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Hello Hawaii!

We’ve moved into our superior digs at Honolulu’s Hilton Hawaiian Village. Like our view?

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We arrived, my 9-year-old son and I, mid-afternoon Saturday. Emerging from a 12-hour flight from Toronto into the sun and soft wind of Waikiki felt a little surreal. A swim in the Pacific and a bite to eat set us nearly right… but sleep was really what we needed.

Now it’s (very early) Sunday morning and we’re set for our Hawaiian family surf adventure. First stop: The Honolulu Surf Museum at the Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber.

Next, we’ll attempt to surf ourselves in our first lesson at 11 a.m.

Stay tuned… I’ll keep you posted.

A note about LoriExploring: Lori Knowles is the Family Fare columnist for the travel section of the Toronto Sun. Follow Lori on Twitter @LoriExploring

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Today I discovered two things:

1) I love to surf.

2) I’m terrible at surfing.

I’m a 40-plus woman on a girlfriend-getaway in Tofino, British Columbia… capital of Canada’s cold-water surfing culture. Capital, I should say, of Canada’s female cold-water surfing culture–I’m told there are more women than men surfing Tofino waves.

Why?

Tofino is home of Surf Sister, an all-female surfing school that offers all-women (and co-ed) surfing camps. You can learn in an hour, a day, a week… whatever. Surf Sister’s founder, Krissy Montgomery, has a band of pros under her wing who break down “the break,” making learning to surf Tofino waves really, really simple.

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Simple, that is, in theory… not necessarily in practice. Today I learned ‘popping up’ and ‘paddling out’ and ‘reading’ the waves are all more exhausting than simple.

Exhausting! After my 14th wave, just as I figured out where to place my feet and hold my hands and bend my knees… my body turned to jello. Simply walking out into the surf became a trial.

But surfing is thrilling, nonetheless. Very, very thrilling, especially when experienced alongside a group of like-minded women. Like I said, I learned to love it. Now, if only I wasn’t so terrible…

Stay tuned… humiliating surf photos to come!

In the meantime, some added suggestions for a girlfriend getatway in Tofino:

1) Consider a helicopter ride along this wild wet coast courtesy of Atleo Air. Jason Bertin’s new Tofino service offers sightseeing trips to glaciers, private islands, remote coastal locations…. head’s up, guys: it’s a good way to propose! Astounding and terrific.

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2) Tofino’s Wildside Grill cooks the best BC salmon and spotted prawn I’ve ever tasted. Wildside’s Jeff Mikus is a commercial fisherman bringing BC’s sea delicacies straight to your picnic table. Chef Jesse Blake certainly knows how to BBQ them.

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3) Order take-out (or hire a personal chef) from Tofino’s RedCan Gourmet. Chef Tim May makes a mean granola bar, brownie… and braises lamb to absolute perfection.

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4) Stay at Tofino’s Pacific Sands hotel. Rent a beach house. Mine is No.35… and it’s glorious, especially in the chair from which I’m writing this:

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Adios (rested) from Tofino.
Lori. www.loriknowles.com
Twitter: @LoriExploring

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The Hot Springs

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“Hot Springs Cove lies 26 nautical miles up the coast from Taquinna Provincial Park. For thousands of years, natural thermal hot springs have poured out of the rocks and spilled out on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Northern Clayoquat Sound.”

So read my Saturday morning itinerary. Uh Oh. My first Girlfriend Getaway to Tofino, British Columbia, was starting with a boat ride in the Pacific Ocean. Should I mention I’m prone to sea sickness? Nah… I’ll be fine. And this will be a wild, warming experience.

We boarded our Beachcomber-esque boat in the the Tofino harbour and immediately met one of the friendliest guides I’ve ever come across: Marla. She guides for Tofino’s Jamie’s Whaling Station & Adventure Centre. Chipper, informed, intelligent, helpful: Marla is my new hero. I forgot to take her photo, but here’s her vessel:

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Marla drove that boat in the Pacific Ocean like Danica Patrick drives her race car: with verve. Never mind that within moments my face was as sallow as the sea kelp. Never mind through the entire two-hour coastal tour I was willing myself — forcing myself — to keep my breakfast where it belonged: in my tummy. The journey to the hot springs was still incroyable.

