Three Perfect Days: Montana
Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Montana

By The Hub team , August 01, 2017

Story by Jacob Baynham | Photography by Brad Torchia | Hemispheres, August 2017

Montana is a story best told outside. It's a place where people measure the worth of their weekends by the mud on their boots. Those who were born here know what they have. Those who visit will dream about finding a way to stay. But no one is indecisive about living in Montana. If you're here, you're all in. You're outside and getting up early, as Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, “to see as much of the Lord's daylight as is given to us."

Day 1 Graphic

In which Jacob drinks espresso with a pop star, does some vicarious surfing, and fulfills his dream of owning—ok, renting—a 1986 VW Van

I'm standing 620 feet above Missoula, beside a giant white “M" branded onto a mountainside. Fifteen thousand years ago, I'd have been underwater. During the last ice age, a glacier dammed the Clark Fork River, creating a lake that was 2,000 feet deep and larger than Delaware. Beavers the size of grizzlies roamed its banks. Then the dam broke and flushed the lake out to the Pacific. I'm looking down at the aftermath, which is now the midsize college town where I live.

The sun hasn't quite crested Mount Sentinel behind me, but it's light enough to see the maple-lined streets and the Clark Fork unspooling through town. Somewhere to my right, in the shadow of Mount Jumbo, is my house. It feels good to linger in the cool air and listen to the meadowlarks, but few moments are as heavy with possibility as a Montana summer sunrise. So when the University of Montana clock tower chimes the hour below, I'm already jogging down the switchbacks toward another kind of pick-me-up.

I find it at Drum Coffee, a new café owned by John Wicks, the drummer for the indie-pop band Fitz and the Tantrums. Wicks's wife, Jenna, grew up in Missoula, and after the couple had kids they moved here from Southern California. He's tall, with thick-framed glasses and a peacoat with notebooks in the breast pocket. Over a café cortado, he tells me how Montana won his heart.

Surfers on the rushing Clark Fork RiverSurfers on the rushing Clark Fork River

“In Los Angeles, I got the sense that people were trying to make their lives as easy as possible," he says. “That's not a goal here. People want to see the benefit of their hard work. I really love that about this place."

Before he moved here, Wicks felt jaded, toiling away in a cutthroat industry. But now, when he's not on tour, he spends his days managing the café, giving drum lessons to kids, and running up the mountains behind his house. “The topography of this place plays a part in the humility here," he says. “These mountains don't care what you do. They're going to be here when you're gone. That plays a big part in people's priorities."

One of my immediate priorities is brunch at Scotty's Table, an Art Deco–inflected bistro downtown. I order a burger made from cattle that graze a pasture along the Bitterroot River, south of town. It's topped with a farm-fresh egg and bacon, and it's a tribute to sustainable beef.

From here, I cut through Caras Park to the Clark Fork, where surfers are playing in a standing wave. The river is high and brown, but the surfers are out anyway, paddling furiously into the froth, then springing to their feet, suspended by the roaring current. I feel a vicarious thrill.

John Wicks, musicianJohn Wicks, musician

A hundred yards upstream is the Clark Fork Farmers Market, where locals wander among stalls bearing homemade jellies, morel mushrooms, beeswax lip balm, and kombucha. At Ninja Mike's breakfast stall, a man in a mechanic's jumpsuit works the griddle, flipping egg sandwiches to old-school hip-hop. Farther down, a sandy-haired kid in a Nirvana sweatshirt strums Green Day on an unplugged Stratocaster.

The day is getting on. I've spent weeks planning these three days, but I'm most excited about the driving, which I've arranged to do in a 1986 Volkswagen Westfalia Weekender Camper—a personal dream. I collect one at the airport from Dragonflyvans, where Scott Quinnett introduces me to a van he calls Lizard King—named both for Jim Morrison and for the lizard that was living in the engine when he bought it. The vehicle has a beige interior, the aerodynamics of a brick, and no power steering. I'm smitten.

Quinnett walks me through Lizard King's particularities (take hills slowly) and hands me the keys. “I can almost guarantee you a blast," he says with a smile. The van purrs to life, and I crank its large steering wheel homeward to pick up my family.

“Montana is one of the few places where the far right and the far left coexist and want the same thing: to preserve what's here." —John Wicks

A few notes on my family: My wife, Hilly, gave birth to our second son, Julian, three weeks ago. Our other son, Theo, is 3. But Hilly is a fourth-generation Montanan, and game for adventure. So is our 10-year-old niece, Salome, who's along for the ride. We pile into the van and head to Tagliare Deli for sandwiches, all of which are named after rock bands—I order the Megadeth, with spicy capicola, soppressata, and mozzarella. We roll out of town through a notch in the hills on Highway 93.

Our next stop is for candy, at Hummingbird Toys and Treats in Arlee, on the Flathead Indian Reservation about 30 miles north. The Hummingbird is a local fixture that sells 60 varieties of black licorice from around the world, and there is much deliberation before we can set off again.

Scarcely 10 minutes up the road is another mandatory stop: the Windmill Village Bakery in Ravalli, where owner Nancy Martin sells fresh doughnuts the way her mother made them. She chops one up for Salome and Theo, and hands me one on a square of wax paper. It's warm, soft as a marshmallow, and gone in a few savage bites.

Martin was born and raised in Montana. “When you live somewhere else, people don't like you until you give them a reason to," she says. “In Montana, people like you until you give them a reason not to. And you can't beat the scenery. The day we crest that hill and don't gasp, we need to reboot, because something's off the rails."

Strolling North Higgins Ave. in downtown MissoulaStrolling North Higgins Ave. in downtown Missoula

She's referring to Ravalli Hill, and when we crest it, minutes later, we do gasp, as always. The Mission Mountains rise straight from the valley floor here, a blue-green wall of peaks. They're distractingly beautiful.

We drive beneath them to Polson, a small town where the trees outnumber the houses on the shore of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the West and one of the cleanest in the country. We travel up the west shore, past cherry orchards, to Tamarack Brewery in Lakeside (our lodgings are nearby, and I'm ready for a drink).

We sip our way through a comprehensive flight of beers and nibble on fish and chips. Everyone's tired. The West Shore State Park campground beckons. We pull into the site and I pop the top of Lizard King while Salome builds a fire. We can see blue water through the trees below us and snow on the mountains beyond. The campground is quiet.

At 10 o'clock, it's still light. Salome and Theo are asleep in the upper bunk; Hilly, Julian, and I are stretched out below. I go to sleep thinking there's no place I'd rather be.

Day 2 Graphic

In which Jacob cooks a campfire breakfast, boats to a lake island, and cycles to the sun in Glacier National Park

All right, the night wasn't total bliss. Hilly elbowed me awake to say, “You're doing that breathing thing again." The kids were restless. But by 6:30 the birds are singing, and I'm rested enough to slide open the van door.

Lizard King makes camping almost effortless. I pull a propane burner from the cupboard, along with a kettle and a French press. Minutes later, I hand Hilly a cup of coffee, and she hands me Julian, to burp. Salome and Theo help me cook eggs and sausages on the fire.

After breakfast, we walk down to the lake, which is lined with moss-green rocks and clumps of purple flowers. The sun is warm, and I decide to take a dip. It's a brief one. This lake used to be a glacier, and it hasn't warmed much since.

