Do I Ski? Do I!

Left, Lindsay Kildow of Vail, blazing to a silver medal in the downhill at Are, Sweden, in a U.S. Ski Team photograph. At right, Claire Walter, your faithful blogger, carving down a groomed run at Tamarack, ID, in a photo taken 10 days ago by resort photographer Sherri Harkin.

I am amazed when people ask whether I ski — or worse, whether I still ski. I always reply that writing about skiing is not like covering, say, Major League Baseball, NHL hockey, NBA basketball or NFL football. While skiing can be a spectator sport (the World Alpine Champsionships, for instance, are taking place right now in Are, Sweden), skiing is mostly a participant activity like golf or tennis. The people who most enjoy watching it also ski.

Early in my career I was a magazine editor, including two years as managing editor of Ski Business and Ski Area Management, trade publications put out by the company that then owned Ski magazine. Then, I was managing editor of Ski for another two years, before veering off into the realm of public relations (handling ski accounts for a small New York agency) and then as a sales promotion writer for one of my clients, Swissair. When I left the airline and started freelancing, I think during the administration of Calvin Coolidge, it was only natural that I started writing about skiing. It continues to be a major topic of my writing as well as one of my gret pleasures.

As a skier and a ski journalist, I have chased snow around the world. I have skied all over the US snowbelt from Maine to Alaska, Canada, South America, New Zealand and even China. But my beat is mostly the Rocky Mountains, whose mountains I’ve explored from southern New Mexico to northern Alberta. Most recently, I visited Tamarack, ID, and posted a report and a few images on this blog. The small black-clad figure standing next to the large snowcat is me, but I’m just standing.

For my ski writer colleagues, quitting skiing until very old age, infirmity or illness make it impossible is unthinkable. When I was living in New York and working for Ski, I joined the Eastern Ski Writers Association, a regional component of the North American SnowSports Journalists Association, and I was “the kid.” Among some members of ESWA who are on the far side of 80 and still tearing up the slopes, and when I’m with them, I’m still a kid. I love it!

New Operator for the Grand Canyon Railway

Early in the 20th century, rail travel was the primary (and most comfortable) mode of transportation in the West, and for a new generation of travelers, it was the preferred way to see the grand sights. As part of this way of touristic life, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company inaugurated steam-train service to the canyon on September 17, 1901. Millions of travelers followed, including five presidents, numerous foreign dignitaries, movie stars and artists, often staying in the elegant El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim to gaze, paint, photograph and simply contemplate this most dramatic of natural wonders. But in 1968, with most travelers having been seduced by automobile travel, passenger service was discontinued because people preferred to drive.

Much to their credit, Max and Thelma Bigert revived the line, starting service again on September 17, 1989, precisely 88 years after its inaugural passenger run. They like to say that they put the train back on track. Last May, I reached the Canyon by road but left via the Grand Canyon Railway, a delightful ride that lasted 2 1/2 hours but took me and my fellow passengers way back into the last century with entertainment enhancements from this one. We rode through the forest with live entertainment in each car (left), a staged train robbery and terrific tales, tall and otherwise, spun by conductors in old-style uniforms. We detrained in Williams, an interesting little town along Historic Route 66.

The Bigerts are bowing out, but the show will go on. They put the railroad up for sale last year. A letter of intent transferring the railroad to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the nation’s largest national parks concessionaire, was soon signed. By late March, assuming the National Park Service approves, Xanterra should be operating the train. Under the Bigerts the Grand Canyon Railway has been operating daily service between Williams and Grand Canyon National Park, summer and winter. It has been welcoming more than 220,000 passengers a year, and the Bigerts’ operation also includes the the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, an RV park, a restaurant and several real estate parcels, all in Williams. The amount of the bid was not disclosed.

