Sam King’s Big Apple appreciation

Sam-KingSam King is a Southern California kind of guy, reigning over a stable of popular Southern California restaurants such as Water Grill and King’s Fish House as well as Costa Mesa-based King’s Seafood Co. But he also tries to get away from it all once in a while. New York City is a favorite, a dining and shopping capital, epicenter of the arts and home to world-famous museums and architectural treasures. Besides being an irresistible feast for the senses, it’s the kind of place where King can take a break from the 21 restaurants his company operates. He may be passionate about seafood, but he’s also passionate about enjoying New York’s attractions. As told to Rosemary McClure

 

 

Why New York City?

I like the dynamic of the city and the electricity you feel the moment you enter Manhattan. It is a terrific place to spend four to five nights for great food, shopping and entertainment. And every neighborhood offers a different version of the city.

 

 

Must Do 

My daughter is a theater major, so when we visited this summer we caught some Broadway shows. The theater scene here is terrific and should be on every visitor’s list. We saw four shows in five nights: “Waitress” was wonderful – it’s not as well-known as some others, but was my daughter’s favorite; “Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony Awards this year and features Ben Platt, who was amazing; “Hamilton” is such a great production that it’s like watching a Super Bowl; “Book of Mormon” is an older show but is excellent.

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Buy In

When you travel, be sure to visit weekend flea markets wherever you are in the world. It’s the best place to rub elbows with locals and find some very good bargains. We went to Brooklyn Flea while we were in town. (The outdoor market is closed for the season, but there’s a weekend indoor market at 100 Avenue of the Americas). We also spent time shopping in SoHo.

Secret Tip

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Do as much research as possible. Not just for dining but also for sightseeing and shopping. I use Yelp, Eater and Open Table as initial resources. You can also go online to research top-rated magazines that have recently visited your destination; they usually offer some good insights.

Best Bite

  • The famous pastrami sandwich from Katz's Deli.

    The famous pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli.

  • The Todd English Food Hall at the Plaza

    The Todd English Food Hall at the Plaza

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Eating out is very idiosyncratic for us. In our recent visit, we dined at Keens Steakhouse, which is one of the oldest steakhouses in New York City. It was fantastic. After one of the Broadway shows we saw, we went to Katz’s Deli, where I had the best pastrami sandwich on earth. It was so tender, it was like eating pastrami wagyu. We also checked out some of the more popular food halls in the city, and especially enjoyed the Todd English Food Hall at the Plaza. It reminded us of eating at Harrods in London. And of course, you can’t leave New York without eating some pizza. On our last night, we tried John’s of Bleecker Street, where they have been cooking pizza in a coal oven for generations.

 

Time is Right 

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I typically like to travel in the United States in the spring or fall, but New York has things to commend it any time of the year. From a weather standpoint, April to June and September to early November offer mild weather and few crowds.

After Dark 

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While I don’t visit many clubs anymore, New York offers visitors some of the best stage productions in the world. You can’t go wrong visiting Broadway.

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Great Escape: Starkly elegant Nobu Ryokan Malibu is where billionaires go to relax

Nobu Ryokan Malibu, the latest venture in the Nobu Hospitality empire, sits on one of the most affluent stretches of residential beachfront anywhere. Malibu’s Carbon Beach is also known as “Billionaires’ Beach” for property owners like David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison.

Ellison, who owned a funky midcentury motel where Nobu Ryokan Malibu now stands, is a partner — as is Robert De Niro and Hollywood producer Meir Teper — in the 16-room property, which is loosely modeled after a Japanese ryokan, a simple, tranquil country inn. Ironically, it is Malibu’s first truly luxurious hotel.

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A Japanese garden greets guests once they pass beyond the wooden wall that shields the property from the Pacific Coast Highway.

 

But despite its $2,000-$3,500 per night price tag, this is an expression of luxury in simplicity, starting with the low-slung teak and ipé structure, which from Pacific Coast Highway looks more like another billionaire’s enclave than a hotel. If you are a guest — and only guests are allowed on the property — you pull up to a curb-cut on PCH, and a wooden wall mysteriously slides open to reveal a small parking lot where you and your companion are greeted by name and your bags are whisked away. The adjacent lobby is minimalist; there are no gilded mirrors or crystal chandeliers, no oversized ancient Persian carpet, no lobby bar to catwalk through on the way to the elevator bank. But you are only there a minute before you are led through a gorgeously verdant Japanese garden, past a spirit house, an outdoor fireplace and a waterfall, as the Pacific Ocean winks at you around the corner of a bungalow.

In your suite, there is no hovering butler, just a low-key, efficiently helpful millennial who hands you a mini iPad, which controls the home automation system for the suite. From the iPad you can text the concierge, order room service from Nobu down the beach and adjust the room lighting or temperature. While you are served the most delicious green tea you ever tasted in hand-painted Japanese ceramic cups, you immediately push the button that draws back the curtains to reveal the waves crashing no more than 30 feet from your king-size bed.

