Bionaz, Aosta Valley, Italy

Aosta Valley, Italy: Hike to the Lovely, Remote Lac Long

One of the beautiful things about living in the age of the internet is google maps. When we arrived in Pollein, a small village in Aosta Valley off the official route of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), we didn’t really have a hike for our time there. Researching hikes for the TMB is fairly easy given its popularity. However, we weren’t exactly sure where we would want to hike for our one free full day in Pollein. My resourceful father did what he always does: he got out his laptop, put in google maps and zoomed in on the mountains. Then he cross-referenced the location with an amazing interactive map of the TMB and beyond  and by zooming in to Aosta Valley, he discovered a series of high alpine lakes in the municipality of Bionaz near the Swiss border about an hour’s drive northeast of Pollein. Lac Long and Lac Mort captured our attention and that would be our hike.

We set off on a glorious summer day heading north through the nostalgic Italian countryside and then climbing up through the winding roads leading to Bionaz, a remote agricultural community that runs along the Buthier River where the Aosta Valley meets Switzerland. We ventured through some of the most pristine alpine scenery and villages we’d seen so far on our trip and I longed to have more time to spend there to explore.

After about 55 minutes we arrived at the end of the road, at the Dam at the Place-Moulin. We were surrounded by the high peaks of the Alps and the ribbons of glaciers that feed the gorgeous aquamarine high alpine lakes throughout the valley. Our hike would begin at the stunning Lac de Place-Moulin and continue on up to Lac Mort.

Lago di Place-Moulin, Bionaz, Aosta Valley, Italy

Arriving at the dam at Lago di Place-Moulin, one of the highest dams in Europe at an elevation of 6,500 ft/1928 m

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Pollein Aosta Italy

Living like Locals in the Italian Village of Pollein

We left Courmayeur and headed slightly off the route of the official Tour de Mont Blanc, moving roughly 30 miles east to Aosta, Italy. My dad wanted to show us something special and had booked us three small rooms at a locally-run bed and breakfast in the mountain-side village of Pollein, about a ten-minute drive outside of Aosta. He had been to Aosta several times before and had always loved the beautiful town. However, on a whim, he decided to try a tiny, family-run hotel called Lo Teisson because the place looked charming and the price for three rooms was what we’d get for one tiny room in trendy, touristy Aosta.

We left after our excursion to the top of Monte Bianco on another gorgeous sunny day in the Alps, passing through tunnel after tunnel beneath the rocky alpine landscape until coming out at last in the Aosta Valley. As we navigated our way via google maps to Pollein, I started to feel a bit hesitant and unsure of exactly where we were going. Instead of driving into another beautiful Italian city with sidewalks, outdoor cafes, luxurious shops, and restaurants, we were heading into rural farmland. I had no idea what to expect.

After a couple twists and turns in the road, we wound up on Località Dregier, the one small road leading through the heart of Pollein and arrived to the warm, gracious smile of Viviana Filippini who runs the hotel with her family. Vivana told me her grandfather had once had a farm on this land and it was always a dream of her mother Nives to someday convert the property into a bed and breakfast.

In the 1940s, Nives father purchased the farm and raised cows in the stable that today has been converted into the hotel. The beautiful breakfast room was where the livestock lived and the family lived in the other half of the house facing the street. As a little girl, Nives remembers her mother baking all the time and neighbors passing by on the main street, stopping to chat and share a cup of coffee and her mother’s sweets. That memory is what sparked her dream of building a family-run bed and breakfast, serving freshly-baked goods just like her mother and giving visitors a taste of what life is like in a tiny Italian village.

Pollein, Aosta Italy

Heading into Pollein, down its one main street

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Skyway Monte Bianco, Courmayeur Italy

On Top of the Skyway Monte Bianco

On our last day in Courmayeur, we decided to take in the stunning surroundings of the Alps from the top of the Skyway Monte Bianco. Opened in 2015, the Skyway Monte Bianco whisks passengers up to the top of Punta Helbronner at 3466 meters/11371 feet where you can get a bird’s eye view of the entire Mont Blanc Massif. After two days of hiking in Courmayeur’s two valleys, Val Ferret and Val Vény along the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), I wanted to show my son from high up above where we had been and where we were headed over the next week hiking along the TMB. We also planned to go to the top of Aiguille du Midi on the French side at the end of our trip when we were in Chamonix.

