The West’s Best Hostels For Winter Sports Enthusiasts

backcountry skiContrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be young, broke, or drunk to stay at a youth hostel. I’ll be the first to admit not all hostels are created equal, but as a perpetually cash-strapped journalist in her 40s, they’re often my only option for indulging in the snowy outdoor pursuits I love. Fortunately, there are clean, efficient, well-run hostels throughout the West that make a stay pleasurable, rather than painful.

There are other good reasons to bunk down at a hostel, whether it’s a dorm, private, or shared room. If you’re planning to play all day (and possibly night), who needs an expensive room? Hostels are also great places to meet like-minded people to hit the backcountry or slopes with – a huge advantage if you’re traveling solo.

Most hostels also possess a decidedly low-key, “local” atmosphere where you’ll get the inside scoop on where to cut loose (on the mountain or off). In many instances, hostels also offer tours or activities, or partner up with local outfitters, which make life easier if you don’t have a car or require rental equipment. Also…free coffee.

Below, in no particular order, are some of my favorite Western hostels, based upon their proximity to snowy adventure:

St. Moritz Lodge
, Aspen, CO

I’ve been a regular at this place for a decade now, and I’m still smitten. Its groovy, ’70s-meets-Switzerland ambience; friendly, helpful staff; clean, well-lit rooms, and free mega-breakfast kick ass…what’s not to love? It’s just a few minutes walk from the slopes, and free parking is plentiful. A dorm bed is $44, and a private room/shared bath $95, high season.

The Abominable Snowmansion, Arroyo Seco, NM
Just outside of Taos is this classic, rambling old hostel with a communal feel. Arroyo Seco is an adorable mountain hamlet (all you need to know is that Abe’s Cantina gives great green chile). A private room/bath at this hostel is $59 in winter, and the region abounds with backcountry opps and natural hot springs.banff national park HI-Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park, Alberta
The photo at right shows the sauna at this off-the-grid cabin near stunning Lake Louise. If you’re good with no shower and using an outhouse, this 20-bed spot will keep you cozy after a day ice-climbing, snow-shoeing, or skiing the backcountry.

Grand Canyon International Hostel
, Flagstaff, AZ

Owned by the same people who have the janky Du Beau hostel in town; I recommend this place instead, which is located in a historic, multi-story building minutes from downtown. “Flag” has loads of opportunities for outdoor buffs, from backcountry, to downhill skiing at Arizona Snowbowl, 20 minutes away. The hostel also offers year-round tours to the Grand Canyon, 80 minutes away. Flagstaff itself is a happening little college town; before heading out for the day fuel up on caffeine and divine, house-baked goods at Macy’s European Coffeehouse (I accept bribes in this form).

Alyeska Hostel, Girdwood, AK
Girdwood is pure Alaska-weird. Moose wander the main street, and quirky locals are just as likely to invite you to an all-night kegger in the snow as they are to take you cross-country skiing (the bonus of being female in Alaska, I discovered). This tidy hostel will set you back $20 for a bunk bed, making it the best deal in (a very, very small) town.

Hostel Tahoe, King’s Beach, CA
I’ll be honest; I’ve never bothered to stay in a hostel in Lake Tahoe for two reasons: dirt-cheap motels abound, and my brother lives there. But I came across this place researching this story, and it looks great. You’ll need to self-drive or shuttle to ski (it’s mid-way between South and North Shore, but right by a bus stop servicing Northstar, Squaw, and Alpine Meadows), and it looks infinitely more pleasant than some of the budget lodging I’ve enjoyed in Tahoe in the past. King’s Beach is old-school Tahoe at its best: funky, boozy, and a bit down-at-the-heels.

Crested Butte International Hostel, CO

Cheap lodging is tough to come by in Colorado ski towns, which is what makes this place such a find. Eighty dollars for a private queen with shared bath in downtown CB is a hell of a deal, and a $39 dorm bed can’t fail to make cash-strapped skiers and snowboarders happy. This is also the place to induct hostel-phobic friends or partners. I find it rather sterile, but it’s spotless, quiet, and kid-friendly. With two apartments for families ($184/night) and off-site condo rentals also available, CBIH makes family vacay do-able. Bonus: loads of free parking, and just 100 yards from the free mountain shuttle (Mt. Crested Butte is 3 miles away).

