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Just Back From: Alaska

By Liza Weisstuch
August 23, 2018
aerial view mountains and town on coast
Sorin Colac/Dreamstime
The 49th state is a treasure trove of surprising historical quirks and cultural riches.

There are things that immediately come to mind at the mention of Alaska: Northern Lights, fishing, glaciers, cruise ships. But to go to the state and only see or do those things would be to miss out on a whole lot. In early August, I spent a week and a half traveling from Fairbanks to Anchorage to Juneau, barely covering a fraction of the tremendous state, and learning about some of the many, many things that make it so special. From its rich and entertaining history (see: the fortune-hunters and scoundrels that streamed in during the Gold Rush) to countless incredible stories about how the Native people survived and thrived in the harsh weather to arctic astronomy, here are just a few of the things that might inspire you to take a trip.

1. ALL THE BEAUTIFUL TWILIGHTS

Though not something that we in the Lower 48 would typically be aware of unless we work in aviation or astronomy, being in Alaska sort of forces you to learn about times of sunrise, sunset and, most interestingly, twilight, that transitional time of partial light between sunrise and sunset. This is particularly true in Fairbanks, which is a popular destination for viewing the Northern Lights around April. But since I was there in early August when the sun set around 2.30 a.m., I started trying to understand the physics of it all. In the process, I learned there are three different kinds of twilight, each having to do with the tilt of the planet and the position of the sun above or below the horizon. During Civil Twilight, which happens in the morning and evening when the center of the sun is six degrees below the horizon, you can spot the brightest stars and planets but also see objects here on Earth without the help of artificial light. Nautical Twilight gets its name from the fact that sailors could see well-known stars clearly enough to use them for navigation. With the sun 12 degrees below the horizon, artificial light may be needed to see activity on the ground. And during Astronomical Twilight, the sun sits 18 degrees below the horizon, which isn’t visible. The sky appears totally dark, but full darkness only actually occurs once the great ball of fire sinks below 18 degrees. Illuminating, right?

2. SUB-ZERO COUTURE

High fashion can be mesmerizingly creative or ridiculous, depending on your perspective. A collection from John-Paul Gaultier in the early 1990s was influenced by the clothing of Hasidic Jews, and one of John Galliano’s collections for Christian Dior took its cues from the tattered garb of the homeless people of Paris, a concept that resulted in controversy, needless to say. But, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and considering the extreme weather Alaska’s Native people faced and the natural resources and materials they had to work with, their inventiveness when it comes to making clothing and accessories is nothing short of mind-bending. In Fairbanks, at the Museum of the North (uaf.edu/museum), which is part of the University of Alaska, I spent a few minutes just staring at a coat made of nearly translucent yet heavy duty fish skin. At the Anchorange Museum (anchoragemuseum.org), in a sprawling exhibit developed with the Smithsonian  (alaska.si.edu) that covers all different aspects of Native culture, I marveled at a “gut parka” made from seal and walrus intestine, a material that's light, strong, and waterproof, and hefty coats made with fur assembled in such unlikely and eye-catching patterns that even a jaded fashionista would stop and stare. But one of the most resourceful items was a pair of snow goggles fashioned from mountain-sheep hooves, strung together with glass trade beads. Talk about visionary.

3. COFFEE CONNECTIONS 

While Finland may boast the highest consumption of coffee per person, Anchorage has more places to get coffee than anywhere else in the United States, a statistic that makes a lot of sense considering that temps can reach 70-below here—it's easy to imagine that your organs would freeze if you didn't have a constant intake of warm liquids. A large number of those places are coffee huts, funky little drive-throughs that sell all the specialty drinks you’d find at a familiar coffee shop. In summer, it’s a convenience or, if you’re a tourist, a novelty. In the winter, however, they’re a necessity.

4. A BEACH LIKE NO OTHER

A beach is just a beach...unless you’re in Juneau, where the coastline has a highly unusual origin story. Douglas is a city neighborhood located on an island of its own and accessible from downtown via a single 620-foot pedestrian-friendly bridge. The island’s eastern shore is directly across a channel from downtown and the cruise port. It’s a quiet bedroom community, but it wasn’t always. During the Gold Rush that lasted from about 1881 to 1922, the island’s Treadwell Mine was the source of three million ounces of gold. Hundreds of stamp machines, giant and exceptionally noisy pieces of industrial equipment used to smash boulders, were operating 363 days a year—every day except Fourth of July and Christmas Day, when it was so eerily quiet that, as legend has it, nobody slept. Those stamps pulverized stone for decades, long enough to produce massive amounts of sand-like material that makes for a seemingly natural looking shoreline. All this took shape on top of land that was shaped by glacier movement several thousand years ago.

