A Day Trip From Florence Exploring all Five Villages in Cinque Terre

Perched high atop the steep, rocky coastline of the Ligurian Sea lie the Cinque Terre, five breathtaking colorful Italian fishing villages dating back to the 11th Century. Established as a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, the Cinque Terre National Park may be the smallest park in Italy but is perhaps the most unique. For centuries, its inhabitants have used its dramatic landscape to survive by working with it to create a unique system of terrace-based agriculture among its steep slopes which tumble to the sea. Cinque Terre can be visited in a variety of ways: via train, boat, and best of all, on foot exploring its network of footpaths linking the cliff-hanging villages together all while affording dazzling views of the sea. It is an unforgettable experience that can be done as a long but worth it day trip from Florence, Pisa, or other towns in Tuscany.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

A Day Trip Exploring Cinque Terre from Florence: Getting there

Since cars are not allowed inside the heart of Cinque Terre, getting there is half the fun. You need to either take the train, drive, or a bus to the town of La Spezia (about 2 hours), where you can catch a ten-minute train ride to the entrance to the park. From there, you can either continue via train or else on foot along the 120 kilometers of trails meandering along the coast.

Most people begin their visit in Riomaggiore, the southernmost town which is the first stop from La Spezia via train. We chose not to start our day here as we had hoped to take the ferry back to Riomaggiore at the end of the day and finish there. Instead, we continued on to the next town, Manarola, which is less than 2 minutes away via train (you can see the stop from the first town!).

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Valahnúkur Sea Cliffs, Iceland

An afternoon in Keflavik: Exploring the Reykjanes Peninsula

After nine days of driving around Iceland’s majestic Ring Road, our very last stop was where it all began, in Keflavik, home of the international airport, the infamous Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s newest volcano and to our delight much more. For more visitors, Keflavik is used as a launching off point for day tours or avoided all together as tourists head straight to Iceland’s trendy capital, Reykjavik right after landing.  That is exactly what we did. Immediately after landing, we rented our car and drove forty minutes to our hotel in downtown Reykjavik where we would spend our first night.

However, a bit of unexpected bad luck actually turned into a spontaneous opportunity for us to spend an afternoon exploring Keflavik and the surrounding Reykjanes Peninsula. Those few hours gave us a taste of all the magnificent natural sites the southwestern corner of Iceland has to offer, with non-existent crowds and surprisingly delightful sights. As long as you steer clear from the volcano and the Blue Lagoon, you are bound to have these special destinations all to yourself and trust me, after experiencing the heavy crowds in the South of Iceland, you will be relieved and overjoyed to not see another soul.

The very first day we landed in Iceland, we hit the Reykjanes Peninsula’s most exciting destination fresh off the plane. After checking into our hotel in Reykjavik and taking a short two hour cat nap, we got back in our car and drove back to the Reykjanes Peninsula where we revved up our energy to hike up to see the Fagradalsfjall volcano.  While this could possibly be down with the itinerary below in one very long day, if you want to truly see the volcano and get the chance to witness an eruption, you should plan on spending at least 5-7 hours there, exploring, hiking and marveling at its delight. While you can do it completely on your own, we chose to hire a local guide who was knowledgeable on the landscape and volcanic activity. It was an incredible experience and one that cannot be missed.

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Vik, Iceland

Ring Road Trip Around Iceland: The Beauty of Vik

At the southern tip of Iceland, only a few short hours drive from Reykjavik lies the lovely, quaint coastal village of Vik. This mystical seaside town is a beautiful place surrounded by long black sand beaches, craggy green mountains, and sharp sea cliffs.  The trademark Vik is most known for is Reynisdrangar, a row of pointed basalt sea stacks that raise up to 217 feet/66 m into the air and have long been used as a landmark and navigational point for sailors. Local lore believes that they were formed when two trolls were unable to find land and turned into stone at sunrise.

I had been to Vik thirteen years ago on my first trip to Iceland and quite honestly was astounded by how much it had grown and changed in such a short time. When we had first went there in 2007 it felt like we were traveling almost on another planet with barely another car in sight and only the crossing sheep to keep us company on the road. The town was only a few homes surrounding Route 1 with not much else except endless nature. Thirteen years later and I was stunned by how much Vik has changed. The once sleepy coastal village of roughly 300 souls has grown into one of Iceland’s premier tourist towns with rows of newly built lodging, hip restaurants and a large grocery store (which if you are traveling around the Ring Road in Iceland, you will instantly realize what a pleasant surprise and rare find a grocery store is!).

