Skiing in summer in Chile

Published: Friday, June 08, 2012 @ 5:00 PM
Updated: Friday, June 08, 2012 @ 5:00 PM

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A summer ski trip is more than a novelty. It's a self-indulgent subversion of the natural order. It's dessert before dinner, a Bloody Mary at breakfast, a weekend on Wednesday. It feels impossible, yet there it is. It's something every skier should try at least once.

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Europe's Alpine glaciers offer year-round skiing, though that's mostly a lark—a few sunny turns in the morning high above Zermatt, maybe a run or two in shorts so your spouse can take a funny picture, then back down to the usual sightseeing. No, Europe won't do. For the full experience, you need to head to South America. And for one of the ski world's few truly unique experiences, you need to visit the Ski Portillo resort in Los Andes, Chile.

Los Andes is deep in the southern hemisphere, roughly in line with Cape Town and Sydney, so winter runs from June through September. There's something undeniably decadent about plumbing the depths of fresh powder while folks back home sweat through another dog day afternoon. But the Portillo resort bends time in other ways, too. With its surreally scenic—and, at more than 9,000 feet, notably lofty—perch amid the jagged Andes Mountains, it feels like the sort of place where you might stumble across a lost civilization. And, in many respects, that's exactly what Portillo is.

The outrageous LEGO-yellow Hotel Portillo serves as the resort's main lodging and self-contained center of gravity. It's a delightful throwback, an uncontrived retro relic, where, if you squint, you can make out the specter of a jet-set past—just beyond that framed print of dogs playing poker. From the formal dining room, where uniformed waiters serve guests three meals daily (plus high tea in the afternoon) at assigned tables, to the dark wood, soaring ceilings, and stocking-foot ethos of the common areas, there's an appealing aura of lived-in luxury here. In a ski world dominated by endless stone-and-timber lodges, uniformed drones dispensing training-manual hospitality, and interchangeable wood-fired pizzerias and mochaccino latterias, Portillo stands out for its absence of artifice. The service is abundant and genuinely friendly. The dining is fine without being fussy—Chilean wines and fresh local seafood figure prominently. And the experience is singular.

Portillo operates predominantly on the old-style ski-week model: Saturday to Saturday stays with meals and lift tickets included, yet another welcome anachronism in an age of à la carte, rush-in, rush-out recreation. Not only do package deals make Portillo surprisingly affordable, especially within the costly context of ski travel, but the weeklong stays also encourage friendships and foster a sense of shared experience among guests who see one another day after day, night after night, and, in many cases, year after year. North Americans, South Americans, Europeans; skiers and boarders young and old, nascent and world famous—everyone mixes over Pisco Sours (Chile's signature cocktail, which tastes a little like baby aspirin) and après-ski sushi in the hotel's bar or amid the late-night throb of the in-house disco (not club-disco). At its best, a week in Portillo can feel like a colossal slope-side house party. Grown-ups gab and kids run free (or partake in any number of organized activities—bread-baking class is a perennial favorite).

It's probably not surprising that none of the sleek and simply appointed guest rooms contains a television—yet another nod to a more genteel past—though a communal TV room and high-speed Internet access cater to those who can't quite cut the cord. Accommodations range from twin rooms to suites to practical family apartments consisting of adjoining rooms, one equipped with a double set of bunks. Adjacent to the hotel, the resort operates two smaller, less elaborate lodges: the Octagon, which offers four-person rooms outfitted with two sets of bunk beds; and the spartan Inca Lodge, a hostel-style setup aimed at younger travelers. Octagon guests take their meals in the grand dining room at the main hotel, while those at the Inca have access to a cafeteria. Beyond that, all of Portillo's offerings are open to everyone staying at the resort.

Of course, Portillo's overriding amenity is its skiing. The first folks to ski in the area were 19th-century railroad engineers, who found it easier to slide than ride as they worked to establish a link between Chile and Argentina. Today, the resort, purchased from the Chilean government by American investors in 1961 and still American-owned and -run, offers skiing suitable to all abilities on 35 trails from 12 lifts, as well as innumerable acres of off-piste terrain. Portillo's altitude results in wide-open, treeless ground blanketed by reliable annual snowfall.

