Monday, January 28, 2008

Skiing at Whistler: Perfect powder at a price

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) -- A dozen years ago, a roommate and I were wasting away another rainy winter night in Seattle when we decided to drive the pickup truck five hours north to Whistler. We left at 10 p.m., pulled into the lot near the lifts and spent a few fitful, freezing hours of semi-sleep in the cab until sunrise.

Whistler is a little more than two hours from Vancouver International Airport.

We gladly paid about $45 each to blissfully ski on the softest, freshest snow in the Northwest -- which usually provides wet cement. On the way home we stopped at McDonald's.
You couldn't pull that off today.
Whistler and its twin neighbor Blackcomb Mountain, about a two-hour drive north up the stunningly beautiful Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver, is widely recognized as one of the top resorts in North America by skiers and snowboarders. It's easily recognized by everyone else as a gorgeous paradise of snow amid the towering evergreens and jagged, rocky peaks of British Columbia's Coastal Mountains. Once nestled into Whistler Valley, you instantly forget you are just 70 miles north of Vancouver's urban sprawl.
But those qualities don't come cheap.
The venue for the downhill skiing and snowboarding events in the 2010 Winter Olympics -- plus the nordic events nearby -- has become a haven for those who want luxury near their lift lines.
The standard daily lift ticket is $81. All-day adult group lessons begin at $77, with lift ticket.
Fancy hotels such as the Four Seasons, the Fairmont Chateau, the Westin Resort and Spa and not one but two Pan Pacific palaces seem to be at every turn inside Whistler Village. The pulsing, main pedestrian walk of shops, bars, restaurants and two grocery stores even has a wine shop at the base of Whistler ski area.
Not a Motel 6, Super 8 or can of Hamm's beer in sight. And based on the ubiquitous "No Overnight Parking" signs, sleeping in a truck is no longer a hassle-free option.
My family of four and a married couple without kids -- the most patient, tolerant friends on the planet -- spent a pre-holiday crush Friday night and Saturday at Whistler in December. We found a room at the Tantalus Lodge, a 10-minute walk or three-minute shuttle van ride south of the Whistler Village Gondola. We enjoyed a two-bedroom, two-bath suite with a sofa bed, full kitchen and fireplace for $261 per night (plus $16 a day to park). It slept six comfortably.
Some hotels want two-night minimums. Then there's the currently unfavorable currency exchange rate, eh?
Don't Miss
Whistler Blackcomb
In Depth: Winter Getaways
A friendly alternative to glitzy Jackson Hole
But, oh, what you get for all those loonies and toonies (Canada's $1 and $2 coins).
Local merchants and many of Whistler's 3,400 employees -- seemingly all perky, in their 20s and many from New Zealand, Australia or Great Britain -- push the fact that theirs is a four-season resort.
Ski season runs from November through June, with the spring months usually spent on higher Blackcomb Mountain, elevation 7,500 feet (Whistler Mountain tops out at 7,160 feet). Blackcomb's summer glacier skiing and snowboarding are tentatively scheduled to run through July 27.
There's also vibrant mountain-biking season and a relatively new zip-line attraction. Some of Canada's world-class mountain bikers live at Whistler or at Squamish, the small town midway between Vancouver and Whistler along B.C. Highway 99.
But did I mention the winter snow?
