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Adventure Travel Outdoors

Banff and Beyond: The Best Way to Experience Alberta

You’ll find a Dark Sky Preserve, five national parks, two major cosmopolitan cities, world-class ski mountains, and maybe the most-Instagrammed lake in the world all in Canada’s province of Alberta, and that’s just the start. The Northern Lights, long table dinners, Nordic spas, a Scandinavian-designed library, and one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs (which you can also sleep at) also await in this western Canadian province.

The Best Way to Experience Alberta and the Canadian Rockies

Drive a few miles outside of Calgary and you’ll see it. Out of nowhere, giant, towering, sharp granite spikes start to surround you. And that moment where the prairie meets the peaks is in fact magical.

The landscapes in Alberta range from dry prairies to the towering Canadian Rockies. Here’s why you should plan your next trip to Alberta, when to go, and what to do when you get there.

Major Cities in Alberta

Alberta’s two major cities are worthy destinations to visit in their own right, and both urban centers are close to national parks and other Alberta tourism attractions. So, when planning your trip to Alberta, it’s easy to bookend your nature-focused adventure with a night or two in either city.

Edmonton

The province’s capital is home to the largest museum in Western Canada, the Royal Alberta Museum, as well as a brand-new modern library, the Stanley Milner Library (opening in spring 2020). The city is in the process of developing a new mixed-use sports and entertainment district downtown, dubbed ICE. In summer, visit for the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and when the weather cools down, don’t miss the revitalized Flying Canoe Volant Festival—no canoes are actually flying, it’s a winter-time festival with music, food, art, and lights—and warm up at the new Edmonton Nordic Spa, slated to open in late 2020.

Edmonton is accessible via direct flights from major U.S. cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Orlando, Las Vegas, Seattle, and more.

Calgary

About a three-hour drive south from Edmonton is Alberta’s other major city, Calgary. It’s the gateway to Banff National Park, and it’s worth spending a few nights here, too. On a recent trip to Alberta, I was blown away by Calgary’s coolness and livability. From the newly opened modern library—it looks something like Noah’s ark in the middle of the city—to the city’s 135 breweries, there’s no shortage of culture here. Well-known for its famed festival, the Calgary Stampede held every July, the city has taken hold of its musical roots and transformed the urban center into a cosmopolitan destination. Don’t miss a visit to the Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre and explore the art and food scene in the nearby East Village.

Calgary is accessible via nonstop flights from major U.S. cities like Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, and more.

The National Parks in Alberta

Canada’s western province is home to five national parks, which range in landscapes from a Dark Sky Preserve to emerald-colored lakes and activities from skiing to scuba diving (yes, you read that right).

Banff National Park

Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park and it’s full of unique features—like its two alpine towns, Banff and Lake Louise, as well as the only distillery in a national park in Canada.

While Banff National Park is a popular tourist attraction in Alberta, visiting in the off- or shoulder-season can bring fewer crowds and just as many outdoor experiences. Stay at least one night in the town of Banff itself and then drive the 35 miles or so to some of the most famous lakes, like Lake Louise and Lake Moraine, in the Rockies.

In the town of Banff, soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs, experience the mountains at eye level with a trip up the Banff Gondola, immerse yourself in a form of therapy known as forest bathing, shop and eat on Banff Avenue, and pay a visit to the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.

Another highlight in the national park is the famed Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The property directly abuts the popular lake, but by staying overnight you can experience all the lake has to offer without the day crowds. You’ll find a variety of hiking trails around the lake, which offers different experiences in winter and summer. But don’t try and go swimming; the lake is filled by glacier water, meaning it’s too cold to swim in (although some locals occasionally jump in).

Other activities in Banff National Park include ice walking, skiing at any of the three mountains (Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay), canoeing, visiting a glacier, and more.

In order to gain entry inside the national park, even the towns, you’ll need a Parks Canada Pass. You can purchase either a Day Pass or annual Discover Pass, here.

Jasper National Park

About three hours away from the town of Lake Louise and four hours away from Edmonton is one of the more accessible places in Canada to view the Northern Lights (your best shot at seeing them is between September and May). Every October, the national park is home to a Dark Sky Festival, with special programming around star gazing and nighttime activities.

Climb frozen waterfalls, gaze at the starts, hike the backcountry, and more at the largest park in the Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park. Popular natural tourist attractions in Jasper include the Maligne Canyon area, Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Falls and Glacier, and Pyramid Mountain and Lake. Jasper itself is an alpine town with a SkyTram, galleries, relaxing day spas, and more. The national park is also home to a golf course and ski mountain.

Elk Island National Park

For wildlife lovers, Elk Island National Park should be your first stop in Alberta. Visitors have the chance to see bison, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and even Alberta lynx. The closest town is 25 minutes away in Fort Saskatchewan, which is home to a heritage center and two golf courses. Accommodations here are more basic, and camping (and glamping) is a popular choice. Edmonton is only 35 minutes away, so a visit here makes for a convenient day trip.

Waterton Lakes National Park

Located at the most southwestern point of the province is this small but substantial national park. It even borders Montana’s Glacier National Park. But what it lacks in size it makes up for with its UNESCO World Heritage site, international peace park, and Biosphere Reserve designations.

This park is ideal for day hikers and those looking to pack a lot in on one trip. The park is home to countless lakes (hence the name) as well as thundering falls and even Red Rock Canyon. Check out the tourism board’s website for more information on hiking in Waterton National Park.

Wood Buffalo National Park

Alberta is home to the largest national park in all of Canada (and the second-largest in the world), one that’s even larger than the country of Switzerland. Wood Buffalo National Park crosses over into the Northwest Territories, and while it’s not often visited due to its remoteness, the park is open year-round. It’s home to rare wildlife, like whooping cranes, as well as natural attractions like Pine Lake and the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The park is accessible by two gateway communities: Fort Smith (located in the Northwest Territories) and Fort Chipewyan (located in Alberta).

Lesser-Known Places in Alberta

While Alberta is a large province, many people only concentrate their time in the town of Banff and the Lake Louise area. But there are so many other natural wonders in the Canadian Rockies to explore. Here are a few tips on visiting Alberta, Canada with fewer crowds.

Kananaskis Country

About an hour from Calgary is a recreational area right at the foothills of the Rockies that rivals the landscapes of the national parks. Whether you visit in winter for dog sledding, skiing, or snowshoeing; or in the summer for hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking, you’ll have plenty to do and see. In the fall shoulder season, many of the area’s resorts and lodges host wellness retreats, and the area even has Alberta’s first Nordic spa, an increasingly popular attraction in Canada.

Canmore

The town of Canmore is another area that’s popular among locals. It’s about an hour’s drive outside of Calgary and is close to the entrance of Banff National Park. The town has its own Nordic center for winter sports as well as mountain summits and turquoise blue lakes. You can even explore underground with a cave tour. Don’t miss out on the quaint downtown either: it’s a quintessential Main Street with Rocky Mountain views.

