Category Archives: Travel

Fancy Denver Hotel Welcomes Families

Other than the guest room of friends or family, an attractive and well-located hotel can be the difference between a vacation dream and vacation drudgery. Denver’s JW Marriott Denver, a very upscale Cherry Creek North hotel, is offering a well-priced weekend package for families this summer. Note that I didn’t write budget-priced, because this is a deal that represents value rather than straight-out economy. Still, I think that as kids who grow up eating real food in real restauants rather than manufactured commestibles in fast-food places learn to appreciate food, kids who now and again have a taste of luxury learn to appreciate fine travel.

The Kids in the City Package includes luxury accommodations, complimentary valet parking, four tickets to the Denver Zoo, JW coloring book, milk and cookies at evening turndown and complimentary in-room movie. Each family will also receive a Passport to Savings at Cherry Creek’s most popular kid-related businesses such as the Wizard’s Chest, Cute as a Button, Kazoo & Co. and many others. The hotel is at 150 Clayton Lane. For reservations, 303-316-2700 and mention rate code 21FFUP. The package is offered weekends through September 3, 2007.

Europe’s Low-Fare Airlines

I’ve been curious about low-fare airlines abroad ever since I heard about RyanAir (founded in 1985) after airline deregulation began hitting European skies. New York Times “Frugal Traveler” columnist Matt Gross did the legwork (or more accurately, butt-in-seat-work) in a feature called“Adventures in Low-Cost Travel” that appeared today’s travel section, comparing European low-fare carriers. In such a volatile business as airlines, I’m slightly uneasy about a report printed toward the end of April on a weeklong city-hopping trip undertaken in January, which for a newspaper isn’t exactly swift.

Nevertheless, Gross praised Air Berlin (“a spanking new Airbus A320” in which “the air was so clean I could smell the high-tech filtering system”…and “for the first time, I had a personal flat-screen”) but gave thumbs down to its codeshare partner, Fly DBA (“the airline’s 737-300 exuded shabbiness”). Jet4You had “the highest fares and the oldest planes.” He praised FlyBaboo (right)for its waiting area, aircraft and on-the-ball flight attendant, and EasyJet for its flexibility. Wizz Air’s cabin, he reported, “was overpressurized and its flight attendants a confused as the color scheme.” As for the pioneering RyanAir, he called it “not just the cheapest but the chintziest.” Other airlines whose names he dropped but which he did not fly were Vueling, TUIfly, and Sterling. Italy, he reports, “has a host of tiny carriers that focus on random and disparate cities.”

Low-fare arlines can offer cheap tickets by publicizing only the base price. Rockbottom fares often require advance booking or other restictions. They often fly from distant airports. Add-ons include taxes, fuel surcharges, high excess baggage fees, airport security charges and other miscellaneous fees. Forget frequent-flyer miles, but then, with low enough fares, who needs them?

Passport Renewal Taking 10 Weeks

eFlyer,” an E-newsletter put out by Global Traveler, is reporting that US passport renewals, as well as first-time applications, are currently being processed slowly. The timeframe now appears to be up to about 10 weeks, about a month longer than previously. “eFlyer” attributes the new backlog to the recently passed Western Hemisphere Initiative requiring Americans to carry passports for travel to the Caribbean and Mexico, where previously a vote ID card and other official documents sufficed. there is a massive backlog in the passport application process that is equally affecting passport renewals. Applications for new passports has backed up renewals too.

More cautionary news is that even the $60 expedited service has stretched form two weeks to three or even four. “eFlyer” advises, “You’ll speed up your expedited application if, in addition to using the proper form and enclosing your check, you write ‘expedite’ prominently on the envelope.” The newsletter also reports that both local and regional passport offices are often requiring appointments.

The National Passport Information Center (877-4USAPP) is open from 6:00 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday for those who must travel within seven days. “eFlyer” further notes that “there is a limited staff who will even take your call on weekends. But as with other passport processing, the phone lines are jammed; it may take multiple calls to get through to a human being. Email forms are available on the website, but only for general inquiries since — surprise! — they take a while to get answered, too. These days, ‘passport’ is spelled with three Ps — planning, patience and persistence.”

