Monday, January 14, 2013

What's the best beach town in Florida?

originally appeared in USA Today:

With thousands of snowbirds pointing their convertibles south to the Sunshine State for a dose of winter warmth, we asked "Dr. Beach"— aka a Florida International University professor and coastal expert — for 10 Florida destinations that combine sand, surf and a welcoming sense of community. His favorites, in alphabetical order:

Clearwater Beach: Meet volleyball heaven on the Gulf Coast, with some of the best girl- and boy-watching I've ever seen near Pier 60. Beautiful vacations can be booked through Longboat Key Vacation Rentals.

Cocoa Beach: This onetime astronaut hangout near the Kennedy Space Center is famous for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, along with a great pier and surf shop, Ron Jon's, whose flagship store will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year.

Delray Beach: A surprising find in South Florida, with a walkable downtown, locally owned shops and a lively bar scene. Sanibel and Captiva Island vacations can be very affordable and a great value.

Key West: Free-wheeling Margaritaville is crowded, but with good reason. Its two beaches (Smathers and Fort Zachary Taylor) may not be that great for Florida, but certainly are by U.S. standards.

New Smyrna Beach: Though Dr. Beach frowns on the practice from an environmental point of view, this laid-back surfing outpost at the mouth of the Indian River in east central Florida still lets you drive on the beach. If you're looking for a great vacation, contact Sarasota Vacation Rentals for an excellent deal.

Pensacola Beach: This Panhandle town features great public access to incredibly wide beaches, bay or Gulf of Mexico swimming, and nearby Fort Pickens, where Apache leader Geronimo was imprisoned.

Sanibel Island: Yes, you have to pay $6 to get there via a causeway. But once you reach this upscale Gulf Coast barrier island, you'll find the country's No. 1 shelling area, no stoplights, and strict building codes that limit new structures to two stories in height.

Seaside: A master-planned country beach town on the Florida Panhandle, Seaside was made for coalescing over front porches and white picket fences. Lesser known, but extremely beautiful, is Anna Maria Island where you can escape the large crowds and relax.

Siesta Key: Last year's winner of Dr. Beach's best beach in America survey, this Gulf Coast barrier island southwest of Sarasota has the finest white sand in the world.

South Beach: Celebrity-packed Manhattan on the beach hosts an annual polo tournament each spring and remains one of the world's most famous strands. Another hidden gem can be found at Destin Beach.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Colorado Resorts Increasingly Seek International Business

originally appeared on

The ski industry runs on snow, some resorts more than others. Ski towns like Aspen and Vail still get business in spite of poor snow.

Last year while many resorts took a huge hit, Aspen did well because of one type of guest: the international visitor. This sought after tourist books longer vacations, spends more money and cares less about poor snow than other guests. As drought conditions persist this winter, ski resorts are banking on business from overseas.

On a wet December evening in Aspen, a tourist and his family are strolling downtown. They just arrived from Monaco, and they’re popping in and out of restaurants and shops festooned with Christmas lights. He says they’ve been vacationing in Aspen for years.

We first came here in March of 1988, we loved it, we liked the atmosphere and everything that goes on here, and we liked the skiing of course, which is on the whole, better than in Europe, he says.

Ski resorts dream about visitors like the tourists' family. They typically stay for three or four weeks at a time in both winter and summer:

And when the families arrive in Aspen, they bring along their pocketbooks.

The international guest spends more while they’re here, and they stay longer and they book further in advance so for those reasons the international guest is at the top of the economic totem pole, according to a local travel research group.

He tracks market conditions at ski resorts for the Mountain Travel Research Program. He says resorts spend millions on overseas ad campaigns specifically designed to get visitors like international tourists and their family to the mountains.

He says international guests often book vacations despite poor snow, keeping resorts afloat in particularly challenging years, like last year:

Skier days were down quite a bit, Aspen did better on skier days and destination visitation because it has more of a destination clientele.

Aspen bucked last season’s ski industry trend, maintaining steady business compared to the year before, while skier visits at resorts across the country dropped 16 percent.

International visitors are always important to us, they always have been, but over the last five or ten years, that importance has been increasing, according to a spokesman for The Aspen Skiing Company.

He says the company works with travel agencies abroad, so when an Australian decides to book a trip, their travel agent points to deals specifically in Aspen.

We have an international sales team out there, they travel 15/20 countries around the world, mostly prior to the winter season...I think it’s no secret that our biggest markets, just go out on the slopes in January and February, and you’ll hear a lot of Australian accents, you’ll hear Portuguese from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Germany and the U.K., all of those are the top markets, he says.

Aspen’s gondola plaza feels like a model United Nations these days, with every language and clothing style represented.

Aspen is among a handful of Colorado resorts that attract this international clientele. Their resort analyst says for some resorts, overseas business makes up 20 percent of their overall mix.

Most of the business is domestic business, some of the larger brands that have been around the longest and have the biggest reputations have relatively more international business.

And the reputation of Aspen, along with Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs and Telluride attract this kind of clientele.

Back in downtown Aspen, the tourist from Monaco is preparing for a jam-packed holiday with his family.

Some of us will be skiing or snowboarding, others will be mooching around town, going to parties, and going to restaurants, a lot of reading and writing...a mixture of things.

