Archive | February, 2012

Cross country skiing in Colorado: My unsolicited opinion as a local

29 Feb

I recognize I’m on shaky ground here.  I’ve lived in Denver for nearly three years, and I love it.  Love it!  But I also quickly learned that you better know your stuff if you dare to talk about certain subjects.  Skiing is one of those subjects.  As one of my rockstar skier friends says “We measure difficulty by ducking ropes, backcountry, avalanche beacons and cliffs.  The general rule is that if you need to talk about it, you probably don’t belong.”

Being a novice doesn’t earn you any brownie points or invites.  The self-awareness to know where you don’t belong while understanding the lingo and terrain (so as to appreciate the stories of your more skilled friends) might get you invited to après ski.  And we all love après.

Which is my long winded way of saying I’m not going to touch alpine.  That said, I’ve recently gone cross country (Nordic) skiing a few times, and I do feel it is worth writing about.

What I enjoy about cross country skiing in Colorado

Beautiful scenery: Cross country skiing is so peaceful.  Often very near or at ski resorts, you get to see other areas.  Sometimes amidst beautiful trees or in the midst of a stunning valley, you can just take it all in.

Great exercise:  This is a frequent reaction I get from people when I mention cross country skiing.  According to the Mayo Clinic, a 160lb person burns 496 calories per hour doing said activity.  On average, I’ve been out for 2 or 3 hours.  Not bad.

Lower cost, fewer people:  In my experience, gear rental is $20 and the trail pass is another $20, give or take.  This is quite a bit less than alpine, and there are so many fewer people.  The whole “process” is just very easy and relatively stress free.

So if you want to give cross country skiing a try…where to go:

Proof. There I am cross country skiing at Devil's Thumb. For the record, looking fashionable was not an objective.

Devils Thumb Ranch: Civilized, rustic, charming…oh, and great trails too.  All that marketing language on their website…yeah, believe it.  Or believe me.  And go.  My only regret is that it was only a day trip.  And no, they don’t even know I’m writing about them.

Eldora: Directly adjacent to the downhill area, they’ve got 40 kilometers of terrain.  Another bonus, Eldora is outside of Boulder so you avoid all the I-70 mess and then can grab a fab brunch in Boulder on your way back.  Tip: Green trails are more like blues

The beautiful scenery while cross country skiing at Eldora

Strawberry Park (Beaver Creek): I haven’t been myself, but I have it on good authority (in this case Vail resident and extreme skier Chris Anthony) that it is great.  Plus, I’ve skied alpine at “The Beav” and truly enjoyed it, even as a novice.

So where are your favorite place to cross country ski, in CO or elsewhere?

Header Photo: Beaver Creek.  All photos © W2S Hilary

Going Home: A tour along Highway 68 in Salinas and Monterey California

23 Feb

Growing up, I didn’t know I lived in a tourist destination.  And nestled in between agricultural Salinas and scenic Monterey, I only sort of did.  Salmon was local and wild because it lived in “the bay.”  The Pacific Ocean was both stunning and demanding of respect (cold water, rip tides).  Pebble Beach was a just a foggy place where people golfed (ok, slight exaggeration.  I knew it was special).  We had droughts and earthquakes.  Clint (as in Eastwood) was, and still is, a beloved local celebrity and steward of the land.

I haven’t been back very frequently since I left for college, much to my parents’ dismay.  But after a recent visit this past weekend, I felt it was time to write about it.  I’ll leave the complete reviews of Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur to others.  Chris Gray Faust (of Chris around the world) has done a nice, very recent “California Dreaming” series.  My take is decidedly more personal and a little off the beaten track.

The charm of Highway 68

Highway 68 is the mostly two lane road the links Salinas and Monterey.  It does connect with Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway) for a section in Monterey before splitting off again.  And it has treasures all along the way.  Or maybe they are just treasures to me because they play a role in my past.  Either way, they are still worth checking out.

