Monday, June 29, 2009

Plan ahead for your desert escape

I know, it's hard to think about a winter getaway in the midst of a summer heatwave (it was over 100° at my house yesterday). But if you can do a little planning ahead, you'll save bigtime. And let's face it, in the middle of winter's cold and gloom, you know you're gonna want a sunny escape, right? I know I will.

That's where Death Valley comes in.

Last year at this time, the 66-room Furnace Creek Inn, the most luxurious place to stay in Death Valley National Park, was already sold out on many days in late October and early November, but this year there are fewer sold-out days during that time frame. Why? Simple: the resort is experiencing the same trend as many hotels nationwide –visitors are waiting later and later to make reservations (in the biz, it's called a short booking window). And that is good news for travelers because they have a better chance of finding rooms in high-demand properties like the Inn than they have had in many years.
[Note: Concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts, has seen the same trend at properties in other national parks, including Yellowstone, Zion and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Although visitors can book rooms up to 13 months in advance in those locations, few are doing so this year. And that is a huge departure from travel patterns at national park lodges just a few years ago.]

So plan now for a desert holiday; the Inn is open from Oct-May. It's a wonderful place to take the family: you can go on easy day hikes, swim in a natural hot springs-fed pool,
play tennis, golf, and explore one of the most spectacular parks in California. Make it a long weekend or a week-long trip (it's not a bad drive- a half-day from SoCal, a bit longer from NorCal). Chances are, you'll find plenty of privacy there this winter.

Don’t miss the Sunday brunch—it’s incredible. Book your stay directly with the resort, by phone or online (there's no booking charge); beware of third-party reservations sites that charge a non-refundable fee to make reservations for you.

In addition to the Furnace Creek Inn, Xanterra operates the 224-room Furnace Creek Ranch, 83-room Stovepipe Wells Village, 18-hole Furnace Creek Golf Course, three restaurants, a saloon, and a general store. Call 800/236-7916 or 303/297-2757 or go to

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cool Catalina deal

I don’t know about you, but I could use an easy island getaway—soon! Hawaii is out of the question until the economy and my budget both begin to look a lot healthier. Luckily, the grace and beauty of Southern California’s closest island getaway—Catalina— is not out of reach. There's plenty to do: swim, fish, or kayak in crystal clear waters, hike or take jeep tours.

It's all just a high-speed ferry ride away from Long Beach, (departs from Downtown and
Queen Mary locations), San Pedro, & Dana Point or Marina del Rey and a new deal just made it a more affordable destination.

Just 26 miles from Los Angeles, on Catalina Island, lies the appealing and intimate Hotel Villa Portofino (deck shown above, room below). And what a deal: Through October 31, 2009, the hotel offers its Villa Venturer Package, beginning at $161.50/night, double occupancy, plus tax. In addition to accommodations at the oceanfront Hotel Villa Portofino, it includes:

-R/T boat transportation aboard Catalina Express from Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point
-R/T taxi transfers between boat dock and hotel
-1 ¼ hour snorkel trip with Catalina Ocean Rafting
-Plus a lovely Continental breakfast and a welcome gift.

Note that weekend rates are higher, and a two-night minimum stay is usually required.

So if you’re ready to breathe in a bit of clean ocean air and adopt a slower pace of island life (without hopping a pricey, five-hour flight to Hawaii), make your own easy escape to Southern California’s most engaging island, Catalina and the Hotel Villa Portofino.

Details: 888/34-OCEAN, 888/510-0555, or locally, 310/510-0555. Visit For transportation, call Catalina Express at 800-429-4601, or log on to

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer Fun for Free at Lassen Volcanic National Park

This summer may be the best time in years to discover the wonders of Lassen Volcanic National Park; on certain days, you can come into the park for free. During these tough economic times the National Park Service will waive entrance fees on June 20-21, July 18-19, and August 15-16, 2009. These fee-free weekends will be in addition to fee-free days on National Public Lands Day, September 26, and Veterans Day, November 11.

“We hope our invitation to visit these weekends will encourage many folks that have never had a chance to visit Lassen Volcanic will come and see this wonderful national park,” said Superintendent Darlene M. Koontz. “Many first-time visitors are surprised at how much there is to see and explore that they make plans to return the following season or year,” she continued.

Here, you can wander a unique volcanic landscape, pull out to scenic vistas, tramp through a pristine wilderness, and discover a diversity of wildlife and plants; wildflowers include iris, spotted coralroot, pyrola, violets, and lupine (shown above, left).

All roads in the park are now open, and lower elevation hiking trails in the park are now clear of snow. Bring your tent: campsites at Manzanita Lake, Butte Lake, Crags, Warner Valley, and Southwest Campgrounds are open now. The Summit Lake Campgrounds open June 26 and Juniper Lake Campgrounds open July 2.

The historic Loomis Museum and concession-run Camper Service Store (Manzanita Lake) are now open daily. The Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center is open year-round daily and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer months.

A number of other national parks are open free those same days. Why? The National Park Service wants to reinforce that national parks are places for everyone to have fun, reconnect with nature and history, and build a sense of ownership and stewardship toward parks and the environment.

Fun fact: Lassen Volcanic National Park began life as two separate national monuments named in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt; originally, they were Cinder Cone National Monument and Lassen Peak National Monument.

