Surfacing: NoPa

Years ago, realtors attempted to gussy up a gritty slice of the Western Addition area of San Francisco — home to wig shops, greasy diners and its fair share of crime — with a catchy acronym, NoPa, after its city-central location, north of the Panhandle. When the restaurant Nopa took over an abandoned Laundromat in 2006, the moniker started to catch on — and it now seems to have officially stuck. Rents are rising, retail options are evolving, and the neighborhood is expanding up, down and around Divisadero Street. Check-cashing joints have become trendy salons; landscaped parklets and do-it-yourself schools have cropped up; and artisanal pies and pizza are making a Popeyes look increasingly out of place. With plans for better bike lanes, a branch of the cult-favorite grocery and ice cream shop Bi-Rite coming this fall, and a Four Barrel cafe and “toast bar” (called the Mill) opening soon, NoPa is poised to become the next Mission — just leafier and more low-key.


1798 McAllister Street

(415) 874-9186

All things DIY is the focus at this unassuming 800 square foot space. Spend a foggy summer evening learning how to stretch your own mozzarella, assemble a terrarium. build a quilt, or pickle, jam, and can. Single classes are around $40; reservations for private groups are available too.

The Independent

628 Divisadero Street

(415) 771-1421

The Fillmore may be the city’s most renowned live music venue, but the intimate “Indy” — with its 500-person capacity — has become one of its most popular, hosting everyone from big-name bands like Green Day to rising local singer-songwriters like Nicki Bluhm. There are also Monday movie nights, for free (the two-drink minimum sure beats a $6 bucket of popcorn.)

Rare Device

600 Divisadero Street

(415) 863-3969

This art gallery-cum-curio collection moved here in April from its “no-man’s-land” location, a sales clerk said, barely looking up from his iPad. “NoPa is going to be way better for us.” On offer: reclaimed apothecary matchstick bottles, wooden puzzle serving platters and illustrated books and stationary from Little Otsu, a mini-version of the former Mission storefront.


311 Divisadero Street

(415) 255-1133

San Francisco didn’t need another Neopolitan-style, cracker-thin-crust pizza place, but in 2010, Divisadero Street got a quality one, from the chef Sharon Ardiana. Highlights include the Calabrian “Moto,” topped with chile flakes and house-made sausage, and a newly opened (and heated) garden patio. (Expect a wait.)

San Franpsycho

505 Divisadero Street

A couple of surfers-skaters (and self-proclaimed partiers) with a thing for screen-printing opened this flagship apparel store and studio in March. Their Golden Gate Bridge “San Franpsycho” logo is already ubiquitous — before long, it may become the new go-to tourist T-shirt choice.

Losing my Vegas Virginity

No one thought Las Vegas was my kind of town. “You wouldn’t last 24 hours!” friends warned. “You, of all people, would absolutely haaate it.”

I’m the type who prefers the mountains to the mall. I cringe at the oversize and artificial. I get lost in crowds. Cry in traffic. And so, naturally, I always agreed: Sin City was not for me.

But then, here I was, a Vegas virgin at 32 years old. And, I admit, I was curious. Maybe it was time I learned what all the buzz was about. I’m young; I’m fun; I’m a travel writer, for crying out loud! I called my friend Raina, the one other person I knew who’d Never Been, and we booked our flights.

And then we booked a room — intentionally off the Strip and away from the chaos — at the swank new Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, located 10 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard and five minutes, tops, from the entrance to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. With an “adventure spa” and a view of the red rock from my big cushy bed, how bad could it be? We’ll spend our days outside — in the wilderness, I told Raina. At night, we’ll hit the town. If, honestly, only because we were dying to try chef Joël Robuchon’s new eponymous restaurant, which elevated the local, already-on-the-rise dining scene. And then we’ll retreat safely back to our rooms, Cinderella-style. After all, if we were going to make the most of our days, we couldn’t sleep through them.

“Vegas doesn’t typically attract, uh, outdoorsy people,” says my cabdriver, on the way out of McCarran International Airport. Perfect, I think. More room for me. I’d heard all about Red Rock Canyon: It is climbers’ heaven, with hiking and horseback trails galore. But I didn’t know the relatively untracked Valley of Fire State Park is only an hour away; nor did I realize I could kayak down the Colorado River from the base of Hoover Dam. Vegas, baby, Vegas.

Our very first night, we wrap ourselves in the hotel’s plush white robes, order room service, and watch America’s Next Top Model. Off to a lame start, we realize. But what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! Plus, we have an early morning on the Colorado River.

Before we catch even a glimpse of glitter, we see a trio of bighorn sheep moseying along a grassy hillside near the base of Hoover Dam — our launching pad for the day’s paddle. I’m happy. At the suggestion of our Red Rock Casino adventure activities guide, David Bert, we sign up with Evolution Expeditions Kayaking — a new outfitter with the best boats in town. Given the tight security at the Southwest’s landmark power source, only 30 water permits are issued daily. “Even without that rule, though, there wouldn’t be many folks out here,” says Evolution’s owner, Dan Cameron. “Locals who’ve lived here forever have no idea you can do this! Took me 20 years to find out.”

Feeling fortunate to get a bottom-up view of the monolithic dam in the early morning light, we slip quietly down the glassy class I river and past the volcanic red rock of Black Canyon. Our first stop is Sauna Cave, where our guide, Aaron, leads us into a pitch-black 60-foot-deep, geothermally heated tunnel. We walk cautiously and ankle-deep in soothing, steamy water. Then we paddle on peacefully under the big blue sky, past peregrine falcons, our eyes peeled for more bighorns. I forget I’m in Las Vegas until Aaron informs me that his dream job is to be an aerial artist in a Cirque du Soleil show. “I’m worried I don’t have the body,” he admits, “but this kayaking gig should hopefully help my muscle tone.”

At Boyscout Canyon, we wade through a series of natural hot springs until we reach a big turquoise-clear pool, tempered by a rushing cold waterfall, and jump in. “This sure beats gambling!” says the one other guest on our trip. Agreed.

That evening, we shift gears: Cruising down Interstate 15 in our Chevy Impala, we channel Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers. A surge of excitement hits us as we near the Strip. We’re dwarfed by the gaudyskyscrapers, shining by the light of the setting sun. The sky is pink, the traffic converging. Signs, signs, everywhere are neon signs. We’re trapped in a real-life Lite-Brite, starstruck and overstimulated.

An all-glass elevator shoots us to the top of The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, to Mix Lounge, where we toast our trip from a patio table with a bird’s-eye view of the entire Strip. Lights crawl like caterpillars along the edge of the Luxor Las Vegas pyramid. So many hotels. So many parking lots. The long, narrow bar, with its disco feel, deep booths, and dim light, is almost too cool. Next stop is dinner at Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas. Arguably the hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard since its splashy 2005 opening, the Wynn boasts a $2.7 billion price tag, a collection of van Goghs and Picassos that will bring you to tears, $500 greens fees, and a flashy website that takes two minutes to load.

