Skiing the Austrian Alps and a Preview of Gnarlberg: A Love Story

After a month of bouncing around between family and friends in Philly, NYC, Michigan, LA and SF, we were off to the Austrian Alps to finally “Ski the Alps.”  Long on my list of things to do, we’ve heard the rumors about Austria from friends and were curious if they were true.  Are Austrians really born with skis on?  Is the apres ski in Austria really the best in the world?  And finally, do the mountains really make everything in North America seem tiny?  There was only one way to find out and to do just that we flew into Zurich and took a 2.5 hour train ride east to a well-known village, St. Anton.

Erin and I Viewing the Valley Below

The valley is cut deep and the mountains are high, with chairs and gondolas going up each side, behind and around the mountains.  Nestled two towns east of St. Anton’s ritzy, glam-and-gush center, lies little Schnann, our home for the next 9 days.  Haus Schoepf, our lovely guest house is predominantly run by Fiona, the guest-house mom extraordinaire.  Even with five kids, all girls, she somehow found the time to check us in and have breakfast ready to go by 7:30 sharp every morning.  Built around the Stube, a traditional Austrian/Bavarian-style room for eating and relaxing, the house is rather large and the rooms cozy.  And, at just a free, 15-minute bus ride away from all the slope-side fun you could possibly handle, at 1/10th the cost, this little gem was a no-brainer.

Calling this area a “resort” region is way too loose of a word.  There are essentially 5 villages – Lech, Zurs, St. Anton, St. Christoph, and Stuben, each a “resort” in their own right, but this doesn’t even include all of the terrain, with Rendl across the valley being world-class, and Zug to the far-north, an untouched powder paradise six days after a dump.  I can’t find the specifics online but I’d have to guess if you were to compare apples to apples, the Arlberg region is about the size of 4 Vails or 5 Squaw Valleys.  It’s massive, simply put.

Since it snowed so much here this year already, the Arlberg (Gnarlberg!) region has one of the largest bases in the world.  And, to make things even better, we arrived just before a massive storm that didn’t stop dumping snow on us for the next 6 days, creating what we’ve dubbed “eight for eight.”  Powder days, that is, and none being less than a foot deep.  “Dreams really do come true,” we constantly yelled, hopping off another cornice into fresh, untracked powder (h/t DDF.)

“Oooooh, you might say that I’m addicted.

You might say I’m really hooked.

But at least I’m not addicted to the powder that you sniff into your nose.

That would really suck.”

– Damien Filiatrault

Dunkels, Hefeweizens, and Frites

Due to the storm(s), we spent our first few days lapping the Galzigbahn gondola in St. Anton, enjoying fresh tracks all-day, every day, and anxiously waiting for the upper mountain to come off wind-hold.  Our friend Mark arrived, somehow in the eye of the storm, and we spent one day on the slopes with him, rebel yelling on each and every run.  Amazed that most, if not all, other skiers remained on-piste and directly between the trail lines, we laughed hysterically that getting fresh powder tracks on every run was actually happening.  Just like at home, at the end of any epic powder day we were ready for some celebratory drinks.  We were eager to enjoy an apres ski, French for heavy drinking post skiing, at Mooserwirt, consistently voted the best apres ski in the world.  Bellying up to the bar, we began with half-liter pints of dunkels and hefeweizens before getting heavy into the jagermeister, plum schnapps, and even worse, the hot widow (heisse witwe) aka the cougar shot due to its unabashed use of whipped cream and the ensuing mess.  Beer swilling continued and the lights got low, the DJ started spinning, and before long it was an absolute fist-pumping, dancing-in-your-ski-boots kind of party, which for us, ended before 6:30.  The only unfortunate thing was we had to ski down afterward and catch our bus home!  Luckily, we were taught how to snow plow.  🙂