To me, the transformation of Vik foreshadows the transformation of Iceland itself. The country immersed from a rather off the wall place to visit for only the true diehard adventurers into a full-blown mainstream tourist destination.  With such incredible growth in tourism comes growing pains and perhaps some unwanted changes. There have often been arguments that there are more tourists than Icelanders in Iceland during the main tourist season of summer. Furthermore, you no longer have famous spots and destinations all to yourself like I did 13 years ago when we went to Jökulsárlón (how disappointing it was to hardly be able to find a parking spot this time!). But if you get off the beaten path enough and are mindful of where you go and stay, you are certain to meet Icelanders and learn a bit about their fascinating culture, history and Icelandic pride. It just takes some research and wanderlust.

Iceland

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Skaftafell Glacier, Iceland

Ring Road Trip Around Iceland: Hike to Skaftafell Glacier

Curving alongside the southeastern tip of Iceland lies the immense Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside of the poles which has over 30 glacial tongues sliding down its mystical ice mass to the volcanic ground. A drive around the Ring Road passing the “Glacier of Lakes”, the Icelandic translation of Vatnajökull to English, is a magical, wondrous journey. It is a drive that encompasses some of the most spectacular glacial scenery on earth passing by nostalgic Icelandic farms with everlasting green, Icelandic horses, glacial tongues falling from the sky, the black sand beaches of Vik, the waters of the sea and the dreamy glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón with its sensational icebergs floating harmoniously atop its aquamarine waters. The South of Iceland is so incredibly striking that it feels like a dream.

We left Jökulsárlón around noon continuing our incredible drive south along the Ring Road. I had remembered this very drive from 13 years ago when I first came to Iceland and was mesmerized by her beauty. At each bending turn, one is rewarded with an enormous frozen valley of ice jetting off from the ice cap down into the black, hardened lava fields and dead gray sand.

If it is a cloudy day which is frequent in this part of the world, the view is even more fantastic and mystical. At times it looks like the ice cap rising above is floating high up in the sky like a cloud. It is such an impressive sight that the drive took us double the amount of time to account for each and every stop along the way to take photos of these mammoth glaciers. The glacial tongues seemed to be everywhere and go as far as the eye can see. I continually had to pinch myself to see if I was really there in such an unbelievable place, in a world that is still in the process of being created.

South Iceland

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Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Travel During the Pandemic: A Visit to Jökulsárlón

I rose late after a restless night of endless tossing and turning and worry. The perfect trip that I had planned for our family to Iceland had been drastically altered. I tried to think about the options and the “what if’s” over and over again, spinning circles in my head. The more I tried to research everything online, the less answers I found. I felt like we were in one big mess and there was no easy way out.

We were still in Höfn, with two days left in our Ring Road Trip itinerary. We were in a bit of a pickle as there was no way for me to get back without riding in the rental car with my family who all tested negative, and it would take a minimum of six hours to drive all the way back to Reykjavik. We had already paid for our hotel in Vik and had two of the best days planned of our trip ahead. The only solution we had was to go on with our trip as planned, and try our best to distance me from the rest of the family and not go near anyone outside of our family for the next three days. I layered up in three masks, only left the room to use the bathroom once the whole car was packed up and we set off with all four windows open, heading to our next destination, Jökulsárlón.

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Travel during a pandemic: When things go wrong

We were seven days into our ten-day Ring Road Trip around Iceland when our long-awaited family trip turned upside down. That morning, after a lovely hike along the waterfalls outside the coastal town of Seyðisfjörður, we loaded up our rental car and set off for what was supposed to be the highlight of our trip: A two day visit to the majestic South.

The South of Iceland is so magnificent that most tourists simply fly into Reykjavik and head straight there. Nowhere in Iceland has such immense beauty and hypnotizing magic. Home to the mighty Vatnajökull Ice Cap encompassing 12% of Iceland’s territory, the South of Iceland is graced with endless glacial tongues dripping down to the plains, countless waterfalls, evergreen farmland and stunning seashore all wrapped up in one surreal place.  It is so insanely beautiful that it takes your breath away.