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The anti-Ritz, Noby Ryokan emphasizes minimalism and simplicity while offering luxurious care.

Nobu Ryokan is the anti-Ritz. Here the emphasis is discretion and serenity. It’s about being left alone, yet being wonderfully taken care of.

“You go to a Nobu restaurant or a Nobu Hotel to be seen,” says Janelle Eng, Nobu Ryokan Malibu’s general manager. “You go to Nobu Ryokan to not be seen.”

While you are not being seen, you might daydream or read on a chaise under an umbrella on the white sand beach below your oceanfront terrace. You might bathe in your sumptuous sky-lit teak soaking tub that is meant to overflow into slits in the wood and Jerusalem limestone bathroom floor. You might watch a movie or a football game on the 75-inch television above the gas fireplace, both controlled by the iPad.

And if, after a couple of days of lolling, you do get the itch to be seen — presto! — the concierge will arrange a reservation at the Malibu Nobu restaurant, a commodity that can take up to a month to procure otherwise.

At Nobu Ryokan Malibu, getting a reservation is also tricky. There is no phone number on the website; instead you must submit an email inquiry and wait to hear back. To insure privacy and an exclusive clientele, the hotel keeps its social media presence to a minimum and does little advertising and PR.

“Our guests tend to be businesspeople who want to switch off, relax, chill and take a break,” says Eng. “They are people who don’t want to decompress in a place that is as busy as their life is.  In so many hotels, there’s so much to distract you. Here we try to be conscientious about how much attention our guests want or don’t want. We make it easy for them to enjoy their time

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Great Escape: Unplug and tune in at Rancho Valencia

At my husband’s urging, I’d just unfollowed 50 social media accounts, an effective start to improving my mood. Life had been overtaken by current events, natural disasters and breaking news about Kardashian pregnancies. I needed to clear my mind, aware that the days when that could be accomplished on a lounge chair with the latest John Grisham and a tube of Bain de Soleil were BiP (Before iPhone).

Enter Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa. No, they don’t make you delete Twitter when you check in. It’s just that the intimate resort in San Diego County offers a balanced blend of luxury, comfort and activity that during my two-and-a-half-day stay left me engaged, pampered and well-fed. Unplugging was a happy byproduct.

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The resort’s 30 million upgrade includes the new Serenity Yoga Pavillion, where levels of classes are offered.

For the uninitiated, Rancho Valencia has been around since 1989, now spiffed up, the result of a $30 million upgrade and transformation. Caring attention and personalized service take center stage. The 45-acre property sits as an oasis inland from Del Mar in Rancho Santa Fe, a little-over-an-hour drive on a weekday from Orange County for my late-morning arrival.

I immediately fell in love with my one-bedroom Valencia suite, so spacious and warmly decorated that I had the feeling of staying at a villa guest house in the resort’s Mediterranean-inspired California ranch setting. My favorite spot was the casita’s huge patio, with its fireplace and private whirlpool spa.

As inviting as the room was, I didn’t stay put long. Not when one of two pools is always nearby, where 18 tennis courts (and a tennis pro) are available, and when a spa is at the ready. Not when I could hit the fitness rooms by myself or join an organized Pilates or spin class. Not when a gorgeous indoor-outdoor yoga pavilion beckons.

But first, a welcome cocktail. The place to be at Rancho Valencia clearly is The Pony Room, a draw for guests and locals who come to imbibe and enjoy the casual fare. Tequila is the star, with more than 100 available and eight margaritas on the menu (don’t miss the ginger and agave Palomino). The bar opens to a patio overlooking Rancho Valencia’s manicured croquet lawn; time your beverage near sunset and you’ll watch a colorful spray of hot air balloons floating above.

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Rancho Valencia’s signature restaurant Veladora offeres a locally sourced menu in a hacienda setting.

The next day began, as do all, with a delivery of fresh-squeezed orange juice and the newspaper of my choice. My phone came in handy, playing music through the suite’s Bose sound system.

My tennis game has been dormant since rackets were made of wood, so I headed with trepidation to a small group lesson with tennis pro Robin White, a one-time U.S. Open doubles champion. White turned out to be, well, a pro, gently encouraging my long-forgotten tennis skills and keeping me motivated and positive.

After lunch it was time for my spa treatment. At the cozy haven in the midst of the fitness center and adult pool, I enjoyed the citrus scrub followed by a 60-minute massage. Wondrous.

My last day began with a hydrotherapy circuit experience, guided by a spa therapist, who rotated our small group from sweaty-hot steam room to ice-cold pool to warm spa to ice-cold pool to desert-dry sauna. The therapy, offered every Monday, purports to help your nervous system, release endorphins and increase oxygenation. All I know is later my eternally balky knee was less bothersome.

After a yoga class, I happily lounged at one of the well-supplied pool cabanas. If I’d been antsy, Rancho Valencia offers two new Porsches for complimentary use by licensed drivers for up to four hours, a chance to drive winding rural roads or try a local restaurant.