He and his family will be spending money along the way. And that’s exactly what the resort that spent so much money to get him here in the first place, wants.

Colorado adventures good substitute for 2013 resolutions

originally appeared in The Denver Post:

I've made my annual "eat less, exercise more" resolutions for the new year. These are perennial promises to myself; some years I execute them better than others. For 2013, I've added travel resolutions to the mix.

Sure, I'd love to spend 10 days with my husband in Tahiti in an over-water bungalow — but that's a travel dream. And it's likely only going to happen if we win the lottery or after we've paid two kids' college tuitions.

Instead, I've come up with some manageable adventures in Colorado that I think my family can accomplish in a year. Let's see how many of these we can tick off in 365 days.

Visit Telluride and Crested Butte: I've lived in Colorado since 1994, but I've never been to either of these mountain towns — a travesty for someone like me who likes to ski and hike!

Ideally this summer, I'll make the day-long trek along West Maroon Trail from Aspen to Crested Butte with a girlfriend or two. Then we'll have our husbands pick us up, spend the weekend in Crested Butte, and drive home.

Soak in Dunton Hot Springs: In lieu of Tahiti, I'd "settle" for a weekend at Dunton Hot Springs. Years ago friends visited the year-round resort, raving about its private natural hot springs, and it's been on my wish list ever since.

Though the upscale property welcomes children, I think my husband and I (sans kids) would best appreciate the fine dining and cozy log cabins. Also on my radar: nearby sister property Cresto Ranch, whose luxury, safari-style tents debut to visitors this spring.

Spend the night in our pop-up camper: Admittedly, I like nice hotel stays. I appreciate room service, hot showers and sheets that are nicer than the ones I have at home. However, there's something to be said for roughing it in the outdoors with s'mores around the fire and storytelling in sleeping bags.

We've made some amazing family memories on camping trips in Rocky Mountain National Park, at Colorado National Monument and on Steamboat Lake, but for some reason, last summer we didn't use our beat-up pop-up camper at all. I'm eyeing Turquoise Lake Recreation Area near Leadville, but open to suggestions for a new-to-us camping spot.

Hike a 14er with the kids: Last summer my husband and 12-year-old daughter hiked to the top of Mount Sopris, certainly an impressive feat, with its rock fields, high-alpine ridge trail and frustrating false summits. However, this massive mountain that looms over the Roaring Fork Valley tops out at just less than 13,000 feet.

I'd like the entire family to summit a true Colorado fourteener, perhaps one of the mountains recommended for novice peak baggers: Mount Bierstadt or Mount Sherman.

Play at a dude ranch — again: Among my family's favorite in-state vacations a few years ago was a stay at Elk Mountain Ranch, where the staff's down-home, friendly, welcoming nature made me want to take up residence to become a wrangler — and I'm not a horse person!

I appreciate the easy, all-inclusive nature of a dude-ranch stay, where one fee covers accommodations, gourmet meals and a plethora of activities, from trail rides and fishing to archery and river rafting. No televisions, limited cell service, a whole lot of family togetherness in the outdoors. That's my kind of trip.

On the night side of Heavenly Mountain Resort

originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee:

An incoming blizzard makes a dark line that billows on the horizon as the sun sets. Flags drooping on poles begin to lift and flap.

In a room that's a nerve center for Heavenly Mountain Resort on Lake Tahoe's South Shore, a dispatch officer scribbles on a status board – rising gusts mean the speed of a gondola taking the last skiers off the hill has to be reduced from 4.2 meters per second to a safer 3.5.

It's late afternoon, but the day is just beginning for a small army of personnel who will work throughout the night, readying the mountain for the next day's onslaught of eager skiers and snowboarders.

In the pump house at the resort's California Lodge, the program director scans a Dell monitor displaying readouts from various sensors on the hill.

It's 28 degrees on the summit, 45 at the base, and falling quickly. Plus 41 percent humidity. We should really be able to blow tonight. The program director is a 25-year veteran of snowmaking.

In his profession, "blowing it" equals success. Snow-making is one of many operations largely unknown and unseen by the customers that must be pulled off by sunrise to allow maximum recreation to proceed.

Since this resort opened as Bijou Skyway Park 65 years ago, Heavenly has had six owners. Vail Resorts acquired it in 2002, and in addition to acreage, permits, lifts and lodges, Vail bought the services of a cadre of experienced staff, people determined to make the place run well. This includes the night crews who labor diligently in the darkness, prepping the place for the 14,000 customers who can visit on a peak day.

Heavenly's nocturnal regimen isn't unique among Tahoe resorts, but it is one of the most complex, in part because of the immense property. The resort, which straddles the California- Nevada border, sprawls 8 miles across and 5.5 miles from top to bottom. On it, four base lodges and six midmountain lodges must be resupplied, lift maintenance performed, and snow produced, leveled and groomed.

Heavenly employs around 1,500 people in winter. About 12 percent turn out for night duty, which can resemble a well-planned military operation.

But where the military relies on a solid chain of command and strict discipline, a resort has to run more on inspirational leadership and a tone of friendly cooperation. At least there's no live fire to worry about; well, not until dawn anyway, when the ski patrol will throw hand charges and fire Avalauncher rockets to loosen snow loads and achieve slope stability before the runs open.

