Category Archives: Food & Wine

From African Safaris to Chernobyl Nuclear Site, NYT Travel Show Showcases a World of Travel Experiences

Katoryna Aslamova, the chief guide for Chernobyl Tours, who has been leading tours to the Chernobyl nuclear site for years, at the New York Times Travel Show. Last year, 70,000 people toured Chernobyl, and the numbers have been increasing 30 percent a year © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The New York Times Travel Show, which takes place each year at the Javits Center in New York City, is the largest consumer travel show in North America. Essentially, in the course of an afternoon, you can travel around the world on a single floor and 1000 steps.

The three-day showcase features global cuisine tastings, cultural performances, travel book signings, one-on-one conversations with travel experts, travel seminars and special discounts and offers from 600 exhibitors.

Here are some highlights from our “tour” around the floor at this year’s show:

Chernobyl Tour, Ukraine

The world’s largest radiation catastrophe at a nuclear power plant took place at the now infamous Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. An area the size of a small state was abandoned. Today, it is a tourist attraction, visited on daytrips and multi-day trips.

I meet Katoryna Aslamova, the chief guide for Chernobyl Tours, who has been leading tours there for years, and asserts that visiting is absolutely safe.

Though people love to post selfies of a Geiger counter beeping when it hits 0.3, she notes that the level of radiation during the course of a full day tour is equivalent to what you experience on an hour-long airplane flight (she says that the flight from Ukraine to London showed 2.82; to NY 3.91); 160 times less than a chest x-ray; 3600 times less than a whole body CT scan. It is even safe for pregnant women. The only ones not allowed are people under the age of 18, mainly because they cannot be legally prosecuted if they break rules, take out any of the rocks or disturb the soil (that could unleash damaging material).

(You can order a personal dosimeter “it will make your experience more enjoyable and memorable by making the radiation level visible and show your exact radiation dose at the end of the trip.)

 “It is so easy to set up the mood, the perception that visiting Chernobyl is risky. There are some hot spots on the ground– the size of a coin or tennis ball and the closer you come to it, the higher the radiation. But it can’t influence health because it would need long term exposure. Even if you measure a hot spot in the radiation zone, no place is high enough to risk health. The only place that would be dangerous would be inside unit, which is covered (double-sealed).

What could be risky hypothetically is the radioactive dust  (that give off alpha rays) that is still in ground have particles  –“ if you would dig it up or ingest it, that would cause dangerous exposure – so it is prohibited to dig or plant there.”

There is no restriction for pregnant woman if not prohibited to fly.

To take the tour, you are picked up in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, at 8 am for the 1 ½ hour bus ride. Over the course of a full day (the bus returns about 8-9 pm), you visit several sites.

The first stop is the village of Zalissya, which was the biggest in the area. “We are trying to tell not only about the accident but how people lived.”

Next the town of Chernobyl, which is 18 km from the powerplant (and not the ghost city that is so frequently pictured). People still occupy Chernobyl – scientists and foresters – who live there for 15 days a month in dormitory. “It is a unique place for research.” Visitors who do the overnight tours stay in hotels in Chernobyl.

There also are “self-resettlers” here and in other villages in the contamination zone – people who were evacuated after the accident “but sneaked back into the houses in the zone. They were homesick or had no place else to go.”

The accident took place in 1986, and many believe it contributed to the collapse of Soviet Union. “People stopped trusting government and the economy collapsed.”

She notes, “Nobody knows how many affected by Chernobyl explosion – the Soviet government tried to hide.”

The tour visits Radar Duga-1, a secret Soviet base known as Chernobyl 2 –which would have launched nuclear weapons. It is the only remaining antenna.

This reminds me of a documentary, “The Man who Saved the World,” about a Russian Lt. Colonel, Stanislav E. Petrov, who on September 26, 1983, despite radar showing the United States had launched nuclear missiles against Russia, refused to give the order to launch Russia’s missiles, literally saving the world from nuclear holocaust (for which he was disgraced and lost everything). No one knew of him for 25 years, but she knows of him. “He was a hero but not appreciated.” In that moment, I had such a sense of connection with this young woman from the Ukraine through our mutual knowledge and appreciation of Petrov.