Whistler's gondola takes you from the main base at 2,214 feet to above 6,000 feet. From there, chairs take you to the black-diamond runs off the top. Or you can swoosh off to the south, to the Dave Murray and Wild Card trails, which will be the runs for the men's and women's downhill and super giant slalom races in the Olympics. Those runs end at Creekside, another lodge with rentals, bars and restaurants a short distance down the road south from Whistler Village.
In my multiple trips here over the years, I've liked the snow better and found the runs more wide open atop Blackcomb. It is accessible from the bottom of Whistler's main village by the Blackcomb Excalibur Gondola, by walking 15 minutes north through Whistler Village along the well-marked Valley Trail System to the Blackcomb Daylodge, or five minutes by shuttle or car. Beginning in late 2008, there will be a peak-to-peak gondola that will connect the two mountains at the 6,100-foot levels.
In preparation for the Olympics, the only highway into Whistler is torn up in a widening project. And half of Vancouver is seemingly under construction.
But Ryan Proctor, public relations coordinator for Intrawest at Whistler, said the Olympics will consume only 10 percent of the skiable terrain at Whistler-Blackcomb.
"We'll still be fully operational during the Olympics," Proctor said.
At Whistler-Blackcomb, that's a very good thing.
Getting there: From Vancouver International Airport, you can rent a car for the 2-hour, 15-minute drive to Whistler, or take the Perimeter Whistler Express bus ($33-58, 8:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. during peak snow season). If you are flying between the U.S. and Canada, you must have a passport. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is a 4 1/2-hour drive from the south. Train service on the Whistler Mountaineer from Vancouver is available at 888-687-7245. If you are driving between the U.S. and Canada, you must have a government-issued ID (like a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (like a birth certificate) beginning Jan. 31. Children 18 and younger need proof of citizenship.
Prices: General adult lift ticket per day during peak season: $81 (Less for residents of Washington state and British Columbia and those with an EDGE card and other seasonal discounts). Performance ski and snowboard/boot rentals for intermediate and expert skiers begin at $40 per day, less for beginners.
Accommodations: Condos, villas, luxury hotels and resorts (Fairmont Chateau, Four Seasons, Pan Pacific, Westin, Hilton) dominate the immediate area of Whistler Village, with prices from $243-$535 per night during peak winter months. More standard lodging (Residence Inn by Marriott, Holiday Inn Sunspree, Listel Best Western) and some bed-and-breakfasts can be found in the village and on the periphery for $174 and up midweek (more on weekends).
Dining: Eateries include steakhouses (The Keg at 4429 Sundial Place, Hy's at 4308 Main St.), sushi (Sachi Sushi, 4359 Main St.), Thai (Thai One On, 4557 Blackcomb Way), pizza, pubs, nightclubs, coffee shops -- even fondue (Bavaria Restaurant, 4369 Main St.). If you have accommodations with a kitchen, there are two grocery stores (an IGA inside Marketplace on the north end of the village and The Grocery Store (they even deliver) at Village Square midway along the village's pedestrian mall. Next to The Grocery Store is a wine shop.
Statistics: The two mountains provide 38 combined lifts and 8,171 skiable acres. Average snowfall 33.5 feet per year at the summit of Whistler Mountain. Average alpine temperatures aren't bad, either: December-February are 23/11 degrees (33/20 in the valley). Blackcomb Mountain (elevation 7,494 feet) provides 5,280 feet -- one mile -- of vertical rise from base to top diamond runs. Whistler (elevation 7,160 feet) rises 5,020 feet.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Spectacle Island offers spectacular views of Boston Harbor