Even before this slow process (another P), I learned not to let my passport renewal go later than six months prior to the expiration date of the current one. A number of years ago, I went to Turkey on a one-week trip with a passport that was still three months from expiring — not the six months that I had no idea that Turkish authorities wanted. The officials at the airport in Istanbul didn’t want to let me in at all. They finally did, after a serious plea (still another P) and the presentation (yet another P) of my return airline ticket showing that I was booked to leave the country seven days later. The lesson seems to be that renew your passport if it is within six months of expiring, and then expect to wait a while until you get your new one.

Diane Sawyer in Afghanistan

Good Morning America anchor Diane Sawyer is reporting from Afghanistan this week. The state of the Afghan nation, the status of women, the ressurgence of the Taliban and the importance of the opium poppy in the Afghan economy were topics that she covered today. But she did a food segment, reporting on her visit to a bakery where she bought and ate some wonderful-looking flatbread baked in a tandoor. She visited a market where she tasted spinach- and potato-stuffed soft bread that resembled large empanadas and meant to be eaten with a red or green dipping sauce, and she drank a beverage made of raisins, almonds, water and other ingredients. She marveled at some young men who were eating raw cucumbers.

Meanwhile, in the New York studio, three GMW personalities also had the opportunity to try the stuffed bread and the raisin drink. They seemed perplexed at the drink (which had “things floating in it”) and gingerly tasted the stuffed bread. One asked why was the hot sauce. Diane counseled him to be courageous and try. He tried the hot and didn’t seem happy. Then, Robin Roberts asked Diane what she was eating in Afghanistan. Sawyer replied, “Potato chips.” I was frankly disappointed and hoped that she, who was so very empathetic, would resort to potato chips — no matter the reason.

The Good Morning America site include the recipe for the raisin-almond beverage. Recognizing that you kind of have to sing this one, I add it here:

Ab Kishmish (Raisin Drink)

8 oz. golden or dark raisins (almonds optional)
Honey to taste
Rose water to taste

Wash the raisins well. Boil the water and add raisins. Rinse raisins again. Add two cups of hot water, add honey and rosewater to taste. Leave in a cool place or in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. If making with almonds, boil the almonds separately and peel away the skins before adding to the raisins and hot water.

Recipe from Bamiyan Afghani Restaurant

New EcoRooms at Lake Powell Resort

I have a love/hate relationship with Lake Powell. I love the recreational opportunities provided on this enormous reservoir, but I hate big dams on big rivers. There is a cause-and-effect thing going here. The Glen Canyon Dam, which chokes off the Colorado River just upstream from the Grand Canyon. The huge dam, built nearly half-a-century ago when sensibilities were different, caused water to back up behind it, creating Lake Powell. This man-made lake offers all manner of recreational opportunities, notably some of the best houseboating in the land. It is second in size to Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, that backed up behind the Hoover Dam. Both are engineering wonders but, by today’s standards, environmental errors.

I try not to think about the splendor that lies beneath the deep blue water. Glen Canyon is said to have been every bit as magnificent as the Grand Canyon. The late David Brower, long-time executive director of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth and the League of Conservation Voters, regretted until his dying day that he had not battled the government about the building of the dam. He didn’t fight it. The dam was built. And what some call “Fake Powell” was created. Still, Lake Powell is a spectacular place, with the water lapping against tawny cliffs, dramatic spires and wonderful coves to explore.

The lake provides ample room for houseboating, kayaking, fishing, jet-boating and more. For those who prefer not to houseboat or camp but who want to be at water’s edge, there’s Lake Powell Resort, beautifully situated and offering killer views of the Lake and, alas, the smoke-spewing Navajo Nation Electric Plant. When I stayed at the resort in May 2006, the rooms were uninspiring with standard motel decor. Such a spectacular setting, whether one approves of it or not, deserves classier accommodations.