The tour continues on to Kopachi Village which was buried under ground because there was too much radiation, but there are still some buildings (that’s where the famous photo of a kindergarten is from). You come up to the side of the power plant – 300 meters from the accident (but still, she says, 4x lower radiation than on an airplane.” 

Then the Red Forest, famous because it was consumed by the cloud. “We don’t go inside, but measure radiation.”

Then on to the famous ghost city of Prypat. This is not just where people lived – it had a population of 50,000  – but was a model city of the Soviet Union. The average age was 26 – every third person was a child. They were employees of plant. It was supposed to be model of the great Soviet life, if Communism would have worked.”

Chernobyl was biggest nuclear accident ever, but what does the whole world know? That there was an explosion, people died, it can’t be inhabited. But it is also a story of victory – of the mitigated areas.

All of this in one day, but there are multi-day tours, as well.

Every year 30% more people come on the tour (which is offered year round). Last year 70,000 people came (there are at least five tour companies, of which Chernobyl Tour is the largest.) Most take the one-day tour $89 – includes insurance, transfer, guard, permissions (can book day before, but it costs more).

There are also tours inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and other limited access facilities; airplane and helicopter tours over the Chernobyl Zone and Ukraine; military tours to the shooting ranges, rides on armored vehicles and visits to a nuclear missile base; underground tours in the drainage systems, subway, tunnels and caves, and sightseeing tours in Ukraine.

Chernobyl-Tour.UA, 11 Andriivskyi descent, Kyiv, Ukraine, tel. 888-752-0336 (US), www.Chernobyl-tour.com.

Americans Continue to Visit Cuba

Travel from the US to Cuba is expected to rebound in 2019 after declining in 2018 after Trump renewed restrictions on travel and issued a State Department warning. That didn’t deter visits from Canada, Europe and Russia, and visits to the island nation increased. Cruise arrivals continued to increase in 2018, and were expected to exceed 850,000, with 70% of the cruisegoers coming from the US. Travel companies continue to offer tours that meet the Trump requirements, and all forms of “purposeful” travel authorized by the Obama Administration remain in place (heritage, family, journalists).

Independent travel by individuals, families and friends is largely unchanged but now falls under the rewritten license category of “Support for the Cuban People” instead of “People to People.” But Americans are cautioned not to stay or use facilities that support the regime; staying homes (Air BnB), is okay. “Keep your receipts for five years,” a woman who traveled independently through Cuba in 2017 tells me.

“I used Air BnB, stayed with beautiful families, visited schools, brought school supplies,” Shay Pantone of NY, who traveled to Cuba in 2017, tells me, adding “You need to speak Spanish if you are going to travel independently.”

Despite the Trump Administration’s branding Cuba with a Level 2 travel advisory (“Exercise Increased Caution”), the same status as 57 other countries including 12 in the Americas and 7 in western Europe, Cuba is judged by most as one of the safest destinations in the region with less crime and disease.

How to go? The Fund for Reconciliation and Development (www.ffrd.org), a group that has been advocating for opening travel and overturning sanctions against Cuba for years, advises:

  • Book nonstop to Havana on Jet Blue from JFK or on United from Newark; American, Delta and southwest have connecting flights. American or Jet Blue flies from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Holguin, Varadero, Carnaguey and Santiago (from May 3).
  • Select “Support for the Cuban People” as the appropriate license category from the airline menu.
  • Use Air BnB or Trip Advisor to reserve a room or apartment (casa particular) from a private owner.
  • East in private restaurant (paladar)
  • Buy handicrafts, art and clothing from self-employed craftspeople and creators (cuento propistos).
  • If you need a guide, hire privately (preferably in advance)
  • As much as possible, use private taxis (also available between cities)
  • “Whatever you do, wherever you go, be intentional and responsible that your goal is ‘a full time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people.. and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.’ (The judgment of what qualifies is yours.)”
  • Apportion recreational activities like concerts, dancing and the beach as in a normal work week.
  • Keep a journal or list of your ‘meaningful interactions’ for five years.
  • If you are on a cruise, exercise your right to explore independently or with a local guide.

More information:

Current US government regulations: tinyurl.com/regsnov2017

Essential information for independent travelers: tinyurl.com/Cubabasics

Fund for Reconciliation and Development is offering a fam trip May 3-10 to explore Santiago and Guantanamo; and for Carnival, July 20-28.