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- Spectacle Island has a swimming beach, five miles of walking trails dotted with gazebos, and a panoramic vista from the highest point in Boston Harbor.

It's hard to believe that underneath all this is an 80-foot-high mound of trash.
A five-year, $180 million project buried the waste dump under 6 million tons of dirt and gravel from Boston's Big Dig highway project to create this 105-acre oasis. Easily accessible via a 10-minute ferry ride from the city, it's now advertised as the harbor's jewel and touted as a "green" park for its solar-powered facilities and compost toilet system.
"It was an eyesore in Boston Harbor that has been turned into something beautiful," said Beth Jackendoff, a park ranger who lives on the island part-time. "Not only does it have some of the best views you're gonna get in Boston, but it's something that we're going to be able to learn from. It has a theme of reclaiming something."
Wes Austin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thought it would be the perfect place to bring his mother and sister visiting from San Diego.
"It's different, it's close, and there's more nature than you can find in the city," said Austin, 26, of Boston. "And, it's a nice getaway for just a couple of hours."

The family sat recently in the grass atop the island's north drumlin, the highest point in the harbor, and admired the scene of cargo ships floating by as planes dipped in and out of nearby Logan Airport. At 157 feet above sea level, the spot towers over neighboring islands and boasts a view spanning Boston's skyline and the 40 miles between Salem to the north and the Blue Hills Reservation to the south.
"It's just so gorgeous," said Janis Austin, 56. "It just gives such a different perspective of the skyline. I've never seen the city like this."
Fishing, hiking, swimming and bird watching are common at one of Boston's best-kept secrets. But most people are there to appreciate Spectacle Island's spectacular views.
One of the harbor's 34 islands, Spectacle has a curious history. Colonists named it for the pair of eyeglass spectacles they saw shaped by its hills, which have housed a hospital for quarantined patients and a factory where horse carcasses were rendered to glue.

It is perhaps best known for having been a dump for more than 100 years. The growing accumulation of garbage eventually forced out the handful of families who lived there, and it became a glaring example of Boston Harbor's pollution.
But the island's filthy reputation is lost in the new park, which opened last summer.
"You'd never know it was a landfill without reading about it," said Judy Wishloff, 43, of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who visited while vacationing in Boston. "As a tourist, this kind of attraction really resonates because there are cool things to do, and the visit has history and substance."
Down in the island's valley is the visitor center, powered by solar panels and packed with exhibits and information on the island's history, wildlife, vegetation and environmentally friendly usage.
With articles on file that date back to the 1800s, visitors can learn about the island's old schoolhouse, or the layers of the five-year restoration project that involved bringing in more than 4,400 barge-loads of dirt. Rangers and park employees refer to the project as the "mini-dig."
This summer, the island features jazz concerts every Sunday. Park rangers also organize events including kite flying, guided tours and scavenger hunts for children. Bird watchers can enjoy rare sightings of bobolinks, warblers and savannah sparrows, among the park's 100 bird species, and fishermen can borrow poles or nets from the visitor center to catch stripers, cod, flounder or lobster.
The visitor center also features a cafe that sells burgers and chowder, and lounge chairs in the shade of the verandah.
