Category Archives: General Travel

The 2016 North American International Auto Show

Despite the bone-chilling cold here in the Detroit area, I braved the elements to visit the North American International Auto Show downtown at Cobo Center. I hadn’t been the show in a few years and it’s fun to go back.

We parked on the roof of Cobo Center. Get there early if you want to park here – it does fill up by mid-day. There are other parking garages around the Center, but there may be a walk involved.

For some, the auto show might be a great big room with lots of new, expensive cars. In my observation, here are the coolest things I saw at the show.

Feel like the floor is moving? It might be!

There are many cars sitting on turntables moving slowly. I stepped up to the Alfa Romeo exhibit and for a moment, I felt like I was moving! It was the car that was moving, not me.

It’s important to watch the floors in the hall. There are lots of steps and ramps and you’ll need to pay attention to where you’re putting your feet.

Auto ShowYou can get into the cars

It was a surprise to me that folks didn’t know you can get into the cars and play around with the knobs and buttons. Yes, visitors to the show can get into most of the cars. Open the trunk and let the kids climb in. Just don’t shut them in!

How else will you get a picture in the latest Mercedes sedan or the newest Corvette?

Only the most expensive cars are off-limits.

The huge video screens

Maybe it’s just me – I don’t go to a lot of large conferences or shows. The multi-story video screens were quite a shock. Watching a video that’s two stories tall is quite the experience.

Chevrolet had wraparound video screens. The audience felt like they were in the car and driving down the road. How fun!

Auto Show
Viper virtual reality

The virtual reality booths

Most of the biggest manufacturers had some type of virtual reality game or booth that visitors to the show could play. There were lines of folks to get a chance to drive a Viper through virtual reality.

Toyota had a Teen Driver booth where they put virtual reality goggles on the driver and the participant drove down the street trying not to hit the taxi cabs while the phone rings and the radio blares. And everyone can watch them drive on the monitor.

The models

It’s 2016 and the car companies are still hiring beautiful women to stand by the cars  in eveningwear and look, well, beautiful. In four inch heels.

Sometimes the models speak. Often they do not – they just stand there.

This year I did notice that there were some good looking guys talking about the cars as well. I didn’t see any men just standing next to a car as it twirls on the turntable. Nor did the men have on formal wear, sport tank tops, or uncomfortable shoes.

I never understood the need for a model to stand by a car. Is the car not beautiful enough to be alone? I guess if the women, or man, is explaining the features of the car, that makes a bit more sense.

It’s a tradition.

This little car in the Toyota booth

Auto Show
Toyota IRoad car

There are lots of cool concept cars in the show. I thought this one was very neat. It’s a two-seater, has three wheels, and leans into the turns like a motorcycle.

That’s the top coolest things I saw at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Did you go to the show? What was your favorite?

 

 

Getting around Denver, Colorado

Denver16thStreetMallAre you planning a trip to Denver? I’m going to a conference here in the city later this month. For folks not familiar with how to get around this area, here are some tips.

  • You don’t hail cabs in Denver. You call them and wait for them to come to you. The hotel may have a taxis at the stand – or not. Uber and Lyft are very popular here. You can also use a car sharing service such as ZipCar.

    Bike Rental


  • Denver was also one of the first cities to have bikes to rent – B cycle . You can rent a bike for $9 for 24 hours at any B Cycle station – but you must have a credit card. These stations are all over the city – you can rent at one and return at another.
  • In downtown, use the 16th Street Mall Shuttle to get around. It’s free and goes from 16th and Broadway all the way to the Union Station Transit Center. There’s also the light rail and traditional buses. During the week, there are plenty of trains and buses. However, on the weekends, there are often fewer buses and so time between buses is much longer. Light rail is the same, fewer trains on the weekends.

