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.

Time Travel in Colorado

It was Friday afternoon, two days after the big storm, before I finally got around to digging out my car sufficiently to go to the supermarket, and I probably wouldn’t have done it yet if we weren’t having guests on Christmas Eve — and there was cooking and baking to be done. The nearby King Soopers market resembled my image of Moscow markets in the Soviet era. Customers plodded across snowpiles, slush puddles and ice sheets to the front door, where a dispirited Salvation Army bell ringer was hoping someone would drop something into the kettle now and then.

Immediately inside was a sign apologizing for the small inventory, because delivery trucks hadn’t been able to resupply the store. The produce bins were almost empty, with onions, potatoes, avocados and winter squash the only items displayed in any sort of quantity. Everything else was gone or almost so. Ditto with the meat and seafood sections, the bread shelves, the dairy section (the store was almost out of eggs) and the toilet paper shelves. I bought what I needed for baking and have to go back today hoping that the trucks made it with the winter vegetables I plan to roast for tomorrow’s dinner.

In this prosperous city in our well-off land, we are unaccustomed to doing without anything we want. We don’t go hungry, unless we are dieting and are hungry by choice. But seeing “my” King Soopers picked over reminded me that so many people in our community, our country and around the world simply don’t have enough to eat. On the way out of the market, I dropped some money in the Salvation Army kettle, and today, I’m sending off another check to Heifer International, Oxfam or some other global hunger relief organization, and to Community Food Share, the Denver Rescue Mission or Friends of Man closer to home.

A Very Quiet Town

It started snowing in Boulder sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 this morning. Gorgeous snow: flakes as soft as powdered sugar that fell straight down, without blowing or drifting, throughout a temperate day and into this rather mild evening. By 3:30 this afternoon, when I was heading for the post office (five days before Christmas, of course), more than a foot of snow was on the ground, and the town had virtually shut down. Little traffic moved on the streets. Evidence of snowplowing was confined to a few arterials. Most stores and restaurants on the Pearl Street Mall were closed.
Perhaps reflecting Boulder’s priorities, those that remained open on or near the Mall included Lolita’s grocery, Nick-n-Willy’s bake-your-own pizza, the West End Tavern, the Boulder Bookstore, the metaphysical bookstore, the Hagen-Dasz ice cream shop, Belvedere Chocolates, Outdoor Divas (women’s sporting goods and clothing), Powell’s candy, the Lazy Dog (sports bar), the Boulder Arts and Crafts Coop, the Trident Cafe, the Trattoria on Pearl and the falafel place. By the time I wandered back a bit after 4:30, many of these businesses had also closed.

En route to the post office, I did stop at Nick-n-Willy’s to order a pizza that I would pick up on the way home. It seemed a perfect night to fill the house with the aroma of baking pizza without actually having to make the dough and find enough ingredients in the larder to assemble a good one. By the time I reached the post office, it too had closed. I used the credit card-driven apparatus that weighs packages and prints postage, a time-consuming process because it is necessary to answer the same series of electronic questions for each parcel. Still, I welcomed the technology at that point, because I preferred to walk home without the burden of packages — and no matter how long it took for them to reach their destination, at least my conscience was clear.

The Mall was lovely. Holiday lights were capped by a mantle of snow. Store windows were festively decorated. A few people strolled quietly and unhurriedly. There was no cell-phone chatter, only one Mall musician and only one panhandler. Even though a small motorized plow attached to a vehicle that resembled an ATV was cruising back and forth, its driver trying valiantly to keep up, there was more soft snow than hard brick underfoot. The Mall bore a sense of late-night tranquility, though in truth, it’s not usually quiet late at night with the bars emptying and all.

By the time I walked back, the 7 Eurobar had unlocked its door, and Rhumba was open for business too. There were even a few patrons under the awning on the patio, being served from the bar through the overhead door. As I was approaching Nick-n-Willy’s I heard a strange swish-click-swish-click-swish-click and turned see a couple cross-country skiing down the middle of Pearl Street, their pole tips punching through the choppy snow and tapping onto the alphalt. (I took the photo above the following afternoon, when the snow had tapered off, and a few pedestrians, and two cross-country skiers, were wandering past the still-shuttered downtown businesses.)

Nick-n-Willy’s was warm and steamy when I picked up my pizza and walked home. Because I live in Boulder, this experience wasn’t “travel.” Still, though I wanted to share it on this blog because if I had walked through some other beautiful, quiet downtown, this would be an afternoon to file in my bank of treasured memories of that place at a special and magical time.

Park City Post Mortem

It might seem silly to leave Colorado to ski in Utah, but every once in a while, that’s what I do, especially if I’m going to meet up with people from other time zones. It is an astonishingly easy hop: an hour and change from Denver International Airport, a quick van ride to the mountains, and with a morning departure (my Southwest Airlines flight left at 8:20), it’s possible to be on the slopes before noon.

It was even easier for me this time, because my rental equipment from Ski Butlers, a three-year-old service, had well-tuned skis waiting for me at the hotel. I wouldn’t dream of using rental boots, and Ski Butlers adjusted the bindings to my boots while I quickly changed into my ski clothes. (They also rent snowboards and kids’ gear, and as a parent who once lugged my and my son’s skis through airports, I can tell you it’s worth renting children’s equipment rather than carrying it to distant slopes.)

There were no lines anywhere. I racked up more than 50,000 vertical feet skiing Tuesday afternoon and until lunchtime Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That comes out to an average of 12,500 vertical feet per half-day. Impressive!

My Utah friends were whining about the snow, which over three-and-a-half days at three ski areas was hard in spots, groomed to corduroy in others, and spring-soft in still others. But let me tell you that Europeans and Easterners would kill for the kinds of conditions that Utah skiers were complaining about. A good part of the terrain at all three areas — The Canyons, Deer Valley, and Park City Mountain Resort — was open. A bit of vegetation showed here and there, and on connector roads, the groomers had churned up a few rocks. But by and large, the cover was better than decent. But Utah skiers weren’t satisfied. They were looking for the big storm moving in from the northwest. They didn’t have long to wait after I left.

In the last 24 hours, the three Utah resorts that I just skied were blessed by the promised dump: 20 inches reported at Park City Mountain Resort, 10 inches at The Canyons, 12 inches at Deer Valley. Since these three resorts are in the same valley, I am guessing that PCMR measures its snow in a prime deposition zone — the only way I can explain such accumulation differences within just a few miles. Meanwhile, most of the ski areas in the East are either not open at all or have minimal terrain open, much as the Alps did when I was there a bit over a week ago (and continues to experience).

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.

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.