Free boat shuttles launched in June give visitors an opportunity to island-hop in the harbor. Popular sites include a fort at Georges Island, America's first lighthouse at Little Brewster Island, and campgrounds at Lovells Island, Grape Island and Bumpkin Island. Spectacle Island's 38-slip marina also allows private boats to dock overnight for a fee.
With a little imagination, the novelty of being on an island could in itself provide enough entertainment for the day. Jeffrey Frankel, a 54-year-old economics professor at Harvard University, wore a long plastic sword slung through his pant belt when he visited.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ride the rails in style

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mahogany interiors, five-course meals and personal butler service will be available on several Amtrak routes starting this fall, as the national passenger railroad embarks on a new partnership with GrandLuxe Rail Journeys.

The companies have teamed up to attach seven special GrandLuxe cars to regularly scheduled Amtrak trains. More than 90 departures are scheduled from November to early January.
The new service, dubbed GrandLuxe Limited, will be available between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area; Chicago and Los Angeles; and Washington and Miami. Limited trips are also scheduled between Washington and Chicago; from Denver to San Francisco; from Denver to Chicago; and from Chicago to Albuquerque.
For Amtrak, the partnership will be a moneymaker, company spokesman Cliff Black said. He declined to say exactly how much privately held GrandLuxe is paying the government-owned corporation.
The project marks the first time Amtrak is providing regularly scheduled private rail services.
"We like the opportunity to experiment with creative marketing approaches," Black said. "Anything that elevates the profile of passenger-train service is beneficial to Amtrak."
The arrangement allows Evergreen, Colorado-based GrandLuxe, formerly known as American Orient Express, to bring its brand of luxury to a wider group of potential customers in a more affordable format.
Tickets for the two- and three-day GrandLuxe Limited trips will range in price from $789 to $2,499. In contrast, GrandLuxe's regular tours take seven to 10 days and range in price from about $4,000 to $8,000 per person.For its longer trips, GrandLuxe operates one 21-car train that consists of old passenger cars from the 1940s and 1950s -- a time when train travel had not yet been overshadowed by the interstate highway system and commercial aviation. The cars have been refurbished to conform to modern standards and to add "a level of luxury that never existed," said Christina Messa, vice president of marketing for GrandLuxe.
For the Amtrak partnership, GrandLuxe will split its train in three. Each segment will have a dining car and a lounge car and have room for 47 passengers, Messa said. It will operate completely separately from the Amtrak portion of the train.
GrandLuxe passengers will not be able to get off at intermediate stops because of limitations such as platform length, though the companies said that could change in the future.
Amtrak will operate the same number of cars it normally would, but in some cases it may have to add an extra locomotive, Black said.
The companies said they could continue and expand the partnership if it is successful.
GrandLuxe trains tend to appeal to older travelers, and Messa said she expected the new Amtrak routes to do the same.
Tom Weakley, 64, has ridden GrandLuxe trains 16 times since retiring from a job in the drug wholesaling industry. He said he relishes being pampered on board the train. A butler brings coffee in the morning. In the afternoon, there are cocktails in the lounge car.
The lounge cars themselves vary: One features a baby grand piano; another, used for particularly scenic routes, is surrounded by glass.
Dinners are long and unhurried -- an opportunity to make friends with fellow passengers, said Weakley, of Indianapolis.
"Did I mention the complimentary wine?" he added. "And they don't limit you to one glass."