The overnight shift

Back on the mountain, with light fading, the patrol sweeps across the mountain to search for lost skiers. Members yank out marker poles and roll up fencing to clear the way for groomers. Crews connect hoses to deliver air and water to the snow guns.
At 5 p.m., the groomers meet to concoct a plan and warm up the diesel snowcats. These powerful machines have a scooping and leveling blade up front and a smoothing tiller in back – they resemble giant pieces of farm equipment.

Meanwhile, lodge supply trucks already are rolling from Heavenly's warehouse in Stateline, Nev. Restaurant resupply might not seem dramatic – until you add in miles of travel up a frozen mountain.

The night crew halts a box truck at the base of the tram on the California side and slides pallets and rolls kegs onto the tram car. These goods have already been logically sorted and shrink-wrapped at the warehouse; each of the midmountain lodges has a unique menu of needs, such as exotic burgers and 97 types of brew for the new Booyah's bistro at Lakeview Lodge.

As the tram rises, swaying through the blackness (lights are switched off due to Tahoe light pollution rules), night workers bake goods and smoke meats at Tamarack, a midmountain lodge on the Nevada side. Custodians clean tables, floors, windows and bathrooms, and bag trash and recyclables for the trip back down.

The director of mountain dining, in his 11th year, commands a force of 380 employees, two-thirds of them new hires. About 70 are from Latin America, he says, young students who come north to perfect their English and have some fun.

Actually, it's no problem filling our night crews, he says. They can ski and ride all day to their heart's content, then just work a shift from 4 p.m. to midnight.

By 8 p.m., moaning winds twirl flurries of snow around the resupply workers. Despite the yeti howl of the snowguns and the bellow from the big groomers that roam higher on the slopes, this mountain at night still radiates a giant's brooding tranquility.

Red, blue and white lights materialize out of the gloom. A snowmobile zooms along to check on the snow squirting out of the regular guns and the fan guns. Sometimes the staff just watches the crystals bounce off his sleeve, sometimes they'll drag the toe of their boot across the ground, studying the wake it ploughs. The staff stops at one computerized fan gun to read its LCD screen, and pronounces the settings perfect.

One of the managers runs on to the East Peak plant, where huge pumps send air and massive turbines squirt water (at a phenomenal 775 pounds per square inch) into lines that traverse the mountain for miles to reach the guns.

According to one plant operator, in his 13th season, says, Of all jobs I've had, this one I like best. It's kind of God-like to make snow. Yet you can't ever relax. There's always a bunch of critical things to keep your eye on.

In a season's first months, Heavenly produces snow even amid blizzards, since deep coverage and an early start are key to the resort's success. It's been policy for more than two decades, to help contend with periods of drought and now the threat of climate change.

Still, making snow is one thing. Making it skiable is another. Enter the night groomers. A fleet of 16 grooming snowcats includes four Prinoth Beasts, each with a 23-foot-wide blade shoved along by broad treads powered by a 500-horsepower diesel, and a stack of mounted headlamps bright enough to light a stadium.

In the cab of the leading Prinoth is a lean young man of 30, but already a grooming supervisor. He was drafted by the U.S. ski team coach to groom runs for the most recent Olympics and World Cup events.

My job is the greatest, he exclaims. I love being able to play at night on the mountain with this big expensive toy.

It's 27 degrees outside, but a cozy 73 within the heated cab. Just past the windshield, the blizzard unleashes its fury. Snow pours out of the blackness as 50-mph gusts shriek across the summit. He cups the machine's two tread control levers in his left hand, the blade and tiller joystick in his right. The groomer powers uphill at 4 mph, tilling the slope into perfect corduroy.

The quality of a run is your score card, he says. Skiers might not know where it comes from, but it's your signature, and you take pride in it.

Ordinarily, one pass will do it. Around 1 a.m., his crew jumps from the cabs to let the next group take over. This second team will work until dawn. We get the sunset, they get the sunrise, he says.

Another winter day

Pearly light does eventually seep from the east. The storm has grown muted. Resort mechanics examine the cables and lifts. "Lifties" arrive, shovel and sculpt their lanes, check equipment controls. They phone laconic reports down to dispatch, the resort nerve center, which has reawakened.
By 7 a.m., ski patrollers begin to filter into base shacks. If the avalanche risk were higher, senior members would arrive sooner, to design a plan to bomb the slopes. Their shack at the California Lodge is a narrow space bordered with lockers of green metal mesh, so gear can dry. Even so, a musty tang of old sweat hovers.

Duty and conditions bulletin boards are scanned by all who enter. Fit, weathered men and a pair of women fling greetings, jokes, insults and even a few boots around the soon-crowded chamber. After red equipment vests emblazoned with white crosses are zipped up on all of them, the pandemonium ebbs.

After briefings about the California and Nevada sides, the director takes the floor. He's another trim and crew-cut man, a veteran of 22 years of patrol at Heavenly. He comments on snow-making and grooming, then warns the patrollers to keep themselves safe so that they can help others.

