Winter in Alaska: snowmobiling with Glacier City, cheating death all the while (video)

In the spirit of journeying during periods less traveled, I’ve embarked to Alaska this winter. Follow the adventures here, and prepare to have your preconceived notions destroyed along the way.



A helmet cam view of snowmobiling in Girdwood, Alaska


When it comes to winter sports, you’ve got skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey — you know, the usual. And then, there’s snowmobiling. Or “snowmachining” as it’s known in The Last Frontier. Whatever you call it, there’s no question that it’s a rush of epic proportions, and while you can most certainly do it in the lower 48, doing in the one that borders Canada and and Russia* provides an entirely different perspective. I’ve snowmobiled through Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and in Olney, Montana, and while those were both unique and extraordinary experiences in and of themselves, ripping it up through the Chugach mountains is a can’t-miss episode for daredevils. Read on to find out how Glacier City Snowmobile Tours got my adrenaline pumping, or press play on the video above to catch a helmet-cam view of the entire thing!

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Girdwood feels a lot further than 45 miles from Alaska’s largest city (yeah, Anchorage), and it’s home to both Alyeska Ski Resort & Hotel as well as Glacier City Snowmobile Tours. These guys are tucked within the Great Alaskan Tourist Trap shop, connected with the Tesoro fuel station. Tough to find, but well worth discovering. You’ll have two main tour options — the 5.5 hour Real Deal Blue Ice Tour (where you’ll spot glaciers) — and the 3.5 hour Gold Mine Tour. Those run you $250 and $200 apiece, respectively, and include fuel, gear, a campfire lunch (complete with Reindeer hot dogs and Russian Hot Tea) and a guide. The “guide” part is what really makes it — we had Matthew Moscoso (shown above), an Alaskan of five years and consummate professional on the sled. He was both comical and informative, and frankly, it makes me wish my US history teacher of yesteryear had a shred of his genes. I also got to ride with Chanc Deschamps-Prescott, an award-winning skier (and Girdwood native) who is but 15 years of age, and has his sights firmly set on entering the next Winter Olympics. I can’t promise that you too will get the sled with a local hero, but hey, crazier things have happened in Alaska.

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I embarked on the Gold Mine Tour, and couldn’t have possibly had more fun. The trails were definitely the most challenging I’d seen in my three major treks out, but that also adds to the thrill and excitement. We were able to stop for plenty of astounding photo opportunities of the surrounding mountains (as you can see in the gallery here), and the lunch really was something special. Delicious, and thought provoking. How often does that happen?

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As with pretty much everything in Alaska, there’s something truly awe-inspiring about doing everyday activities here. Snowmobiling is no different. Glacier City is the only tour outfit that gets to cruise on the trails that we cruised on, so you’re literally surrounded with nothing but nature. It’s you, your group, your sled, and some of the most intense scenery your brain will ever have to digest. I could go on, but I’ll let a bit of helmet cam footage from my journey handle whatever convincing is still required.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]

My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

5 incredible, adventurous things to do in Kauai, Hawaii

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Kauai. Just the mere mention of the word brings a million amazing memories rushing back, and immediately makes those who have been wish they were kicked back on Poipu beach without a care in the world. It’s one of America’s wonders, and while the Garden Isle is far from being the biggest, most populated or easiest of the Hawaiian islands to get to, it’s unquestionably worth the trip. Particularly so if you’re the adventurous type. If there’s any island in the Hawaiian chain that begs for you to plop down in one spot for the week, Kauai most certainly isn’t it. This place abounds with things to do, and those who aren’t afraid to climb, jump, sweat and dive right into the wild will have no shortage of fun. I’ve compiled five of my favorite Kauai adventures here in hopes that you too will find certain thrills while visiting, so grab your untouched itinerary and read on!

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This is unquestionably my favorite thrill on Kauai. Kipu Falls are conveniently located near the popular eastern side of the island, around 20 minutes or so from downtown Lihue. Ask any of the locals about Kipu, and chances are they’ll be able to guide you right to it. It’s actually fairly easy to locate via GPS (it’s off of Kipu Road), and you’ll probably see a dozen or so cars parked along the side of a road beside a massive field. Park, hike along the stream’s edge (the beaten path is private property, but the stream itself isn’t), and ten minutes later, you’ll be in paradise. A huge, freshwater pool to leap into, a massive tree swing to reenact Tarzan on, and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow tourists and locals from all over the world. If you pick the right day, you may even see locals running out of the edge of tree limbs and backflipping 70 feet into the water below. Astounding. Have a look at my experience above.