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tolkien tales come alive in Denmark's Faeroe Islands

GJOGV, Faeroe Islands (AP) -- It's just after 9 p.m. when the magic begins.
The late-setting sun breaks through purple rain clouds to drape the rugged island of Eysturoy in a golden shimmer. A perfect rainbow arches over the Slaettaratindur mountain. Offshore, a wild ocean launches ferocious swells against the Giant and the Witch, two spectacular rock pillars that protrude from the surf like craggy teeth.
All that's missing from the storybook setting is a band of orchs or goblins crawling out from behind a rock, or a pipe-smoking hobbit emerging from one of the turf-roofed houses.
The Lord of the Rings analogy is never far away in the Faeroe Islands, a barren and wind-swept archipelago whose volcanic peaks shoot out of the Atlantic Ocean halfway between Iceland and Norway. Local legend even claims the ring of power is hidden here.
"The one who holds it gets lots of powers but the one who holds it will also die because of it," says Hans Jakub Mikkelsen, a hobby historian, recounting an ancient Faeroese saga.
Although easily accessible by plane from Britain or Scandinavia, the Faeroe Islands are remote enough to be spared mass tourism for now. You run into more sheep than people once you venture outside the sedate capital, Torshavn.
That's a good thing. Anonymity has helped this semiautonomous Danish territory remain one of those rare places where you don't have to worry about traffic, pollution or crime. Doors are left unlocked and only seven of the roughly 48,000 residents are in jail.
Shy but hospitable, the islanders trace their heritage to a less friendly bunch -- the Vikings, who started settling here in the 8th century. Ancient traditions live on, like the medieval chain dance, the reciting of ballads and a controversial slaughter of pilot whales.
The bloody spectacle occurs about six times a year when a school of pilot whales comes close enough to be driven onshore. Knife-wielding men butcher the whales to the silent approval of scores of curious onlookers and the horror of animal rights activists.
The brutal tradition seems hard to reconcile with the gentle character of the Faeroese, but then again, this is a land of stark contrasts.
Nature has carved a dramatic landscape from the basalt rock spewed out by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Every winding turn of the well-kept roads offer majestic views over deep-green pastures, shimmering fjords or steep cliffs towering over the Atlantic swell.
But walk up to the edge, and the brute force of nature stares you right in the eye.
Take Slave's Edge on the island of Vagar. Here, a high-lying lake spills over a rock wall and releases its excess water into the ocean in a 30-meter waterfall.
The surf below roars menacingly as a horizontal wind lashes your face with rain. The rocks start to feel slippery as you watch the hostile waves crash into the vertical wall. Not surprisingly, the Faeroese are looking for ways to generate electricity here.
"If you take the power of 1 kilometer off these cliffs there is enough energy in those waves for one year of electricity consumption in the Faeroe Islands," says Olavur Gregersen, the head of SeWave Ltd., a small Faeroese wave energy company.
While hiking on mountain trails is a must, the best way to get around the Faeroe Islands is by car. Modern roads and tunnels connect the main islands of Vagar, Streymoy, Eysturoy and Bordoy. Ferries run between most of the other islands. Weather permitting -- and everything here depends on the weather -- you can even get around by helicopter.
From the air you get a full appreciation of how lonely these 18 islands are. Tiny villages with colorful wooden houses are clustered around the shores, but the inside of the islands is desolate. The mountainsides are simply too steep or too exposed to the elements to make comfortable living possible.
You also get an idea of why the Faeroese don't pay much attention to weather forecasts. One island will be baking in sunlight while the next is shrouded in fog.
The rule is to dress warm and waterproof, especially if you're out hiking. A clear blue sky can turn into hailstorm within minutes -- and don't think you'll see it coming.
Harsh as it may seem, the climate is actually very mild for this northern latitude thanks to the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that helps keep average temperatures between 37 degrees in the winter and 52 degrees in summer.
The mix of warm Gulf Stream waters and frigid Arctic waters also provides for fertile breeding ground for fish, whose impact on the Faeroe Islands cannot be overestimated.
The local government says fish products account for an estimated 97 percent of export volumes, and you believe it when you see the impressive fleet of trawlers crowding the port in Torshavn. Faeroese cod, saithe, haddock and farmed salmon are shipped around the world.
Oddly for a fishing nation, fresh seafood does not dominate the menus at Torshavn's eateries. The Faeroese like to eat meat when they go out, not fish which is considered a staple food.
You'll need some courage to sample Faeroese delicacies like sheep's head, whale blubber and Skerpikjoet -- raw mutton that has been left to dry for months. If you're not feeling adventurous, there's always roast lamb and potatoes.