Fireside Inn Bed & Breakfast and Hostel
, Breckenridge, CO

This sprawling, historic old home converted into a warren of rooms is a treasure if you’re a lover of hostels. Friendly and walking distance to downtown (you can shuttle to the Breck Connect Gondola, Peak 7 and 8, and the Nordic Center), it’s got the patina of years on it, but it’s cozy, homey, and a great place to meet like-minded travelers. Love.

The Hostel, Jackson Hole, WY
In this spendy little ski town, affordable accommodations are rare as a ski bum with a Platinum card. Located at the base of Teton Village, The Hostel offers dorm beds and private rooms. Backcountry fans will love being just one mile away from the glory of Grand Teton National Park (be sure to check park website for information on restrictions or necessary permits)

[Photo credits: skier, Flickr user Andre Charland; hostel, Flickr user Mark Hill Photography]

Nordic Skiing Basics

Study Shows Travel Can Increase Your Sex Appeal

girls According to a study done by Intrepid Travel using the online dating site RSVP.com.au, people who travel a lot are seen as more attractive than their non-traveling counterparts. The study found that daring travelers are seen as the sexiest, while 23 percent say adrenaline seekers make their heart race. Moreover, off-the-beaten-path travelers were most attractive to 22 percent, while culture buffs got 16 percent of the votes.

Says Intrepid spokeswoman Jo Stewart, “The attitudes of singles show that a bi-product of travel is that it adds to your sex appeal.”

The study also looked at the behavior of single travelers. Data showed that 96 percent of singles who were passionate about traveling, were also looking for a partner with the same interests. Many single travelers – 72 percent – also dream of meeting someone special on their trips. Ever fantasized about a romantic picnic in Tuscany? Twenty-six percent responded this was their perfect first date, with a sentimental stroll in Paris being their second.

[image via permanently scatterbrained]

What’s in a name? On pronouncing difficult country names

When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.

The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.

Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)

What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800′s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”

Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.

British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”

This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.

I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.

[flickr image via Ian @ The Paperboy]

Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood: charm, croissants, and cocktails

Darlinghurst, SydneyIn a city chock-full of charming, Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood is a tough contender. Not that it’s an easy choice. If it’s parks, quirky boutiques and specialty food shops, cafes, cheap ethnic or fine dining restaurants, bars, lattice-bedecked row houses, cliff-top beach paths, or Harbour views you want, there’s no shortage of neighborhoods that deliver.

Me, I’ll take Darlinghurst. This semi-residential Eastern neighborhood is wedged between the backpacker ghetto of King’s Cross, and the more sedate Potts Point and Surry Hills. What I love about Darlinghurst is that it’s possible to feel like a local if you make it your home base; something that’s not easy in tourist-thronged Sydney.

One of my favorite pastimes is looking at houses, and Darlinghurst has plenty of eye candy in the form of narrow, winding streets, sweet little row houses, and pockets of greenery. But the neighborhood is also a cornerstone for Sydney’s exploding “small bars” scene. Turn around, and whack! Another stylish spot to imbibe (and snack) has opened its doors.

Sydney also doesn’t want for coastal walking paths, and Darlinghurst is just a short stroll from the lovely Opera House to Royal Botanic Gardens Walk. Within minutes of checking in to my hotel, I was headed out for a run along the Harbour. It’s hard not to feel like the luckiest person alive when you have that kind of view for inspiration.

Sleeping
While Darlinghurst has a handful of accommodation options (depending upon budget, most visitors choose the janky hostels of King’s Cross, or opt for the diverse–and more costly–options in the nearby CBD).

