Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Walking Holidays

I’m still very much in a “holiday-minded” mood lately. Like most families I'm sure, we have a certain modus operandi in our travels, a preference for some types of holidays and not for some others. We don’t do many beach trips, especially not after our kids were small, and not very many even then. (I regret that a bit, as yearly trips to Florida beaches were a big part of my own childhood.)

The family above the Mer de Glace.
The kinds of trips we do mostly fall into two categories: the All-American road trip, mainly to visit widely spaced natural wonders (and America is full of those), and urban holidays where we visit a city for a few days to take in museums, famous landmarks and, especially since my teenage daughter is along, the local shopping scene.

All of these trips have often involved a certain amount of walking (not that this makes us unique in any way). At various times we have forced the kids to trek across Rome, London, and Paris – naturally, the best way to see most European cities. And we’ve made small hikes in various less-populated scenic locales (again, nothing unusual there).

View from our apartment in St. Gervais.
Even on our one-and-only vacation on a Greek isle (Naxos), we forsook the endless and mostly empty beaches one day for a hike to the parched summit of Mt. Zeus (1003 m, 3290 ft). Spectacular views by the way, fit even for, well, even for a god.

Over the last decade, though, we've added another kind of family holiday to the mix, one where walking itself was the whole point. The first was in 2002 in Chamonix Valley in France. 

A couple of summers earlier, I had spent a week there on a mountaineering course, indulging in a long-held climbing fantasy (well worth it, though a little late in life). After being immersed in some of the most spectacular alpine scenery around, I couldn’t wait to return and bring the family. 

The beauty of Chamonix, other than the obvious beauty of the Mt. Blanc Massif looming overhead, is the network of hiking trails crisscrossing the slopes of the valley. It’s perfect for a holiday of day hiking.  

Boulders were made to climb around on.
For our weeklong stay, we rented a holiday apartment high above the little town of St. Gervais les Bains, up a side valley about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from much pricier Chamonix. We found the place through Interhome, a great booking system offering longer-term accommodations in some prime vacation spots. Our apartment fit the bill. It sat high enough above the valley to give a view of part of the Massif, but close enough to the village that my wife could easily hike down the steep road every morning to the nearest bakery, “Le Pain Chaud”, to buy freshly baked croissants and baguettes. Ah, I do love France.

On that trip, our first day hike was kind of a one-way affair, and a dramatically scenic one. First, we took a ride on a small-gauge cog railway from Chamonix to Montenvers, a hotel perched above the massive Mer de Glace, a world-famous glacier that snakes between stunning needle-like spires of granite rising some 1600 meters (5000 feet) above the ice-craved valley. 

Lunch al fresco.
After checking out the tunnels dug into the living ice to give tourists access to the interior of the glacier, we made our way back to Chamonix on foot. Except for an initial 300-meter (1000-foot) climb to reach the rocky shoulder of a ridge (where if you look carefully enough along the path you can find small crystals), the route was downhill all the way back to the valley floor. Even with all that scenery, the kids weren’t nearly as into looking at the jagged peaks towering over us as they were in searching for crystals under their feet. That, and playing on some of the gigantic boulders that the mountains had shed in the long-distant past. Kids, of course, have their own way of enjoying nature.

All downhill from here to Chamonix. 
We reached Chamonix in just under five hours. Even if it was mostly downhill, those eight kilometers (five miles) of walking was a decent enough of a hike for my daughter, who was only six at the time. The other four hikes we did that week were mostly shorter, though some were a little more strenuous. But they all were as spectacularly scenic as the first and set the stage for some even more ambitious walking holidays in the years to come. 


  1. Wow. I can only imagine. I've never been able to afford any trips to Europe.

    Were the skies smoggy, or is that an effect of the lens you were using? Or time of day?

    1. If you do get over here sometime, I can definitely recommend that part of the Alps. Not exactly untouched wilderness, but amazing scenery. I don't think it was smoggy, but it could sometimes be misty in the morning. And I don't believe we had a UV-filter on the camera.

  2. Just came accross your blog and you pictures look great! St. Gervais is a pretty little place and perfect for families!