Meet the 52 Places Traveler for 2019

Last year, for the first time, we sent one intrepid traveler, Jada Yuan, to all 52 destinations on our Places to Go list. This year, we decided to do it again. Once again, we got applicants from around the world and from a variety of backgrounds (meet some of them here). After weeks of assessing them, we settled on a handful of finalists. From that group, we chose Sebastian Modak, one of our finalists from last year, and a journalist with an impressive background and résumé. Just weeks before he sets off to his first destination — Puerto Rico, which took the No. 1 spot on the list this year — we asked him some questions about himself and the trip ahead.

So, how does it feel to be the 52 Places Traveler for 2019?
In a word: surreal. It’s a lot of emotions at once — gratitude, excitement, anxiety — but mostly I’m still finding it hard to wrap my head around it concretely. I’m starting to think the sheer scope of what I’m doing won’t hit me until I make landfall in the first destination and start reporting. Luckily, data scientists at the travel aggregator Kayak have helped us sketch out an itinerary for the year in advance — as they did last year for Jada — so I have some sense of what the structure of my year looks like. That said, this trip wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if I knew exactly what to expect, right? I’m ready to embrace all the uncertainty that comes with an opportunity like this and see where it takes me.

Have you been following Jada Yuan, our 2018 Traveler? Anything in particular you’ve picked up from her dispatches?
I’ve read every one. It’s been a real pleasure following along and I know I’ve got some big, well-worn shoes to fill. My favorite moments from Jada’s dispatches were the interactions that, on the surface, may seem everyday, but in actuality tell much bigger stories about a place: a night out in Kigali, a meal in La Paz, a haphazardly assembled trip-planning committee in China built out of nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those stories get at the heart of why we travel. I’m hoping to bring the same openness and down-for-anything attitude that led Jada to those moments.

In a couple of ways, you have a background uniquely suited to this gig.

I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.

For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.

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At Hotels, Space That’s Like the Office, ‘but Cooler’

Hotels have already turned their lobbies into spaces where guests can socialize or work. Now, some properties are going one step further to cater to business travelers and professionals in general: They’ve set up WeWork-style co-working areas.

Traditional hotel business centers these aren’t. Yes, they offer practical amenities like office supplies, printers and, of course, coffee. But they also have a laid-back ambience and convivial feel of the shared working spaces popping up around the globe under the banner of the start-up WeWork.

The new hotel business centers seem to have struck a chord among business travelers who find that they’re probably getting less work done in busy hotel lobbies, said Lorraine Sileo, the senior vice president of research for the travel research company Phocuswright. “Lobbies are distracting because there is so much going on, with people coming in and out and also socializing,” she said. “These new work spaces are meant for productivity.”

They’re also especially attractive to younger business travelers, said Jessica Collison, the research director for the Global Business Travel Association. “Millennials tend be more nomadic than the older generation of travelers and spend more time outside of their room,” she said. “Hotels have picked up on this, and more of them are offering a co-working option.”

The AC Hotel Phoenix Biltmore, for example, which opened in October, offers the indoor and outdoor AC Lounge, on the side of its lobby. The more than 5,000-square-foot light gray space has several couches, a large communal table with electrical outlets at every seat and a 20-seat high table that’s a working area by day and a bar after 4 p.m. Guests and non-guests are welcome to use the lounge without charge, said David Belk, the hotel’s general manager, and can get free coffee and biscotti. The lounge’s small library has computers, printers and office supplies like paper clips and folders.

“We want the lounge to be a go-to and convenient for anyone who’s working,” Mr. Belk said.

Alex Griffiths, who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and travels to Phoenix frequently for his job in renewable energy, has stayed at the AC several times since it opened and said that he used the lounge both for team meetings and computer work. “It’s like a fully functioning office but cooler, and I like the synergy with the other people who are also working,” he said. “I also love the biscotti.”

The co-working area at the Charlotte Marriott City Center in North Carolina, called Coco and the Director, is more compact than the AC Lounge. It has two tables with eight seats each and a whiteboard with markers that guests can use during meetings for notes, said Seamus Gallagher, the property’s director of guest experience. It also offers a for-purchase menu of coffee and sandwiches.