%Gallery-124555%Darlinghurst, SydneyMy pick is the groovy Kirketon Hotel, a member of Australia’s boutique Eight Hotels collection. Located on a leafy portion of Darlinghurst Road, it’s just steps away from bustling Victoria Street. After a full remodel in ’08, the 40-room Kirketon is now a swank goth/art deco/mod-hybrid. I love it, mirrored hallways, dim lighting, chandeliers, smokey color scheme, black facade, and all. It’s slick, sexy without trying too hard, and the bright, well-designed rooms are kitted out with comfy beds and modern amenities.

Despite the trendy vibe, the Kirketon is peaceful and not at all pretentious, thanks in part to the genuinely friendly, helpful staff. Come night, however, this hotel is hopping because of its award-winning bar, Eau de Vie (more on that, below).

Eating
Darlinghurst has lots of dining options, but for me, it’s all about breakfast. Right across from the Kirketon is La Petit Creme, a funky French coffee house serving delicious crepes, pain chocolat and other breakfast treats, and bowls of cafe au lait.

Arguably one of Sydney’s most beloved breakfast spots (equally wonderful for lunch) is Bill’s, owned by acclaimed chef Bill Granger. Granger is one of a handful of Aussie chefs who helped put “Mod Oz” cuisine on the map. Expect bright, seasonal fare inflected with Mediterranean and Asian flavors. It’s a total travel article cliche, but the ricotta hotcakes with bananas and honeycomb butter, sweet corn fritters, or toasted grain cereal with vanilla-poachedDarlinghurst, Sydney fruit, yogurt, and honey really are the best way to start a day of sight-seeing.

My new breakfast (lunch/snack/drunken late-night munchies) obsession, however, is Infinity Sourdough Bakery, located around the corner from the Kirketon. I’m totally convinced that anything that emerges from the ovens at this adorable takeaway will be amazing. Four visits in a single day did nothing to disprove this theory (not counting other carbo-loading sessions). The almond croissants are life-changing, but the pizzettas, ham and cheese turnovers, bread, and other pastries are also excellent.

…and Drinking
Wherever you lay your head, be sure to stop by Eau de Vie, 2010′s Australian Bar Awards Bar of the Year. It’s a living room-like spot on the Kirketon’s ground floor, with a moody, Prohibition-era vibe (I’m of the “it can’t be a speakeasy if it legally sells cocktails” school of thought, because I’m a pain in the ass like that.)

Eau de Vie specializes in seasonally-changing, contemporized classic cocktails that, if a bit precious and theatrical, are crafted with the utmost precision. If you’re interested, one of the friendly mixologists–all of whom possess encyclopedic knowledge–will tell you everything you might care to know about your drink. Said drinks don’t come cheap, although there are plenty in the $16USD range. The $32USD syrupy smooth Old Fashioned made for me by “Dr. Phil,” however, was without a doubt the best I will have in this lifetime. Why so spendy? Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 (as in years-old) rum, housemade bitters, a puck of ice compressed to order in a copper Tyson ice mold, and open flame were involved.
Darlinghurst, Sydney
In the small bar category, Darlinghurst boasts some of Sydney’s favorite newbies (all of the following serve bar snacky food/small plates). At The Passage, expect refreshing libations such as the Professor Plum (plums macerated in Queirolo plum pisco, shaken with lemon juice and Madagascan vanilla syrup), or a Coconut and Kaffir Lime Daquiri, served up with a garnish of pandan leaf.

Lotforty, a miniscule candlelit tapas bar, offers up jugs of sangria ($20AUD), as well as cocktails, and fried, grilled, and crispy treats such as “bbq” King Prawns with orange, fennel, and mint salad. At wine bar Love, Tilly Devine (named after an infamous neighborhood Madame of the 1930′s), the extensive list of international offerings is meticulously chosen and categorized. Sip with slow-roasted octopus with new potatoes and aioli, Macleay River rock oysters, or Burrawong duck liver pate with sweet and sour onions.