The Farm

The Farm: Local and organic situated at the Spreckles exit just outside of Salinas, they sell produce, have great kids programming, and sell homemade pies along with produce.  Closed during the winter months, I stopped by to take a few pics.  There were a few people tending to the fields and a happy spotted goat scampering on a roof.  Being here reminds me of the way I wish I could eat every day (a personal chef would be nice too).  I have one of their “Bunny lettuce” signs framed in my apartment in Denver to remind me of my roots.

Toro Place Café: Literally just off the highway (on the eastbound side), this place says dive in all the best ways.  How does a Cali girl learn to love biscuits and gravy?  You guessed it.  It is also inextricably linked with my sister and our childhood and summer and picking blackberries in our backyard.  So I don’t know how the food is these days and frankly I don’t care.  Go for nostalgia alone.

Toro Place Cafe

Tarpy’s Roadhouse: Not too far from the local airport on the westbound side of the highway.  I ate here just last weekend and the food was pretty good.  The warm sourdough bread always served hot has forever served as the standard by which I judge bread.  The grounds are beautiful.  My family celebrated a lot of milestones here, and it always feels like home.

Tarpy's Roadhouse

The Golden Tee (2nd Floor, Monterey Peninsula Airport): Oh, my darling local airport.  If only United didn’t make it so expensive to fly non-stop to you directly from Denver.  Good food, nice view…worth going.

Carmel Beach: Ok, so this is touristy, and I don’t care.  Carmel itself is just so darn cute (be sure to visit the Cheese Shop in Carmel Plaza).  Dogs are welcome on the beach which makes it a fave with locals.

Carmel Beach

Nice views of Pebble and those Cypress trees all make for lovely photos.  No matter what life is throwing at me, somehow I feel like I can always breath again when I’m here.

One final word

So perhaps a more personal post than most…for me this is where “someday” began.

Header Photo: Carmel Beach.  All photos © W2S Hilary

Musings on Pinterest and Travel

17 Feb

How I came to know and love Pinterest

Two months ago, I didn’t know what Pinterest was and the concept didn’t make sense to me.  One of my close friends, digital rockstar and fellow blogger Wendy from Suburban Misfit, sent me an invite.  They are still invite only right now.  And they are making a splash on the social media scene.  According to a Wall Street Journal article, they currently have 11 Million users and are growing fast.  If you need a beginners guide, Mashable has a good one.  Oh, and for wordpress.com bloggers, there is a really easy explanation of how to add it to your blog.  But seriously, just get an invite from one of your friends and play around.  The addiction will take on a life of its own.

Wedding planning, fashion and interior design are some of the hot verticals right now, which leads me to contemplate how it will play out in the world of travel.

Where to begin: Travel bloggers, travel magazines and the like

There isn’t a lot of lists out there like there are for fashion.  A helpful blog post on the topic from Budget Travel got me on my journey.    I’m quite certain my list will change, evolve, and expand over time.  But I’ve got to start somewhere.  So without further ado:

  • Chris Gray Faust: Besides lots of pretty pictures, all her boards feel personal.  Her “Quotes to live by” board has me inspired in life, not just travel.
  • Johnny Jet: High on the gorgeous photo quotient, his boards are well organized.  I’m repinning, so that is a good sign.
  • Travel Channel: Glossy, glossy, glossy with a lot of pins.  I’m loving the eye candy, and I’m curious to see what they’ll do.  They are asking their followers what they want to see.  Answers were wide ranging, but I am happy they are asking the question.
  • Budget Travel: With only 3 boards, they are clearly doing some curating, and I think that is smart.  One of those boards is on “Reader’s Best Travel Photos,” and I think that method of engagement has lot of potential.

So where will it go?  Interesting intersections of travel with weddings, fashion, and photography

So I talked earlier about some of the popular categories on Pinterest: fashion, weddings etc.  I’m interested in the cocktail.