We allow a good half-hour to make our way 3 miles, but still we’re late for our reservation. The effects of the long day in the desert sun kick in as we devour our steak frites and crispy duck confit, mesmerized by the changing colors of the “Lake of Dreams” light show outside. Bedtime. Twenty-four hours down — and, surprising myself, I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow.

We grab a cup of coffee and a couch in the lobby, and stare through the doors tinted fire-engine red at a view of fountains, non-native palms, and surrounding construction that will soon create an urban center, complete with residences and shops. We meet up with David Bert, the adventure activities guide who’d steered us to the kayak trip, so he can show us around Red Rock Canyon, the national conservation area he’s long considered home. “Are you ready to get spanked?” he asks. I’m startled, but then quickly realize it’s only innocuous hiking-speak. We tell him we’d prefer to take it easy, after yesterday’s invigorating paddle. He whisks us 15 minutes from the resort, yet seemingly worlds away, to Sandstone Quarry.

I’m surrounded by yellow sandstone cliffs, ruins of an agave-roasting pit, and crazy red rock formations. I ponder how these pancake layers came to be. “People come here for the whole what happens-here-stays-here thing,” says David. “I tell them, ‘Take a bunch of photos, show your friends! Spend a few bucks on a horseback ride and actually get your money’s worth –you’ll blow a whole lot more at the blackjack tables.’ ” We scramble up to Calico Tanks, one of David’s favorite respites — and a unique juxtaposition. Standing among 150-millionyear- old rock, touching the earth in its purest form, I can see, looking at a distant Emerald City, the exact antithesis: a 6-mile stretch of nothing but stuff, spanning from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay.

We’re back by noon and head straight for Salt Lick for real-deal Texas barbecue: jalapeño-stuffed shrimp wrapped in applewood bacon and tender smoked brisket. Trying our best to save room for dinner, we hold back on the berry cobbler. And then we hit the pool, the hotel’s 3-acre centerpiece encircled by private cabanas and umbrella-shaded chaises. The scene is tamer than I’d imagined, with more gray-haired folks than bikini-clad 20-somethings. Next, I treat my desert-dehydrated skin to the “Crystal Caviar” facial. After an indulgent sequence of exfoliation, creams, masks, and wraps, I emerge glowing — and ready for our next splurge, Robuchon.

Dining at Joël Robuchon’s restaurant, for us, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with the full tasting menu priced at $360. So we savor each of the 16 courses, every sip of wine, and every pampered moment of the three-hour dinner. We treasure the over-the-top touches, from the dizzying choice of 14 kinds of fresh-baked levain to the truffled langoustine ravioli to the purple ribbon–tied napkin that appears upon return from each trip to the ladies’ room. Only in Vegas.

Après dinner, we head over to the Mirage for Love, Las Vegas’s latest Cirque du Soleil production. An acrobatic show unfolds, set to a remix of the Beatles’ greatest hits. We silently sing along, awestruck by the tumbles and trapeze — and then I, uh, nod off. Just briefly. It was late … We had all that wine … Raina nudges me. By the heartening “Love Is All You Need” finale, I’m revived.

Downstairs, we see a snaking line by a velvet rope. It’s Jet, the hottest club on the Strip — or so we’d heard. Enough with the good-night sleeps. We’re in Vegas! The music is hypnotizing, as is the people-watching. We make it through two of the three sound rooms in the laser grid-lit space. But we can only handle so much. Around 3 a.m., we call it a night.

We wake way too late for the sunrise horseback ride we’d planned. “This must be how people normally do Vegas,” I grumble, as we wander aimlessly around the MGM Grand. I slap five bucks down on the Wheel of Fortune — and win five more! This is kinda fun, but I’m no fool and quit while I’m ahead.

And we rally. We leave the Strip for a drive through Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Valley of Fire State Park. An endless stretch of mind-boggling boulders erupts from the creosote bush. The red rock looks superimposed against the stormy sky. Terra-cotta sand seeps into our sneakers along the White Domes Trail. Eventually, we tear ourselves away. Four days and 100 hours later, it’s all over. “Checking out just for the morning?” the valet asks, opening the car door. He sees my suitcase. “Or checking out forever?” he smiles. I pause, unsure at first how to respond. “Actually. No. Not forever,” I reply. “I’ll be back.”

Unique Sleeps

Sleep in a … Treehouse

So. This is what it feels like to be a tree. A branch sways. A bird flaps by. It’s just before sunrise, and I’m cuddled beneath a canopy of green needles and drooping pinecones. If the windowpanes next to my pillow could open, I’d palm the peeling panels of bark. Instead, I just look: up (through the skylight), around (through walls of windows), and down, at the river rushing 35 feet below. I’m suspended partway up a 300-year-old, 160-foot-tall Sitka spruce, surrounded by a stillness unlike any I’ve ever felt before. I’m one with the forest. And it’s pretty freaking cool. Julia Butterfly Hill certainly didn’t have it this good: built-in cedar beds, leather reading chairs, handmade quilts. At TreeHouse Point, 10 minutes from Snoqualmie Falls, Pete Nelson has created a two- treehouse utopia, with more underway–plus giant hammocks hung 18 feet high, trails leading to a rocky riverfront beach, and a night sky filled with stars that you feel just a smidge closer to.

From $195, including breakfast; 

Surfacing: In San Francisco, A Bleak Neighborhood Is Revived

It took the promise of freshly baked bread and recently laid eggs to drag Becky Eaton, 28, out of bed and all the way to Ocean Beach, on the far western edge of San Francisco. Outerlands hadn’t opened yet, but she was first in a long line of hungry locals dressed in hoodies and flip-flops. “This better be worth the half-hour on Muni,” she said, referring to the often slow city transit system. She knew it would be. It’s one of a few spots adding buzz to the Outer Sunset, a once bleak neighborhood home to surfers and families looking for affordable housing. Today, it hosts a cluster of arty shops and cafes covered in swirls of salvaged wood — a sort of Driftwood Alley.

You Have No New Messages

The first gong I hear isn’t really a gong but a gentle ding-ding-ding as a monk moves down the path in front of my cabin. I struggle to my feet, grab my water bottle, and shuffle out into the pitch-dark on my way to morning meditation. It’s 5:20 a.m. and I’m wondering, What am I doing here?

“You can’t sit still,” everyone from my mother to my husband to my therapist has always told me. It’s true. I’m the always-running-around type. Running late. Running errands. Running just to run. I talk as fast as I move, and if I do sit still for any length of time, it’s because I have a laptop propped against my legs.