    Light Rail


  • At this time, light rail does not go to the airport. You can get around downtown, and get to some outlying areas, like the Federal Center. Light Rail is mostly used by locals to get to and from downtown for work and special events. In 2016, there will be light rail from the airport. We’re all looking forward to it! Check out RTD for routes and costs.
Denver, Colorado
Union Station, Denver, Colorado
  • Pedi-cabs are also available downtown. You can flag these down on the street and talk to each operator about the cost. These are particularly nice in the evening on the way to or from a nice dinner and show.

    Parking


  • Due to the a building boom here, many parking lots and garages have been replaced by new hotels and office buildings, so parking can be scarce during the week, not to mention expensive. Check out the Park Smart Denver lots first for the best rates. There are also garages and lots just outside the main downtown that can be much cheaper if you’re willing to walk a few blocks either to your destination or to the 16th Street Mall Shuttle.
  • Most of the garages and lots take credit and debit cards. You might check at the outlying lots just to make sure.
  • And finally, parking meters. These are all over the downtown area. They take credit and debit cards as well as Smart Cards (visitors probably don’t have these) and change. Each meter has different costs and time limits so you must read the meter! You don’t want your souvenir from Denver to be a parking ticket.

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Rifle, Colorado: A classic Colorado getaway that’s easy on the budget

Rifle Falls State Park
Rifle Falls State Park

Emerging from Glenwood Canyon, driving through yet another CDOT construction project we motored past the Hot Springs pool and kept going. I could almost smell the chlorine and sunscreen from the shiny bodies I saw through the fence as we passed by. This time our destination was not Glenwood Springs, but its closest neighbor, Rifle.

Glenwood Springs neighbor

Rifle, Colorado is about 30 miles west of Glenwood Springs along I-70. That puts it about 5 hours’ drive west of Denver. Earlier in the week, we had contemplated visiting Glenwood again, but lack of reasonable hotel rates for the summer weekend led us a bit further away. We decided it was time to visit Rifle – normally just a rest stop along I-70 for these weary travelers.

When one thinks of Rifle, Colorado what comes to mind are shoot’em up old westerns with slightly grubby cowboys snapping matches to flame for hand-rolled cigarettes, lots of cows, and bars serving whiskey. Downtown Rifle is actually quite updated, with a few relics of its old West past. However, as a nod to its name, visit the Shooter’s Grill on East 3rd Street. The wait staff carry weapons along with your burger and fries.


A local hangout


Our very nice room in Rifle was under $100 per night, including a delicious breakfast. Lucky for us, our hotel was right across the street from the Sonic, where everyone was hanging out in the early evening when we arrived. A little ice cream really helps to top off a long drive in the mountains. The next day we would play the Rifle Creek Golf Course for a very reasonable rate. We were intrigued.

Rifle Creek Golf Course

Rifle Creek Golf Course
Rifle Creek Golf Course Hole #2

RifleCreek (1 of 1)-2

Rifle Creek Golf Course
Rifle Creek Golf Course
Rifle Creek Golf Course
Rifle Creek Golf Course

We showed up the next morning, ready to hit the links. The staff at the Pro Shop were very nice, and since we’d paid earlier through GolfNow at about a 40% discount, we were ready to go. The greens fees here are very reasonable, even if you don’t get a discount at $33 for 18 holes during the week. It was a Thursday morning, and we were playing mid-morning as a twosome.

This is a great course to play, even for a high-handicapper. It’s got some beautiful views, particularly from the back 9. The course really fits well into natural landscape of the Hogback Range. We had a blast, and decided that we wanted to come back and play again.

Rifle Falls State Park

Rifle Falls
Rifle Falls

Golf isn’t the only activity we found around Rifle. Rifle Falls State Park is a well-known in the area, and everyone we met asked if we’d been there. The park is easy to find, and visiting Rifle Falls is an easy walk. Visitors can explore the caves beneath the Falls if you like dark and spooky places, complete with bats. Folks can also walk up to the top of the Falls and look out over the park, with the roar of the water in their ears. The campground seemed very full the weekend we were there, so you might need to make reservations if you want to stay.