5. DOG DAYS 

Iditarod is the Wimbledon of dog racing. And like any world class competition, this one has its celebrities and legends. Susan Butcher is the Serena Williams of dog racing, or mushing, as it’s known in the state. Butcher won three years in a row, from 1986 to 1988, then again in 1990. But those victories are hardly her only accomplishment. In 1979, she was also the first to reach the top of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, with a dog team. She passed away of leukemia in 2006, but her legacy is alive and well on the Chena River in Fairbanks. On a riverboat cruise (riverboatdiscovery.com), not only did I learn the details of the punishing race (1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, extreme temperatures, etcetera), but I came to understand that Butcher’s impact on the sport, one of the few in the world where men and women compete against each other as equals, goes beyond her racing skills. She was revolutionary in the way she trained and treated her animals, and her husband carries out her legacy, training dogs at a sprawling outdoor kennel and giving lively demos of what goes into making a pup a champion.

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Inspiration

Just Back From: New Hampshire

Thanks to its soaring mountain ranges and northeast weather patterns, the Granite State is a well-known destination for skiiers, snowboarders, and winter-sports enthusiasts of all stripes, but there’s plenty to draw summer vacationers here as well, from the famed Lake Winnipesaukee to the lush White Mountains. I spent a few days exploring the state’s lakes, peaks, and valleys, seeing stunning landscapes, hiking beautiful trails, and eating as much lobster as humanly possible. Here’s how I did it. Day 1: Wolfeboro and Lake Winnipesaukee The drive from Massachusetts to New Hampshire’s Lakes Region via I-93 isn’t a particularly scenic or relaxing one, and yet, after two and a half long hours, when I pulled up to Lake Opechee Inn & Spa (opecheeinn.com) in Laconia, I might as well have been a world away. The family-owned and -run lakefront property has 34 country-quaint rooms with cozy lounge seating anchored by gas fireplaces, a kitchen and bar cranking out delicious plates and marvelous martinis, and a pair of fluffy, friendly golden-retriever overseers patrolling the place. I checked in and headed out to explore. About 30 miles east on the banks of Lake Winnipesaukee is Wolfeboro, billed as the oldest summer resort in the country. The one-time farming community features sandy beaches, green parks, multi-use trails, and museums of all sorts, from natural history to historic homes. Nautical types should paddle over to the New Hampshire Boat Museum (nhbm.org), an experiential nonprofit that examines the role of the state’s 900-plus lakes in the lives of its residents, while architecture buffs should allot time for a visit to Lucknow, the Arts and Crafts–style mountaintop estate known as Castle in the Clouds (castleintheclouds.org). Built between 1913 and 1914 and opened to the public in 1959, it's a striking tribute to the movement’s ethos of living in harmony with nature.  A display at the Wright Museum of World War II. (Maya Stanton) With time for one stop, I decided on the Wright Museum of World War II (wrightmuseum.org), where a permanent collection of artifacts, memorabilia, and operational military vehicles show the impact of the “war to end all wars.” Check out the full-scale tableau-style recreations of public spaces and private interiors circa the 1940s, the room filled with jeeps, tanks, and planes that saw action during the war, and outside, the museum’s very own victory garden, as well as special exhibits dedicated to subjects like World War I propaganda posters and the lively, slice-of-life sketches that soldier Charles J. Miller produced during his time in the South Pacific. Heading back to Lake Opechee, I was making good time until I passed Shibley’s Drive-In (facebook.com/shibleysdrivein), a small roadside joint hawking fried seafood, ice cream, and 24 flavors of soft serve in Lake Winnipesaukee’s Alton Bay. I u-turned when I saw the ice-cream sign and didn’t regret my pre-dinner cone even a little bit. I still made it back to the inn in time to catch the sunset from my room’s balcony. Too exhausted to get back in the car, I popped down to the hotel's restaurant, O Steaks & Seafood (magicfoodsrestaurantgroup.com/osteaks). It was Friday, nearly 9:00 p.m., as I settled into an Adirondack chair on the lawn, sipped a perfectly spicy, dirty martini, and waited for a table. I had modest hopes for the meal, but local oysters on the half-shell and an expertly cooked salmon filet with kale pesto and cauliflower and asparagus risotto far exceeded expectations. Bleary-eyed and satisfied, I knew I was sufficiently fueled for tomorrow.  Day 2: Zip Lines and Wine It felt like no time had passed when my alarm went off the next morning, but no matter—I was on my way to Gunstock Mountain Resort (gunstock.com) for some outdoor adventure. First developed as a recreation area as part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and originally featuring a chair lift, rope tows, hiking and cross-country trails, and a show-stopping lodge, the complex now known as Gunstock has grown well beyond its initial purview.  