10 Very Specific Places I Want to Visit

What’s on your list?

A Lighthouse in Maine
A Lighthouse in Maine, an enjoyable place that is not on my spreadsheet

I keep a travel spreadsheet. I’m orderly like that and I enjoy recording interesting places that I learn about in the hope that I can get there someday. Fundamentally, it feels optimistic, which is nice.

Some of my entries are on the vague side, “Morocco” for instance, while others specify an exact museum, restaurant, or some other locale.

Here are some of my favorite, most highly anticipated, and specific choices.

Do you keep a spreadsheet? If so, what’s on it?

1. Hobbiton Set – New Zealand

Why:

I love Tolkien. I’ve read nearly everything published from Smith of Wooten Major to the The Book of Unfinished Tales to The Silmarillion, and of course The Hobbit and the trilogy. The trilogy movies had some good moments (let’s not even talk about The Hobbit films), and getting to see the Hobbiton set would be some serious childhood wish fulfillment.

2. The Literary Man Hotel – Obidos, Portugal

Why:

I love to read and this place doubles as a bookstore, with books lining the walls throughout. They also offer some literary-themed programs and a bar with drinks named after authors. It’s just an environment I know I will like.

3. The Mountain Hostel – Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Why?

Just look at the pictures and video. I can’t fathom not wanting to be there. In truth, I could easily made a list of 10 places in Switzerland alone, but decided to spread it out.

4. The Isle of Skye – Scotland

Why?

Another spectacular setting full of adventure and photographic opportunities. Mountain biking, axe throwing, hiking, and kayaking? Yes, please.

5. H.R. Giger Museum Bar – Gruyeres, Switzerland

Why?

Fundamentally because it seems a neat place to have a drink. Giger is probably most well known for his work on Alien and the look of this bar has a similar feel. I want to visit Switzerland for the mountains and stunning vistas, so why not have a beer here as well.

6. Shirohige’s Cream Puff Factory – Japan

Why?

I love sweets and the work of Hiyao Miyazaki. It’s hard to resist a cream filled Totoro.

7. Giant’s Causeway – Northern Ireland

Why?

It just looks really neat and I want to get a closer look. I’m a sucker for natural beauty, especially when it’s as unique as this.

8. The Mobil – Lee Vining, CA

Why?

Why, indeed. This is a gas station in California, but by all reports, it’s as much gathering place for outdoor adventurers as it is gas station. There’s also live music and a deli, making it much more than your average gas station.

9. West Highland Way – Scotland

Why?

I love traveling in non-motorized ways, so the notion of backpacking through Scotland is exactly my type of thing. Plus, it looks at though there are options to stay under a roof certain nights, which will appeal to my husband. In general, I need to explore Europe’s hut-to-hut backpacking system more. I’m happy to start here.

10. Anne Frank Museum – Amsterdam

Why?

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it and I’m pretty concerned that a repeat may be imminent. For all I know, it’s being repeated in my own country as I type this. The situation is sobering.

So, that’s my current 10. It’s a list I’m sure will change.

Scotland and Switzerland are repeated, so I guess that means one of those places needs to be our next destination. It also means that I need to research some other areas more thoroughly.

Suggestions?

Destinations: Valle Nevado in Chile

Take a ski trip to Valle Nevado in Chile for gorgeous scenery and excellent skiing.

As the ski season comes to a close in the northern hemisphere, it’s just getting ready to begin for our neighbors to the south. The ski season at Valle Nevado typically runs from approximately June to October, depending on snowfall. Located in the Andes, east of Santiago, the resort is pretty accessible from the airport via one of the many transport services available. I got a great deal through Turistik, a company I would highly recommend over the much more expensive Ski Total.

The road to the resort is narrow and twisting and is limited to one-way traffic at certain times, so be prepared. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for livestock because they can access the road, so watch your speed lest you hit a stray cow or horse.

The road from Valle Nevado Ski Resort to Santiago Chile is long, windy, narrow, and stunning.
The road connecting Valle Nevado Ski Resort to Santiago is a Class VI drive.

Why Valle Nevado?

In my case, it’s easy – I won my trip. As in, I filled out a form on the internet, and the contest was actually real and not just data mining. Yeah, I was shocked, too. The prize did not include airfare, but it did include 6 days of hotel, breakfast & dinner, and lift tickets, all for two people. It was pretty sweet.

The prize was only for late season – I went in September – and the conditions were appropriately slick for late season skiing. However, I had a lot of the mountain to myself. There were days that I was pretty much the only person skiing the backside and all of the lifts back there were open. It was like having my own private mountain.

