Mer de Glace, Chamonix

A Panoramic Hike Along the Grand Balcon Nord to the Mer de Glace in Chamonix

After our sensational ride up to the top of Aiguille du Midi, it was time to board the gondola and head back down to the Plan de l’Aiguille (2317 m/7,602 ft) for our afternoon hike. The day before we had hiked to the top of Le Brévent across the valley from Mont Blanc, we wanted to spend our second day hiking in Chamonix along the stunning panoramic Grand Balcon Nord on Mont Blanc. This high alpine trail can either start at the top of Montenvers (you can take a train ride up) or you can begin as we did at the Plan de l’Aiguille (the first gondola stop on the way up to the top of Aiguille du Midi. The 6.1 kilometer hike zigzags along the side of Mont Blanc affording stunning views of the surrounding Alps and even Mont Blanc if you begin from the Montenvers/Mer de Glace direction.

We boarded the gondola at Aiguille du Midi and were taken down in roughly ten minutes to a much more pleasant temperature. It was freezing up top at Aiguille du Midi as we were mostly covered in the clouds with a fierce wind blowing off the peak of Mont Blanc. I am glad we weren’t strapping on a pair of crampons and hiking up there!

Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix

Aiguille du Midi, Chamonix

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Mont Blanc Aiguille du Midi

Take a ride with me to the top of Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix

Getting to the top of Aiguille du Midi to catch a glimpse of Mont Blanc was without a question a must do experience when we were hiking in Chamonix this past summer. Roughly 21 years ago, my own dad summited this mighty beast being one of the thousands who attempt to climb Mont Blanc every year. Given the three-generational trip, it seemed fitting to show my 14-year-old son the top of the peak his grandfather conquered and I was equally as curious to see it for myself.

After hiking to the top of Le Brévent across the valley from Mont Blanc, we decided to spend our second day hiking in Chamonix along the stunning panoramic Grand Balcon Nord on Mont Blanc. This high alpine trail can either start at the top of Montenvers (you can take a train ride up) or you can begin as we did at the Plan de l’Aiguille (the first gondola stop on the way up to the top of Aiguille du Midi. The 6.1 kilometer hike zigzags along the side of Mont Blanc affording stunning views of the surrounding Alps and even Mont Blanc if you begin from the Montenvers/Mer de Glace direction.

After we purchased our gondola tickets, we learned that it is most economical to purchase a multi-day gondola pass. You can purchase 1,2, 3 or 6 day passes on the Mont Blanc MultiPass which covers all 8 areas in the Mont Blanc Massif (even including the train ride up to Montenvers). It is a great deal and a must-have as you will certainly want to ride as many gondolas as possible to get all of the incredible views. Best of all, it is unlimited so you can hop on and off taking time off your hike or else just ride the gondola up to get some photos if the weather is nice. Despite our mistake in not purchasing the multi-day pass from the start, we did get our money’s worth over the next two days in Chamonix.

Map of Mont Blanc. Map credit: Mont Blanc Natural Resort

Our plan of attack for the day was to first ride the gondola all the way to the top of Aiguille du Midi (3842 m/12,605 ft) for magnificent high alpine views of Mont Blanc, and then to continue back down to the midway point at Plan de l’Aiguille (2317 m) where we would get off and begin our hike along the Grand Balcon Nord to Montenvers.

As we began our ascent, the sky was a robin’s egg blue with a few white fluffy clouds hovering about. The day seemed to be much better than the day before when we were hiking at Le Brévent in a thick layer of irritating fog. Since this was the prized view we were desperately waiting to see we hoped the fog wasn’t going to jeopardize our chance of seeing Mont Blanc up close.

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Roman Theater in Amman

Arriving in Amman, Jordan: Jetlag, Culture Shock and Fascination

Walking through the hot, sultry streets of Al Balad in the heart of Amman, feels like an assault again the senses. The smell of a potpourri of spices tickled my nose while my eyes danced around the endless array of shops in every direction. Colorful handmade embroidered dresses called thobes dangled from the open storefront walls. Plastic China-made toys scrambled across the already congested sidewalk pavement. Giant fabric buckets of frankincense, dates, olives, and figs baked in the hot afternoon sun while cars sped by stopping abruptly if a pedestrian dared to cross the street in a city without any noticeable crosswalks. The sound of cars honking, the dance of Arabic words and the distant call to prayer by the Muezzin reminded me that I was in a place unlike anywhere I’d ever been before.  It was my first day in Jordan and I was struck with some serious culture shock.

I had arrived at the ultra-modern newly renovated Queen Alia International Airport only eight hours earlier after almost 24 hours of travel from my home in Minnesota to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I recall landing at almost midnight in the blackness of the night wondering where on earth I was. I had never been to the Middle East before and the suspense would have to wait a few more hours until sunrise to see what it was all about.