The “Road to the Sky” as they call it, is not cheap. Round trip tickets start at 52E for adults and 28E for children under 17. Then it is an additional 31 E to take the Panoramic Mont Blanc from Punta Helbronner to Aiguille du Midi, and another fee on the French side to continue down to Chamonix. Since we were short on time, we decided to only take the cable car to Punta Helbronner and back. However, as soon as we lifted off into the clouds and saw the sensational scenery around us, we realized it was worth every euro to ride up to the top of the sky.

Skyway Monte Bianco, Courmayeur Italy

Views along the ride up

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Golden Gate Bridge Drive

Exploring the Marin Headlands of San Francisco’s Bay Area

Early in August, we set off for our annual family summer trip and chose to spend a week exploring Northern California. We have been to San Diego and Southern California many times and have all loved it. This time, we thought we’d enjoy exploring the northern coast and the Bay Area.

With ten days to plan, it wasn’t hard filling up our time and were able to do a wide variety of things that pleased everyone in our family of four. From hiking the mystical Marin Headlands, to getting lost within the towering giant redwoods of John Muir’s famous quotes, and being mesmerized in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there was plenty of nature, culture, and togetherness for our family.

Over the course of nine days, we began our trip in Marin County moving next down the coast to Monterey and finishing up our journey in San Francisco for two days before flying home. It was a wonderful vacation filled with beauty and adventure.

With so much to do and see in the area, it can be a bit overwhelming to make the most of your stay. Here are some tips on what to do and see in the Marin Headlands before heading south down the coast.

First stop: Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point

After arriving at the San Francisco International Airport, we got our luggage, rented a car and headed 20 miles north on Highway 280 to the Marin Headlands across the bay from San Francisco. It was our first taste of real California traffic and we were quite thankful that we were heading into town in the middle of the day as opposed to rush hour.

After crossing the glorious Golden Gate Bridge in full fog, we pulled over at the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point on the edge of the craggy Marin Headlands overlooking the bay. Although it was quite busy, we had no problem waiting for a car to pull out and grab the spot. This is where we took our first photo of this iconic landmark graced in fog.

Golden Gate Bridge

Our first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. My daughter smiles proudly. 

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Focus on the Bay Area with Jane Lurie Photography

One of the best things about blogging is the people you met along the way. Over the years I’ve been really fortunate to have met a lot of wonderful people through my blog who have inspired me deeply and have helped me plan my own travels to new places. When we began planning our family trip out to Northern California I knew I’d have to reach out to one of my favorite photographers in the Bay Area, Jane Lurie, for some advice on where to go and what to see. I have been following Jane’s beautiful photography blog for years and I love her inspiring work. No one knows how to capture the Bay Area and Northern California better than Jane.

Jane gave me some ideas on where to go, and while we were in California I realized how difficult it truly is to capture such a stunning place on film. We were there in early August which is normally quite foggy in the along the northern coast. I have never shot in fog before so it was quite a challenge. A few of my photos came out alright (which I will show later in another post) however I realized what a true art it is work with varying light and fog.  I knew instantly that I’d have to contact Jane and find out how she does it so beautifully. I also wanted to learn more about the woman behind Jane’s Lens so I invited her to do an interview with me. Here is what she had to say.

How long have you lived in the Bay Area? Where are you originally from?

I’ve lived in San Francisco for five years and part-time for ten. I grew up in New Jersey and worked in the education field there throughout my career. Then, my husband Bob and I lived near Charleston, South Carolina on Kiawah Island for many years before moving to San Francisco.

“Day is Done”. Photo credit: Jane Lurie

When did you learn photography?

I have been interested in photography for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I proudly created photo albums with pictures from my little Kodak Instamatic and received my first “big” camera, a Minolta DSLR, in high school. I always had that camera with me taking photos of my friends and family. I studied photography and darkroom early on and continued when I switched to digital photography after my career in the education field ended.

I currently enjoy courses at SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute)— the photography department, by the way, was founded by Ansel Adams – a lifelong inspiration.

“Fog and Trees”. Photo credit: Jane Lurie

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Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

A Taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc: Hike in Val Vény, Courmayeur

After an incredible first hike along our taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) into Courmayeur’s Val Ferret, we were thrilled to be doing our second hike in her neighbor, Val Vény. Val Vény is a pastoral valley of the Mont Blanc massif, that like Val Ferret lies southwest of Courmayeur. Val Vény was formed by two glaciers, the Miage Glacier and the Brenva Glacier which literally cut off the valley like an island by two massive moraine walls of the glaciers on each side. Val Vény is quite a magnificent place to hike.