Fund For Reconciliation and Development, 917-859-9027, director @ffrd.org, www.ffrd.org.

Safaris with Social Benefit

Zulu Nyala promotes animal conservation in its six-day, six night safari packages using four-star lodges, in its own safari park the family has had for 35 years. “The owner was out with his family and stopped to look at a giraffe, saw a for-sale sign, and bought 15,000 acres.” The park accommodates up to 300 guests in three lodges (50-units, 56 suites, 48 safari tents). The all-inclusive program is hosted by a game ranger and offers two activities a day (walking or driving). (www.zulunyala.com).

The organization also offers the opportunity for organizations to use the $6,000 safaris as a charity fundraiser – for example, starting the auction at $2500 for two for a six-night stay, where the organization keeps 50 percent and gives the safari company 50%.

“There’s no money or risk on the part of the organization; we’ve been doing it for 15 years, and supported hundreds of American organizations.” (Contact Debbie Bosman, African Safari Donations, 800-595-5810, www.safarisforcharity.com, bosman@zulunyala.com).

Off Season Adventures: The idea here is to safari in Tanzania and Zanzibar off-season, when there are fewer people, it is less expensive, while also supporting local communities. The company reserve 5% of clients’ total package cost to invest in the communities and wildlife through a 501(c)(3) public charity Second Look Worldwide.  “These community and environmental investments are tangible projects which our clients can see during their trip. All projects are determined by the communities and dependent on their most direct needs, however, we are focusing on projects that support water management solutions. Our goal is to become a sustainable, net-positive travel company by replacing and building up all resources used by our clients during their tours.”

The company’s first community initiative, the Kakoi Water Project , is a project that will provide a year-round source of water to the village of Kakoi and its surrounding communities, which include three other villages, two schools, and a dispensary. “By supporting these local communities that border Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, we contribute to their well-being and encourage them to make an extra effort to protect animals in the area.”  The tours include an excursion to the Kakoi Water Project. Visitors get to visit a relative of theirs – go into hut, gather honey, seeds, roots, experience how live.

Off Season Adventures not only times its safaris in Tanzania and Zanzibar in the off-season when there are fewer people, it is less expensive and less stressful for villagers and wildlife, but also allocates 5% of tour price to support local community; this year, supporting the Kakoi Water Project to provide a year-round source of water for the 1000 people of the Kakoi Village and surrounding villages, and brings its guests to see it.

The tour company also offsets all carbon emissions through a partnership with Carbon Tanzania, which conserves huge tracks of forested land in Tanzania, a more productive way of offsetting carbon.  “To date, we have offset 83.84 metric tons of CO2 and protected 69 trees by helping Carbon Tanzania preserve 35,000ha of forest in the Yaeda Valley, an area that the Hadzabe tribe have called home for thousands of years. This way of offsetting not only has a positive environmental impact, but also has a positive impact on the local population of the Hadzabe.”

“Travel has the power to transform not only the traveler, but also our world. This belief forms the foundation of our business. We have a deep commitment to protecting and preserving the destinations we visit, and building a better world through sustainable travel.

“We believe in integrating sustainability into all components of our business. We are committed to providing experiences that have a positive impact on the environment, community, and economy of each destination visited. We work closely with our local partners to ensure that travelers are respectfully visiting in a way that showcases authentic experiences.”

(Off-Season Adventures, 100 Marshall Street #416, Hoboken, NJ 07030, 619-971-0823, offseasonadventures.com). 

Tours by Locals

Tours by Locals has now grown to a network of 3100 independent-contractor guides. The company facilitates the trend toward independent, “authentic,” experiential travel. The company marked a milestone: 10 years and 1 million travelers. You can find a guide for Vietnam ($50 US for 8 hours private, with car; less if walking or cycling city). The most northerly guide in the registry now is in Svalbord, Norway (where the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located); the newest is in Mogadishu, Somalia (the guide comes with security); and there is an uptick in requests for guides in Cuba.

Israel for Foodies

I found it intriguing that Israel was the sponsor of the Taste of Travel section for the second year. Israel, after all, is not top-of-mind for cuisine. 