Now, ARAMARK, which manages the resort, has upgraded some rooms. Called Green Leaf EcoRooms, and designed for guests with special health and allergy concerns, they also appeal to someone like me who just wants hotels to do their part in protecting the environment. These EcoRooms at Lake Powell Resort feature more than a dozen energy-efficient, water-efficient, waste-reducing, non-toxic or biodegradable products — worthy of Green Leaf certification from TerraChoice Audubon Green Leaf Eco-Rating Program.

These EcoRooms feature bathroom flooring made from recycled glass and select ceramic materials, bathroom counter made from recycled glass terrazzo, carpet made from 25 percent post-consumer and 25 percent post-industrial materials to and carpet pads made from 100 percent recycled material, energy-saving lightbulbs, dispensers for soap and shampoo to cut down on waste, energy-saving sliding glass doors and water-efficient fixtures (including toilets). It’s my kind of room — and while nobody asked me, I think they should all be that way.

I applaud any individual or corporate efforts at preserving our planet, and against the background of Lake Powell and all that is wrong with it — dramatic beauty and recreational pleasure notwithstanding — these EcoRooms merit even more kudos.

Forests I Have Visited and Loved

According to the natural-wonder-filled Greenpeace calendar that hangs in my kitchen, today is World Forestry Day. I’d never heard of it, so I looked it up. Celebrated at the autumn equinox in the Southern Hemisphere, which leads me to infer that it might have started in Australia or New Zealand, it supposedly encourages the planting of trees (sort of like Arbor Day, I suppose) and encourages preservation of “green cover.” It did cause me to think about woods and forests I have known and enjoyed. Here are five that have impressed me for the most different of reasons.

  • Sterling Forest State Park, NY – This park’s 18,000 fairly pristine acres would be lost in a corner of, say, southwestern Colorado’s 2.5 million-acre San Juan National Forest, but being at the northern edge of the ultra-congested New York City metropolitan area, it is a rare green relief to all that concrete and all those skyscrapers.
  • Tongass National Forest, AK – I know that the Tongass has been heavily logged, but on my three visits to Southeast Alaska, I’ve never actually seen any of the logged areas — and I’m glad of it. At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest unit in the national forest system. It covers the mainland and many of the islands that form the Inside Passage. I’ve been awestruck stately Sitka spruce secured to steep slopes that rise straight from the sea. The Tongass is what is commonly called a “recreational paradise” — suitable for hiking, fishing, hunting, kayaking, wildlife viewing, camping and photography, but being prepared for foul weather is a necessity in this northern rainforest. Some 150 simple backcountry cabins (like that at Cascade Creek, right) are available for rent — little pieces of paradise at a very moderate price.
  • Laurentides Provincial Wildlife Reserve, QU – On a family vacation to Quebec, I remember driving from Quebec city to Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River. It is something like 140 miles, but in my dim childhood recollection, it was a very, very long trip. I’ve since learned that this reserve offer splendid fishing and hunting, but all I remember are trees. Lots of trees. It was the first time I had seen more than the little woods and mini-forests of southern New England, and the impression, though dim, remains with me.
  • Muir Woods, CA – Much as Sterling Forest is a relief from New York, the magnificent Muir Woods National Monument fulfills the same role for San Francisco. West Coast redwood trees dominate this coastal forest, with a supporting cast of Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, tanbark oak and baylaurel. No cathedreal is more inspiring, and just to walk among these giants is to be humbled by nature’s majesty and grandeur.
  • Khao Sok National Park, Thailand – A short visit to this national park containing the world’s oldest evergreen rainforests made me understand more about the Vietnam War than years of distressing newscasts. The Southeast Asian rainforest is so dense that it is virtually impossible to see someone a few feet away. And then there were the leeches! No wonder the US military was so eager to defoliate. Today, the jungle is incredibly lush and improbably green. We stayed at Art’s Jungle Lodge, primitive bungalows perched high on stilts. The beds are hung with mosquito netting, water for bathing or flushing is dipped from a barrel in each bathroom, and citronella candles decorated each unscreened window. It was hot. It was sticky. My pillow was not much softer than a brick. When night fell the forest creatures all sang, trilled, chirped, cried and generally added to a rainforest cacophony. When I put my head on that hard pillow, I thought I’d be awake all night, but I slept like a baby in a cradle.