  • Travel + Weddings = Honeymoon: I’m sure this is happening already, but I would have to imagine it will increase.  And the ability to target market if the data about those aspirations were available…
  • Travel + Fashion= Happiness: Ok, I have to go on a brief tangent.  I travel a lot, and I don’t look good in many of those photos.  No perfect accessory, variable weather, the comfort factor, hair won’t cooperate if humidity is present.  I’m sending a wish into cyberspace that some board or blend of National Geo + Real Simple+ Nina Garcia (names indicative only) will help me to “Travel Cute.”  Sigh.  And not go broke.  Sigh, Sigh.  And be comfy-ish.
  • Travel + Photography= Someday Moments: Some view Pinterest as too aspirational (clothes I can’t afford, space I don’t have), but I think of it as inspiration for reality.  I recently repinned a crazy beautiful photo of the aurora borealis, something I’ve always wanted to see, and will someday.  The photo reminds me to stay focused on creating my own memory, my own moment.  I hope that you will do the same.

So…who do you follow on Pinterest for Travel?  What interesting intersections do you see?

Header Photo: Volcano and sunrise as viewed from hot air balloon in Cappadocia, Turkey  October 2009  © W2S Hilary

My Arctic Adventure: polar bears, glaciers, and midnight sun

1 Feb

How it all began…

I know exactly the moment when I added “The Arctic” to my mental travel bucket list.  I was in Antarctica with a friend who I will call my polar buddy.  After doing the polar plunge in the Southern Ocean, she turned to me and said “Was that your fourth ocean?”  I pondered for a moment and said “Yes, I think so.”  “Mine too,” she said.  And it was done.  So a year and half later, I sent an email asking if she was ready to do it the following year.  She was.

the Arctic, Svalbard Archipelago

The Arctic, Svalbard Archipelago. A short, steep guided hike provided a stunning view, including our boat

In all reality, this is a trip you do once in a lifetime.  Even on the “less expensive” end of the scale, it is expensive.  Ballpark, 10k per person.  So it had better be good.  For those of you who know you want to go, skip to the end for my tips.  For those of you who want the virtual journey, read on.  Perhaps you’ll be planning a trip of your own soon.

Polar Bears, please

The Svalbard archipelago is one of several places to see amazing arctic wildlife, including polar bears.  There are roughly 3,000 polar bears in the area.  To see them in their natural habitat, while sailing amidst glaciers glowing under the midnight sun, was a key draw for me.  I did get my moments, but the polar bears had to teach me their own lesson first: patience.

The staff and the captain on the National Geographic Explorer expedition ship were all looking for bears.  Up on the bridge, our wonderful captain came up and said, to no one in particular, with a thick german accent, “See anything white and furry?”  Guess you had to be there.  For the record, they aren’t easy to spot from several miles off, through a scope, on the white snow.  They look like little yellow potato chips crumbs that move.  I do mean little.  “Pixel bears” is how one staff member described them.  This is one reason why the skill and expertise of the expedition team are so important.

Also, it needs to be said that passengers aren’t patient, myself included.  We’ve seen the one in a million photo of the polar bear with its paws on the boat parked in the ice.  Savvy travelers note: don’t get hung up on the number of bears a boat sees.  Quality polar bear sightings are what matter.  Pixel bears are just pixel bears, even if they do make for a higher bear count.

Cuter than a puppy…Polar bear cubs!

We did get to see quite a few polar bears.  Like all mammals, they have a sense of play and silliness.  Watching a polar bear do a butt slide down a snow bank almost made me laugh out loud.  I also watched a polar bear perfect what I would liken to the yoga pose “downward dog.”  “Downward bear” was cleaning its face.  These are the rewards of patience.

Polar Bear (Mother and cubs)

Polar Bears in the Arctic

Well, that and two polar bear cubs with their mother.  And a kill.  Cuteness overload (minus the seal carcass).  After a slow approach on the boat, we got to watch them for about an hour.  They ate, faces streaked with red.  They snuggled with Mom.  They traipsed about on the snow.  Time stood still.  That is why I’d come.  National Geo/Lindblad does day-to-day write-ups and publishes them online.  Looking at all of the expeditions after mine, it seems they each got some memorable moments.  This was mine.  But it wasn’t the only one.

