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

Roadside America: El Paragua Restaurant, Espanola, New Mexico

chilesThe little city of Española lies just 25 miles north of Santa Fe. It sits on the crossroads of SR 68 and NM 76 (aka the Taos Highway), which leads to the village of Chimayo, famed for its handwoven blankets, Santuario, and chiles. Española is also surrounded by some of the region’s famous Indian pueblos. Until about five years ago, I never saw any reason whatsoever to stop there, aside from filling up my gas tank. When you’re a dusty town located between some of a state’s biggest tourist attractions, you tend to get overlooked.

It’s my obsession with New Mexican cuisine – and posole (a dried hominy soup) in particular – that led the owner of a Santa Fe street food cart to tell me about El Paragua. I can’t recall our conversation, but he basically told me if I wanted to taste some of the best food in New Mexico, I should hightail it up to Española.

So that’s what I did. I pulled up to a large, imposing hacienda constructed from massive blocks of hand-hewn stone, located all by its lonesome on the corner of NM 76 and Highways 84/285. Inside, it was dimly lit, all rustic wooden beams, (vigas), terra-cotta floor tiles, and those same stone walls. El Paragua looked like an old-school Mexican restaurant and to a certain degree, that’s what it is.

El Paragua started out as a roadside food stand in 1958. Brothers Larry and Pete Atencio, the sons of plumber Luis Atencio, decided they were going to sell their mother Frances’ tacos and tamales. They added a table, and opened for business. Luis provided the boys with a multi-colored beach umbrella (paraguay) for shade, and El Paragua was born.

In 1966, the Atencio family converted their tack room into a restaurant, and continued to add expansions over the years (including converting Luis’ plumbing shop). Today, El Paragua is legendary for both the quality of the food (the Atencio’s are still actively involved in the daily operations, and use Frances’ recipes) and the service, which is unfailingly warm and friendly.

Let’s get to the important stuff, shall we? Never have I tasted posole or carne adovada that comes even close to touching El Paragua’s. Every dish is an explosion of flavor. The posole is a rich, well-seasoned, porky broth brimming with hunks of fork-tender meat, chewy morsels of hominy, and a goodly amount of chile (I prefer mine Christmas); eat it with greaseless puffs of sopapilla drizzled with honey. The fiery adovada sauce is brick-red and earthy, the pork succulent. The plate comes with a side of whole frijoles mixed with chicos (smoky bits of dried, then cooked, corn). The tortillas are made in-house. If you’re in a hurry, there’s also the parking lot taco-stand, El Parasol, a tribute to the original El Paragua. What’s not to love about quarts of green chile to go?

I now plan my New Mexico visits around El Paragua, to maximize the number of meals I can have there. If food is love, then El Paragua is a long-distance relationship worth staying in.

[Photo credit: Flickr user alasam]

Santa Fe On A Budget

santa feSanta Fe has a reputation for being pricey, what with all the art galleries, boutiques, jewelry stores, restaurants, and hotels. And while it’s true you can blow a wad of cash there without even trying, it’s just as easy to enjoy Santa Fe if you’re on a budget. It just depends upon your priorities.

If you can live without purchasing a life-sized bronze sculpture of a bugling elk or Native American art, and you’re more interested in a cultural experience than shopping, Santa Fe is infinitely more affordable than many holiday hotspots. Even on a shoestring, you don’t have to miss out on the many incredible sights and experiences this small city has to offer, with the possible exception of a spa treatment or an overpriced, underwhelming meal.

Unlike many cities with a lot of money and cultural attractions, Santa Fe is all about casual. Locals are more concerned with comfort and self-expression than trends, so don’t worry about buying a new wardrobe for your trip or lugging lots of clothes with you. Bring a pair of beat-up cowboy boots and jeans or a long skirt, and you’ll fit in just fine.

Read on for tips on how to do Santa Fe right, local-style.

%Gallery-166201%santa fe farmers marketSleeping
The biggest secret to saving money in Santa Fe is staying at one of a handful of little-known hotels in the downtown area. Sure, you can crash Super 8 or Motel 6 on the outskirts of town (I’ve done it), but you’re going to wind up paying just as much for a crappy, generic room that requires a car in order to see any of the sights.

Instead, spring for a stay at an adorable, pueblo-style hotel, like the following:

  • The Old Santa Fe Inn is a family-owned property just four blocks from the historic Plaza. A single queen averages $89-$209 low/high season, and includes a full breakfast and complimentary parking; pet friendly.
  • The Santa Fe Sage Inn (free parking, continental breakfast, shuttle, and pet-friendly; double queen $45-$135 low/high season) is located across the street from the thriving Railyard Arts District/farmers market near downtown and the Plaza.
  • The Santa Fe Motel & Inn has free parking and full breakfast, and is a homey little gem near the Plaza and Convention Center, for $89 to $145 a night (standard room; low/high season rates).

Note that low season in Santa Fe is between November and March, excluding major holidays, but can start earlier, depending upon the hotel property. Be sure to ask when making reservations; click here for information on year-round specials.

Eating and Drinking
Everyone loves to splurge on a great meal, but New Mexican cuisine is about as rustic and homely (in the true sense of the word) as you can get. It’s also insanely delicious, addictive, and filling, so those with small appetites can easily get by on one big meal a day (if you count your free hotel breakfast). Gluttons like me still have to work at finding room for three squares, but given the plethora of excellent restaurants in town, you’ll want to pace yourself. And be aware that the hole-in-the-wall spots are where the locals prefer to eat on a regular santa fe plazabasis. The farmers market, which runs Saturdays year-round, is world-class.