Visiting Alberta in Shoulder Season

Like many beautiful places in the world, certain parts of Alberta are crowded with tourists during peak season, which for Banff National Park is the summer season. Consider visiting Banff outside of this time period, like the late fall, winter, or early spring for fewer crowds.

Getting Around Alberta

The best way to get around the province is by rental car. However, there is a reliable public bus system that runs year-round throughout the Bow Valley region. Check out Roam’s website for up-to-date fare information and scheduled routes. Many hotels and resorts also have their own shuttles and there are plenty of private car hire companies to choose from (see Viator for more information).

More from SmarterTravel:

Ashley Rossi visited Alberta, Canada as a guest of Travel Alberta. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Beach Cities Experiential Travel Island

10 Best Places to Go in New Zealand


For many travelers, New Zealand is both a dream destination and a once-in-a-lifetime place to visit. If you’re planning your first trip to New Zealand, or if you’re planning a return trip to see more of this beautiful and wild country, you may want to know which places in New Zealand are at the top of the must-see list. Here are our picks for the 10 best places to go in New Zealand.

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Bay of Islands

Bay of islands new zealand

The Bay of Islands is one of the best places to go in New Zealand for fishing, sailing, and other watersports. The Bay of Islands is about three hours by car from Auckland. This gorgeous region is made up of 144 islands between Cape Brett and the Purerua Peninsula.

What’s there to do in the Bay of Islands? Get on or in the water! Try scuba diving with Paihia Dive‘s intro-to-diving course. You will be ferried far out into the bay to explore a whole new underwater world.

[st_content_ad]Or get up close and personal with the marine life in the Bay of Islands on a Fullers GreatSights Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise. On a good day, you’ll see both whales and dolphins on this cruise.

The cruise will take you to one of the Bay of Islands’ most famous sights, the Hole in the Rock. You can sail through this unique opening in a rock formation when the tide is right.

Where to stay: Spend a night at the historic Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which has the distinction of holding the oldest pub license in New Zealand and is located on a peninsula that sticks straight out into the middle of the bay.

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

Fiordland

Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the “eighth wonder of the world,” and if you visit this region of New Zealand, you’ll see why. Formed by glaciers during the Ice Age, the landscape around Milford Sound still bears evidence of its creation in the form of epic scenery: Cliffs rise from fjords crowned by mountains and waterfalls.

The best way to see Milford Sound is via boat. Take a sightseeing cruise on the fjord to see waterfalls and wildlife such as dolphins and penguins. Or navigate the waters under your own steam on a kayaking tour.

Once you’ve experienced the water from the surface, go underneath with a visit to the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. This is the only floating, underwater observatory in New Zealand, and visitors can go more than 30 feet deep (while staying dry) and get 360 degrees of the underwater environment.

Where to stay: There are not a lot of places to stay close to the Sound, but if you’d rather not drive the three and a half hours from Queenstown, consider The Milford Sound Lodge. The lodge offers several packages for hiking and boat tours, and there really is no beating this spot in terms of access to the Sound.

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Auckland, New Zealand

As both the largest city in New Zealand and its international air travel hub, Auckland is one of the best places to go in New Zealand. Many international flights arrive in New Zealand through Auckland Airport, which makes it an ideal city from which to start your exploration of New Zealand.

Spend at least a day or two in Auckland to get over your long flight and explore the vibrant metropolis before venturing farther afield in New Zealand. Here are our suggestions for what to see and do in Auckland:

  • Get some culture by visiting one of the many museums in Auckland, such as the Auckland Art Gallery. This is the largest art institution in New Zealand, featuring more than 15,000 works of historic, modern, and contemporary art.
  • If the weather is nice, take a stroll through the 185-acre Auckland Domain park. If you’re visiting on a Saturday, include a stop at the nearby Parnell Farmers’ Market, which sells fresh produce in the morning.
  • Auckland is also home to a host of multicultural bars and restaurants serving up all types of cuisine, so be sure to dine in downtown Auckland (and go out for a cocktail or two to check out the nightlife).
  • If you’re looking for adventure activities in Auckland, consider the Auckland Bridge Climb. And if you’re really brave, try the Auckland Bridge bungee jump.
  • If you’re looking for guided trips in Auckland, book an Auckland City Tour or an America’s Cup sailing experience on Waitemata Harbour.

Where to stay: No matter where you stay in Auckland, you will be close to something interesting. Try the accommodations at CityLife Auckland, which is within walking distance of several Auckland highlights like the harbor, both North and Princes Wharf, and the SkyTower.

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Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Just a little more than 30 minutes by boat from downtown Auckland is Waiheke Island, one of the best places to go in New Zealand for wine lovers. For a small island in the middle of Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island sure is home to a lot of vineyards. To sample as many of them as you can on your visit to Waiheke Island, you’ll want to find someone else to drive. Our pick is Waiheke Island Wine Tours, whose expert local guides will shuttle you around to three vineyards to sample 14 different wines.

All that wine from the vineyards of Waiheke Island will make you hungry. When it’s time to eat, book your lunch or dinner at the Mudbrick Vineyard Restaurant, a gorgeous eatery with sprawling views of the vineyard and the sea. For a really special meal, book the Mudbrick Vineyard Restaurant’s tasting menu, a seven-course event with wine pairings.

Of course, there’s more to do on Waiheke Island than just drink wine! Waiheke Island is also famous for its vibrant art community, beaches, forests, and olive groves. We recommend booking a culture tour, scenic flight, or hiking trip while you’re there to really see why Waiheke Island is one of the best places to go in New Zealand.

Where to stay: It’s definitely worth staying overnight on Waiheke Island, too. Choose the Delamore Lodge, one of the best-reviewed Waiheke Island hotels on Tripadvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company). The hotel also offers some great packages featuring everything from wine and food to spa treatments for couples.

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Christchurch, New Zealand

Aerial view of the christchurch gondola and lyttelton port from hills in new zealand

Despite being rocked by four large earthquakes between September 2010 and December 2011, Christchurch has made a true comeback. Visitors to Christchurch will see evidence of the city’s rebirth everywhere, including new buildings made out of old shipping containers and other unique materials like the Cardboard Cathedral.

Of course, many of Christchurch’s original attractions are still standing. One of the best places to visit is the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a sprawling network of conservatories, walking tracks, and horticultural displays. The gardens also feature some of the largest, tallest, and oldest trees in New Zealand.

Take in the new and the old of Christchurch from above with a journey on the Christchurch Gondola. This cable car lifts you on a scenic ride to the top of Mt. Cavendish.

Where to stay: Pick Heritage Christchurch for its central location and status as a World Luxury Hotel. It might cost a little extra, but it will be worth it.

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Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown from the skyline luge at sunrise

Located on the southwest side of the South Island, Queenstown has a well-deserved reputation as the adventure capital of New Zealand. During the winter and spring months (June to October), Queenstown is known for world-class skiing. Of course, there’s plenty to do in Queenstown year-round. Adventure activities such as bungee jumping, skydiving, jet boating, and river rafting will let you experience the region from dizzying heights and at breathtaking speeds.

Queenstown is also home to the world’s highest cliff jump, the Shotover Canyon Swing, where you can hurl yourself off a cliff in a number of different ways—including backward or tied to a chair.