I never took out the Boxster, content to eat my meals on-site. I’d tell you what I had, but odds are the menu will have changed by the time you come. With the famed Vegetable Shop at Chino Farm only a few miles away, chefs at the signature restaurant Veladora and The Pony Room take inspiration from what’s fresh at the produce stand. I will say of all the wonderful things I ate during my stay, I will never forget the Chino corn soup with its mild vanilla flavor and bite of Alaskan king crab. Whatever you order, it’ll be camera-ready for Instagram, but do try to resist the impulse to plug back into the electronic world until you depart this little slice of heaven.

 

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Thailand’s 137 Pillars offer luxury fit for a king

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  • The house built for Anna, who tutored the King of Siam’s children, now houses a luxury resort (upper left) near the Mae Ping River. Guests enjoy outdoor plunge pools and indoor or al fresco dining.

    The house built for Anna, who tutored the King of Siam’s children, now houses a luxury resort (upper left) near the Mae Ping River. Guests enjoy outdoor plunge pools and indoor or al fresco dining.

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  • At the Chiang Mai property, the pool is an oasis tuked below a towering wall of plants The Rajah Brooke suites provideluxury accommodattions, and the airy surroundings evoke peace and calm.

    At the Chiang Mai property, the pool is an oasis tuked below a towering wall of plants The Rajah Brooke suites provideluxury accommodattions, and the airy surroundings evoke peace and calm.

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You can’t own a copy of the musical “The King and I” or stage a production of “Anna and the King” in Thailand, but you can stay in Anna’s house.

The 137 Pillars, a 30-room, five-star resort in a quiet, artsy neighborhood of Chiang Mai is the teakwood home built in 1889 for Anna Leonowens, namesake governess in the musical who tutored the King of Siam’s children.

And now Bangkok’s newest glittering high-rise hotel, 137 Pillars, is linked to that storybook history. The new property, which opened in April is the smartly dressed city-slicker sister to the 137 Pillars boutique resort in Chiang Mai, the jumping-off city for mountain trekking some 400 miles to the north.

Anna’s teakwood home is the pièce de résistance for the 137 Pillars brand in both locations. Housing the Chiang Mai resort’s two restaurants and a cozy sitting room, complete with historical photos and detail to rival the world’s finest homes, the original building is built on 137 wooden pillars ever-growing wealth, attitude and beauty-obsessed, well-dressed urban population.

The irony, however, is that while Anna Leonowens is a historical figure acknowledged – and even celebrated – in Thailand, the country’s lèse majesté laws forbid any negative depiction of the royal family. Enjoying Yul, with his arms akimbo and acting like a bit of a buffoon by uttering “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” could land you in trouble.

The Thai government banned the film version when it was released in 1956 due to historical inaccuracies: Rama IV was not ignorant and barbaric but, rather, had an excellent command of Latin and several European languages and actually improved the status of women, rather than attempting to crack a whip across the back of a slave girl, as depicted in the musical.

Yet this popular piece of East-meets-West history, however fictionalized, is the charm of these two resorts. The sumptuous rooms in the new Bangkok property – 34 in all – reflect the coziness of its sister property to the north while offering a decidedly urban twist: aerial yoga and dance classes offered in its spa, as well as a rooftop bar and Nimitr, an Asian-fusion restaurant steeped in rich blues in the carpeting, tablecloths and chairs – a cool and inviting oasis with views across Bangkok. The Chiang Mai property with a tucked-away pool that sits below a towering wall of hanging plants, is truly an oasis from the loud and often traffic-clogged city Chiang Mai has become over the last 20 years.

And Jack Bain’s Bar, high above the city in Bangkok or nestled in a corner of the original home in Chiang Mai, honors the colonial gentleman who lived in Anna’s famous teakwood house after her son died and it became the headquarters of the East Borneo Trading Company. A cigar divan, the uber-butch atmosphere and rich leather chairs hark to an earlier time in Asian hospitality, when tourism was a gentleman’s sport. But one unlikely schoolteacher who helped put Siam (the country was renamed Thailand after World War II) on the tourism map is still causing quite a stir in this ever-exotic and welcoming kingdom.

Indeed, 137 Pillars – in both its rustic original form and its new urban-slick version – is Thai hospitality fit both for a king and for Asia’s most famous English school marm – and all of us in between. ν :: 137pillarschiangmai.com/en/

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Old golfers don’t die; they go to Maui

For 43 years, Larry Welborn covered every major story (and a lot of minor ones) about courts, crime and justice for The Orange County Register. From the Manson murder trial and beyond, readers turned to Welborn’s rational and well-researched reporting, which earned him numerous laurels, including the Journalistic Integrity Award from California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. These days, though, the renowned reporter is retired. An avid golfer, he’s chasing a little white ball around a green rather than chasing a source around the courthouse. When not at home in Chino Hills, Welborn and wife Ann are globetrotting. “This is our year of adventure,” says Welborn.