Rifle Gap State Park

We took a drive to Rifle Gap State Park, not far from Rifle Falls. This beautiful reservoir was being enjoyed by water-skiers, visitors on jet skis, fishermen, and boats just puttering lazily around the reservoir. There was plenty of room for everyone and for a Friday, didn’t look that busy.  There’s a campground not far from the beach that didn’t look too full on this Friday afternoon. But again, I’d check and make reservations if you want to stay the weekend.

Rifle Gap State Park
Rifle Gap State Park

The Rifle Arch

Before we set off back to Denver, we scouted out the Rifle Arch trail. This hike starts out pretty tame, and quickly advances into a steep climb. Once you get to the top, it levels out again. You can see the Arch from the trail early on, the trail ending just below the Arch. You can hike through the boulder field to get up to the Arch if you have the energy. As you hike, be sure to take in the views of the Grand Mesa and the Hogback Range.

The Rifle Arch
The Rifle Arch

The hike took us about 2 hours round trip. Take water and snacks and decent hiking footwear. There are no amenities along this trail and some steep inclines. We did see families with small children hiking the trail though I’m not sure I’d bring children under the age of eight on this hike.

Find the trail by driving north on Highway 13 out of Rifle. The trailhead is on the east side of the road several miles outside of town. For more information on hiking in the Rifle area, including the Grand Mesa and the White River National Forest, visit the Rifle Information Center, 200 Lions Park Circle, Rifle, Colorado.


A surprising number of activities


Rifle really surprised us. We have traveled through and past Rifle over the past twenty years, often stopping at the rest stop but never venturing further. For those folks that prefer fewer crowds and less chlorine, plan to spend some time discovering this old West town and the surrounding area. I’m sure you’ll be surprised at the number of activities you can find to keep the family busy as well.

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Castlewood Canyon: Discover Cherry Creek

Pikes Peak
Pikes Peak

The late afternoon is warm, with the requisite clouds over Pikes Peak providing that late day storm to the top of the mountain. The pine scent is heavy – it seems much richer than any fragrance you can buy. The hummingbirds are providing their buzz, sounding like a slightly off-key piper making a weak attempt at musical scales. The path to the overlook is busy, but not with people.

Castlewood Canyon State Park is a small slice of wilderness an easy drive from the big city.  It’s just a bit over an hour’s drive south of Denver, Time stops here for the deer, fox, coyote, birds and other creatures that can handle close proximity to people. It’s a popular location for day hikers, cyclists, and rock climbers as well as families enjoying picnics overlooking the creek.

Resident of the Canyon
Resident of the Canyon

This State Park was born of disaster. In 1890, the Castlewood Canyon Dam was completed by the Denver Water Storage Company, holding back Cherry Creek. The dam leaked from the day it opened.

Once the dam was in place, homesteaders started populating the area. In 1901, the Lucas family’s application for land was approved. The family lived in an area inside what is now the park for many years. Visitors to the park can visit the original homestead and see the walls of the house near the West entry to the park.

Homestead in Castlewood Canyon
Homestead in Castlewood Canyon

In 1933, during a heavy rain the dam gave way. A wall of water 15 feet high flowed down through the Canyon and towards the town of Denver. Luckily, the dam operator made it the 12 miles to reach the nearest phone operator, who could then warn the residents downstream. The wall of water pushed into Denver down Cherry Creek, flooding streets, demolishing bridges and  causing havoc in the city.  It took months to dig out from the mud and debris, and begin repairs to roads and bridges.

The ruins of the dam.
The ruins of the dam.

The dam was never replaced. Visitors to the park today can see the remnants of the structure in the center of the park. The Creek Bottom hiking trail along Cherry Creek is where visitors can retrace the path of the flood and sit on the rocks near the waterfall. For those not so ambitious, there is a road that goes through the park, passing the top of the dam. There is a parking area for access to the Westside Trail area, picnic area and restrooms.

Castlewood Canyon State Park
Castlewood Canyon State Park

The main entrance to the park is on the East side, off Highway 83. Day passes are $7. Holders of a State of Colorado parks pass get in free. The Visitor’s Center provides an overview of the area and a short video that describes the history of the area. The rangers are very knowledgeable about the park, and can point you to the latest birding spots or trails to suit your abilities.