If you haven’t lost your appetite (or your lunch) on these adrenaline-pumping activities, enjoy the dining scene in Queenstown—it’s one of the best in New Zealand. As locals and tour guides alike will tell you, one of the best places to eat in Queenstown is Fergburger, which CNN says “may be the best burger joint on the planet.”

Where to stay: Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel is located on the edge of town, giving easy access to the restaurants and other shops but also letting you sleep in relative peace away from the hub of activity.

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Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, New Zealand

Whakarewarewa geyser at te pui thermal park in geothermal valley of rotorua

No list of the best places to go in New Zealand would be complete without mentioning Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute located in Rotorua’s Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. At this Maori heritage center, you can get an authentic “steambox” meal prepared using ancient geothermal cooking techniques. You’ll also experience a Maori welcome ceremony and traditional song and dance performance.

The Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley is also home to a number of active geysers, including Pohutu, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. Mud pools are another natural attraction in the geothermal valley: These boiling pools reach temperatures of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Where to stay: The Aura Accommodation in nearby Rotorua is located on the coast of Lake Rotorua. The entire facility is powered by geothermal heat to give you a better appreciation for the valley.

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Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand

Waitomo glowworm caves

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves, naturally illuminated by thousands of glowworms, are among the most unique places to go in New Zealand—and a visit to the caves is one experience you’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate anywhere else. You can take a boat ride through the caves to learn about the history and science behind the phenomenon.

Or, if you really want a unique adventure, try black-water rafting with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, which will float you on an inner tube down a subterranean stream. It will be pitch-dark (except for the glowworms), and you’ll get to do everything from jumping off waterfalls to rappelling down cave walls. Choose your own adventure when you book the tour.

There are other (non-glowworm) caves in Waitomo, too. Aranui Cave features ancient cave decorations; Ruakuri Cave has an awesome spiral entrance and unique limestone formations—and, okay, more glowworms, but in this cave, you can do a walking tour rather than a water-based excursion.

Where to stay: The Waitomo Caves Hotel is minutes from the famous glowworm caves. It offers a spa as well as cave tour reservations through its website.

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Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Franz josef glacier

You can hike an actual glacier in New Zealand. The Franz Josef Glacier plays host to both guided walks and jaw-dropping helicopter tours. Tours offer everything from ice climbing to a more relaxed hike on the 6.8-mile-long glacier.

Won’t you be freezing on top of a giant glacier? Nope! The Franz Josef Glacier receives a lot of sunlight, and temperatures on the ice are usually only a few degrees colder than in the nearby town.

Cap off a day touring the Franz Josef Glacier with a soak in the Glacier Hot Pools. The pools are fed by the waters from the Franz Josef Glacier, and you can use one of the three warm pools or get a private pool.

Where to stay: Franz Josef is a small enough town that precise location won’t make too much of a difference (you’ll be close to everything no matter where you are). Consider the Aspen Court Franz Josef, which has received some of the best ratings in the area.

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Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

mount cook new zealand.

See New Zealand’s highest mountains and longest glacier in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking here, no matter what your skill level. For experienced climbers, there are 23 peaks over 9,800 feet. For those looking for something a little more low-key, there are lots of walks along paved trails or boardwalks that still offer spectacular views.

Make sure you stay past sunset for a visit to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, where light pollution is strictly controlled for amazing stargazing opportunities.

Where to stay: Located inside the national park, The Hermitage Hotel will put you close to everything you want to see and do. Splurge on a room with a view of Mt. Cook—it’s worth it.

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What to Pack on Your Trip

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Active Travel Outdoors

The 10 Best National Parks to Visit in Winter

National parks are for more than just summer hiking. Break out of your cold-weather hibernation and check out these 10 national parks that are at their best winter.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big bend national park

Big Bend National Park serves as a border between the United States and Mexico, and offers a unique way to cross between the two countries—by rowboat. Visitors can pay $5 to be ferried across the Rio Grande on a small boat, or you can walk across for free (at your own risk, and only at a designated area when the water levels are low).

Winter is one of the best times to visit Big Bend National Park, as the temperatures average around 60-70 degrees during the day, whereas in the summer it can get dangerously hot (over 100 degrees).

Olympic National Park, Washington

Olympic national park

Olympic is one of only three national parks with a full ski area in the winter. (To find out the other two, keep reading.) The Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area has one lift and two rope tows, and operates from mid-December through March depending on conditions. Ski here, and you’ll be able to brag “I skied in the Olympics” without technically lying. The Elwha Ranch Bed and Bath overlooks Olympic National Park and the Glacier Mountains.

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Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands

british virgin islands boats and beach.

Not embracing the cold? Hit the beach at Virgin Islands National Park, where daily high temps hover in the 80s throughout winter. Covering half of the island of St. John, the park is a lush undeveloped landscape of dense forests and beaches fringed with coconut palms. Dive into the warm, clear Caribbean waters of Trunk Bay, with its 225-yard snorkeling trail that includes underwater signs to help you identify the coral and 30 species of fish that could be swimming around you. In winter, whale-watching excursions spot humpback whales on their migration routes through the Virgin Islands.

Death Valley National Park, California

Death valley national park

Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America, and has set the world record for the highest air temperature (134 degrees). Unsurprisingly, it’s not a place you want to visit in the summer. In the winter, you’ll get mild temperatures that rarely drop below freezing, plus smaller crowds—the weeks after Thanksgiving and before Christmas are the least busy time of the year, according to the NPS. The Ranch at Death Valley is located next to the NPS Visitor Center, offering easy access to the park. The 224-room hotel has restaurants, a general store, and even a saloon to keep you entertained.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades national park

Winter is the best time of year to visit Everglades National Park, as December through April is the dry season. You’ll usually have temperatures in the upper 70s with low humidity, the biting insects that can be prevalent in summer are gone, and lower water levels make it easier to spot wildlife. There are no hotels inside the park (although there are two campgrounds), but Everglades City is just next to the park and has plenty of overnight options. Everglades City Motel is affordable and a five-minute drive from the park.

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount rainier national park

Embrace winter at Mount Rainier National Park, which has a designated “snow play area” where you can go sledding or tubing. Ranger-guided snowshoe walks are also available, as are plenty of trails for cross-country skiing. The National Park Inn is the only hotel within Mount Rainier National Park that is open year-round. This quaint property has 25 guest rooms, a dining room, and a general store, so you don’t have to leave the park once you’ve checked in.

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite national park

Enjoy a side of history with your skiing at Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, California’s oldest downhill skiing area. Located off of the park’s Glacier Point Road, lifts here serve 10 runs, and there are also more than 90 miles of marked trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. For an unforgettable winter experience, you can even cross-country ski a 10.5-mile trail to Glacier Point, which overlooks Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.