If you see a lift line in Portillo, take a picture. Otherwise, nobody will believe you. The slopes are largely the domain of the resort's 450 guests, supplemented by a smattering of local day skiers and perhaps a few Chilean army mountain troops engaged in "training" that looks suspiciously like R&R. You may also encounter—on the slopes or horsing around on the sundeck—members of the various national ski teams who actually do train at Portillo, or perhaps a ski-film star preparing to jump cliffs for the cameras. You probably shouldn't attempt that yourself, though experts interested in exploring beyond the resort's defined boundaries may hire an experienced guide, and anyone looking to brush up on technique will find a top-notch multilingual ski school.

Portillo's underpopulated slopes have a lot to do with the resort's uncommonly relaxed atmosphere, which may require an adjustment for many American skiers, who are notorious for their harried and often competitive pursuit of maximum mountain plunder. Why rush in the morning? Why not take a break to bask in the sun? Why not spend an hour (or three) watching condors circle as you enjoy a lunch of grilled meats and chilled wine at on-mountain eatery Tio Bob's? Take a dip in the outdoor pool, soak in one of the pond-size hot tubs, grab a nap, get a massage, read a book. The snow isn't going anywhere, you're not going anywhere-and Portillo isn't changing anytime soon.

Same-sex couple claim Southwest discriminated during boarding

Published: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 @ 12:56 PM



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A Florida same-sex couple claim Southwest Airlines refused to let them board with their three children and a grandparent as a family.

Grant Morse says the family was rebuffed at the family boarding area at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York Saturday, The Associated Press reported. Morse said a Southwest Airlines gate agent told them that they were not a family, even though Morse told the agent that Morse and his husband, Sam Ballachino, are legally married. 

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Morse said the family was forced to wait while other families were allowed to board, then the airline told them they'd saved four seats in the back of the plane, not enough for the family to sit together. Morse claimed that Ballachino's 83-year-old grandmother was placed in an emergency exit row seat.

Southwest defended its actions in a statement, saying that both parents were invited to board with their children but the third adult was not eligible to board under the airline's family boarding policy.

Memorial Day 2017: Travelers will hit highest level since 2005

Published: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 @ 11:43 AM

Foot traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport checkpoints was heavy early Fri., May 27, 2016 before Memorial Day weekend. JOHN SPINK/ JSPINK@AJC.COM
John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If you plan to travel Memorial Day weekend, expect a lot of company.

A whole lot.

AAA said more than 39.3 million people are planning a holiday trip at least 50 miles from home - the most since 2005 and a 2.7 percent increase over last year.

Of those, travelers, 34.6 million - or 88.1 percent - will drive to their destination.

“We think it’s because of the increase in wages,” said Garrett Townsend, public affairs director for Georgia. “People are feeling more comfortable about spending money.”

Adding to that confidence, he said, are gas prices. 

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“While gas prices are certainly not as low as last year, they are much lower than they were in 2015,” he said. Even if they creep up “I don’t think it’s going to increase enough for people to change their plans.”

Here’s the bad news: airfares, car rental rates and mid-range hotels will probably cost you more this year.

Average airfares for the top 40 domestic flight routes will be 9 percent higher this Memorial Day, with an average round trip ticket landing at $181, according to AAA’s Leisure Travel Index.

Need a room? Plan to dig deeper.  The average AAA Three Diamond Rated hotel will cost roughly $215, or 18 percent more than 2016.

The top U.S. destination is Orlando.

AAA expects to help more than 330,000 motorists during the holiday weekend, with the main reasons being lockouts, flat tires and battery-related issues.

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Add Hocking Hills to your bucket list

Published: Saturday, September 27, 2014 @ 12:00 AM
Updated: Saturday, September 27, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

While the Hocking Hills State Park is beautiful any time of year, with its scenic waterfalls and caves, many additional activities are offered in the warmer months. Park goers can enjoy horseback riding, ziplining, canoeing, and other activities in the area.

Directions to Hocking Hills State Park

 

From Dayton, take U.S. Route 35 East through Xenia. As you approach Chillicothe, take the State Route 159/Bridge Street exit toward U.S. Route 23 North. Turn left on North Bridge Street/State Route 159. Follow State Route 159. Turn right on State Route 180. Turn right on State Route 56 East/State Route 180. Follow State Route 56. Stay straight to go on State Route 664.