After a filling breakfast of local cheese, cotta ham and fruit, we headed out to grab the local bus in the direction of Val Vény. This time we rode in the opposite direction of Val Ferret and followed the bus through yet another winding path inching us through the lush wide valley. About twenty minutes later, we reached the end of the line and got off at a tiny hamlet called La Visaille.

From La Visaille, we crossed a bridge and began our hike down a wide path sliced within a valley to the Rifugio Elisabetta, another stop along the TMB. It was another postcard-perfect day and I couldn’t have felt more alive. There is something about hiking and being surrounded by mountains that always makes my heart sing.

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Arriving at the start of the hike in La Visaille

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

The start of the hike is breathtaking and gives you an idea of the treasure that awaits.

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Approaching Lac Combol

Val Veny, Courmayeur Italy

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

My dad and son

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

Me and Max

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

A rifugio along the TMB

Val Veny, Courmayeur, Italy

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Val Ferret Courmayeur Italy

A Taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc: A Hike in Val Ferret, Courmayeur

Our first hike along our taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) was in the Val Ferret, one of two breathtaking valleys that cut through Courmayeur, Italy on the southeastern side of Mont Blanc. Known as one of the most stunning hikes in the area, especially if blessed with good weather, hiking in Val Ferret would set the tone of what would be a stunning eight full days of hiking around the TMB and leave me longing to go back.

We rose early to one of many mouth-watering, gorgeous mornings in the Alps. The sky was cloudless and eggshell blue and the view of the towering, snow-capped jagged Graian Alps pierced through the sky like lightning. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of fresh Italian parma ham, local cheese, homemade bread, and sweets before lacing up our hiking boots and heading out.

Courmayeur, Italy

View right outside my hotel window in Courmayeur, Italy

Although we had rented a car for the week, our hotel recommended taking the bus to the start of our hike since parking is difficult on busy weekends in the summer. With our backpacks ready to go and a picnic lunch of fresh Italian baguette, local cotta ham, tomatoes, and Piave cheese, we set off. We caught the bus at the city hall (Municipio) stop located a few short blocks from our hotel in the direction of Val Ferret.

As we left Courmayeur, it was obvious that the rest of the fully packed bus was also heading to the Val Ferret for a hike. The thirty-minute ride was filled with fellow trekkers from all around the world, sharing stories of their routes and experience on the TMB. It was fun to chat and compare notes, and I especially was excited to meet fellow women older than me partaking in the tour self-guided. Everyone was filled with smiles and laughter. Obviously, their souls were happy and fulfilled from the fresh mountain air and stunning views afforded along the TMB. It made me even more excited to start our day and do our first hike.

The bus drove through a winding valley road and we got off at the stop marked Rifugio Bonatti where we would access the trail.

The air was fresh and pure, and as soon as I was off the bus and on the trail, I felt alive with excitement and anticipation for our day. I was in my element, and all I could think of was the famous John Muir quote: “The mountains are calling and I must go”.

 hike to Val Ferret Courmayeur Italy

Heading off into Val Ferret

 hike to Val Ferret Courmayeur Italy

Sensational views like this are common on a lovely day in Val Ferret

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Hiking in Val Ferret, Courmayeur Italy

Two Days in Courmayeur

Tucked within two valleys, the Val Ferret and Val Veny on the southeastern side of Mont Blanc in the Aosta Valley of Italy lies the lovely alpine town of Courmayeur. Known for its divine scenery and proximity to three iconic long-distance hikes, Courmayeur is the perfect place to base your stay for exploring its stunning alpine scenery.

Courmayeur is actually a series of small hamlets peppered throughout the valley with a historic central village within the heart. Linked by both a tunnel and (for the more stunning view) a cable car to its counterpart, Chamonix, on the other side of Mont Blanc in France, Courmayeur offers a great mountain holiday any time of year.

Before the opening of the 11.6 kilometer-long tunnel in 1965, Courmayeur was relatively small and isolated. Today Courmayeur is known as one of the best ski resort towns in the Alps as well as a wonderful base for hiking, biking and exploring the divine beauty of the Italian Alps.

Why Go

When dreaming about an idyllic European town, Courmayeur is just what comes to mind. Courmayeur is a charming town awash in history, quaintness and ethereal beauty. It’s pedestrian-friendly walking streets are filled with lovely shops and boutiques, and a multitude of open-air cafes and restaurants that dazzle any foodie. Her lovely stone villas and glorious architecture all set against the sensational backdrop of the Italian Alps make Courmayeur the perfect place to base your stay for the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) or for those who want to refuel and relax in a lovely intimate Italian town.

