Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Vail Resorts to buy 2 Midwest ski areas, including Mount Brighton, for $20M

originally appeared on annarbor.com from The Associated Press:

Vail Resorts Inc. said Thursday it is buying the family-owned Afton Alps ski area in Minnesota and Mount Brighton outside Detroit for a total of $20 million cash, giving it access to urban markets ripe with beginning skiers and snowboarders, as well as those who like to travel and take advantage of excellent Vail Ski Vacation rentals.

Starting immediately, Afton Alps and Mount Brighton season pass holders can get 25 percent off the window rate on lift tickets for Vail Resorts' Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado and the Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood ski areas in the Lake Tahoe area.

Broomfield, Colo.-based Vail Resorts plans to connect Afton Alps and Mount Brighton to its seven other resorts through season pass and lift ticket products before next ski season.

Afton Alps base operations manager said he was very excited about the news, we're ecstatic.

Vail Resorts plans to upgrade each ski area's snowmaking, parking, terrain parks, racing programs, dining and entertainment options, and instruction programs. Exact budgets haven't been determined.

It also will review the potential for adding more summer activities. Both Midwest resorts already have golf courses.

Vail Resorts CEO said the acquisitions are part of a new strategy to drive season pass sales and build broader customer loyalty. That strategy is focusing on urban-area small ski areas, where many learn to ski or ride before being tempted to destination resorts in the West.

More people in the Midwest take a trip somewhere else to ski than any other market, he said. By having a local presence and really making a better connection with people, we can do better a job getting them to come to our resorts over other resorts. Or if we make it a better experience to learn to ski and ride, that's a huge opportunity for our company.

It's a terrific way to get closer to where the customer lives, he said.

Improving beginners' experience has been a key initiative of the ski industry overall as it works to keep people interested in the sport.

The nearly 300-acre Afton Alps is about 33 miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, which has more than 161,000 skiers and snowboarders, Vail Resorts said. The 130-acre Mount Brighton is about 45 miles from Detroit and within reach of more than 307,000 skiers and snowboarders. Together, the markets have more skiers and snowboarders than Colorado, Katz said.

By contrast, Vail Resorts' four Colorado resorts are all at least 70 miles from Denver.

Mount Brighton's general manager didn't return a phone message seeking comment Thursday evening.

Afton Alps, founded in 1963 by three farmers living out a dream to build a ski area, wasn't looking for a buyer when Vail Resorts approached but found the Colorado company's focus on creating an experience of a lifetime appealing, said their co-owner.

We think it's a promising new future for Afton Alps, she said. It preserves the legacy that the family has made, and it gives customers and employees an opportunity to join an amazing group of ski areas.

Florida's Best Islands

originally appeared on OutsideOnline.com:

Q: What Are the Best Undiscovered Island Escapes in Florida?

I’ve been to Key West and it’s great, but I’m looking for an undiscovered island alternative in Florida. What are my options?

A: Florida's Best Islands: Anna Maria Island

Anna Maria Island
Even though Anna Maria Island sits less than an hour south of Tampa Bay, this accessible, family-friendly sand patch feels completely removed from the urban bustle. There’s no McDonald’s on the seven-mile-long island due to strict zoning laws, local ordinances limit building heights to no more than three stories, and free trolleys run up and down its length on Gulf Drive so you can hop a ride instead of driving your car. The result is a pretension-free hideout that’s surprisingly young and vibrant for a Florida coastal island.

MUST: Take the three-hour Dolphin and Manatee Tour led by Adventure Kayak Tours through mangrove tunnels and protected waterways around the island ($55 per person).

Cedar Key
If you want to know what Key West must have been like back in the Hemingway days, come to secluded Cedar Key, which sits off the Florida coast below the panhandle. This quiet town of less than 1,000 people sits on Way Key, buffered from the mainland by a necklace of marshy, protected islands. The cedar trees in these parts were once used to make pencils, and John Muir spent time here in 1867 while recovering from malaria. Today, though, the locals make their living off a booming clamming industry the smattering of tourists who come to cast a line from the fishing pier or toast the sunset at a watering hole like the Big Deck Raw Bar.

MUST: Paddle along shores of Cedar Key and explore the surrounding islands with Kayak Cedar Keys.