Yesterday a patroller caught an edge, went down and whacked his head on upper Orion, he says. He wore a helmet and was able to jump right up, but that can happen to the best of us. I want you to all act like Boy Scouts out there. Which means, be prepared. That's all I've got.

They troop onto the tram, ride up, then ski down to a broad gully, where snowmobiles roar out of a gray cloud of falling powder. Patrollers jump on the back seats and others grab tow lines so they can scoot along behind the machines like water skiers.

In minutes, they disperse. They cruise every slope where skiers will go, make a final check of safety at the lifts and emergency helicopter landing zones, mark obstacles with wands and unroll fencing. Then they staff the mountain's four rescue stations and await the day's challenges.

Finally, bullwheels spin, the chairlifts rise, and hooting customers fan out across the slopes, darting in and out of trees, delighted to make fresh tracks on groomed runs frosted with a foot-deep meringue of fresh powder.

In the highest patrol shack, at the top of the Sky Express chair, the supervisor wears a smile of satisfaction. His mountain is ready. He works as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in the summer and has put in 18 seasons of patrol at Heavenly.

I keep returning here because of the camaraderie, he says. I think the teamwork in this place is just incredible.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Colorado-based Vail Resorts to acquire, renovate Mount Brighton ski area

originally appeared on

At the Mount Brighton ski area, snow is green. Vail Resorts, Inc., owner of the eponymous Vail ski resort and other major mountain resorts in the Colorado Rockies and Lake Tahoe regions, has entered into an agreement to purchase the ski destination located about 40 miles west of Detroit and 20 miles north of Ann Arbor.

We believe there's an opportunity for us to look at key urban markets where there's a concentration of skiers and riders and where there are local ski areas. And we believe there's an opportunity to connect our destination resorts in Colorado and California with those markets by owning some of these resorts in these key markets, and then creating a conduit between that particular ski area and market back out to our western destination resorts. A lot of our guests currently come from Michigan, as an example, according to the president of global mountain development at Vail Resorts, Inc.

Over 307,000 skiers and snowboarders live in the Detroit, Lansing, and Ann Arbor areas, according to the company.

Vail Resorts will also purchase another urban ski area, the Afton Alps resort near Minneapolis. The combined price for both properties is $20 million. Mount Brighton is owned by the Bruhn family, which has requested that their component of the sale price not be disclosed at this time. The deal is expected to close later this week or early next, according to their president.

Consequently, an overhaul is forthcoming for the property, which opened in 1960. It has 26 trails on 130 skiable acres, seven chair lifts, night skiing and snowboarding, and an 18-hole golf course. Their president says the company plans to upgrade and build upon the existing snowmaking system, evaluate the chairlifts, and also look at expanding the 15-acre terrain park, improving base facilities, and adding more summer activities.

Company representatives plan to meet with Brighton's community leaders and seek their input. We'll certainly work with the existing team there and get a lot of feedback from them and pick their brains on what they'd like to see relative to improvements, et cetera. I think that next summer you'll see some activity at Mount Brighton.

Northwest Colorado's snowpack leads the way across the state

originally appeared on steamboat

The storms of late December have boosted statewide snowpack to between 70 percent and 85 percent of normal, and Northwest Colorado, where the combined Yampa and White river basins stand at 84 percent of average, is leading the way.

At Ripple Creek Pass in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area south of Steamboat Springs, the snowpack is 100 percent of average. Closer to Yampa, at Crosho Lake in South Routt County, the snowpack is 111 percent of average. On the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, the snow is 80 percent of average, and at Dry Lake, on the edge of Strawberry Park just outside Steamboat, it stands at 88 percent.

Although it was snowing lightly near the base of Steamboat Ski Area when dawn came Wednesday, the National Weather Service in Grand Junction was anticipating high pressure and sunshine to prevail with lower-than-usual temperatures this week.

The storm cycle has been broken under building high pressure, National Weather Service meteorologists wrote Wednesday afternoon. A highly amplified ridge (of high pressure) along the West Coast today (settles) in the Great Basin through Thursday night. This brings a light northeast flow aloft, sunny skies and milder temperatures to the mountain slopes. The valley bottoms will remain strongly capped (by an inversion) with well below normal temperatures.

Despite the inversion, the National Weather Service forecasts daily high temperatures in the 20s through Sunday.

Steamboat Ski Area’s report of a 43-inch base at midmountain still ranks it high among Colorado resorts, especially the larger destination resorts.

Aspen Mountain has a midmountain base of 24 inches, Copper stands at 27 inches and Vail reports 25 inches as its base. Breckenridge has a 32-inch base.

Powderhorn, on the Grand Mesa east of Grand Junction, has a 41-inch base, and Wolf Creek, on the southern edge of the San Juan Mountains, leads the pack with 46 inches at midmountain.

Powder quest: Extreme skiing gets more accessible

originally appeared in USA Today:

In January 1934, some adventurous skiers on a snowy Vermont hillside rigged a rope and pulleys to an engine from a Model T Ford. The resulting contraption was the first motorized ski lift in the U.S.

From these humble beginnings arose the destination ski resort, first with rope tows, then T-bars, then double chairs. Today high-speed four- and six-passenger chairs and enclosed gondolas are the norm. For its entire history, the evolution of alpine skiing has largely been about finding more efficient ways to go up the mountain in order to find better ways to come back down.

