Tony Capecchi

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Since age 18, Tony Capecchi has been chronicling his worldwide travel and outdoor adventures for national magazines, including In-Fisherman and North American Hunter. He has co-hosted “Live Outdoors” on CBS Radio, produced television for NBC and worked on The History Channel’s hit series “MonsterQuest.”

Ashford Castle: Crown Jewel of the Emerald Island

Posted by: Tony Capecchi under Environment, Recreation, Birding, Fishing Updated: December 29, 2013 - 4:13 PM

People often ask, “What was your favorite part of your trip?” It’s a difficult question. Pinpointing one specific highlight and ranking it against the others can be nearly impossible, especially on longer trips that consist of a variety of activities and settings that can’t be fairly compared.

That said, when people ask me, “What was your favorite place that you stayed in Ireland?” I have no hesitation in my response––even though I was lucky enough to stay at a wide variety of world-class resorts, including a 5-star hotel in beautiful County Wicklow, a 500-year-old baronial castle, and a resort on the Ring of Kerry with a view of the ocean.

The favorite place I stayed in Ireland was the Ashford Castle near the quiet village of Cong. As much as my wife and I loved every place we stayed on the Emerald Island, Ashford Castle was, without question, the crown jewel.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

The 800-year-old castle, built on the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region, was once the proud estate of the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family––who, as you would expect–– had perhaps the finest estate in all of Ireland. The view across the famous lake has not changed since Sir Benjamin lee Guinness himself lived at Ashford, and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features.

The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens, and hundreds of Oak, Beech and Chestnut trees have been re-planted––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.

The Drawing Room was spectacular, with live music entertaining at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib delighting by day. As we lounged in the Drawing Room and listened to the lovely piano music we wondered: Who else may have sat in these antique chairs?    

Choices include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wild, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”

Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate, and you can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford––many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.  

There is also the Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, which dumps into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect moment of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Molly Leibowitz. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

That final stretch of river is not just scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying my silver spoon its due attention as my eyes studies the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone. I took notes dutifully, knowing that last year Costello caught a brown trout from the lake that topped the scales at over 13 pounds.

Costello and the concierge’s help that evening was typical of the service at Ashford.  “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” said Paula Carroll, Ashford Castle’s Senior Manager. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”

A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their decorations at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them every year before they arrive, so when they walk into their room it’s completely decorated with all their family decorations.

With such service to complement such a breathtaking setting, it’s clear why Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010.  

Or, for that matter, why my answer is so easy when people ask me, “What was your favorite part of Ireland?”

Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email ashford@ashford.ie or call 1.800.346.7007.

Photo Courtesy of Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle also offers golf, falconry, boating, biking, indepedent and guided fishing, horseback riding, archery and clay shooting.

Best of the Best: Top 5 Travel Destinations of 2013

Posted by: Tony Capecchi Updated: December 12, 2013 - 11:43 AM

Climbing a mountainous island in the Atlantic Ocean where others have fallen to their death in order to see beehive huts built by monks in the 6th century and attempt to fathom what life was like for these brave and lonely men.

Spotting a black bear swim across the headwaters of a river in a boreal forest in Ontario, then boating an hour downriver to startle an 1,100-pound bull moose eating weeds in the mouth of the river.  

Standing on a platform in Edinburgh Castle and looking down at one of Europe’s most famous cities from the castle’s perch atop a massive rock formation that’s been occupied since the second century.

Watching mountain goats cling to Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, just yards away from a 650-foot drop formed by earth plates shifting 300 million years ago.  

Holding an owl and stroking its snow-soft feathers following an afternoon horse and carriage ride around the private estate of a 16th-century baronial castle that’s hosted Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and The Beatles.

As incredible as these five experiences were, not a single one of these locales made my list of Top 5 Travel Destinations of 2013. I have been extraordinarily fortunate this year to explore the world and revel in some of the most spectacular destinations on the planet. And so, the competition for this list was fierce.