I was met by a driver from my hotel and was instantly welcomed into the Jordanian culture of warmth and hospitality. Despite my fatigue, we talked the entire thirty-minute drive to the hotel and I received my first introduction to the welcoming, open culture of Jordan. I checked in at the Grand Palace Hotel close to one in the morning, fell into a deep, luxurious sleep and rose with a start by seven. It was my first day in Jordan and I didn’t want to waste a minute sleeping (even though my body would have preferred it).

By nine o’clock I was met at the hotel by my hired local driver and guide for the day, Mustafa. Although I could have done the tour of Amman by myself, I preferred to hire a local to bring me around and introduce me to Amman. As a middle-aged solo Western woman traveler, I felt more comfortable traveling with a guide, even though Jordan is an extremely safe country.  Whether or not it mattered was hard to say as a few other women in my group had done the exact same itinerary as me on their own without ever feeling uncomfortable. Since I tend to be directionally challenged at times and often get lost, it just felt more relaxed to have a local showing me the way.

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If only the sun had come out.

Chamonix, France: Hike to the glorious Le Brévent

On our first full day in Chamonix, we opted for a shorter hike as the weather was unfortunately overcast and foggy. Despite knowing that the views would not be perfect, we decided to take the gondola lift up to Planpraz and then follow the steep hike up to the top of Le Brévent, which affords stunning views of the glaciers surrounding Mont Blanc. If only the weather had cooperated, this would have been an absolutely stellar hike and I deeply regret not taking the cable car back up for some photos on a clear day before we left Chamonix. Regardless, if you have three days in Chamonix, visiting the top of Le Brévent is a must as it gives you an incredible appreciation and perspective of not only the entire Chamonix Valley but of the Tour de Mont Blanc itself. On top of Le Brévent, you will delight in panoramic 360-degree views of it all and it will truly blow you away, even in the clouds.

To reach the start of the hike, you have a few options. You can hike the entire thing which would take roughly five hours one way or you can ride the cable car to Planpraz  (the station is located walking distance from town) up to 2000 m/6,562 feet, and then begin your hike up to Le Brévent at 2525 m/8284 feet. Once on top of Le Brévent, the options are endless as you connect up with the Tour de Mont Blanc and can hike from there toward Lac Blanc or Les Houches. For us, we simply went to admire the incredible panoramic view of Mont Blanc.

Chamonix, France

We purchased our tickets and learned after the fact that it is most economical to purchase a multi-day gondola pass. You can purchase 1,2, 3 or 6 day passes on the Mont Blanc MultiPass which covers all 8 areas in the Mont Blanc Massif. It is a great deal and a must-have as you will certainly want to visit the famous Mer de Glace and the Aiguille du Midi while you are in Chamonix. Best of all, it is unlimited so you can hop on and off taking time off your hike or else just ride the gondola up to get some photos if the weather is nice.

For our hike, we chose to do the route on the lefthand side of the map. Some hikers go behind Le Brévent to continue along the Tour de Month Blanc while others continue on towards La Flégère and Lac Blanc. Unfortunately, our timing was off as they were updating the Flégère gondola so we were not able to easily reach Lac Blanc from Chamonix. Instead, it was a full day of hiking (which ended up being the best hike of our entire trip).

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Highlights of an Extraordinary Week in the Magical Kingdom of Jordan

You’re going where”? I often got from confused friends and family when I told them I had booked a week-long adventure to Jordan this past October. “Do you mean Jordan, Minnesota or Jordan the country” was another bemused response to my statement. “I’m going to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”, I proclaimed with excitement and pride at how adventurous those words sounded as they escaped my mouth. “You know, the royal kingdom located in the Middle East who became famous for its American-born Queen Noor, Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum, and of course the ancient city of Petra which is now one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. That is the Jordan I’m visiting, and I’m going with an adventure travel company called Intrepid” I finished to either silence or awkward stares. “Is it safe” was another common question I received.

Telling my family and friends that I was going to Jordan was a huge awakening for me as I realized at that very moment how little people know about this mystical place, including myself. After a week’s adventure spent camping with the Bedouins in the desert of the Wadi Rum, exploring the incredible treasures of Petra, wandering through the ancient Roman ruins of Amman and Jerash, questioning my religion (or lack thereof) at Madaba and the Spring of Moses, and floating in the Dead Sea, I realized that there is so much more to Jordan than I ever dreamed of and wondered when I could ever get back to see more.

Jordan is simply extraordinary and trying to experience it all in a week’s time is truly difficult. However, if you plan your time wisely it can be done. It also helps to have an experienced, sustainable adventure travel company like Intrepid Travel plan it for you. Regardless of which way you choose to see Jordan, there are several “must-see and must-do” experiences that you need to add to your visit. Here is a list of my top highlights of what to do in one spellbinding week in Jordan.

