All posts by Claire Walter

The Snows of Park City

A week ago, I was gazing ruefully at the brown slopes of the Alps. For the record, according to today’s snow conditions reports, the situation sadly hasn’t improved a lot since then. Now, I am looking out my hotel window at the white-coated mountains of Utah, fading away in the dimming light. My view is of some of the runs at Park City Mountain Resort, where I see the headlights of snowcats prowling the mountain to groom the light chop created by today’s light skier/snowboarder traffic into corduroy. The same thing is going on at The Canyons, where I skied yesterday, and Deer Valley, where I plan to ski tomorrow.

These three ski areas surrounding the town of Park City among them have scores of runs open, but locals are champing at the bit for another couple of big storms so that the steeps, chutes and high bowls will be opened and for Utah’s fabled deep powder. Skiers who are at European resorts now can only envy the conditions that locals here are complaining about.

For visitors, conditions are already very good. I’m not sure when the last big snowfall was, but the ski mountains have been picking up a few inches a day. This evening, it’s warm and even a bit drizzly in town, but I suppose it’s probably snowing up higher. It’s not windy, so nothing is blowing off the ski runs. The packed powder surface is forgiving underfoot. Lift lines are non-existent. And the town and resort developments look festive with their Christmas trees and holiday lights.

The big snow the locals are lusting after is forecast for Sunday, and if there’s anything left, Colorado and perhaps northern New Mexico should get another dump early next week. I wish the world weather pattterns were such that the remainder would bless the Northeast with snow and continue across the Atlantic, sweeping across Spain and France to help the Alps out too. But alas, I’m not the weather arranger, and my wishes for snowy abundance everywhere don’t count. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the slopes and the early-season cruising here.

Hotels and the Environment

At home and on the road, my husband and I are dedicated recyclers. We buy products made fom recycled materials whenever we can. We are water-conscious and don’t let the water run unnecessarily while brushing teeth or doing kitchen chores. We always do laundry on the lowest practical water level and temperature. We installed an on-demand water heater, and as often as not, we run the dishwasher on “power save” mode. We have switched to the new energy-saving lightbulbs and even then, turn off lights in rooms that no one is in. We have setback thermostats, set to no higher than 66 degrees, and we don’t have air conditioning. We have decided to voluntarily pay about 10 percent extra on our monthly electric bill as an “energy offset” to purchase our electricity from windpower, and we are looking at solar panels — if we can find some that would be workable in the historic district where we live. In short, we try to do do our modest bit for the environment.

When I travel, I always take the “green” option of reusing towels instead of tossing them on the floor to be washed and asking that the sheets not be changed daily. After all, we don’t wash sheets and towels at home every day, but I am really not confident that most hotels’ housekepers heed that request.

But something else just struck me: waste of electricity. I am currently in an “executive suite” in the Hotel Park City in Utah. This room category has a living area/kitchenette a couple of steps down from the sleeping area. As usual, I turned off all the lights when I left for dinner last night, and when I returned, turn-down service included turn-on service. The housekeeper had turned on at least nine lights: one in the entranceway, two above the fireplace, one on either side of the sofa, one on either side of the bed, two above the kitchenette unit and one in the bathroom. Every bulb is an energy-sapping standard incandescent. At least the TV and radio were not switched on. A huge outdoor Christmas tree outside my window burned all night, as did several in the lobby area. The Hotel Park City is far from unique.

Further, there is a wall fixture next to the door to each room. Each set of room doors is paired so that an odd- and an even-numbered room are just inches from each other, and a totally unnecessary ceiling fixture hangs at each pair of doors. Two doors, three fixtures within a few feet of each other is approximately 50 percent more hallway lighting than is necessary. In fairness, the Tiffany-style lamps on tables here and there in the common areas that are on 24/7 were energy-savers — but still, it saves more energy not to have so many lights burning so much of the time.

Perhaps I was particularly struck by this waste because I was so recently in Europe, where the hallways of many hotels and apartment buildings are wired with on-demand, timed light switches. Get off the elevator or leave your room to click on hallway lights, which turn off automatically after a few minutes, when you presumably don’t need them anymore. At Austria’s St. Antoner Hof, motion sensors in the hall turn the lights on when you get off the elevator or leave your room and of course, turn off automatically, after a few minutes. That’s probably against some US safety regulation, but it makes sense to reconsider such energy saving options. So if anyone in the hotel industry is paying attention, please give some thought.

