31 March 2013

Egg hunt

As far as sticking to traditions goes, on this one I have been pretty good. It started early in my childhood, when I would typically board a train south, across the alps and into Italian-speaking Ticino, where my nonna would await with warmer weather, better food and lots of chocolatey treats. That particular migration has lost nothing of its appeal to many northerners, as evidenced by the endless traffic jams in front of alpine tunnels year after year.

I, however, have moved on, both metaphorically and physically. But in principle, nothing has changed. Easter eggs are to be searched away from home, and the first long weekend of the year has to be spent travelling somewhere. In the past few years, the Easter Bunny had to deliver my treats to Egypt, South-East Asia, Berlin, and more recently Tennessee and Mexico City. So imagine my shock when, about two months ago, I suddenly realized that for this Easter weekend, nothing had been planned.

An evening of frantic airfare searches and destination wishlist cross-referencing ensued, followed by a pressing appeal to my most reliable travel buddy. Only once tickets were booked could I rest comfortably again.

And so it came that this Good Friday, I boarded a plane to the Windy City, which despite countless airport transits I had not visited as a tourist in a decade. Since then, a lot has changed, and under glorious blue skies and temperatures testifying to the end of winter, we explored both within the loop and outside of it. The trip also gave us the opportunity to take in one of the much recommended Architecture Tours. Travelling through Chicago's south side on the famous "L" train, our guide provided eye-opening views on the many design masterpieces the city hosts (not something you'd expect if you judged by the airport).

No Easter weekend, of course, is complete without a proper egg hunt. Fortunately, ours was rather easy. We simply followed the crowds to Millennium Park, along the shores of Lake Michigan. And there it stood: Big, hard, shiny, and albeit somewhat oddly shaped, by far the most impressive Easter egg I'd ever seen. On its reflective surface, my triumphant smile was testimony to a successful hunt - and a tradition kept for another year.

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17 March 2013


"Most resorts are lucky to have one bowl" said the headline on the poster at the lodge. And below a panoramic picture of the terrain including its seven skiable bowls, it proclaimed: "Vail isn't most resorts."

Indeed it isn't. When I told my boss, an avid skier herself, about my plans to spend a few days in North America's second-largest ski area (with Whistler-Blackcomb already off my bucket list), she told me to expect beautiful runs and excellent infrastructure. But she also raised my expectations by pointing out that Vail, along with its Colorado neighbor Aspen, is considered über-posh.

Looking at the cost of our lift tickets and the rent for the chalet, I could definitely agree. At almost $100 a day, access to the resort's runs certainly doesn't come cheap. On the other hand, a day in Mt. Tremblant will set you back by the same amount, and the Laurentian Disney on Ice simply doesn't compare to the Rockies' vertical drop and fluffy powder.

Not even United's mishandling of our skis could dampen our anticipation when we hit the road from Denver. Through heavy traffic, it took us to over 3'400m of elevation and into Vail. Unlike most alpine ski towns, which are up some narrow valley and require you to drive up a curvy mountain road, Vail is a purpose-built town directly off Interstate 70, with the same faux charm that I have come to expect from Tremblant and Whistler. But that is where the similarities end.

Clearly, Vail offers "high-touch" skiing, right from the get-go. As you approach the gondola, a cheery attendant hoists your skis into  the rack. While you soar upwards, you can update your Facebook status or check on your stock options, thanks to the free in-gondola wifi. At the top, brightly dressed staff hand out not just daily grooming reports, but granola bars, too. They are as free as the drinking water available everywhere - much appreciated by thirsty skiers at over 3'000m of elevation.

Runny noses are an inevitable part of any ski day, and even at Tremblant and Whistler I was pleased to see tissue paper dispensers at every lift. Vail, however, takes service to another level: When you walk into any of the lodges, smiling ladies greet you and hold out a box of Kleenex. Once your nose is taken care of, you can then browse lunch choices including salad bars, Asian wok and Mexican burritos, and help yourself to free chocolates sprinkled around the tables. And should you need to use the washrooms, you'll find them stocked with lotion, sunscreen, and scented candles.

Delighted as much by all these thoughtful touches as by the stellar snow conditions, I barely noticed just how often my credit card was swiped around the mountain. Looking at my statement now, the term "champagne powder" certainly takes on a whole new meaning.

Not that I'd have any regrets. The resort's nifty mobile app kindly tallied up 51'199 vertical feet for me, and I've enjoyed every one of them. It is safe to say that Vail takes skiing to a whole new altitude. 

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