“Israel has wonderfully diverse gastronomic. We have James Beard Award-winning chefs,” Chad Martin, Northeast Region Director for the Israel Ministry of Tourism (www.israel.travel), says. “Israel is 70 years old- we now have fourth and fifth generation Israelis. Israel is a pot that hasn’t melted – In Israel, you might have four grandparents from different ends of the earth: Argentina, Morocco, Russia, East Asia – all Jewish and intermarrying. They borrow the best recipes from every grandparent, the spices mix together

What is Israeli food? “Israeli food is a mix of 70 cultures. The combination of cultures and innovation together – Israel, after all, is the Innovation Nation with the most start-ups.- it has a culture of creativity and that manifests in the food. We invented the cherry tomato. We’ve made numerous innovations in agriculture – we made the desert bloom, and there, things grow sweeter.

“The Israeli food scene is based around fresh ingredients. We are the size of New Jersey but have our own vegetables.”

At the New York Times Travel Show, Israel shows off its diversified offerings for travelers beyond heritage and pilgrimage experiences, from culinary to adventuring © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Culinary experience is just one of the ways Israel is reaching out beyond the most traditional sources of visitors- Jewish Heritage and Christian Pilgrimage. For the first time, Israel surpassed 1 million visitors from the North America, posting 42% growth over a two-year period. People are coming for food and wine experiences, meetings and incentives, even adventure and outdoors travel – mountain biking in the Negev where the country’s first Six Senses resort is opening and a new airport is opening in Eilat. Hikers can travel Trail Israel – it takes a month – and kayak in the grottoes of Rosh HaNikra, a geologic formation on the border between Israel and Lebanon, on the Mediterranean Sea coast in the Western Galilee.

“40% of our visitors are returnees, but not just for heritage, but because they realize that can’t really ‘do Israel’ in one trip. The ‘sophisticated travel’ segment has skyrocketed.”

The New York Times Travel Show brings culture from around the world to entice travelers to discover © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The New York Times Travel Show, now in its 16th year, is the largest and longest-running trade and consumer travel show in North America, hosting 10,000 travel professionals during a Travel Industry Conference, and some 22,000 travelers at Consumer Seminars, Meet The Experts Pavilion and an interactive Exhibition with more than 600 exhibitors representing travel to all seven continents, positioned within 16 pavilions (including Adventure, Africa, Asia, Australia/South Pacific, Canada, Caribbean, Cruise, Europe, Family, Global, Latin America, L.G.B.T.Q., Mexico, River Cruise, Travel Products, and U.S.A. Pavilions). In addition to discounts and special offers, the show provides educational seminars and live entertainment for families, individuals and couples and seniors.

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© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Okane is San Francisco SoMa Neighborhood Gastropub Serving Extravagant Japanese Cuisine at Everyman Price

Uni, the edible part of the sea urchin, is presented with the spiky part still on the plate at Okane, a Japanese gastropub in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman, Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Well off San Francisco’s tourist track, an exquisite dining experience awaits at Okane, a delightful, intimate neighborhood izakaya in the style of a Japanese gastropub, tucked into SoMa (South of Market), once a warehouse and light industrial district that became popular work/living space for musicians and artists and clubs until the techies took over and now is loosely known as the Design district.

Okane, which opened in January 2015, is the hip, casual sister restaurant to the more upscale, sophisticated Michelin-starred Omakase restaurant literally next door. Okane has already been rated a Michelin Bib Gourmand for 2017.

The casual, comfortable atmosphere at Okane Japanese gastropub confutes the elegance of the cuisine © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But the casual appearance and really moderate pricing disguises the exquisite, opulent quality of the fish, much it that has been flown in directly from Tokyo’s world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market (when you arrive, the list of fish that have come in that day are on a board).

The presentations are breathtaking, but when you bring yourself to take a bite, every morsel brings an astonishment of succulent flavor, so that even the memory of the meal makes your mouth water.

The experience is the culinary equivalent of euphoria.

It’s also an education in Japanese cuisine.

Okane is a SoMa neighborhood izakaya – a Japanese gastropub – serving traditional and refined Japanese “comfort” food and contemporary sushi.  Many of the selections would be common in Japan but are rarer to find in a Japanese restaurant in America.