“We need to make our opportunities in retirement become dreams come true.” The Hawaiian Islands, especially Maui, top the list of favorite spots. As told to Coast.

 

Why Maui?

Larry-Welborn

Sunsets, mai tais, Hawaiian shirts. You can golf 365 days a year and go to dinner in shorts. For a golfer, this is paradise. These are some of the most beautiful courses on the planet. West Maui Mountains and the 10,000-foot-high Haleakala volcano dominate the landscape. Kahului, the main city, is where you’ll find most locals. You’ll find a golf course close by no matter where you are on the island.

 

Must do

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The top of the bucket list for any golf aficionado is the Kapalua Plantation Course where they play the PGA tour Sentry Tournament of Champions every January, which includes all the winners of the previous year’s PGA tour.

 

Secret Tip

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For a golfer, play Maui Nui. It’s on the road to Wailea. It’s where the locals play. Expect a fun round with great views, and it won’t dent your wallet like Kapalua or Kaanapali.

 

TIME IS RIGHT

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Most will say, “Come anytime.” The place is packed in winter and early spring with visitors from cold-weather climes, so we think July and August are pretty perfect for the simple reason it’s not so crowded.

Best bite

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Lahaina has the sunset-viewing bars and restaurants, like Fleetwood’s on Front Street. For fine dining, try the top-rated Lahaina Grill, which Fodor’s says is “about as fashionably chic as it gets on Maui.”

Buy in

The best shopping is in Lahaina. Lots of unique shops. Yes, some are touristy, but there are also enticing galleries featuring one-of-a-kind creations. Don’t miss Lahaina Printsellers Ltd. They sell maps, modern and centuries-old, from pretty much anywhere in the world. It’s a great place to browse. We thought buying an old map that relates to our ancestry was pretty cool, but the must-have is a cap/shirt/bag tag from the iconic Plantation Course.

 

 

After Dark

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The best shopping is in Lahaina

Seriously, plan to go to Warren & Annabelle’s magic show in the theater on Front Street. We thought a magic show might be cheesy, but it’s not. It’s incredible.

 

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Go to Austin for outsized adventures

Finding awe in Austin

Austin, Texas, is the “place where people, music and food collide with great passion,” says Manfred Lassahn, executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa. Lassahn – who loves to travel to see friends, explore new places, “and, of course, eat” – is an Austin booster. He enjoys its variety and friendliness. Like a lot of people, he admires its music. Known as the Live Music Capital of the World, it has earned international acclaim for its two music festivals – South by Southwest, known as SXSW, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. And, in spite of being the state capital and home to the University of Texas, Austin maintains its small-town feel and green spaces. As told to Rosemary McClure

  • Why austin? Austin is unique in many ways. It’s as if someone picked up a coastal art community and dropped it smack in the middle of Texas. It has a liberal vibe to it, yet Texas warmth and unconditional kindness remain. “Keep Austin Weird” is much more than a catchphrase; it’s their way of life. With an abundance of urban farms and eclectic cafes and shops, the “keep it weird” term has substance. It shows Austin’s commitment to supporting the small businesses that make it a great place to visit and live.

    Why austin? Austin is unique in many ways. It’s as if someone picked up a coastal art community and dropped it smack in the middle of Texas. It has a liberal vibe to it, yet Texas warmth and unconditional kindness remain. “Keep Austin Weird” is much more than a catchphrase; it’s their way of life. With an abundance of urban farms and eclectic cafes and shops, the “keep it weird” term has substance. It shows Austin’s commitment to supporting the small businesses that make it a great place to visit and live.

  • TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

    TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

  • TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

    TIME IS RIGHT Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Though it gets hot, summer is nice too, because there are many watering holes to cool off in.

  • SECRET TIP Visit the Firehouse Lounge & Hostel, which is inside a converted firehouse built in 1885. Next to the front desk you’ll see a bookcase. Grab hold and pull to the right. You’ll discover a speakeasy-style lounge featuring craft cocktails and Prohibition-era drinks. Enjoy!

    SECRET TIP Visit the Firehouse Lounge & Hostel, which is inside a converted firehouse built in 1885. Next to the front desk you’ll see a bookcase. Grab hold and pull to the right. You’ll discover a speakeasy-style lounge featuring craft cocktails and Prohibition-era drinks. Enjoy!

  • BEST BITE Texans are passionate about barbecue. In Austin, you can enjoy it from food trucks or at brick-and-mortars. Or take a 30-minute drive to Lockhart, a small town that many consider the barbecue capital of Texas, and try Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market or Black’s BBQ. You’ll be in for the best barbecue of your life. Just don’t ask for a fork. Breakfast tacos are another winner here. My favorite are the migas at the Taco Joint on Riverside

    BEST BITE Texans are passionate about barbecue. In Austin, you can enjoy it from food trucks or at brick-and-mortars. Or take a 30-minute drive to Lockhart, a small town that many consider the barbecue capital of Texas, and try Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market or Black’s BBQ. You’ll be in for the best barbecue of your life. Just don’t ask for a fork. Breakfast tacos are another winner here. My favorite are the migas at the Taco Joint on Riverside

  • AFTER DARK Check out Austin’s famous music scene on Sixth Street. Just poke your head into each venue until you hear something you can’t pass up. Blues, rock, jazz – it’s what the city is known for. Be sure to stop in at the Driskill Bar for a timeless experience – the best classic cocktails in town. You’ll also get a look at one of the oldest luxury hotels west of the Mississippi.