Group of cattle at Flathead Lake State Park

Amy Grout, the Flathead Lake State Park manager, has offered to take me to Wild Horse Island, a 2,163-acre park and the largest island in the lake. The Salish and Kootenai used to swim their best horses out to the island, to foil thieves. It's still home to five wild horses, about 100 bighorn sheep, 50 mule deer, and a handful of coyotes—plus a black bear and a mountain lion that swam out there.

While my family plays on the shore, I wobble aboard Grout's motorboat, alongside a middle-aged couple named JoAnn and Glenn, who spend their summer weekends as volunteer guides. They're the sort of intense, competent types who can wield a phrase like “Drop the stern anchor." I fasten my life vest, happy they're aboard.

Grout steers away from the dock and points the bow toward Wild Horse. “This is a little gem of Montana," she says. “It's a pretty special place." Waves splash against the aluminum hull, and after some engine trouble—an opportunity for JoAnn and Glenn to cheerfully connect the backup motor—we make landfall.

JoAnn and Glenn stay with the boat as I follow Grout up the hillside. We wade through a knee-deep, bright yellow sea of arrowleaf balsamroot. Grout has short chestnut hair and the disposition of someone who gets paid to do what she loves. She still remembers her first visit to the Flathead. “I fell in love with it," she says. “It was like the valley where I lived in Alaska. I was 13 years old, and I told my parents, 'I'm going to live here one day.'"

Jackie Kecskes, cattle wranglerJackie Kecskes, cattle wrangler

She leads me past a century-old homestead and an abandoned apple orchard. The trail is redolent of horse dung, but we don't see the horses. Grout does spot a giant bighorn sheep through her binoculars on a ridge above us. “That's a world-class ram," she says. Four others filter out of the trees around it.

We finally drop back down to the shore through a glade of old ponderosas that smell of butterscotch. “This is where I was meant to be," Grout says. “I love the landscape and the people. Montanans, we're hardy. We'll do anything to help someone out. We can be very stubborn, but we love the place we live."

Back on the mainland, I rejoin my family to continue our caravan northward, past the strip malls of Kalispell and the lumber mill in Columbia Falls. In the town of Hungry Horse (population 757), we pull over at Willows' HuckleberryLand, a roadside gift shop that's said to serve the area's best huckleberry milkshake.

Inside, Buddy Willows himself is behind the counter, eating a buffalo burger. He's surrounded by shelves of huckleberry everything—honey, syrup, jam, barbecue sauce. “We use Montana huckleberries," he announces. “I'd say they have about 15 to 20 percent more twang." He hands me a copy of his self-published autobiography, The Wild and Crazy Buddy Willows. It's not a dull read.

“You get the beauty of a state like Colorado—the big mountains and the beautiful forested areas—but without the huge population. You don't feel crowded." —Jackie Kecskes

We leave with a lunch of huckleberry shakes and huckleberry pie—don't judge—and drive 10 miles to the entrance of Glacier National Park, where we all go quiet at the view of the peaks rising behind Lake McDonald. Two mule deer cross the road in front of us.

Soon, we're checking in at the Lake McDonald Lodge, a chalet on the north shore that was built as a hunting lodge in 1913. The lobby has a stone fireplace, cedar beams, and game animals mounted on the walls. Lampshades decorated with Native American pictographs hang from the ceiling. Outside, a colony of ground squirrels scurry and chirp. “People call them whistle pigs," a lodge employee tells me. “They own the property. We don't."

It's time to leave the family again, as I'm not sure the kids would enjoy my next adventure: a steep bike climb up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, on which the winter's 80-foot snowdrifts aren't fully cleared until midsummer. Tyler Schmittel, of Glacier Guides, arrives to accompany me. We get off to an awkward start when I ask him if the bearded man tattooed on his leg is Fidel Castro. “It's Edward Abbey," he replies. “The writer and conservationist."

On that note, we start pedaling. Schmittel recently cycled from Los Angeles to Guatemala City, so he's not at all out of breath as he reels off the names of the wildflowers we pass. The white trillium look like fallen stars on the forest floor.

The author in his beloved VW vanThe author in his beloved VW van

We climb and weave alongside McDonald Creek, which is an otherworldly shade of blue. “It gets that color from glacial silt," Schmittel says. We pass two piles of bear scat on the road. I notice my guide keeps a can of bear spray in his bike's water bottle holder.

We're surrounded by mountains, some of them giant domes of snow, others sheer rock faces that fall from their ridgelines like the cheek of an ax. We stop at Haystack Creek, a lovely spot a few miles from the pass. But looking around at what the Blackfeet call the Backbone of the World, it's hard not to feel sad. In the mid-1800s, there were about 150 glaciers here. Now there are 26. Some scientists project that within 15 years they will all be gone.

Later, back at the lodge, I meet up with my family, who spent the day walking the Trail of the Cedars. With a broad view of shimmering Lake McDonald, we dine on smoked Columbia River steelhead and tender local lamb smothered in a fennel demi-glaze. I wash mine down with a locally brewed Going to the Sun IPA, which only seems fitting.

As a woman plays “Edelweiss" on the piano, Theo passes out over his fruit plate. Salome informs Hilly and me that edelweiss is a white wildflower that grows in Switzerland. She's an uncommonly bright kid. Maybe someday she'll figure out what to do about the glaciers.

Day 3 Graphic

In which Jacob frustrates an intelligent horse, glamps on the Blackfoot River, and lands a memorable brown trout

After a huckleberry pancake breakfast (rich in antioxidants!), we decide there's time for a 5-mile hike to Avalanche Lake. Marsha, at the front desk, tells us a grizzly sow and two cubs were on the trail recently, so we pack bear spray, although we'll soon learn that Theo melting down over a lollipop is an equally effective deterrent.

The trail is well traveled. When I stop to take a picture of Theo and Salome in a hollowed-out tree, a lady walks by and says, “We have that same photo with our daughters, 20 years ago!"

At the lake, people eat granola bars and gawk at the enormous picture postcard in front of them. In the center of it all is a waterfall that begins at Sperry Glacier and crashes hundreds of feet down the mountain, too far away to be heard.

We have more driving to do. Back in Lizard King, we exit Glacier and follow the verdant Seeley Valley down the backside of the Mission Mountains. Two hours later, we enter another, wider valley, where we find The Resort at Paws Up, a dude ranch on the Blackfoot River. We check in and are led to the River Camp, where we'll spend the night in a canvas tent. Paws Up claims to have invented the term “glamping," and I wouldn't argue. We are met at the tent by two butlers, who look more like outdoor sportswear models than coat-and-tails types. One of them points out a bald eagle's nest overhead. We're also shown the pavilion, where we'll dine, and the fire pit, where we can toast gourmet s'mores afterward.

My first activity is a cattle drive. In a wide meadow, I meet wrangler Jackie Kecskes, resplendent in white leather chaps and with an elk-antler knife on her belt. She introduces me to my horse, a tall paint named Kid. We set off through the sagebrush with three other wranglers, and Kecskes talks me through the basics: A tap of the heels makes a horse walk; pulling the reins makes him stop; pressure on his right side makes him turn left, and vice versa.

“I always say, you work with a horse the way you work with a man," she says. “You know the outcome you want to achieve, but it has to be their idea, otherwise it won't stick." I recognize the principle from parenting.

Amy Grout, state park managerAmy Grout, state park manager

As we reach the cow pen, the animals look up as if to say, “Oh no, this again?" Kecskes swings open the gate, and I try to help the other wranglers herd the cows toward her. But I keep messing up my turn signals, applying pressure with the wrong foot. Kid is confused. Then he seems to realize I'm inept and takes the lead. Evidently, he knows the outcome he wants to achieve.