 

For more information, go to parks.ohiodnr.gov/hockinghills or call (740) 385-6842.

At the end of last year, Buzzfeed came out with its “22 Stunning Under-The-Radar Destinations To Add To Your Bucket List In 2014.” The places on the list sound exotic: Orchid Island, Taiwan; Ometepe, Nicaragua; Rangiroa, French Polynesia.

 

All the destinations are thousands of miles away from Southwest Ohio, except for one: Hocking Hills State Park, the only place in the entire United States that made Buzzfeed’s list.

 

If you haven’t been there for years or, worse, if you’ve never been there at all, that’s a downright crying shame because Hocking Hills in Hocking County is the geological crowning jewel of Ohio and is fantastic to visit regardless of the season. I’ve been there on sultry summer days; also, when snow was on the ground.

 

Personally, my favorite times are in the spring and fall. When I was there this past April, the seasonal waterfalls were spectacular — I could hear the roar of the falls long before I reached them. There’s not so much water in the fall, but the turning color of the foliage and milder temperature makes hiking a delight.

 

The park is comprised of five separate non-contiguous areas: Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls, Ash Cave, Rock House and Cantwell Cliffs. Old Man’s Cave is the most popular destination of the five, but the unique features of each of the other four sites are definitely worth a visit.

 

I carry a backpack with plenty of water and opt for serious waterproof hiking boots when I’m on these trails. A boot with a thin sole lets me feel when I’m stepping on loose pebbles or twigs. In the winter and spring, the trails can be slippery because of ice and mud. In dry conditions, they can be slippery because of loose sand and in the fall, leaves can cover the rocks and roots that jut out of the trails.

 

I also carry food — usually a cucumber and almond butter sandwich, some chips, a piece of fruit and maybe some nuts. There are picnic tables and shelters at all the sites. After a day of hiking, a special treat is a double scoop of ice cream at Grandma Faye’s grocery and general store on State Route 664 about 1 mile west of Old Man’s Cave.

 

On my last day of hiking, I splurged for lunch at Hocking Hills Dining Lodge, also about a mile from Old Man’s Cave. The lodge has an extensive menu that includes pizza, entrees like center-cut pork chops and ribeye, lots of sandwiches, burgers and oodles of beer. I loved the Better Burger ($7.95) with cheddar (add $1) on a homemade potato bun with hand-cut fries on the side.

 

WHY HOCKING HILLS IS SO SPECIAL

 

Hundreds of millions of years ago, Hocking Hills was submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean, the currents of which deposited vast amounts of sand and gravel. When the ocean receded, the sand and gravel bonded with silica and iron oxide to form a unique kind of sandstone found only in this part of the world. The middle layer of this Blackhand sandstone (named for a non-extant large black hand that American Indians painted out of soot on the side of a cliff) was very soft, and about 10,000 years ago glacial meltwaters carved out deep gorges, which are now teeming with lush vegetation, gigantic trees with exposed and twisted roots, and moss-covered boulders where chipmunks like to scamper.

 

Old Man’s Cave

 

Located off State Route 664, Old Man’s Cave isn’t a cave, but rather a large recess in a 150-foot-deep gorge, its name inspired by a hermit who lived here more than 100 years ago and whose remains are believed to be buried beneath the ledge.

 

Besides the large recess, there’s plenty more to see. The site is divided into five major sections: Upper Falls, Upper Gorge, Middle Falls, Lower Falls and Lower Gorge. If you take your time to look around, you’ll see it’s all fantastically beautiful — and don’t be surprised to see what resemble human-like faces peering out of many of the rock formations.

 

Near the Upper Falls is a don’t-miss natural whirlpool called The Devil’s Bathtub. Water flows down a tiered waterfall into a round basin. According to folklore, the basin is so deep that it reaches Hell; actually, it is only a few feet deep.

 

Just don’t plan on bringing a bar of Irish Spring and jumping in. The Devil’s Bathtub is off limits to visitors.

 

Cedar Falls

 

The Lower Gorge Trail from Old Man’s Cave will take you to Cedar Falls. Despite its name, there are no cedars, but plenty of hemlocks, which early Europeans mistook for cedar. The largest and most spectacular waterfall at Hocking Hills State Park is here, where the Queer Creek tumbles into the chasm.