I will never forget my visit 13 years ago, when my father and I first went to Iceland and set off from Reykjavik heading south along the Ring Road to Vik and ending in Skaftafell National Park. I had fallen in love with the South of Iceland and this time, thirteen years later I’d be back bringing my family to this incredible place. I knew exactly where I’d take them, what views we would see and what hikes we would do. Little did we know, our special family trip would soon turn upside down.

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A Stay in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

Nestled at the bottom of the rugged Fjarðarheiði mountain pass at the end of a long, narrow fjord in Eastern Iceland is the magical coastal town of Seyðisfjörður. Given its remote location (it is about a two and a half hour drive east from Mývatn and another 3 hours to the more popular town of Höfn), and its unique surroundings, we were in for a real treat. It was our sixth day in Iceland following our Ring Road family trip adventure, and we had just spent two fantastic days in Mývatn and Krafla exploring its volcanic wonders. Now it was time to enter into a fairytale world of endless waterfalls, lush green mountains and blue sea as far as the eye could see.

We arrived in the late afternoon, down a long, serpentine, gravel road, pulling out of the clouds and into lush green valley and fjord that surrounds the village. It wasn’t hard to find our hotel or the center of town given the compact size of Seyðisfjörður. Yet instantly we were charmed by the lovely, colorful wooden buildings for which Seyðisfjörður is known for. Since Seyðisfjörður is quite small, many travelers simply pass it by. However, if you love taking a hike and having literally the entire mountainside to yourself followed by world-class Icelandic dining, then a night in Seyðisfjörður is definitely something you should do and highly recommended.

Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

First glance of Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður Iceland

The tongue of the long fjord

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Iceland: Two days in Mývatn and Krafla, Iceland

Day Five of our Ring Road Trip around Iceland found our family of four arriving early afternoon at Mývatn Lake, probably one of the most geologically fascinating places I’ve ever been in my life. By this point in our trip, we were all a bit exhausted with all the driving and moving around. We had already slept in four different places, drove over 758 kilometers and had not been in one place for more than a night. (Here is our route and stops via google map since we left Reykjavík).

We had visited an active volcano, raced through the capital, and drove hours on the Ring Road barely having a moment to catch our breathe. Then finally we pulled into the tiny village of Reykjahlíð, located on the shores of Lake Mývatn in the north of Iceland, and we were at peace.

After a delightful lunch of fresh cod at the quaint Gamli Bærinn, we headed around the lake to our lovely apartment, the Stella Rosá, which was the best place we stayed at during our entire trip in Iceland. It was utterly a treasure of a find and the perfect place to base ourselves for the next two days in Mývatn.

Before booking our trip, I honestly had no idea that Mývatn Lake combined with neighboring Krafla, was such an absolutely surreal place. I had only known that it was a recommended stop along the Ring Road Tour and thankfully it was the only place we allowed ourselves two full days. There is so much to do, see and explore there that we could have almost used another day. It ended up being one of my favorite places in Iceland because of all the incredible sights together in one place. We often felt like it was the closest place to being on another planet all together.  It is that surreal.

Entering the lava fields feels like walking on the moon….

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A Hike up to Iceland’s Newest Volcano: Fagradalsfjall

On July 29, our family of four took our first trip out of the country since before the pandemic to the magical, surreal landscape of Iceland. I had first visited Iceland back in 2008 with my father and was spellbound by her unearthly beauty and astonishing mystique. While I had wanted to return to this phenomenal country and explore it more, the idea quite frankly did not pop back into my head until late in the Spring when our family had all been fully vaccinated and heard the news that Iceland with its small population of roughly 368,792 hearty souls was welcoming back vaccinated tourists. As someone who follows travel news closely, Iceland’s clever tourism pitch got my attention.

Icelandair has long had direct flights from Minneapolis to Keflavík, and to meet the increase in demand, Delta Airlines also launched a non-stop flight from my home town airport as well. The flight to Iceland from Minneapolis is roughly six hours. The only downfall is that the flight is too short to really get any sleep and the time change is a difficult five hours ahead meaning jet lag was going to be an issue that first day. The good news is we would have nine full days to adjust.

The route from Minneapolis to Iceland takes you directly over Greenland. The view was jaw-dropping!

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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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