    AFTER DARK Check out Austin’s famous music scene on Sixth Street. Just poke your head into each venue until you hear something you can’t pass up. Blues, rock, jazz – it’s what the city is known for. Be sure to stop in at the Driskill Bar for a timeless experience – the best classic cocktails in town. You’ll also get a look at one of the oldest luxury hotels west of the Mississippi.

  • MUST DO Barton Creek Greenbelt runs through the middle of Austin, but it literally feels as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. You can hike, rock climb and mountain bike. Another prime spot is Zilker Park in South Austin, where a spring-fed creek fills up a pool that stays at a consistent, breathtaking 68 degrees. Nearby Lady Bird Lake is the best place in Austin to kayak or paddleboard. If you stay until the sun sets, you can watch bats emerge and swarm the skies.

    MUST DO Barton Creek Greenbelt runs through the middle of Austin, but it literally feels as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. You can hike, rock climb and mountain bike. Another prime spot is Zilker Park in South Austin, where a spring-fed creek fills up a pool that stays at a consistent, breathtaking 68 degrees. Nearby Lady Bird Lake is the best place in Austin to kayak or paddleboard. If you stay until the sun sets, you can watch bats emerge and swarm the skies.

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The Great Escape: Golden Door soothes body and soul

If you’re an Orange County health and wellness aficionado, you’ve heard of the Golden Door, an uber-luxury resort located in North San Diego County. You may not know that the one-of-a-kind Escondido spa, which languished 14 years under corporate ownership, was bought in 2012 and, with a savvy, stylish COO on board, has undergone both a physical and philosophical makeover.

Long-time guest Joanne Conway, wife of billionaire philanthropist and Carlyle Group co-founder Bill Conway, paid $24.8 million for the legacy property. Then she hired Kathy Van Ness, a Manhattan Beach resident who previously ran mega-fashion firms such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Speedo, to apply her business and branding savvy to the 600-acre resort. Once Van Ness got the Golden Door name back – it had been licensed to spas from Las Vegas to Puerto Rico – she set out re-establishing the brand.

But the most revolutionary change was the decision to give away 100 percent of Golden Door profits to local NGOs benefitting women and children.

“Like Newman’s Own,” says Van Ness, chic in black and trendy spectacles, comparing the Golden Door business model to Paul Newman’s food company, one of the first corporations to give all its profits to charity.

We are lunching at the koi pond, a tranquil spot in the center of the property, which resembles a rambling Japanese country inn, with sand gardens, waterfalls, antique stone sculptures and spirit houses.  A fabulous shrimp and white bean chili is accompanied by a salad straight from the spa’s 220-acre biodynamic garden.

“We’re looking at community issues and where we can be most supportive locally,” explains Van Ness.

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To make even more profits to give away, Van Ness now sells Golden Door products on HSN. There’s a Golden Door line of skin and hair products, cookies and jams made from the resort’s famous recipes, honey from the Golden Door hives and soon, pasta sauce from its tomatoes. From the HSN studio in Florida, Van Ness spreads the Golden Door gospel to a new audience, inviting people who may never step foot through the spa’s actual golden front door to bask in its glow.

Van Ness and Conway are bringing the “spa-to-end-all-spas” back in line with its founder’s vision: the sybaritic spa stay as life-changing experience. That’s what Deborah Szekely had in mind when she started the Golden Door in 1958.

Two decades earlier, Szekely and her husband, a Hungarian-born health fanatic, had created Rancho La Puerta, a health farm a few miles south of the border in Tecate, Mexico. Szekely envisioned the Golden Door as Rancho La Puerta on steroids. It quickly became the place where Hollywood moguls sent their starlets to get “screen ready” and lose the 10 pounds the camera puts on.

Nowadays, guests sweat and soak, are pummeled and pampered, and take time out of their busy lives to contemplate their goals, intentions, eating and exercise habits, maybe even tune their chakras.

The spa hosts only 40 guests per week in individual, sumptuous villas where each receives a daily massage and can meditate at her (or “his” during men’s week) ikebana-adorned traditional meditation shrine.

Meals are the highlight of the week’s stay and are mostly sourced from the resort’s gardens. That great food and all exercise classes are included in the $8,850 price (there’s a less expensive four-day package perfect for OC residents), as are daily facials, a weekly body treatment, unlimited body wraps, a personal trainer, laundry service, manicures/pedicures, hair treatment and a complete line of Golden Door beauty products. Even your car gets a spa treatment: a hand wash.