And I’m not the only one. We live in the Always-On Age. We text while we walk and IM while we talk and spend more time with our screens than with our spouses. I needed a serious reboot, if not a full-on rehab: an escape to a Wi-Fi-free world where people do nothing but sit. Statue-still. Facing a wall. In silence.

Just as thousands of monks, teachers, and students have done here — at the bottom of a Big Sur canyon deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness — every day since 1967, when a Japanese Buddhist monk founded Tassajara, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia.

Surrounded by rising mountains and old-growth pines, Tassajara is an off-the-grid alter-universe, where kerosene lamps are lit by matches and time is marked by a cloud-shaped gong. Spiritual seekers from San Francisco to Stockholm, Moscow to Missoula stroll softly in dark robes, bowing to each other and to mini altars erected everywhere. And from late April through mid-September, Tassajara opens to the hedonistic public. Guests come, 80 a night, for meditation mixed with soaks in the hot springs, hikes along the river, maybe an outdoor massage or yoga retreat–and all the kale, polenta, and whole-wheat sourdough they can eat. Once was, a large majority of Tassajara’s guests were repeat visitors. But these days, 50 percent are here for the first time.

Like me. Curious, if skeptical, types who’ve meditated maybe once in their life (Buddhism 101, freshman year). So I signed up for the Guest Practice Program: 10 slots for those who want a taste of the real Tassajara, at a fraction of the price. For the next four days, I’m half-student, half-guest, straddling the two worlds like Baby in Dirty Dancing.

“No water bottles inside the zendo,” a monk reprimands in a surprisingly harsh whisper. I’m not off to a good start. She points to a cushion. I take my assigned spot and try to mimic the woman next to me: barefoot, legs linked, back straight. I’m ready to sit.

A bell rings and my mind races. Look at me! Meditating. At the bottom of a canyon. I’m hungry. Tired. What’s she thinking about? Are we supposed to be thinking? How much longer? How much Then: snooze. I break the cardinal rule of meditation and fall asleep.

I awake feeling disoriented but semi-rested. Everyone stands and chants for what seems like a long time before we file out. As I pass the Zendo policemonk, she whispers, “Please go to the kitchen for soji.” I’m hoping soji is Zen-speak for omelet and hash browns. Instead it means “temple cleaning,” and I find myself tearing romaine lettuce in silence for the next 15 minutes. Then a gong. Finally, breakfast.

I stare inside my bowl of rice porridge, inspecting every surprisingly tasty kernel so as to avoid eye contact with the student sitting across from me. “Good morning,” says a hoodied dude in his late 20s as he bows his bald head.

Modern-day Zen Buddhists aren’t necessarily the wise, wrinkled Mr. Miyagi types you might expect. Nor are they ’60s counterculture castaways in late-model VWs searching for some fashionable Eastern enlightenment. There was a time when you’d stumble on Joan Baez or Linda Ronstadt dipping their toes in Tassajara Creek, when everyone from California governor Jerry Brown to actor Peter Coyote came to the canyon to ride the Buddhist bandwagon.

“It was mostly about being unbound by convention and living in the moment,” says Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest and former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center who raised his kids at Tassajara in the late ’70s. “It all sounded good to me back then. Still does.”

Today’s visitors are a mixed bag of stressed-out executives, artists, high school math teachers, recovering alcoholics, and, increasingly, technoholics at a “tipping point in their lives,” says Minoria Franks, Tassajara’s reservations coordinator. “We’re seeing a huge wave right now of people fleeing technology for a digital-free environment. Younger people, especially, in their 20s and 30s, who hear about us then come to unplug and practice.

There’s Mike Borozdin, a 32-year-old software guy who was “blown away” when he came to Tassajara for the first time. He tells me about a new group called Young Urban Zen that meets every week in San Francisco. Twenty-five people showed up to the first meeting. Today, a year later, the room is overflowing. “All of my tech friends are so tightly wound,” says Borozdin. “ ‘The server’s up! The server’s down!’ They’re freaking out about the competition. I’m learning to keep it in the now.”

I think about the late Steve Jobs, a practicing Buddhist and Tassajara visitor. Here was the person perhaps most responsible for busying our lives, and he got his spiritual nourishment at the very place we go to escape the digital noise he helped create. Then I think: There’s something about all this — the isolated beauty and simple schedule, the logic of the gong — that feels deeply, if strangely, familiar. Like we’re tapping into some forgotten algorithm.

After breakfast, we circle up outside. It reminds me of summer camp, except my counselors are monks in dark brown robes. “If anyone finds a striped towel by the pool, please let me know,” says one student. “There’s a dharma talk tonight,” announces another. Then we’re all assigned chores: weeding, dishwashing. I’m on cobwebbing. For 2 1/2 hours, I walk peacefully around the property, over wooden bridges and past creekside cottages, with a 10-foot duster, swabbing away any and all webs I encounter. Work, I’m told, is part of the practice.

The next day, I’m chopping apples into 1/4-inch cubes. I have no idea what will become of my apples, but I chop and chop, occasionally chatting with the other students charged with chopping other things. Celery, oranges, tofu. The supply of apples seems endless; the bucket I’m filling, bottomless. But by the time the bell rings a few hours later, signaling the end of work period–and the beginning of my afternoon freedom — something comes over me. I feel, for the first time in a very long time, relaxed. Calm.

I ride the wave of bliss back to my cabin, change into my bathing suit, and set off for Tassajara’s hot springs. More than a hundred years ago, long before this area became the birthplace of the Western Zen movement, stagecoaches would take the steep daylong trip into the canyon to bring people to the healing waters bubbling up beneath Tassajara Creek. And once I lower myself into the 100°-plus water, I know why. My calm kicks into another gear. I close my eyes, float, and wait for the next gong.

“Tassajara’s role is the same today as it’s always been,” says Norman Fischer, the Buddhist priest. “When I first got here, I thought this was the most sensible way a human being could live. The way human beings have lived, for centuries.”

Four days later, I’m in my car, winding slowly up the canyon, back to civilization and the noise of my life. Back to my laptop with its clogged calendar and in-box full of unreads. I have no delusions. I know that the calm will eventually clear, and that I’ll return to my always-running ways. But not right this moment. Not now.

Kayaking Lake Tahoe in Winter

Bumping along a freshly plowed road in Lake Tahoe, Calif., I felt oddly unburdened. No skis were locked on top of my car, no clunky boots rattled in the trunk. After more than a decade of ski trips to the region, I kept feeling as if I were missing something. Sure, it was sunny, but also a biting 17 degrees — and I was going kayaking.