We saw a whale! A great big tubular grey whale rolling in the waves, feeding on the shell fish delicacies hidden in the mud and sand near the Pacific’s cold shore. We saw sea lions basking in the spray of the waves; they lay lazily on the rocks of the mini islands that dot the coast of Vancouver Island.

We saw thousands and thousands of trees, and massive rocks, and swells bigger than buildings in Toronto. Marla kept up a steady pace of info: friendly, fascinating. And she kept on driving that boat…

Until we came to the hot springs.

Oh, the hot springs. What a sea treasure these springs are, hidden deep in Northern Clayoquot Sound. From a remote dock in Maquinna Provinical Park, the hot springs are a 30-minute walk along a wooden boardwalk (see top photo). The walk (loads of stairs included) delivers you to a narrow, rock-infested canyon full of steaming water… Off come the clothes. You stumble your way down into that warm, warm, soothing spring. Position yourself just so and you can see the sea’s waves below you rolling and crashing. More heaven.

Sorry folks, I don’t have a photo of this natural Canadian wonder: the steam and the rocks were too risky for my camera. You’ll just have to go yourself and witness what my fuss is about.

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Next came my flight out. Tofino Air came to fly us back to Tofino. Holy Mackerel… see photo above. The west coast of Vancouver Island from the air is, is… I can’t find the word. Holy Mackerel.

Our day ended with the Spotted Bear.

The Spotted Bear?

It’s a cozy, candle-lit bistro in Tofino. A few tables. An open kitchen. Two chefs and a server. And the food is sumptuous. Organic, Vancouver Island produce. Fish caught fresh from the Pacific. Upscale yet casual. I highly recommend it. Here’s a photo of our braised ribs and the chefs in action:

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That’s it for now. For info:
Spotted Bear: http://www.spottedbearbistro.com
Jamie’s Whaling Station: http://www.jamies.com

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Good morning from Tofino, where the sun hasn’t yet risen, but I’m waiting… waiting for this view to appear.

What a peaceful night it was here at the Pacific Sands. Our beach villas are perched at the very edge of Vancouver Island, where the waves thunder to the shore. On and on. Relentless.

I left my balcony door open just a little last night so I could stay in touch with the roar. At 2 am a cayote’s call woke me up. At 3 am, a crash of thunder. I’m told that happens a lot here on the edge of this voluminous country.

Why am I here? In Tofino, British Columbia?

A girl’s-only weekend. Girlfriend Getaway, I think they call it. It’s my first one. Ever. I’ve left the kids with their capable dad back in Toronto and have come here to surf, hike, eat, sleep. And write.

Our group of five met happily yesterday at the Vancouver Airport… many of us meeting for the first time. Our little posse boarded an eight-seat Cessna at YVR’s South Terminal. Orca Air. Our female captain and male co-pilot told us it was the first time in Orca’s history their passenger list was filled entirely with women.

Our view from the 50-minute flight looked something like this:

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Next, we were introduced to Tofino’s Pacific Sands by our host, gracious PS GM, Stephen. What a spot! The view from my room is show-stopping, as you’ve seen (first pic). Hell… the room itself is show-stopping:

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Then came a walk on the wet beach… in my rubber boots and hotel-issue yellow slicker.

And then came dinner. Mmmmm… a spicy, warm-your-bones, I’m-so-starving dinner at a Tofino hangout appropriately called: The Shelter. Its vibe: Cedar. Wood fire. Candle light. Surfers by the bar. Surfing flicks on the massive flatscreens by the bar. Surfing flicks on tiny flatscreens by each toilet (I’m serious). And perfectly spiced, belly-warming food brewed with mussels, oysters, lingcod, salmon and halibut.

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And finally…. finally… came sleep. In a big, white, feathery bed, with the door cracked open and the waves…. Heaven.

Info: Pacific Sands

The Shelter

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My ski days are sweet here in Portillo, and not just because of the sweets they serve at afternoon tea daily.