We bid Mark farewell and enjoyed more incredible snow, finding more and more areas to get the good stuff.  Damien arrived the following night, eager to hit the slopes and enjoy what we’d been enjoying.  We hit Rendl and got 3-feet deep, face-shots-on-every-turn kind of snow.  We hit Kappal, and went Mach-18 down a snow-filled valley for 10 minutes straight, all untouched.  We traversed around a 10,000 foot peak for a field of snow, just waiting for us to dive in.  We jumped off cliffs, over cornice lips, into couloirs and down chutes.  Avalanche danger being of concern, we took all necessary precautions and as the week carried on, and the danger became less, we just kept getting more.  And more.  It was an endless bowl of snow, with free refills and we ate it all up.  On the final day, we split up accidentally, and Erin and I found what may have been the last untouched mecca of snow on the backside of Zurs.  After fifteen minutes of pure enjoyment, at the bottom of the slope, we looked back at our tracks and the two helicopters swooping between the peaks, smiled at each other, knowing that we had just poached heli-skiing terrain.

D, Schneids and I Waiting for Ski Bus in Schnann

Together, we bid farewell to Fiona and Haus Schoepf and caught the train to Zurich for a night of fondue and resting up before our early flight.  It was the trip of a lifetime and getting such enormous amounts of snow was certainly the icing on top.  Plus, with lift tickets and rentals for the week costing $45/day and our room at $30/day, we felt like we had gotten one heck of a deal compared to the $95/day lift-tickets-alone prices in N. America.

See more on how to “go budge” and get the sweetest deals by visiting Erin’s article at SF Examiner.

And finally, a preview of Gnarlberg: A Love Story

Following Bourdain’s Footsteps: Melbourne, Australia

We always said if we ever found a city with Philadelphia’s layout and San Francisco’s weather, we’d move there in a heartbeat.  Little did we know that’d require moving to the opposite side of the world to Australia’s hippest city, Melbourne.

We arrived in-style, fresh from Sydney after a perfectly executed 2-hour nap, starting before we took off and ending upon landing. We checked into our hostel within the CBD, Central Business District, a perfect rectangular shaped grid, eight blocks wide by four high.  Trams run in just about every direction but walking is easy enough unless you’re trying to get a bit out of “town” to visit some of the cool suburbs like Fitzroy and Collingwood for art, music and beer or South Yarra for high-end fashion and what would become our favorite restaurant.  We knew before arriving this was our kind of town as one of the few things on television worth watching, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, had just done a special on Melbourne, and it had our mouths watering.  Whenever you build a city with immigrants from all over the world, you’re sure to find the Peanut Butter Nomads, fork, knife, spoon, chopstick, or freehand, ready to dig in.  Flush with some extra cash after a stellar month at my company, we proposed to spend a little extra and put ‘ol Bourdain to the true test.  We were going to follow in his footsteps, within reason of course, as it was unlikely we’d be getting tasting menus at the city’s most lauded kitchens, and see if the author was just full of fluff or really did make good suggestions and recommendations on his show. Continue reading “Following Bourdain’s Footsteps: Melbourne, Australia”

How To Sail Around the World and Live to Tell About It

Coast Guard Couple, Greg and Tiffany Norte

We met Greg and Tiffany Norte while on a liveaboard scuba diving boat in the Great Barrier Reef.  Between the 10 dives, overeating the surprisingly good buffet food, reminiscing about the greatest the USA has to offer, and getting my butt kicked at euchre (a rare occasion, just ask the Schneider’s!) so badly I had to jump off the boat naked, we delved deep into the “Coast Guard Couples” interesting lifestyle choice – as the title suggests – sailing around the world and sharing the skinny on how to do it yourself.  Heck, they’ve been doing it for two years straight and have 16 years of sailing experience between them!  So when it comes from them, you know you’re getting expert advice.  Fortunately, you don’t need to fly to Australia to meet them and pick their brain.  They’re giving out the deets here for free and have an absolutely infinite amount of quality how-to’s on their website, along with other great antidotes from the rarely seen South Pacific, at www.CoastGuardCouple.com.  So slip off your flip flops, crack into a Pacifico, and climb on board while Greg and Tiffany show us how to travel the world for free.  Oh, that sounds so nice, I need to write it again.  FOR FREE. Continue reading “How To Sail Around the World and Live to Tell About It”

Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Driving Down the Coast

The Great Barrier Reef

Dreams, every so often, do come true.  I had been dreaming of diving the Great Barrier Reef for over 10 years and was close to fulfilling it in 2008, if it weren’t for “the end of a 7-year drought,” insane storms flooding highways and essentially shutting down the coast.  The weather wasn’t much better this time but as we soon learned on the boat, “if it’s raining, the best place to be is underwater.”