“You’re going what?” asked my friend when she heard I wasn’t joining her for another powder day at Squaw Valley. “Seriously?”

Seriously. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day — the most crowded week of the season at one of America’s most visited ski destinations. Thanks to a record-setting December snowfall, the actual skiing had been phenomenal. But I was sick of struggling to find a parking spot, tired of waiting in all those lift lines that were as congested as the bumper-to-bumper traffic that led to them.

Of course, Tahoe offers more than just downhill skiing: snowshoeing and cross-country are the go-to alternative snow sports for most crowd-dodgers. But kayaking? In the dead of winter? Not so much. Not even on the largest alpine lake in the United States, and the second deepest in the country. A lake that never freezes over, where the surface appears so placid and the snowcapped scene so screen-saver-serene that it makes you want to leap off the chairlift into the hallowed blue water. For most, though, the primary function of Lake Tahoe in winter is as a breathtaking backdrop.

But for a small but growing band of adventurers, the lake itself is the star of the Sierra Nevada — and actually more so in the cold-weather months than in summer, when an even greater number of seasonal visitors descend on the area and afternoon thermal winds swoosh in daily, making the water choppy and the paddling iffy. In the winter, however, the lake is glassy and calm. And, of course, cold. “Thirty-four degrees” read the scrawl on the white board behind the register at Tahoe Eco-Sports, the kayak shop where I equipped myself — and the only one on the lake that rents boats in winter.

“The risk of hypothermia is high,” said Harry King, the shop’s owner, handing me a dry suit. (The difference between a dry suit and a wetsuit is that the rubber-lined dry suit is designed to prevent even a drop of water from entering, and therefore provides better thermal insulation.) “Fall in without this, and you’d have maybe a minute.”

Mr. King helped me wriggle into it, making me feel a bit like my 2-year-old getting into her pajamas. Zippers, sealed with rubber, were zipped, booties were Velcroed, a spray-skirt was strapped on, and pogies (oversize neoprene mitts) were snapped to my paddle to protect my hands from the splash.

Our small group of six walked behind the shop to a rainbow of snow-covered kayaks, and, with minimal effort, dragged our boats through the snow, down to Kings Beach, one of the best entry points on the lake’s 72-mile perimeter. “Another perk to winter kayaking,” Mr. King said. “We’d have to carry these babies in July.”

“You’d also have to dodge drunk wakeboarders and 14-year-old jet skiers who don’t know what the heck they’re doing,” said Richard Gorbet, a semiretired rock-crusher from Reno, Nev., with six kayaks in his garage (and just two pairs of skis), and an e-mail alias of “kayakaholic.” He likes to go out for full-moon paddles on the lake with friends like Chuck Freedman, a k a “tsunamichuck,” a nurse, also from Reno, with a collection of seven kayaks and an addiction to “surfing the waves” during winter storms.

“Ready to swim?” asked Mr. Freedman as I climbed into my single kayak. I laughed — hoping he was kidding — and shimmied off through a bunch of mini-icebergs floating around the shoreline.

It took only a few paddles and then, much sooner than I expected it: serenity. A kind of quiet, otherworldly solitude I’d never before experienced in Tahoe. Immediately, I felt the difference between being on the water and gazing down at it. I felt like we had cheated the system: it appeared that we had the giant, much loved lake all to ourselves.

“Someone has to be out here,” Mr. King said, as he paddled beside me. “It’s so spectacular.” After 15 years, the novelty had not worn off for him.

The lake below us was amazingly clear; as we paddled out, I stared about 70 feet down to hole-pocked rocks and rippling sand, before the bottom dropped to 1,600 feet and went black. The water lapped around us, hypnotically. The sun twinkled on the surface like a million fireflies. Slowing down, I cupped water with my hand and took a sip. It tasted cold and crisp. Surrounded, 360 degrees, by soaring peaks frosted white and pine forests that looked as if they were dusted with confectioners’ sugar, I felt a bit like I was inside a snow globe. The distant runs looked devoid of people, and for a split second, I wished I were skiing. Then my focus settled on the merganser ducks dawdling around us and I wanted to be them. I also realized I was as close as I was going to get.

We pushed past creaky cabins teetering on cliffs and a few condo communities that would typically make me cringe. But out here, in the middle of the lake, it was easy to imagine what Tahoe was like before the influx of fancy all-wheel-drive cars and fake Bavarian villages. Soon, we pulled up to the lake’s only hot springs — a few steaming rock pools accessible only by water (unless you happened to own one of the condos behind it) — and dipped in our booties.

Later, we crossed into Nevada — the state line bisects the lake — and paddled up to Stateline Point in Crystal Bay. It’s also known as the boulder-strewn belt where mountain lions like to sunbathe and bears are rumored to hibernate — and, on apparently every day this winter but the one I was out, Lake Tahoe’s increasing population of bald eagles balance in the treetops.

“This reminds me of Glacier Bay,” said my friend Anne Krumme, a former Alaska-based kayak guide, as she weaved between boulders rising from the water and caked in ice. “I mean, serious National Geographic stuff! It’s got to be the only similar experience in the lower 48.” Apart from breaching whales and calving glaciers, I had to agree.

As we paddled on and the sun beat down, I realized that not only was I sweating under my dry suit, but Mr. Freedman’s comment wasn’t a joke: I was ready to swim. We pulled into Speedboat Beach on the north shore — typically booked with weddings all summer long, but now totally empty except for swaths of snow and a few frighteningly fresh prints from prowling mountain lions. I stepped out of the boat and into the bracing water. Hooray for dry suits! I was neck deep in Lake Tahoe in December! I used my personal flotation device to do a little Dead Sea-style float, made myself a false promise to never ski again, and then joined the group on the woolly blanket for a beach picnic.

We sipped cups of coffee brewed over a propane tank and spiked with Baileys. Clouds swooped in. The descending sun cast a late-day glow, illuminating the peaks across the lake. And for the first time since we’d set out, I started to feel a little cold.

Hidden Rockies: The Sawtooths

I am in Lemonade Heaven. Rocking in a wooden chair, on a wide front porch lit by the late-afternoon sun, pointed at a picture-perfect row of 10,000-foot granite peaks. Oh, if Norman Rockwell could see me now, he’d bail on the Berkshires and hightail it out West to the Idaho Rockies. To the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. To the dusty gateway “town” of Stanley (population 100). And up a long gravel drive to Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, where the fresh-squeezed lemonade — which I pour from the spout of a big oak barrel, and mix, whenever I feel like it, with iced tea from the equally cold barrel beside it — tastes particularly good. Like, I’m addicted good.