Built in the 1920s, The Ahwahnee (formerly called The Majestic Yosemite) has been painstakingly renovated to preserve its heritage. This AAA Four-Diamond property is located within the park and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand canyon national park

Approximately five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, but only about 10 percent of visitors come in the winter. Although the North Rim is closed in the winter, the South Rim is completely open year-round. Certain roads that are closed to personal vehicles in the summer reopen for the winter (weather-dependent), allowing you to explore at your own pace. Temperatures on the South Rim are generally cold, but if you venture to the canyon’s floor, the weather is much warmer, reaching up to 60 degrees during a winter day. To learn more about the park, see Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon. You can find great winter deals at the normally expensive El Tovar Hotel, a historic lodge located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

bryce canyon in the snow.

When winter falls on Utah’s Bryce Canyon, deep snow blankets the plateau and settles in layers on red-rock hoodoos like striped candy spires. Set against a huge blue sky, the colors are absolutely striking. When you look out across the Grand Staircase, it feels like a Dr. Seuss-inspired planet, one you get all to yourself. On a clear day, you can see nearly 200 miles to the Black Mesas in Arizona. At night, this vast sky becomes one of the darkest in North America. Winter’s cold, clear, dry air gives naked-eye stargazers a chance to see 7,500 stars, more than three times what you typically see in the country’s rural areas.

Join rangers every Saturday night for the winter astronomy program’s multimedia show, complete with stargazing through telescopes. The park’s “Dark Rangers” also lead one- to two-hour nocturnal hikes under the full moon, on which you’ll see snow-dusted hoodoos illuminated by moonlight. Snowshoe rentals are free throughout winter.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

hiker in rocky mountain national park.

A low-key alternative to Colorado’s nearby big ski resorts, Rocky Mountain National Park is a backcountry paradise in winter. You can easily reach remote areas on snowshoes or skis, while hiking boots will suffice for winter treks in the lower elevations of the 250,000-acre wilderness area. Watch for moose along the Colorado River on the park’s west side and bighorn sheep along Highway 34 on its east side. Don’t miss the frost-encrusted trees along Bear Lake under a full moon. For a more extreme adventure, hire one of Colorado Mountain School’s certified guides to take you rock climbing, ice climbing, or winter mountaineering on Longs Peak.

Rangers lead free snowshoe and cross-country skiing programs. In Hidden Valley, on the bunny hill of a former ski area, sledding is a family tradition. The warming hut opens on weekends. This is one of the few national parks to offer backcountry camping in winter.

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Caroline Morse Teel wants to visit all these best national parks in winter. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more national park photos.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Jamie Moore contributed to this story.

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Fashion & Beauty Packing Weekend Getaways

The Ultimate Ski Trip Packing List

The ultimate ski trip packing list contains everything you need to be warm, dry, and comfortable on the slopes—whether you’re hitting the bunny slope or the black diamond. Below are the essentials you need to pack before your next ski trip.

Ski Trip Packing List: Clothes

  • Ski jacket: Patagonia’s 3-in-1 Snowbelle Jacket is my go-to. It’s cut for women can be worn in three different ways, so you’ll be prepared for any kind of weather conditions on the mountain. Helly Hansen’s Alpha 3.0 Jacket is a great option for men, as it’s lightweight and breathable but still warm enough for below-freezing days.
  • Base layers: Tani Thermals provide a warm base made with super-soft fabrics. Their moisture-wicking design means that if you work up a sweat, you won’t freeze in wet layers when you cool off.
  • Ski socks: The Falke SK2 Thermal Ski Socks feature thin cushioning on the shin, heel, toes, and ankles to save you from ski boot agony.
  • Apres-ski outfits: After a long day on the slopes, you’ll want comfort more than style. Pack cozy things like leggings or sweatpants if you’re just lounging around your vacation rental, or jeans and a fleece if you’re checking out the local nightlife.
  • Mid-layer: A mid-layer, like a thin jacket or fleece that fits under your ski jacket, is essential for unpredictable weather. Patagonia’s Nano Puff is thin enough to fit under most jackets without restricting your movement.
  • Shells: If you’re skiing on a warm day or doing trekking or touring, waterproof shells that can be custom-layered are a better bet than a full jacket or insulated pants. Fjallraven’s Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket and Bergtagen Eco-Shell Trousers are made from a lightweight, recycled material that blocks out all moisture without overheating you or making annoying “swishing” sounds like most rain layers. Both have the important RECCO reflector built in, which could save your life in an avalanche.
  • Glove liners: Wear glove liners under mittens to give your hands extra warmth. If you get touch-screen compatible ones like these from Columbia, you can use your smartphone without exposing your skin to the elements.
  • Ski pants: Obermeyer’s Bond Pant are my favorite women’s ski pant, as they are super stretchy and easy to move in. The Process Pant is a solid choice for men, with a built-in insulating layer.
  • Slippers: After a day spent in ski boots, you’ll be glad to slip into some warm slippers at your hotel or rental.
  • Swimsuits and flip-flops: You’ll want these if your lodging has a hot tub or heated pool. Click here for our round-up of active swimsuits.
  • Helmet liner: Make your helmet even warmer by wearing a liner underneath. This one by Turtle Fur is thin enough that it won’t interfere with your helmet’s fit, and can be worn alone as a hat once you take off your helmet.
  • Mittens: Tired of cold hands on the slopes? Invest in Backcountry’s Gore-Tex Snow Mittens, which deliver waterproof, breathable performance that are sure to keep your hands dry in the worst conditions.
  • Neck gaiter: A neck warmer is a must for skiing, keeping that gap between your jacket and face from freezing—plus it can be pulled over the lower half of your face for those cold lift rides. I love the Alpine one from Skida, which has a super-soft Polartec microfleece lining.
  • Casual boots: Don’t clomp around the lodge in your ski boots. Pack a change of footwear in your bag for after last chair and you’ll be grateful. The Shellista IV tall boots from The North Face are my favorite as they reach the knee (for extra warmth).

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Ski Trip Packing List: Toiletries

Of course, you’ll want to pack the essential toiletries that you always bring when traveling (toothpaste, toothbrush, etc.)

For a ski-specific trip, you’ll definitely want to add:

  • Leave-in serum for hair: If you have long hair, you know that no matter how you wear it during skiing, it becomes a giant tangle during the day. Working in a leave-in serum like this one from It’s a 10 can help prevent that.
  • Hair dryer: Odds are, wherever you’re staying will have one. But if not, a travel hair dryer is worth bringing, as going out to dinner with wet hair in the cold is pretty miserable. T3’s Featherweight Compact Folding Dryer is as lightweight as the name implies, plus it folds up for easy packing.
  • Hair elastics: So you don’t have to deal with your hair flying in your face as you speed downhill.
  • Pain relievers: Aspirin and ibuprofen are both recommended to help with sore muscles.
  • Lotion: Cold air dries out your skin faster, so make sure to pack an ultra-moisturizing lotion.

