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 Hashimite 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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Wadi Rum

The Best Sustainable Travel and Adventure Companies

Grab a cup of coffee or tea! This post is going to be a long one but I’m hoping it will be greatly appreciated. You may want to bookmark it for later as I’m certain that this constantly evolving list of the best sustainable and travel adventure companies in the industry will be an invaluable resource for future trip planning!  Enjoy!

The Treasury at Petra.

Love at first sight. The Treasury at Petra.

Although I have traveled all my life, sometime in my late twenties I became a traveler. For most of my life, I had been more of a tourist trying to rush around the world seeing as much as I could possibly see, never fully understanding what it all meant. It was in my twenties that I went on my first truly eye-opening trip to Peru. Within the first half-hour of being on the ground, I was mugged inside a taxi and it was at that point I realized that the world is not a giant playground for me to explore yet a place for me to search for answers and try to understand. Since then, I have continued to follow my promise to be a good, responsible traveler as best as I can.

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Saddle Skedaddle

Saddle Skedaddle celebrates a landmark 25 years with exclusive new cycling trips

As the demand to explore the world in a unique and sustainable way increases, there is terrific news for cycling enthusiasts who seek adventure. Saddle Skedaddle, a world-class cycling operator with nearly 25 years of experience curating diverse itineraries and cycling tours, has launched its new 2020 tours, exploring far-flung corners of the world by bike. Ranging from such off the beaten path destinations like Jordan, Ethiopia, and Borneo, Saddle Skedaddle is bound to stir up those who seek to see the world a little differently.

Biking trips offer a unique way to explore pockets of a destination that can often be off the common tourist route, and also provide a way to travel and do good by being environmentally-friendly and supporting local communities. Better yet, by traveling in a small-group on two wheels you truly have the freedom to experience and get to know a destination, its people and culture intimately. While I have not yet had the opportunity to do a cycling trip myself, it is something I would love to experience someday especially given my love of hiking trips.

In my quest to feature different sustainable adventure travel outfitters, I reached out to Paul Snedker, Director and Co-Founder, of Saddle Skedaddle to learn more about their mission and of course their amazing trips.  Here is what Paul had to say. 

When were you founded, by who and why?

My friend, Andrew Straw, and I founded Saddle Skedaddle nearly 25 years ago after our own cycling adventure in Chile. One night, while trapped on a mountain pass during a snowstorm, we got to talking about how much we had been able to see and experience while traveling the country on a bike. We hatched an idea about bringing this kind of travel to other people—pedaling through, not passing by, as they say—and with that, Saddle Skedaddle was born!

Today, Saddle Skedaddle is the UK’s leading independent cycling vacation specialist that is all about doing something wonderful on two wheels. Our team of experts has searched far and wide for nearly 25 years to bring you some of the world’s most incredible locations and enchanting cultures to enjoy at the speed of the bike. It’s time to really meet a place, and its people, you’ll never want to forget.

Saddle Skedaddle

Travel in Morocco

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Smile Network International: Kim Valentini’s Quest to Change Lives Around the World, One Smile at a Time

It was early May of 2003, Kim Valentini, an accomplished marketing and public relations executive and a mother of two had just quit her career after 25 years of moving up the ranks. She got her kids off to school and was lounging around the house in her pajamas when she heard Oprah say on TV, “If you are a woman in your forties, put down everything you are doing, grab a pen and paper, and listen to my show. This show is for you”. Little did Kim know, that that show would change her life forever and lead her to a greater purpose in her life.

Almost like a bit of fate, Oprah’s show featured author Po Bronson who just released his new book titled “What Should I Do with My Life”. Kim was wondering this exact same question.  Kim wanted to make a difference, be a voice for the people who didn’t have one. Immediately following the show, Kim launched a five-hour a week service project called the Smile Network. Little did she know, this five-hour a week service project would become a major global nonprofit organization.

Smile Network International is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that provides life-altering reconstructive surgeries to impoverished children and young adults around the world. Their mission is “to reconstruct lives, one bright, smiling face at a time”. Since 2003, Smile Network has become a truly global operation, performing over 4,000 life-changing surgeries in 11 countries across five continents.

I read about Kim’s story in a local magazine and I was so incredibly inspired by her story and her mission in life that I decided to meet with her in person and learn more. Over the next hour together we laughed, cried and bonded over what it means to be a woman, a mother and most of all, to find a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. I realized that I had come to meet with Kim at a pivotal time in my own life where I have been searching myself for what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Here is Kim’s inspiring story of how she has transformed thousands of lives including her own.

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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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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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