Albacore Aburi © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The menu at Okane, which is owned by Kash Feng and Jackson Yu who is also the Executive Chef,  features an array of shareable vegetable, fish and meat course (Ippin, or appetizers)s, rice and noodles, nigiri sushi and sushi rolls, and assorted specialties.

Highlights from the izakaya menu include the Salmon Aburi with avocado, served with ikura, shio-kombu and truffle; Wakadori Karaage (fried young chicken); Nebeyaki Udon with shrimp tempura, chicken, wakame, green onion and fish cake; and Oyako Donburi with chicken, egg and green onion.

We were treated to Uni, the edible part of the sea urchin (Mario, the manager, actually saved it for our arrival) presented with the spikey part still on the plate, which was so fresh that when you poked it, it would actually still move reflexively. The meat is sweet, creamy in texture and delectable.

Okane’s chef preparing his artful creations © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

This was followed by a sampling from the sushi menu, overseen by Chef Rico Li, who creates  a mix of traditional nigiri selections and contemporary rolls. Among the most popular (for good reason): the Ginza which features shrimp tempura (giving it a bit of a crunchy texture), avocado and cucumber, topped with torched Hamachi, jalapeño (a fusion tip of the hat to San Francisco), and spicy blue fin tuna, and Shibuya prepared with avocado, shiso, tobiko (flying fish roe), topped with salmon and a tiny lemon wedge and a Japanese mint leaf; and the Shinjuku, with snow crab and avocado, topped with A5 Wagyu beef.

Ginza Roll, one of the most popular selections at Okane Restaurant, in San Francisco’s SoMa district © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We were gobsmacked by a succession of offerings, each setting off flashes of euphoric delight with each bite:

From the Special Fish Ippin Ryori: Albacore Aburi prepared with Japanese mustard mayonnaise and truffle; and Salmon Aburi with avocado, served with ikura, shiokonbu, truffle.

Okane’s Shibuya Roll © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Agi Tataki, one of the chef’s seasonal sashimi offerings, is mackerel sashimi with ponzu (a citrus-based sauce), onions, ginger and momiji oroshi (grated daikon radish and red chili peppers).

From the sushi offerings, we savored barracuda, salmon belly, Hamachi (yellowtail that already comes sauced so you don’t dip it), Tai (sea bream), Kinmedai (golden eye snapper), prepared with sea salt, lemon and torched is also sensational.

Amberjack Nigiri © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The authentic Japanese cuisine is complimented with a comprehensive menu of sake, Japanese craft beer (Okane is one of the only San Francisco restaurants to offer Coedo Pilsner, IPA and Black Lager on tap), and wine.

Okane doesn’t do many desserts, but to finish the meal, we experienced black sesame ice cream that is the perfect combination of sweet/not sweet – a taste a little like peanut butter – that becomes addictive. (Save room!)

Black Sesame Ice Cream at Okane, a Japanese gastropub in San Francisco’s SoMa district © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can sit at the sushi counter and be treated to Chef’s Choice, where you are served one piece to savor at a time, ($80 pp, compared to $150 at Omikase).

Okane is also unusual in serving brunch (what a concept!).

Okane’s interior design, by Aya Jessani, a San Francisco-based interior designer who also helped create the intimate space for Omakase – there are just 46 seats – is utterly perfect to make you feel absolutely relaxed, focused on nothing more than to savor every morsel.

Okane is the sort of place you happily wait in line for.

Hours Lunch: Monday – Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday – Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Check Average Lunch: $15-$20 Dinner: $30-$40 Capacity 46 seats and a four-seat sushi bar Private Parties For private events, contact Jean Francisco at jean@omakasesf.com or call the restaurant at 415-865-9788

Okane, 669 Townsend Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 415-865-9788, www.okanesf.com. Social Media Instagram – @okane_sf Facebook – @okane-523346331167212.

For more help planning a visit to San Franciscocontact San Francisco Travel. 415-391‑2000, www.sftravel.com. 