Xanterra runs lodges, restaurants and other concessions at national parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Death Valley and Petrified Forest national parks, as well as state parks in South Dakota and Ohio. This will be its venture into running a railroad, but the company has a fine record of maintaining and restoring historic properties, including the recent and respectful rehabilitation of Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone National Park.
In peak season, the most visited national parks, including Grand Canyon, have been grappling with ways to lessen traffic and pollution from auto emissions by limiting vehicule access and ooperating in-park shuttle systems. Accommodating private vehicles has required, in the words of the song, paving paradise and putting in parking lots. It stands to reason that more train travel into Grand Canyon National Park means fewer cars and fewer parking lots — and therefore another step toward the preservaion of paradise. As for emissions, I can’t begin to comment on whether a steam or diesel locomotive transporting a set number of passengers is more or less polluting than the same number in private cars, RVs, pickup trucks, SUVs and tourist motocoaches, but I will say that everything else aside, a ride on this classic train has nostalgia value in its own right. I recommend it.

SGSG = Seriously Great Snow Grooming

Sun Valley, Idaho, was the first purpose-built ski resort in the United States. It opened in 1936. I’m now at Tamarack, the most recent purpose-built resort in the United States. It opened in 2004. Both are located in southern Idaho.

The contrast between these resorts in their infancy is a study in elevated expectations. Sun Valley was 1930s luxury — a posh lodge, a huge outdoor heated pool, one chairlift, movie star guests, exotic imported Austrian ski instructors. Tamarack is 21st-century luxury — one lodge and 60 cozy cottages (the super-luxe Fairmont Tamarack is under construction), an outdoor heated pool and private hot tubs behind each cottage, three high-speed quad chairlifts and four other lifts, sports star guests (Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are behind the Fairmont project), home-grown ski and snowboard instructors. (OK, not just sports stars, but also George and Laura Bush (probably because Idaho remains the most reliably red state in the Union, and that’s probably where the president felt most welcome) and pop idols Hilary and Hailey Duff (famous for being famous, I suppose).

I wasn’t there to spot stars (although Agassi was snowboarding at Tamarack while I was on two boards) but rather to ski. Neither Sun Valley nor Tamarack has had new snow in a while (January 9 is the date I heard), but it is a testimonial to Tamarack that the skiing is fabulous. There is no powder, of course, but the snowcats are prowling the slopes every night, turning the old snow into superlative corduroy that invites high-speed cruising (above right). I’m awestruck by their mastery of manicuring the mountain.

Tamarack is developing into a full resort that also offers cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and back-country ski access via snowcat , but the crust over dust doesn’t make for the best ski experience. A group of us rode out by cat to Lone Tree Mountain, part of the 5,000 acres of backcountry terrain adjacent to the lift-served area. Head guide David Williams wasn’t enthusiastic about the conditions after so much time without snow, so we took in the view but bagged the idea of skiing the ungroomed. This was no real sacrifice because the groomers have been so very good. It has been extremely cold (below zero every night and safely in the freezing zone every day), so nothing is melting — and cover is still good.

I skied one day at nearby Brundage Mountain, a classic, family-friendly ski area that has ambitions to upgrade and expand, perhaps to keep up with the Tamarack Joneses. They also have groomed their old snow to fine skiability, and even on a Friday when local schools were having their ski day, there were no lines. I am told, however, that the ski area draws a good crowd on weekends, because it’s a favorite of skiers and snowboarders from Boise — normally two to two-and-a-half hours to the south, depending on traffic and road conditions.

Snow is forecast for tomorrow (Sunday). Guess when I’m leaving. Right. Tomorrow (Sunday). Of course, I’d love to be here for the powder, but I can’t complain about the conditions or the sunshine and scenery.

Virtual Travel

A friend just alerted to a delicious blog called the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus and its “Language Lounge,” which describes itself as “A Monthly Column for Word Lovers.” The topic of the latest Lounge is ‘Paper Wanderlust.’ It is an ode to great travel writing in classic books.

“Good travel writing is in many ways superior to actual travel; you get the benefit of fascinating or exotic experience without hassle, expense, hefty carbon footprint, and inevitable nasty surprises, ” wrote columnist Orin Hargraves. “A good travel writer is often superior to an actual travel companion: you get refined sensibility, creative perception, and thoughtfully digested experience without belches, snores, and adventitious prima donna outbursts. But the really great thing about travel writing is that it is a portrait, drawn only with words, of a place you can never go yourself: places changes irrevocably.”

I can’t pretend that I am in the league of the erudite, intellectual travel scribes mentioned in the column — Robert Cunninghame-Graham, Sybille Bedford, Moritz Thomsen, all of whom sound very British, but none of whom I recall ever reading and barely hearing of — but I love Hargraves’ premise that reading is in may ways superior to the experience. I, as a travel writer, hope that if nothing else, my observtions, experiences and advice ocasionally improve readers’ own travel experiences.