I do think I was lucky to have the coverage I did. Even though it was icy, the vast majority of the runs were open. One worker I talked to told me that the prior year there had been almost no snow left that late. If you plan a late season trip to Valle Nevado:

  1. Don’t count on powder
  2. Don’t even count on snow.

Just research conditions before you book anything.

The balconies of the Hotel Puerta del Sol have a stunning view of the Andes
View from the balconies of the Puerta del Sol looking out over the frontside of the ski runs in the Andes.

Where to stay?

There are three hotels of varying price range at the resort. The Hotel Valle Nevado is the most expensive, followed by the Puerta del Sol, and then the Tres Puntas. There are also condos (the Mirador del Inca being one), that our driver told us can sometimes be rented. A quick search on Airbnb brought up some possibilities, so I’d consider trying there and comparing prices to the hotels. My prize included lodging at the mid-range hotel – the Puerta del Sol. The view from the room was stellar, with a little patio overlooking the Andes, but the room was average. It was older and a bit small, with two little twin beds and not very many outlets. The hotel did provide a little set of outlet adaptors, but you’ll likely want to bring your own so that you have more than one.

In short, you might do better in an Airbnb. I wasn’t overly concerned, I was simply excited to get to ski, but it’s worth noting and likely worth a bit of research.

Two of the three hotels at Valle Nevado Ski Resort - Hotel Valle Nevado and Puerta del Sol
The Hotel Valle Nevado on the left and the Puerta del Sol in the back to the right.

The Tres Valles System

Valle Nevado is part of the Tres Valles system of Chilean ski resorts, which also include La Parva and El Colorado to the north and west. Both of those other resorts are visible from various parts of the mountain and are accessible by skis if you can afford the lift tickets to them. Actually, in the case of La Parva, it’s possible to accidentally ski down the mountain to it. In this case, you would be stuck buying a lift ticket to get back to Valle Nevado on skis. Caution is advised in this regard. I caught myself just time – take note that any unmarked lifts on your Valle Nevado map may not be Valle Nevado lifts at all.

The resort is situated in a high mountain bowl and is known for its excellent powder in peak season, but spring visitors to all resorts in the area should be prepared to ski ice and crud. The mountain groomers did an excellent job with what was available and only one of the six days I skied was icy enough that I quit the mountain early for the bar. However, spring conditions are spring conditions, and visitors should be prepared for them.

Visitors should also be prepared to get to watch an incredible array of ski racers train in the mornings. One of my favorite activities was to sit on the patio outside the gondola unloading area and admire the skills of the racers after I had myself completed my morning runs.

A view of El Colorado from Valle Nevado during a stunning pink sunset.
The sunsets at Valle Nevado are stunning

Off-Piste

Skiing aside, the resort has other offerings for non-skiers or skiers taking a break from the slopes. There’s a hot tub, outdoor fire place, and several shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s best to purchase a food package, as it’s particularly expensive to eat if you don’t. One can save a bit of money by filling up on soup and hot cocoa at the daily apres ski event before dinner. Also, there’s a little grocery a short walk from the Puerta del Sol and Tres Puntas which can be used for food to save you from having to eat at the expensive restaurants. If you do visit the restaurants, tipping is expected and will be added to your bill at the end of your stay if you don’t tip along the way. When we visited, there were three restaurant options – Chilean, French, and Italian. They were all excellent, but the Italian place offered a free glass of wine if you booked early.

We ate Italian all but two nights.

The treacherous class VI drive up the mountain is far enough from Santiago that transport will need to be arranged in advance and if you choose to not rent a car, it can be difficult to get to other areas. A shuttle is available from the hotel area to the base of the gondola and non-skiers are allowed to ride that gondola up to its end at mid mountain if they have a lift ticket. Some other shops are available at the gondola base, and food and drink are available mid mountain for skiers who do not pack snacks.

The hot tub at Valle Nevado as viewed from above.
The view down onto the hot tub makes it look a bit like human soup.

A Note on the Lifts

The majority of the lifts at Valle Nevado are surface lifts, which is to say they are mostly J-bars (Poma lifts) with at least one T-bar. There is a gondola and a high speed 6 pack up front as well as few others chairs, but every lift on the backside is a surface lift except one. That includes the Tres Puntas Poma which is like riding a bucking bronco. It throws you up into the air at the start, so be ready. It’s fun once you get used to it, but it handed me my only fall of the trip. Beware of Tres Puntas lift.