Kecskes developed a love for horses in California when her parents let her adopt a half-blind pony at age 5. She came to Montana via Colorado and never wants to leave. “I love the pace of things here," she says. “We still brand our cattle on horseback, and the local sheriff comes out because he's handy on a horse."

By now we've driven the cows to an open pasture. The wranglers teach me how to cut a cow from the herd, as real cowboys do. I find it's a lot like parallel parking, except the curb keeps moving to join the other curbs, and my car has lost respect for me. I manage it once or twice, and then we drive the cows back to the pen. It's not exactly Lonesome Dove, but I've got a little swagger as Kid walks me back to the stable.

“I've stopped to help people fix a flat on the side of the road, and they'll try to pay me. I say, 'No. This is who we are in Montana. This is what we do.'" —Amy Grout

We have some time before my next activity, so I watch the kids while Hilly—who, let's not forget, gave birth three weeks ago—gets a massage. She does this at Spa Town, a row of white tents on the forest's edge that looks like a place a soldier might have convalesced after a Civil War battle (or where a mother might convalesce after a postpartum road trip with three children). As the masseuse kneads the knots from her back, she listens to a whistle pig nibble on the tent. There's no escaping nature out here—it's an immersive experience.

With Hilly suitably relaxed, I head out for some fly fishing with Jason Much, a friendly Midwesterner with a man-bun and Muck Boots. Much came out to Montana six years ago to fish for fun, and now he makes a living doing it. “The rivers brought me here, and I think they're keeping me here," he says as we drive to the boat launch.

The Blackfoot is running high with snowmelt, and I don't expect great fishing. But Much knows a few slower spots. He hands me a rod rigged with a big streamer and pushes off the raft. Now and then, he offers guidance. “Try in that slack water," he says, or, “That's brown town in there!"

A cattle wrangler at Paws UpA cattle wrangler at Paws Up

He's right. Suddenly there's a tug on the line and a swirl of yellow. I've fished long enough to know that it's a big brown trout. Slowly, I work it toward the boat, and Much slides his net underneath. And then he lifts from the water one of the finest fish I have ever seen. It's a golden slab of a trout, with black spots and a hooked jaw. Its tail is reddish and the size of my palm. I ease the hook from its mouth and it swims powerfully away. Much lets out an open-mouthed laugh.

Around the corner we see a pair of geese with goslings and a sandhill crane stepping through the reeds. Much is explaining his theory of the philosophical progression of fly fishing. First, you just want to catch a fish on a fly. Then, you want lots of fish. After a while, you want to catch the biggest fish. “The final stage," he says, “is when you want to catch the most difficult. That's when you start to see the soul in a fish."

We're in fast water now, aloft on the waves as swallows hawk
mayflies over our heads. We fall silent, and the only noise is the creak of the oarlocks, the rushing water, and the clap of ducks taking flight. Tall ponderosas lean toward the river from both banks like crossed swords at a naval wedding. In places, a cliff rises from the water, the rocks mottled with lichen in shades of purple, orange,
and gray. The sky gets all the credit, but everything's bigger in Montana—the mountains, the trout, the sheer sense of being.

Our tent is a mile downstream. There will be a cold beer there, and a fire. We'll eat dinner outside, and afterward we'll climb
into heated beds within earshot of the river.

“Did you catch anything?" Hilly will ask.

“Yes," I'll say. “I did."

Missoula-based writer Jacob Baynham likes to compare owning a VW van to owning a boat, although his wife reminds him that he has never owned either.

Fun and spooky travel destinations for Halloween

By Matt Chernov

For many people, Halloween travel typically involves a stroll around the neighborhood with the kids as they go trick-or-treating, or perhaps a drive across the city to a costume party. But for adventurous travelers who are searching for genuine thrills and chills on October 31st, a trip to one of these seven destinations is the perfect way to celebrate the spookiest day of the year.

Sleepy Hollow

Lighthouse on a dark day in Sleepy Hollow.

Washington Irving's classic story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" tells the eerie tale of an unlucky schoolteacher who encounters a pumpkin-headed phantom while walking through the woods at night. In actuality, the fictional town of Sleepy Hollow is based on the real-life village of Tarrytown, New York. Every October, the residents of Tarrytown pay tribute to Irving's fable with a series of family-friendly events that attract visitors from far and wide. This year's celebration includes a spooky cemetery tour, an elaborate haunted hayride, vintage horror movies at the historic Tarrytown Music Hall and a possible visit from the Headless Horseman himself.

New Orleans Haunted History Tour

Above ground cemetery in New Orleans

New Orleans is widely considered the ghost capital of the United States, and for very good reason. Founded as a French colony in 1718, the city has a rich history of attracting immigrants from Spain, Africa and Haiti, each of whom brought with them a unique set of superstitions and religious practices. Today, voodoo rituals, vampire legends and zombie tales abound in The Big Easy, and the best way to experience them is by taking one of the popular Haunted History Tours. Choose between the classic ghost tour, the haunted pub crawl, the creepy cemetery stroll and the authentic voodoo tour.

The Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel in Colorado

Nestled amid the glorious Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the beautiful Stanley Hotel is the real-life inspiration for Stephen King's terrifying bestseller “The Shining." In 1974, King and his wife Tabitha spent a night at The Stanley and quickly discovered that they were the only guests in the entire hotel. This sparked the author's fiendish imagination, and he began outlining the novel's chilling plot that same evening. Though he changed its name to The Overlook Hotel for the book, The Stanley remains the true setting. Today, fans of “The Shining" can celebrate Halloween at the hotel with a series of horror-themed events, including a murder mystery dinner, a lavish masquerade party and an official Shining Ball.

The Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs

Throughout much of its history, Paris has been known as the City of Lights. Yet beneath its lovely streets, a more accurate description would be the City of Bones. That's because the skeletal remains of more than 6 million bodies are buried in the network of underground tunnels and narrow passages that wind their way below Paris. Since it was first opened to the public in 1874, this macabre labyrinth has become one of the most popular attractions in all of Europe. Catering to demand, a variety of catacomb tours are available for travelers who want to explore the hidden world of the dead.

Poenari Castle

Perched high on a cliff in the Arefu village of Romania, this atmospheric castle is considered by many to be the original home of Count Dracula himself. In reality, it was an imposing stone fortress belonging to the infamous warlord Vlad the Impaler, who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's legendary vampire character. Built at the beginning of the 13th century, Poenari Castle is in a state of perpetual ruin, yet tours are still available to brave souls who are willing to climb the 1400 steps to reach its crumbling citadel.

Newgrange Tomb

Newgrange Tomb in Ireland

The first people to celebrate Halloween (then known as the Festival of Samhain) were the ancient Druids of Ireland, so a trip to this 5,200-year old Druid tomb in Ireland's Boyne Valley is the perfect place to spend the holiday. Constructed during the Neolithic period by Stone Age farmers, Newgrange consists of a massive circular mound divided by a long stone passageway and filled with multiple burial chambers. According to Irish folklore, it was believed to be the dwelling of a god called Dagda, who wielded a massive club that was capable of raising the dead. Tours of the prehistoric monument are available to the public.

Loch Ness

View of ruins of a castle from a boat in Loch Ness.