Learning the ropes at Gunstock Mountain Resort. (Maya Stanton) A popular skiing destination in the winter, it now boasts options for the om-seeker and the adrenaline junkie alike, from scenic lift rides, mountaintop yoga, and off-road Segway tours to a treetop ropes course, a mountain coaster, and one of the longest canopy zip lines in the continental U.S. As a zip-line newbie, I opted for 90 minutes in the clouds, and after a brief training session with my fellow adventurers (and a nerve-calming chat with the operators about how often the equipment is tested and vetted for safety), we hopped on the lift to the summit. The ride down is split into a couple of legs, and each time, stepping off those platforms was terrifying and exhilarating and didn’t get any less so with experience. After I’d soared the full 1.6 miles, though, I was ready to do it again. Make a full day of it here if you can. Once I caught my breath, I drove north to Weirs Beach (weirsbeach.com). Situated on Lake Winnipesaukee, this family-friendly destination features a boardwalk with mountain and lake views, mini golf and go-karts, kitschy beach-town shops, and, of course, swimming, boating, and picnicking. There's a plethora of places to stop for grub, like Lobster in the Rough (weathervaneseafoods.com), where vacationers were hunkered down for lobster rolls, and for a sweet treat, the Ice Cream Parlor Car on board the scenic lakefront railway.   Fruit-based wines are the name of the game at Meredith's Hermit Woods Winery. (Maya Stanton) Later that day, I drove up to Meredith, a busy little town in the heart of the Lakes Region, about 10 miles from the hotel. I parked by the marina and wandered through the waterfront Sculpture Walk, an annual, juried selection of works from sculptors around the northeast. By the time I finished, it was just about happy hour, and luckily, Hermit Woods Winery (hermitwoods.com) was only a few steps away. Named to Food & Wine’s 2017 guide to the 500 best wineries in America, Hermit’s wines are made from local whole fruit, resulting in beautifully balanced options, from a dry white blend of peaches, rhubarb, quince, and rosehips to a medium-dry strawberry rhubarb to a sweet blueberry dessert wine. Taste six varietals for $10, and take home your glass as a souvenir. For waterfront libations, Town Docks Restaurant (thecman.com) comes highly recommended. Enjoy breezes off the lake while sipping a watermelon cooler or a cucumber-basil smash, and try the mayo-dressed or hot-butter-poached lobster roll—just for comparison's sake, of course.  Day 3: Into the Mountains I couldn’t say goodbye to the Lakes Region without getting out on the water, so I booked an early-morning boat ride with EKAL Activity Center (ekalactivitycenter.com). A 28-foot antique Chris Craft that once belonged to royalty, the Miss Meredith seats up to seven, but at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday, I had the whole thing to myself. Lake Winnipesaukee was quiet too, and as we zipped around the calm, glassy lake, it felt like a window into a simpler, more peaceful time. The 87-year-old Miss Meredith looks great for her age. (Maya Stanton) But that zen feeling was short-lived. Before long, I was back in the car, northward bound for the White Mountains. Forty-five minutes later, I arrived at the Woodstock Inn, Station & Brewery (woodstockinnnh.com) in North Woodstock, just in time to watch the World Cup final with a pint of seasonal craft pale ale in hand. If you don’t want to waste your precious hours on such things, hit the Peaked Moon Market (peakedmoonfarm.com) in nearby Lincoln for sandwiches and other provisions, then drive west until you reach the kid-friendly Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves (lostrivergorge.com). A natural choose-your-own-adventure-style obstacle course, Lost River features a warren of caves that are open for exploration and perfectly sized for pint-sized pathfinders. A wooden boardwalk winds its way down into the gorge, past a waterfall, across a suspension bridge, and up to a treehouse with life-sized animal carvings. Pause to take in the views of Kinsman Notch, and watch the kids do their thing. Lost River Gorge & Boulder Caves. (Maya Stanton) From there, I headed back east, then north to Franconia Notch State Park (nhstateparks.org) and Flume Gorge, a natural gorge at the foot of Mount Liberty, with smooth granite walls standing 90 feet high and as little as 12 feet apart. The boardwalk winds through and up to the top for a view of Avalanche Falls, the 45-foot waterfall at the heart of the Flume. There's quite a bit of foot traffic, but peaceful nooks and crannies are easy to find along the way. Cannon Mountain's easy Rim Trail offers great vistas, but the heights aren't for the faint of heart. (Maya Stanton) Further into the park, you’ll want to queue up for the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway (cannonmt.com)—unless you’re afraid of heights. Sure, you could hike to the top, but if you're short on time or energy or will, the cable car will get you to the summit in no time, and the perspective from 4,000 feet is spectacular. On the August day I visited, it was a breezy 61 degrees, and visibility was 20 miles in every direction. Take a spin around the rim trail while you’re up there, and hit the observation deck for the full 360. Then, it was east through Franconia Notch to North Conway, my base of operations for the