The Canyon Overlook trail is one of the most popular. It’s a short easy hike that ends in a gazebo and overlook. The layers of rock across the canyon are home to birds and small animals. At the bottom of the Canyon, you may see hikers following the creek around to the remains of the dam. The hummingbirds provide the background soundtrack, along with the raptors that nest in the park.

The Overlook
The Overlook

There is no overnight camping in the park, and rock climbing is reserved for a few areas in the park. The rangers can point you to the climb sites. For great views of Pikes Peak, follow Castlewood Canyon road out of the park. Dogs are welcome in the park, as long as they are kept on six-foot leashes and keep to the established trails.

The falls at Castlewood Canyon
The falls at Castlewood Canyon

The East Canyon Preservation area welcomes hikers on the established trails, but no dogs or other pets are allowed. This area is fragile.

For more information on Castlewood Canyon State Park, visit State of Colorado. For more information on the history of the dam, visit CherryCreekBasin.org for personal accounts of the night the dam failed.

 

Roadtrip to Los Angeles

Utah mountains
Utah mountains
Utah vista
Utah vista

Packing the car to the roof, stashing the pretzels and the water, and putting the maps on the floor, my son and I were ready for a road trip to the Los Angeles area.

M was moving to Glendale, California. He had rented an apartment with a friend and didn’t yet have a job. He had been working for about a year, saving his money and spending mine. Finally it was time for the big move. We were driving from our home near Denver to California via I-70 and I-15.

We left early on a Wednesday, only getting stuck once in rush hour traffic. Our trip over the Continental Divide was uneventful – though we did see the half-pipe and cross-country ski course at Vail from the highway. I can’t imagine snowboarding on that crazy thing!

After lunch in Grand Junction, we headed out across Utah. As we headed south past the National Parks, it started getting warmer and the snow disappeared. About St. George, M said he was ready to go straight through to Las Vegas to spend the night.

Pulling out the trusty smartphone, I download Hotels.com and started searching for a place to stay the night. This was a Wednesday night which is less pricey than the weekend. Hotels.com doesn’t sponsor this blog, but I got a great deal on a nice hotel on Flamingo Road. We ended up paying 29.00 for the two of us to stay at the Tuscan Suites, just down the road from the Westin. The room was large and lovely. Thanks Hotels.com!

The beach at Santa Monica
The beach at Santa Monica.

The next day, we headed into the north Los Angeles area. Our four hour drive took us through the desert, past the San Bernadino Mountains and into the Hollywood Hills. Compared to Colorado, this place was green and shiny!
We found the apartment, and with the roomate’s help, moved him in. The attraction of Southern California over the Front Range of Colorado is evident in the beautiful and warm sunny days.  We did hit some of the tourist sites before I had to fly home and return to work – the Warner’s Studio Tour and the Santa Monica Pier. What a great feeling to walk on the beach in January.

On the
On the “Friends” sofa at the Warner Brothers Studio

Since he didn’t have any furniture, I rented with AirBnB – Mama don’t sleep on the floor any more. My host was very gracious and we had a great time during the few minutes we had in the mornings and in the evenings. Thanks to AirBnB and Grace for a comfortable stay.

Now that I’m back home and cleaning out the room he left behind, I’m hoping to get back to a regular blogging schedule. Stay tuned for more tips on how to plan your vacations!

Traveler or tourist? 6 Tips for planning a vacation to Panama

Century Bridge
One of the two bridges that lead out of Panama City and into the countryside.

The gentle thumping against the window drew us out of the night. It’s raining in Panama City, which is not unusual in October. We’ve come to this  Central American country to enjoy the sun, play some golf, and explore. Flying in during the early evening, we’ve stayed in a hotel downtown to avoid driving at night from the airport. As we traveled in this country, we discovered several planning strategies to help make your trip to Panama more enjoyable. With the advent of non-stop flights between Denver and Panama City, more tourists may make the trek.