See also:

San Francisco Throwing Year-Long 50th Anniversary Celebration of Summer of Love – Be Prepared to Be Blasted into the Past

San Francisco Goes All Out With Special Events, Exhibitions Marking 50th Anniversary of Summer of Love

Biking is Great Way to Tour San Francisco’s Must-See Attractions

A Day in San Francisco Revisiting the Past: Plucky Cable Car Epitomizes City’s Grit, Determination, Innovation

Beach Blanket Babylon is Rollicking Fun Musical Revue in San Francisco’s North Beach

Beats of North Beach, Rolling Museums, Urban Oasis: San Francisco’s Cultural Highlights Where You Least Expect 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Born in a Silver Boom, Park City, Utah, Heritage Delights Diners, GalleryStrollers, FestivalGoers

Park City’s historic Main Street has a festive, welcoming ambiance especially with the free, old-timey trolley © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

By Karen Rubin, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Like so many, we have come to Park City for its legendary powder snow and sprawling mountain peaks, home to two major ski resorts, Park City (which since Vail Resorts acquired and combined Park City and The Canyons has become the largest ski resort in the US), and the skiers-only, “retro” Deer Valley Resort.

And besides being one of the easiest world-class ski destinations to reach from every part of the country by air (I literally leave my home on Long Island in the morning and am skiing at Park City Mountain by the afternoon), it affords a perfectly delightful, charming historic town that rounds out the joyful experience.

Which is ideal because one of the major delights of a ski (or any outdoors) holiday is dining out. During our all-too brief stay in Park city, we get to sample the diverse venues.

Just a few blocks long, Park City’s historic Main Street really packs it in: one phenomenal gallery, boutique, superb restaurant after another. I visit on three evenings of our four-day stay and find new treasures to explore each time.

Park City was born in a silver mining boom of the 1880s. – today, it extracts a different kind of silver, from tourism – indeed, we are told that Park City has been ranked the most expensive small town in America (surpassing Aspen).

But the 19th century past is still very much on display – I love reading the historic markers outside some of the buildings which collectively tell the story of a town that survived explosions, flooded mineshafts, a town-wide fire in 1898 which burned 200 of the town’s 350 structures, snows heavy enough to collapse buildings, and a devastating downturn in silver prices that deflated the town’s economy in the mid-1900s, so that by 1951, it was officially named a ghost town. (There is quite a good Park City Museum, 528 Main Street, allocate about an hour.) Sixty-four of the Park City buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, there are more than 1,200 miles of tunnels that wind through the mountains (Park City Mountain Resort offers an on-mountain Historic Mountain Tour on skis that goes to some of the mine shafts.). There are other charming touches, like the free old-timey trolley, and the decorative lights that are strung across Main Street and around many of the buildings.

Park City retains its historic charm © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But out of a silver bust has come a new kind of cash boom: Park City today is considered the “most expensive small town” in America (actually surpassing Aspen) which you sense in the high-end galleries, shops and restaurants. Yet, the ambiance is not in the least snobby or elitist. We are struck by how very welcoming and friendly everybody is – from the shopkeepers to the visitors. The town is one perpetual smile.

There are a mind-boggling number of restaurants to choose from – nearly 150 in the area – from cozy bistros, casual eateries ideal for family gatherings, jazz and live-music venues, and fine dining establishments worthy of Michelin stars.

During our all-too brief stay, we get to sample Park City’s diverse dining options. After all, a ski holiday is one of the few times you can tell yourself, “I’m on vacation, AND I’ve spent the day outside burning up calories.”

The first place to replenish those calories is at Firewood on Main.

Firewood on Main should be a Park City institution. Though it only opened in December 2016, its chef/owner is John Murcko who is responsible for developing many of the fine dining restaurants throughout Park City (The Farm, in the Canyons village and was named one of “Utah’s 25 Best Restaurants” in 2015, is one) and Sun Valley. This is his first restaurant of his own, and you get the feeling it just gives him the freedom to express his passion for culinary creativity. What we love about it is that although the selections and taste combinations are as sophisticated as you might find in the major capital cities of the world, it still is absolutely true, in ingredients and selections (not to mention décor) to its local surroundings. So there are taste sensations that evoke South America (particularly Argentina’s penchant for grilling) and Asia, but that still feel right at home in Utah.

Firewood on Main provides windows into the kitchen © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chef Murcko has done some interesting things: like creating the Chef’s Library – a literal tiny, private and separated room connected to the kitchen with a pass-through for the dishes – where you get to create a menu in collaboration with the chef.  There is also a second private dining room, and the Nickel Bar on the basement floor (named for the nickels that fill the bar tabletop) which is appropriately dark and woody.