Courmayeur, Italy

View right outside my hotel window in Courmayeur, Italy

Courmayeur, Italy

View from our hotel down Viale Mont Bianco one of the main streets into town.

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Hike to Lac Blanc in Chamonix

A Taste of the Tour de Mont Blanc

Known as one of the greatest multi-day treks in the world, the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) is a circular tour of 105 miles/170 kilometers around the mighty Mont Blanc massif traversing three countries – Italy, Switzerland and France, over the course of 10-12 days. Passing through some of the most divine high alpine scenery on earth, the TMB is one of the most stunning multi-day treks of all and is a dream for many avid trekkers.

Ever since my dad and I did the lesser-known Tour de Vanoise back in 2012 (located in Savoie, the eastern Rhône-Alpes region of France), I had dreamed of doing the popular TMB.  My father too had wanted to complete some of the TMB after scaling Mount Blanc in 1998. Thankfully, the opportunity finally arrived this summer and better yet, it would be not with two generations of trekkers but three.

On July 4th, my father, 14-year-old son and I left for a ten-day intergenerational hiking trip to Mont Blanc, devising our own Tour de Mont Blanc to fit our needs. Armed with maps, internet resources, and guide books, we set off and had a magnificent time. I learned a lot along the way about what works and what can be improved with planning your own Tour de Mont Blanc. Here is what I discovered and my thoughts on planning your own Taste of Mont Blanc.

Tour de Mont Blanc

My dad, me and my son on our own Tour de Mont Blanc.

Why Go

At 15,771 feet (4807 m), the mighty snow-capped Mount Blanc soars 12,000 feet (3700 m) over Chamonix, dominating the region and controlling the weather in all the surrounding valleys. As the masterpiece of the Mont Blanc massif, an area measuring 29 miles (46 km) long graced with numerous peaks and aiguilles, jaw-dropping sheer rock walls, ridges and tumbling glaciers, the TMB is known as one of the most stunning multi-day treks in the world.

What makes Mont Blanc even more unique is her incredible location at the crossroads of three European countries – France, Italy and Switzerland – giving the trekker a unique cultural experience as well as extraordinary views. Two distinct towns converge below Mont Blanc: Courmayeur (Italy), and Chamonix (France). Given its high elevation, with 11 summits measuring over 13,123 (4000 m), most of the surrounding area is snow and ice-covered with glaciers pouring down the steep mountain-sides creating a magical, breathtaking scenery that delights the eyes and fills the soul.

If you have one long-distance trek to do on your bucket list, then the TMB is the one for you.

Tour de Mont Blanc Val Veny, Italy

With stunning views like this on the hike through Val Veny in Italy, the TMB will never disappoint.

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Hiking in Aosta Valley, Italy

The Power of Intergenerational Travel: Me, My Dad and Son Hike Around Mont Blanc

It was yet another beautiful day hiking in the Alps. The sky was a robin’s egg blue dotted with powderpuff clouds. A gentle breeze kissed my face and the stunning scenery of the Alps made me continually want to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all just a dream. It was our third day of hiking during a ten day intergenerational hiking trip around Mont Blanc. So far our trip could not have been more surreal.

As my dad and son climbed up the steep path leading us higher and higher above the dazzling aquamarine Moulin Dam far below, all I could think about was the reward for our efforts. A view of the legendary Lac Mort, a high alpine ice-covered lake at 2843 meters (9327 feet) above the Aosta Valley on her perch in the Italian Alps. But then, after two hours of hiking and only twenty minutes to go to our destination, the wind began to change. We could see a series of rain-laden clouds off in the distance over the Aosta Valley. I checked the radar and knew we would be fine however my dad grew nervous. He had been caught in a ravaging thunderstorm atop a mountain before and swore he’d never do it again. He wanted to turn back.

Hike in Aosta Valley to Lac Long

My son and dad on the long hike up from the glorious Moulin Dam to Lac Long

We had just reached the first of two alpine lakes, Lac Long, and it was stunning. It would only take another twenty minutes to reach Lac Mort but my dad said we couldn’t go. An argument brewed because I hate to not complete a hike especially when I knew we could make it before the rain. But I had to respect my dad’s decision despite my displeasure and disappointment. Upset, we turned around and headed back without ever seeing the prize.

Me and my son Max at Lac Long in Aosta, Italy

We were painfully close to the prize destination

I didn’t talk for the next hour of the hike down to the car and purposely held back on my pace letting my dad and son go ahead. Yet it was at that moment when I fully realized the true beauty and power of intergenerational travel.

