Little Petra, Jordan

Jordan Adventure: A Visit to Little Petra

After a disappointing stay in Aqaba, it was time to head to Wadi Musa, the town outside of the magical ancient city of Petra, where we would spend the next two nights. This was the part of the trip that I could hardly wait for as I knew that visiting Petra would be an unforgettable experience and I was right. Fortunately, we would have time to first visit Little Petra which would set the stage for our day and a half exploration of the fabled “Rose City” as Petra is called.

We left Aqaba shortly after breakfast, heading north towards Wadi Musa on the Desert Highway and then later on the famed King’s Highway. Once again, I was struck by how vast and barren the landscape was along the way. Over four-fifths of Jordan’s landscape is desert and for the next 125 kilometers, we only passed a couple of isolated roadside tourist stops.  Besides that, there was just sand and dust. It is hard to imagine the ancient caravans of traders and pilgrims on foot walking for days across this harsh land.

The King’s Highway is one of the Middle East’s most ancient routes, dating back to Biblical times. Covering 280 kilometers, the King’s Highway runs from Egypt across Sinai to the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan and then north into Syria. This sacred route was mentioned in the Old Testament and is one of the world’s oldest continuously used communication and trade routes. The King’s Highway was used as a key trade route for the Nabateans who transported their spices to build their wealth and then after their collapse, the Romans used the route to build fortifications, followed by the Christian pilgrims and then the Muslims on the road to Mecca. For tourists, the King’s Highway leads through some of Jordan’s most magical sites passing through Crusader castles, Byzantine churches, sacred Biblical sites, stunning nature and more.

We arrived in Wadi Musa (“Valley of Moses”) around noon and delighted in a delicious lunch at the Alqantarah Restaurant, a lovely venue located only a short walk from the gates of Petra which serves authentic local Jordanian cuisine. All the ingredients are fresh and even the falafel is made directly on the spot while the meat is grilled right outside the front door on a barbeque. It was an oasis in the desert!

After lunch, we headed the short ten-minute drive to “Siq Al Barid”, the Arabic name for Little Petra which means Cold Canyon. Little Petra was built by the Nabateans and believed to serve as an agricultural hub, trading center and resupply post for the camel caravans that made their way to Petra. Scholars believe that Little Petra was most likely a suburb used primarily to house traders en route to Petra and was built around the same time as Petra during the height of Nabatean influence and power in the 1st century AD. Not much else is known about Little Petra however it definitely is an impressive place and worth a visit especially before seeing Petra. (If you went after Petra, you would probably be hugely disappointed!).

As you leave the parking lot and enter the 400-meter long Siq Al Barid, you are instantly transported into an entirely different world. The first thing you see is a large temple and four tricliniums (formal Roman dining rooms) that were all carved into the face of the rose-red sandstone by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. If you continue on another 50 meters, you will reach a building known as the “Painted House” which you can climb the rock steps up and take a peek at the frescos painted inside depicting vines, flowers and other natural things.

Little Petra, Jordan

Entering Little Petra

Little Petra

Little Petra

Little Petra

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Aqaba, Jordan

Jordan Adventure: From Wadi Rum to the Red Sea

After spending a beautiful morning watching the sunrise over Wadi Rum at our Bedouin Camp, it was time to continue our journey exploring Jordan.  A popular place to stop and spend a day or two after visiting Wadi Rum and before heading to Jordan’s crown jewel, Petra, is Aqaba. Located on the Red Sea, Aqaba is a relaxed seaside resort town that is known for some of the best snorkeling and diving in the Middle East.  With its 27 kilometers of prime coastline, Aqaba also has its share of lovely beach resorts for those who would like to spend a few days enjoying the beach and the Red Sea. With a dry, arid temperature rarely dipping below 70 degrees F.  Aqaba is a nice break between the sultry desert of Wadi Rum and the crowds of Petra. Best of all, the fish is caught daily and it is one of the only places in Jordan outside of Amman that you can somewhat easily get a cold mug of beer or a glass of wine with your meal. I was sold on the snorkeling and was really looking forward to our stay in Aqaba with visions of colorful fish and soothing, calm waters. Little did I know, this part of the trip would end up being a big disappointment.

Our group set off shortly after returning via camel to the entrance of Wadi Rum. While you would have thought a camel ride would be quite the adventure, it proved to be a darn right uncomfortable experience and I could hardly wait to get off the camel. The smooshy vinyl seat in our air-conditioned van sounded like heaven compared with the bumpy, miserable ride on a camel’s back. I even almost would have traded our cold, miserable ride on the back of an open-air pickup truck in the middle of a hailstorm the previous day to not be riding on a camel’s back. It is that bad.