This evolution continues today, but the new paradigm hardly involves ski lifts. In the search for better ways to go up, nothing beats a helicopter, yet for most of its history, heli-skiing was the domain of the most advanced—and deep-pocketed—skiers. While it still remains a pricey indulgence, heli-skiing has become more accessible in terms of cost, ability and location, and this has trickled down to similar pursuits, mainly sno-cat skiing and resort-based backcountry and side-country skiing. Even the two oldest forms of uphill propulsion, hiking and climbing on skis, have made a big comeback. There are several reasons behind each trend, but essentially one common denominator everyone is after: powder.

The saying goes that the grass is always greener someplace else, and in skiing, the snow is always deeper, drier and less tracked up somewhere else. "Somewhere else" is usually beyond the normal boundaries of a ski resort, where the density of skiers, even at the least-visited mountains, is quite high.

Everyone wants to ski in deep unbroken powder, the sport's Holy Grail, but on the average weeklong ski vacation, the chance of catching a big storm that produces powder is low.
Skiing in Breckenridge can offer some great opportunities.
Even if you do, the fresh tracks rarely last a day because locals wait all year for big storms and then go out and ski all day. To put it in perspective, at Vail, the nation's largest single-mountain ski resort at a whopping 5,289 acres, there are four skiers per acre on a busy day. That might not sound like much, but at one of Canadian Mountain Holidays' heli-ski lodges, the norm is more like 6,000 or 7,000 acres—per skier. And CMH has 11 lodges.

Powder-skiing is the ultimate, but there is no way of knowing if it is going to snow 20 inches while you are on your ski trip, according to, a leading ski vacation site that books resort, heli- and cat-skiing package trips. Anyone who has ever taken a turn in real resort powder knows how great a feeling it is and how hard it is to find. But with heli- or cat-skiing, it's going to be like that every turn, every run, all day long.

Powder skiing is the best skiing, according to the brand manager for the Jackson Hole ski resort in Wyoming, one of the first to encourage resort skiers to forgo its lifts in search of powder. Visitors to Jackson Hole have almost every option, from regular lift skiing to tram-accessed side-country skiing, heli-skiing and cat-skiing. If you haven't done it before, it's the best, with fat skis and guides and terrain you simply won't find within the boundaries of any ski resort.

Powder may be the goal, but it is radical equipment advances that have suddenly allowed many more skiers to go powder hunting. Fat skis made it easier to ski on powder, while shaped skis (wider at the tip and rear and narrower in the middle) and the latest innovation, rockered skis (curved slightly at the tip, allowing better float in deep snow), have made it easier to ski in any snow.

Today's powder skis combine all three elements and put steep, deep powder skiing within reach of intermediate skiers. It doesn't matter who you are, whether you are intermediate or expert, fatter rockered skis have made skiing powder much easier and much more fun, according to the executive editor of Outside magazine, where he is also the resident ski-gear guru. At the same time, heli-skiing operations have spread from their traditional base in the very rugged mountains of Canada and Alaska to regular ski resorts and mountain ranges in Wyoming and Nevada, offering shorter and less steep runs more suited to a wider variety of skiers and snowboarders at different skill levels.


Often called "poor man's heli-skiing," the activity is very similar, only it uses sno-cats, the same machines used to groom mountains at ski resorts. The uphill rides are substantially longer, around 20 minutes, and the runs are shorter and generally below the treeline. You'll still get the powder-skiing experience, but the terrain tends to be less steep and more protected. That's what makes cat-skiing accessible to less advanced skiers and snowboarders, as well as experts.

There are lodge-based cat-skiing operations, especially in Canada, but compared to heli-skiing there are far more daily options, often at resorts. Cat-skiing is the easiest way to experience out-of-bounds powder for the first time. Keystone and Copper mountains in Colorado and Utah's Powder Mountain offer single-ride cat-skiing within resort boundaries to areas not served by lifts for as little as $10 per run. Some ski resorts with full-day cat-skiing operations on-site include Steamboat and Aspen in Colorado; Grand Targhee in Wyoming; and Red Mountain in Canada. Cat-skiing is significantly less expensive than heli-skiing, from $275 to $475 per person for a full day, including lunch and 10 to 14 runs.


The Rolls Royce of skiing offers a simple and enticing proposition: get up higher and quicker to places no one else has skied, reducing the uphill transport time to just a couple of minutes per run. Because they carry so few skiers and use vast untouched mountains, heli-ski operators can offer unbroken powder days, or even weeks, after a storm.

Helicopters deposit small groups of skiers or snowboarders (no more than five) in remote spots to ski in deep virgin powder, always with at least one guide. The allure is amazing, but the skiing tends to be challenging and the price high. Not only are runs longer and more tiring than at resorts, but they come closer together with little recovery time and the terrain is typically steeper. Many find the idea of heli-skiing intimidating or even terrifying, but in reality, the danger of exhaustion is likely greater than that of a serious mishap. Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world's largest heli-skiing operator, has had 36 fatalities in its more than 45 years of operation, and has hosted 181,000 skier weeks. That's one fatality for every 5,027 weeks skied. The truth is that it is no more dangerous than resort skiing, according to Outside's editor.