Many guests start each day with a hike; there are more than 25 miles of trails on the sprawling property. I started my mornings strolling through the magnificent bamboo gardens. Conway, whose passion is development of the lands and property, recently planted an olive grove, envisaging Golden Door olive oil in the future.

Towards the week’s end, “spa brain” set in. Worries disappeared. My iPhone went uncharged for days. My skin was glowing. I had worked out like a champion all week, yet, thanks to the massages, my muscles felt pumped, not sore. I was making resolutions left and right. Go to the farmers market every Wednesday! Take a TRX class! I, too, had drunk the Kool-Aid, sugar-free, of course. I was under the spell of the Golden Door and, like so many guests, will do whatever it takes to keep
coming back.

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Wish You Were Here: Myanmar’s mystique

  • Moken (sea Gypsy) boys flying in unison to spear fish.

    Moken (sea Gypsy) boys flying in unison to spear fish.

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    David Heath

  • Girl selling watermelon on moving train that circles the city of Yangon.

    Girl selling watermelon on moving train that circles the city of Yangon.

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  • Fisherman skimming the water early one morning on Taung Tha Man Lake, Amarapura in Mandalay.

    Fisherman skimming the water early one morning on Taung Tha Man Lake, Amarapura in Mandalay.

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  • Sunset over Ananda and Thabanyu Temples in Bagan.

    Sunset over Ananda and Thabanyu Temples in Bagan.

  • Monks on U Bein Bridge

    Monks on U Bein Bridge

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The images are hypnotic: fishing boats in the early-morning sun, pagodas gleaming in the afternoon light, children grinning at a window. Huntington Beach photographer David Heath captured them during 18 visits to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also called Burma, an odyssey by canoe, plane, boat, train and foot. The result was his new book, “Burma, An Enchanted Spirit,” a beautiful coffee-table volume that explores the mystique of this star-crossed nation. “After decades of military rule, the civilian government has won the recent elections, and the doors are now wide open for tourists to enjoy this magical land,” he says. “But don’t wait too long as it is changing rapidly.” As told to Rosemary McClure

 

WHY MYANMAR?

Myanmar is one of the most exotic, remote cultures left on the planet. With its pristine landscapes and amazing pagodas, it’s a fascinating experience and a trip back in time. The Burmese people are gracious, friendly, resilient and humorous, and love sharing their culture with people from other countries.

BEST BITE 

Burmese cuisine includes a variety of salads, which typically have one major ingredient such as rice, wheat or rice noodles and a variety of vegetables. These salads are considered the typical fast food of Myanmar, although they look like a gourmet work of art. Some of the best restaurants in Yangon include the popular Green Elephant; the fine-dining restaurant Padonmar near the governor’s residence and Taing Yin Thar, where you’ll find authentic Burmese food. In Mandalay, try Unique Myanmar and A Little Bit of Mandalay.

 

AFTER DARK 

The best nightlife is found in major cities such as Yangon or Mandalay. There are traditional marionette shows, which are very entertaining. For late-night shoppers, there are evening markets, including the Kannar Night Market in Yangon, where you will find a large variety of local items. In Mandalay, try the Zay Cho Night Market.

SECRET TIP 

Myanmar still operates predominantly on cash, although many of the hotels now take credit cards. The availability of tourist ATMs is limited, so it is best to bring cash; the U.S. dollar is widely accepted. Proprietors prefer crisp new $100 bills and may refuse your bills if they are damaged.

BUY IN

The best shopping is from locals and tribes in the small villages, where you can find handmade textiles, beautiful wood carvings and lovely jewelry. Specific places to try include the sprawling Bogyoke Aung San Market (also known by its old British name, Scott Market) in Yangon and the Pho La Pyae Handicraft workshop in Mandalay. Myanmar is known for lacquer-ware, silver and brassware. It is also the largest exporter of jade, sapphires and rubies in
the world.

TIME IS RIGHT 

The best time to visit Myanmar is in the dry season, October to March. The hottest time of the year is between March and June when temperatures can top 104 degrees. Most visitors come between November and February, so accommodations can be in short supply then.  After being isolated for so long, the country is now starting to gear up for tourists, and new hotels are springing up.

 

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The Great Escape: Heaven at Two Harbors

GS2

I love the outdoors, but I am a woman for whom “roughing it” means no Jacuzzi tub or room service. And of course, I had to marry a guy who thinks backpacking up mountains and sleeping in dirt is the epitome of fun.

Let’s just say that at some point on most of our getaways, one or the other of us is going to grit our teeth.

But then we discovered rustic Two Harbors, Catalina Island’s other town, located on the west end of the island, about as distant from the Mediterranean resort feel of Avalon as Mars is from Venus. It’s a sleepy little village straddling the isthmus, best known as the place where boaters like to dock and hikers like to camp. Limited Wi-Fi and sometimes spotty cell coverage make it easy to unplug and forget there’s a teeming metropolis an hour’s ride away on the Catalina Express …

Or just 15 minutes away, which is the length of time it took us to get there from Long Beach, hopping on the IEX Helicopters service. We landed in an open field and within five minutes a van had deposited us at Isthmus Cove, on Harbor Sands, the South Pacific-themed outdoor lounge that premiered in early May.