We pushed away from the all-yellow Hotel Portillo at the awesomely early hour of 10 am. Our first ride up dropped us at the training point of the Austrian ski team. These enormous species were picking up speeds of about 70 kph as they passed by, all duded out in their helmets and speed suits, bibs sporting names like Franz, Hans and Josef. When we stopped to watch for a mo, Peter asked an Austrian coach where they’d be training this afternoon. “I hope ve don’t train this afternoon,” he said in perfect Austrian English. “Ve have been verking since vile you vere sleeping. Ve are wery tired.”

The Austrians

At that we hung our heads and skied on, trying to rack up some kilometres of our own before we were totally embarrassed. The pistes of Juncalillo (YUNK-a-LEE-lo) catch the most sun in the am, so that’s where most of Portillo’s skiers ride in the mornings. We snaked down the groomed track first. In subsequent runs we got off-piste to ski the crud and small bumps—it’s quieter there. As in most places, the bulk of skiers ride the groomed tracks, leaving the good stuff untouched and uncrowded.

Portillo View

By noon we’d made our way to the Plateau—the side of Portillo that catches the afternoon rays. The terrain here is so vast, you’d need a fisheye lens to capture it on camera. We rode the El Plateau lift, then the slingshot Condor (more on this bizarre lift later), and traversed over to the off-piste of Plateau Superior, largely avoided by the masses.

Not that there are any masses at Portillo. There are very few day skiers here, most are vacationing on ski weeks at Hotel Portillo, and the hotel’s capacity is capped off at about 400. So there’s never a line-up. And if you like to ski off-piste, you encounter little traffic.

Lunch was at the mid-mountain Tio Bob’s, a.k.a. Uncle Bob’s. Bob Purcell was Portillo’s original owner; his nephew Henry Purcell now runs it. Tio Bob’s is a little slopeside hut, much like alms of Europe. From here, there’s an hypnotic view of Laguna Del Inca (Inca Lake) and the surrounding snowcapped Andes. Skiers throw off their gear and take up residence at picnic tables. Food is off the grill—chicken, salmon, sausage, soup and enormous salads.

Lunch at Tio Bob's

I didn’t want to leave my perch, but I had a date with some Mexican tour operators who promised to guide me through Garganta (translation: throat), akin to the Couloir at Blackcomb. The sun-softened snow on Garganta was perfect, as is its pitch: steep and slightly bumpy, just the way I like it.

Our ski day ended with zip along the Austrians’ closed downhill training course courtesy of Robin, Portillo’s ski school director. It was all part of Portillo’s daily ‘ski with ambassadors’ program, during which you’re toured around for free by the area’s experts.

By 5 pm it was time for tea in the dining room—a sweet cap on an extremely sweet day of skiing.

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You could have teleported me to Pluto and I don’t think the feeling would be any weirder.

Last night I fell asleep on an Air Canada flight somewhere over Canada. This morning I woke up on that same Air Canada flight somewhere over South America. It was summer when I went to sleep, winter when I woke up. I had shorts on when I left and  a ski jacket when I arrived. The world’s a weird place… so big yet kind of small.

My husband and I flew Toronto direct to Santiago, Chile… why? What else… to go skiing in Portillo, Chile. The South American seasons are upside down–it’s summer in Canada when it’s winter in Chile. Something quite novel for a diehard skier like me, who’s always looking for new journeys to snow. This one did not disappoint.

Our driver’s name was Mario. An apt name, considering his Italian driving style. He spent more time in the oncoming traffic lane than he did in his own. My nails dug divots into Peter’s arm every time we went around a corner on the wrong side of the road. “Do you think he knows there’s a car coming the other way?” I’d hiss. Peter would just smile. “Sure. Mario’s a good driver.”

Mario spoke no English, and neither of us speak Spanish beyond “Hola” and “Gracias.” Yet somehow he engaged us in a full conversation. As we snaked up into the Andes from Santiago–a three-hour drive if there’s no snow falling or worse (avalanches) we learned about the seemingly vibrant trucking trade between Chile and neighbouring Argentina, Chile’s vineyards that are all lined up at the side of the road, the role of the Gaucho (cowboy) which is actually an Argentinian word but is used here, too, and the wonders of Patagonia in the southern section of Chile to which, suddenly, I am yearning to visit.