There are two styles of heli-skiing, lodge-based and daily. Multi-day destination heli-vacations are usually to remote wilderness lodges, mostly in northwestern Canada and Alaska. Though Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski in Nevada is the rare lodge-based program in the continental U.S., a great choice for first-timers because it is much easier to get to and offers three-day programs. Lodge-based heli-skiing typically costs $1,100 to $1,500 per day, inclusive of meals and lodging.

Day heli-skiing is the best way to start, often on-site at major resorts like Whistler and Jackson Hole. Rates are about $1,100 daily. And don't overlook the sheer fun of going up the mountain—some travelers pay hundreds just for a scenic helicopter ride.

Guided backcountry skiing

This means forgoing all lifts, sno-cats and helicopters in the quest for powder, most likely with Alpine Touring gear. Those without backcountry-travel skills, experience, avalanche knowledge or equipment should never attempt backcountry skiing on their own. A guided backcountry trip provides the expert oversight and necessary gear, usually a next step after trying cat-, heli- or side-country skiing.

Backcountry might not be the best choice for a first-time powder-skiing adventure outside resort boundaries. Most major ski towns have private guide services, such as Aspen Expeditions or Whistler Ski Guides, typically not directly affiliated with the resort. Aspen Expeditions charges from $250 for a guided one-day trip.

Guided side-country skiing

Side-country skiing typically refers to the backcountry terrain immediately adjacent to ski resorts, often accessed from within the resort and using lifts to alleviate all or part of the climb. Jackson Hole is the best example, where skiers ride the tram to the summit, then ski out of the resort through controlled gates in the border fence into the national forest's ungroomed and unpatrolled side country, a vast expanse of deep powder.

At other resorts like Telluride, there's still some uphill hiking involved once you've ridden the lifts. Look for guided programs that include safety gear and an expert guide, if you're looking to dip your toe into the world of out-of-bounds skiing. Prices vary substantially; at Jackson Hole, a private guide is $895 a day for a group up to five people.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

PanAm plans Breckenridge HQ

originally appeared on

In October, PanAm opened its first office in Breckenridge. Now, two months later, the company has decided that Breck will house its headquarters as well. The decision comes with plans to institute a PanAm facility and open up 75-100 new jobs.

PanAm is a travel management company, working closely within the government travel sector. PanAm also specializes in assisting non-government organizations, nonprofits and higher education institutions. For superior vacations, contact Vail Ski Vacation Rentals.

Originally, PanAm was an air carrier, founded in 1929. The company was shut down in 1991, experienced a brief revitalization through several small companies in 1998 before the brand died again. Travelectra, a small travel management company, bought the rights to PanAm and changed over all of its branding on March 1, 2012.

PanAm has offices internationally as well as nationally, including offices in London and Berlin. Currently, Denver serves as the company's headquarters. However, the board decided unanimously this week that Breckenridge will serve as its new home base.

This means that, in addition to the two offices already established in Breckenridge, PanAm will close down its non-ancillary offices throughout the United States and centralize everything in Breck.

The plan for the physical location of the Breckenridge headquarters is still in the first stages. PanAm has expressed interest in either building a new facility or purchasing a building, though nothing has been finalized yet.

Also coming with the headquarters will be job openings. their chief technology officer estimates that 80 percent of the jobs that the headquarters will bring into Breckenridge will be position openings for new hires.

The goal is to create opportunities for people who are locals in the community, according to the chief operating officer at PanAm.

Because working at a travel management company requires a specific skill set, new hires will undergo training sessions that will teach them to work within the PanAm system. Another purpose behind hiring on new staff is to gather employees with a fresh perspective on travel and who haven't been jaded by years in the industry.

You can train anybody to push buttons, she said. I want people who are fresh to the industry to be working with my customers. … We train our staff to experience travel … as a traveler, not a travel agent.

The official headquarters change will take place around early March, with the following six months set aside for moving and hiring.

In the few months that it's been in Breckenridge, the company has taken on 510 million accounts, all of them new, according to the COO.

There's a lot of volume, a lot of need, she said.

In addition to already hiring on some locals, PanAm has created two paid internship positions for Summit County students. The company plans to become involved in the community, particularly with the county's youth.

Overall, the company has said that Breckenridge would be a “fresh approach” for the company and that those involved are excited to be moving forward.

The board does believe Breckenridge is the right thing to do.

Skiing is good for body and soul

originally appeared in

At 87, veteran ski filmmaker Warren Miller described the sport he still enjoys by saying after a good run, when you get to the bottom of the hill, you're a different person. You have been psychoanalyzed. It's like somebody drilled a hole in your brain, inserted all this wonderful scenery, people, snow, and freedom. Skiing forces out all the bad stuff from your head.

I think most skiers would find it hard to argue with that.

Whether you are at the top of the bunny slope or a double black run, there is just something about that moment when you let go and test yourself. There is no team effort, no coach prodding you on, skiing is just between you and the mountain. You have to work it out. It's a release from everything — except the moment.