Friday, June 22, 2007

UFO fest to mark 60th anniversary of 'Roswell Incident'

ROSWELL, New Mexico (AP) -- Is "The Truth" located in this remote city in New Mexico?
Driving alone down a stretch of desolate highway en route to Roswell, I begin to understand why conspiracy buffs have long argued that aliens crash-landed in the desert here a half-century ago.
Darkness engulfs desert fields. A misshapen yellow moon hangs in the sky. Husks of abandoned buildings litter the roadside. Has an alien invasion already taken place? I notice a blinking light in the sky -- but quickly discern it's an airplane.
Being out here by yourself is enough to make you think twice.
"I do know this. There are other things out there in the universe," said John Turner, 78, who was working the desk of the International UFO Museum and Research Center on Roswell's North Main Street when I visited.
I have secretly wanted to visit Roswell since I was a boy. What I got during my brief visit -- something I've contemplated doing for years -- was a lesson in how a small city in the middle of the American southwest became enshrined in American pop culture.
The 60th anniversary of the so-called "Roswell Incident" will be marked July 5-8 at the city's annual UFO festival. City officials say 50,000 people are expected for the event, which will include lectures, book-signings, tours, entertainment, and, according to the organizers, perhaps an alien abduction or two.
Long-term plans are underway as well for a UFO-themed amusement park, complete with an indoor roller coaster that would take passengers on a simulated alien abduction. The park, dubbed Alien Apex Resort, could open as early as 2010. The city has received a $245,000 legislative appropriation for initial planning, but the park would be privately built and managed.
The original Roswell Incident occurred in July 1947, outside the city. A rancher named W.W. "Mack" Brazel went to check on some sheep after a night of storms. He claimed he found some strange debris. Neighbors told Brazel he might have pieces of a flying saucer.
On July 8, 1947, a local military office issued a press release saying that pieces of a "crashed disk" were recovered. A story featured on the front page of the Roswell Daily Record claimed a flying saucer was captured (the paper is now reproduced and sold to tourists). Other news agencies picked up on the event -- albeit in a cursory fashion.
A revised release was soon sent out that said the material was a weather balloon. But stories about requests for tiny coffins and a nefarious plot began to emerge and Roswell went from small town to Alien Capitol.
What exactly happened more than a half-century ago in the desert remains murky. But it did inspire me to drive hundreds of miles across the desert to a town of roughly 45,000 people.
After a fitful sleep at the Best Western, I rubbed my scalp to search for any curious implants or scars, and headed out early to spend the morning downtown.
I was greeted at the UFO Museum (a former movie theater) by an alien dummy wearing a Santa Claus hat. The light posts on the streets of Roswell feature alien heads wearing Santa Claus hats. The creatures look utterly incapable of such malevolent acts as abduction and brain surgery.
The museum takes visitors through a timeline, beginning with newspaper clips and printed affidavits from many who claim to have intimate knowledge of the crash. For an extra donation, visitors can take an audio tour with a decidedly low-tech cassette Walkman.
The convoluted timeline of what happened after "The Roswell Incident" shows just why there are so many conflicting stories about the event.
The museum freely mixes documentary materials and kitsch. Among the displays are explanations of crop circles and an exhibit detailing how Roswell has been portrayed in pop culture.
It's curious how aliens are almost inevitably depicted by those who claim they've been visited by extraterrestrials as diminutive with oval heads, green skin and doe-shaped eyes.
The museum's most popular and photographed exhibition is purely fictional: the set of an alien autopsy from the 1994 television movie "Roswell." The vivid exhibit, in which doctors prepare to examine an emaciated alien corpse, is on a permanent loan to the museum.
The gift shop takes up a good chunk of the first floor and offers every conceivable extraterrestrial gift: alien plush dolls; alien shot glasses and magnets that say "I BELIEVE." A wide selection of books and documents on the Roswell incident is also for sale.
There's also a research library for those inclined to further study the alien phenomena.
"We'll tell people the story of what happened and tell them to make up their own mind," Turner said.
Downtown Roswell is a hub of alien-themed shops. There's the Not Of This World coffeehouse and the Cover Up Cafe. Even businesses like banks have cardboard cutouts of aliens in the windows.
One shop worth a visit is the Alien Zone, roughly a block away from the museum. For a small fee, visitors (the human kind) can see an exhibit called "Area 51" that features displays of roughly 3-foot-tall alien models in very human poses.
One display shows an alien in a sauna reading a newspaper; another features a forlorn-looking alien lounging in a jail cell in prison stripes. The main exhibit features an "alien autopsy" complete with an alien baby fetus in a glass jar in the background and another life-size model of an alien stumbling from a crashed space ship.
There's plenty else to do in Roswell. But even city officials now seem to know why many people trek across the desert for a visit. The city's Web site says: "Roswell has something to offer all of our special visitors, whether from this planet, or from a distant galaxy."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