Don’t miss these classic, uber-affordable spots:

  • Johnnie’s Cash Store: Serving Santa Fe’s best tamales since 1946, for under $3 a pop.
  • Bobcat Bite: The best green chile cheeseburger in town.
  • Santa Fe Farmers Market in the Railyard: The adovada breakfast burrito is a $6 bit of heaven, and coffee is only a dollar. Located inside the Market Pavilion, at the Farmers Market Cafe concession stand; open Tuesdays and Saturdays, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
  • Tia Sophia’s: Escape the tourist hordes at this under-the-radar, just-off-the-Plaza eatery, beloved for its posole, green chile and breakfast burritos. Breakfast and lunch, only.
  • Pantry Restaurant: It’s not near the Plaza, but this down-home diner is a local favorite for all things New Mexican.
  • Casa Chimayo: Owned by a long-established local family, the posole is delicious, and service warm and friendly.
  • Roque’s Carnitas: A long-standing food cart on the Plaza, and a great lunch stop.
  • Evangelo’s: About the only true dive downtown (although regrettably, it’s been spiffed up a bit so it’s not as skanky as it once was) with strong drinks and live music most nights. Always a host of local characters (some more derelict than others). There’s also The Matador, right across the street and down a flight of stairs. If it’s Happy Hour specials you want, talk to your hotel concierge or front desk.

Things to do

  • Go museum hopping: Many of Santa Fe’s museums offer a free or discounted day; check individual websites for details. Two of the most popular, the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, and the New Mexico Museum of Art, are free on Friday evenings, from 5-8 p.m.
  • Take a cooking class: The Santa Fe School of Cooking is relocating this week to a new, much larger space, which means more classes. Hands-on classes and workshops start as low as $50.
  • mountain bikingHike or ride: There’s hiking and mountain biking in Santa Fe proper, on the Dale Ball Trail System, and Nature Conservancy Trail. if you really want to get out into the woods, however, try the Santa Fe National Forest, Hyde Memorial State Park, or Santa Fe Ski Basin.
  • Go for a walk: Santa Fe is one of the nation’s most walkable cities, with miles of creekside bike/pedestrian paths and enclaves of adorable neighborhoods made up of adobe homes festooned with chile ristras and flowers. I’ve literally whiled away entire days wandering the city. The city also offers a multitude of free walking tours focused on everything from coffee and chocolate to literary landmarks.
  • Dance: The Plaza is buzzing most evenings during high season with live music, festivals, and often, dancing. When I was in Santa Fe in August, the gazebo was full of couples practicing tango. You never know what you’re going to find, but call the Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-777-2489 if you want to plan ahead.
  • Windowshop: Even if you’re not in looking to buy, Santa Fe offers world-class window shopping, especially amidst the galleries and boutiques of Canyon Road.
  • Visit a pueblo: Although not walking distance, there are eight pueblos located just north of Santa Fe. Spend a morning or afternoon talking to the various tribes, explore the dwellings, purchase handicrafts, or attend one of the weekend Indian Markets, seasonal pow-wows, or other cultural events. Be open to talking to the residents; when I visited the Taos Pueblo, I ended up helping to construct a traditional adobe horno, or outdoor oven.


Getting there
Skip the rental car (which is unnecessary if you’re staying downtown). The shuttle from the Albuquerque airport, an hour away, is just $47/pp/round trip. Ultimately, it comes down to what you’re planning to do while you’re in town.

New Orleans Roadfood Festival rolls in March 24-25

new orleans foodThat New Orleans is a food town is no secret. What I just discovered, however, is that it’s host to a food festival spawned by one of my favorite pastimes ever: road food (and no, I’m not referring to this kind). Way back in the day, when I was a wee college student, I discovered the late, great Gourmet magazine, and became obsessed with “Roadfood,” a column (now a website) written by the road-trippin’, big-eatin’ couple Jane and Michael Stern.

In every issue, the Sterns would choose a micro-region of the U.S. and a local specialty on which to focus their column. Each month, I read about chicken and dumplings in Indiana, pasties from Montana, green chile from El Rito, New Mexico, or barbecue from Owensboro, Kentucky. Then I’d wipe the drool off of the pages and stash each article away in a manila folder to be saved for future road trips, both real and imagined.

Apparently, nearly half a decade ago, while I was lost in some “best roadside diner biscuit” reverie, the Sterns helped create the New Orleans Roadfood Festival. The 4th annual food fiesta will be held March 24-25 in the city’s historic French Market. It will provide a showcase for over 30 restaurants across the country, which will serve the dishes that made them famous. Attendees will be able to street-feast upon Texas and Memphis barbecue, Tucson’s best tamales, custard from upstate New York, Cajun and Creole delicacies from across Louisiana, and many other regional culinary specialties. There will also be cooking demos, live music, a beignet-eating contest for the N.O. Fire Department, and a kickoff party featuring the Sterns, local chefs, and noted cookbook author Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

And get this: admission to the festival is free. You’ll still have to pay for those good eats, but a portion of the proceeds will benefit Cafe Reconcile, a non-profit restaurant that uses innovative strategies to provide life skills and job training to youth from at-risk communities in area. Just in case you need a guilt-free reason to indulge. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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[Photo credit: Flickr user Adam Melancon]