The road to Portillo runs upward like a black ribbon through brown ranchland as it makes its way into the Andes. Santiago itself is all lowrise and sprawling. It’s a massive city with more than 6 million inhabitants–more than the rest of the country–yet it’s not filled with skyscrapers like New York, Chicago or even my home,  Toronto. Somehow it’s more low key.

Once out of the city you’re immediately into ranch land. Gauchos (I promise I will find the local name for them soon) ride horses along the roadway. I don’t know what they’re doing, but they appear to be working. They wear large, round straw hats and colourful ponchos. Most have huge, swooping mustaches (the gauchos, not the horses). I’m not kidding.

Mario kept warning us we would encounter a lot of truckers on the way to Portillo. I wondered why he’d warn us of such a thing, yet sure enough, there they were… an absolute ton of truckers. We likely encountered 4- or 500 in a single three-hour trip. Apparently the ski road to Portillo is also an international highway linking Chile with Argentina, Brazil etc. It’s they only way there, which seems incredible. The road is only a two-laner and is as steep as any I’ve encountered in the alps, with loads and loads of switchbacks. At one point we counted 29 switchback turns in a space of about two kilometres. Let me show you a picture: 

Once we reached the snowline we came across at least three transport accidents, most in the ditch with front wheels hanging precariously close to a cliff’s edge. The trucks’ general ascent, as a result, moves at a snail’s pace. Hence Mario’s favour of the ‘other lane, not our own.’ We must have passed 100 transport trucks along the route… many of them happy to honk at us.

The best part was spotting the dozens and dozens of cars pulled off to the side of the road, their occupants tumbling out to run toward the snow adjacent to the highway. Mostly Chileans, perhaps from Santiago, they’d pull on rain pants or whatever waterproof garb they could find. They’d grab sleds (that looked, by the way, suspiciously like flutter boards), then hurl themselves down the pistes–mom, dad, three kids all piled on the same board.

About 2/3 of the way up the steep part of the access road (a.k.a. international highway!), Mario pointed to the sky and told us to look at the ski lift. I forget which word he used for ski lift, but it was nothing I’d heard before. We pressed our noses to the window and sure enough, there was a triple chair moving rapidly above us, right over the swtichbacks and the hundreds of truckers. It was moving much faster than us. “We should ride the lift,” I told Peter. “It would be faster than us, even with Mario!”

But it wasn’t long before Hotel Portillo was looming in front of us, a massive, all-yellow rectangle of a thing that lords itself over acres and acres of wide open, treeless slope. Mario reeled in, we threw open the van doors and let our sneakers touch the cold ground–a long way from the summer lake we’d just left. We shivered and said thanks, handed over a tip, then entered the all-yellow hotel.

About to start: our skiing adventure.

Lori Knowles is the ski columnist for the Toronto Sun.

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Smuggler's Notch under the sun.

The sun shone all day on Smuggler’s Notch, warming up the snow and spreading smiles on the faces of the families vacationing here. I’m not sure my kids noticed; it was their first day of ski school–ahem, Snow Sport University (SSU)–and they were a little nervous.

The morning began in a flurry: mostly me rousting tired kids to brush their teeth and eat their cornflakes. After a winter of rigourous ski racing, the two boys were reluctant to go to ski school on their March Break, and our daughter was just plain scared. But we did our best to keep it light. We careened out of the condo at 8:55, just in time to pull the skis out of the locker and meet the SSU bus, which swung into our drive promptly at 9:00 and produced a smiling ski pro to check the kids in and put them at ease. Everyone boarded without complaint or comment–there wasn’t even a peep from my four-year-old–which eliminated my anxiety completely, and left my husband and me to quietly catch our own shuttle the short distance to the lifts.

While Peter and I explored Smuggs in the sun and snapped photos all over, the kids were learning hockey stops and glades. We spotted our two boys only once, part of a massive pack jetting down under the chair. Did they look happy? Hard to tell with helmets and balaclavas hiding their faces. Instead of worrying about it, we went for a HUGE lunch at Morse Mountain Grill sans kids–an unusual treat.

As for the kids, as part of SSU’s all day program, they were fed a hearty lunch of pasta and garlic bread at lunch. Around 2:30 the massive pack of SSUers flocked into SSU headquarters to wind down and watch a magician in action. They ended the day with some colouring. When I arrived, the boys were waiting for me at the door, but Gracie was reluctant to leave her new friends.