next two nights. Be sure to allow time for a leisurely drive—the park is so rich with photo ops that I got adept at pulling over on short notice and whipping out the camera. I would've stopped more, but I had a reservation at the Christmas Farm Inn (christmasfarminn.com), an 18th-century Cape Cod-style farmhouse just outside of town in Jackson. After the Great Recession, a father gave the property to his daughter as a holiday gift, and its next owner converted it to an inn, welcoming the first guests in the winter of 1946. Today, it’s owned by a German-American couple who racked up years of globe-trotting experience in the hospitality industry before settling down in rural New Hampshire. Their expertise shows in the inn's welcoming environment, from the friendly greeting at the door to the communal fire pit on the front lawn. Hole up in the cozy pub, order a glass of wine, and dig into copious servings of dishes like steamed mussels and chorizo in an addictive tomato-garlic-wine broth and hearty, creamy cannelini beans with prosciutto, caramelized onions, Parmesan, and garlic bread. Unable to manage another bite, I drove back to North Conway and tucked myself in at the Merrill Farm Inn (merrillfarminn.com).  Day 4: Lobster and Leisure Time I was still stuffed from the feast the night before, so on my last full day in-state, I skipped the complimentary breakfast and had a leisurely morning and a light lunch before diving into the afternoon’s full slate of activities. I rolled up to the Lobster Trap (lobstertraprestaurant.com), a North Conway institution since 1958, and placed an order for a final lobster roll. Unlike most spots with seafood rolls on the menu, this one was customizable, and as an avowed celery-hater, I was thrilled to be able to omit it from the proceedings. It wasn’t the best version I’ve ever had, but the meat was fresh and sweet, and at $15 for a roll and a salad, it was definitely the most cost-effective. A customized lobster roll (no celery!) at North Conway's Lobster Trap. (Maya Stanton) Fueled up and ready to go, it was time for some action. Mount Washington Valley is home to several adventure parks, from Cranmore Mountain Resort (cranmore.com), which features giant swings, tubing, bouncy houses, and a bungy trampoline, to Attitash Mountain Resort (attitash.com), with the longest zip line east of the Rockies, a mountain coaster, water slides, an airbag jump, and a climbing wall, to Wildcat Mountain (skiwildcat.com), where you can take a gondola ride to the summit or play 18 holes of alpine disc golf. Take your pick, based on geography, experience, and age levels—you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The view from the top of Mt. Washington. (Maya Stanton) Next stop, Mount Washington itself, the highest peak in the northeast and one with a fair bit of history. Dating to 1861, the Mt. Washington Auto Road (mtwashingtonautoroad.com) is the country’s oldest man-made attraction, while the Mount Washington Cog Railway (thecog.com) is the world’s first mountain-climbing cog-driven train. At $78 per adult and $41 per child roundtrip, the Cog is a steep ride (pun intended), but one that train buffs may find worth the expenditure. For me, the auto road was more than sufficient. I opted for a guided tour, and as my intrepid driver navigated the narrow turns, often one-handed to point out the landmarks, I tried not to think about how close we were to the edge, and how glad I was not to be behind the wheel myself. Diana's Baths draws crowds during the day, but in the early evening, it's a peaceful retreat. (Maya Stanton)Before dinner, I had one more place to check off my list: Diana’s Baths, just outside of North Conway. A half-mile through the woods on a flat, easy trail, with picturesque pools and cascading falls, it looks like something out of a fairy tale. Go early or late to cool off without the crowds, bring a fiver for the self-service pay station, and beware of mosquitoes—they're brutal along the way. For my final Granite State meal, I went out with a bang at The Wild Rose Restaurant at Stonehurst Manor (stonehurstmanor.com), an old-school estate with mountain views and seafood from the Maine coast. Summer guests love the baked lobster, but I branched out from my all-seafood diet and tried the prime rib. A hulking cut of medium-rare beef served with chunky mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli, it was, like that antique boat ride, retro in the most satisfying way. For something a little less refined but just as meaty, Moat Mountain Smoke House & Brewing Co. (moatmountain.com) is right across the street and serves a wide-ranging menu of burgers, barbecue, and wood-grilled pizzas, sourced from local suppliers whenever possible. Day 5: Back to Reality With what promised to be a huge storm incoming, I got an early start back to Boston's Logan Airport, taking the Kancamagus Highway (kancamagushighway.com), an American Scenic Byway, in hopes of squeezing in a bit more sightseeing. But that hope was dashed when the skies opened up. When I got to the airport, I learned the weather seriously delayed my flight. Normally, I’d be beside myself with frustration, but in this case, it gave me the chance to have one last seafood roll for the road. This time around, I went with an overflowing crab-stuffed version, and it couldn’t have tasted better. Until next time, New England.