1. Be prepared with basic Spanish. English is not widely spoken or understood. Tourism is new to Panama. Aside from the Canal and Bocas del Toro, the country hasn’t been much of a vacation destination for English speakers and most folks outside of Panama City only speak basic English. In the city, those in the hospitality industry may be more fluent but our waitress in the hotel restaurant still was puzzled when I asked for unsweetened iced tea. Be prepared with some rudimentary Spanish.

2. Rent a car to explore. Transportation is problematic. Officially, taxis are pretty inexpensive in Panama City. In reality, if you don’t know what it should cost, they charge you as much as they can get away with. From the airport to downtown Panama City, legally it should be about $12.00. In reality, it costs about $30.00 for a tired, non-Spanish speaking gringo.

Traffic in Panama City
Weaving through Panama City traffic

Traffic is awful and this affects both private and public transportation. There is a country-wide bus system as well as flights to the major cities if you need to get to David or Bocas del Toro quickly. If renting a car, be prepared to drive very aggressively and take the comprehensive insurance.  The condition of the roads range from good on the major highways to challenging in the neighborhoods. While my husband drove on the side roads, I kept an eye out for potholes that would swallow the front right quarter panel. Since many roads aren`t marked or named, GPS is not very useful either in the city or in the smaller towns. There aren’t many roads outside Panama City, particularly compared to most American urban areas. A good map is as useful as any GPS.

3. Arrange excursions before leaving home. Know who you want to call when you get in country for excursions. Our experience was that businesses that catered to tourists didn’t reach out or do much advertising. For example, we stayed in Coronado, a well-known resort area. My husband was interested in learning to surf, and we knew there were several well-known surf beaches close to where we were staying. We never found any information about any surf schools in the area. The resort didn’t have any brochure racks that we saw, and we never found a tourist office in town. We did plan on a day trip to El Valle before we left, and were able to drive there and enjoy the area. If there is something you want to do during your stay, arrange it or gather the information before you leave.

Pilot boat
A pilot boat comes to pick up the pilot that maneuvered the ship through the locks

4. Be ready to shop. Stocking items that are not necessities is not high priority for Panamanians. There were no vendors on the beach, unlike the beaches in Mexico where vendors constantly approach visitors. For those of you who expect to shop for souvenirs, Coronado has many stores, but they don’t cater to tourists. We did see a couple of stores for the local artisans along the Pan American Highway, but didn’t want to stop at the time. There are also many vendors in Casco Viejo with a large variety of handmade goods.  If you plan to return home with souvenirs, shop for them when you find them. The airport has mostly stores that cater to the high-end luxury goods crowd and very few T-shirts and shot glasses.

5. Ask about wireless service when booking a hotel. We had free Wi-Fi in the Doubletree in Panama City, at our resort in Coronado, and at the Country Inn and Suites on the Canal. My research indicates that not all hotels offer Wi-Fi, some offer it and charge, and some don’t. When booking accommodations, be sure to ask.

6. Talk to your cell provider. Cell coverage is fine in the bigger cities but may be less than stellar outside the most populated areas. We didn’t use our phone for calling or data on the cell network because it was too expensive. However, T-Mobile is offering international calling and data without additional charge. Check with your cell provider to determine what charges may be incurred in country. If you absolutely must have a phone, it is easy to buy a phone and load it up with minutes. Movistar and Cable & Wireless are the major cell providers in Panama and they have outlets in all the major Panamanian cities.

Coronado Beach
Coronado Beach on a Saturday morning.

Spending  time in Panama takes a bit more planning than the traditional resort vacation to, say, Mexico. Panama  is still up-and-coming, and hasn’t focused on tourism like some of it’s neighbors. For those who prefer to explore and travel rather than visit and be served, Panama is a great vacation destination. Go, meet the people, and experience the deserted beaches and beautiful jungles. You’ll plan to go back.