But without further adieu, here is my list (in alphabetical order) of the absolute best-of-the-best, the Top 5 Travel Destinations of 2013:

1.) Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge
Manitoba, Canada
 

I have died and gone to fishing heaven. Past the pearly gates at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge lies a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in Manitoba’s remote wilderness; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.

If that sounds like hyperbole, let me put it another way: I’ve been lucky enough to fish at elite destinations ranging from Florida to California, from Ontario to Alaska, from Ireland to Scotland, but I’ve never been to a fishing lodge that combines world-class fishing with world-class accommodations like Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.

On our first Monday at Aikens the action began immediately with two small walleyes: a 17-incher followed by a dink we didn’t bother to measure. And then, like the flip of a switch, the big ones started biting. I caught a 23-incher at the same time my dad landed a 25. A moment later, I set the hook on a barely-perceptible twitch and immediately saw my rod double over. A 26-incher that fought like hell on my light-action rod and 8-pound monofilament.

Dad couldn’t believe the bevy of broad-shouldered walleyes we were hauling in left and right, and we quit measuring or counting fish that at quick glance appeared less than 24 inches. Another 25 and a thick 26-incher later, and next thing I knew I was in The Century Club with four walleyes totalling 102 inches in length. And it was only 9:15 in the morning!

As an angler, you spend your whole life praying that a paradise like Aikens really does exist––and that, by the grace of God, the past fishing lies you’ve told are forgiven and you’re deemed worthy to enter into such a haven. When you then catch four walleyes over 25 inches in your first 75 minutes fishing on Monday morning you realize your faith has been justified and, incredibly, such salvation is real.
 

Click here to read my full article about Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.


2.) Ashford Castle
Cong, Ireland


 

Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region to reach fabled Ashford Castle, I now can say that I have lived like royalty. It was only for a day, but a day in an ancient world lasts a lifetime in memory.

The castle, once the proud estate of the Guiness family, was built on the shores of Lough Corrib in 1228. The view across the lake has not changed in over 6,000 years and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features. The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands. It was a view made better (if not blurrier) by the complimentary bottle of champagne and decanter of cherry that welcomed us upon our arrival. And so we learned, quite quickly on this special visit, that life as royalty is good.

As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens that Rick Steves raves about––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.

The Drawing Room was my favorite, where live music entertained at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib entertained by day. As soon as we checked in, my wife and I took our drinks to the Drawing Room, plopped down by the piano and wondered: Who else might have sat in these very chairs?    

Possibilities include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wilde, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”

It takes less than five minutes at Ashford Castle to see why the estate has attracted such dignitaries and has been voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler.


 

Click here to read my full article about Ashford Castle. 
 


3.) Inverlochy Castle
Fort Williams, Scotland

 

After visiting Inverlochy Castle in the highlands of Scotland, I now have a new travel motto: If it’s good enough for Elton John, Robert Redford and Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for me.

The 150-year-old castle hotel, tucked away in the outdoor capital of the UK, has also attracted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, The Duke of Edinburgh and King Hussein of Jordan, along with “regular folks” from over 20 countries, including Brazil, China, Baku, Russia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. It is easy to see why.

Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain, overlooks the ornate castle and its 17 guest bedrooms. Entering the castle is akin to walking into a museum come to life. The Great Hall’s frescoed ceiling, Venetian crystal chandeliers and dramatic staircase are spectacular; meanwhile, all three of the dining rooms feature elaborate tables, chairs and dressers received as gifts from the King of Norway as a thank you for the castle offering him exile during World War II.

Less than two hours drive from Inverlochy lies the mystical Isle of Skye, where Mother Nature surprised us by displaying herself in shapes and forms we didn’t think possible.

The morning of our Skye expedition we headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.

Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.

As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”

I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.

Click here to read my full article about Inverlochy Castle.
 