From a distance, I observed and listened to my dad and teenage son talk about life, the world, their hopes and dreams. Slowly my disappointment and anger eased and instead a deep sense of gratitude grew. For this is what it is all about and why it is so incredibly meaningful to travel as family. This unburdened time together in the middle of nowhere. Sharing our common love of nature and mountains, creating bonds that somehow are often harder to create at home. It is magical and priceless.

 

My Dad and son talking away

Me and Max

The trip ended up being all I had hoped for and more. It gave me precious time to reconnect with my teenage son, spend more time with my dad and realize what an incredible gift all of these priceless memories are. I look forward to sharing my stories in the upcoming months and reliving the beauty of not only the Alps but of spending sacred time with family. Stay tuned.

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Natural Habitat Adventures

Natural Habitat Adventures Paves the Way in Eco-Tourism and Wildlife Conservation

As the desire for up close and personal wildlife tours increases, concerns have grown about how to help protect animals in the wild especially in the face of climate change, irresponsible wildlife encounters, and an increase in poaching of certain species. Thankfully the demand for ethical wildlife tourism is on the rise and Natural Habitat Adventures, a global leader in responsible nature travel is helping pave the way.

Since 1985, Natural Habitat Adventures has been a leader in sustainable adventure travel and ecotourism.  From polar bear tours in Churchill to small-group Galapagos cruises, Natural Habitat Adventure’s journeys reveal the planet’s most extraordinary nature destinations. As the world’s first 100-percent carbon-neutral travel company and the conservation travel partner of World Wildlife Fund, Natural Habitat Adventures offers eco-conscious expeditions from Antarctica to Zambia with a multitude of adventures in between.

I had the opportunity to interview Court Whelan PhD, Natural Habitat Adventures’ Director of Sustainability and Conservation, and here is what he had to say.

When were you founded, by who and why?

Natural Habitat Adventures was founded in 1985 by Ben Bressler, with the intent to bring ecotourism to places where economic infusion could help make habitats and wildlife worth more alive than harvested as resources.

As a young boy, Ben spent endless time exploring nature right out in his backyard in suburban New Jersey. Though Ben had no idea then that his life’s work would take him to the planet’s most far-flung wild places, he discovered early on the life-enhancing power of exploring nature. And his experiences would spark something bigger: the inspiration for a nature travel company that would become his life’s work and a global leader in conservation travel.

Natural Habitat Adventure’s (Nat Hab) first trip was to see baby harp seals (“whitecoats”) on the ice floes in Quebec. We worked in collaboration with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The idea was to replace seal-hunting dollars with seal-watching dollars, supporting the local economy by taking tourists to view and photograph adorable furry white baby seals instead of clubbing them for their pelts. The approach synched with the newly emerging concept of ecotourism. In 1989, Nat Hab expanded further with brown bear viewing at Alaska’s Brook Falls, small-ship voyages in the Galapagos Islands and mountain gorilla safaris in Rwanda.

Emerging as a global leader in responsible nature travel, Nat Hab earned an alliance with World Wildlife Fund. Establishing an innovative partnership in 2003, Nat Hab became WWF’s conservation travel partner, adopting the tag line “Discovering Our Planet Together” in a shared mission to explore and protect the world’s wildest places.

Natural Habitat Adventures

Photo credit: Sean Beckett

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Travel Guide to “Go Slow” in Caye Caulker, Belize

After an exhilarating time exploring the wild jungles and mysterious Mayan ruins on mainland Belize, it was time to soak up some surf and sun on one of Belize’s many cayes (islands). I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end my wonderful week in Belize than in Caye Caulker. Located roughly 21 miles northeast of Belize City, Caye Caulker is one of 400 cayes along Belize’s 180-mile long coastline and after Ambergris Caye is the second most visited. However, don’t let her popularity fool you. This tiny island offers island and ocean loving travelers a wonderful refuge to swing away lazy afternoons in a hammock or take an adventure of a lifetime swimming with nurse sharks and sting rays in the nearby Belize Barrier Reef. Best of all, Caye Caulker still has retained her laid-back island charm despite the upswing in tourism. Whether a few days or a week, there is plenty of things to do in Caye Caulker. Check out my guide on how to go slow, as the locals say,  in Caye Caulker.

Caye Caulker, Belize

The motto in Caye Caulker is “Go Slow” and after a few days on this lovely, tropical paradise you will easily slip into this mentality.

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