Fair warning: cliff jumping is risky. Be smart, and stay safe! If you’re in doubt, don’t jump! It’s plenty entertaining to just watch the pros who are experienced.

Tunnels Beach has grown into a real spectacle in recent years, making the parking situation somewhat of a nightmare. Not a ton of tourists flock here, but enough have come for the neighbors to turn their yard into a pay-for-parking lot. Bummer. Your best bet is to show up early and park along the sections of the road where it’s allowed — even if you have to walk half a mile, it’s worth it. Rent some snorkel gear down in Lihue or Princeville before heading out, and bring along your waterproof camera if you have one. You’ll find loads of fish here, crystal clear water, gorgeous stretches of sand, and — if you’re lucky — a giant sea turtle. I was able to swim with one for a couple of minutes on my last trip, shown above. Talk about Hawaiian hospitality!

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Similar to Tunnels Beach, the only catch with this outing is the parking situation. The Queen’s Bath is a magnificent rock formation along the ocean’s coast, but it’s actually hidden behind an upscale housing community / golf course in Princeville. You’ll need to drive back into the neighborhood (found two to three miles within St. Regis Princeville) and park at the handful of public spots. If those are full, you’ll need to park wherever it’s legal nearby and hike. There’s a well-beaten path through the woods and to the ocean, and chances are, you’ll be able to follow the other tourists and locals down. The pool is formed with lava rock, and it blocks crashing waves as you sit and soak. There are also plenty of cliff jumping opportunities here for the daredevils in attendance.

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The grueling, gorgeous Kalalau Trail (reached by driving as far north as you can along Highway 560) is likely Kauai’s most famous, but few people know that it takes days to complete, and to proceed beyond Hanakapiai Beach at the ~2.5 mile marker, you actually need an overnight camping permit from the state. The full ~11 mile hike has managed an incredible 9.0 out of 10 on Sierra Club’s difficulty scale, making it the most difficult trail that doesn’t require vertical scaling of a mountain. Thankfully, the first bit — which wraps around the north of the island and provides astonishing views of the Na Pali coast — isn’t so tough. You’ll need great hiking shoes, a few liters of water, a bathing suit and a towel. After you’ve hiked down, you’re treated to a waterfall that nearly runs directly into the ocean. Take a dip in the Pacific, bask on the sand, and then rinse in the waterfall before heading right back where you came from. Take a camera — the views are unmatched.

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You’ve got only a few options to actually see the Na Pali Coast, and while a helicopter ride (or a ride from the highly recommended Wings Over Kauai) is just fine for some, I prefer a little more adventure. Taking Captain Joe’s zodiac tour is a great excuse to visit the vastly under-appreciated western swath of Kauai, and moreover, an amazing way to see parts of Kauai that you could never see but by boat. You’ll get a personal view of the island’s Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility, schools of dolphins, and of course, the Na Pali coast. Joe also provides lunch as well as an opportunity to snorkel for an hour or so while out at sea. On the ride in, you’ll get a great view of Niihau, and feel free to ask Captain Joe anything you want — he’s a wealth of information, and the vibe on zodiac is one that’ll make you want to relocate rather than fly back home.

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Any other amazing sights to see or activities to engage in while on the Garden Isle? Speak up in comments below! Aloha!

Plane Answers: 5 things to look for on your next flight

O.K., I’ll admit it. Flying has become a monotonous chore that few look forward to. As a frequent flyer, you’re probably more concerned about who you’re sitting next to than what you’re flying over.

But I always try to think about what Louis CK said on the Conan O’Brien show: “You’re sitting on a chair, IN THE SKY!”

If you still need something to break up the routineness of flying, try a few of these ideas:

Note the airplane type.

This is the least you could do. If only to be able to give an intelligent answer to the aviation geek picking you up at the airport. It’s always good to know what kind of airplane you’re flying on, including the series (-700, -300ER, etc.). What if they ground the entire fleet of A321s next week. You’ll be wondering just how close you cheated death on your last flight.
Look up the registration.

Commonly known as the “N” number in the United States, this can lead to some interesting information if you look it up in on Google before you depart.