Inspiration

Hotel We Love: Hotel Theodore, Seattle

The Theodore in this Seattle hotel's name is a nod to the 36th president, who stayed at the property during and after his term. When it opened in 1930, it was an Art Deco temple, a showcase of the promise of the riches of the Pacific Northwest, and it was all thanks to the help of local creativity and industry, from the furniture makers to the laborers and craftsmen who built the place. It continues to be a tribute to Seattle originality, from the quirky art on the walls to the objects on display chronicling centuries of Washington's innovation culture. (More on that in a moment.) Sleek and sophisticated yet laid-back and casual, Hotel Theodore fuses then and now for a rich and whimsical snapshot of the city. THE STORY The building, crowned with a glowing vintage “Roosevelt” sign, was unveiled in 1930. A model of glamour, it featured a grand lobby and Art Deco detailing. Recent renovations kept the bones of the lobby in place and restored the Art Deco touches. It opened to guests in November 2017. THE QUARTERS Tufted leather headboards and dark wood furniture calls to mind the vintage elegance of the place, but the technology and little perks (Nespresso coffee makers, retro-looking Tivoli clock radios, luxe linens, oversize LCD televisions) remind you you're very much in the 21st century. And a peek inside the mini fridge reminds you you're very much in Seattle, what with the range of local beers to choose from. Among the 153 rooms, there are nine size options. About 80 percent have king beds, but even the smallest Deluxe Double is luxe and spacious. THE NEIGHBORHOOD The hotel sits smack in the middle of downtown Seattle, a notably walkable city. An array of local restaurants as well as familiar retailers—Nordstrom, Macy's, H&M—are located within blocks. It takes 15 minutes or less to walk to the famed Pike Place Market or the hip enclave of Belltown, and a little more than that to reach Capital Hill, a popular tourist destination for coffee-loving visitors, as it's home to the sweeping Starbucks Roastery, a veritable carnival of a coffee house with a food court–like setup and a huge roaster that attracts a picture-snapping crowd every few hours when it motors up. There's even a bar. Should you feel like venturing out to the beach or opt for public transportation to and from the airport, the hotel is a few blocks away from a Link light-rail station. THE FOOD When it opened, the hotel was a pioneering example of a hotel that emphasized experience, not just practicality. To that end, its original restaurant, the Old West-themed Rough Rider Room, was a destination for visitors and well-heeled locals. That ethos remains at the industrial-chic Rider, where you can watch oyster shuckers in the kitchen and cooks at work at the open wood-fired grill station. The dishes—largely seafood—are simple and unencumbered, yet indulgent. The cocktails, on the other hand, are exercises in zany creativity. Case in point: At the Oyster Bar is a mezcal drink with touch of oyster water. The bar is open until midnight, so take your time with those drinks. The breakfast menu offers decadent sweet and savory options. For a midday pick-me-up, MADE Coffee, located in the lobby, is very much in line with coffee-obsessed Seattle code, with its offerings of craft java drinks made with beans roasted on a 1949 Balestra wood-fired roaster. ALL THE REST About those aforementioned objects on display...The hotel teamed with Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry to curate items that tell an engaging history of the city’s innovative spirit. Take time to visit each floor, where you can find cases displaying everything from axes and saws and other logging tools to the digital insides of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’s first Kindle to draft tools used in designing Boeing’s early aircrafts. But ask any hotel staffer’s opinion, and she’ll likely tell you her favorite is up on the 17th floor: an early model of native son Eddie Bauer’s first down jacket. No matter where your day takes you, try to get back to the hotel between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. for the aperitivo hour, when they offer complimentary drinks. RATES & DEETS Starting at: $149 (November to April), $189 (May to October) Hotel Theodore 1531 7th Ave.Seattle, WA 98101 (206) 621-1200 / hoteltheodore.com