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Adventures in Panama

We have just returned from a ten-day trip to Panama. We had been eyeing a golf resort near the beaches of this Central American country and finally decided to book the resort and travel there. The planning for this trip was a bit different than others we’ve taken because we knew we were going somewhere that didn’t have a great tourist infrastructure. Our first step in planning this trip was to book the resort and our transportation.

Traffic in Panama City
Weaving through Panama City traffic

After we booked our resort stay through our timeshare company, we started investigating transportation needs as well as potential side trips and excursions. Although it’s possible to take a shuttle to the resort near Coronado, about an hour’s drive from Panama City along the Pan-American Highway, we decided we would rent a car and drive ourselves. We wanted to have the freedom of moving around the area without relying on public transportation or taxis. We’ve never rented a car in a foreign country before, nor have either of us driven outside the U.S. and Canada.  We were assured the car would have a GPS system when the reservation was made.

Since we were getting into Panama City after dark, we decided to taxi into the city, and rent a car near downtown instead of at the airport. Rumor had it that traffic in Panama City is awful, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to drive at night in a strange, foreign city. This turned out to be a very good idea, and we’d do it again. We were prepared with maps of the area, and had the concierge at the hotel call the rental car agency to get the address.

Getting around Panama City is not an easy task for an outsider. The roads are jammed with many more cars than is reasonable, and there are very few street signs. It is not unusual for taxis to go the wrong way down the street. Traffic signals are grudgingly adhered to, usually. Stop signs are only suggestions. The roads in the city are decent, but unexpected potholes loom.  We took all this in on a walk after breakfast, going from our hotel and finding the rental car office a few blocks away. In fact, after checking out of our hotel, and getting a cab back to the rental car office, we found it would have been faster to walk to the office than take the cab.

Panama City traffic
A quiet time on the streets of Panama City.

In any case, we made it to the office and handled the transaction. Unfortunately, they do not offer GPS systems in their cars – contradicting the information I had received from the customer service agent I had talked with earlier. Since there were few street signs anyway, how well would a GPS system work? We were undeterred, took the LDW insurance, and after waiting about an hour for the car to arrive from the staging area a few miles away we headed out of the city. The rental agent did create a Google Map for us from the rental car office to Coronado – in Spanish of course.

Panama City is not a large city by our standards, and we managed to get to the right road, get over the Bridge of the Americas and on our way to Coronado. Once out of the city, we did fine – although we took a detour we didn’t mean to take through a town that really wasn’t that interesting. But in about 1 1/2 hours, we were at our resort and checking in.

We’ve learned a lot from this experience. It’s great to be able to control where and when you explore an area by car. In Panama, there are many cars, but not much parking. On a trip to Farallon, we would have stopped and spent time on the beach, but there was nowhere to park the car. Driving is much slower there, mostly because the roads are not great, narrow, and often don’t have shoulders. You’ve got to “go local” and drive like they do or you’ll never get anywhere.

We took the Collision Damage Waiver insurance, something we’ve actually never done before. Our car insurance doesn’t cover us outside the U.S. or Canada, and although we could have covered the LDW under our credit card, we decided to just take the rental company insurance. The car was not damaged while we had it, but the roads were not great and an unnoticed pothole could have done major damage. In fact, when we returned the car, the agent didn’t really even look at it.

This is the first in a series of articles on our trip to Panama. Stay tuned for the next installment!

TSA raises security fees on airline flights

July 21, 2014 is the day new TSA security fees go into place.  The new fees are more than double the old fees, and Homeland Security has removed the $10.00 cap on fees per round-trip.  So, now each one-way flight will cost $5.60  and it will cost $11.20 per round-trip. Keep in mind that if travelers have layovers over four hours between flight segments, the  $5.60 fee is charged again for that next segment. You can thank your friendly Congressperson for these new fees, courtesy of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.  For a complete accounting of how these fees work, visit TSA.

These new fees should change how travelers plan their flights. In the past, direct flights were always the way to go, if only for the savings on the security fees. Now, everyone pays at least $11.20 for one round-trip itinerary. The key to saving money on fees now will be limiting layovers to under four hours. If you sit on the ground for longer than that, the $5.60 fee is added to the next leg of the journey.