If you've ever dreamed of coming face to face with a genuine monster, why not spend this Halloween searching for aquatic sea creatures in Scotland? The legendary beast, affectionately nicknamed Nessie, was first spotted in the freshwater Loch as far back as the 6th century AD. Since then, there have been countless sightings, but aside from a handful of grainy photos, no actual proof has been captured. So grab a camera and reserve a seat on the Jacobite Loch Ness Tour. You just might be the one to prove its existence, once and for all!

If you go

Halloween can be frightening, but planning your next trip doesn't have to be. Book your tickets by visiting united.com, or by using the convenient united app.

United and Special Olympics

Taking inclusion to new heights

Our shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world — and no organization better embodies that principle than Special Olympics.

Learn more

Celebrating Girls in Aviation Day

By The Hub team

We are proud to work with Women in Aviation so that together we can help break down barriers and promote inclusion while also inspiring a future generation of aviation leaders that includes women.

We kicked off Girls in Aviation Day by bringing in young women from Girls Inc. to meet a group of our female pilots and to try the flight simulators at our new flight training center in Denver.

We are continuously working to build a workforce as diverse as the communities we serve, which is why we are excited to hold Girls in Aviation Day events in a record number of 12 locations around the world. Through this event in Denver and the other events held across the globe, we are working to engage girls as they begin to think about their own futures so we can ensure a strong future of women in the industry.


Cuba: A city filled with culture and heart

By The Hub team

Each week we will profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location for every employee's story. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.

By Remote Reservations Sales and Service Representative Susie Grisley

My favorite travel experience was visiting the beautiful city of Havana, Cuba. My strong curiosity persisted when the U.S. and Cuban governments finally agreed to cooperate on U.S. citizens traveling to this previously forbidden place. Reviewing the documents, I learned we could go in under the "Humanitarian" category, as the borders had not been opened to come and go as any American pleased. A group of us gathered, including some of my Boston-based colleagues and my three sons. We purchased a ton of toys and goodies for the children of Cuba.

Colorful, classic cars in Cuba.

Upon arriving in this fortress of deteriorating concrete, old buildings and damaged structures, we found an amazing city full of culture and heart. The Cuban people were glowing with an unmatched happiness and welcomed us with open arms. They were friendly, hospitable and very excited to see us, the Americans. They are extremely proud of their city, which despite the broken sidewalks and crumbling walls, was insanely beautiful. The colorful buildings and the colorful working vintage Chevys are among the amazing things to see. They are so proud of their old cars. Out of necessity, they have learned to work on their own cars with very simple tools. If the car breaks down while driving, they simply get out, open the hood, twist and bang and get it running as they know how to do. No one honks at them if they are in the road. This is just their way. The insides of the cars are simple, yet they maintain them as their prized possessions. They all, however, have music! They love driving proudly through the streets in their shiny old cars with music pouring out the open windows. Riding in many of them, each "taxi" was a new experience of its own.

Despite the gorgeous architecture and the classic cars, it truly was heart-warming getting to mingle with the Cuban people and learning their way of life. They are a beautiful people with beautiful, happy hearts ready to greet every American.


When it came time to hand out toys and gifts, we carried our toy bag through the streets, and it was apparent to us the children did not live with much. The delight and smiles on their faces were unimaginable. Their gratitude was evident, and my only regret was that we did not have enough for every child we saw. I thought my heart would explode at their excitement and appreciation.

Havana, Cuba is a travel must. It is an unbelievable place with an unbelievable story.

I left Cuba with a new realization of what it is like to live in a closed nation. I found a vibrant society of happy people full of fun, music and culture. I came home with a love of Havana and its people forever in my heart.

It was a trip of a life time and an experience we will never forget.

7 family-friendly activities to celebrate fall

By Matt Chernov

Ask someone to name their favorite thing about fall and you'll likely get a different answer depending on where they live. For many people, the mosaic of vibrantly colored leaves and foliage is what defines the months of September through mid-December. Others find the scent of autumnal spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric is what makes the fall so special. And for some, it's the cooler temperatures that make being outside even more enjoyable. Plus, fall is full of fun activities no matter where you are — from pumpkin patches and apple picking to watching football and enjoying a bowl of chili. All of these things, and more, make the fall so magical. To help you celebrate the season, here are seven fall-themed activities to try this year.

Go apple picking

Apple Orchard

Apple picking combines outdoor fun with delicious and healthy snacks that can be used in a variety of ways, making it the perfect fall activity for adults and children of all ages.. Though you'll find countless orchards around the country worth visiting this season, New England is widely considered a prime apple picking destination with over 120 varieties found in the region. It can be argued that the variety they are best known for is the McIntosh apple. This type of apple and many more can be found at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in the lovely town of Stow, Massachusetts, so be sure to stop in and take home a bushel that you pluck from the trees yourself. Picking times are from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. daily, making it easy to schedule a trip.

Meanwhile in California, apple season runs until the end of November, giving you plenty of time to pick a few baskets of Red Delicious or Gala apples before winter. Riley's at Los Rios Rancho in the city of Yucaipa is one of the largest farms of its kind in Southern California and has been welcoming apple pickers to their 10,000-tree farm for more than 100 years. If you're considering a visit, you might want to plan to be there on November 23, since that's when they're hosting their famous Apple Butter Festival this year.

Visit a pumpkin patch

If there was a fall mascot, it would be a pumpkin, so to celebrate the true essence of the season, it's hard to beat a trip to a colorful pumpkin patch. A pumpkin patch is more than just a place to find the perfect candidate for this year's prize-winning jack-o'-lantern, it's a wonderful way to create cherished new memories with your children or friends. The Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence, New York, is perfect for pumpkin picking, but also offers weekend activities throughout the fall, including scarecrow making lessons, cider brewing demonstrations, pumpkin pie eating contests, and live music and barbecues.

If you're traveling through the Midwest this season, hop aboard a vintage farm wagon at Polly's Pumpkin Patch in Chilton, Wisconsin, and make your way out into their scenic fields where you can pick as many pumpkins as you want for only $3 each. Other activities at Polly's include a livestock petting zoo, a 40-foot slide and a popular corn cannon that lets older kids launch corn cobs at targets for cash prizes.

Enjoy a harvest festival

Autumn Harvest Festival

An annual tradition in America that dates back to 1613, harvest festivals are outdoor celebrations that coincide with the growing and reaping seasons we all enjoy. Filled with food, fun, music and dance, you haven't truly experienced the wonder of the fall season until you've participated in a local harvest fest. The good news is that there are plenty to choose from around the country this year. Two of the most popular are the Autumn at the Arboretum festival in Dallas, Texas, which runs until October 31, and the incredible North Carolina Pecan Harvest Festival in Whiteville, North Carolina, which ends on November 3. Both of these festivals have been drawing huge crowds for years.

For a harvest fest that's slightly spookier, head to Wisconsin where you'll find the classic Jack O' Lantern Days celebration in the cozy town of Fish Creek, and the Halloween-themed Zombie Days festival on the coast of Chequamegon Bay. Ghoulish activities include an undead musical show, a zombie pub crawl and a traditional harvest festival pumpkin parade. The scary fun lasts from October 26 through October 27.