My Bedouin Friend

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Chamonix: The Most Beautiful Town at the Heart of Mont Blanc

It was perhaps a bit serendipitous that we chose to spend the last four days of our Tour de Mont Blanc in the glorious mountain town of Chamonix in France. For it was here, back in the summer of 1966 that my dad made that fateful call to my mother, resulting in their marriage a few weeks later in Switzerland. My dad had been backpacking through Europe with a fraternity brother and was only a month or so into the trip when he arrived in Chamonix, saw the stunning beauty of Mont Blanc and realized that he couldn’t be there without his favorite girl. My mother flew to Europe with all the money she had which wasn’t much, met my dad and they were married at the town hall in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

That story had been told to me over and over again throughout the years, and I finally got to see Chamonix and Mont Blanc for myself when I was thirteen years old on our first family trip to Europe. I don’t remember much about Chamonix however I do remember riding the train up to see the Mer de Glace and being absolutely taken away by its beauty and scale.

I returned to Chamonix again in my late 20s on a ski trip with my family and a few years later brought with my husband to show him this special place. My father even scaled Mont Blanc when he was about my age which after seeing it in person is quite an impressive feat. Fondue dinners, stunning vistas of glaciers and of course Mont Blanc are always the nostalgic memories that come to mind when dreaming about Chamonix. So you can imagine the utter joy I felt at ending our Tour de Mont Blanc in this glorious place and for introducing my son to Mont Blanc. I could hardly wait to see if he would be as smitten by its beauty and mystique as the rest of my family.

The Alps in flight

Flying over the Alps on our flight to Geneva

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Champex-Lac, Switzerland

Our Black Diamond Hike to the Top of La Breya in Champex-Lac, Switzerland

After our beautiful drive through the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass in Switzerland, we headed to the traditional Swiss town of Champex-Lac to meet up again with the Tour de Mont Blanc. Champex-Lac is one of the most idyllic Swiss mountain villages I’ve ever seen as it is surrounded by a beautiful lake with the magnificent Alps towering above in nearly every direction. Nestled in the French-speaking Canton of Valais, Champex-Lac is the perfect place to linger and spend a day or two soaking in its beauty and taking a hike.

Champex-Lac, Switzerland

We arrived in the early afternoon with a few hours to spare before continuing on to spend the night in neighboring Martigny. Had we known how special it was in Champex-Lax, we would have definitely preferred to stay there. We found Champex-Lac to be quite stunning and charming. Set at an altitude of 4,921 feet (1,500 m) with the peak of La Breya (7,198 feet/2194 m) rising high above, this traditional mountain village has a lot to offer in addition to being one of the starting and ending points for the clockwise circuit of the Tour de Mont Blanc.

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St. Bernard Pass, Switzerland

A Drive through the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass in Switzerland

After a wonderful two days in the Aosta Valley of Italy, it was time to get back on track for our Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). We had ventured slightly off route to spend time in the small Italian village of Pollein and did a gorgeous hike to Lac Long in the Alps near Bionaz. While it was a lovely break, we wanted to continue on our own tour of the TMB thus it was time to head over the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass into Switzerland where we would pick up the TMB in Champex-Lac. Of course, before doing our hike in Champex, we had to make a stop at the famous Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard to visit the museum where we would learn all about the fascinating history of one of Europe’s most important ancient thoroughfares.

Tour de Mont Blanc Map. Map credit: Chamonix.net

The Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass is located roughly 38 kilometers north of Aosta at an altitude of 2473 meters (8113 feet) in the Pennine Alps between Italy and Switzerland. For centuries it was the most important and influential transit route in Europe enabling travelers to reach the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire. Historical records and artifacts indicate that this route was used as early as prehistoric times which is difficult to imagine given its high elevation and dangerous conditions during the winter months of passage.

Since the pass was the best option for connecting the north to the south of Europe, merchants, armies, and even pilgrims took on the perilous, challenging journey on foot despite the risks. Travelers were faced with robbers, excessive tolls, exhaustion, bitter cold, avalanches, blizzards and fog making the journey quite dangerous. At the time there was no place to take shelter or refuge so many got lost or perished.

In 1035, a Hospice was built at the pass by Saint-Bernard d’Aosta as a place for refuge for the thousands of travelers who used the pass throughout the year. While the Hospice has gone through some changes over the centuries, it still stands today in a grander form. There is also a museum located at the pass that shares the entire history. I would highly recommend at least an hour to go through it. You can also pay a visit to the kennels of the famous St. Bernard dogs which are the national dog of Switzerland and were bred for their ability to help travelers with the pass and to guard the hospice.

St. Bernard Pass, Switzerland

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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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