And that’s when the idea of the Tour du Mont Blanc took root for me. The iconic hiking route involves Europe’s highest peak but goes around it rather than up to the top.
There’s something unquestionably enjoyable about any trip that takes you through gorgeous wildflower-strewn Alpine backcountry by day and a series of charming European mountain towns by evening. Towns mean inns (or even four-star hotels). And meals in proper restaurants.
The Tour du Mont Blanc never goes much above 8,000 feet, but it’s no little walk in the woods. Each day’s leg covers more than 10 miles and sees a major elevation gain and loss (up to 4,200 feet in one day) as it traverses a high Alpine pass. Stunning scenery, but it’s hard. Admonishments to train should be taken very seriously.
Part of the mystique of the route is that it takes hikers through three cultures and three cuisines (France, Italy and Switzerland). French remains the lingua franca, the cuisine stays simple and hearty (though the wines did show national allegiances, and pasta made a brief appearance in Italy), and the Alpine cheese remains a necessary indulgence. Most of all, the warm hospitality and on-the-trail camaraderie transcend borders.
As with any adventure trip, there are various ways to do it, from DIY to whatever the hiking-boot equivalent of white-glove would be called. Actually, there are more ways to do this one than most: There’s no one Tour du Mont Blanc but a massive system of trails that connect in various ways and wind their way around the mountain.
High-end operators like Mountain Travel Sobek enhance the experience in all sorts of ways, such as arranging for one fee to cover virtually everything, transporting guests’ luggage, choosing the best hotels in the region (and getting very favorable group rates), providing outstanding make-your-own-lunch buffets rather than standard sack lunches, and, most important, hiring tip-top guides.
But ultimately, what’s worthwhile about hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc, Mountain Travel Sobek–style, isn’t the valet service or the fancy lunch spread. Nor is it the sense of accomplishment. It’s the opportunity to experience spectacular nature—glaciers, tall forests, meadows dense with purple lupine, mountain lakes, peak after peak after peak as far as the eye can see—and a beguiling old-world culture that makes you more than comfortable by night. It’s a serious hike that’s also seriously luxurious.