I don’t mind funding something that is a necessary evil, though there have been times I wonder about the effectiveness of the TSA. Anyone who has experienced TSA has stories of folks getting “contraband” through, from full size bottles of shampoo (oh the horror!)  to news reports of weapons slipping through the x-ray machines.

Hopefully this fee will help pay for training for TSA agents or upgrades to some of those airports that are in dire need. It’s hard to tell since according to the law, the receipts for the fees collected are deposited into the general fund and are not targeted to any transportation projects.

To comment on this regulation, visit www.regulations.gov. Surprisingly, there are only 471 comments as of this evening posted on the website.

Denver, Colorado and the new Union Station

On Saturday my husband, a friend, and I went downtown on the light rail to see the new Union Station makeover. It was a nice Saturday afternoon, and we headed downtown to be among the first to see the new hotel built at Union Station.

Union Station Denver
The outside of Union Station in Denver, CO
UnionS tation Inside
The interior of Union Station in Denver Colorado

Union Station in downtown Denver has been a hub of Amtrak activity for about 100 years. The California Zephyr pulls out at about 7 a.m. most days, headed West to San Francisco. If you’re headed to Chicago, the train leaves around 7 p.m., headed East. This building used to be in the worst part of town and had become neglected and avoided.

In the past few years, developers have been working  redevelop the property around the train station and create a consolidated transportation hub. They have succeeded admirably.

The refurbished train station has a Victorian charm with a current twist. The the chandeliers invoke an old-world elegance, while the new vendors work in updated spaces. This building is now a centerpiece of lower downtown, a finishing touch to the years of work rebuilding and re-imagining the City of Denver.

The Oxford Hotel
The Oxford Hotel

Within a few blocks of the train station is Coors Field, the home of the Colorado Rockies. Down the block from the front door of Union Station is the Oxford Hotel, one of the premier boutique hotels in Denver. Great restaurants and bars are also nearby, particularly if beer is your beverage of choice. Denver is home to many great breweries and we stopped at one of the most popular, the Rock Bottom Brewery on the 16th Street Mall. With a bit of the brew and some nachos consumed, we were refreshed enough to ride the mall shuttle to Union Station and head for home.

The official grand opening of the new building, including the transportation center, will be at the end of July 2014. We can’t wait to go back and join the party!

In Spain – no Spanish allowed

Villas at Abadio de los Templarios
Villas at Abadio de los Templarios

What’s it really like to participate in one of those English-language immersion programs in Spain?

I’m nervous and chilled standing outside a non-descript office building in Madrid. It’s first thing in the late November morning, and folks are gathering with their luggage and looking around wondering what we do next.  A friend and I have volunteered to be native English-speakers in an English-language immersion program in Spain, and the group of about 40 folks is gathering on this sidewalk during the Madrid commute. Soon, we board the bus and leave the big city behind for the quiet of Northwestern Spain, about an hour south of Salamanca.

As the bus smoothly moves into traffic, the directors give us the first of several sets of instructions. The most important instruction: no Spanish allowed. Although the bus is quiet now, a few moments ago the low murmur of twenty or so conversations had filled the space. Each English speaker, or Anglo, was sitting next to a Spaniard having a conversation in English. This is what we’ve volunteered to do, and being nervous or uncomfortable is not an excuse to avoid talking.Schaffer_Spain_Templarios

There are several of these volunteer programs available in Spain. Native English speakers apply to volunteer for a week at one of several different resorts around Spain. Once accepted, volunteers are required to speak English for the entire week, following the instructions and the daily program outlined by the directors. This sounded very appealing while back in my office in Colorado and now it just sounds daunting.

We arrive at the resort

After a stop near the walled city of Ávila, we arrive at Abadio de los Templarios. The group from the week before is finishing up their farewells. They seem to be so sad to leaving one another. Will our group be like that at the end of our time together? The directors gather us for room assignments and we are put two to a villa, the Anglos downstairs and the Spaniards upstairs. The villas are very nice, though not luxurious with common living quarters and separate bedroom suites. We don’t spend much time there anyway as we drop our luggage and head back to the dining room for lunch. Luckily, we already know at least one person in the group. Unluckily, for the timid among us we’re asked to sit four to a table, with someone we haven’t yet met. It’s time to get social.