New 'Wonders' poll in final month of voting

GENEVA, Switzerland (AP) -- The Great Wall, the Colosseum and Machu Picchu are among the leading contenders to be the new seven wonders of the world as a massive poll enters its final month with votes already cast by more than 50 million people, organizers say.
As the July 6 voting deadline approaches, the rankings can still change, the organizers say. Also in the top 10 are Greece's Acropolis, Mexico's Chichen Itza pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, Easter Island, Brazil's Statue of Christ Redeemer, the Taj Mahal and Jordan's Petra.
The Great Pyramids of Giza, the only surviving structures from the original seven wonders of the ancient world, are assured of keeping their status in addition to the new seven after indignant Egyptian officials said it was a disgrace they had to compete for a spot.
The winners will be announced on July 7 in Lisbon, Portugal.
Latin Americans and Asians have been the most enthusiastic voters so far in the final round of 20 candidates for the world's top architectural marvels, but people from every country in the world have voted by Internet or phone, says the nonprofit organization conducting the balloting.
"It's the first ever global vote," said Tia B. Viering, spokeswoman for the "New 7 Wonders of the World" campaign.
Rome's Colosseum, China's Great Wall, Peru's Machu Picchu, India's Taj Mahal and Jordan's Petra have been among the leaders since January while the Acropolis and the Statue of Christ Redeemer made their way up from the middle of the field to the top level, according to latest tallies. The United States' Statue of Liberty and Australia's Sydney Opera House have been sitting in the bottom 10 since the start.
Also in the bottom group are Cambodia's Angkor, Spain's Alhambra, Turkey's Hagia Sophia, Japan's Kiyomizu Temple, Russia's Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral, Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle, Britain's Stonehenge and Mali's Timbuktu.
Americans and Europeans have the lowest participation so far, Viering said.
"At the moment, most of the voting is coming from Latin America and Asia," she told The Associated Press. But the organizers are confident the campaign will draw more attention in the U.S. and Europe in the final phase, Viering added.
"Excitement is starting to pick up in the United States" because the campaign is getting much attention worldwide and Americans are starting to realize how positive it is, she said.
"People realize that it's now or never."
The ancient city of Petra in southwestern Jordan -- popularized by "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and famous for its water tunnels and stone structures carved in the rock -- jumped from the middle of the pack to the top seven in January thanks to campaigning by the Jordanian royal family and thousands of Jordanians voting by text message over their mobile phones, Viering said.
The campaign was begun in 1999 by Swiss adventurer Bernard Weber, with almost 200 nominations coming in from around the world. The list of candidates was narrowed down to 21 by the start of 2006. Since organizers started a tour to each site last September, the competition has been heating up.
There is no foolproof way to prevent people from voting more than once for their favorite wonder, but most of the votes are cast by Internet in a system that registers each participant's e-mail address to discourage people from voting twice, Viering said.
"We have a lot of kids (voting) and that trend is continuing...but we have votes really from every part of the population," she added.
The original list of wonders were concentrated in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Vanished are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos lighthouse off Alexandria.
After the Egyptian protest, the organizers of the campaign set the pyramids above the competition.
"We absolutely had no problem with this," Viering told the AP. As of July 7, there will be eight world wonders including the Pyramids of Giza, she added.
Choosing world wonders has been a fascination over the centuries. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, keeps updating its list of World Heritage Sites, which now totals 830 places.
"It's so exciting," said Viering. "There are not many things that could bring the world together like global culture, ... this is really something that every single person in the world can be interested in."
"This is all about bringing people together, to appreciate each other, ... to celebrate diversity," said Viering.
Weber's Switzerland-based foundation aims to promote cultural diversity by supporting, preserving and restoring monuments. It relies on private donations and revenue from selling broadcasting rights.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Friday, June 8, 2007