Global Cell Phone Coming

What do you think of when you hear “National Geographic“? A magazine with a distinctive yellow border, fabulous photography and a global view on culture, history, archaeology, paleontology and the natural world? A legendary not-for-profit “society” that has underwritten breakthrough expeditions all over the world? Perhaps a travel company specializing in expedition-type trips? A series of television specials? A cell phone company?

You probably said “yes” to the first four and chuckled at the fifth. But the last laugh might be on you, because the renowned scientific and educational institution has teamed up with Cellular Abroad, a California-based company, to develop the National Geographic Tralk Abroad Travel Phone. With a launch planned in March, it is intended to function across boarders in more than 100 countries.

The phone is $199 to purchase. That includes free incoming calls in most countries and 30 minutes of free outgoing talk time, with additional minutes 90 cents per outgoing call minute. The phones can also be rented for $49 per week. A $79 SIM card is good 30 for minutes of free outgoing talk time. Other pluses are 24-hour, seven-day toll-free support, and no contracts to sign. Information is available at and 800-287-5072.

Even though the phone and the service are not cheap, a high price is sometimes worthwhile — and I say this as someone who has not yet succumbed to cell phonitis in this country. A year ago, I went to France on ski trip. The original plan was for everyone flying in from various North American gateways to meet at Charles de Gaulle Airport and take the high-speed TGV train to Lyon. I stupidly booked through Chicago, a regrettable mistake in winter. My flight was badly delayed, and by the time I arrived at CDG in Paris, went through passport control and retrieved my luggage, my companions were speeding toward Lyon.

I had the trip organizer’s US cell phone number, and her phone service also worked in Europe — or at least in France. My first task was getting some Euros, because I knew there would be a fee for changing my TGV reservation and I had very few Euros left over from my previous trip. There were long lines at all the change offices in the terminal, and the airport appeared to have one ATM. It’s downstairs, next to the post office, if you ever need it.

I finally got a couple of hundred Euros from the slo-o-o-o-ow cash machine, rebooked my TGV ticket and had to call the organizer to tell her when I would be in Lyon. The good news is that I found several pay phones quickly. The bad news is that although one phone company’s devices claimed to accept Visa and MasterCard, they didn’t. All they would take was a French phone card. So off I went, looking for a magazine/candy/tobacco shop to buy a phone card. I returned to the pay phone and used my new French phone card to call her — on a US number.

By that time, I had taken the bus from Boulder to Denver International Airport, flown to Chicago, changed terminals there, endured a long flight delay, flown overnight to Paris and seen much more of CDG that I really cared to. After a couple of hours on the train, I connected with the group in Lyon, which graciously waited for my arrival for the bus ride to Alpe d’Huez. That resort is known to Tour de France aficionados for the grueling 21-hairpin ascent of one of the most challenging mountain stages. I didn’t pedal, but by the time I arrived there, I was pretty tired too. If one-call cell service had been available last year, and if I’d had the foresight to rent one, it would have been worth a $49 one-week fee.

Havana, Here We Come — Hopefully

A very few years ago, a friend who travels extensively in developing countries invited me to join her on a trip to Cuba. I was tempted, but the Bush administration’s punitive attitude toward tourism to the Latin American outlyer to the “axis of evil” had me concerned. American tourists could be fined heavily ($15,000 sticks in my mind) upon their return to the US. There were, of course, ways around this charade which seemed to me mostly an effort to appease the hardliners among Miami’s Cuban-American citizens, because after all, Bush’s brother Jeb is Florida’s governor. My friend went via Cancun, Mexico. Cuba did not stamp her passport. She had a fabulous experience. And of course, I regretted chickening out.

Now, there is hope on the horizon for normal travel to Cuba with the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress and with Cuban President Fidel Castro showing fraility after six-and-a-half decades in power. Things finally appear to be shifting. HR 654, submitted on January 24 by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel, states, “The President shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such travel.” It has reportedly gained bipartisan co-sponsorship from more than 60 Representatives, and a similar bill is to be considered by the Senate at the end of this month.