Hit the trails

A path through autumn foliage forest in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

Hiking is more than just great exercise; it's an excellent way to bring the whole family together during the fall. And since the leaves are changing colors, it's also a great way to snap some incredible nature photos. So lace up your hiking boots, grab your kids and your camera, and find a trail that's right for you. If you're looking for suggestions, Sterling Point Trail in Vermont and Rome Point Trail in Rhode Island are impossible to beat when it comes to picturesque fall hiking.

On the opposite side of the country, the trails at Dry Creek Falls in Portland, Oregon, were voted one of the most photogenic hiking spots on the west coast by BuzzFeed, and it's easy to see why once you've been there. Covering a distance of just over 4 miles, this beautiful trail is perfect for all skill levels, making it a solid choice for families with kids.

Roll in the hay

Corn Maze sign

Hayrides and corn mazes are traditional fall activities that have never gone out of style, and for very good reason. There's just something wonderfully nostalgic about introducing a new generation of children to the simple pleasures of wandering through an overgrown corn maze, and with so many participating farms scattered across the country, there's a plethora of options to choose from. The Johnny Appleseed corn maze at Shady Brook Farm in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and the popular horse-drawn hayride at Papa's Pumpkin Patch in Bismarck, North Dakota, are two of the best.

In honor of Halloween, the massive haunted hayride at Fear Farm in Phoenix, Arizona, brings an assortment of ghosts, goblins and ghouls to life from early October until the first week in November. Filled with sinister special effects, creepy costumes and macabre makeup, this Hollywood-worthy hayride is recommended for adults and children over the age of 12. With five terrifying corn mazes to choose from, Fear Farm certainly lives up to its name!

Up, up and away

Hot Air Balloon on a farm

Hot air ballooning during the fall is a dazzling way to experience the season in all its natural splendor. After all, how else can you get a spectacular birds-eye view of the colorful trees as their leaves change from green to golden orange? Balloons Over Letchworth, located near New York's Letchworth State Park, offers astonishing views of the surrounding area, including majestic waterfalls and stunning forests. Best of all, they offer a variety of family tour packages, so you'll find just what you're looking for, regardless of the size of your group.

If you're visiting Southern California's wine region this fall, reserve a balloon ride with the fine folks at California Dreamin'. Their friendly FAA commercial licensed pilots will take you and your family on an unforgettable balloon voyage high above the vineyards of Temecula wine country.

Pitch a tent

closeup of one tent in woods

Though typically associated with summer, in many ways the fall is truly the best time of year to go camping. Thanks to the cooler weather, there are few — if any — insects to bother you and your family. Plus, there are less people claiming all the best spots, so you should have no problem picking a prime location to pitch your tent. And when it comes to toasting marshmallow for s'mores over an open campfire, everyone agrees that they simply taste better when eaten on a brisk autumn night.

For the ultimate fall camping trip, book a spot at Earth First Farms in southwest Michigan and set up your tent in an actual organic apple orchard. The 49-acre farm provides campers with complimentary firewood and plenty of fresh produce to pick.

Getting there

Regardless of where you plan to celebrate the fall, book your flight at united.com or by using the convenient United app, and share your story on social media with the #UnitedJourney hashtag.

Contributor

Weekend inspiration: Omaha

By Kelsey + Courtney Montague

When we arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, recently to create a series of murals within the city, we didn't know what to expect. What we ended up finding was a thriving restaurant, bar and karaoke scene.

We spent most of our time in the newly revitalized, historic district of Blackstone and found numerous restaurant and entertainment gems around every corner.

When we arrived in the Blackstone district we sat down with one of the men in charge of the revitalized neighborhood, Matt Dwyer, and were really impressed with his absolute commitment to bringing the best of the best to the historic district while still keeping everything all local. What he and his partner have created is an idyllic, historic district with a wide variety of locally run, high quality restaurants, shops and entertainment.

Here's what we wound up doing during our weekend in Omaha.

Friday evening:

Cone flower employee

If you want a great pizza and beer joint head to Noli's for artisan pizzas without an expensive price tag. The owners of Noli's are committed to maintaining New York City standards for their pizza creations and actually hired a water expert to filter their water to the exact filtration standards you find in the Big Apple. Their claim, "it's all about the water" rings true – their pizzas are awesome and definitely compete with some of our old pizza joint haunts in New York.

After dinner, stroll down the block to Cone Flower. At first it sounds like an odd name until you try their ice cream. They have, hands down, the best ice cream I've ever tasted and have coined the phrase "farm to cone."

Pro tip: Splurge on the sugar cone. It tastes like a light short bread cookie and will cause tingles down your spine.

Saturday morning:

Bob's neon sign at restaurant

Head down to Bob's for a creative version of an American classic donut. Some of their flavors include fruity pebbles and vanilla confetti. Then grab a coffee at the hipster Archetype coffee and enjoy your morning newspaper.

Saturday afternoon:

Stop by Omaha's Old Market for some upscale shopping and art gallery visits. Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo is also known as one of the best zoos in the country.

For lunch, head to the brewery Crescent Moon to try what Draft Magazine has deemed one of the best beer bars in the U.S. The Reuben sandwich was created in Omaha in the 1920s, and this restaurant uses the original recipe to create a true masterpiece.

Saturday evening:

Renos Karaoke Bar

Blackstone Social Club is the perfect place for a pre-dinner cocktail. For dinner, we highly recommend stopping by Mula for some awe-inspiring Mexican fare. We highly recommend the salsa flights, the queso and any taco.

Across the street, Blackstone boasts some fantastic karaoke at Renos Karaoke. You can rent your own themed room to keep any embarrassment to an absolute minimum. We recommend the island room, but have a few drinks on their back patio first.

Sunday morning:

Early Bird wall in the restaurant

Brunchers know that one of the best places to go in Blackstone is Early Bird. Try to be an early bird and go when they open because the restaurant fills up quickly. If you are in need of the "hair of the dog" after a late Saturday night, their Bloody Marys are incredible. If you're looking for a healthy way to finish the weekend, their avocado and egg toast is the perfect choice.

Sunday afternoon and evening:

In the afternoon, stop by our wing and balloon mural on the side of the gorgeous Bouquet flower shop on Farnam street. If you're looking for an adventure, go next door to Ponderosa Cyclery and Tour Shop and book a bike tour in the area.

You can also experience Omaha's wildlife at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, where you can drive through the park and see wild elk, bison, cranes and antelope as they walk up to your car.

Cheese and wine at Corkscrew

For an afternoon snack, Corkscrew Wine and Cheese is the place to go. They have hundreds of bottles of wine and fancy appetizers to choose from. End the evening across the street at the Blackstone Meatball restaurant. All the ingredients are locally sourced and you can choose the type of meatball, the side and the sauce.

Now all that's left is to take a shot of the stunning sunsets you'll experience almost every night in Nebraska.

Trending

We unveil a new state-of-the-art flight training center in Denver

By Matt Adams , October 09, 2018

After more than two years of construction, our newly renovated, fully consolidated flight training center was formally unveiled today at a special rededication ceremony in Denver. Home to more than 30 full flight simulators, the Denver Flight Training Center will welcome each of the airline's 12,000-plus pilots every year for new and recurrent training, along with pilots from more than two dozen other airlines and government agencies who visit our campus annually to sharpen their skills. In addition to pilots, the center will host flight attendants and maintenance technicians for emergency training and other activities.

