Focus on Winter Wonders
The hottest cold getaways
Strawberry Park Hot Springs near Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Craig Davis/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Goggles. Check! Skis. Check! Poles. Check! Gloves. Check! Boarding pass. Check! OK, ready to go.
Boarding pass? It ranks among my most exhilarating moments in skiing when I walked up to the lift-ticket window at Beaver Creek resort, slapped down my boarding pass from the morning flight into Vail/Eagle County Airport and said, "Give me one. For free, please."
A full afternoon of gratis skiing on the resort's fly-in, ski-free promotion -- you must show proof you arrived on a flight that day and are staying at local lodging -- was the perfect launch to a whirlwind week touring several of the top ski resorts in central Colorado.
Since taking up skiing in my late 40s in 2002, I have been to 27 ski resorts in the western United States and Canada, including venues of three past Olympics and the one upcoming. As a mission to make up for lost time, the pace is sometimes breathless. This time, eight consecutive days of skiing at five major resorts on a 400-mile loop tour: first-time visits to Steamboat Springs and Winter Park and repeats to Beaver Creek, Vail and Breckenridge.
The odyssey would reveal the widespread devastation of the pine beetle but not the Killdozer; provide insights into the quirks of tiny back-road towns, such as how Tabernash got its name; lead to a couple of disparate dances with Mary Jane; suggest that the Worst Western Hotel may have been a better choice than the smoky Silverleaf; and glimpse a bizarre celebration of the end of the work week.
Sometimes it pays to sacrifice sleep to catch the day's first flight out of town, the comp lift ticket dangling from my ski jacket the best proof of that. Did I mention, the plane ticket was obtained with frequent-flier miles?
Fat, slow flakes were falling as I stepped off the Centennial Express Lift and turned down the Redtail trail. As is my habit beginning the first run of each ski trip, I shout out my declaration of independence for the week, this time with added meaning.
"Free at last! Free at last!"
Strawberry Springs forever
Three days into this odyssey of seven-hour days on the slopes, the idea of a soak in a hot springs sounded appealing. But seven miles out of Steamboat Springs, the Strawberry Park Hot Springs seemed an elusive oasis. The pavement of a narrow country road has given way to dirt, much of it covered by snow and ice.
My friend Wally Rutherford is giving me that raised-eyebrow look as he has on numerous wayward escapades since we were in high school. All of this to wade in a hole in the ground? Even I'm feeling apprehensive as the so-called road winds and descends into a seeming abyss.
Apprehensions remained when the sullen old character at the entrance took our $10 fee and gave us a lecture on the rules -- no glass, no alcohol, no smoking -- and sent us off with an ominous warning: "The college crowd won't hesitate to lift your belongings."
Fortunately, Strawberry Park isn't an ordinary hole in the ground. At the base of a steep flight of wooden stairs are several pools in rocky surroundings with water heated to more than 100 degrees by geothermal activity in the hillside. If you come, bring your sense of adventure.
You change in a tepee. You freeze as you scramble across the rocky terrain. Then you settle into the water and . . . ahhhhh. The payoff is heavenly.
Benefits for many ailments are attributed to minerals in the water, including lithium, which is said to lift the spirits. Our spirits were lifted. Fortunately, our clothes were not. Perhaps because the college crowd was occupied breaking other rules.
As the full moon peaked over the hillside and we exited, the distinctive aroma of pot from one of the side pools revealed that more than minerals in the water were affecting the mood of the springs.
A panoramic view
No need to smoke anything to get high on Mary Jane, the sexier sister side of Winter Park Resort. We'd heard about the notorious mogul-laden runs of Mary Jane, which is named for a 19th-century prostitute who once owned the land. We were working up the courage on some groomed intermediate runs when a retiree we met on a lift steered us to the best skiing of the week.