Bedouin camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan

One thing that I truly like about traveling in Jordan is its compact size and ease of getting around to all the major sites. The Kingdom of Jordan is roughly the size of Portugal, making it easy to see a lot of cool places in a week. We never spent more than a few hours in the van, and all the roads we traveled on were paved and well-maintained.

From the gates of Wadi Rum, Aqaba is only a short, hour drive southwest. Aqaba began as an ancient trade route dating back as far as the 5th century BC and later became a popular gathering place for pilgrims making the trek to Mecca. Thanks to its prime location along the Red Sea, it developed into a laid-back beachside resort and world-renown diving destination. Unlike the other major cities in Jordan, there are not a lot of cultural attractions to see in Aqaba. Therefore, if you are not into relaxing on the beach or participating in water activities on the Red Sea, there really isn’t much reason to visit Aqaba.

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Bedouin Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan

My Night at a Bedouin Camp in Wadi Rum

One of the highlights of my week in Jordan was spending the night at a Bedouin Camp in Wadi Rum. It is hard to put into words or capture on film, the expansive surreal beauty of Wadi Rum. Known as the “Dry Valley” Wadi Rum is roughly 720 square kilometers (278 square miles) of protected area in southern Jordan. It is known for its Bedouin culture and absolutely stunning landscape of massive sandstone mountains reaching up to 1500 meters (4,921 feet) high surrounded by canyons, gorges and narrow pathways to explore. The native people of Wadi Rum are the Bedouins who have lived in this harsh climate for thousands of years. The desert-dwelling Bedouin lived a nomadic life for centuries, moving their tents and herds of camels and goats across the vast arid desert in search of grazing land for their livestock. Today, most Bedouin have discontinued their nomadic life and live in villages. However, travelers have the opportunity to learn about their culture and life by spending a night or two at one of the many Bedouin campsites in Wadi Rum. By far, my stay at a Bedouin Camp was one of the most memorable experiences I had in Jordan.

Explore the wild, vast landscape of Wadi Rum where you will sleep under the stars at a Bedouin Camp in the heart of Lawrence of Arabia’s desert and enjoy a traditional Bedouin meal. Marvel at the rocks changing color as the sun sets and rises over the rugged sandstone and sit outside under the brilliance of the stars. Take in the stillness and solitude of one of the most surreal places on earth. Pinch yourself often that you are truly there. Riding a camel (as uncomfortable as it may be) goes without saying.

Bedouin Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Hike to Lac Blanc, Chamonix, France

Unforgettable Hikes along the Tour de Mont Blanc: Hike from Col des Montets to Lac Blanc

Sometimes in life, the best comes last. Serendipitously, this proved true with our very last hike on our intergenerational do it ourselves Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB). After ten glorious days of hiking the TMB – from the stunning Val Ferret and Val Vény in Courmayeur to our hike above the gorgeous Champex-Lac in Switzerland and finally to a variety of different hikes in Chamonix-  our hike to Lac Blanc proved to be the one hike that had us wondering when on earth we’d ever be able to come back to this magical place. The hike to Lac Blanc reminded me exactly why I hike in the first place: To feel utterly, insanely alive. And, there is nowhere I feel more alive than outside. The pure, raw beauty of the Alps and the Tour de Mont Blanc itself can all be captured in this one hike. It is a must-do for anyone in Chamonix and anyone hiking the TMB.

We had heard about Lac Blanc from our hotel and had desperately wanted to hike there earlier but the gondola lift to La Flégère was closed. So instead, we filled our first two days with a hike to the top of Le Brévent that affords stunning panoramic views of Mont Blanc, and we did an incredible hike along the Grand Balcon on Mont Blanc to the Mer de Glace. While both hikes are exceptionally stunning for some reason I had to see Lac Blanc. I had this nagging, unexplainable urge to do this hike so I persisted. Our hotel manager told us we could reach Lac Blanc a different way – albeit a bit longer of a hike – if we drove past Argentière and parked at the Col des Montets located in the Réserve naturelle des Aiguilles-Rouges. It was rated a difficult hike but was doable in anywhere from 4-7 hours depending on level of fitness. I got my dad and son to agree and on our last day in Chamonix we set off for what would be the greatest hike of the entire trip.

We arrived at the trailhead shortly after ten. There were plenty of parking spots remaining which was of course a good sign that this beloved hike was not too busy yet. It was an absolutely perfect day for hiking with a few scattered powderpuff clouds, brilliant sun and glorious blue sky. We could not have asked for a better day for our last hike.

Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges, France

The start of the trail is right behind the Reserve Naturelle del Aiguilles Rouges, France

Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouges, France

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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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