United CEO Oscar Munoz poses with fellow United employees for the ribbon cutting event at Denver's new flight training center

"This state-of-the-art flight training center symbolizes the investments we're making in our people and our company, both in Denver and throughout our network," said our CEO, Oscar Munoz, who headlined a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 9 for the facility, the largest such flight training center in the world. "In addition to providing industry-leading training for our pilots, flight attendants and other vital work groups, this facility will become a thriving center where we foster the professional culture, commitment to safety and dedication to customer service that's at the heart of the United success story we are seeing take shape."

Our flight training presence in Denver goes all the way back to the early 1940s, while the current campus was opened in 1968 with four buildings, expanding to six over the subsequent years. Recently, we broke ground on a seventh building which, when completed, will bring the size of the campus to nearly 540,000 square feet, with space for eight more flight simulator bays. In the five decades since its opening, pilots have participated in more than half a million training events, totaling approximately two million hours of training time.

Hemispheres

No translation necessary

By The Hub team

The white and yellow dots spread out farther than the eye can see, seemingly even beyond imagination. These lights, millions of them comprising Tokyo at night, helped make the Park Hyatt's New York Bar famous. After all, the bar and its view, 52 stories up, were an instrumental part of Sofia Coppola's 2003 paean to love and jet lag, Lost in Translation.

That movie turned this bar into a mecca for film fans, and in a way it provided the reason for my maiden voyage to the Land of the Rising Sun, as well. Only I'm not here as a cinephile. I've crossed 13 time zones to drink Japanese whiskey—a phenomenon I was awoken to by Bill Murray's Oscar-nominated performance. You know the one: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."

"My love for brown spirits and my lifelong fascination with Japan were inevitable bedfellows."

When I first saw Lost in Translation, 15 years ago, my reaction to that line was probably exactly what Coppola intended: Japanese whiskey? Bill's really selling out… As a recent college graduate whose budget couldn't handle much beyond the occasional bottle of Maker's Mark, I had no idea how wrong I was. In fact, Suntory, the maker of the now famed Yamazaki, Hakushu, and Hibiki whiskeys, was just launching itself into the global consciousness. In 2003, the Yamazaki 12-year won a gold medal at the International Spirits Challenge, and from 2010 on, Suntory whiskeys raked in golds, with the company winning Distiller of the Year four times. In 2014, Whisky Bible author Jim Murray called the 2013 Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask the best whiskey in the world. Bottles from Suntory and its main competitor, Nikka, became nigh unavailable in the U.S. (The cheapest bottle of that 2013 Yamazaki Sherry Cask I can find online is $3,500.)

A vintage Nikka Whiskey logoA vintage Nikka Whiskey logo

During the years that Japan's distillers were rising like the sun over the Pacific, I was busy fostering a determinedly American predilection for bourbon. While I systematically worked through the ever-shifting catalog at my excellent neighborhood bar—The Page in San Francisco—Pappy Van Winkle was going from a $15 pour I'd order when I was feeling mildly indulgent to a symbol of the cruelty of supply and demand. I visited Kentucky on several occasions, tasting my way down the Bourbon Trail, from Clermont (the home of Jim Beam, which Suntory bought in 2014) to Loretto (my beloved red wax–topped Maker's) to Lawrenceburg (Four Roses, William Faulkner's favorite, which another Japanese company, Kirin, bought in 2001) to Frankfort (Buffalo Trace, where Pappy is made, along with another of my regulars, Eagle Rare). And when I crossed the pond to Ireland, my two must-visits were James Joyce's house (as a thank-you for “The Dead") and the Jameson distillery (as a thank-you for the many, many shots I've taken after Giants playoff victories).

My love for brown spirits and my lifelong fascination with Japan—which I owe to my Kurosawa-worshipping father—were inevitable bedfellows. So, finally, this spring, I decided to make my way across hemispheres to learn exactly what makes Japanese whiskey so good—and to drink as much of it as possible.

A jazz band at the New York Bar in TokyoA jazz band at the New York Bar in Tokyo

Naturally, I've started at the New York Bar. I'm seated at a long communal table, listening to a jazz singer do the Eagles' “Desperado" (it was Simon & Garfunkel's “Scarborough Fair" in Lost in Translation) as the manager, Moritz Kam, sets four single malts in front of me: a Yamazaki and a Hakushu from Suntory, a Yoichi and a Miyagikyo from Nikka. “What is notable about Japanese craftsmanship is the aim for perfection," he tells me, before offering a lament I'll hear often this week: “Even in Japan, you are not able to find some of the vintage whiskeys."

My first glass contains one of the most coveted whiskeys in the world: the Yamazaki 18. It's smooth, oaky, a little sweet, with a profile somewhat reminiscent of a Macallan. The Yoichi and Miyagikyo are peatier, smokier, while the Hakushu pushes those characteristics even further, leaving a lush layer of oil on my tongue. While each stands out from the others in subtle ways, I can't help but think they're siblings who started in the same home but took different paths to success.

Scotland is, of course, where all of the world's whiskeys can trace their roots. But the fathers of Japanese whiskey, Shinjiro Torii and Masataka Taketsuru, hewed closer to the original than anyone else (even spelling the word à la the Scots, without the “e"). The story begins in 1899, when Torii opened an imported-wine shop in Osaka. A few years later, he produced a popular sweet port wine and funneled the profits into building a distillery just outside Kyoto.

High-quality water feeds a pond at the Yamazaki DistilleryHigh-quality water feeds a pond at the Yamazaki Distillery

I learn all this from plaques inside that very distillery. I've taken the Shinkansen bullet train two and a half hours from Tokyo to the ancient imperial capital to visit Yamazaki, the birthplace of Japanese whiskey. At the entryway, I'm greeted by a tour guide, who explains that Torii built the distillery here in 1923 to take advantage of the local water and climate. “Yamazaki water has been famous for its pristine quality since ancient history," she says, “and the damp and misty and humid environment is very suitable for aging whiskey in casks."

We continue inside, past the mash tuns and fermentation tanks, where malt, much of it imported from Scotland, is turned into the spirit's base, wort. We follow the pipeline of fermented liquid to a long hall where two rows of copper pot stills of varying shapes and sizes (each of which imparts a different flavor) distill the wort down to new-made whiskey—what we in the States call moonshine. As we walk, my guide breaks down Suntory's history. “Shinjiro's dream was to make a whiskey that would suit the taste of the Japanese," she says, “because when he started the business, he imitated Scotch whiskey, and Japanese were like, Oh, this is too peaty—we don't like this."

Copper pot stills at the Yamazaki DistilleryCopper pot stills at the Yamazaki Distillery

That first whiskey, 1929's Suntory Shirofuda (“white label"), may not have been a world-beater, but in 1937 the company put out a second one, Kakubin, which sold well throughout Japan. In the 1960s, highball bars began popping up, specializing in what has become Japan's signature cocktail—a diluted, highly carbonated whiskey soda. Highballs continued to grow in popularity into the 1980s, and in 1984 Keizo Saji, Torii's son and successor as Suntory president, put out the first Yamazaki single malt. The high-end Hibiki blended whiskeys (which contain both malt and corn liquor) followed in 1989. In 1994 came the Hakushu single malts, which are made at a gorgeous distillery in the Japanese Alps and are now nearly as prized as Yamazakis.

Our next stop on the tour is the aging warehouse. Yamazaki uses several types of cask: American white oak, Spanish sherry casks, French wine casks, and mizunara, an oak that grows on the northern island of Hokkaido. Whiskeys are aged in the different casks for years—sometimes as much as three decades—and then the blenders combine them. A common misconception is that single-malt whiskey comes from single casks; actually, expressions from various casks are blended to make a more complex final product.