Inspiration

Best Places to Hear Live Jazz in NYC

New York City is the center of the jazz universe, the place with the densest concentration of the greatest musicians, the place where aspiring jazzers come to measure themselves against their peers. There are dozens of clubs that book these players, from big name venues to local bars to underground apartment concerts—the city is the most important destination for dedicated fans looking to hear both the old guard preserving the classic roots and contemporary players pushing the boundaries of the music. Here is a selection of some of the most notable places to hear what’s happening. VILLAGE VANGUARD 178 7th Avenue South villagevanguard.com The most famous jazz club in New York City is also the oldest. A roster of legendary musicians performed here since it opened in the 1930s. And what’s more, some of the greatest live jazz albums were recorded here. For decades a bastion of swing and hard bop, over the past ten years the Vanguard has booked more musicians at the leading edge of jazz, like David Murray and Mary Halvorson. Groups play two sets per night, Tuesday through Sunday, and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra plays every Monday, as it has since 1966.  SMALLS JAZZ CLUB 183 West 10th Street smallslive.com A literal stone’s throw from the Vanguard is the aptly names Smalls. Opened in 1994 by musician Mitchell Borden, is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene—it presents at least two different groups a night (with additional matinées on the weekends) and for the dedicated jazz fan has regular jam sessions that begin at 1:00 am. There are regular appearances from old hands like Frank Lacy and Johnny O’Neill, as well as major up-and-coming musicians like Noah Preminger.  DIZZY'S CLUB COCA-COLA Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle, 5th Floor jazz.org At the southwest corner of Central Park is the club for Jazz at Lincoln Center, the leading jazz institution in New York, directed by Wynton Marsalis. Music at Dizzy’s honors the masters and preserves the jazz tradition, and is the best place to hear vocalists survey the Great American Songbook. Dizzy’s has more of a concert hall feel than other clubs, but still has a bar, and serves food.   JAZZ GALLERY 1160 Broadway, 5th Floor jazzgallery.nyc A slow elevator (max occupancy 5) brings you up to this spare, elegant space that has become one of the most important venues for new, live jazz. The Gallery’s schedule emphasizes the contemporary and forward looking scene, and is a place where musicians debut new ideas and groups—Henry Threadgill has presented important music here—and a site for live recordings as well. Still, keep an eye out for the hippest of the old guard, like Lee Konitz. SHAPESHIFTER LAB 18 Whitwell Place, Brooklyn shapeshifterlab.com Located on a quiet side street near the “shores” of the Gowanus Canal, Shapeshifter Lab is a combination cutting edge venue and neighborhood joint. The relatively spacious, no-frills room is something of an arts center—you can catch bands and also check out paintings and hear poetry. The sounds here are modern, with some international flavor and the occasional classical and new music concert.  JAZZ STANDARD 116 East 27th Street jazzstandard.com Close by lovely Madison Square Park is this combination club and restaurant. At the Standard, the jazz is as good as it gets (and the lineups can include Brazilian jazz and funk groups—Dr. Lonnie Smith is a regular), and the menu is courtesy of Blue Smoke barbecue.  Like the Vanguard, Mondays are for a regular big band, this one the Mingus Big Band playing music by the master bassist and composer.  55 BAR 55 Christopher Street 55bar.com The third point in the rough triangle that includes the Vanguard and Smalls, 55 Bar is just that, a bar that presents live music. Despite the prime West Village location, Bar 55 is relatively tourist free, perhaps because the only reliable way to find out who’s playing there is to go by and see what’s written on the chalkboard out front. An excellent place for blues as well as jazz, the bar entertains a regular, friendly, local crowd, including musicians there to hear their peers. BLUE NOTE 131 West 3rd Street bluenotejazz.com/newyork The jazz club with the most famous name, the Blue Note is a mini franchise, with branches in California, Hawaii, Italy, Brazil, China, and Japan. That means the club brings in the biggest names, from icons like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to commercially prominent musicians like Cassandra Wilson and Paquito D’Rivera. Despite the glossiness (there’s a gift shop), tickets are right in line with the Vanguard, Dizzy’s, et al., and the music is top-notch.  I-BEAM 168 7th Street, Brooklyn ibeambrooklyn.com South along the Gowanus Canal from Shapeshifter and in a still-industrial neighborhood is this room where you can see the leading figures on the cutting edge of jazz in New York in a truly intimate setting—it’s really just a room with a piano and chairs. I-Beam runs on a shoestring and the focus is entirely on the music—their mission statement is to support musicians as they experiment with new works—which means admission is a $15 suggested donation, and there’s no kitchen or bar, nothing but terrific music. 