Siesta Key
You’ll never confuse eight-mile-long Siesta Key, floating off the Gulf Coast below Sarasota and above Fort Myers, with the famed keys south of Miami—and that’s a good thing. This barrier island has long, wide confectionary white sand beaches, the likes of which folks in Key West will only see in their dreams. Though Siesta Key has a definite resort feel, it’s not expensive or overdeveloped, and it's relatively untouched by the Sunshine State's signature blight: millionaire mansions, high-end hotels, and high-rise condos. The best beaches and places to shop and eat are found near the island’s northern tip, in small but bustling Siesta Village. Entertain yourself by fishing, paddleboarding, or kayaking (you can rent equipment from Siesta Sports Rentals).

MUST: The outdoor drum circle that performs on Sunday nights in Siesta Village.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How to save on family holiday travel

originally appeared in USA Today:

During the holidays, family travel usually involves visiting friends and relatives or that much-anticipated vacation destination. But the holidays are also high season. That means top hotel rates, restaurants serving expensive meals, and stages hosting sparkling ballets, plays and rock concerts at premium prices. Here are some tips on how to stretch your holiday budget by saving money on food, lodging and fees.

Cheap eats on the go

Eat the street food. Take advantage of the food truck revolution to cut your lunch costs. In Boston, New York, Washington, D.C, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin and other urban locales, skilled cooks serve up imaginative fare from their mobile kitchens. The vendors tend to specialize in one main dish, tweaking the ingredients. Empanadas can be beef with potato or Jambalaya style with shrimp, sausage and rice. Tacos come filled with chicken, beef or even lobster. And for dessert, look for trucks selling waffles, cupcakes or custom-made ice cream sandwiches. These mobile meals-on-wheels rove the downtown districts, parking for awhile and then moving on. To track the trucks, check the destination's official visitor website for links and for apps.

Browse the green markets. Indoor farmers' markets bloom in major cities from Toronto to Los Angeles. Although winter might mean fewer home-grown vegetables, the markets lure neighbors and visitors by selling aromatic breads, fresh-baked pastries, crisp apples and other seasonal fruit as well as organic salads and deli meats. Dine in at the markets' inexpensive caf├ęs or bring some goodies back to your hotel room or to your relatives' house.

Rooms with meals

Pick a property that includes breakfast. When rates include complimentary breakfast, whether it's a cooked-to-order meal or a Continental spread, you start your day saving money.

Make sure your room has a refrigerator. Stock your fridge with milk, juice and bottled water purchased at a nearby store, thus saving money on costly honor bar items. When traveling with little ones, buy plastic bowls and spoons as well as cold cereal and baby food. Tots can then eat breakfast when hungry, even if it's before the hotel restaurant opens. If refrigerators aren't standard features, hotels may supply them for a fee. Like all extras, availability is limited, so request a fridge when you make your room reservation.

Book a condo. Not only do these lodgings offer more space for the money than hotel rooms, but they also come with kitchens. That makes it easy to cook breakfasts and dinners, thus saving on restaurant bills.

Cook for the relatives. Instead of taking Aunt Sally, Uncle Bill and their families out to a restaurant to thank them for their hospitality, cook dinner for them. This is less costly and often less hectic than requiring youngsters to sit through a multi-course meal at a restaurant.

The destination

Consider a home exchange. By swapping your vacant place for someone else's, you can enjoy a getaway in Europe, the Caribbean or anywhere else you can find a family to live in your home while you live in theirs, all for much less money than renting a hotel or villa. Depending on what you want, trading places can get you multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, maybe a backyard and possibly extras like a car. Home exchange companies typically charge a membership fee and/or a monthly listing fee. If you've always wanted to treat your mom and dad to Christmas in Rome, then swapping homes can make this dream trip an affordable holiday gift.

Try an all-inclusive resort. The upfront cost covers all meals, activities and often children's programs. Especially with always hungry and active tweens and teens, all-inclusives can save you money.

Share a condo or villa with another family. Sharing a three-bedroom condo or villa with another family costs less than booking a two-bedroom unit yourself. But beware: nothing tests buddies like living with someone. The key to a successful trip that maintains the friendship is honest talk ahead of time. Discuss who will cook and clean; which couple gets to bunk in the master bedroom with the private bath; and what house rules will govern the kids' television viewing and bedtimes.

Money matters

Price various travel options. Compare the cost of driving, versus flying or boarding the bus, especially on the East Coast where discount bus services sell promotional seats sometimes for as little as $1.