Technically, Sticky Bar is in Surry Hills (known for its eclectic shops and ethnic restaurants), just a short walk from the heart of Darlinghurst. Sticky is such a funky, sexy, odd little space I can’t help but include it. It’s a bitch to find (especially after a few drinks), as you need to enter through sister restaurant Table for 20, and climb a narrow flight of stairs to enter the bar. The decor is decrepit-Victorian-mansion-meets-Old-Hollywood: overstuffed vintage velvet chairs, leather ottomans, ornate chandeliers, exposed brick, and shadowy nooks and crannies. Order a glass of domestic wine or a wickedly strong cocktail from the blackboard menu, settle back, and watch the scene (the music’s loud).
Darlinghurst, Sydney
Shopping
Darlinghurst isn’t the best place if you’re a bargain hunter (try the vintage clothing stores in uni-district Glebe, instead). But if you have the cash (or are a bit of a masochist), you’ll find no shortage of on-trend boutiques featuring up-and-coming Aussie clothing designers, shoes, high-end vintage, luxe skincare products, book stores and whimsical home decor. Darlinghurst Road, Victoria Street, and Liverpool Street also have a fair number of shops. I like Blue Spinach, a “luxury consignment” store where you can score affordable treasures if you do some digging. Popular boutiques include Diederic the Cat, which offers American and Euro fashions, and Alfie’s friend Rolfe. This self-described “little Aladdin’s Cave of Australian designer labels” is heaven if you’re looking for quality sartorial souvenirs.

Getting There
Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney out of LAX and DFW, with extensive code share connections available from major cities throughout the country through the partnership with American Airlines. Tourism Australia’s website will provide you with all the information you need to plan a holiday.

Click here to watch one of Eau de Vie’s mixologists create a signature cocktail (don’t miss Dr. Phil’s “Whisky Blazer!”)

[Photo credits: cottage and Oxford St., Flickr user iambents]

My year in adventure travel: a look back and a look forward

adventure, adventure travel, Axum, EthiopiaHappy Boxing Day everybody! As I sit here stuffed with my mother-in-law’s cooking after a traditional Spanish Christmas, I’m thinking back on all my travels in 2010 and looking forward to 2011. One of the best parts about my travel year has been sharing it all with you. I love the comments you’ve sent suggesting sites to see and trails to take, and was especially amazed by the outpouring of support I got from Ethiopians and Somalis for my series on their countries.

Early in the year I took my wife on a road trip in Ethiopia for our tenth anniversary. I have always wanted to go there and it didn’t disappoint. A combination of nice people, good food, awesome coffee, and tons of historical and archaeological sites shot it right to the top of my list of favorite destinations. So much so, in fact, that we’re going back in 2011! We haven’t finalized our plans, but we’ll be doing another road trip to a different part of the country and then I’ll spend a month or so in Harar, a fascinating city I want to learn more about. So expect a series about Ethiopia in 2011, including at least one trek to a certain remote castle in the rugged Ethiopian highlands.

Harar is the gateway to Somaliland, an emerging nation that has broken away from the chaos in the rest of Somalia. My two weeks there shattered every preconception I had about the region. Somalilanders are working hard to build a peaceful nation in a region notorious for war and corruption. Since they aren’t recognized as a country, they’re receiving very little assistance from the outside world. I’m proud that my series of articles helped in a small way to publicize their efforts.

As regular readers will know, I always celebrate my birthday with a long-distance hike. When I turned forty I hiked the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. This year for my 41st I hiked the East Highland Way, Scotland’s newest trail. For my 42nd (moan) I plan to return to Scotland. I’m not sure where I’ll go, so I’m hoping one of you can help me decide. I want a hike of about a hundred miles over beautiful but rough terrain, with a steady diet of historical and archaeological attractions. Any ideas?

All these wanderings really filled up my hard drive. The gallery features some photos that didn’t make it into the original series. I hope you like them.

There were some less-adventurous trips in 2010, such as exploring the tombs of Rome, the sights of Yorkshire, and the legend of Jesse James. I’ve also had plenty of wonderful armchair adventure travel courtesy of my fellow Gadlingers. Two of my favorite series have been Andrew Evans’ amazing trip around Greenland that left me green with envy, and Catherine Bodry’s exploration of Yunnan, China, graced with her beautiful photos.

It’s been a wonderful year with a great team and great readers. I’m looking forward to 2011!

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