Although access is free for anyone, seats must be reserved by signing up on the chalkboard near the co-working area entrance. “You can stay for as long as you want,” Mr. Gallagher said, “and our staff will give you any office supplies you need and help with printing documents.”

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Five Places to Visit in Beverly Hills

Beverly Hills is an expensive place with a village-like charm, but it pays to know where to go. Cash Black, a bartender at one of its hot spots, shares his favorites.

Beverly Hills is more approachable than you might expect for a ZIP code typically associated with Lamborghinis and reality stars. It has a surprising number of sidewalk cafes and swaths of greenery. That village-like charm, coupled with residents’ famously refined palates, is what attracted Cash Black to the area seven years ago. “Jewelry. Cars. Wine. Beverly Hills has the best of the best. You don’t get to be here unless you really know what you’re doing,” said Mr. Black, a Las Vegas native, who began as a valet and worked his way up to head bartender at £10, a high-end Scotch bar tucked in the back of the Montage Beverly Hills hotel. He presides over the five-table bar as if it’s his own living room, occasionally bringing in his guitar to jam with clients. At ease with his customers’ seemingly unrestrained wealth (the Lalique crystal tumblers go for $650 apiece), Mr. Black, 31, has a startling command of whisky. (He’s also a cowboy in his spare time, corralling cattle on weekends.) Here, five of Mr. Black’s favorite places in Beverly Hills.

1. Wally’s
Mr. Black’s standards for drinking venues is understandably high, but the bar scene at this visually striking bistro just three blocks from his hotel bar, strikes the right chord. “The bar scene is really nice, the drinks are well made, and the bartenders are attentive,” he said. At the bar, white marble counter-height tables are framed on both sides by mounted wine racks stretching up to the ceiling; and the image of all those bottles (9,000, give or take) is impressive. “There’s a lot of energy in there,” Mr. Black said.

2. Urth Caffe
When Mr. Black’s parents visit from Vegas (his father is a medicinal marijuana grower, and his mother is a barrel racer in the rodeo), this is where they come. The brunch plates are hearty, and the service fast, but it’s the sheer variety of homemade desserts that his parents and many others find so endearing. Banana cream pie. Matcha tiramisù. Coconut royale. The wide-ranging menu is perfect for family-style ordering, too. “My family is one of those that likes to order seven appetizers, and everybody eats everything,” Mr. Black said. He added, “my mom goes nuts for their cakes.” (This is one of eight locations throughout Los Angeles, including a new spot at Los Angeles International Airport.)

3. Momed
Inside this airy, unpretentious Mediterranean restaurant, a deli case displays bowls of colorful Turkish muhammara (a roasted red pepper dip) and creamy hummus, and there’s outdoor seating to enjoy the foot traffic on South Beverly Drive. It’s the perfect setting for an early dinner before Mr. Black starts his nightly shift; the daily happy hour (2:30-5:30 p.m.) has $5 mezze plates, always served with a basket of steaming-warm pita. “It’s a surprisingly good value in a city full of overpriced entrees,” he said.

4. Wallis Annenberg Center
A 1930s post office, now repurposed as a performing arts center — complete with a 500-seat main stage and a 150-seat theater for smaller productions — has become an important community hub in retail-crazed Beverly Hills. It holds special meaning for Mr. Black, who aspired to be an actor when he first moved to Los Angeles. “It’s awesome that the city understands its artist community,” he said, noting the high caliber of recent productions, including “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Joe Morton’s one-man stunner “Turn Me Loose.” “We live in the creative capital of the world,” Mr. Black said, but until the center’s opening in 2013, “there weren’t a lot of places you could go to see really good stuff.”

5. Virginia Robinson Gardens
When he’s not pouring $300 whisky shots or juggling last-minute reservations at his bar, Mr. Black drives his black Ford SVT Raptor up North Beverly Drive, taking in the opulence along a route where many movies have been filmed. “These are insane homes. There’s one up there where the whole lawn is just full of statues of different animals.” His favorite retreat? Virginia Robinson Gardens, a six-acre estate built in 1911 with an Australian King Palm forest, a rose garden and a Beaux-Arts mansion. Its now deceased owner, socialite Virginia Dryden Robinson, was known for her extravagant tastes and her high-profile guests (Fred Astaire used to play tennis in the backyard). “She was something of a party girl,” Mr. Black said knowingly. “Or so I’ve heard.”

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