You’ll likely discover when it first flew, but don’t be too shocked to find out the airplane is twenty years old. I’d probably be more concerned if it first entered service yesterday.

And you may or may not be interested in any NTSB reports detailing any incidents or accidents the aircraft has been through. For fun, look up N840TW, a 727 I flew for a charter airline years after it went supersonic. All easily discovered by ‘the Google.’

Visit the cockpit

We’ve had a few people come into the cockpit while boarding and mention how surprised they were that these visits weren’t prohibited. While trips to the cockpit inflight are prohibited, pilots still have the time for a five minute tour while at the gate if you’re interested. If nothing else, it might be nice to know who you’re trusting with your life. And you might even learn something.

Look under your seat

Airlines have gone to great lengths to install powerports under the seats in first class and the coach cabin. Unfortunately, most passengers have yet to discover them, since they’re not well marked.

Some airlines such as Continental use a proprietary empower plug while others have simple 110v outlets. American has 12v cigarette lighter plugs but they’re switching over to the 110v outlets.

I’d rather sit in a middle seat in coach with an iPhone loaded with movies than have a first class seat without my own entertainment. Targus makes a rather large inverter if you fly on a variety of different airlines.

Be sure to check seatguru.com before your flight to figure out which specific seats have power.

Count down the flight time

Most flight attendants will announce the flight time for your flight before you leave. Whenever you hear this, set your watch or smart phone’s countdown function with that time and be sure to start the timer just at liftoff. You’ll be surprised how often the timer finishes just as you’re touching down at your destination.

I can think of a few Northwest passengers who may be doing this from now on.

Hopefully some of these ideas help you pass the time on your next trip. Do you have any rituals you do before a long trip? Share them with us in the comments section.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

The Abbey Resort and Spa: Luxury on Lake Geneva

Billing itself as “the only full-service resort” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, The Abbey Resort and Spa is one of those places where you can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering around you. The resort was completely renovated in 2005, but its timber A-frame and low-slung bungalow style buildings look much as they did when it was built nearly 50 years ago, when the Midwestern elite made it their summer playground.

There’s plenty of nostalgia for the “good old days” here – the nearby Geneva Grand Resort proudly boasts that it was a Playboy Club in the 1960’s and 70’s. And money. Lots and lots of money. The houses that front Lake Geneva, the 9-mile long lake that is the centerpiece of the area, are multi-million dollar affairs that bear the names of families like Borden, Vicks, and Wrigley. Yet despite the vast wealth of the “haves”, those who aren’t descendants of the Midwest’s titans of industry can still share in the benefits of area. There are several public beaches and marinas, and every lakefront property is required to have a public walkway so that all area residents can enjoy a stroll around the lake. And in the towns of Lake Geneva and Fontana, more modest homes and affordable restaurants lines the streets where wealthy summer residents mingle with the local families who live here all year round.

For Chicago residents, getting to The Abbey couldn’t be easier. It’s about 80 miles from the city (50 miles from Milwaukee), but the Metra Rail will get you there in less than two hours from downtown. You’ll get off at the end of the line, at the Harvard Station, where a shuttle will pick you up and drive you the remaining 15 minutes to The Abbey. You can also request service from the resort to anywhere in Lake Geneva, making a car completely unnecessary.

The Abbey is family-friendly – there are childcare services, organized kids’ activities, free games like bags and croquet, two outdoor and one indoor pool, and a 2,000-square foot arcade complete with Wii system – but it’s also perfect for a romantic or relaxing retreat. The rooms have all been updated and feature pillow-top mattresses, LCD wall-mounted TVs, mini-fridges, and patios or balconies.

I saw a few families, but mostly couples in their 30’s to 50’s, during my stay. My room was comfortable and spacious and the bed soft and inviting. My only complaint was with the wi-fi service. It was free, but I had a very hard time getting a signal. When I did, I was bumped offline every 15 minutes or so, and web pages loaded very slowly. I can’t say if that would be the case all over the resort, or just in my location, but it was inconvenient when I needed to get some work done.