High Tech Replaces High Touch in Air Travel

Millions of words have been written — including some on this blog — about the increasing annoyances and unpleasantries involved in air travel. But one thing has gotten easier: the ability to preprint boarding passes from your home or office computer. While I miss the high-touch aspects of flying as it once was, where passengers were catered to rather than hassled, the ability to get some of the mechanics out of the way does make things a lot easier at the airport. You might say that I’m conflicted.

First came self-service check-in kiosks at airports: dip your credit card or frequent flyer card into a terminal, up pops your itinerary, confirm or change your seat selection(s), enter the number of bags you are checking in, press again, and out comes your boarding pass. Take any checked bags to the counter to be tagged and hopefully loaded onto your airplane, and you are ready ready to deal with the security line. I don’t know about other airlines, but using United‘s on-line check-in adds another 500 miles to my MileagePlus account.

Not only do I miss the high-touch elements to air travel in the past, but I really am sorry for the downsized airline employees who used to do for us what are now self-service tasks. Still, I have to admit that high-tech has made it all a lot easier. I am flying out of Denver (DIA) for Boise (BOI) this morning, and along with my photo ID, I’ll leave the house, ready to park my car and check in.

Cool New Denver Hotel

The Curtis blazes onto the lodging scene — well in time for the ’08 Democratic convention
I very rarely spend the night in a downtown Denver hotel, but if I did, the newly (and partially) opened 336-room Hotel Curtis would be high on my list — along with such pricier lodgings as the Brown Palace, the Monaco, the Oxford, the Teatro and the Westin at Tabor Center.
The Curtis has had what the hotel industry calls a “soft opening,” meaning that rooms are available but has its restaurants or all of its public spaces are not open yet. The hotel is all about pop culture. A toy robot welcomes guests into the lobby (right), which is done up in retro colors and fabrics but with a decidedly 21st century high-definition video screen of considerable side. Instead of ponderous business publications, the reading nook offers well-loved comics and books on pop-culture themes. The convenience store, called the 5&Dime, sells such classic candies and vintage-style soda pop.

The rooms are attractive yet straightforward and not too wild, but each of the 16 floors features a different pop-culture theme, from the elevator recording announcing the next stop to photographs and pop art carrying out each specific theme. These include Big Hair, Sports Champions, TV Mania, Chick Flick, One Hit Wonder, Sci-Fi, and more. Guest amenities are along the lines of a PEZ dispenser and sweet candy wafers to fill them with or a yoyo. Guests get their wake-up calls from Austin Powers, Mr. T or other storied characters. Still to come this year are the restaurants (The Corner Office and Martini Bar, Oceanaire, and a Starbucks), fitness facility, a large indoor swimming pool, business center, and meeting space. The hotel is pet-friendly and even features a doggie door so that Fido feels especially welcome.

Not only is a new hotel welcome in and of itself, especially in view of Denver’s hosting of the 2008 Democratic Convention, but it was built within the shel of the Executive Tower Hotel, a dated property that was singularly uninspiring and unattractive but was a traditional venue for political events — rumor has it because it was a strong union hotel.
Nightly room rates at the new Curtis currently start at $129. Go to the website or call 800-525-0661 or 303-571-0300 for further rate information or reservations.

New Concept in Air Travel

I’ve been flying long enough to remember such breakthrough air carriers as Icelandic Airlines (now Icelandair), once the only non-charter, low-fare carrier between the US and Eruope; People Express (long ago wrapped into Continental), a low-fare, non-union domestic airline with simplified regulations, and Laker Airways’ SkyTrain, the late Sir Freddie Laker’s low-fare, no-frills transatlantic airline. I have welcomed the rise of Southwest Airlines (especially their apperance on the Denver air scene), applauded the success of JetBlue offering luxury for less and enjoyed the funky-mod ambience on Virgin Atlantic.

Now comes another really great idea in air travel . Beginning this Thursday, January 25, SilverJet is offering business class-only daily service between New York’s Newark International Airport and London’s Luton Airport. This new carrier is boasting about ooperating the world’s first private terminal for an intercontinental commercial airline with a mere 30-minute check-in, its own security screening facilitity and the services of a luggage concierge to deal with baggage.