I didn’t intend to come to the Sawtooths to lounge around all day. I mean, this is an alpine lake–studded, river-running, lupine-covered adventure-land — presided over by snow-caked spires that rival the Grand Tetons. Imagine, a national park–level wilderness without national park–level crowds. No bus tours. No traffic. No entrance fees. Just pure, unadulterated–and drop-to-my-knees gorgeous — land inhabited by more cows than people and waiting to be tackled. The hiking trails are calling. The hot springs are steaming. The trout, I’m told, are biting. And the mountain bikes, lined up to my right, are ready to be ridden.

Still, I’m finding the pull of this porch too hard to resist. Especially when my husband, Josh, walks up with two of those bikes. “Let’s go!” he says, beaming about the fact that you can access the best mountain biking trail in the West, the Fisher Creek Loop, from our backyard. I hike up mountains, I run marathons, but I don’t mountain bike. I don’t even banana-seat bike. He knows this. I reluctantly follow him (on foot) to the meadow behind the lodge. And then, maybe it’s the friendly-looking wildflowers or the puff of bright-white clouds in the big blue sky or the meditative silence broken only by muted moos, but suddenly, in Sawtooth fairyland, anything is possible.

Helmet firmly on head, I hop on. “Wait, is this single-track?” I ask, before the pedals make one rotation. I realize it must be, because this tire-thin dirt path is no easy fire road. Molehills literally become mountains. A branch across the trail becomes a downed redwood. A grassy bank becomes a full-on cliff drop. White knuckles are an understatement. I’m afraid to switch gears — so I don’t. I’m as wobbly as a just-born calf and I have an itch on my ear that I don’t dare scratch. “There’s no way in hell that I’m crossing that ocean of a creek!” I yell to my husband. “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go,” he instructs from up ahead. Good advice, except I can’t follow it. Grass whips my legs; I veer into the sagebrush and brake, hard, and slam against the seat. Ow. An eternity — or 7 miles — later, we reach the tail end of the trail (not the famed Fisher Creek, mind you, just, uh, a path that links to it). I’m riding a ridge. Balancing in the breeze. Josh looks back. “You’re loving it!” he exclaims. Surprising myself, I realize I sort of am. When we get back to the lodge, I walk right up to the porch. I bypass the barrel of lemonade and reclaim my rocking chair. The craggy peaks of the Sawtooths look prettier than ever. I kick up my feet and order a nice cold beer.

Live the slooow life — if only for a weekend

I know I’ve landed in the right place when my B&B host bounds down the steps in his bare feet. “Hey, you made it!” says Dwight Milford, a fit Frisbee fanatic with a big smile. I look around. The place is clean and simple. Not a doily in sight. But even if Affinity Guesthouse were flowery and wicker-y and overrun with chitchatty guests — my personal bed-and-breakfast hell — I wouldn’t have cared.

I’m in the town of Cowichan Bay, on southeastern Vancouver Island, surrounded by a grassy meadow scattered with a couple of canoes and rows of quinoa and raspberry bushes. I’ve left behind my daily grind for a glimpse of a different life — one that doesn’t involve traffic or takeout, iPhones or fancy footwear. Just ultra-local food, walks along the river, maybe a farming class or mushroom forage. This salty seaside village is North America’s first official Cittaslow (Italian for “Slow City”), as ordained last year by the worldwide association (followed by Sonoma). Slow city. Slow food. Slow is my new speed … for today.

Sprawling Cowichan Valley isn’t as polished as its Northern California slow-city counterpart. Its country roads are lined with small farms, ordinary houses, a few tasting fee-free vineyards. The one swanky resort just went belly up. Hand-scrawled signs offer free-range eggs! fresh-cut herbs! (Payment by honor box, of course.) Some yards are filled with abandoned cars and old boats. Tanning salons sit beside organic bakeries. But back here on Affinity’s 22 acres, it’s pure bliss. Swallows sing. Bald eagles float by. Otters play in the Koksilah River — flowing right by my feet. Which are not bare like Dwight’s, but protected from the muddy bank by a pair of borrowed gum boots. Not those trendy rubbery replicas, but the real deal. And, as I suction-cup-step out of the water and into the canoe, they serve a real purpose.

It’s dinnertime in Cowichan — and if you’re staying with Dwight and his wife, Vanessa Elton, that means you earn it. In this case, with a 1 1/2-mile group paddle to the Genoa Bay Café. It’s sunny but breezy on the wide-open river. We push past bobbing sea lions and ospreys prancing in their nest. There’s deep green Salt Spring Island in the distance. An hour later, we pull into a tiny cove with houseboats gleaming in the late-day light — and the cafe, a shack of a special occasion spot, standing on stilts.

Inside it’s a local, candlelit affair. B.C. wines; halibut hauled off the island’s west coast; risotto with duck from “Lyle’s” farm. Talk turns to the farmer being sued by his new city-slicker neighbor because his roosters make too much noise. (Um, hello, this is farm country!) We polish off a warm apple cobbler, then it’s back to the boat, clopping down the dock in our gum boots. We paddle into a sky streaked yellow and pink. The water is a little choppy but the wind is at our back now.

Our pace has picked up — just barely.

The Last Great Ski Resort

“I had such a crush on him when I was a kid,” says my friend Didi Linburn, pigtails peeking out from beneath her pink ski helmet rather than the wool pompom hat she wore as a kid. I peer into the tiny ski shop at the Alta Peruvian Lodge and catch a glimpse of a cute guy in glasses behind the counter. “No idea how old he is,” she says, “but I’ve seen him here every winter since I was 15.”

Twenty-two years later, and Didi and her teenage crush are still here? I’ve yet to even take a run down the powder white slopes, but I already sense that Alta, Utah, just might be as special as everyone says it is — including my self-proclaimed “Altaholic” husband.

Tired of not getting an invite to his annual “guys’ trip,” and admittedly jealous about the other love in his life, I decided to tagalong on Didi’s annual father-daughter jaunt. And finally experience for myself this almighty Alta–with just seven lifts (and not much else) spread across 2,200 acres of heart-pumping hikes and narrow chutes, chest-deep powder, and total lack of pretension.

Skis slung over our shoulders, we walk out the weathered wooden door of the lodge, taking in a deep breath of fresh — albeit thin — mountain air. I’m instantly happy to be here at 10,550 feet, on leased U.S. Forest Service land at the resolutely un-corporate resort, where faded one-pieces outnumber Bogner jackets, chairlifts seat at most four across, and five no-frills lodges, scattered up Little Cottonwood Canyon, sleep 1,200 skiers, tops. Skiers. Not shoppers. Not ski bunnies. And, above all, not snowboarders. As the mountain motto goes, Alta is for skiers.