How not to climb the Matterhorn

ZERMATT, Switzerland (AP) -- One sheer drop-off to the right, another eight feet to the left. A switchback ridge so steep that three steps brings you to the next turn. Rope handholds to clutch when the mountain trail shrinks to less than a foot wide.
What am I, a goat? It was time to consider a panic attack.
A summer day hike, my husband said. A glorious saunter up a flower-filled meadow to one of the world's most famous Alpine huts. Look, families with little children are in the gondola line with us. Don't forget your sunglasses, it's so bright.
Which is how, three hours later, I was shivering in a surprise July snowstorm en route to Hoernlihuette, the Matterhorn base camp, wearing capris and sneakers with no tread.
At 14,690 feet, the Matterhorn is not even the highest mountain in Switzerland -- but it surely is the most photogenic, rising up on four elegant faces to a craggy peak along the Swiss-Italian border. Walt Disney even borrowed its silhouette for Disneyland, debuting the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride in 1959.
At the real mountain's base lies the car-free Swiss town of Zermatt. There is no offseason here; it's nearly always packed with tourists riding trains and gondolas up the mountains, hiking on the alpine trails, walking along picturesque streets lined with traditional chalets, and eating at restaurants decorated with the ubiquitous, huge Swiss cowbells. Utterly charming or tourism gone mad, depending on your point of view.
Hoernlihuette, at 10,696 feet, has been on the flank of the mountain in some version since 1880. It's where the guys and gals with ice picks, ropes and crampons eat, drink, sleep and use the outhouse before launching their pre-dawn summit attempts. When the weather is bad and no one sits on the patio, you can also inhale the wet socks and sweaty shirts of manly men who disdain deodorant.
About 4,000 people a year stay here during its brief summer season (July 1 to September 30), with 3,000 of them seeking glory on top of the Matterhorn. But I was of the lesser beings, daytrippers who gasp for breath up to the stone refuge, throw themselves exhausted upon its sturdy wooden benches and need a beer -- or maybe two -- before they can face the trials of going back down.
We set off for Hoernlihuette on a crisp sunny morning, after a brief walk around Zermatt and a stop to pick up water and munchies. Then we were off to the Schwarzsee cable car, which whisked us 3,000 feet up to a restaurant and pond above the tree line, where families with children picnicked.
For hikers, it was time to get started, at 8,474 feet.
After 45 minutes across a stony meadow, we reached Hirli, a lone building a few hundred feet up. My, how time flies on a mountain. You can see where you are going, yet it takes forever. To match my plodding pace, my husband photographed about 10,000 alpine flowers from every direction.
Then the wind turned brisk, the blue sky ashen gray. Temperatures fell about 20 degrees. We broke out the windbreakers, which held off the freezing rain for five to six minutes tops. I longed for gloves and a hat.
It took about 10 steps for the landscape to turn from alpine meadow to crumbling lunar rock face. As the sleet turned into stinging hail, the trail disappeared altogether.
The snowstorm struck when we were totally exposed on the switchback ridge. By then I was hyperventilating about the sheer cliffs on either side. I decided it was better to stare at the wet stones beneath my feet.
Ironic, is it not, that we seek out these sweeping mountain vistas, yet when we are there, a glance in any direction sends our hearts racing in fear?
Yet the mind is a marvelous thing. Since the storm limited visibility to six feet, all of a sudden I could not see the plunging cliffs. Death might be a step or two away, but I was oblivious. That's when the fear disappeared.
We somehow made it to Hoernlihuette. Fortified by gemuesesuppe (vegetable soup) and heisse schokolade (hot chocolate), we left the steamy camp about 3:15 p.m., just as the next day's summiteers were checking in for the night. There's nothing like a one-inch layer of sleet and a pea soup-thick fog to really make a mountain descent interesting -- I thanked God again and again for my two adjustable hiking poles.
As we drew near to Schwarzsee, we heard a shout. A climber with a fully loaded expedition backpack was practically dancing down the mountain, leaping from rock to rock, his ice pick swinging. We flattened against the cliff to let him pass. A minute later, another. Then six, then a dozen.
"Maybe they are racing," I mused.
We soon found out why, as we watched the gondola operator lock up his office and ride the last one down, despite our own shouts from 100 yards away. We had misread the 17:15 p.m. closing time as 7:15 p.m. In fact, 17:15 p.m. is 5:15 p.m. We arrived at 5:21 p.m., six minutes too late. Believe me, he did not care.
Now we had 3,000 feet more to go, or 2 hours and 35 minutes to Zermatt, according to a trail sign.
A word about those Swiss hiking times posted at every crossroads. Would you ask a Kenyan how long it takes to run to the nearest village? I think not. Swiss grandmothers could beat you up the mountain carrying their day's groceries, so why would you believe their time estimates?
You can't. Try adding 25 minutes for every hour. Then add another 35 minutes because it is dark and you have to stick to the winding road instead of hitting the steep yet enticing trails through the woods that you know could save you miles. Memo to self: Buy a hiking head lamp.
After three more hours, my thigh muscles began to twitch uncontrollably. Nearly frozen, we arrived back in the dark, utterly exhausted, about 9 p.m.
What did we learn?
Zermatt and the Matterhorn are must-see destinations.
Mountain expeditions in capris and bald sneakers are bound to end in disaster.
The Swiss are nothing if not punctual -- do not miss the last tram.
Over 500 people have died climbing the Matterhorn since 1865, and Swiss tourism authorities say deaths now average about 12 annually. (WHAT? WHAT? A dozen each year? Could someone have mentioned this sooner?) As of early May, six people had died this year.
Many of the dead mountaineers are buried in Zermatt's downtown cemetery. Don't join that club.