SilverJet is flying single-class Boeing 767 aircraft with just 100 flat-bed seats, freshly cooked food that each passenger can order when he or she wishes to eat and individual personal entertainment systems. The carrier promises, “When you want to sleep, we’ll make up your bed, offer you a night-cap, and promise not to wake you, unless you’ve specifically requested it. We’ll keep pre-landing procedures to a minimum to give you an extra lie-in. With no intrusive announcements, no flood-lit cabins and no trolleys to bang into your seats, we create the quietest possible cabin environment to help you sleep, or concentrate on work.”

Sounds pricey? Not really, considering what your money brings. SilverJet the fare is $1,796 roundtrip, well more than economy on other airlines but only about half of their front-cabin fares. For semi-frugal expense-account flyers or anyone ready for a transatlantic splurge, SilverJet is the way to go. I wish the airline great success and hope to fly it someday.

But wait! There’s more! Passengers can fly SilverJet with a clear conscience. It announced that it is the world’s first airline to be 100 percent carbon neutral. That moderate ticket price includes a mandatory carbon offset contribution, giving passengers the opportunity to reinvest “Carbon Points” into a number of climate-friendly projects around the world.

I like travel providers that offer services at such good prices that even the most budget-conscious can afford to go places and see things. I like luxury and service. What I like about
SilverJet appears to be offering up top-shelf service and facilities at happy-hour, well-drink prices. What can be better than that?

Ode to the Road

I don’t suppose a 360-mile drive can be considered a real road trip. Lately, however, I seem to have spent so much time on airplanes, shoveling out my car and staying close to home that this has been the first one farther than Denver (or Denver International Airport) that I’ve taken in some time. I drove from Boulder to Durango, diagonally across the state. Over the years, I’ve tried various combinations of highways. For my usual route, I have settled on CO 93 to C-470 to US 285 over Kenosha Pass through South Park and the San Luis Valley to Rte 112 to Del Norte to US 160 over Wolf Creek Pass) into Durango. I particularly enjoy this drive, because very little of it is on an Interstate — and if I wanted, I could easily avoid that too.

For someone like me, who grew up in Connecticut (about 130 east-west miles and 60 north-south miles), drives of this length were once almost incomprehensible. In New England, 360 miles would mean traveling through three states and usually numerous traffic jams — or at least slowdowns. But now, with a 4WD car that nevertheless gets decent gas mileage, satellite radio and a book that I want to “read” downloaded from audible.com and saved on CDs, the miles fly by. This time, the trip seemed every sweeter and more beautiful than usual.

Following storm after storm at home, I enjoyed sailing along the dry roads under the big blue sky, with panoramic mountainscapes crisp in the clear air and sunshine. It was very cold, and the kind of water-look mirages that appear on asphalt on hot summer days are a winter phenomenon too. Who knew? Cattle and horses grazed in pastures where the snow had begun melting back. Having watched recent newscasts of the devastating impact that deep snowdrifts on Colorado’s eastern plains had on livestock, I was thrilled to see animals placidly eating. Birds flocked and wheeled overhead. In the great expanse of the San Luis Valley, plumes of steam rose from irrigation dishes that surprisingly were unfrozen. Alpenglow lingered long on the Sangre de Cristro mountains’ western faces.

There was, however, a blot on this idyllic trip. In the long straightaway between Villa Grove and Saguache, I was stopped for speeding (79 in a 65-mile zone). I didn’t even try to talk my way out of the ticket, my first ever speeding citation. My car has cruise control, which could keep me honest, but I don’t usually use it. I have to mail payment in to Saguache County within 20 days.

If I needed an additional reminder to be more conscientious, ib a column in today’s Durango Herald from High Country News, syndicated writer Gail Blinkly wrote about the double-standard of some environmentalists and green-leaning politicians who speed on the open, empty roads of western Colorado. She pointed out that a vehicle traveling at 75 miles per hour can burn up to 45 percent more fuel than one going 55 mph. I probably won’t scale back to 55 on road trips, but I’m going to to start using cruise control to help stick to the speed limit. It will keep me from getting pulled over for speeding again — and it will give me all the more time to enjoy the wonderful Colorado scenery.