Inspiration

Creativity Is the Name of the Game at These Destination-Worthy Specialty Bars

Most bars are known for a signature cocktail, an extensive beer selection, or an impressive wine cellar. But every so often, you come across a spot that has a laser-focused specialty all of its own. Take, for instance, whiskey. Bourbon bars have opened around the United States at a fast clip, thanks to a boom in the spirit's popularity in recent years, but there are a number of watering holes known for a vast menu of perhaps a more unlikely spirit. Or beer style. Or wine. The sheer volume of options at each will astound you.  AN ELEGANT, WELCOMING GIN PALACE  Whitechapel (whitechapelsf.com) is every Anglophile’s fantasy. And every gin-lover’s too. And anyone who likes cocktails with a botanical zip, actually. And history. Co-owner Martin Cate knows a thing about specializing, as his rum bar Smuggler's Cove quickly became an institution in San Francisco's bar scene when it debuted in 2009. Whitechapel, which opened in the Tenderloin in fall 2015, is designed to look like a bombed-out distillery in a London Underground station, and it shows fierce attention to Victorian-era detail, from the domed ceiling to the battered subway tiles on the wall. That shabby elegance is a nod to the time when gin was thought of as a plague and referred to as “mother’s ruin.” Attention to detail also defines the menu, which is designed like a train timetable. Elevated bar bites and classic pub grub with Indian accents make up the food menu. And as for those drinks, there are more than 700 gins to choose from, priced from $11 to $350-plus. The 12-page roster of cocktails, which ranges from classics to supremely imaginative concoctions, goes well beyond gin and tonics and martinis (though you can get an extensive variety of those here too). The Lamplighter’s Story, for one, blends hibiscus-infused gin, grapefruit marmalade, bitter orange soda, and lemon.  WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, THERE'S MEZCAL (Courtesy @espitadc/Instagram) Whatever you do, do not call the industrial-chic Espita Mezaleria (espitadc.com) a tequila bar. Mezcal, tequila’s rugged yet sophisticated cousin, is made by roasting agave instead of steam-cooking it like tequila producers do. It’s typically produced at small farms instead of massive distilleries. And though it's traditionally consumed as a shot, it’s become a bartender's darling in the past few years because it adds a smoky oomph to any cocktail. Josh Phillips, one of the few Master Mezcaliers in the U.S., helms the bar at this restaurant in Washington, D.C.'s, Shaw neighborhood, and he has more than 100 mezcals on offer, plus a slew of creative cocktails like the Oaxacan Zombie (a Mexican spin on the classic tiki drink), an elevated smoky margarita, and a few inventive house originals. If you’re curious to learn about the range of mezcal flavors and aromas, ask for a flight. And rest assured, there’s plenty of outstanding Mexican food to wash down the drinks, so make a night of it. BUBBLES, BUBBLES, AND MORE BUBBLES (Liza Weisstuch) Wine bars are a dime a dozen, but few specialize in one style the way Ca Va (cavakc.com) does. The Kansas City hangout features more than 100 sparkling wines by the glass and bottle, including magnums, from France, Spain, South Africa, and its home state of Missouri, with a premium on organic, biodynamic, sustainable brands. (The name, by the way, is sah-vah, French for “what’s up,” but it’s also a clever play on cava, the Spanish sparkling vino.) If you think this is an opulent, lavish bar for special occasions, think again. The vibe is casual, and the snazzy chandeliers, marble-top bar, pressed-tin ceiling, shabby metal chairs, and brick wall give it the appearance of a French bistro on a Midwest bender. The kitchen’s moules frites, charcuterie board, and croque madame play to its Gallic side, while snacks like duck-fat kettle corn wink at American childhood classics. And though wine bars can sometimes be a bit intimidating, Ca Va steers clear of that with a creative menu that offers whimsical descriptions for each wine. To whit: “meditation as Champagne,” “sea shell, lemon curd, summer nights." THE