This is all fine, really. It just gets a little tiring, so it’s good to know. I’m told it can get pretty windy, so this is probably part of the reason for the abundance of surface lifts.

The Tres Puntas lift is mildly treacherous, so beware.
View from Tres Puntas Lift

The Verdict

If you can afford to ski Valle Nevado, do it. It’s a beautiful place with excellent skiing, even in late season. I will say that if you are into steeps or trees, this isn’t your mountain. The runs labeled as steep here really aren’t and everything is above tree line. There is some nice looking skiing out of bounds here so, if it’s a good snow year, consider the resort’s heli skiing services or a reputable backcountry guide service such as Powderquest. If you want powder, don’t come late season, though that goes without saying. The reason I enjoyed myself was:

  1. I got to ski. Anytime I get to ski, I’m a happy human.
  2. There were almost no lines. This is likely the best perk of skiing late season here.
  3. It was free, or nearly so (I bought snacks, plane tickets, transport via Turistik, and I tipped).
  4. I got to ski.
  5. The Andes are spectacularly beautiful.
  6. I love to travel.
  7. I got to ski.

If you want a cheaper way to ski in Chile, I’ve heard that it is more affordable to stay in Farrelones. This is a small mountain village from which El Colorado can be accessed. Since Valle Nevado is accessible via El Colorado, this is one way to ski that resort without staying there. Unfortunately, this option would require lift tickets for both El Colorado and Valle Nevado since, to the best of my knowledge, the resorts do not co-operate in an fashion in regards to lift tickets.

Regardless of all of this, Valle Nevado is worth your time if you can manage it. Not only because the skiing is excellent, but the staff are lovely and very forgiving of those with poor Spanish language skills, as personal experience attests.

New Years Travel Resolutions for the Fiscally Disadvantaged

I like making lists, so I like the idea of resolutions. My personal “19 for 2019” is already complete, but I’ve decided to make a separate list of travel resolutions to help move me in the direction of actually being able to go places.

To be clear, “Fiscally Disadvantaged” is relative. Overall, I’m pretty lucky and I’m much less poor than I used to be, I just live in a relatively expensive area and don’t quite make enough to travel. I don’t mean to demean the struggle of those suffering through actual impoverishment. Travel is a luxury that I struggle to obtain, but it’s still a luxury. Perspective matters.

With that being said, here are some things that I think will help me move forward.

1. Renew passport before it expires. It’s good to have it handy just in case, and it’s cheaper this way.

2. Curate a travel wishlist via Google docs. I’ve already started this, but it needs some work. I find that the act of creating the list inspires me to work harder at getting my shit together. I like Google Docs because I can easily share the list with my husband and he can edit it, but use what works for you.

3. Deposit something from each pay check into savings and do not touch it. I’m starting out with $10 for now.

4. Seek out alternative means of income. Bonus points if these methods are location independent. In my case, I’m working on blogging, film production, ski instruction, and learning to code.

5. Simultaneously, seek more lucrative employment in your field. My day job is academic scientific research. I either need a better paying academic lab or I need to move to industry.

Anyone out there have their own list? What’s on it? Any tips or suggestions?

Cheers and a belated Happy New Year to all!

Sunshine and show blowing on a ski run
Looking uphill from Muleshoe run at Eldora Mountain Resort, the ski area where I teach.

Anti-Destinations: Weirton, WV

 

My little hometown is an old steel town turned decaying industrial wasteland nestled in the northern sliver of West Virginia and tucked in between Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 1984, Weirton Steel was the largest employee owned company in the nation, but that ended with public stock sales in 1989 and 1994. The company entered into bankruptcy in 2003. Portions of the old mill are still functional as a tin manufacturing plant under new ownership and other portions are being torn down for development, which is something. Hopefully it’s something positive, but it’s a little tough to know at this point. One thing that isn’t tough to know is that the area is not what you would call a vacation destination. I visit about once a year for the holidays, so I figured this year I would take the time to assess the areas travel-related “virtues”.

Looking down upon the old mill from Weir Avenue
Looking down upon the old mill from Weir Avenue

The Weirton Chamber of Commerce has a “Recreation and Visitor Attractions” section to it’s website that largely consists of youth sports facilities and the local community center. The continued existence of the town swimming pool is noted as is a vague mention of there being “several parks located in various neighborhoods.” I’m not entirely sure I know what they are talking about there.

A picture of a desolate park with a Christmas tree and a child
This is the park near my dad’s house, complete with my little sister. Not pictured: park benches. That’s it. The holiday decor is decidedly temporary.