New Orleans? Think Twice

All my friends know that I take reasonable precautions but am not a fearful traveler. Big cities don’t scare me. Street people don’t scare me. Public transportation doesn’t scare me. Crowded markets in developing countries don’t scare me. But I wouldn’t go to New Orleans these days — even if I wanted to experience Mardi Gras there, which I don’t.

According to a news feature in today’s New York Times, the depopulated and beleaguered city tallied 95 murders per 100,000 residents in the second half of 2006 and an appalling eight since the first of the year. That’s nearly one a day, which is fine for multi-vitamins but not for homicides. The Times used such phrases as “dysfunctional law enforcement institutions,” which could as easily describe Baghdad. I wouldn’t want to take a vacation there either!

Petty crimes (pickpocketing, lewd and drunken behavior, soliciting and the like) plagued the picturesque French Quarter long before Hurricane Katrina, and it doesn’t appear that the recent epidemic of violence has been directed at tourists. Still, such a high murder rate plus the ineffective law enforcement reported in the Times equals an ucomfortable climate, no matter what kind of a welcome mat the city’s tourist industry has laid out.

My heart bleeds for the Crescent City, but when it comes to my own travels, I’ll stay away for a while. I don’t care that Orbitz, which sells airline tickets and travel packages, has named it one of seven “in” destinations for 2007, or that Travel & Leisure put it on its “go-to” list. The convention and visitors’ bureau quoted T&L’s January issue as commenting, “Less than 18 months after Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans is back and ready for visitors. Revamped favorites and interesting newcomers are contributing to the second act of one of America’s favorite cities,” adding that “For travelers who want to play a more direct part in the Crescent City’s renaissance, ‘voluntourism’ opportunities abound.”

Hoping the New Orleans soon gets a grip on itself is probably like hoping that the Shiites and Sunnis will be friends, or the the Palestinians and Israelis will become compatible, or that Yankees and the Red Sox fans will see baseball the same way. I hope I’m wrong.

Snow Here, But "Snowhere" Else

Three snowstorms in three weeks, and another forecast for Thursday, and Colorado’s Front Range is experiencing the makings of an epic winter. It was a lousy drive home to Boulder from the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo in Denver on Sunday evening, and I had to cancel a trip to Beaver Creek on Monday, because blowing and drifting snow and ground blizzards caused the Department of Transportation and State Police to close major highways and secondary routes all over the Front Range.

The storms also imperiled livestock and have hit ranchers on the Eastern Plains particuarly hard, so I don’t mean to minimize some people’s inconvenience and trivilize others’ real misfortunes. However, for skiers, a winter like this is nature’s greatest gift. Ski resorts up and down the Rockies have benefited from strong strong storms, and even if transportation to and from the high country was dicey at times, there have been more pluses than minuses so far.

While the Rockies are wallowing in snow, the Northeast is hurting and hurting badly. New England ski areas are limping along at best, and Europe is not any better off. The Alps are still in terrible shape. When I returned from Europe in early December, I wrote about the lack of snow, unseasonable warmth and sad prospects for the winter. These appear on my December 9, 2006, post. There has, alas, been no significant improvement. Whever there is a snow-poor year somewhere, resorts elsewhere might benefit in the short them, but in the long range, they suffer too.

In his guest column in the Denver Post, Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety reported, “One thing that has been common this season is that conditions for nearly every race — other than Beaver Creek and Levi, Finland — have been very inconsistent and unfair. There has been very little snow, and temperatures have been unseasonably warm. During the slalom here [Adelboden, Switzerland] on Sunday, it rained. On Monday, the temperature was about 45 degrees and the mountains slowly turned from snow to mud.”

I’m not gloating, but I am grateful to be a skier and snowshoer living in a region where there is lots of snow — at least, right now. I’m not taking anything for granted, snow-wise. It might not be like this next year (2005-06 were devastating in New Mexico and the winter before was uncharacterisitically snow-poor in the Pacific Northwest), so my winter soulmates and I better enjoy ski conditions while they are this good. And we fully expect even more Easterners, Europeans and Brits than unusual to come share our snowy slopes.

Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.