The Refuge de Bel Lachat in Les Houches was my first experience with European lodging accommodations within this region and it is a much different experience than I had become accustomed to in my time traveling through the United States. Most basic lodging facilities within the US that I have stayed offered very little in accommodations; typically requiring you make your own meals, shared bathroom facilities, limited electricity, ect. They are meant as quick rest stops that just offer a place to lay your head for the night. While not luxurious; the refuges I stayed at within the Tour du Mont Blanc trail did offer several items that improved the experience. The first of these was communal dining that was prepared by the on-site staff. More often than not, this proved to be a good meal and the communal dining made it very easy to meet other travelers and share stories and experiences. Every refuse we stayed at, also offered both a café and a bar to those staying there. This was an excellent place to get an affordable coffee or a refreshing beer at the end of a day on the trail. This led to many picnic table talks with members of my own group and added to the feeling of comradery.
This night was also my first bit of culture shock in Europe. While there were always shared shower facilities in US cabins, these were never co-ed. This was not the case in any of the refuges throughout the trail. The first time I walked into the shower facility and was greeted by a line of girls waiting their turn in the shower; I had thought I stepped into the wrong facilities. After an initial shock, I embraced the age old saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Another notable difference that I embraced when comparing these refuges vs US hotels was the quality of the continental breakfast being offered. Without exception, each breakfast along the trail was a mix of fresh baked goods, cheeses, and an assortment of other goods that lacked the preservatives and sugars that are standard within the US hotel chains. This allowed for great energy boosts to start the day before jumping onto the trail for another 10-15 hike.
Day 2 of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail wound up being the one day where the weather was less than cooperative, but this still didn't detract from the experience of the hike. We started from our cabin in the town of Les Houches and descended up into the mountains via an ancient Roman road. There were low lying clouds throughout the day that obstructed the mountain views, but we were still greeted with hours of forest, wildflower meadows, and peaceful farmland. As we climbed higher into the mountains, we also began encountering remnants of glaciers and snow patches that we had to cross along the trail. Lunch was at a refuge on the mountain top known as Refuge de Trud before we began our descent back down the mountain. We stayed the night in a town called Bourg-Saint-Maurice where we were greeted by a great dinner and live music to recharge from the day's hike.
The town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice also afforded us a fun night to recharge and enjoy a cultural experience, a welcome change of pace from the trail. The hotel offered live music and entertainment in the form of a local band that played folk-themed versions of American Classical Rock. Spent the night in at the BC7 hotel and restaurant. This was a great place to unwind and relax after a 15-mile hike on the Mont Blanc Trek. The meal itself was also an excellent sampling of local French cuisine. Started the meal with the tomme blanche (an extremely soft and sweet cheese served in tomato with a side of ice cream), moved on to boite chaude de Alps (melted local and extremely flavorful brie, served with roasted potatoes, and a cured meat charcuterie), and finished the meal with an espresso and collection of 3 French desserts (rhubarb, a macaron, and a raspberry souffle). The night charged me up and I was ready to hike along the trail, crossing over the French border into Italy the next day.
Day 3 of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail started in Bourg-Saint-Maurice before getting back on the trail. After some less-than-ideal weather the previous day that blocked portions of the scenery, the third day on the trail was a complete 180. We hiked through the high alpine meadows with blue skys and sun overhead; surrounded by wildflowers the entire day with the mountains rising in every direction around us. This provided to be one of the most scenic days on the trail. Once at the highest point of the trail, we were greeted by snow fields and glacial views. This was also the border between France and Italy. From here, we traveled down into the valley crossing historic Italian buildings and chalets before arriving at Courmayeur. This small Italian town was our home for the next two days and was filled with boutique shops, luxury brand shopping, spas, and a plethora of amazing food including pizza, cheese, gelato, pasta, and cappuccinos. This was my favorite town along the trek due to its combination of architecture, charm, and incredible mountain views that could be seen from any part of town. Whether you want to enjoy a pizza and gelato in Italy or spend your days strolling the streets and shopping through world-renowned brands such as Gucci and Loui Viton; the town of Courmayeur has you covered and will provide amazing mountain views to soak in during the entire experience.
While the tour du Mont Blanc hike was the highlight of my recent trip; there are several other ways to enjoy this incredible part of the world that require less physical strain. One of these is using the gondola system in either Chamonix or Courmayeur. The Skyway in Courmayeur is the world's tallest sky bridge system and can transport riders from the Aota valley to Punta Helbronner; a mountain top that is located directly across from Mont Blanc and adjacent to several other peaks. There are two levels to this Skyway. The first transports visitors to a lower elevation where they can enjoy wildflower meadows and a small playground for kids. The second level takes visitors above the clouds for dazzling views of the glacier covered mountains that are practically at your fingertips. To add on the experience; there is even a terrific bar, restaurant, and cafe located here at the top of the world that allows you to enjoy a meal with breathtaking views. This experience was one of the many highlights of this trip. There is just something about enjoying a cheese board and a cappuccino while enjoying a view from what feels like the top of the world.
After 3 days on the trail, taking some time to soak in and recover in a local spa known as Thermes de Saint-Vincent. Located within a historic building in Italy, this spa was incredible for a mid-hike recharge and included multiple outdoor and indoor spa pools, a light show spa, a misting room, and multiple saunas. To add to the experience, the spa was in the middle of a valley that offered incredible mountain views of the nearby Alps.
This story will be continued on another day…