Toiletry Packing Options

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Ski Trip Packing List: Gear

  • Boot bag: I’ve had High Sierra’s Deluxe Trapezoid Boot Bag for years, and it’s held up perfectly. It can hold enough for a weekend trip, plus has two zippered side compartments with drainage that keep your snowy boots separate from the rest of your gear.
  • Ski bag: A ski bag makes it so much easier to carry your poles and skis (especially if you’re flying). This one from Athletico is a stellar option that won’t break the bank.
  • Skis: Dynastar’s Legend X 96 skis were named by Back Country Magazine as one of their Editor’s Picks for Best All-Mountain Skis.
  • Ski poles: Leki’s Artena S have grips that are sized down for a woman’s hands (which makes a big difference) and have a carbide tip that gives great grip even on icy surfaces.
  • Ski boots: Take this Ski Boot Finder quiz from Skis.com to find your perfect fit.
  • Helmet: For the safest option, look for a helmet with MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System), which will better protect your brain if you fall at an angle. Giro’s Nine MIPS Snow Helmet is one of the most affordable versions with this technology.
  • Goggles: Zeal Optics’ Fargo goggles are sized for smaller faces. I like these because they have Optimum Lenses that help with visibility by cutting down on snow glare. They also offer 100 percent UV protection and are virtually fog-proof.

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Ski Trip Packing List: For Your Jacket Pocket

  • Tissues: When your nose is running on the lift, you’ll be glad to have a pack in your pocket, and these ones are much softer than ski lodge napkins.
  • Ski Balm: Skiing means subjecting the sensitive skin on your face to windburn and sunburn. Avoid both with this perfectly-sized tin of Ski Balm, which offers SPF 40 protection and prevents irritation from wind. It also works as a lip balm!
  • Snacks: Granola bars or anything else pocket-sized can save you from both an energy crash and from spending all your money at the waffle cabin.
  • Credit card: In case you need to buy anything.
  • Cash: Some spots on the mountain might be cash only.
  • ID: No matter how old you look, you might get carded at the bar—or need it in case of an emergency.
  • Extra hair elastic: In case you lose the one in your hair.
  • Hand sanitizer: You don’t want a winter cold or flu to slow down your ski season, so use this before eating those aforementioned snacks (or a meal).

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Ski Trip Packing List: Miscellaneous

  • Cell phone with shatterproof/waterproof case: If you yard-sale, your pride might be damaged, but at least your phone won’t be.
  • Backup portable charger: Phones die quicker in the cold weather, so a backup portable charger is a must.
  • Insulated bottle for hot drinks/food: If you don’t want to pay resort prices for a hot coffee or meal, pack an insulated bottle or thermos and stash your own in your ski bag. The Hydro Flask keeps food hot for up to three hours, while this bottle keeps drinks hot for up to six or cold for 24 if you’re bringing water.
  • Hand and foot warmers: HotHands have kept me out on the mountain longer on those ultra-cold days. (The toe warmers are the best.)
  • GoPro and harness or helmet clip: In case you want to film your adventures.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018.

It has been updated to reflect the most current information.Caroline Morse Teel can be found on the ski slopes of New England for most of the winter. Follow Caroline on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline to see pictures from the mountains.  

Categories
Active Travel Outdoors

A Snowcat Taco Truck and 8 Other Amazing Ski Resort Amenities


A roving taco truck that brings food to you, a gondola that serves up fondue, and a stair-replacing slide—is this a ski fever dream? These amazing ski resort amenities (and more) are reality at mountains around the world.

Taco Beast, Steamboat, Colorado

Steamboat ski resort tacos

You’re skiing at Steamboat when you start to get hungry, but the powder’s good and you don’t want to stop to eat. Then, like magic, through a flurry of snow, a tricked-out snowcat appears in front of you and it’s bearing tacos. No, it’s not some kind of mountain mirage; it’s the Taco Beast, and it’s real. This snowcat turned food truck roams Steamboat’s slopes from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Thursday through Monday, serving up four different kinds of tacos, a salsa bar, esquites, and drinks. To track down the truck, follow @TacoBeastSBT on Twitter.

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A Slide to the Bathroom, Meribel, France

A Slide to the Bathroom, Meribel, France

Why are bathrooms at ski resorts always downstairs? Having to clomp down flights of stairs in your ski boots is the worst, especially on tired legs. The famous apres-ski bar Rond Point Meribel at Meribel ski resort has a genius solution to this problem: a slide that goes down to the bathroom, eliminating the need for stairs. The only flaw in this beautiful plan—there’s no gravity-reversing slide to take you back up, so you’ll have to tackle the climb.

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[st_related]10 of the Warmest Winter Hats[/st_related]

Ski-in, Ski-Out Distillery, Park City Mountain, Utah

High West Distillery

Need to warm up from the inside? Ski right into High West Distillery, the world’s first ski-in, ski-out gastropub distillery. Here, you can grab a glass of house-made whiskey (with plenty of varieties including a double rye) that will leave you feeling nice and toasty before you head back out onto the slopes. Just don’t have too many, lest you fall off the chairlift.

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Heli-Fondue, Panorama, Canada

heliskiing followed bu heli-fondue

You may have had fondue before, and you may have even had it atop a snow-covered mountain (where it tastes at least 50 percent better). But have you taken a helicopter to have fondue on top of an empty mountain after hours? Sign up for Panorama’s Heli-Fondue to experience it. If you have nine friends that are up for the adventure, the price is shockingly cheap—just around $45 per person. The total cost is $1,200 CAD (approximately $906 USD at the time of writing) and includes a helicopter ride for up to 10 people, cheese fondue, and chocolate fondue for dessert.

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[st_related]The Worst Winter Travel Gear (and What to Pack Instead)[/st_related]

Ice Bar, Crested Butte, Colorado

Uley’s Cabin Lunch and Outdoor Bar at Crested Butte

You came here for the snow, so why leave it to go inside for a cocktail? Uley’s Cabin Lunch and Outdoor Bar at Crested Butte is located at the bottom of a run, so you can ski right up, down your drink, and keep on going. The outdoor bar is made of ice, so you won’t run the risk of having your drink get cold.

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Gondola Fondue, Vaujany, France

Gondola Fondue, Vaujany, France

How amazing would it be if, at the end of a long lift line, you stepped into a gondola and were offered hot, gooey fondue? At Vaujany in France, this dream almost comes true—sadly, the gondola fondue isn’t available during ski hours, but you can reserve this after-hours experience throughout the winter season. The gondolas get kitted out with tables and stocked with fondue, Champagne, and green Chartreuse for riders to enjoy while the gondola traverses the mountain.

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[st_related]America’s 10 Best Small Ski Resorts[/st_related]

Heated Gondola Seats, Vail, Colorado

gondola in vail colorado

Vail’s luxury gondola might be nicer than your hotel room, but unfortunately, you’re not allowed to sleep there. Inside, heated seats warm you up in between runs, and free Wi-Fi means you can look up a trail map or post a smug Instagram about your 7.5-minute ride.

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J.E. Henry Railroad, Loon, New Hampshire

J.E. Henry Railroad, Loon, New Hampshire

Sure, you could ski or walk between the Octagon Lodge and the Governor Adams Lodge at Loon Mountain, or you could take a train. This wood-fired, steam-powered engine runs 600 feet back and forth each winter, shuttling skiers in a unique fashion.

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline.