During my stay, I see it flaunted on banners, baseball caps, bumper stickers. Alta is, after all, one of just three resorts left in the country that ban boarders, since Taos Ski Valley opened its slopes to all in March. Geared up, Didi, her dad, and I creep along in a bar-less triple chair, surrounded by nothing save blue sky and the towering peaks of the Wasatch Range. “Same as it was in the ’60s,”says Geoff Linburn, who first came to Alta from California in search of what he’d heard was the best snow in the West.

Back then, lift tickets cost $8, and there were only five slowly moving chairlifts, but apart from building a couple more and raising ticket prices to a reasonable $64, Alta remains Alta. Didi’s dad smiles. “Still the best snow in the West.” A whopping 500 inches annually of light-as-a-feather powder — and I can’t wait to try it. But that will take some effort.

Without a convenient tram to Alta’s best terrain, the limited number of skiers allowed uphill work for every turn with an almost perverse pleasure. As a typically lazy, play-it-safe sort of skier, I’m intimidated.

We hop off the Sugarloaf chair and join the parade of people inching their way, single file, up, up, up, and gliding precariously, over, over, over, only to climb again. Is this really worth it? I think to myself, sweating in the snow. I contemplate taking off my skis, but then I look up. “Aw, it’s a bootpacker!” one guy yells at another fellow who’s stomping with his boards on his shoulders rather than suffering the steep sidestep with everyone else. I press on, inspired by the unspoken camaraderie on the traverse toward Devil’s Castle — a wide-open bowl and depository of powder — and the shared anticipation among strangers bound by a passion for Alta’s almost guaranteed fresh tracks.

Still, exhausted — okay, panting really — I stop and watch as the hard-core hikers keep stomping; my heart is pounding. I look downhill at the untouched powder and decide I’ve had enough hiking. Time to ski.

After a blissful day on the slopes, the return to the Peruvian Lodge is a comedown. The guest rooms remind me of my college dorm. There are shared bathrooms and a Ping-Pong table but no TVs. Still, the Peruvian, like all of Alta’s lodges, has a 75 percent return rate.

I’m honestly baffled, but by the end of dinner — a slippers-acceptable, family-style affair, where a wine collector wearing turquoise sweatpants shares rare bottles he brought from home and our table swaps stories like old friends — I start to understand. But, unlike most of the longtime guests, who remain fiercely loyal to “their” lodge, never venturing steps away to check out another, I’m curious and leave Didi a few nights later for Alta’s Rustler Lodge, where things are a tad more civilized (read: pricey).

Now I have a television and my own bathroom, and reservations are taken for the window-walled dining room, where the next morning, I overhear a waiter bellow “Welcome back!” to guest Roger Urban, who has been staying here since his bachelor days. He and his wife — looking very ’80s (like the lodge) in their matching rainbow-striped rugbys — fuel up at the breakfast buffet, while their teenage daughter, Alexandra, heads out for a lesson with the same instructor she’s always had.

Meanwhile, I finish my eggs alone and realize that I miss the chaos of the Peruvian’s hostel-like atmosphere. I slip on my skis and hop the rope tow to meet Didi for another day on the slopes.

From the chatter around the lift line, it’s clear that it’s not just the powder that draws people to Alta — it’s also the people themselves. Old college buddies, moms and sons, widows who used to come with their husbands … everyone returns without question. Likewise, all the locals I meet say they’d intended to come out for a season and do the ski-bum thing. But before they knew it, 10, 20, 30 years had passed — and they’re still here. “Alta just swallows you up,” says Craig Dillon, Didi’s ski shop crush, who, it turns out, is 41 and has lived here half his life.

And so, because people never leave Alta, it’s only natural that they grow old here. Not in the typical, canasta-by-the-pool way of growing old. Rather, Alta is like a real-life Cocoon, where the mountain is the fountain of youth. Senior passes start at age 80.Didi and I return to the Sugarloaf chair and ride up with an86-year-old couple. “Skiing is only getting easier!” the husband says, beaming. “Free tickets!” says his wife. Inspired, I make a mental note to be just like them in 50 years. As we climb, once again, toward Devil’s Castle, a father whizzes by with a tiny skier bouncing on his shoulders. “Daddy? Are we at Devil’s Castle yet?” He hikes as far as possible, plops his daughter in knee-deep powder, and off she goes: a 4-year-old making fresh tracks. I watch, dumbfounded.

And determined. I decide to hike out as far as I can. I want those fresh tracks, and this time I’m willing to work for them. Heart racing, legs aching, I reach the end of the ridge. I rest for a moment and then dip in. Flying solo through feet of untouched powder, carving near-perfect turns, snow spraying like the pros, I realize that I’m floating. This is it. This is why I’ve come to Alta.

Later that evening, lounging around the Peruvian lobby after dinner — with Scrabble, impromptu sing-alongs, nothing to face tomorrow but more fresh snow — I get the feeling I’m continuing a tradition at risk of being lost forever to the fast-paced, froufrou world beyond Little Cottonwood Canyon. “Everything changes in your life … so much,” reflects Leslie Johnson, who’s been coming here every winter since 1982. “Friends move on … my family’s homes have come and gone … but Alta, Alta never changes.”

I get it. I’m hooked. Another Altaholic is born.

Soup with Everything: A Freaky All-American Party in Northern California

Where is this place? We tilted the handmade map every which way, reread the directions a fourth time and made yet another U-turn on a gorgeous dirt road lined with craggy oaks and broken fences. We’d driven four hours from San Francisco into the golden hills of Northern California with a sack of jalapeño peppers, and were nervous we wouldn’t make it before the welcome gate closed.

For years, I’d been hearing about Soup — a five-day retreat from the doldrums of daily life at a 400-acre homestead, off the grid and blissfully in the middle of nowhere. Inspired by the fable of the stone soup, in which a traveler unites a hungry village so that it can feed itself, the Soup celebration gathers 250 people, by invitation only, who come bearing organic vegetables (and herbs), as well as creativity, costumes, consciousness-raising conversation and extraordinary musical talent — to commune in honor of, well, community.

What began in 1994 as a hippie-pagan outgrowth of the Grateful Dead tour has evolved into a family-friendly feel-good festival of eco-entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives, lawyers and doctors, Pilates teachers, politicos — and, at last count, 45 kids, happy to be dragged along to their parents’ party. Eighty-dollar passes are as hard to score as Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, and all proceeds are donated to a local charity.

Last year, two recycled-paper tickets depicting smiley pink Buddhas arrived in the mail, inviting my boyfriend and me to “Lucky Soup 13.” As a buttoned-up Boston native, I’d always decided Soup was not my thing; but, for a second, I felt as if I’d won the lottery. Then I remembered a college friend: “I was totally into the massage circle,” he had said, “until this big, shirtless, hairy guy squeezed in front of me. It was hot; he was sweaty. It wasn’t pretty.”