If you don’t plan on working while at The Abbey, you’ll find plenty of things to do to keep you busy. The resort rents bikes and fishing poles and there is a golf course nearby. The 35,000-square foot AVANI Spa offers treatments like facials, massages, body wraps, waxing and manicures. It features a pool, whirlpools, inhalation spa, steam room, sauna, sundeck, and spa menu for dining. Guests can also take advantage of the Spa’s fitness center or full line-up of exercises classes liking spinning, yoga, zumba, and pilates, which are geared towards any fitness level. I found there was always equipment available for use, the yoga class was just difficult enough to challenge me (but not hard enough to make me feel like an uncoordinated idiot), and the spa staff was always friendly but unobtrusive.

The resort borders a marina, but the small beach isn’t suitable for swimming. There is a nicer, sandy beach less than a five-minute walk off the property, or you can take the shuttle into Lake Geneva proper to visit the beach there. In town you can rent a boat or wave runner, water-ski, or take a cruise past the historic mansions around the lake. Nearby parks offer hiking trails and horseback riding, two wineries offer wine tasting (a wine festival is held in September), and there are farms where you can pick your own fruit just a few miles away. You can also soar above the lake in a hot air balloon or small airplane. In winter, locals hit the frozen lake for ice fishing and skating.

The Abbey offers an impressive variety of delicious food, all made from scratch in the resort’s kitchen. Meals are served at one of two restaurants, and there is a coffee shop, gazebo grill, cocktail lounge, and cigar bar. The resort also offers catering and meeting spaces, and hosts many weddings throughout the year. The weekend that I visited, a wedding was being set up on the lawn in front of the marina. For a resort-style destination wedding close to Chicago, I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the Midwest at which to get married.

To be honest, when I hear the word “relaxing”, I think “boring”. I prefer my vacations to be packed with sightseeing, learning, experiencing, and of course, eating and drinking. This makes me generally shun resorts where I think I’ll feel as though I’m held captive and at a loss for things to keep me entertained. I’m also very budget-conscious. Since I spend so little time in my hotel room, I don’t like to spend too much on it. And I can’t stand when resorts jack up their prices for food, drinks and activities just because they know guests will pay rather than head off-site. So I was a bit worried that The Abbey wouldn’t be my style. But I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the things that I liked about The Abbey was that leaving isn’t a hassle for guests without their own wheels. The shuttle will take you anywhere you want to go, and there a few restaurants and shops within walking distance of the hotel. And The Abbey doesn’t gouge its guests on food and drink just because it can. Management knows that it isn’t just the hotel guests who keep the resort in business, especially in the off-season. They aim to attract local customers too, and keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can enjoy The Abbey.

Despite any initial reservations, I found myself enjoying The Abbey immensely, and trying to convince my husband that returning for a “relaxing weekend” (in my case, meaning one chock-full of wine-tasting, boat tours, horseback riding, and cooking classes) at The Abbey would be the perfect fall trip. And as it turns out, fall is one of the best times to visit. Weekend rates start at $216 per night, and include free breakfast buffet and a 25% discount on spa services.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort did cover the cost of my stay, but don’t think they had an easy time wooing me with spa treatments and Pelligrino. Freebies are nice, but they won’t make me forgive a hotel’s shortcomings. My review of the resort represents my own views and experiences as a guest and were not influenced in any way by fancy cheeses or free champagne.

British tour company offers “redneck free” vacations

Activities Abroad, a UK based tour company that offers upscale active vacations in places like Canada and Costa Rica has found itself on the receiving end of a ton of criticism.

The reason? They sent out 24,000 emails to potential customers describing the kind of people you will not see on their trips.

The company actually did research into the names of customers they associated with being “chav”, which is the Brit equivalent of the US redneck or trailer trash.

According to Activities Abroad, if your name is Britney, Kylie-Lianne, Bianca, Tiffany, Dazza, Chardonnay, Chantelle, Candice, Courtney or Shannon, you are probably a “chav”.

If your name is John, Sarah, James, Charles, Rachel, Michael, Alice, Lucy, Joseph or Charlotte then you are probably not trailer trash.

Good to know eh?

The managing director for the company says he feels it is time that the middle class finally stood up for themselves, and asks parents whether they’d want their kids playing at the shopping mall with the kind of people that hang around all day smoking cheap cigarettes.

So far, the campaign has only created 15 negative responses. The concept of advertising vacations where “certain” people won’t be found is of course pretty controversial, but I’m sure there is a market out there for it.

What do you think?

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(Via: Telegraph.co.uk)