Categories
Fashion & Beauty

The 8 Warmest Winter Gloves and Mittens


Hands are one of the first body parts to feel the cold. Prevent frozen fingers this winter with these ultra-warm gloves and mittens. Using unique technology and space-age materials, all of these picks will keep you dry and toasty even during a raging blizzard.[st_content_ad]

Seirus Xtreme All Weather Gloves

Serius Xtreme All Weather Gloves.

Looking for winter gloves that are easy to pack? Seirus’ Xtreme All-Weather gloves are incredibly thin and lightweight, yet still 100 percent waterproof and warm. Perfect for winter hiking or running, these gloves are fleece-lined and breathable, with a patented DryHand insert to keep your hands dry even during intense physical activity.

Savior Heat

Savior Heated Gloves.

If handwarmers just aren’t cutting it for you, try the Savior Heated Gloves. These waterproof and wind-resistant gloves use rechargeable batteries to keep a constant heat inside. The heating element runs along the back of the hand and up the fingers, so every part of your hand will stay toasty.

Carhartt Waterproof Insulated Glove

Carhartt Waterproof Insulated Glove.

Carhartt’s heavy-duty waterproof insulated gloves use FastDry technology to dry these gloves out quickly, so you never have to put cold, soggy gloves on again. A reinforced digital grip palm helps you keep ahold of your phone or whatever else you need, even when it’s too cold to feel your fingers.

[st_related]11 Warm, Lightweight Jackets and Coats for Travelers[/st_related]

Global Vasion Heated Gloves

The Global Vasion Heated Gloves are another great option if you’re looking for a pair with its own heat source. These touchscreen accessible gloves have a large-capacity battery that will keep your hands toasty warm between 3 different heat settings for hours on end. Even with the battery off, these rechargeable fleece-lined gloves are still plenty warm.

Columbia Bugaboo Interchange Glove

Columbia Bugaboo Interchange Glove.

Columbia’s Bugaboo Interchange Gloves can be worn three different ways: as just a lightweight liner, as a waterproof rain glove, or as an ultra-warm glove that combines the liner and outer layer with Omni-Heat insulation.

[st_related]The Worst Winter Travel Gear (and What to Pack Instead)[/st_related]

Backcountry Gore-Tex Snow Mittens

Backcountry Gore-Tex Snow Mittens.

Designed for skiers, Backcountry’s Gore-Tex Snow Mittens will keep your hands warm in even the fiercest storms. The Gore-Tex outer keeps moisture out, and the synthetic insulation works wonders even while wet. These mittens are even padded at the back to help protect your hands in tough conditions.

Oros Endeavour Mittens

Oros Endeavour Mittens.

Science meets comfort in Oros’ Endeavour Mittens, which use Solarcore (the same material NASA uses to insulate space shuttles). The mittens are fully insulated and even add extra insulation over the fingertips to keep your hands completely warm. They’re wind-resistant yet still breathable, so your hands won’t get too sweaty.

[st_related]10 of the Warmest Winter Hats[/st_related]

Marmot Warmest Gloves

Marmot Warmest Gloves

Marmot’s Warmest Gloves live up to their name. A patented MemBrain insert keeps water out while still being breathable, and a PrimaLoft lining keeps your fingers from freezing no matter what the temperatures are outside. There’s even an internal heater pocket in case you want to stash in a handwarmer.

Don’t Forget the Rest of Your Body

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Frigid temps call for more than just a pair of gloves. From scarves and hats to a piping hot cup of joe, these winter essentials will keep you  warm and cozy all season long.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @travelwithcaroline.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Weekend Getaways

Killington and Pico: Two Mountains, One Weekend


The forecast called for a complete washout—record-breaking warm temperatures in January and non-stop rain all weekend. Reservations were already made, so we hopped in the car anyway and headed north to Vermont on Friday night.

The destination? Killington and Pico, Vermont’s second and fifth tallest ski mountains. The plan? Ski both in just one weekend.

We checked into The Killington Grand Hotel, which is an easy walk from the slopes at Killington. This sprawling hotel has firepits, hot tubs, a heated pool, a spa, and everything you need to relax after a day on the mountain—plus a complimentary shuttle to take you to the nearby access road, which is lined with lively bars and restaurants.

You don’t need to leave the hotel to find great food—Preston’s, The Killington Grand Hotel’s on-site restaurant, is a member of the Vermont Farm to Plate network and utilizes local ingredients in its cuisine.

After dinner, we headed up to our room and watched the groomers on the mountain from our balcony, sending up our best snow dance (or at least anti-rain dance) to Mother Nature.

Against all the forecasts, Saturday morning dawned dry and warm. Thanks to the tireless work of the snowmakers earlier in the week, there was still plenty of snow on the slopes, even as the temperatures crept above 50 degrees. Killington is nicknamed “The Beast of the East”, and it’s easy to see why—this massive mountain has the highest vertical drop in New England (just over 3,000) and some of the most trails around (155), almost all of which were open that Saturday.

[st_related]The 8 Best Ski Gear Items for This Winter[/st_related]

The Saturday felt like a mid-week ski day—the forecast had scared away the crowds, and we skied right onto every single lift without having to wait in line, something that’s unheard of for a Saturday in January. The trails were empty, so we took our time on each descent, reveling in the quiet open spaces.

 

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Skiing in New England, I’m used to having to take frequent breaks inside to warm up in between runs and lift rides; but on this magical weekend, we only felt compelled to stop when we were too hungry to keep going. We skied down Needle’s Eye Run and right up to the Jerk Jamaican Mountain Grill, where we sat outside with our food and enjoyed the sunshine before getting right back on the lift—a definite treat in January.

After lunch, we headed back out to the slopes and kept going until last chair, after which we watched the sunset over drinks outside at the Umbrella Bar at the base of the mountain.

One quick and free shuttle ride down the street, and we were at the famous Wobbly Barn, a local steakhouse with a legendary nightlife. A great live music scene here will get you on your feet, no matter how tired your legs are from skiing.

The next morning made the forecasters look even more foolish, as it was another dry start to the day. We packed up the car for a quick 10-minute drive down the street to check out Pico Mountain. If you have a Killington lift ticket, you can ski at Pico for free.

Pico Mountain is more old-school and family-friendly than Killington. All of the trails lead down to the same single base area, so you’ll never get lost and find yourself on the opposite side of the mountain.

There are fewer trails (57) here than at Killington, but also smaller crowds, as this mountain is more of a secret than “the Beast,” but there’s enough terrain here to satisfy beginners and experts alike.

After a solid half day of skiing, the anticipated rain finally came, and we took refuge in the old-fashioned lodge by the real wood-burning fireplace.

If you’re planning a Vermont ski weekend this winter, combining a trip to Killington and Pico will let you experience both sides of New England skiing—from the big, flashy, and new Killington to the quiet, laid-back, and traditional Pico.

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Caroline Morse Teel was hosted by Killington. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from the mountain. 

Categories
Active Travel Fashion & Beauty Outdoors Packing

The 8 Best Ski Gear Items for This Winter


Got a mountain getaway planned this winter? These ski gear items will keep you warm and dry while you tear it up on the slopes.