We rolled in at dusk to a sea of Westfalia campers, Subarus plastered in anti-Bush bumper stickers, biodiesel Mercedeses and a few shiny new BMWs.

As if sensing our unease, our sole Soupster friend materialized, with a woman wearing angel wings. “Where were you guys?” he asked. “You just missed the Midsummer’s Eve wine tasting in the garden.” I pictured pink fairies and men in loincloths flitting about. I was bummed. Wine would have been a good start.

Set up like a sukkah was the welcome gate, or “luck activation portal,” a metal structure with hanging hula hoops covered in multicolored cloth. “Leave your troubles behind,” the sign said. As I stepped through, a gorgeous woman dressed in a flowing, all-red “I Dream of Jeannie” outfit appeared.

“Spin the wheel and select your tribe!” Jeannie instructed. Four of clubs. My boyfriend got seven of diamonds. “You’ll be separated during tribe time,” she advised. Tribe time?

Inside, a medieval village mixed grassy lawns with shady pines, rock walls, a small pond and a fully rigged stage. Tents dotted the hillside. Drums beat faintly.

We set up above the pond, our neighbors just inches away. A dinner bell rang. We lined up for a locally grown organic veggie meal and filled up with Dragon’s Drool: fresh-filtered water that drips from a stone dragon’s mouth. We were encouraged to sit anywhere, per the pre-Soup e-mail message: “Cliquey can be icky. … We’re all in the same broth.” We grabbed a seat next to the one guy we knew.

As I was scraping my plate into the compost, yet another glowing woman in wings tossed glitter on my face. Showtime.

We shared a hay bale with a psychiatrist from New York. “I try to come to Soup every year,” he said. “It’s that good — to the last drop. Way better than Burning Man.”

The entertainment began. A pair of newbies performed a hilarious skit about getting lost, just like us. A Soup veteran warned the attentive audience against FOMO (“fear of missing out,” since there’s so much to do at Soup). And then a familiar-looking folk singer walked onto the tiny stage: Kris Delmhorst. “No way!” I said to my boyfriend. As her soulful, carefree voice filled the starry sky, there was nowhere else I would rather have been.

A series of Bay Area-based bands played: JP*Orbit, Hot Buttered Rum, New Monsoon. People poured onto the hay-strewn dance floor. I looked up at the hot tubs perched on a hill and saw a gaggle of naked folks rocking out. Two descended to the floor to slow-dance. One guy in a skirt twirled wildly in front of the stage.

Morning dawned with fair-trade coffee, fresh fruit and announcements. Up jumped a barefooted woman: “At 1 p.m. in the lounge, I’ll be holding a playshop on alternative menstrual products.’” (I skipped it but learned later she was talking about an environmentally safe natural gum rubber cup called the Keeper.) “Two o’clock under that tree,” said a skinny guy in glasses, “I’ll be discussing a loophole in the U.S. tax system. You don’t have to pay the military portion.”

Not true!” a lawyer yelled from the lawn.

A 7-year-old named Rose was offering a fun one: “Yummy Smoothies You Can Make.”

“Let’s hit it,” my boyfriend said.

It was too hot and sticky to take advantage of the massage tent. Still, all the tables were occupied. The pond was filled with float tubes and frolicking naked bodies. I wallowed like a pig in the mud, but the water was too warm, so I opted for the outdoor shower instead. Standing under a cold stream, trying to maintain eye contact with a six-foot male model, I thought about my summer camp days, when I refused to shower with two other 10-year-old girls.

Over at “Noodles,” the 12-and-under Soupster set was captivated by the EarthCapades, a husband-and-wife juggling team clad in rainbow-colored leotards and singing about how to save the planet. After dark, we were equally captivated when they transformed into buck-naked, back-bending flame-throwers.

Saturday night, everyone dressed in their ’80s best for the junior high dance, under our hand-painted stars. There was a photo collage of Soupsters from their awkward years; there was spin the bottle, too. I helped myself to a cup of spiked punch, bopped to “Borderline,” and lo and behold, my boyfriend was break-dancing on stage.

The true meat of every Soup is the Ritual. At Soup 13, it was a silent walk in the woods. After being blessed with burning sage, all 250 of us followed a belly-dancing Princeton grad, Pied Piper-style, along a winding path. A lovely stroll, but the point was lost on me.

Still, Soup doesn’t really end when the party does — it continues all year in various forms, with moonlight hikes and music jams, progressive potlucks and political campaigning. Soup is larger than the limited number invited to the party, bound only by the Ladle listserv and a feeling of family.

Back at camp, drums beat. The sun began its descent, casting that lazy late-day glow across the lawn. A crew of cooks had already begun chopping, grilling and stirring. A ginormous grate was covered in yellow peppers and Yukon gold potatoes, purple eggplant and corn on the cob, zucchini, squash, Swiss chard.

The pot was just like the one I imagined in the fable. It simmered for hours, manned by multiple stirrers, until finally the Soup was served. I looked around my bowl for our jalapeños. “Sorry,” one of the cooks said. “Too spicy for the kids.” The Soup was tamer than I’d thought.

The next day, I sat on the grass, listening to a speaker from the nonprofit organization Challenge Day, the beneficiary of last summer’s Soup. As he talked about his own isolation and his commitment to stopping gang violence by helping teenagers connect with one another, I was moved to tears.

In just a few short days, I’d become a Soupster — at least enough of one to return for Soup 14, which began on Wednesday and continues through this weekend.

“Part-community celebration, part-freaky summer camp, part-grassroots fundraiser, part-private party, part-Utopia,” wrote David Minkow, one of the founders of Soup, in a later e-mail message to the Ladle listserv. “Whatever it is, we’re lucky to experience it.”

Agreed. There’s something to this soupy subculture and the community it’s created; a physical, tangible community — the kind you’ll never find surfing MySpace.

Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen

A real-deal Jewish deli in San Francisco has always been as tough to come by as a California-style burrito in Manhattan. There have been a few fleeting attempts, but none have stuck. Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom aim to change that with Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen. The pop-up restaurant, which made its debut in January, is open only on Saturdays, when they take over the Beast and the Hare restaurant.

Mr. Beckerman, 27, and Mr. Bloom, 25, met at the University of California, Berkeley, where they would cook kosher dinners at the Hillel House. Years later, commiserating over San Francisco’s sad pastrami situation, they decided to make their own. “But pastrami recipes are closely guarded secrets — they don’t really exist,” explained Mr. Bloom, whose great-grandparents owned a Jewish deli outside of Boston.