Kids returning from a day at Smuggs' Snow Sport University.

We got the goods on ‘how things went’ at SSU over Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the Village after skiing… at least, we tried. Eight year old boys don’t give you much info–turns out, four-year-old girls are far more expressive! The boys were most impressed by the fact that in a single day they moved from Level 5 to Level 7, and they clutched their ‘report cards’ with pride. That’s about all I got out of them; the only complaint was the lack of pizza at lunch. Did they want to return the following day? “No thanks, mom. We wanna go zip-lining.”

As for our little daughter… she was totally impressed by her own ‘hockey stops’, and was insistent she wanted to return  to ski with her ‘friends’: the gaggle of chattery five-year-old girls clad in pig tails and pink.

Fine with me. I found Smugg’s Snow Sport University to be well-organized, welcoming, and generally a ‘happy place’ for kids to be. Best part: SSU provided a rare opportunity for my husband and me to ski alone, ride the lifts together, and eat lunch without messy-faced kids… all with the sun shining brightly.

Lori Knowles’ ski column, Inside Edge, appears in the Travel section of the Toronto Sun. Follow her adventures on Twitter @LoriExploring.

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Riding the chair at Smuggs.

Nostalgia has hit me like the sweet smell of freshed-baked cookies coming from my mother’s kitchen.

Our first day of skiing on March Break at Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont rocketed me back to the ski days of my 1970’s childhood, when riding two-person chairlifts and shouting “SINGLE” were common actions at the foot of every run; when narrow trails instead of broad, treeless freeways snaked like strips of ribbon down the face of a mountain; and when families of skiers actually met one another in the liftline, on the chair, in the hot tub or over a picnic lunch instead of roaring past each other headed for another high-speed lift.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not lamenting the loss of slow, fixed-grip chairs and straight skis. I’m simply saying that once in while it’s nice to be reminded of happy times in one’s past, and that on the slopes (as in life), it’s actually nice to slow down once in a while.

We’re here skiing Smuggler’s Notch with three children–two of our own, and one cousin–whom Smuggler’s Notch knackered thoroughly and completely. Over the course of the day, we likely only took a total of 10 runs, but with  3,640 feet of vertical, those runs were l-o-o-n-n-g… not to mention bumpy.

We warmed up on a seriously fast, groomed blue cruiser called Chilcoot, with one parent leading, the three kids inbetween, and another parent bringing up the rear. Our four-year-old daughter kept right up with the 8-year-old boys, her skis splayed out in flying wedge and her hands tucked in tight by her sides (for added speed). It’s astonishing how quickly kids learn to ski well if you start them early.

On following runs we’d split at the top: I’d take the boys on some blacks and Peter would take Gracie on the blues. What’s fantastic about this ski area is a family can ski together… yet apart. Runs at Smuggs tend to meander down the mountain, crossing over one another frequently like the braids in Gracie’s hair. As a result, we’d meet at several points on each run. We’d discuss our conquests, then we’d shoot off again, promising to meet at the next junction.

At the bottom of each trail we’d brag of our adventures. Favourites for Gracie and Peter included Rumrunner, Father Bob’s and Black Snake. Favourites for the boys and me were the glades we found, including Moonshine and Doc Dempsey’s Glades. The runs are steeper and the bumps are a lot bigger than I’d anticipated when I steered them down those remote, skier-less tracks for the first time… but the boys never uttered a peep of complaint, and seemed glad to hop on one of the slow, double chairs at Smuggs to rest. I think a high-speed six-pack would have stressed out their legs completely.

All were also more than happy to head into the Madonna Lodge (more nostalgia) at lunch to nosh on pizza and soup in a bread bowl–in that tired state, both were the best we’d ever tasted!

We had HUGE plans for activity at the end of the day: swimming, tubing, hours in Snugg’s Fun Zone. But we only managed two of the three, and by 9:15 pm all five of us were sleeping soundly. Overall it was a smashingly successful first day at Smuggs… and for me at least, sweetly nostalgic.

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We feel a little like Alice must have when she slipped through that hole and found herself in Wonderland.