Patagonia 3-in-1 Snowbelle  Jacket

Patagonia 3-in-1 Snowbelle Ski Jacket

Be prepared for any kind of day on the mountain with Patagonia’s 3-in-1 Snowbelle Jacket (see the men’s version here). This jacket can be worn as a lightweight and waterproof shell, an insulated lighter jacket, or with both zipped together to form an outer layer that will keep you warm and dry in any kind of weather. (And the inner jacket can even be reversed when worn on its own, making this more of a 4-in-1-jacket.) I tested out the Snowbelle Jacket on a ski weekend that went from warm, rainy weather to a cold powder day, and it worked wonderfully in all conditions. I also liked being able to unzip the liner and just wear that out to apres-ski instead of a heavier coat.

Julbo HAL Helmet and Cyrius Goggles

Julbo HAL Helmet

Julbo’s HAL helmet won’t weigh you down or make you look ridiculous on the slopes, thanks to its lightweight and non-bulky design. Made from an ultra-light EPS injection-molded shell covered in polycarbonate, the helmet has a sleek profile. The ear pads are removable for warmer days, and the visor has three ventilation channels to prevent your goggles from getting foggy.

Pair the helmet with Julbo’s new Cyrius Goggles, which perfectly integrate with the helmet for a no-gap fit. The goggles use REACTIV technology to automatically lighten or darken the lenses to match whatever the light conditions are—so you don’t have to agonize over which pair of lenses to bring with you for the day. Built-in vents on the frame prevent fogging, as does a special coating on the lenses.

Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip Neck

Patagonia Capilene Air Baselayer

Stay warm (but not sweaty) by wearing Patagonia’s Capilene Midweight Zip Neck (find the men’s version here) under your ski jacket. This magical layer uses hollow-core yarns and a diamond-grid back to trap warm air and keep your body temperature up, while also wicking away moisture so you stay dry. There’s even a built-in odor control in the fabric that will let you get away with wearing this on a week-long ski vacation without washing (or offending anyone).

Icebreaker Baselayers

Icebreaker WOMEN'S MERINO 200 OASIS LONG SLEEVE CREWE SKIS IN SNOW

Layer correctly, and you can ski until last chair. Icebreaker’s Merino Wool Long Sleeve Crewe is thin and warm, and features an adorable ski print across the chest that will be on-theme at apres-ski. Pair it with the coordinating leggings to stay both warm and stylish. (Click here for the men’s version.)

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Outdoor Research Blackpowder II Pants

Who says ski pants have to be bright and garish? Outdoor Research’s slim and stylish black Blackpowder II Pants (men’s version here) look good and perform even better. These pants have a Pertex Shield that makes them water- and windproof, plus a cozy fabric lining to keep your legs warm on the coldest days. Zippered outer thigh vents let in much-needed air if you work up too much of a sweat, and there are plenty of pockets to hold all your stuff. Gaiters are built in to help your pants stay in place over your boots and to keep out snow.

FITS Ski Socks

red and white sock, purple gray black sock

Socks are that piece of ski gear that you never really put any thought into—until the first time you try a pair that’s specifically designed for skiing and feel the difference. With FITS’ ski line, you can choose a sock that’s customized for the type of skiing you’ll be doing—there are different socks for black diamond experts wearing custom boots, and weekend skiers simply looking for warmth, and everything in between. All the socks are made from an insulating and moisture-wicking merino wool/nylon/spandex blend, and feature various levels of cushioning.

[st_related]7 Travel Socks Your Feet Will Love[/st_related]

Outdoor Research Lodgeside Beanie

gray and black beanies with pom on top

For apres-ski, there’s no better look (or way to cover up your helmet hair) than a cute hat. Enter Outdoor Research’s Lodgeside Beanie. This adorable cable knit beanie has a warm secret—a fleece lining and patented GORE Windstopper ear protectant that will keep your head and ears cozy (plus laser-cut ear openings that mean your hearing won’t be muffled).

[st_related]The Ultimate Ski Trip Packing List[/st_related]

 

Hot Sockees

red toe warmers

Nothing can cut your day short faster than cold feet. Hot Sockees solve this problem. Made from a thin neoprene fabric, these toe warmers slide over your socks and can be worn with ski boots without hindering performance. The Hot Sockees keep your toes warm all day long by trapping in heat.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel is always on the lookout for the best new ski gear. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from the slopes and around the world. 

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Budget Travel Cities Entertainment Travel Technology Travel Trends

The 5 Best Ticket Websites for Booking Day Tours and Travel Activities

When it comes to booking travel, most of our attention goes to finding the best airfare, hotel rate, cruise price, and maybe car rental; the big ticket, can’t-get-there-without-it, stuff. Those are obviously fundamental components of any trip. But they’re certainly not the only important bookings you’ll make. Once you’ve booked everything you need to get there, consider these activity and excursion ticket websites—the best of which let you search popular things to do and see in your destination. And whether you’re looking for something as exhilarating as skydiving or something as simple as a walking food tour, you can usually search for them on one site.

The excursions, tours, performances, and other activities you experience on your travels can make or break a trip. No one wants to be disappointed when an activity booking doesn’t work out or turns out not to be what you though it was—so you’ll want to be able to search offerings, and preferably to compare ratings of them. Plus, it’s essential to make sure you’re booking with reputable ticket websites offering reasonable prices. 

[st_related]The 12 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare[/st_related]

The Best Excursion Ticket Websites for Travelers

Here are five ticket websites and providers that won’t let you down.

Viator

Owned by TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), Viator is a vast activity and excursion ticket website; one of the largest out there. Travelers can book anything from airport shuttle service, to guided tours, to skip-the-line admission at attractions all over the world. And because it’s similar to TripAdvisor, travelers can also browse reviews of the activity they’re eyeing. Most listings include comprehensive details about the tour and a generous cancellation policy (usually 24-hours prior to the activity with no penalty).

Viator does not operate the tours it sells. Rather, it’s a search engine of things to do. As such, its offerings tend to focus on cities and better-known travel destinations, although that includes excursions out of those places into the surrounding areas; like tours from Boston to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, tours of the Dutch countryside from a departure point in Amsterdam, etc. This makes Viator a great option for travelers who want to headquarter themselves in one hotspot but still experience the broader region. 

GetYourGuide

Another day-tour-heavy option, GetYourGuide overlaps somewhat with Viator, but is focused more solely on experiences and tours (Viator includes services such as airport and in-town transportation services). Functionally, the sites aren’t very different; both offer an opportunity to compare tours and prices. And on that last note, it can be worth checking both: I found the exact same Dutch windmill tour on both sites, and the price on GetYourGuide was $67, compared to $73 on Viator. Not a huge difference, but for the exact same experience it’s worth noting.