The other places that are mentioned, Oglebay Park and Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack, & Resort, are not in town. I recall Oglebay being nice enough. It’s the home of the only zoo in West Virginia, a place I interned at years ago. They also have a pretty extensive christmas light display during the holidays. I largely recall that event as being a traffic jam through the park but, hey – people seem to like it.

An intern and a red panda at the Oglebay Park Good Zoo.
Me as an intern hanging out with one of the red pandas.

I’m also somewhat familiar with the track as I spent a summer there walking hots back in the late 90’s. I can’t speak for the current state of affairs, but at the time, the horses running there weren’t exactly known for their speed. It was the sort of track where horses that couldn’t win other places ran. I strongly suspect the establishment’s primary income comes from the casino. The website does list several musicians that are unknown to me as entertainment, so that’s a thing visitors ostensibly could do.

One fun memory from then is when we would, as a form of low impact exercise, take the horses to swim in the scummy pond next to the strip club that was across the street. It was called Filly’s. I do not have a current report on that establishment and my attempts to learn anything have defiled my search history.

So, that’s all the Weirton chamber lists and it’s pretty weak. I decided to see if anyone else had anything to say and found this site “dedicated to promoting tourism at the top of West Virginia.” Huzzah! What mysteries await us? I clicked on “download brochure” and was met with three categories:

  1. Rural Retreats
  2. Gaming Excitement
  3. Proximity to Pittsburgh

Ok, so the casino and getting out of dodge. Gotcha.

“Rural Retreats” was more of a mystery, so I persisted and found that the brochure wasn’t terribly clear on the concept. There’s a section for “fairs, festivals, and events” that lacks specific dates, a list of hotels, a bit on the aforementioned casino, and then an attractions section. Bingo.

A black and white photo of a crumbling structure with snow falling through the broken roof
This bit of blight and decay is not an attraction.

I recognize a few of these places as field trip locations from my youth. We definitely went to the Peter Tarr furnace and the Homer Laughlin China Company. The gem that is the World’s Largest Teapot is a thing we occasionally drove by to get to and from youth sporting events. The furnace is an old ruin adjacent to a Weirton neighborhood and the China Company is a pottery factory. We also took field trips to Domino’s Pizza and the local newspaper, so these places were all par for the course.

The other places listed are the Weirton Steel Memorial, the VFW Memorial Park, the John F. Kennedy Memorial, and the Weirton Steel Veterans Memorial. I am sure there are certain history buffs that are interested in these places, but I cannot say I’ve every seen anyone hanging out at them. Also, I think the JFK memorial is gone. At least, it was as of December 2017. Maybe they were remodeling? I don’t know.

Some campgrounds, golf courses, and three trails I’ve never heard of are also listed, as are restaurants and two museums that are not in Weirton and one that is.

There is also a list of Brooke County attractions, but Weirton is in Hancock county, so I’m not including them. Drive south if they interest you. They largely consist of some architecture, a scenic drive, and more veteran’s memorials.

So, that’s it for the brochure.

At this point, I’m pretty sure “rural retreats” is just a euphemism for the area in general.

A decaying elementary school playground set for demolition
Here’s a shot of the playground at my elementary school before it was demolished. It looks like Silent Hill.

Personally, when I visit Weirton, I like to drink and play video games with my family, grab some tasty Mexican food from Chico Fiesta, go bowling, and leave Weirton. Robinson Township has a nice Cinemark movie theater and Pittsburgh has a lot to do – there’s the art & natural history museums, the incline, science center, children’s museum, Kennywoodconservatory, aviary, zoo, several theaters, and Carson Street, among other things. This is really where you should go.

Bowling is fun
Bowling is just as fun in Weirton as it is everywhere and more affordable than it often can be in larger cities.

One of the things that amuses me is that, in Weirton, a cafe is not a cafe. Video Lottery gambling is legal, but it isn’t legal for the signage to specifically say that’s what’s inside, so everything is a “Cafe & More.” This means gambling, so tons of places have “more” inside in the form of video lottery machines. Want a coffee shop? We’ve got one, but there’s also “more.” How about a pub? Sure, they exist, but they also have “more.” There’s a lot of variety in the cafes, some of them let you hang out in them and have a beer or a coffee without gambling, but some won’t. I used to love to go into the inappropriately named Fun Cafe for the cheapest meal in town, but Hollywood Hollywood wouldn’t let my brother and I stay for a beer. It really varies.

A restaurant counter and wall with many hand written signs.
The now sadly defunct Fun Cafe sold the cheapest food in town. I miss it.