4.) Little Palm Island Resort and Spa
Florida Keys


I am balancing on a 12-foot, wooden paddle board armed with an oversized kayak paddle I used to propel myself away from the jungle island and into the Atlantic Ocean when I notice a shark swimming 30 yards behind me. Ahead of me I see nothing but azure water so I do the only thing that comes to mind: I wobble down to my knees to untie the fishing pole I have strapped to my board and cast out in the direction of the unmistakable fin.

The shark is oblivious to my first two casts, but on the third cast she catches the scent of the shrimp I’m using for bait and charges after it. I wind faster. This angers her; she accelerates with remarkable speed to close the gap between her teeth, my bait and me.

I’m quickly running out of space––I have wound in nearly all my line and the chase is still on. I lower my rod tip into the water and whip it to the back of the board to keep my bait in motion when––BANG––the shark annihilates my bait 18 inches in front me! The shark strike creates a surface explosion like a cannonball hitting the water.

My pole is instantly doubled over from the weight of the sea creature, which spins 180 degrees with a splash of its tail and races off into the depths of the Atlantic with me now in tow behind her.



As thrilling as it was, the shark escapade was just one episode of a surreal sequence of adventures my wife and I experienced at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa near the Florida Keys, a private, 5-acre island resort miles off-shore from the southernmost tip of the United States.   

At Little Palm Island, breathtaking moments seem as common as palm trees. Just 12 hours before the shark encounter, Jodie and I feasted on a tikki torch-lit, five-course dinner on the beach with a personalized menu congratulating us on our 4th wedding anniversary and a pianist playing in the background. Less than 90 minutes after the shark, we were pampered beyond belief for two hours with an ancient Indonesian ritual known as the Javanese Royal Treatment at Little Palm’s award-winning Spa Terre.

From the instant we arrived until the tragic moment when we had to leave paradise and return to the real world, it was abundantly clear why Little Palm Island is routinely named one of the best resorts on the planet.
 


Click here to read my full article about Little Palm Island Resort.


5. The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
Miami, Florida


My wife and I gazed out from our corner-suite balcony on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach watching the sun rise over the most famous beach in the world.

That’s a statement I never thought I would make, and a view I know I will never forget.

We were just visitors in this foreign world, where beautiful people stroll by with million-dollar smiles and $50,000 purses, so we soaked in South Beach as best we could during our weekend at the famous hotel. Our impression of the land of luxury? Puttin’ on the Ritz was every bit as magnificent as we had imagined.

“South Beach is truly a unique destination,” said Kevin Kelly, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach Hotel. “You have everything you’d want in one city. I’ve lived in many parts of the world, and I’ve never seen a city like South Beach.”

Indeed, South Beach is unlike any other place on the planet. You have the glitz and glamour of gorgeous people dressed to the nines going to nightclubs that don’t close until sun-up. You have a pristine beach with sand as soft as velvet. You have Art Deco buildings that refuse to age or adapt to architectural advances. You have high-end shopping and dining that lures in sophisticates from around the world. And a half hour away from it all you have the wildly untamed Florida Everglades, an outdoorsman’s dream.

The hotel itself is gorgeous. Any other word would fail to do it justice. One of the most famous Art Deco walls in Miami anchors the main lobby, which is surrounded by 375 luxurious rooms, 20,000 square feet in meeting rooms, two restaurants, one 16,000-square foot spa, and a $2 million art collection.


Click here to read my full article about The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.

Inverlochy Castle: Timeless Beauty

Posted by: Tony Capecchi under Recreation Updated: November 29, 2013 - 11:30 AM

After visiting Inverlochy Castle in the highlands of Scotland, I now have a new travel motto: If it’s good enough for Elton John, Robert Redford and Queen Elizabeth, it’s good enough for me.

The 150-year-old castle hotel, tucked away in the outdoor capital of the UK, has also attracted the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, The Duke of Edinburgh and King Hussein of Jordan, along with “regular folks” from over 20 countries, including Brazil, China, Baku, Russia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. It is easy to see why.

Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain, overlooks the ornate castle and its 17 guest bedrooms. Entering the castle is akin to walking into a museum come to life. The Great Hall’s frescoed ceiling, Venetian crystal chandeliers and dramatic staircase are spectacular; meanwhile, all three of the dining rooms feature elaborate tables, chairs and dressers received as gifts from the King of Norway as a thank you for the castle offering him exile during World War II.

And while my wife and I may not be recorded in Inverlochy’s book of famous guests, we certainly were treated like celebrities.

“Our fine Scottish hospitality is what truly makes Inverlochy Castle unique,” said general manager Jane Watson.

The service is impeccable––in fact, there was a waiter at dinner whose sole duty was seemingly to inform us of our wine options and refill our glasse––but the history and surrounding landscape have as much as anything to do with Inverlochy’s awe-inspiring atmosphere. The castle sits on the private Loch Na Marag, and is also near Loch Garry, which local anglers who know the difference swear is the best salmon fishing in western Scotland.

Hunting in the highlands is also popular, with many Inverlochy guests targeting roe deer hinds, red deer stags, grouse and pheasants. As we discovered, a Russian foursome comes to the castle twice a year just to hunt stag––and they have the time of their lives doing it.

As for Jodie and me, our outdoor adventure awaited us on the remote Isle of Skye, where Mother Nature surprised us by displaying herself in shapes and forms we didn’t think possible.

Until recently the unspoiled island was only accessible by boat, but the construction of the Skye Bridge offers a lovely drive that will doubtlessly take you longer than MapQuest suggests, due to the frequent photo opportunities (such as the one pictured below) that demand you pull over.

We left at 5:30 on the morning of our Skye expedition and headed straight to The Old Man of Storr on the northern part of the island, known as the Trotternish Peninsula. The 19-mile long peninsula is the highest point of the island; The Old Man of Storr is a bizarre rock formation at the peninsula’s peak that stands 160-feet tall and towers over The Sound of Raasay.

Skye means “cloudy” in Old Norse, but we were blessed with a rain-free morning and made our ascent up the mountain-side with dry footing and relatively clear skies. The views were spectacular. Skye is sparsely populated––the 600-mile island is said to have more sheep than people––and our early start allowed us to have The Old Man to ourselves. We reached the summit without seeing another soul, hiking alone with the mountain goats.

Photos don’t do this natural treasure justice, but I had to try. At one point the wind nearly blew my tripod and camera over, and I leapt from my pose, several feet away, just in the nick of time to save my Nikon from a premature and rocky death.

As we were about to begin our descent I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. Let’s just stand here another few minutes in silence.”

I am so grateful we paused. Moments like that are hard to come. You only have so many instances in life when Earth’s rugged beauty knocks you over and leaves you gasping for air. When it happens, you want to soak up every ounce of it.



After conquering The Old Man of Storr, we made our way north to The Quiraing, stopping along the way at Kilt Rock waterfall. The 200-foot-tall sea cliff, so named due to its resemblance to a Scotsman’s tartan kilt, has a layer of volcanic rock with vertical lava columns that look like pleats.

The Quiraing presented us with a new hiking challenge, and while it was less vertically challenging than The Old Man of Storr, its views were equally stunning.

We peered down at the dramatic, jagged northern end of the Trotternish Peninsula and identified each of The Quiraing’s famous rock formations: The Table, The Prison and The Needle.

If I saw the terrain in a movie I’d think for sure it was made up for dramatic effect, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and Mother Nature surprises me in ways I didn’t think possible.

I love it when she does.

The website for Inverlochy Castle is www.inverlochycastle.com. To contact Inverlochy Castle, email info@inverlochy.co.uk or call 1-888 424 0106.