Can I pet the whale?

Fin Whale surfacing next to the boat

Fin Whale in the Arctic surfacing next to the boat

And what to our wondering eyes should appear but a 60 foot fin whale surfacing very near.  Unreal.  Completely unreal.  Thanks to skilled staff and a patient captain (and a little luck), a fin whale surfaced right next to the boat.  As in, I had to point my camera down.  This was completely unexpected, even to the staff, and almost no one had seen a fin whale this close up.  When the marine biologist, a whale specialist, is on cloud 9, you know that you’ve had another once in a lifetime moment.

A few more of my favorite polar moments

  • Sunbathing on the ice.  Thanks to the creativity of the staff and an obliging piece of ice, a few of us got to play model.  One of my favorite memories

    Welcome2Someday "sunbathing" in the Arctic

    "Sunbathing" in the Arctic...a "someday" moment

  • Ocean 5: Brrrrr.  The sun was shining and the water looked like the Bahamas, but… not so much.  In a carefully orchestrated exercise to ensure safety, many of us jumped in, one at a time.  And then out, as fast as I possibly could.  Luckily the boat had a sauna.  Aaaah.
  • Gil: As in the former chairman of National Geographic who was our global luminary on the boat.  He was charming and down to earth with stories of an amazing life.  I had several conversations with him.  He doesn’t know it, but he is part of the inspiration behind this blog.

Planning a trip to the Arctic

One year out.  If you want your choice of operators, dates, and discounts, please follow that advice.  To be clear, the discounts are meaningful (e.g. $1k), and the less expensive rooms go fast.

Polar buddy and I used Expedition Trips out of Seattle.  They don’t charge you a fee, they know their trips because they’ve been on them, and they respond quickly to email.  We used them to help us figure out Antarctica, and we were happy.  Hence, the repeat business.  There are multiple places to go in the Arctic, with Svalbard (above Norway) being one of the most common.  Canada and Greenland are also options, but we didn’t look too much at that.

We chose to go with National Geographic/Lindblad (per the advice of Expedition Trips) on the first boat of the season (against their recommendation).  Your individual needs will vary, but let me provide a few key points with commentary:

  • More expertise=better polar bears: A higher end operator will likely provide a better experience because you need their expertise to find and spot the wildlife, esp. the polar bears (Great advice.  Spotting bears is hard and a great captain will determine how close you can get.)
  • Every trip is different=go when it suits your schedule: My work schedule dictated when we could go, so first trip of the season it was.  After many conversations, my conclusion was that one trip could have x bears and the next could have 3x bears, regardless of timing.  Or so I justified to myself and polar buddy.
  • Bear season is short.  Effectively, June-August is your window.  I went in early June.  And much to my dismay, it does not coincide with the aurora borealis.  At all.

My Top 5 Tips for traveling to the Arctic

  •  Ski wear + lounge wear=all you need.  It isn’t as cold as you think so standard ski wear works just fine.  Jeans and a fleece work for the boat.
  • Know your camera in advance.  There is a lot of opportunity to learn about photography, but you want to be ready to jump when they spot Arctic wildlife
  • Spend time on the bridge: Staff were always present bear spotting and the captain was often there himself.  Ask questions.  Listen.  Watch.
  • Midnight sun=wear a lot of sunscreen.  It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t matter what time it is.  You could easily be outside for a wildlife sighting at 11pm.
  • Do it all, if you can.  Kayaking, hiking, lectures, meals with staff.  You won’t sleep much because of the midnight sun, so take advantage.  Let’s be honest.  This is all once in a lifetime.
  • Bonus: Look at your pictures during the trip.  I didn’t notice a dust spot (soon cleaned from the sensor) until the 2nd to last day.  It was easily removed from the photos using editing software upon my return, but there were a lot of pictures to fix!

Enjoy!

Header Photo: Polar Bear in Svalbard, Norway June 2011.  All photos: Svalbard, Norway  ©W2S Hilary

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