 

Now, for the geeky part: Scientists and engineers will appreciate the path leading from the parking lot accessible from State Route 374. Called Democracy Steps, it was created by Japanese artist and architect Akio Hizume, who applied the mathematical principles of the Fibonacci Sequence as well as Penrose tiling into the design of the path.

 

Ash Cave

 

A mile or so from Cedar Falls, after turning right on State Route 56, you won’t find any ashes in Ash Cave, and just like Old Man’s Cave, it isn’t even a real cave.

 

But when you reach the 700-foot-long horseshoe-shaped recess, you may feel like you’re on the set of a science fiction movie that takes place on Mars or some other desolate planet. You’ll also know you’re not alone — previous visitors have destroyed the primordial illusion by defacing the sandstone boulders by carving initials, names, other words and shapes into them. The enormous size of the recess, its peculiar quality of light, the sand and boulders, and the unauthorized modern-day hieroglyphics give Ash Cave a funky vibe.

 

Humans have been drawn to this place long before European explorers discovered enormous piles of ashes believed to have accumulated from centuries of fires. A group of sandstone boulders near the entrance of the recess is called Pulpit Rock because early Christian settlers used to hold church service here.

 

Ash Cave has a seasonal waterfall created by the East Fork of the Queer Creek. On prior visits, I’ve seen the pool of water below the waterfall shaped almost like a heart. Ash Cave is a popular site for weddings and a permit must be obtained from the park office (740-385- 6842).

 

There are two trails, an upper and a lower. The lower trail is paved, flat and wheelchair accessible.

 

Rock House

 

The only true cave at Hocking Hills State Park, Rock House is midway down a 150-foot cliff. It’s 200 feet long and features seven Gothic-like “windows.” American Indians used it for shelter and built ovens in some of the recesses. After European settlers arrived, it became a hiding place for outlaws and was nicknamed Robbers’ Roost.

 

I always carry a flashlight when I visit the cave because the floor is uneven; plus, in the wetter months, it can be slippery in spots.

 

The Loop Trail starts at the parking lot. I prefer going left, which descends much farther than the other route and provides a fabulous view of Rock House. But the price for that view is then having to ascend some very steep steps to reach the entrance of the cave.

 

Cantwell Cliffs

 

Not for the faint of heart, Cantwell Cliffs is both figuratively and literally a breath-taking experience. Located on State Route 374, it is the remotest of the five park sites, 17 miles away from Old Man’s Cave.

 

It’s a rugged trail that offers a heart-pumping descent through extremely narrow passageways — nicknamed Fat Woman’s Squeeze — to get to the bottom of the gorge.

 

This is a dangerous place so stay on the trail — not only for your own safety but for other hikers as well. During my recent visit to the cliffs, I’d descended into the valley when I suddenly heard a loud commotion and looked up in time to watch small boulders and rocks tumble down the recess because someone who’d gone off trail had stepped on a loose one. Fortunately, no one was in the path of the minor rock slide.

 

The ascent out of the gorge is very steep, and I’m always convinced that gravity here is denser by the time I make it back to the parking lot.

 

NEARBY SITES OF INTEREST

 

Conkle’s Hollow State Nature Preserve

 

Named after W.J. Conkle, who carved his name and the date 1797 into sandstone, Conkle’s Hollow is another woolly place located off State Route 374. Hikers have two trails to choose from: the scenic floor trail and the even more scenic but very challenging rim trail 200 feet above.

 

The lower trail is pleasant and will take about an hour, in and out. The 2.5-mile-long upper trail, which is pretty darn rugged, may take 2 or 3 hours to complete. The view from the rim is truly spectacular, but is no place for babies, small children, pets or spouses/boyfriends/girlfriends afraid of heights. I’ve witnessed the breakup of a couple on this rim.

 

Rock Bridge State Nature Preserve

 

Located outside the town of Rockbridge, just off U.S. Route 33, Rock Bridge is the longest of several dozen natural bridges in the state of Ohio. The stone arch is more than 100 feet long; 20 feet at its widest and about 6 feet at its narrowest; and 50 feet above a ravine.