Still No Snow in the Alps

I’ve just returned for a quick trip to the Alps, to take a look at a trio of resorts being offered in an innovative mix-and-match package assembled by a new tour operator. Baobab Expeditions has an interesting concept for skiers who have a week or two and want to sample three or more resorts. The Ski Expeditions program is offered both in Colorado and in the Alps. The preview trip of three European resorts in three days (plus travel time) — long enough to affirm that there still is no snow in the Alps — left time to explore a bit and to indulge in the wonderful food of the Alpine region. I’ll add a post to within a couple of days to share my dining experiences, which I hope will be sufficiently mouthwatering to convince you that European resorts have a lot offer, even when there is no snow. But for now, here’s the skinny on the sad state of skiing across the pond.

I skied St. Moritz on Tuesday, December 5. Of the resort’s 72 lifts, just six were operating. Four were running on a massif called the Corvatsch — a beginner platterpull beside the bottom station of the cable car, the first stage of the cable car below which three runs were open, a four-place bubble quad chairlift (top photo, right) serving two intermediate runs that come together to form one run and one T-bar on a short teaching slope. These runs are snowmaking-equipped, even on the glacier, so that when a spot had been scraped off, glacial ice showed through. Beside the runs were rocks, rocks and more rocks, plus tufts of grass and trees at lower elevations. The exhilaration of early-season skiing was tempered by the discouraging picture just off-trail.

The skiing was marginal by most measures, but Alpine panoramas nevertheless are magnificent. So that visitors could enjoy the scenery, no matter what the snow conditions were like, the second stage of the cable car was operating only for foot passengers who wanted to enjoy the panorama of sun-kissed peaks stretched out to the horizon (middle photo, right) and lunch in the summit cafeteria or restaurant. A couple of lifts and runs — even fewer than on the Corvatsch — were also open on the Corviglia/Piz Nair, but I didn’t ski there.

It was pouring in St. Moritz on Wednesday, and hopeful skiers and boarders headed to the Corvatsch lusting for powder. There was snow, indeed. It was blinding, goggle-coating snow that helped the cover but wasn’t a lot of run to ski in. And in the end, it didn’t seem to make a difference in the amount of terrain that was deemed skiable.

The next stop was across the border in Livigno, Italy, reached by a one-lane tunnel through the mountains. Of the 33 lifts, three were operating, one short surface lift and two chairlifts, betweem them serving two very modest ribbons of snow (bottom photo, right) laid down down on a sloping meadow just off the village’s main drag. So much snowmaking effort had resulted in so little cover that it was not even possible to ski between the loading areas of the two lifts, which are just steps apart. There was also a small moving carpet for children at the bottom of the easiest of the two runs, but I don’t know whether that is counted in the census of 33. The cover was so pathetic that skiing was free.

Many people who come to Livigno at this time of year are because they are Milanese who come for the duty-free shopping and don’t care whether or not there is snow. The long, thin town has charming little hotels and guest houses, restaurants and shops, the vast majority of which sell the same brands of tobacco products, cosmetics, perfumes and booze. It’s a little like a cross between a quaint Alpine village and an international airport terminal.

The last stop on Thursday, December 7 was St. Anton-am-Arlberg, Austria, the brightest star in a fabled galaxy of resorts that had hoped to crank up its lifts the following day. It’s now the 9th, and according to the slope reports on St. Anton’s website, nothing is running yet.

Hoteliers and resort officials publicly say that “it’s still early” and speak optimistically about the season’s snow prospects, but there are clouds of doubt in their eyes even as they try to put a good spin on the gloomy situation. BBC World ran a feature while I was there indicating that every year for the past 15 has been warmer than the previous one in western Europe, and that this fall has been the warmest in something like 1,300 years, according to an austrian meteorologist named Reinhard Boehm. Other reports, including a wire-service story that appeared in Ski Racing, confirm the same thing.

The U.S. Rockies also experienced an unseasonably warm, dry fall, but snowfall has been sufficient since late November to launch the ski season with enough cover. The Alps might get snow any day now (though the forecast is not encouraging), and the West could experience fewer storms after a good start. I’m rooting for good snow everywhere. I love Baobab Expeditions’ concept and just hope there’s enough snow in the Alps to give it a good shot at succeeding.

No Snow, but a Perfect Hotel

There is still no snow to speak of in the Alps, though it might be snowing at higher elevations even as I write this. In the valleys, however, all is wet and gray, including here in rainy St. Moritz, Switzerland. The community has pre-emptively canceled World Cup ski races scheduled for December 9-10, because even if it starts snowing very soon, it is impossible to assure enough cover and prepare the course for World Cup specifications.

I am consoling myself by hunkering down in the warm and welcoming — and very historic — Badrutt’s Palace. The Badrutt family entered in hotel business in 1856 when Johannes Badrutt established the Engadiner Kulm Hotel (still operating as the Kulm Hotel). His son Casper founded the Palace in 1864, and that winter, Johannes lured the first group of winter tourists to St. Moritz, launching winter tourism to the mountains. The present Palace was opened in 1896, and it has been expanded and refined ever since.