Where once a few rusting barbecues and a sagging volleyball net dotted a pebbly shore, now a half dozen palapas–each named after one of the old Hollywood movies once shot on location there, like “Mutany on the Bounty” and “Treasure Island”– sit on 1,900 tons of imported white sand. New lounge chairs on a raised deck under the shade of palms cry out for you to sit, sip a Mai Tai and gaze on the beauty of the cove. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy doing absolutely nothing, except maybe striking up a conversation with a friendly mix of locals, sunburnt hikers and other assorted vacationers.

The effect is all very “Gilligan’s Island,” in the best sense: Stranded – if only for a day – with interesting people in a remote paradise.

But the miles of trails were calling to my husband, so we set out on a hike with the goal of catching a glimpse of the island’s famed bison. An hour after scaling the hills we return, only to see one of the mammoth beasts ambling down a dirt road, not far from the village. Mission accomplished.

Another hour of kayaking in the beautiful cove and my outdoor activity quotient was up. Time for the wine mixer at the Banning House Lodge, the ultra-charming 12-room bed-and-breakfast built in the 1910s that sits on top of a hill and provides panoramic views of both harbors, comfy beds and fresh-scented linens. I can rough it like this, happily.

GS3Sturdy, surf-and-turf fare made for a decent dinner at the lone dining option in the village, Harbor Reef Restaurant. The highlight? Buffalo milk for dessert. Before you start to ponder how they get milk from those creatures, let me assure you it’s merely the name of a local conction that’s essentially just a White Russian spiced with some nutmeg.

Deeply relaxed, my husband and I luxuriated in the kind of thing we enjoyed in the early days of our marriage, but now often don’t have the time to do … play Scrabble and share a nice chardonnay as we watch the sunset, of course!

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Exploring the Canadian Galapagos

  • Amanda Fletcher takes a morning kayak trip.

    Amanda Fletcher takes a morning kayak trip.

  • Sea lions lounge portside of The Swell.

    Sea lions lounge portside of The Swell.

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  • Mortuary poles at UNESCO World Heritage Site at S'Gang Gwaay.

    Mortuary poles at UNESCO World Heritage Site at S’Gang Gwaay.

  • Bristol Foster naturalist with Maple Leaf Adventures

    Bristol Foster naturalist with Maple Leaf Adventures

  • tavishcampbell.ca-9656

  • sherry-kirkvold-1

  • greg-shea-2

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Sunlight shines through the trees, highlighting the riot of green growing from the top of a centuries-old mortuary pole, the carved images of a raven and a grizzly bear easier to see in the bleached wood once the watchman points them out.

This is S’Gang Gwaay, a village site of the Haida First Nations people, part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are the last remaining totem poles in a settlement that thrived for centuries before being decimated by smallpox in the 1800s. There will be no conservation effort. The Haida believe these burial poles are a representation of the life cycle; once they fall, they will be reclaimed by the forest.

It is impossible to stand on this hallowed ground and not feel something – there is a sense of awe but also of urgency – in the knowledge that this special human place will soon be gone but that it will also begin again as something new.

I rode on the bow of a wooden boat guided by Maple Leaf Adventures to get here. I sat in front of the wheelhouse under the watchful eye of Capt. Alex Ruurs. My fellow passengers stood around me, pointing out bald eagles, oystercatchers and cormorants sailing past our heads. “Humpback whale breach off the starboard side,” someone yelled, handing me binoculars. We coasted over crystal waters full of spiny sea urchins, stroking the backs of starfish. We watched a black bear feeding at low tide, heard the crunch of crab shells between his massive jaws. We touched the tentacles of a baby octopus and watched the arms of anemones wave in the current before finally arriving on this beach to hike through the woods and stand in front of the totems of S’Gang Gwaay.

Known as the Canadian Galápagos because of its wealth of endemic wildlife, Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia known as the Queen Charlotte Islands until 2010. Largely covered in temperate rain forest, more than 150 islands form the shape of a bird’s wing – the largest, Graham and Moresby Islands, in the north, and the smaller collection of Gwaii Haanas to the south. To the east there is Hecate Strait and the mainland; to the west, the straight drop of the continental shelf and the open waters of the Pacific.

This is a place of possibility – where, if you listen, you might just hear the earth breathe.

For an Orange County resident, it’s a land of what ifs: What if there were no drought? What if the redwoods weren’t so desperate for a drink? What if we were free from the fear of wildfire? What if instead of the crackle of dry grass underfoot there was an emerald carpet
of moss, just begging to be touched. For
a native Canadian like me, who has made her home in Southern California for most of her adult life, it’s some strange alchemy that lets me be in both places at the same time, like living inside my own deepest desires.