GREEN FAIRY ON THE VEGAS STRIP Sage (aria.com/en/restaurants/sage.html), a grand, sweeping restaurant in the Aria Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, has a lot in common with the city’s other luxe restaurants, like indulgent steaks and glitzy décor. But there’s far more that sets it apart, like its vegan menu and its absinthe-focused bar. First things first: absinthe, flavored with anise and other herbs, will not make you trip. It was made illegal in the early 1900s because it had that effect on Paris’s Left Bank artist types, but that’s because they drank too much of it—and it’s argued that drinking too much of any unregulated spirit would have that same hallucinatory effect. Today, absinthe is produced around the world, and Sage showcases a broad range on its clever absinthe cart. Get your camera ready as the bartender serves it table-side the old fashioned way, which makes for quite a spectacle. Placing a slotted absinthe spoon on the rim of the glass and a sugar cube on top, he pours water over the sugar cube, which dissolves and drips into the glass, creating a hazy effect. It feels like the Belle Epoque all over again.   SOUR POWER IN PORTLAND, OREGON (Liza Weisstuch) If you aren’t yet a sour beer enthusiast, Portland's airy, lively Cascade Brewing Barrel House (cascadebrewingbarrelhouse.com), which is essentially the tasting-room extension of the nearby brewery, will make you a fan. Or at least a super-informed drinker, as the strong flavors can be a bit polarizing. The style is a longtime cult favorite of beer geeks that's now making more regular appearances in bars and restaurants. It gets its signature tangy flavors from Brettanomyces, a wild yeast, and barrel aging. And Cascade’s brewers know how to get creative with all that. They offer at least a dozen tap selections that they serve with the same reverence any sommelier would show towards a fine wine. They always have the Rose City Sour, their standard, flavored with rose hips, and seasonal picks like a coffee blonde, which is made with Stumptown coffee, and Kentucky Peach.  FOR SAKE'S SAKE (Liza Weisstuch) Institutional bars, restaurants, bakeries, and music clubs have vanished from New York City, but Decibel (sakebardecible.com) has held strong since the early 1990s, despite radical changes in drinking trends. This hideaway, a cultish favorite in the East Village, is located down a set of metal stairs with only a small light box sign that reads “On Air” indicating the entrance. A mashup of the neighborhood's extinct punk rock bars and Lost in Translation, the dark, intimate bar space is lit by hanging Japanese lanterns, and graffiti is scrawled on the wall and ceiling. (Feel free to contribute.) Snack on edamame, dumplings, or raw chopped octopus while you browse the menu of over 100 sakes. Each one is explained with a clever haiku-like description. (“Soft, delicate aroma and sharp,” “full-bodied sweetness with a crisp, dynamic flavor.”) A visit is an education in its own right, obliterating the myth that sake is just an afterthought served lukewarm. A SHERRY RENAISSANCE IN NYC In the past few years, there’ve been a lot of stereotype-shattering drink revivals—rye whiskey, for instance, pisco from Peru, and Brazillian cachaça. Also on the roster: Sherry. The Spanish wine has long been thought of as the fusty tipple of batty old aunts, but bar owners and bartenders have stepped up to set the record straight. Donostia (donostianyc.com), which sits on an unassuming street in New York’s East Village, is one of the pioneers of the sherry renaissance. The Spanish bar has a casual elegance, with a marble bar top, worn metal stools, and walls adorned with antique maps of Spain’s Basque region. The massive leather-bound menu features pages of options, giving you a chance to thoroughly explore this classic fortified wine in all its sophisticated iterations. Just be sure to come hungry. A mouth-watering array of traditional tapas, like olives, chorizo, manchego, and more olives, are on offer. And in a clever touch in keeping with the Basque theme, there’s tinned fish and other classic Spanish market staples for sale. 

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