 
A 1.75-mile long loop trail will take you to the bridge. Part of the trail is a boardwalk over a bog. The area can be muddy, so you may want to carry a walking stick.

African-American Museum is worth waiting for

Published: Tuesday, May 02, 2017 @ 9:12 PM


            Desks and a wood burning stove from the Hope School are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 14, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Ken Cedeno/McClatchy/TNS)
            Ken Cedeno

WASHINGTON — It’s a project frequently referred to as “100 years in the making.” But if your travel plans include a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, be prepared to wait a while longer. The next tickets become available online May 3 at 9 a.m. — for admission in August.

Since the museum opened last September, the culmination of a dream conceived in 1915 by African American Civil war veterans, more than 1 million visitors have waited patiently to enter it. (The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution, leading some to call it the Blacksonian, which is great deal easier to pronounce than NMAAHC.)

Once inside, visitors wait even more to view some of the 37,000 objects on display. If you’re the type of museum-goer who could roller skate through the Louvre, you might be satisfied in two hours. But many visitors take six to absorb the full experience.

Typical lines for entrance to the lowest level of the museum, which document the African American experience from 1400 to 1968 — a slave cabin, the casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Jim Crow railroad car — last 45 minutes. Those waiting share space with equally-long lines of others waiting to sample food — Creole shrimp and grits, Gullah style Hoppin’ John, braised short ribs — in the 400-seat Sweet Home Cafe.

“I don’t see the lines getting any shorter,” the museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch, said in an interview last month. “I don’t think we’re going to have those moments when I can bounce a basketball through the museum — at least not for the next three or four or five years.”

“The museum’s design has also caused choke-points,” observed a reviewer in The Washington Post. “For example, the intentionally cramped entrance to the slavery section on the lowest level can’t handle the number of people who can fit into the massive elevator that ferries guests below ground. Museum officials have decided to not fill the elevator to capacity, which causes lines at the elevator two levels above.”

Traffic in the three floors above the Heritage Hall entrance level, which include a gift shop — T-shirts, coffee mugs, Kwanzaa items — flows more easily.

Level 2, “Explore Your Family History,” offers interactive displays. There’s the front end of a blue, 1949 Oldsmobile. Seated behind it in “the driver’s seat,” a six-year-old boy from Atlanta swipes a screen that calls up scenes of what he might have experienced if he were taking a trip in the ‘40s from Chicago to grandma’s house in Alabama. He sees signs on restaurants in Indiana refusing to serve “Negroes.” Gas stations in Kentucky whose pumps operated only for whites. One picture advises bringing an empty coffee can along because not all restrooms would accommodate him and his family.

On the same level, in a quiet room lined with computers, a man from Long Island searches for information about his great-grandfather. Spencer Thompson, he learns, lived in South Carolina in 1850, but was not a slave.

Level 3, “Community Galleries,”, honors African American Medal of Honor winners in the “Military Experience” gallery and sports stars in the “Leveling the Playing Field gallery.” An imposing feature in the sports wing is a life-sized statue of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised an Olympian controversy with their black power salute during the playing of our National Anthem at the 1968 Games in Mexico City (only the most devout football fans might know that Smith played for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969 — two games, one reception, 41 yards).

The museum tops out on Level 4, “Cultural Expressions,” two cellphone friendly displays dominate the “Musical Crossroads” gallery: the 1,200-pound Holy Mothership prop used at Parliament-Funkadelic concerts and the late Chuck Berry’s apple-red 1973 Cadillac. The car previously had been driven onto the stage for the documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!,” which was filmed at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. That was the same theater from which he had been denied admission as a child because of his race.

An apt analogy, perhaps, for a museum that’s well worth the wait.

IF YOU GO

— The museum is located at 1400 Constitution Ave NW. Parking in the area is limited and visitors are encouraged to use public transportation.

— Open every day except Christmas from 10-5:30.

— Admission is free but all visitors, including infants, must have tickets, which may be obtained only online at ETIX.

— Advance timed entry passes are released monthly. The next release date is May 3 for tickets to be used in August.

— A limited number of same day tickets are available. Check availability at nmaahc.si.edu

— A limited number of walk-up tickets are available on week days only.

— For more information call 1-844-750-3012