Consider travel insurance. For that guided safari in Kenya, Caribbean family cruise, or other prepaid, big-ticket item, if your 8-year-old pops out with measles the day before you leave, you won't get your money back unless you're covered by the appropriate travel insurance. As always, read the fine print.

Use the right credit card. Don't add to the amount you owe by putting meals, lodging and other purchases in a foreign locale on a credit card that charges for converting non-U.S. currencies into dollars. Pick a credit card that foregoes these fees.

Look for package deals and passes. During the holidays, hotels bundle admission to special attractions into their packages and big cities offer combination passes that discount admission to several attractions for one fee. The caveat: This is only a deal if you expect to visit most of the museums and places featured within the allotted time frame.

Play with coupons. Check out social media for slashed prices. LivingSocial.com, Groupon.com and other digital discount sites may have just the money-saver you need to make that water skiing excursion or dining at a fine restaurant affordable.

With winter on its way, it's time to start planning a sunny getaway

originally appeared in USA Today:

With winter on its way, it's time to start planning a sunny family getaway. But don't limit your escape to a familiar resort or theme park, says one of the founders of TheVacationGals.com blog. She suggests the surprise of a new place on vacation is something that's so wonderful.

Palm Springs, Calif.

This desert getaway appeals to all ages, Williams says. For adults, there are spas, golf, shopping and restaurants, while kids will love the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, the hands-on Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert, or a family hike to 49 Palms Oasis at nearby Joshua Tree National Park.

Puerto Rico

You may not need a passport, but this Caribbean island offers an exotic international getaway close to home for families, couples or singles. There's plenty of natural appeal from kayaking in a bioluminescent bay where microscopic algae glow in the dark, to jungle hiking in El Yunque National Forest, Williams says. Or soak in history wandering the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. Visit on a Sunday and watch kite fliers at Fort San Felipe del Morro, a stone citadel.

Lake Charles, La.

Celebrate Mardi Gras family-style at this southwestern Louisiana city, where the parades and festivities play up tradition more than titillation. There's also opportunity for beaches, biking, and exploring marshland along the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. The food is so good, and the scenery is just pretty with Spanish moss and big oak trees and swamp land.

Island of Hawaii

It's volcanoes that draw Miner to the Big Island of Hawaii. You can go and see the lava flowing into the ocean and the island getting bigger. One of her favorite excursions is hiking through Thurston Lava Tube at Volcanoes National Park. For kids who have a little bit of Indiana Jones in them, it's an incredible place. And for beaches, the island's Kohala coast can't be beat.

Carlsbad, Calif.

This northern San Diego County town attracts families to its Legoland theme park, but for Miner the appeal goes further. This is a beachy community, it has a nice small-town feel. You can watch surfers tackle the waves, and even sign up for surfing school to try it yourself.

Atlanta

Lots of folks switch planes in Atlanta, but it's also a great place to spend some time. Family favorites include the massive Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca Cola Museum, which has a giant tasting room where visitors can try scores of the company's beverages sold around the world. Tip: Watch out for Beverly, the bitter Italian soda that's so bad, it's good. For an active outing, Stone Mountain offers hikes, a tram ride and even a ropes course. Although the city occasionally gets snow, it quickly disappears.

Turks and Caicos

This Caribbean nation with powder-white sand keeps sun lovers happy, but there's also enough variety to break up beach days. Activities include a conch farm a former cotton plantation and humpback whale watching. But the common denominator is a laid-back pace. You go with the flow and relax.

Sanibel Island, Fla.

You'll get a beach vacation, but so much more at this Gulf Coast Island near Fort Myers. The island's location makes it one of the best places to find seashells in the country. Who wouldn't love shelling on the beach and wading in the mellow, mellow waters?  Biking's easy on the flat island, and so is kayaking at J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Tucson

You get a feel for Mexico and the Wild West in this laid-back Arizona city. One suggestion is to start with a visit to Old Tucson Studios, which celebrates the movies filmed here with sets, cowboy gunfights and stunt shows. Another day, visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden. It's an environment that's so unique and so different.

Los Angeles

The West Coast megalopolis is already on many vacation lists, but one of the city's residents says LA is more than Hollywood and beaches. One of her favorite stops: La Brea Tar Pits, where saber-tooth cats and mammoths emerge from archaeological digs while city traffic zooms by. It brings home the fact that our time is just on a dot on the planet, she says. Other favorites: Universal Studios theme park and sprawling Griffith Park.