So, after rummaging through their grandmothers’ old cookbooks and conducting deli crawls around New York City, they started tinkering. They began by smoking meat in Mr. Bloom’s backyard, then moved to nearby La Cocina, an incubator for small culinary businesses. From there it was trial and error. The result: tender, perfectly fatty, hand-carved pastrami piled high between slices of house-baked rye, adorned, as it should be, with nothing save spicy brown mustard or (if you are a bit less traditional) Thousand Island dressing.

The brief menu consists of dishes that are almost all house-made, including brunch items and rotating sandwiches. On a recent rainy Saturday, customers waited beneath umbrellas to place their order with a beaming Mr. Beckerman — his dreadlocks tied back in a bandana, the fresh face of the next generation of delis.

Out flew compostable paper plates of still-warm bialys; thick slices of flakey, bittersweet chocolate babka; corned beef scrambles; pastrami sandwiches accompanied by creamy potato salad and barrel-brined sour dill pickles. The matzo ball soup comes with the caveat “probably not better than your grandmother’s,” and is served in noodle bowls from Chinatown. (“You can’t serve matzo ball soup in paper,” Mr. Bloom explained.)

The customers — a mix of East Coast transplants, self-proclaimed regulars and deli first-timers — made quick work of their repast. But there was one woman, standing not so inconspicuously in the corner, with a camera in her hand and tears in her eyes, too excited to eat.

“I’m overwhelmed,” gushed Linda Bloom, Evan’s mother. “You know, he was an architect. But this is his passion. I’m just so proud.” Spoken like a true Jewish mom.

Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, 

Passover Goes Gourmet

Why was this night different from all other nights? For starters, there was a bar. And not a bottle of Manischewitz behind it. Guests were actually drinking wine — good wine — before the first of the traditional four glasses was poured. Little-known fact about Jews, namely East Coast women over the age of 50: they don’t drink. No religious explanation for this, they just don’t. And, honestly, most of them really should.

Secondly, people were dressed in jeans. My mother never let me wear even my very best Jordache to Passover Seder. Dresses and tights that would sag around my ankles only. Now, almost three decades later — with “you can’t wear that” ringing in my head — I swapped a pair of faded cords for a stylish purple number and heels. I hadn’t felt this overdressed since I wore a bathing suit to the Big Sur hot springs.

But above all, this wasn’t my grandparents’ house in a manicured suburb outside of Boston. My scary old aunts and crazy second-cousins-once-removed were clear across the country. There was no whiny Cousin Gary, who once gave me a trashcan for my bat mitzvah. Or puffy Cousin Linda with cankles as thick as Cottonelle Ultra. There was no kids’ table. Or Welch’s white grape juice. Or lengthy conversations-cum-arguments about what route everyone took to get there.

Rather, this was a Seder of total strangers. Fifty folks here voluntarily — not because their parents forced them to come. Jews and gentiles, gay boys and a sprinkling of grandmas, all gathered under the soaring roof of a mod-white warehouse-café in San Francisco’s Mission District. The real draw: the food.

Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom were cooking, not Grandma Hannah. Two twenty-something college buddies turned artisanal Deli Guys who launched Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen last year as a weekly pop-up. They had an immediate cult following — and just opened a real-deal restaurant in February. Last April, their first-ever public Passover Seder sold out within minutes by word of mouth.

Imagine, the promise of Gefilte fish that good.

Candles were lit. Communal tables were set. Sparely. No lacy-white tablecloths or blue Danube china. Playing silently on a screen overhead was the ‘50s classic film The Ten Commandments. I mean, Charlton Heston’s low-tech parting of the Red Sea is the kind of Seder entertainment I really could’ve used as a kid.

I loved my grandpa Orrin, I really did. He was a kind, lanky doctor in a knit-tie and corduroy blazer — but the Seders he led were by-the-book snooze.

Here was fresh-faced, 26-year-old Leo! With waist-length dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail, he had a cool, confident command over the room that would no doubt make his own grandfather proud. “What kind of cigarettes do Jews smoke?” he asked to kick things off. “Gefilt-ahs!” guests groaned. After the blessing over the wine, servers presented plates of matzo–it was blistered, cracker-thin, imperfectly shaped. And not from a box, but made by Blake Joffe of Beauty’s Bagel Shop — with more than just the requisite flour-and-water. If all it takes is a little sea salt and olive oil to enhance matzo’s typically dry-mouth taste, then I vote for a minor overhaul of tradition.

Still, this was a legit Seder. Everyone had a photocopy of a Haggadah, the book of prayers, songs, and biblical tales that recount the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.

Yeah, it’s a good story. But as a kid, taking turns around the table reading the.entire.freaking.thing meant we didn’t eat for hours. I’d steal sprigs of parsley from the tabletop (long after we’d dipped it in salt water) — and sit, starving, and bored as hell. Grandma’s dense-as-rocks matzo balls and gray, leather-tough brisket weren’t any prize. But by the time dinner was actually served, they were edible.

“Tonight, we’re going to move through the Passover story pretty quickly,” announced Leo. “We’ve got eating to do!” Amen to that.

And so it began: The explanation of the Seder plate. The Four Questions. (Typically the youngest person at the table is charged with tone-deaf singing this integral part of the evening. But on this night, the lone ‘tween was too shy; instead we were treated to a woman who actually had a beautiful voice.) The Ten Plagues. By “Dayenu” we’d lost count of glasses of wine and were all one, big, actually happy family–singing, clapping, exchanging smiles. At one point, a black, Caribbean born, non-Jew named George turned to me and exclaimed: “I love this! I’m with my people!”

Before we knew it, dinner was served, family-style: Pickled heirloom carrots and bulls blood beets. “Mock liver” mashed with organic peas and blue lake beans. The prettiest, most perfectly pungent, hand-grated fluorescent-fuschia horseradish I’ve ever had. (Note to Wise Sons: jar that stuff!) The soup was a clean, flavorful broth buoying matzo balls as God intended them to be: feather-light and fluffy. The Gefilte fish was a custom-grind of carp and whitefish in a fennel-thyme fumet and a far cry from the congealed liquid you see every season at Safeway. And the brisket… Not gray! Not tough! But fork-tender shreds of peppery-sweet meat.

One woman at our table sent her husband home to grab some Tupperware for leftovers. “I swear I don’t usually do this, but it’s just sooo good and I can’t eat another bite!” Not me. I was a member of the Passover clean-plate club for the first time.

Down to the last sips of Madeira, matched with a creamy-rich Guittard pot de crème (single-handedly bringing kosher desserts back from the dead), there was laughter; career-advice-giving; gossip about embarrassing wedding toasts and bad break-ups about people we didn’t know. No barking between relatives or “help-clear-the-table” mandates from mom. But hugs good-bye. And sincere cries of: “Next Year — with Wise Sons!”

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