The limited travel currently permitted requires US travel agents booking trips to Cuba, to have a license as a “Travel Service Provider” — and that seems to go just to organizers of medical or religious travel and trips for various other approved purposes. The new legislation, if approved, would also permit the use of US credit cards for travel to Cuba. It does not, however, lift the trade embargo, so don’t expect to see Cuban cigars at US tobacconists in the near future.

America’s obsessive blacklisting, blackballing and isolation of Cuba is a case of this country going it largely alone. Many countries (and most who count, economically) already have normal relations with Cuba. Their citizens happily vacation at resorts along the Cuban coast. American citizens who wish to do so take the risk of punishment by our government. Americans who want to travel there do so via Mexico, as my friend did, Canada or even Spain. The US public does seem to seems ready to resume normal relations with our neighbor to the south, with some two-thirds of Americans in favor of a major policy shift, according to CNN, Gallup and Associated Press polls. About half of all Cuban-Americans, painted by politicians with an agenda of continued isolation of Cuba, reportedly support ending all travel restrictions.

The Travel Committee on Cuba (TICC), a group of travel agents, lusts after the opening of a new tropical destination so close to American shores. No longer totally put off by government accusations of being unpatriotic, travel professionals now are talking about “direct contact between people,” “understanding” and “goodwill.” Most In truth, hordes of American tourists carrying American plastic and American greenbacks do more to “open” a country than any political posturing about “anti-Communism.” Vietnam and even China prove that tourist and trade dollars are the most effective way of “opening” a country considered to be hostile.

Do As I Post, Not As I Pack

My husband and I are leaving today for a few days of skiing in the Aspen-Snowmass area. I haven’t yet packed, and neither has he, but when we get going, we’ll load into the car two pairs of Alpine skis and poles (his and mine), two pairs of Nordic skis and poles, two boot bags, two bigger bags with clothing for each of us (skiwear and winter streetwear are bulky) and a bag with a couple of bottles of wine, some fresh fruit and perhaps even some holiday leftovers (we’re staying at a friends’ mountain home, so we’ll be eating in now and again anyway).

How ironic this morning’s E-mail brought the suggestion that I look at a website called One Bag, subtitled “The Art and Science of Travelling Light” (it’s British, so “traveling” has two Ls). When going skiing, it is impossible to travel light, unless you are renting all your gear and are willing to wear a parka and perhaps insulated ski pants en route. Same with scuba diving. Divers don’t lug their own weights and certainly not air tanks around (unless they own their own boat or go shore diving from home), but even though tropical clothing is light and compact, a BCD, mask, snorkel, fins, wetsuit, etc. are bulky and require a big bag.

I like to think of myself as an experienced traveler (I’m American, so I just use one L) who can pack light fast to travel efficiently, but in truth, I really don’t travel light much these days. I often am on the road with recreation gear (and a laptop computer too), only for the rare short business trip to a city, can I manage with just a carry-0n. I have two that will fit into an airplane’s overhead compartment: a small, off-brand wheeled version (BiBoss is the brand) that I bought on on New York’s Orchard Street for $20 or a smaller but heavier L.L. Bean wheeled bag. I also take a paded briefcase for my laptop, some papers, a small purse and a book to read on the plane that I stick under the seat in front of me.

When I travel to a longer meeting or convention that requires dress and/or business clothing, as well as something casual for off-hours, I take a bigger but very lightweight rolling bag by Delsey. If it’s a ski or other sports trip, I take my High Sierra rolling duffle. It’s rugged, has a couple of big compartments and a couple of separate smaller ones for boots. I particuarly like the pack straps that zip out of the back. They are not usually necessary, but they make it easier to haul the bag up a couple of flights of stairs in a B&B or when changing trains at small stations in Europe that requires walking downstairs, under the tracks and up a flight again.

In any case, I usually take a padded briefcase too for my laptop and a small backpack for my purse, book(s), noise-canceling headphones, etc. With the TSA security policies, toiletries have to go into checked luggage anyway. And when I it’s a road trip, there’s no motivation or reason to pack light.

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.