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
http://www.globalcommunity.org/flash/wombat.shtml, 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.

Seven New Wonders

The creative powers at ABC-TV’s “Good Morning, America” and USA Today, mindful that all but one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have vanished, appointed a high-profile panel to come up with Seven New Wonders of the World that are relevant to travelers today. These have been broadcast and written about in print over the last week. I’m humbled by having experienced (or nearly experienced) all but one. The panelists’ list:

  • The Mayan pyramids of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. The first one I ever visited was Chichen-Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula more than 25 years ago. In searing heat, I climbed the steep steps to the top of the great pyramid and marveled at the excavated city round me and the jungle beyond. Since then, I have been to Tulum, also on the Yucatan but fabulously situated on the coast, and to Copan in Honduras, which was still only partially excavated when my husband and I visited.
  • The great semi-annual migration of millions of animals across Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. After climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro a decade ago, my family and I took a private photo safari into four Tanzian national parks, including the Serengeti. It was not migration season, but our wildlife sightings were among the most awe-inspiring experiences we have ever had. We saw thousands of lions, cheetahs, giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, elephants, baboons, and ungulates, birds and wild canines of various sorts. We stood on the overlook above the the Olduvai Gorge, where anthropologists Richard and Mary Leakey had discovered footprints of ancient homonids. As we gazed down from the viewing platform far from the digsite, the gorge itself looked as if it could have been in the Southwest, but knowing what it was made it special. The panelists mentioned the Olduvai Gorge as an ancillary wonder in Tanzania.
  • The recently designated Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument made the list. Until I saw a Jean-Michel Cousteau television documentary on this remote archipelago shortly before the act was signed to protect it, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of this 1,200-mile-long string of islands northwest of Oahu. I’ve been to Hawaii a number of times and never thought much about what might be out there “beyond” Kauai. Now it is the world’s largest marine sanctuary. One of the panelists is renowned marine biologist, Dr. Sylvia Earle, so it’s little wonder that this pristine marine sanctuary made the list.
  • The polar ice caps, rightly described by USA Today both as “inhospitable” and as “astonishingly beautiful and incomprehensibly vast.” The panelists also noted that their melting is yet another alarm about global warming. I have been to the Antarctic Peninsula during the austral summer, which isn’t the same as seeing the ice cap itseself — but I experienced fringes of the frozen continent, saw glaciers and icebergs and was enchanted by the stark and lonely beauty of the place.
  • Old City Jerusalem was selected for its “central place in religious history and struggles for tolerance.” The first Society of American Travel Writers annual convention I attended was in Israel in 1983. The struggles were evident even then, but so were the phenomenal beauty of the Old City and the special feeling I got from walking along ancient cobblestoned streets and visiting holy places of the three major Western religions. How I wish that the peaceful principles of all three were in effect rather than the turf wars fought in the name of all of these faiths.
  • Tibet’s Potala Palace is a commanding physical presence over the capital city of Lhasa and remains a symbolic and spiritual presence for the Buddhist community, even though the present Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959 and remains separate from this holy place. I have been to China three times but never to Tibet. It’s on the list.
  • The Internet. The panelists said that the “Web redefines reality.” By posting this, I am part of it, and by reading it, you are as well.

Of flights, flying and the TSA, Part Deux

On Nov. 5, I posted my thoughts about the Transportation Stupidity Agency on this blog. More recently, the far better-known and wa-a-a-ay more articulate Anna Quindlen wrote about the same thing in Newsweek. “Osama bin Laden could get through the line if the name on his license was the same as that on his ticket and he wasn’t packing Oil of Olay,” was the call-out subhead for her column.

She told of scooping half-an-ounce of face cream from a 3.5-ounce jar so that it wouldn’t be confiscated. “Is this any way to run an airline?,” she asked, articulating my complaints of just a few days ago. “Between constant delays and nonexistent services, flying has become the modern version of seafaring steerage accommodations. But nothing has made it seem worse than the long lines of bedraggled and beaten-down travelers at security checkpoints, pouring their change into plastic tubs, standing in stocking feet as their shoes are scanned, proffering zip-lock bags full of face creams and foundation.”

And in a great leap to big-picture analysis that I never thought to post, she wrote: “This is not merely an inconvenience. The whole cockeyed system has become a symbol of the shortcomings of government programs and responses. It’s expensive, arbitrary and infuriating; it turns low-wage line workers into petty despots. And instead of making Americans feel safer, its sheer silliness illuminates how impotent we are in the face of terrorism. The hustle and bustle at U.S. checkpoints is window dressing, another one of those rote, unthinking exercises that are the hallmark of bureaucracies, like ‘Bleak House’ with luggage.”

Read her entire column at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15562940/site/newsweek/ — and don’t forget your one-quart zip-lock bag when you head for the airport.

Fare or Foul?

Money magazine is the latest purporting to let the travel public in on air fare secrets. Such articles are almost as ubiquitous as turkey recipes at this time of year. I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t learn anything new from that piece. It failed to mention www.priceline.com with its auction-style pricing and www.hotwire.com, which is ideal if you want a bargain fare, are willing to fly on their choice of carriers (sometimes with a change of planes), and aren’t fussy about the time of day you fly (often meaning an early-morning departure). Also, I’ve often found the best deals on the airlines’ own websites, which sometimes also give bonus miles — not trivial if you are trying to stack up mileage on a particular airline for a business class ticket to that dream destination.

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.