***

Selected for Canada’s Signature Experiences Collection by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Maple Leaf Adventures has provided conservation-focused big adventures aboard small ships since 1986.

“We had a modest sailboat growing up,” explains Kevin Smith, who is Maple Leaf’s president. “I worked as a salmon researcher and with the Coast Guard to pay my way through school. I found that I needed to be out in boats, and I’ve been able to turn my passion for the ocean into my business.”

Smith has created “eco-adventure cruising,” using the principles of preservation, education and hands-on experience to offer a unique experience for travelers who crave more than a superficial, just-passing-through kind of trip.

This is not your average cruise ship. It’s a 88-foot converted tugboat, known as the Swell. Built in 1912, it hauled other ships for close to a hundred years. After $4 million-plus in renovations, it’s a passenger vessel of incomparable beauty, its interiors paneled in polished wood, its silver portholes gleaming. Morning kayak trips mean searching the shore for bears but also taking photos of our boat, the snow-topped peaks and a forest of trees reflected in the water around it. It is impossible not to feel lucky. Swell accommodates up to 12 guests in six cabins with high-thread-count sheets and limited-edition prints. Every room has its own bathroom, every shower runs hot, and you can drink the water straight from the tap, thanks to a state-of-the-art desalination system.

A crew of five includes the captain, the first mate, a deck hand, the chef and a naturalist. Not only are they experts in their own fields, but each has a connection to the environment and an adventurous spirit that infuses each

day with expectation. On this trip, anything could happen.

***

Between expeditions ashore, from Tanu to Rose Inlet and back to Windy Bay, guests fish off the side of the boat and the crew drops baited traps in the hopes of further enhancing our three-course, locally sourced meals. Who wouldn’t want to add an appetizer of Dungeness crab to the pan-seared salmon with black beluga lentils and farro from Alberta?

“We forage as much as we can,” says first mate Kristina Long, “but it’s seasonal. We find salmonberries, strawberries and blueberries, mint, and morel mushrooms in the fall. We only take as much as we need, though. With the crab traps, if we get 20, we only really need six for everyone to try it.”

Our only catch was a single sea urchin. Naturalist Bristol Foster split the spiny sphere, produced a spoon and digging it into the creature’s wet depths asked, “Who wants to try some uni?”

***

On Haida Gwaii, really anything can happen.

Named one of the 50 Tours of a Lifetime by National Geographic Traveler, Haida Gwaii is “best experienced without expectations or itineraries” because Mother Nature makes her own plans. Excursions begin with a land tour of the inhabited islands, an overnight at Alaska View Lodge in Masset, and an afternoon at Skidegate’s Haida Heritage Centre. While the Swell has a loose idea of where it’s headed, once it’s boarded in Cumshewa Inlet, our crew meets in the wheelhouse every morning to make adjustments to the day’s plans, contingent on the weather, whale sightings or potential foraging expeditions. One thing is constant, however: Every evening the captain steers into a quiet inlet along the route where the water is like glass, so you can enjoy your cr¯me brûlée without having to stop your utensils from rolling off the table.

After dinner, while guests lounge on the aft deck under a yellow cedar carving by Tim Motchman, sipping their last glass of a B.C. wine, the engine is turned off. Any overnight power needs are supplied by a silent bank of batteries.

It makes sense that the Swell is available for full-ship charters, because of how easily strangers become fast friends here. The Haida people’s history is an oral one, passed from generation to generation. Honoring this tradition, we meet in the galley on our first night to talk about where we’ve come from and how it is that we’ve arrived on the Swell. One of the other passengers realizes that the sailboat her late sister once owned has since found a home with the first mate’s mother. “It makes me feel good to know that a piece of her lives on,” she says. “It’s like I was meant to meet you.”

This is a powerful place, where the ties between things feel especially strong. It’s a common theme in Haida mythology, where humans are found hiding in the eye of a killer whale, beneath the skin of a bear or their limbs protruding from a clam shell. And after talking to one of the watchmen on Tanu, it’s obvious they don’t put much stock in linear time either. Children are believed to be the reincarnation of their elders. They are given the same names, and the actions of their namesake are attributed to all – past, present, future and supernatural. Stories are relayed in the collective “we” and take place in the ever-present now.

I am comforted by this way of looking at the world, the importance of community. My mother died when I was very young, yet I can feel her presence here like she is hiding within my skin. Making my way into the forest on a path that stretches out in front of me like a spine, it is her feet I see, one in front of the other, her hands reaching for my camera. And when we finally spot a pod of orcas – even after being told it probably wouldn’t happen – the captain stops the engine and lowers the hydrophone into the water so we can listen in.

I hear these killer whales talking and I recognize their cries immediately: It is the sound of my heart I hear, calling out to my mother.

Haida Gwaii. These things happen here.

4-10 nights, $1,890 to $11,251

:: mapleleafadventures.com

 

 

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