One Christmas my husband, one of my brothers and I all did a cafe tour where we went to to a bunch of them and tried to order a beer and hangout. The results were mixed, but it was fun, given the available options.

I really should credit this little town for my persistent ventures into the escapist fantasies of literature, film, and video games, because everything there was more interesting than everything at home. Maybe that’s for the best and maybe it’s not, but I’m sure it’s not uncommon among people who grow up in places with limited resources.

Hollywood of Weirton
Hollywood of Weirton, complete with little sister

So, that’s what Weirton has to offer. Take it or leave it. Maybe check out a “cafe” or the still functional and present swimming pool or bowl somewhere you haven’t before.  However, if you decide to go to Pittsburgh instead, I can’t say I blame you.

Destinations: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

“What do you despise? By this are you truly known.” -Frank Herbert, Dune

The Great Sand Dunes Park & Preserve
The Great Sand Dunes Park & Preserve

Colorado has sand dunes. If all that you know of the state is what you have seen in films and tourism materials, this fact may have eluded you. (Half of the state is also reminiscent of Kansas, but that tale is for another day).

If you drive south and a bit west from Denver, the land will become scrubby and drier, and if you happen in the right direction, you’ll suddenly be faced with an expanse of dunes vast enough to leave you looking for Shai Hulud. It’s stunning, really.

The dunes are not close to much of anything, so staying at one of the campgrounds is recommended. There are several, both inside the park itself and in the surrounding areas. Cost and amenities vary widely, but if you choose to stay at the Pinon Flats campground within the park, be aware that in the late season when you are no longer able to reserve a site online, you may still have to fight for one, or stay in your vehicle. We did this the first night and then got up early and snagged a site when someone left. Score one for early arrival.

On the flipside, if you arrive late, you may find the gate to the park unmanned and can then avoid the park fee. I don’t know if this is always the case, but it was for us. Score one for late arrival.

Pick your poison.

Some other potentially useful information:

  1. Plan ahead if you want to build a campfire, especially if you are going off-season. There is a little camp store at Pinon Flats that sells wood, but it closes for the season. If that happens, you will have to leave the park to buy firewood and then, if you managed to get in without paying the fee, you’ll have to pay it to get back in. Be prepared.
  2. Hiking on sand is a real bitch. Be psychologically prepared for an exhausting time. If you don’t want to deal with it, there are sand-free trails. Mosca Pass Trail is especially nice when the aspens are changing.
  3. If you do hike to Mosca Pass, you’ll see that the there is a dirt service road that continues on once the proper trail ends. Take it. When you come to another road, turn right and then quickly turn right again one a third road, Follow that road a short distance to get a lovely view of the Sangre de Christos. There is no view at the natural end of the trail. If you want better directions, ask a park ranger at the vistor’s center.
  4. Consider the possibility of mosquitoes. We went in a very dry year, so Medano Creek was completely dried up and there were none. I have it on report that when that is not the case, the mosquitoes are ungodly. Bring DEET.
  5. The dunes lie within the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and, as such, common national park rules such as dog leash laws apply.
  6. The wind on the dunes can really whip up and blow the sand around. If you are a photographer or if you are a wearer of contact lenses, be prepared to protect both your gear and your eyes.

Anakin hates sand. It gets everywhere.

Things I would do differently:

  1. I’d either go when I could reserve a site or get there early. Personally, I’d rather pay the park fee and not have to sleep in a car.
  2. I would take the time to hike to the top of the dunes. I suspect that view is stunning and I would have liked to have taken some photos.
  3. I’d spend more time there than just a weekend. It’s a bit of a drive and there’s a lot of exploring to do and I’d like to have the time to do so.
  4. Finally, I’d get a backcountry permit and head away from the crowds. The campground is nice if you want to be around people. However, if you prefer solitude, it’s a bit much. Do what you prefer.

Some people will no doubt take issue with my DEET recommendation. I once spent a month backpacking in Alaska during summer and I brought natural insect repellant. It had a pleasant scent and was useful to cover up the sort of increasingly awful body odor that one develops on a month long trip, but it had zero effectiveness against the mosquitoes. I’ll not leave the DEET behind again. That’s me. It just depends how much the mosquitoes bother you.

This is a gorgeous park with stunning vistas and excellent photographic opportunities if you work for them. If you are a Dune fan, it’s hard to not think of Paul and Jessica struggling across the dunes to escape the Harkonnen and Sardaukar. Doing so may well take your mind off of your own struggles and you may need that. Have fun!