At the end of the tour, I meet Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory's chief blender and the creator of the gold medal–winning Hibiki Japanese Harmony. Fukuyo got into the business while in college because one of his professors noted that he “seemed to like whiskey"; he worked at Hakushu and then at Morrison Bowmore in Scotland before coming to Yamazaki. As we stand next to a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a hillside bamboo grove, the bespectacled 57-year-old takes me through the tasting process for his brainchild.

Suntory Chief blender Shinji FukuyoSuntory Chief blender Shinji Fukuyo

He lines up 10 slim bottles ranging in color from pale flax to deep amber. Two are grain whiskeys, two are Hakushu malts, six are Yamazaki malts. (Two of the latter are aged in sherry casks.) He offers notes as we sip and spit in the same fashion as Suntory's blenders. The sherry cask whiskeys taste “like dried fruits." The grain whiskeys are “similar to bourbon—calm, sweet, easy to drink." A heavily peated Yamazaki is medicinal, “like you were in a hospital." A mizunara-aged Yamazaki has a “very elegant, spicy top note, an important aftertaste for Japanese Harmony." Finally, a whiskey aged in French oak wine casks is “the best sweet—mild, like a strawberry." I'm jealous when I discover that Suntory's blenders taste 200 to 300 whiskeys a day in search of the ideal combination of these flavors. The proportions are always changing, because each vintage—indeed, each cask—can taste different from the last.

As the country's whiskey has grown more popular overseas, Fukuyo says Japanese people have increasingly come to treasure it. “We have drunk whiskey for a long time, but now we've got a lot of awards, and foreigners can come to Yamazaki, so Japanese people ourselves are starting to get proud of Japanese whiskey.

The Yamazaki Whiskey MuseumThe Yamazaki Whiskey Museum

After profusely thanking Fukuyo, I head downstairs to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum, where hundreds of bottles from across the whiskey color spectrum are lined up on backlit shelves. There's also a tasting counter, where I order a Yamazaki 18, a Hibiki 21, and a special Yamazaki aged in a type of cask called a puncheon. As I bring them over to an empty barrel-top table, an elderly Japanese man in a rather Scottish getup—argyle sweater vest and newsboy hat—comes over. He speaks a bit of English, and he tells me his name is Genji and he used to work as a tour guide here. (He's retired but still carries his old business card.) “I come here every day," he tells me, to have a drink and chat with tourists. He points out his favorite whiskey on the menu, the puncheon cask, and when I motion toward that very dram in my flight, he smiles broadly. I have one of the bartenders snap a photo of us, and I promise Genji I'll come back to Yamazaki soon.

I've flown halfway around the world to drink Japanese whiskey, and now I'm going a little farther. After a night perusing the eight-page whiskey menu at Bar Cordon Noir—a smoky, jazzy place just around the corner from Kyoto's bar-lined Pontocho Alley—I find myself touching down in Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city. Here, I meet Emiko Kaji, who's giving me a tour of the Yoichi Distillery, the original home of Japan's other major whiskey maker, Nikka.

The Yoichi DistilleryThe Yoichi Distillery

It's the last week of April, and while Kyoto was warm and humid, here the skies are gray, with daytime temperatures dipping into the 40s. (While cherry blossom season has come and gone in Kyoto and Tokyo, the sakura have yet to bloom in Sapporo.) That's not to say it isn't beautiful; the train ride from Sapporo to Yoichi—broken up by a phenomenal sushi lunch at Masazushi in the small city of Otaru—skirts the rocky coast of the Sea of Japan, with snow-blanketed mountains rising all around.

There's a reason Masataka Taketsuru chose to open his distillery here. The Nikka founder, who was born into a Hiroshima sake-brewing family, had moved to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry (i.e., distilling). There, he met a Scottish woman, Rita Cowan, who he married and brought back to Japan—an international romance that was the basis for Massan, a hit TV series that aired on NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, in 2014 and 2015. Taketsuru began working at the Yamazaki Distillery in 1923, but he had a fundamental difference in philosophy from Shinjiro Torii. While the Suntory founder wanted to produce a whiskey for the Japanese palate, his counterpart was determined to make authentic Scotch whiskey.

So, in 1934, Taketsuru decamped for Hokkaido, where the cold climate, rocky seashore, oak forests, natural reserves of grain, and peat bogs all reminded him of his wife's homeland. As I walk two blocks through a biting rain from the Yoichi train station to the distillery, I feel as if I'm at a crossroads where Japan and Scotland meet. The facility's exterior looks like a stone-walled Scottish castle—but with Eastern-style pitched red roofs.

Charring a barrels in the cooperage at the Yoichi DistilleryCharring a barrels in the cooperage at the Yoichi Distillery

At Yoichi, I get to see some of the more industrial aspects of production. This is the last distillery in the world that heats its stills with coal, and in the stillhouse I watch as a safety-suited employee shovels coal into the furnace below one of
the six two-story-tall copper pots. “It's like a kettle on a direct fire, so it's very difficult to control the flame," Kaji says. “Our craftsmen have to look after the flame every seven or eight minutes from morning through evening. It's a tough job, but we stick to the coal fire because it makes a distinct flavor."

From here, we walk across the campus to the cooperage. In a space the size of a racquetball court, I watch as a cooper, Hiroaki Nishizawa, hammers the steel rings off a freshly charred cask. He sprays water into it, motions me close, and waves his hands over the top of the barrel, wafting a heavenly vanilla, banana-ester smell into my face. I'm woozy. Then he rolls another barrel onto a steel rack in front of an industrial torch. When he flips the switch, the barrel begins to slowly rotate, and when the torch turns on, a firestorm ensues, bursting into and out of and around the barrel in a hypnotic hail of sparks. After about five minutes, he flips the switch off. I ask Nishizawa, who has been a cooper for eight years (he shoveled coal prior to that), how he knows when to stop.

"When the torch turns on, a firestorm ensues, bursting into and out of and around the barrel in a hypnotic hail of sparks."

“There's no clear written manual," he replies. “I learned from my senior. Now we use a machine, but before that everything was done manually, so it was very difficult to do it right."

While the demonstration is spellbinding, I'm beginning to wonder when I can get a drink. As if in anticipation of that question, Kaji waves me toward the tasting bar, which is lined with tartan-patterned place mats. I want something I won't be able to get in the States, and the bartender brings three limited-edition single malts, each named after its flavor profile: Sherry & Sweet, Woody & Vanillic, and Peaty & Salty. The first is dark amber in color, and as I'm about to say that it reminds me of Macallan (which is also aged in sherry casks), bagpipe music comes on the stereo. The second has a strong bourbon character, thanks to American oak casks. The third is very peaty and salty (truth in advertising!), heavily influenced by the sea, surely the closest to what Taketsuru was going for. I posit that it's like three different musicians playing the same piece of music, and Kaji nods

A worker shovels coal into a fire to heat a still at the Yoichi DistilleryA worker shovels coal into a fire to heat a still at the Yoichi Distillery

For my last sample, I try a limited-edition Nikka Coffey Grain, a higher-proof variation on the distillery's best-seller in the U.S. This one has an even stronger bourbon characteristic than the Woody & Vanillic, as it's made from corn. It's interesting, I say to Kaji, that one of the best-selling products from the Japanese distillery most closely associated with traditional Scotch-style whiskey isn't really a Scotch-style whiskey. I wonder, is it an advantage for Japanese distillers that they don't have as long a history as the Scots and the Kentuckians? That there's more freedom, less of a demand that they adhere to tradition?