Dinner at Inverlochy Castle is an experience unto itself. The steak and seafood was delicious, the service every bit as excellent as the food, and the view, perhaps, the best part of it all. If you catch fish during the day, the staff will clean it and prepare it for you at dinner. After stuffing ourselves with appetizers, side dishes and entrees, we decided to step outside for a few minutes before tackling dessert. During this break, we captured one of my favorite photos of our entire trip, pictured below.

The rooms at Inverlochy Castle are gorgeous, and some guests elect to have "private dining" served in their rooms to soak in the atmosphere. One well-known couple came to the castle for their honeymoom, but had all their luggage lost at the aiport. Without any decent clothes, they opted to have "private dining" in their room. Now, over a decade later, they come back to Inverlochy every year on their anniversary.

The Life of Luxury: Ritz-Carlton, South Beach

Posted by: Tony Capecchi under Recreation Updated: November 23, 2013 - 12:01 AM

My wife and I gazed out from our corner-suite balcony on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach watching the sun rise over the most famous beach in the world.

That’s a statement I never thought I would make, and a view I know I will never forget.

We were just visitors in this foreign world, where beautiful people stroll by with million-dollar smiles and $50,000 purses, so we soaked in South Beach as best we could during our weekend at the famous hotel. Our impression of the land of luxury? Puttin’ on the Ritz was every bit as magnificent as we had imagined.



“South Beach is truly a unique destination,” said Kevin Kelly, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach Hotel. “You have everything you’d want in one city. I’ve lived in many parts of the world, and I’ve never seen a city like South Beach.”

Indeed, South Beach is unlike any other place on the planet. You have the glitz and glamour of gorgeous people dressed to the nines going to nightclubs that don’t close until sun-up. You have a pristine beach with sand as soft as velvet. You have Art Deco buildings that refuse to age or adapt to architectural advances. You have high-end shopping and dining that lures in sophisticates from around the world. And a half hour away from it all you have the wildly untamed Florida Everglades, an outdoorsman’s dream.

Our visit to the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, which celebrates its 10 year anniversary this December, included unforgettable experiences at both ends of the spectrum: staring at a crocodile from 20 feet away in the backwaters of the Everglades, and sipping 20-year-old Macallan on the rocks in the hotel’s VIP Club Lounge.

The hotel itself is gorgeous. Any other word would fail to do it justice. One of the most famous Art Deco walls in Miami anchors the main lobby, which is surrounded by 375 luxurious rooms, 20,000 square feet in meeting rooms, two restaurants, one 16,000-square foot spa, and a $2 million art collection.

In fact, the opulence makes it difficult to leave the hotel’s interior, but once you step outside you’re instantly glad you did. The view from the infinity pool is unreal, with South Beach and the Atlantic Ocean blending in the background.

Considering the Ritz-Carlton’s ability to orchestrate such a perfect scene at South Beach, it makes sense that 2013 was a banner year for the hotel chain across the globe.

“We opened 12 new hotels this year worldwide,” Kelly said. “That’s the most we’ve ever opened in a single year, and we have plans to expand from 80 hotels currently to 100 by 2016.”

Kelly is no stranger to international hotels. The London native has managed five different hotels in the UK prior to coming to South Beach, and has extensive knowledge of luxury hotels in Eastern Europe and Asia.

“The further east you go, the higher the standard of luxury. In Asia, there’s an employee pushing an elevator button for you,” said Kelly, noting the Ritz-Carlton’s expansion plans include new hotels in Morocco, Israel, India and Japan. “It’s an exciting time for us as we open new hotels in exotic destinations where you don’t think of a Ritz-Carlton.”

For the Ritz, expansion into exotic destinations is a balancing act as the famous hotel walks the line between adapting to the local culture and maintaining its global branding and traditions.

“The robust pipeline of hotel projects indicates a continued strong demand for Ritz-Carlton products and services. We are delighted at the company’s continued positive growth,” said Herve Humler, president and CEO. “Across the globe, and especially in Asia and the Middle East, we will be the undisputed top-tier luxury hospitality brand by 2016.”