I view the Palace as a perfect hotel for myriad reasons: location, views, architecture, furnishings and above all, impeccable service that is correct and formal but not stuffy. Perfection comes at a price, but in this low season, the price is not off the charts. Still, one thing that I especially admire is that Badrutt’s Palace does not nickel-and-dime those guests who are already paying top dollar, as those who will arrive soon for the Christmas-New Year peak season will be.

I am writing this from my laptop plugged into the hotel’s free high-speed Internet connection in each room. I don’t even need and adapter, because in addition to the regulation Swiss outlets, one accepts North American plugs. I am sipping mineral water from the complimentary mini-bar. Beside me, the plasma TV is tuned to CNN, but I could be watching a pay film without having to pay. The hotel’s fleet shuttles guests to the railroad station, the local heliport and even the lifts (or golf course in summer). Many multi-starred hotels do offer such services but with added charges for each one.

Down pillows and comforters, high-thread-count sheets and large, fluffy towels enhance the poshness in each guest room. And the amenities — the soaps, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion — are custom blended for the Palace and packaged in generous jars, not the smaller ones that hotels normally favor.

Of course, there are the usual facilities that ultra-luxe hotels also offer — spa, pool, multiple restaurants, lounges, lavish buffet breakfast, room service, high-end shops, twice-daily housekeeping — but it is the total package of complimentary and pay services, plus an excellent staff, that sets Badrutt’s Palace above luxury most hotels.

The next time I am in a US hotel or motor inn that makes a big deal of offering free HBO, WiFi or a lousy breakfast served on styrofoam with plastic utensils, I will think back to my stay at Badrutt’s and remember how it is here, in this perfect hotel.

Small Expenses Add Up

I am now in Switzerland, having flown here on American Airlines from Denver via Dallas/Fort Worth. My tried-and-true transatlantic strategy for avoiding jet lag is to plug my noise-canceling headphones into the airliner’s sound system and select a soothing classical music station, have a couple of glasses of wine, and go to sleep so that I arrive in Europe in relatively good shape.

Small expense #1 – In contrast to every foreign flag carrier that I have flown in recent years, American charges $5 for each split of very mediocre chardonnay. But I consider it medicinal for travel and jet lag avoidance, so I did pay up. American’s sound system has a lot of talk and a lot of music with lyrics. Not my first choice, but I did manage a few hours’ sleep. A corollary to this small expense is that American also charges $2 for the flimsy headphones on domestic flights, though they are now free on most US carriers. That’s a purchase, not a rental, but I can’t imagine using them again — once you’ve tried the comfy noise-canceling ones.

Small expense #2 – At Zurich’s Hotel Eden au Lac, I met a group who had spent the night there for the drive to St. Moritz. I bought a 30-minute LAN Public Wireless card to enable me to update check my E-mail and do some work. The fancy hotel’s front desk sold it to me for Sfr. 9, in contrast to the Sfr. 5 cost if getting the access code on-line.

Neither of these is a bank-breaking cost, but for anyone on a tight budget — especially in these days of the weak dollar — $2 here, $5 there, $10 someplace else can add up.

More Flyers. Fewer Flights. Less Food. No Secret.

In the first three months of 2006, US domestic airlines flew 176.1 million passengers, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an increase of 0.3 percent over the previous year. These passengers nevertheless boarded 4.1 percent fewer flights than during the first quarter of 2005. Also, during this period, airlines’ cumulative load factors increased from 80 to 81.2 percent and average trip length increased from 678 to 701 miles. This means either more planes, more crowded planes, or a combination.

On the so-called service side, according to the Air Transport Association, US carriers spent $444 million on beverages and the cookies and salty snacks that now comprise back-cabin food service and something more than that for the fortunate few in the front. That compares with the $662 million the airlines spent to feed and water their passengers six years ago.

Bottom line seems to be that more people are flying more crowded planes, eating and drinking less, and staying in the air longer. It might be good. It might be good. Or it might just be, so when you’re ready to fly, deal with it.

Snow and No-Snow Report

This post is aimed squarely at the snow-loving readers of this blog in Europe (WHERE THERE IS NO SNOW) and in New England (WHERE THERE IS VERY LITTLE SNOW). If you are contemplating a pre-Christmas (or even Christmas) ski trip, come to the Rockies, which are wallowing in white. I live 25 miles from Denver, at the (relatively) low elevation of 5,400 feet. On my deck are 15 inches of cloud-light snow. Colorado ski resorts have snared more than 100 inches of snowfall already, and it is still November. See the enticing photo from Steamboat (right), taken by Larry Pierce a few days ago. Utah, the northern Rockies and the Cascades are similarly buried. Even the southern Rockies, which limped through last winter with subpar snowfall, have benefited from major dumps already — the first as early as September 22.