We boarded the Kangaroo Express through the Cairns Dive Center, bidding farewell to our ladies for the night and promising to behave.  We’d see them the following day after all and Claire needed to finish up some pool work before getting into the open water.  The ride out was nothing short of terrifying, not so much for our lives, but for the sheer embarrassment of potentially being “that guy” who was hurling over the side of the boat.  Eyes trained solely for the horizon, we mustered up the strength to keep our breakfast down and finally, the 90-minute ride ended with us boarding the much more stable Kangaroo Express, our home for the next 3 days.

After some safety briefings and getting checked into our rooms, and trying to sneak our way into the 11:00 dive, we learned we’d be spending our time between two dive areas:  Mantaray Caye and East Timor on Moore Reef.  Our first dive finally arrived and was essentially a refresher course and ultimately a way for divemaster Joel to gauge our skill

Giant Clam

level.  I guess he felt comfortable, because the 2nd dive was true freedom.  On the first dive we saw a giant clam that was breathtaking and would be a regular sighting through the rest of our time.  After the second briefing, we were allowed to go out on our own, exploring the massive reef system and bommies, scouting three turtles, anemones and tons of tropical fish.  At first, it was scary being on our own but soon found our comfort zone and enjoyed each minute underwater.  This would be our final dive of the day and we settled nicely into the buffet dinner, matched with goon we snuck on board, and got busy playing cribbage.  We met a group of Americans and soon found out they knew how to play Euchre, and the next 2 days were spent perfecting our skills between dives.

The next day was busy, with 4 total dives.  We started early and got on the 6:00am dive and then the 8:00 dive with a delicious breakfast in between.  We probably even snuck in a game of cribbage, too.  The highlight was the Continue reading “Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Driving Down the Coast”

Nepal to Australia: It’s Time For Friends

Leaving Nepal was not an easy thing to do.  After all, we had volunteered with the Nepal Volunteers Council, Trekked the Annapurna Circuit, Kayaked Lake Phewa and caught up on lost time in Pokhara, Launched the OnlyABuck: Notebooks for Nepal Campaign, stretched, meditated and cleansed at Sadhana Yoga Ashram, and Cared for Elephants in Chitwan.  Considering our dream list going in, we had more than accomplished our goals but knew deep down we would be returning.  OnlyaBuck™: Free Health Clinic, anyone?  (It’s OnlyaBuck™ now by the way…long story.)

Hong Kong Sickboy

Our intention was to fly from Kathmandu to Hong Kong and spend a few days with my old friend from high school (and Penn State), Chi Tsang.  Arriving in Hong Kong, we were both ill and completely wiped from, well, travel we guess.  We just needed  rest and weren’t in top form.  We emailed Chi and broke the bad news, switched our flight to Sydney (for free, thanks OneWorld!) and after 40 hours of travel, landed in Australia’s beautiful city that we had left behind in 2008.  This time, however, we had some friends from San Francisco waiting, Chris Piro and Claire Fabricante, and were hell bent on arriving early, and giving them a surprise.  Yes, I am my father’s son.

Checking into our hostel, we knocked on Chris and Claire’s door and as expected, they were out and about exploring.  This gave us the perfect opportunity to dive head first into our pillows, get caught up on some

Sydney Food Fest Under Jack O'Randa Trees

quality sleep and try to shake the bug.  Nine hours later, we felt great, left a note for Chris and Claire to meet us at the Sydney Food Festival in nearby Hyde Park and most importantly, to bring wine.

