political, and administrative center. Weathered colonial buildings and the national museum add to its charm.

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It’s no surprise that this collection of 40 low-lying islands is a beach vacation hot spot when there are so many beautiful options to explore. Wherever travelers decide to dive in, luxury hotels, world class scuba diving, snorkeling, and various other adventures await them in Turks and Caicos.