Yoray Liberman, Discovery Channel
Josh Bernstein in the historical amphitheater of El-Jam, which was built by the Romans in north Africa.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Josh Bernstein has been busy over the past few months.

The host of the new Discovery Channel series "Into the Unknown" has been looking into the lives of gladiators, searching for the lost Chachpoya civilization, investigating why elephants have been attacking humans, learning about mummies, wondering if Noah really built an ark, checking out King Tut's revolutionary dad, trying to discover what happened to Timbuktu and looking for life on Mars.

And he splits his downtime between his Manhattan apartment and a yurt in tiny Boulder, Garfield County.

"I live in a small town in Utah — about 200 people — in a yurt, which is a traditional Mongolian shelter (that's) a cross between a circus tent and a teepee," Bernstein said. "There are canvas walls, wood lattice for support, angled roof, a dome and then just a round space. They're fantastic.

"But these days I'm usually living in hotels and airports."

Bernstein is also president and COO of BOSS — the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, the largest wilderness survival school in the world. He was born and raised in New York City and graduated from Cornell University. Beginning when he was 17, he spent summers leading BOSS trips in southern Utah. By the time he was 25, he was running the company.

At the age of 37, he's a reluctant TV star. You may have seen him hosting "Digging for the Truth" on the History Channel for three seasons. (Or perhaps in People Magazine, which named him one of the "sexiest men alive" in 2007.)

"Honestly, I never wanted to be in television," Bernstein said. "It was a bit of a surprise that I'm still here four years after doing 'Digging for the Truth.' It was just an accident.

"I love to teach. I love to learn. I love to travel. I was willing to give it a shot just out of curiosity."

In tonight's premiere of "Into the Unknown with Josh Bernstein" (10 p.m., Discovery), he shows us what life was really like for gladiators. And it's a lot different than Hollywood has led us to believe.

Not only are there "some recent discoveries" by archaeologists and some "beautiful locations," but, "There's action," Bernstein said. "I get to go to gladiator school and get beat up a bit."

Essentially, the format of the show is that Bernstein travels to beautiful locales, consults experts, does some hands-on work, asks questions viewers might ask — and does it all with considerable charm.

"Each show has to have certain components," he said. "It has to have an element of international travel, exotic location so that you feel like you're going somewhere that you want to travel to as a viewer. There needs to be some compelling question, mystery, oddity, area for me to focus on. And then we want it to be beautiful so that the high-definition cameras can capture it."

He's obviously having a lot of fun, even though he remains surprised that he was ever asked to be a TV host.

"I wanted to try something different after 17 years of instructing on the trail, and the History Channel had an interesting opportunity for me to travel and learn," Bernstein said. "And that became a big hit.

"And then Discovery said, 'How would you like to make a lifestyle out of that? How would you like to continue with a much broader palette?"'

It's not just a history lesson. The show also looks at the present and the future — what Bernstein calls "a real 360-degree immersion."

"And for me — someone who loves to learn — it's the best job in the world."

But it's still not something he looks upon as a career.

"I just look at it as an opportunity every day to learn something new and to spend my days with experts who can teach me something," Bernstein said. "And then, hopefully, through the magic of TV, teach the world."


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com