Now, particularly in the beginning, I will admit it seems to take an eternity to get to that moment in time when you are at peace with yourself on the mountain. The awkwardness of balancing skis and poles and walking in those clunky boots just has to be endured. Then, you have to buy lift tickets without dropping gloves in the snow, followed by the even more difficult task of folding, peeling and sticking the ticket to the jacket's zipper without having the skis slide away from you.

After hearing the critical sound of the clean binding click that the instructor reminded you about and dislodging the snow from the sole of your boot with a ski pole, you head to the lift corral to await the chair that will knock your knees out from under you. All the while, you are endeavoring to keep the tips of your ski up and your poles from stabbing someone.

Initially, the beauty of the scenery is short lived, because the fear of unloading, falling and embarrassing yourself becomes quite real. Yet, that's the wonderful thing about skiing: there is no turning back. We all had to muddle through it and, like you, we had to face our fears head-on. You are virtually on a one way street. Skiing is commitment.

No doubt you will wade through a few challenges, but, once you have "arrived," it's like you are on top of the world! You can fly! There are no limits, just endless possibilities. This is one sport where you get out what you put into it! Choose sweet and easy or wild and crazy, it's your call. Skiing can literally take you to new heights, so enjoy the ride.

In addition to this sensational feeling of freedom, I have a few other really great reasons why you should try this sport:

1. Skiing is made to be enjoyed with friends and family. Think about it. Not every grandma can play soccer, but there are some amazing grannies on the slopes today.

2. Skiing is a super calorie burner. It's easy to push the envelope physically in a very controlled setting, so it's good for your heart to pound a little.

3. The scenery is spectacular and exhilarating.

4. Skiing is a perfect place to meet people, particularly the opposite sex, besides most of us look better in ski clothes than swimsuits. Also, what other sport gives you the chance to shout out "single" (like in the lift line) and find a potential match so easily?

5. Last, but definitely not least: you can't apres' ski (party after hours) until you have skied!

Over the Christmas holidays, Rob and I watched the movie "A League of Their Own."

Tom Hanks used this great line to encourage his all-ladies wartime ball team: If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. It's what makes it hard that makes it great.

I think that line applies really well to the sport of skiing, for there is nothing we cannot accomplish when we put our mind to it. Even though I have learned our bodies are not invincible and can be broken, age is not a barrier to learning to ski or snowboard. Just getting out there and trying does wonders for our self esteem. Skiing makes us vulnerable again, allows us to get out of our comfort zone, and lets the kid in us come out and play.

Ski season is here. The mountains out west are off to a record start. We have some deals to "snow" you out of your mind! For example, check out these great offers from 3 of my favorite ski resorts:

» Snowmass: Purchase air to Aspen with five night accommodations, and the third air ticket gets up to $500 off.

» Copper Mountain: Third night of lodging free, plus kids ski free.

» Keystone: Stay two nights, plus kids ski free, and there are no black out dates and no limit on the number of children per adult, so your kids can bring a friend.

Now, remember, just like the snow flurries that dotted the skies of Sterlington on Christmas night, these deals may not last long. It's a perfect time to plan some winter fun.

Vail's uphill battle

originally appeared in The Denver Post:

Some years ago, I picked up a hitchhiker who assured me that Interstate 70 went through Vail because, after all, Vail always got what it wanted. On this point, he was wrong.

In 1956, when Congress authorized the original 40,000 miles of interstate highways, I-70 was to end at Denver. Highway engineers had thought that crossing the high humps of mountains west of Denver offered too few rewards and too great an expense. The ski industry in Colorado amounted to very little. Skiers at Arapahoe Basin, on Berthoud Pass and in Winter Park and a few others clogged Miner Street through Idaho Springs on Sunday nights. Aspen still needed a coat of paint. Vail did not exist.

Vail came along a few years later, and officially turned 50 this weekend. The Steamboat ski area also turns 50. They and other ski areas that sprouted during that same era of post-World War II exuberance have fundamentally redefined the economic, cultural and political geography of Colorado.

Looking ahead, you have to wonder whether the skiing infrastructure will someday be seen as an aberration, just as today we go to Leadville to gawk at the Victorian dandies and hillsides pulverized in the short-lived hurry to muck silver ore.

But first, some history about Vail. In March 1957, an early investor who had grown up on a ranch in the Eagle Valley, strapped on skins on his skis and led another potential investor up the mountain now called Vail. They had met in Aspen, and although he had trained just three valleys away at Camp Hale as a 10th Mountain Division soldier during World War II, he had never seen either the front sides or the backsides of Vail.

For years after the war, he had searched for the perfect ski area site. He even spent a summer as a night clerk at Silverton's Grand Imperial Hotel so he could spend his days scouting the slopes of the San Juan Mountains.

Reaching the top of Vail Mountain that day in 1957, he knew his search was ended. This was the place.

Only by coincidence, Congress that same month acceded to the lobbying of Colorado's congressional delegation, particularly their Senator, and agreed to extend I-70 west to Utah. Skiing was no part of the argument. The route was justified as a time-saver for travel between Denver and Los Angeles.

Vail's success was not instant. For awhile it wasn't clear the early investor could round up others. He and his team didn't get traction until they threw in building lots near the base of the ski area. Even if the ski area failed, at least they'd have a nice place for summer cabins. From its inception, skiing was an amenity to a real estate play at Vail.