Lunch is three courses with wine and by the time lunch is over folks are much more relaxed. More rules of the road are announced, including requests to be on time for meals and to have patience as everyone gets used to the program. The directors ask the Anglos to work with the Spaniards on common language errors, and to be gentle. The Spaniards look much more anxious than any of the Anglos, and they are working very hard to maintain their side of the English conversation. I can see frustration on a few faces.

The schedule

The each day starts at 9:00 in the morning with breakfast and goes nearly non-stop until about 11:00 p.m. There are a few hours break from the activity mid-day. I find myself looking forward to the late afternoon siesta for a quick nap and some downtime. It also turns out to be a good time to get to know the other Anglos in the group. Since the Anglos are always paired with Spaniards, we only spend time getting to know the other English speakers during mealtimes.

It can be as difficult for the Anglos to listen to Spanish-accented English as is it for the Spaniards to discern our English inflection. The program brings together Anglos from around the world, and in our group we’ve got folks from Britain, Wales, Australia, Canada, the U.S., and Malta. In Spain, English is taught with a British twist, so our Canadian and U.S. accents are puzzling for some of the Spaniards. As a group of English speakers, we try to speak carefully to help our new Spanish friends understand.

La Alberca Sign
La Alberca Sign

As the week progresses, we take a few field trips from the beautiful resort. The town of La Alberca is a short walk away, and we spend an afternoon there learning about small-town Spanish life and the famous “jamon” (ham) of the area. We’re all getting much more comfortable with each other, and the nerves are receding. Sitting in the town square having coffee in the warm November sunshine, the group watches the community pig snuffle around the table for a handout, and then the owner of the café shoos the pig away. After the stress of the first couple of days, it’s fun to unwind in town.

Our own brand of crazy

After the first few “one-on-one” conversations, we’re all starting to enjoy the process. No one could have convinced me before I got here that one could speak to an emerging English speaker for an hour and not have many awkward silences. We talk about our families, our work and jobs, and the Spanish economy. Conversations flow about online classes, gathering mushrooms, what it’s like to live in the U.S, and the best shopping in Madrid. The Anglos huddle to come up with an explanation of the idiom “to be cheeky.” Members of the group do funny skits, play games, and tell stories into the night. The Spaniards are required to prepare and present two different talks during the week, and the Anglos spend time with each presenter perfecting their English to sound as natural as possible.

By the end of the week, we’re like a crazy family. The Spanish women have taught several Anglos the Sevillanas, a local folk dance. Our resident guitar player has entertained us during breaks and parties with traditional Spanish ballads. Our new friends arranged for a trip to the top of a nearby mountain to visit a centuries-old monastery during a siesta, rounding up enough cars and drivers. And a small group played hooky just long enough to buy some jamon from the best butcher in the area. We gathered between activities at the fireplace to warm up when it was cold and rainy. We truly bonded.

The week was a grand success. Those of us who were anxious forgot our fears. As we laughed with our friends through the final skit of the program, we were sad that it had to end. Spaniards started to realize that they really did understand the Anglos much better by the end of the week. One of the Spaniards mentioned that as he packed to leave, he realized that he had actually heard and understood the English-language songs coming over the radio. Invitations to visit families flew around.

Wrap-up

The next morning, we all gathered to say our goodbyes to those driving home and climbed on the bus for the trip back to Madrid. Back on the sidewalk in Madrid we all said good-bye one more time and headed off to our next adventure. Between the photo-sharing sites, social networking, and email we’ll keep in touch and remember our week of “no Spanish allowed.”

Want to volunteer as an English speaker in Spain? Contact Diverbo or Vaughn Town to apply for their programs. Your resort stay is free and transportation is provided to and from Madrid.