The condo at Smuggler's Notch

We’ve arrived in a the very snowy US state of Vermont from the very rain-soaked town of Toronto. We’ve gone from puddles the size of Canadian skating rinks to mountains, clapboard Colonial houses and sugar bush, all covered over by a smooth white blanket. For a skier, it’s better than Alice’s Wonderland.

This is March Break for Ontario, Canada kids. Half the province has packed Siennas and Pilots full of children, DVDs, DSs and winter or summer gear, then hit the road one direction or another–most for sunnier climes. Our valiant MPV was loaded with my two kids, a cousin, Peter and I, skis, about 14 suitcases, and enough loud ’70s music on the iPod to drown out the sounds of two eight-year-olds shouting “RATS, YOU KILLED ME!” at their dratted Nintendos.

Our destination: Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont.

We left Toronto Saturday a.m. and travelled through the weekend via the 401 to Cornwall. We spent the night at a decent Ramada hotel with a pool full of other March Break kids and their bleary-eyed parents, many of whom were heading to Stowe, Vt, Tremblant, QC, and Smuggler’s. We ate a maple-sugar-laden meal Saturday

The Ramada Pool

night at our beloved St. Hubert’s (a chicken place we only find these days in or near Quebec). Then on Sunday we rose a little too slowly, swam, visited Tim Horton’s one final time for the week, then headed across the Canadian/US border into New York and eventually Vermont.

Our Sunday drive was a little slower than anticipated. The road to Smugg’s is a two-laner full of slow Sunday drivers and anxious, heavy-footed skiers. It was a mix of rain and snow, with the clouds slung so low we missed sighting the rolling scenery.

But the good news is, we made it safely , first to the friendly front desk at Smuggler’s Notch guest registration (I don’t know how they managed such friendliness under such check-in chaos), then to our new ski home in the Tamaracks at Smugg’s, with the kids’ crying: “THIS IS THE BEST CONDO EVER!”

Tamaracks Condo

I’m happy to admit, this condo is pretty swish. Keep in mind, in my travel writing career I’ve seen a lot of condos, but this one rates right up there. First, it’s massive, with two huge bedrooms, loads of windows facing the woods, two bathrooms (including one with a jacuzzi tub) and four flatscreen TVs (one facing aforementioned Jacuzzi tub). We’re all in heaven.

But the best part of yesterday had to be our visit to Smugg’s Fun Zone, a covered dome, kind of like a tennis bubble (actually it is a tennis bubble) filled with stuff kids under 10 consider “Awesome!” There are bouncy castles, bouncy slides, bouncy obstacle courses… there’s a lot of hot air blown around Smuggler’s. There are ping pong tables, fooze ball tables, mini-putt courses and ladder courses. Upon entering, our two eight-year-old boys disappeared instantly and for about two hours we barely saw them. Our four-year-old daughter even made a quick friend, and became content sliding down… what else?… the bouncy slide over and over. I lost count around 100…

Smugg's Bouncy Castle

When it was over we were all so tired we caught a shuttle bus the 100 yards back to our condo! Now it’s Monday morning and they’re all still sleeping.

All this, and we haven’t yet been skiing. So far, Smugg’s is better than Wonderland. More soon.

Lori.

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I am no ski racing junkie. Despite my recent, lucky and enligtening visits to World Cup and Olympic ski races, truthfully I find the actual racing…um, boring.

But the people… Now the people are another story. The people of ski racing are never boring.

Today I arrived at the stadium to witness the Women’s GS at the Garmisch stadium- a race held on the infamous Kandahar that’s been used since as far back as the Olympic Games in 1936. A river of ski racing fans flowed across farmers’ fields toward the stands. Strange feathered mascots on stilts mixed with kids carrying cowbells and men in Bavarian leather leiderhosen.

The sight was odd. These crowds were so unlike the hockey sweatered, waffle-throwing, puck crazy, oft-toothless fans I see in Toronto. Yes odd… yet no less enthusiastic.

The energy of these ski racing rabblers was catching. Despite the long fog delays and the 20-min bathroom queues and the total absence of food, I found myself jumping ’80s-punk style to German rap and The Village People.

Talk about odd.

As for the race… It was exciting, I guess. Not entirely sure. I was too busy watching the people.

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