The food festival was hopping, and would ultimately begin our foray into the food scene of Australia.  From $2 salmon and avocado sushi rolls to $20 all you can eat seafood smorgasbords, we arrived with one mission in Australia:  eat what we missed most and eat well.  And boy, we were hungry!  We opted for steamed duck and BBQ pork buns and roasted chicken and sage pot stickers.  Laughing at ourselves for selecting Asian as our first meal after having just left Asia, we sprawled out, enjoyed the meal and cracked into some goon, Oceania’s word for bagged wine.  The food was delicious, albeit overpriced, but we’ve become experts in finding value on any menu worldwide.  And we realized, just like the USA, Asian food IS part of the Australian food culture.  Unless you’re from Europe, Asia, or Africa, we are all just immigrants after all, right?

Continue reading “Nepal to Australia: It’s Time For Friends”

Yoga Ashram and How To Complete an Organic Gastro Cleanse

Erin Shows the Way!

Yoga?  Check.  Meditation?  Check.  Organic Gastro-intestinal Cleanse?  Um, check.  Yup, we did it all during our 6 day/6 night stay at a yoga ashram and we’re still standing with a few good stories to tell, too.  My in-laws are going to get the biggest kick out of this one, that’s for sure.  So, Rick and Deb, this one’s for you…

Thanks to generous wedding gifts, Erin and I were able to “check in” to Sadhana Yoga Ashram in Pokhara, Nepal.  Perched on the side of a mountain, the 5-story orange, purple and white behemoth is pretty hard to miss, even from town center.  With killer views of Phewa Lake below and delicious organic vegetarian cuisine, it felt like we were at a serious health retreat.  After the good, healthy living with loads of exercise we had during the Annapurna Circuit trek, we had slipped into some well-deserved indulgences.  Comfort food, room service, beer o’clocks and whiskey combined with a steady diet of loafing around and getting caught up on internet became part of the daily repertoire in Pokhara.  It was time to clean up our act again and we intended to do just one thing while at Sadhana — get healthy.

The Daily Schedule

5:30 – Wake Up to Gong (so cool)

6:00 – Pre-meditation Practices

6:15 – Morning Meditation

7:00 – Tea Time

7:20 – Yogic Cleansing (Neti Pot)

7:30 – Morning Yoga

8:30 – Morning Walk

Group Shot During Morning Walk

9:45 – Breakfast

10:00 – Steam or Mud Bath

Schneids and JV Gettin' Dirty

12:00 – Pre-meditation Practices

12:15 – Afternoon Meditation

1:00 – Lunch

3:30 – Karma Yoga (Chores)

4:00 – Tea

4:30 – Chanting

5:30 – Evening Yoga

6:45 – Dinner

8:00 – Bedtime

Day 1 is the Toughest and Our Experience

Continue reading “Yoga Ashram and How To Complete an Organic Gastro Cleanse”

The Annapurna Circuit: The Ultimate How-To for the Epic Trail

The Trail

The Annapurna Circuit has been ranked one of the world’s best treks for countless years and for a good reason; it’s absolutely, 100%, jaw-droppingly amazing. And frankly, that’s putting it lightly.  With 26,000-feet-plus peaks, the world’s deepest gorge, the world’s highest lake, and the world’s longest pass, the trail has it all and then some.  At times you feel like every mountain range in the world has

On the Way to Tilicho Lake

been crammed here until you reach elevations high enough where you know you could only be in the Himalayas.  Originally, when the area opened to tourists in the 70s, the circuit took 21 days, starting and ending in Pokhara. These days, with the abundance of roads (4×4, unpaved, single lane) being built over parts of the existing trail to accommodate trade amongst villages along the way, hikers are much more likely to take a bus for certain sections rather than walk and be passed by vehicles all day. This means the trail can be knocked out in a maximum of 16 days. We did it in 10 and added 3 more days halfway through for a highly recommended side-trip to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world, for a total of 13 days on-trail.

Erin and I combined forces to write this, with inserts from our travel journal to never forget the magic we felt and saw each and every day, and partly as a practical guide for all intrepid travelers who may want to follow in our footsteps and may need honest, objective, budget-minded advice on how to plan for what will definitely become a highlight of any trip. Continue reading “The Annapurna Circuit: The Ultimate How-To for the Epic Trail”