It seems the Ritz can already make that claim in South Beach. Each year, half a million people walk through the hotel’s famous front doors. Guests come from every corner of the world, with 40 couples per year choosing to celebrate their wedding at the Ritz. The hotel’s 496-person staff includes Francy Silva, a highly regarded wedding coordinator.

“Our policy is never to host two weddings on the same day,” she said. “We want the bride and the entire wedding party to realize their special day is not only our focus, but our sole priority!”

Meeting a Rock Star

Given that South Beach is known for famous people, it’s not that surprising Jodie and I encountered a rock star at the Ritz. The odd thing is he was wearing an apron and working in the kitchen.

To amplify its appeal to anglers and boaters, the Ritz recently launched a “Catch of the Stay” package that combines daily deep sea fishing excursions with fresh fish meals at the Ritz’s incomparable DiLido Beach Club––which, by the way, is the only restaurant in South Beach that’s actually on the beach. We did our fishing separately from the package, but took advantage of the “Catch of the Stay” with a 7-course, ocean-inspired lunch that was, without question, the best lunch we’ve ever had.



And it was there we met our rock star, head chef Andres Meraz. Meraz showered us with dish after dish of shrimp, marinated mahi, Pacific tuna and pan-seared salmon that––get this––was flown in that morning from the Pacific Ocean.

“The local salmon we were getting wasn’t to our standards,” Meraz explained as he brought us out our fish. “So now we get it flown in daily from the Pacific. We do that with the tuna, also, because tuna in the Pacific is better than what’s available in the Caribbean.”

Meraz explained each dish to us in great detail––his cerviche won 1st place in a competition among 70 top chefs––and then took the time to visit with us after our meal. As soon as we left, Jodie and I turned to each other and almost in unison said, “That guy’s a rock star.”

Here’s what we meant: Meraz is immensely talented, extremely personable and naturally good looking. He grew up working at his grandfather’s Mexican restaurant in Oakland, and has since worked in Spain, Hungary, Italy and Austria. Incredibly, he is only 28.

“Andres is like a Cuban grandmother. He wants people to eat, eat, eat,” said Richard Lemus, a communications manager at the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.

Trust me when I say that Meraz will be famous one day. He’s one of those rare individuals unfairly blessed with incredible skills and a passion for his craft, along with a generous dose of natural charisma and refreshing humility. Upon meeting him, you instantly know he’s destined for greatness.

It is people like Meraz––every bit as much as the beach, the sunrises, the luxury and the nightlife––that makes The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach one of the world’s elite destinations.

“I shouldn’t say this, but you get to a point where a hotel room is a hotel room,” admitted Kelly. “It is the ladies and gentlemen who work here, who delight in pleasing our guests, who truly set The Ritz-Carlton apart.”

The website for The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach is www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/SouthBeach. For more information, call (786) 276-4000.

The Ritz-Carlton has twice won the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award.  

 

 
 

The above two photos show the view from our wrap-around balcony on the top floor of the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach. Just 30 minutes away from all the glitz, glamour and gorgeous beaches lies the untamed Florida Everglades, pictured below.

 

What does a seven-course lunch look like? Well, see for yourself, with every delicious dish captured below. Above was the setting for this incredible lunch. We ate slowly, savoring every bite and taking over two hours to enjoy the memorable meal on South Beach.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Welcome to the Jungle

Posted by: Tony Capecchi under Environment, Birding, Fishing Updated: November 9, 2013 - 1:43 PM

A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.

“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.

I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.

Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.

It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.

And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”

We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.

“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”

In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.

For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.

“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”

It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.

“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”

This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.

“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”

I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.

Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.

“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.

He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.

From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.


In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.

“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”

Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.

“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”

“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”

Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.

“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”

Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email captjimw@ultimatekeysfishing.com or call 305-393-1128.



You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.


 

These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.

Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.

The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.

At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.

After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways. 

What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.

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