Details: For campground updates, current road and trail conditions, and further information, please visit the park website at or contact the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (530) 595-4480 daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Top trains in the world?

I love train travel. Which is why I was so happy to see that a group I belong to, the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), has recently selected the world's Top 10 Train Rides. I'm just sorry they couldn't have picked my California fave: the Coast Starlight (Amtrak). It accesses some of the most scenic stretches of the Southern California coast and the food was terrific last time I rode it, with microbrew beers and fine local wines.

Still, I have to just drool over some of the trips SATW mentions, and as SATW President Bea Broda says, "Train
travel is romantic, scenic, a wonderful way to meet and mix with locals and equally important today, a very green way to experience a country.” Listed in order of votes with comments from SATW writers are the world’s “Top 10” train rides:

1. The Rocky Mountaineer ( offers spectacular two-day journeys through the Canadian Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Banff or Jasper. “The Rocky Mountaineer is humbling travel – both for the monumental landscapes it slices through and the appreciation of the workers who risked – and sometimes gave – their lives to build it.” Betsa Marsh, freelance travel writer
2. The Glacier Express ( is the famous Swiss mountain railway from St. Moritz to Zermatt, a 7.5 hour railway journey that crosses 291 bridges and burrows through 91 tunnels.
“Take the Glacier Express in winter – you will pass by skiers, people playing golf in the snow and spectacular alpine settings.” James O’Reilly, publisher, Traveler’s Tales
3. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad ( winds through rugged canyons in the remote wilderness of Colorado’s two-million-acre San Juan National Forest. The narrow-gauge train is pulled by a coal-fired, steam-powered locomotive along the same tracks traveled over a century ago by miners, cowboys and settlers of the Old West.
4. The Bernina Express ( from Chur, Switzerland to Tirano, Italy, makes the highest rail crossing of the Alps, passing from icy glaciers to palm-shaded piazzas in just a few hours. It crosses 196 bridges and passes through 55 tunnels, while winding around countless spectacular switchbacks. You can take the scenic stretch from St. Moritz to Tirano for lunch in Italy in just three hours. “The Bernina Express takes your breath away before dropping you off in the marvelous little Italian village of Tirano,” Stan Wawer, travel writer
5. Peru Rail, Cusco to Machu Picchu (, carries passengers on a spectacular journey through the high Andes. There are three levels of service, from backpacker trains to Vistadome cars to the luxurious blue and gold Hiram Bingham train, named in honor of Hiram Bingham, the explorer who discovered the Inca citadel in 1911.
The train passes by lush green fields and colorful villages in the foothills of the Andes and climbs along the Urubamba River through a dramatic canyon before reaching Machu Picchu. “On the train from Cusco to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, it’s easy to feel you’re traveling into a mystery as you roll past secluded farms, squeeze between rugged mountains and, on my trip, become enveloped by low brooding dark clouds.” Susan Farlow, freelance travel writer
6. The Coastal Classic Train on the Alaska Railroad ( winds through the wilderness between Anchorage and Seward. Massive glaciers are visible from the track as the train climbs into the Kenai Mountains and travels to the shores of Resurrection Bay for convenient connection to Kenai Fjords National Park, offering whale watching, sea kayaking, tidewater glacier viewing, fishing, and dog sled rides.
7. The Royal Scotsman ( rolls through the ever-changing landscapes of sweeping glens, towering peaks and mirror-calm lochs as the train weaves through wild countryside and along virgin stretches of coast on two to seven night journeys in the Scottish highlands. “Ancient castles. Misty moors. Stark cliffs, covered in black shadows from the clouds. Lochs. Chimneys sticking out of thatched roofs. And Rob Roy and Braveheart waiting beyond every turn.” Steve Winston, freelance travel writer
8. The Whistler Mountaineer ( in Canada is a three-hour ride along the magnificent coast of British Columbia, from Vancouver to Whistler, famous for its views of cities, old-growth forests, deep valleys, snowcapped peaks and seascapes.

9. Mexico’s El Chepe ( ventures into the imposing landscapes of the Sierra Tarahumara and into Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon, passing through 87 tunnels and crossing 37 bridges. The Copper Canyon is four times the size of the Grand Canyon – and deeper. “Mexico’s Chepe train from Los Mochis to Copper Canyon has it all: tall bridges crossing rivers, dozens of tunnels, a winding track that climbs high out of the canyon and, waiting for you at the end, the fascinating indigenous Tarahumara people.” Eric Lindberg, freelance travel writer/photographer

10. The Flam Railway ( is regarded as one of the highlights of the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour. The 20-km-long train journey from the mountain station of Myrdal down to Flam, beside a fjord, takes 55 minutes. On the journey, you have views of some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in Norway with a panorama of tall mountains and cascading waterfalls. The train moves slowly or stops at the best views. “The Norway in a Nutshell ride fulfills its clever name, and stopping to let passengers take pictures is a real plus.” Bob Jenkins, freelance travel writer

The Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) is a non-profit professional association that works to promote responsible travel journalism and to provide professional support for its members, including travel journalists, photographers, editors, electronic media, film lecturers, television and film producers, and public relations representatives from the travel industry.

If you can't ride one of these trains, then take the kids for a short hop on Amtrak or Caltrain--they're sure to get a kick out of it!

COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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