The main dining room features a set of windows that let you see through to the sprawling kitchen (I like that better than when the kitchen is just open to the dining room). You get to see the activity, as well as marvel at the room-length long open grill, that was custom-built, “the Mazzerati of grills,” our server, Sean, notes.

Just about everything is grilled or seared or fired or smoked in some fashion – even the lemon garnish on the cocktail, to enhance its flavor (more about that in a bit).

I love the décor, which I dub “Mountain Moderne.” It has a quasi-agricultural/industrial heritage motif – clean lines but woodsy – that  summons Utah heritage with windmill fans that are used as ceiling fans and black-and-white photos that decorate the room. Chef Murcko even crafted the tables himself.

We start off with a batch of appetizers that we share:

Grilled Oysters, a popular appetizer at Firewood on Main © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Grilled Oysters with spinach, wood roasted bacon and beet pickled shallot – the oysters are palm-sized huge and are brought in from Washington and Applewood Smoked Burrata with ash roasted beets and herbed pesto; pork belly (for which Firewood is known) prepared with honey wine apple vinegar, red pear and frisee; and fire-braised seasonal wild mushrooms (wood beech, royal trumpets, chanterelles) served with grilled bread. Delectable.

For our mains, we savor Port Short Rib, so succulent and perfectly prepared over creamy polenta, warm dried stone fruit chutney, and heirloom carrots fired on the grill; Rack of Lamb, with black lentil ragu, cipollini onion, eggplant and red chimichurri, had some wonderful Argentinian influences and it too was prepared and presented to perfection; and American Kobe New York (the best of both cultures!) showed off Murcko’s penchant for grilling, was sensational, served with rosemary pave, baby shiitakes and duxelle jus.

Watching chefs create at Firewood on Main © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

That being said, the menu (which basically touches all cylinders of offerings) shifts nightly to incorporate the freshest seasonal ingredients, locally sourced wherever possible. But the one constant is that everything is cooked over a wood fire. “Chef John Murcko’s vision blends the most primitive of cooking methods—open wood flame—with an innovative menu.” (Firewood On Main, 306 Main Street, Park City UT 84060, 435-252-9900, firewoodonmain.com).

High West Saloon and Distillery

One of the most popular places to be in Park City is High West Saloon and Distillery. It has the look of being around a century but was opened in 2006 by David Perkins and his wife, Jane. David, a former biochemist, was inspired to open his own distillery after seeing the parallels between the fermentation and distilling process and his own work in biochemistry during a trip to the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. The old-timey look comes from the fact that Perkins opened with just a small, 250-gallon still and Saloon in an historic livery stable and garage.

High West Saloon & Distillery is set in an historic livery stable and garage © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Saloon features alpine-inspired western fare alongside the original still (you can see it) and the Nelson Cottage offering whiskey-paired dinners. It’s  lots of fun and draws huge crowds willing to wait 2 ½ hours for a table (they don’t mind sampling the product in the meantime and looking at the traditional 1,600 gallon copper pot still, or perusing the small “general store”. Notably, High West was named 2016 Distiller of the Year by Whisky Advocate.

The original still is on view at High West Saloon & Distillery © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We had a fantastically fresh chicken noodle soup and amazing High West Burger 18, made with a bison and beef blend (wonderfully moist), “proprietary seasoning”, broiled aged gruyere, blue cheese, BBQ glazed sweet onion, crispy fried shallots, served with fries. The Distillery also offers tours, which you can book in advance.

Colorful atmosphere at High West Saloon © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The new High West Distillery and tasting room is located “high in the Wasatch-Uinta Mountains,” in Wanship, Utah, 25 minutes outside Park City and 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, and is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm).

(High West Saloon and Distillery, 703 Park Ave Park City, UT 84060, 435-649-8300, www.highwest.com).

Silver Star Café

We also got to sample Silver Star Café, which is located at one of the bases to Park City Mountain, one of the venues that regularly features live music.

Here, we enjoyed live jazz by the John Flanders Jazz Trio in a most comfortable dining room that made you feel more like being in a living room than a restaurant, with long banquettes and loads of pillows that is clearly a favorite with regulars and locals.