StubHub

For more event-focused resale ticket website StubHub is a useful last-minute option for verified tickets to everything from sports and concerts to comedy shows and theater seats. For the uninitiated, StubHub is a resale marketplace for ticket holders (and, let’s be honest, scalpers) to unload tickets they can’t use. This means shopping on StubHub is a double-edged sword: You’ll likely pay well above face value for high-demand or sold out events, but you can also find great deals at the last minute if the opposite is true. In the former case, StubHub (or similar initial-sale and resale option Ticketmaster) may be your only viable option. And in the latter case, StubHub can be a savvy way to save or even make some money; keep that in mind if you’ve ever bought some event tickets and then couldn’t attend.

Check out SmarterTravel’s roundup of the best in booking sites for 2020. Want more expert tips and vacation inspiration? Subscribe to SmarterTravel on YouTube!

Airbnb Experiences

Airbnb is all about living like a local, and Airbnb Experiences is no different. The emphasis here is on small or even private tours led by locals rather than tour companies, with an eye toward unique experiences rather than traditional sightseeing. Sometimes these experiences can be tailored to your interests: I booked a private bicycle tour of Berlin through Airbnb Experiences a few years back, and the guide all but ditched his preset itinerary and improvised based on my interests. As a result I got to see parts of the city I might never have found on my own. 

One important consideration to remember: These are often regular folks, not full-time professional guides or tour operators, so it’s a good idea to bring a go-with-the-flow attitude on your excursion. Your experience may not be as polished or precise as a traditional tour, even if the host has been doing this for a while. Of course, the point of these experiences is to forgo those cookie cutter tours in favor of something different. AirBnB includes reviews and makes it easy to communicate with the experience host beforehand, so don’t hesitate to ask questions prior to booking.

Atlas Obscura

Speaking of forgoing the cookie cutter experience, Atlas Obscura focuses, as its name implies, on all things obscure: The bizarre, forgotten, and hard-to-reach corners of a given city or destination that you wouldn’t normally find on excursion ticket websites. While nowhere near as robust as the other entries on this list, Atlas Obscura also offers a curated selection of tours and experiences. It’s currently in a half dozen U.S. cities, with more to come. Think: A guided wine-and-bug (yes, insects) pairing experience in Los Angeles, or a trip inside a holographer (maker of holograms) laboratory in New York. The tours are offered through Atlas Obscura, but AirBnB handles the booking, After all, anyone can visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right? So why not be different and check out a … Sci Fi Sewage Sanctuary

Readers: What are your go-to providers for on-the-ground activities? Share your favorites in the comments below.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Health & Wellness Outdoors Road Trip

SmarterTravel Spotlight: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise


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You’ve probably seen the jaw-dropping pictures of Lake Louise’s emerald waters on Instagram, and yes, it’s really worth visiting in person too. Between the lake itself, its national park location, and surrounding peaks and glacier, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Canadian Rockies deserve a spot on your bucket list.

Here’s why staying at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is the best way to visit Lake Louise and what time of year is the best time to go if you want to avoid the crowds.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: The Location

You can’t get any closer to Lake Louise in Banff National Park than with a stay at the Fairmont Chateau. The hotel was first built as an attraction along the Canadian Pacific Railway for tourists to visit in the summer. Since its beginnings in the late 1800s, the property has welcomed royalty, celebrities, artists, filmmakers, world-famous skiers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

As part of the Canadian Pacific Hotels division, the property became a Fairmont in 1999. The property has a rich mountaineering history that’s seen through the design, service, and activity offerings at the hotel.

The Fairmont grounds directly abut the UNESCO World Heritage site, which means hotel guests don’t have the property to themselves. Busloads of tourists visit the lake every day, but that shouldn’t stop you from staying here. Tourists are allowed in parts of the hotel, but priority is given to hotel guests at the onsite dining options and the new spa.

In fact, staying at the hotel will give you time in the morning and evenings to enjoy the lake in a rare moment of solitude. Plus, not many tourists stay long enough to enjoy the dozens of hiking trails surrounding the lake and hotel. I recommend the Plain of Six Glaciers and Big Beehive hikes for intermediate hikers. You can also participate in outdoor actives via the Mountain Adventure Program.

Shoulder season (early spring and throughout the fall and early winter) are ideal times to visit for less expensive room rates and fewer crowds. I stayed at the property in mid-October and was able to enjoy the property without crowds for the better part of the day. Plus, you get to see the surrounding mountains with a dusting of snow contrasting the jagged granite peaks. It really is the best of both worlds.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: The Rooms

The rooms are updated, spacious, and decorated in traditional Fairmont style. I stayed in a suite room with views facing the lake. The suite was spacious, even by suite standards, and has plenty of space for a family. Since you visit for the view, I recommend spending extra on a lake view room. In total, there are 539 rooms at the chateau.

Fairmont Gold members receive an exclusive experience, with signature suite rooms on the seventh floor reserved only for Gold member guests. Other perks include arranging dinner reservations, transportation, and access to the private lounge. Gold members can head to the Fairmont Gold Lounge for a complimentary breakfast buffet and access to books, games, coffee, and tea, as well as an honor bar and complimentary cocktail canapes from 5 to 7 p.m. 

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Dining

The Fairmont Chateau has many dining options ranging from a gastropub and a breakfast buffet to fine dining overlooking the lake. Guests can also enjoy a 24-hour deli-style counter for quick meals and snacks. Restaurants include the Fairview (fine dining), Lakeview Lounge (lounge area serving tapas and cocktails), The Wallister Stube (European alpine inspired restaurant and wine bar), The Chateau Deli, Poppy Brasserie (breakfast style buffet restaurant), the Alpine Social (gastropub), and the seasonal Italian cuisine kitchen Lago (usually opened regularly during summer).

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Extras

Guests have access to all of the surrounding trails and equipment (for a fee; crampons are free for guests). There is also an adventure center, where guests can book guided hiking tours on trails around the lake. The entire staff is  friendly and helpful with activity recommendations. You also aren’t far from the small town of Lake Louise, but you really don’t need to leave the property to explore all the Canadian Rockies have to offer. Winter activities include ice skating, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. Summer activities include canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, and biking.

For skiers, some of the best Canadian Rockies skiing is only three miles away at The Lake Louise Ski Resort. The mountain is home to the Lake Louise World Cup every November and gives the area international fame in the skiing world. Free ski storage is also available at the hotel.

There is also a newly renovated spa and fitness center featuring a heated indoor pool, steam room, and complimentary fitness classes. The hotel is also well known for its all-inclusive wellness retreats offered in the shoulder season.

I recommend continuing on to Jasper National Park and staying at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, as well as a night at the Fairmont Springs Banff to complete your Canadian Rockies vacation. All three hotels are unique in that they’re located in national parks and each property works closely with the Canadian Park Services to uphold standards in nature preservation, sustainability, and respectful tourism.

For reference, Lake Louise is located about two hours from the Calgary International Airport, a 40-minute drive from the town of Banff, and about one hour from the entrance of Banff National Park. From the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to the Fairmont Jasper is about a three-hour drive.

Price and How to Book: Nightly rates start at $275 and can be booked on TripAdvisor or Fairmont’s website.

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Ashley Rossi stayed as a guest on behalf of the Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.