Take a trip off the beaten path

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For a relaxing and cultural learning journey, visit a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas.

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Freelance writer and columnist Eric Hansen works with a Sherpa in Tibet.

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Coastal Croatia - just a short flight from Italy and Austria - is just landing on backpackers' and jet-setters' radars.

Ah, the mixed emotions of late April in Steamboat Springs.

The ski mountain has closed for the season, most of your shoes and pant cuffs are muddy, the trails are too sloppy for hiking or mountain biking, the weather is warming but the streets feel oddly quiet, and for some reason, you just can't shake the feeling that all you're doing is sitting around waiting for something to happen.

So why not take a trip?

Not a vacation, mind you, but a full-on, someplace-new, choose-by-the-seat-of-your-pants trip.

The key to traveling this spring lies in two words: Think big. While air travel is returning to "pre-9/11" levels, airlines are still vying for seat-fillers and there are great fares to be had - especially in April, which is a shoulder season not only in Steamboat. Hawaii is cheap this time of year - what better way to get psyched for summer than by hitting the surf and sand?

Think big, and think far. In Scandinavia, the days are getting longer and the nightlife is heating up. It's relatively warm in Tibet, which just got a new train system that has revolutionized travel in the remote Himalayan country.

Croatia also is a new destination of choice for international jet-setters and backpackers who are traveling to the coastal country - just a short flight from Italy and Austria - to visit its southern islands, inland mountains or Central European culture and Baroque history in the capital of Zagreb, a city of about 1 million.

And, as Sinatra crooned, who can forget Paris in the springtime? Air France traditionally offers spring deals that could still be available in late April.

A good place to find low airfares, destination guides and travel tips is www.fodors.com. Searching for travel sites on the Web can be as hit or miss as tossing money onto a craps table, but Fodors is one of the most reliable names in the industry and is always a safe bet.

The site has links to international airlines and travel search engines including Expedia, along with a "Hot List" of up-to-date travel information and reviews. Lonely Planet, at www.lonelyplanet.com, and Frommer's, at www.frommers.com, are also good options. When exploring international travel options, comprehensive travel guides can often be a better resource than national travel agencies, which are sometimes biased in their reviews.

If you want to travel closer to home, a trip to western Colorado's blooming wine country, near Grand Junction and Palisade, is a great idea for the spring. And if you don't escape, don't worry - living in Routt County means living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, right outside your door.

Even if it is a little muddy.

Lessons Learned

Eric Hansen is a freelance writer and columnist for Outside magazine who frequently travels to exotic locations in search of stories and - cliche, but true - adventure. In the past year, Hansen has journeyed to Colombia, Tibet, South Portugal, northern Canada, Italy and Morocco.

This is a guy with some experience in the fine art of traveling. Here are a few of his thoughts:

Packing

- For long flights, stuff an extra pair of socks in a one-gallon plastic bag in your carry-on luggage. Fresh socks on the feet + stinky shoes in the bag = guilt-free, in-flight comfort.

- Don't mess with a variety of pants. Bring a few of one color so even your last clean shirt matches your last clean pair of pants.

- Umbrellas are cheap and readily available everywhere but Antarctica. No need to pack a bulky rain jacket.

- Seal wine or tequila bottles in garbage bags, wrap each one in clothes at the center of your duffel, and check 'em. Easy as that.

Getting There And Around

- The best way to score a free seat upgrade at the boarding gate: Dress well, be direct and appreciative, wait patiently. For example: "Hi, is there any space available in first class? I don't have enough money for an upgrade, but I've had a heck of a day and would pretty much kiss the ground you walk on if I could stretch out for the next four hours." This actually worked for me. Once.

- Skip the hard-to-read maps and download the latest language translator to your iPod.

- Don't assume a hostel is the cheapest accommodation. The local tourism office can often do better, while also handing out discount coupons for museums, transportation, etc.

- The concierge at a fancy hotel can help with anything. Just don't forget to tip him.

Third World

- Leave the watch behind. Locals don't need one, and a glitzy timepiece is just one more cultural barrier to overcome.

- Every thief can see that money belt. Split your cash between your wallet, shoe, day bag and an empty pack of cigarettes.

- Never, under any circumstances, ride in third class on an Indian train.

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