The John Flanders Jazz Trio performing at the Silver Star Café, Park City Mountain © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We thoroughly enjoyed the freshness and flavor combinations of the appetizers and salad: General Tso’s Pork Belly Wrap prepared with Butter lettuce, pickled chilies, toasted peanuts; Warm Roasted Brussels Sprout Salad with pomegranate seeds, toasted hazelnuts, pickled onion, pomegranate-balsamic dressing; Winter Greens & Apple with radicchio, arugula, endive, candied pecans, grapefruit vinaigrette.

The mains offered wonderful choices:

Pork Osso Bucco (a house specialty), featured Niman Ranch pork shank, fresh tomatillo salsa, coconut creamed corn, Queso Fresco, pork jus; Boneless Buttermilk Fried Half Chicken is prepared in a distinctive way  and served with Red beans & rice, braised greens, Carolina BBQ; Seared Elk Burger, 8 oz. of our signature elk-bacon blend, fig-cherry mostarda, bacon burger sauce, served with hand-cut fries on a toasted Ciabatta bun.

Lost at Sea, the newly created cocktail by James Root, Silver Star Café’s manager and mixologist © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

James Root, the manager who is an award-winning mixologist, let’s us sample a cocktail he had only just devised: “Lost at Sea” contains Beehive Gin, Absinthe, lime and crème de violette with a cherry set at the base of the glass. It is built about Absinthe, a spirit with a colorful reputation of having been banned and therefore embraced by Parisian artists, bohemians and literati like Hemingway (it was falsely accused of having hallucinogenic properties). What I love about it is that it isn’t too sweet but has an air of intrigue. (Silver Star Cafe. 1825 Three Kings Drive Park City, UT 84060. 435-655-3456. info@thesilverstarcafe.com, www.thesilverstarcafe.com)

Galleries Galore

The art galleries are simply breathtaking. The last Friday of each month is a free Park City Gallery Stroll that lets visitors and locals alike the opportunity to enjoy light refreshments while discovering what’s on in the galleries; from 6-9 pm, members of the Park city Gallery Association offer a showcase highlighting artists, special exhibits and art events.

Jake Quarnberg, the hat shaper at Burns Cowboy Shop on historic Main Street, Park City, Utah. Family owned since 1876, one of oldest family owned western shops in US. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At Burns Cowboy Shop on historic Main Street, family owned since 1876, one of oldest family owned western shops in US (the boots just take your breath away),  I meet Jake Quarnberg, the hat shaper, who is steaming a hat and patiently explaining the process to two girls who listen completely enthralled. Quarnberg who used to be a cattle rancher in Utah, grew up with the 6th generation Burns.

Year-Round Destination 

Park City is very much a year-round destination – after the snow melts, the mountain bikers and hikers take over.

Park City offers festivities and festivals year-round, the most famous being the Sundance Film Festival when as many as 40,000 come to town each January (remarkably, few actually ski so the slopes are relatively empty).  But the whole calendar is chock-a-block with special events: beginning in June, the Park silly Summer Market festival, each Sunday, showcasing local produce and artisan crafts; in July,  Independence Day parade, and Park City Food & Wine Festival; in September, Autumn Aloft hot air balloon festival; in October, the Howl-O-Ween dog parade, to list just a few that have built the town’s reputation as the “Festival City of the Rocky Mountains.”  There is also the Park City Institute’s concert series; performances at the picturesque Egyptian Theater (“Annie the Musical” was being performed during our visit).

The famous Egyptian Theater on historic Main Street in Park City © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are more than 100 lodging properties to choose, from on-mountain hotels, condos and full-service luxury hotels with ski-in/out convenience, to multi-family private homes, bed and breakfast inns, downtown properties (you can hop on the Town Lift to the Park City Mountain base).

Park City, Utah is arguably North America’s most accessible mountain recreation destination, just 35 minutes from Salt Lake City International Airport with convenient service from everywhere. Park City – home to Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort and the Utah Olympic Park – affords more than 400 miles of public trails offering year-round outdoor recreation.

Excellent travel planning assistance is provided by the Park City Chamber of Commerce, Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-453-1360, www.visitparkcity.com.

See also:

Park City Mountain, Utah: Biggest Ski Area in US is One of Easiest to Reach

Deer Valley, Utah is Skiers’ Only Paradise with Retro, Refined Vibe

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