“Yes, we have a lot of freedom to be more flexible and to experiment," she replies. “We don't need to stick to tradition. [But] we firmly believe that innovation starts from tradition."

Visiting Japan's most hallowed distilleries is a great way to learn about what makes the liquor here so good, but there's only one way to really get at the heart of a place's drinking culture: visit its bars. So, upon my return to Tokyo, I head for Shot Bar Zoetrope. Hidden on the third floor of an unassuming building on a quiet side street in the otherwise neon-blasted neighborhood of Shinjuku, this might be the single best place in the world to drink Japanese whiskey.

Atsushi Horigami pours a dram at Tokyo's Zoetrope Shot BarAtsushi Horigami pours a dram at Tokyo's Zoetrope Shot Bar

The bar is tiny—about the size of a New York City studio apartment, with a half-dozen or so stools at the bar, plus a couple of tables. When I walk in early in the evening, an old black-and-white Hollywood film is playing silently on the far wall, and there are only two people inside. One of them is Atsushi Horigami, who opened Zoetrope 12 years ago. He looks a bit like a middle-aged Pat Morita in a Hawaiian shirt, and he's standing in front of an astonishing wall of whiskeys that contains difficult-to-find bottles from all over Japan. Why, I ask him, did he fashion this tiny portal to heaven on earth?

“I like whiskey," he says. “Basically, I am a geek. Before I opened this bar, I visited so many other whiskey bars, but always the bartenders didn't know about Japanese whiskey."

Horigami estimates about 70 percent of his customers are foreigners, and right on cue three more Americans walk in. As he's seating them, I start chatting with the other guy at the bar, who's named Steel. He's in his mid-20s, with long hair and a blackout arm tattoo, and it turns out he's a bartender at Minneapolis's acclaimed Esker Grove restaurant. Much like me, he's come to do a drinking tour of Japan. So, what does he think of the whiskey?

“Hopefully, it'll be the next big thing in America," he says. “It's some of the best whiskey I've ever had, especially for cocktails. Once people try it, they're not too deterred by how expensive it is—they usually want to stay on it. People come in and ask about it all the time. They're like, 'Ah, Japanese whiskey,' and I'm like, 'Man, I only have Toki'"—an export-only Suntory whiskey made largely for highballs.

It's not a problem that's going away anytime soon. While Japanese companies are working on newer products, like Toki, Hibiki Japanese Harmony, and Nikka Whisky From the Barrel (which Nikka began exporting to the U.S. this spring), the aging process required for vintage whiskeys makes it impossible to ramp up supply in a timely fashion. For that exact reason, earlier this year Suntory discontinued the very bottle Murray is shilling for in Lost in Translation: Hibiki 17.

But, as I sit at the bar at Zoetrope, talking with my new friends and sipping whiskeys from Fuji Gotemba and Mars Shinshu—two smaller distilleries whose products are also (surprise!) exceedingly difficult to find abroad—I try not to focus on the privations that my fellow Japanese whiskey lovers and I will face in the years to come. Instead, I take heart in the good news: that a shared love of whiskey has helped connect me and these two bartenders from opposite ends of the planet. We don't need a translator. As Murray tells Scarlett Johansson: “The whiskey works."


America's most haunted locations

By Bob Cooper

Abandoned asylums and ghoulish graveyards in rural America are notoriously haunted, but so are visitor-friendly venues like the White House, Gettysburg Battlefield and Alcatraz. These haunted hotspots in 9 U.S. cities are worth visiting even if you don't believe in ghosts.

Dark alley in New York City, New York

New York City, New York

The Merchant's House Museum may be Manhattan's most haunted place. People inside the 1832 NoHo historic home have reported being touched by ghosts. Halloween-themed events and tours are scheduled throughout October. Over at Landmark Tavern, an Irish restaurant and saloon in Hell's Kitchen, three ghosts — a sailor, a retired soldier and a little girl, all traced to the 19th century — have been spotted by patrons.

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California

The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel has attracted celebrities since its 1927 opening — some living, some not. Marilyn Monroe has been seen dancing in the ballroom, a ghost has appeared on a security video and guests have been locked out of rooms from the inside. In Long Beach, guests on The Queen Mary, a luxury cruise ship-turned-hotel with year-round paranormal tours, have experienced chilling encounters in the pool area and recorded unexplained banging on engine-room pipes.

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois

One stop on Chicago haunted tours is Hull-House Museum, a National Historic Landmark and the inspiration for the horror movie “Rosemary's Baby." Jane Addams, the social activist who lived there, is among those who saw ghosts in its rooms. Another stop is the Congress Plaza Hotel, where the more than 1,000 guestrooms have been occupied by presidents and celebrities as well as ghosts — including the hotel's former owner, Al Capone — that move objects and slam doors.

National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.

Abe Lincoln was spotted in the White House for decades after his assassination, not surprisingly in the Lincoln Bedroom and the Oval Office by a First Lady and a visiting queen, among others. Close by is Lafayette Square Park, a national historic landmark where the ghost of “Star Spangled Banner" writer Francis Scott Key's only son — murdered there by a jealous husband — haunts the grounds along with other ghosts.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Guards at Eastern State Penitentiary routinely tortured inmates, whose ghosts now get even by spooking caretakers and visitors with cries and whispers. Even Al Capone said a ghost haunted him while he was imprisoned there. Equally spooky is Fort Mifflin, a Revolutionary War fort and battlefield with year-round paranormal programs. Resident spirits include a faceless man and ghost dogs.

LaLaurie House, New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana

The French Quarter is packed with haunted bars, hotels and mansions including the notorious LaLaurie House, an 1832 home where the owner's wife, Delphine, allegedly murdered a young slave girl. Delphine and the victim have both been seen in the mansion. Also in the Quarter is Hotel Provincial, a former Civil War hospital where guests have heard the ghosts of Confederate soldiers conversing at night.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

San Francisco, California

Some visitors to the old prison on Alcatraz Island have seen ghost prisoners walking the cellblocks and heard voices in the old inmate cafeteria even when it's empty. In the city's Haight-Ashbury district, birthplace of the hippie movement, many have heard running footsteps on the sidewalk outside Janis Joplin's old Ashbury Street house, where a man was shot in the head while fleeing a gunman in 1969.

Battery Carriage House Inn, Charleston

Charleston, South Carolina

A headless torso and the ghost of a student who died leaping off the roof have haunted guests at the Battery Carriage House Inn. Another beautifully restored, but equally haunted, early-19th-century building in Old Charleston is the Dock Street Theatre. Its ghostly residents include a woman killed by lightning nearby and actor Junius Brutus Booth, the father of Abe Lincoln's assassin, a former audience member who's been seen watching rehearsals from the balcony.

Farnsworth House Inn, Gettysburg Battlefield

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Many visitors to Gettysburg Battlefield, where 8,900 Civil War soldiers died in a 24-hour period, say they've seen and spoken to “ghost soldiers." Some have even captured audio and video recordings of screams and cannons. Nearby at Farnsworth House Inn, a former Union general's home scarred by more than 100 bullet holes from the battle, nightly ghost walks are offered. To date, 14 apparitions have been seen.

If you go

Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your haunted-city getaway.

Scroll to top