In Europe, as I said, THERE IS NO SNOW. In Austria, Italy and Switzerland, only a few lifts on high glaciers are running. The French Alps are marginally better, with a handful of lifts serving a handful of slopes at less than a handful of resorts. The valleys are bare. The villages are sad and empty — in itself no surprise, since Europeans don’t celebrate a holiday in late November that traditionally kicks off the ski season. Mountain cams show dustings on high Alpine peaks, but nothing appears skiable, and the lifts are not operating. Many resorts that try to have a decent number of lifts operating in early December have indefinitely postponed their openings. The International Ski Federation, which sanctions international ski races, has already canceled Alpine, cross-country and snowboarding competitions all over Europe at least through December 9 because THERE IS NO SNOW IN THE ALPS or Scandinavia. One of the resorts to loose its World Cup races this weekend is St. Moritz, Switzerland (photo left taken early today the Piz Nair summit). Meanwhile, yesterday’s training for this weekend’s men’s downhill race at Beaver Creek, CO, was also canceled — because there was too much snow. Racers need hard, icy courses. I’m going to guess that the teams took the day off and went powder skiing, a rare treat for these elite athletes.

Alas, I am leaving snowy Colorado on Saturday for Europe WHERE THERE IS NO SNOW. The tour operator arranging this trip won’t cancel or postpone it. I’m planning to take some good books, my workout clothes, my hiking boots and sunscreen. Stay tuned. I’ll report from the trip. And meanwhile, if you are planning your own ski trip for the near future, come to the Rockies.

Light-Hearted Presentation About Serious Matters

The more I travel, the more I feel both the interconnectedness and apartness of various parts of the world and its people. Cultures are so vastly different that people and their ways seem incredibly far apart — sometimes exotic and appealing, sometimes unfamiliar and threatening. Yet with air travel and global communications, we are linked more tightly than ever before. I fervently hope that we can learn to treat our planet and each other more gently. Headlines are scary these days, but if we all could live our lives a little more like this cute wombat suggests at, the world would be a better, calmer place — and we could revel in trying to understand each others’ differences and not feel threatened by them. And the Earth itself would be cleaner and more beautiful.

An Annual Day of Skiing Firsts

First day of the 2006-07 ski season. First turns on my new skis — Dynastar Exclusives, part of the company’s women’s ski collection designed by women’s gear guru Jeannie Thoren. First time skiing Snowmass in several years. First babble of anticipation in the lift line. First tracks across submerged rocks that the grooming machines had churned up, often barely under the snow. First blemishes on the P-tex of my new skis. First time waiting in the lift line for 15 minutes or more due to some unexplained mechnical delay. First bump run of the season. First afternoon of ultra-aching thighs. First apres-ski smiles knowing that the P-tex can be repaired, the thighs will stop hurting after a few more days on the boards and the ski resorts will get more terrain open as snow falls. Today, Snowmass had was running just two chairlifts and a beginner J-bar out of about of about two dozen accessing nine runs out of about a gazillion. And the smiles will only get broader.

New Munich Flight to Land in Denver

Denver International Airport will soon become more international. Lufthansa, the national airline of Germany, will start Denver-Munich nonstop service on March 31, 2007, joining its existing Frankfurt-Denver nonstop. This is great news for travelers from Colorado and other states. To fly overseas, many of us in the middle of the country have to change planes — and airports we are forced to use are incredibly delay-prone: Atlanta, #1 in delays; Chicago, #2; Dallas Fort/Worth #3; LAX, #4; Phoenix, #5; etc. These cities are are not only hubs for U.S. airlines with international service but also host foreign carriers. Denver actually ranks #7 on the FAA’s list of airports with the most flight delays, but often the problem isn’t home-grown but is caused largely by delays on the other end: either Denver-bound aircraft that can’t take off or outbound aircraft asked to hold here.

Denver and Munich are a natural pairing. Both cities are not in the mountains but very close to the mountains. Both are vibrant cities with a young active population. Both, in the context of their respective countries, are beer capitals. And both have modern new airports out in the country, replacing older ones that were closer to the city but smaller and more congested. The one thing that Munich has that Denver does not have yet is a railroad station right at the airport.

A bit over two years ago, my husband and I flew to Munich to attend the wedding of a former exchange student at the University of Colorado. We planned to spend a few days in the city before the wedding, but arrived without reservations. We did the usual Europe: went to the information and reservations desk in the terminal to book a room. We requested a three-star hotel near the main railroad station (Hauptbahnhof). No problem. We had our Eurailpasses validated at the airport and boarded a train right there. Trains to the city depart every 20 minutes and reach the railroad station in 45 minutes and wheeled our bags around the corner to our hotel. That easy airport-city connection by rail remains something that we still look forward to here.