Skiing was top-notch, however. Much of the credit goes to the mountain, a sprawling goddess of moderate slopes, exactly the sort that he realized would be needed for a mass-market ski area, with just enough steeps to be taken seriously by experts. Over the decades, the trail layout has grown and grown. A friend of his, three times has skied all the named runs, and the fastest round still took him 7 ½ days.

What that investor may not have realized in 1957 is that the mountain also has a knack for getting snow. Rarely does it get the power dumps of a Steamboat or a Wolf Creek. Just as rarely does it get completely left out.

Vail's success and I-70

Location matters in another way. It was just close enough to a major city, one both with skiers and with an airport. That was part of the investors original calculus. I-70 was completed between Denver and Vail in 1978, making Vail more accessible yet. He said once before he died in 2002 that Vail could have done fine without it. After all, he said, look at Aspen, which is at the end of a highway for seven months a year, when Independence Pass is closed. It has done just fine without an interstate.

Vail's success can also be attributed to development of the wide-bodied jet and a new form of real estate ownership called the condominium, which broadened the number of people who could afford vacation homes. It also reinforced resort loyalty. And then, in the 1970s, frequent Vail visitor Gerald Ford became president. His image comported well with Vail's sensibilities. People were socially moderate, and they believed in making money.

Ski areas in Colorado also surged on the swelling numbers of baby boomers as skiing transformed from an adventure of the elites to a sport of the masses. Business volume, as measured by skier days, routinely grew 10 percent for a couple of decades, until slowing in the early 1980s.

Colorado during this time became the center of the skiing world. In 1983, Vail surpassed California's Mammoth as the nation's busiest ski area, and that distinction has been trumped only twice since then, both times by Breckenridge. The company has consistently been a business innovator — not necessarily first but usually eager to embrace and expand new ideas, from high-speed lifts to low-cost ski passes.

While Vail wasn't around to create I-70, it soon began to flex its muscle to protect its interests while still a new ski area. Led by a 10th Mountain Division veteran who directed marketing for the company, the ski company in 1964 joined Breckenridge, the Climax Molybdenum Co., and others in opposing a plan to pierce the Gore Range Primitive Area (what later became the Eagles Nest Wilderness) with I-70. The highway and a tunnel under Red Buffalo Pass would have shortened the travel time between Silverthorne and Vail, and it was supported by truckers as well as chambers in Denver and Grand Junction. Vail and allied environmental groups won, and I-70 today uses the longer route over Vail Pass.

A few years later, that veteran lent his name in challenging a Forest Service timber sale that would have infringed future wilderness north of Vail. The lawsuit is still mentioned in natural resource textbooks.

In these and perhaps other ways, Vail represented the transformation of Colorado from commodities extraction to an economy based on recreation and leisure.

The new economic and legal landscape is best seen in the Homestake water diversions from creeks around Mount of the Holy Cross. Aurora and Colorado Springs found virtually no opposition to the first phase, which was completed in 1967. By the 1980s, aided by new state and federal laws, the Eagle County commissioners denied permits for the diversions. They had the means and political will to see the process through. Skiing did that.

Later, in the 1990s, Vail saw its self-image as a vanguard for progressive environmentalism under attack. The lightning rod was a giant expansion, later called Blue Sky Basin, which alone was larger than many individual ski areas. It was perceived as a giant grasp for public land for the privileged few with possible adverse consequences to wildlife, including the Canada lynx. Jarring to many in the ski industry, recreation had became what logging trucks and mines had been a generation before.

What's a "real town"?

As a former resident of Vail, I sometimes find my skin crawling when I hear dismissive comments that "Vail isn't a real town." That's absurd. What makes one town real and another not? Arvada, where I now live, was platted in 1870, incorporated in 1904, and has 108,000 residents. Yet it has no hospital and scarcely a motel. Aspen has wonderful Victorian bones, two lively daily newspapers, and a voting majority that lives in deed-restricted affordable housing. Every place is different.

Looking ahead, skiing has lagged general population growth in the United States. Vail, Aspen and other resorts have been sizing up Brazil and other developing nations as potential markets. In Vail, more attention has been paid to wellness and something called "medical tourism." It's not all about skiing.

It's likely to be even less about skiing during Vail's next 50 years. Snow will continue to fall, and possibly more than now. But so will rain, wrecking the snowpack, and winters will become shorter as the result of all the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we've been spewing into the atmosphere. Summers, a time of paradise in Vail and other mountain resorts, will become busier, as people from Denver flee the heat — much as they did last summer, but even more so.

But snow today provides 80 percent of the revenue at some lodges in Vail and 70 percent of the town's sales tax revenue. Whether hotter summers can deliver that same financial punch, well, that's one of the questions going forward. If I were a young person in Vail, I'd also be questioning the premise of an industry dependent upon cheap fossil fuels in a world likely to face carbon constraints.

In the 1880s in Leadville and Aspen, I'm sure it seemed like the grubbing for silver would continue for a long time. But by 1893, the downhill slide was on and it took Aspen more than 50 years to regain new vigor. Some of you will be there for Vail's next 50 years. Time will tell.