Considered one of the world’s classic long-distance hiking trails, the Tour du Mont Blanc or TMB, first walked by Swiss botanist Horace-Benedicte de Saussure, circles the Mont Blanc Massif through France, Switzerland and Italy. Marathon runners finish the bucket list trottoir in 24 hours. Hikers wishing to refine their foreign language skills, indulge in local delicacies and pamper their knees usually take 10 days. Five highlights will inspire the intrepid to keep on trucking over the 110 miles.
1. Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, Lac Malatra, Val Ferret, Italy
Named for legendary mountaineer, explorer and journalist Walter Bonatti, this impressive rock and timber mountain hut, opened in 1998, presides over an Italian panorama of the Mont Blanc range. Historic photos of and by Bonatti line the walls giving the efficiently run and impeccably clean mountain inn a museum-like ambiance. Nepali chef Dorje routinely creates four-course gourmet dinners for 80 and magically produces a hearty buffet breakfast which is served from 6:30 am to allow an early start for the arduous climb up to the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland. Courmayeur, AO, Italy. www.rifugiobonatti.it.
2. Grand Col Ferret, Italian-Swiss border
The sign on a weathered stone cairn indicates Grand Col Ferret, the frontiere between Italy and Switzerland. Beyond the rock pile, the rugged, steep Italian route gives way to green Swiss meadows. You will be sure to hear a chorus of The Sound of Music, if only in your imagination. No border guards, no passport inspection, but bring raingear: mountain weather changes hourly. Your reward? An hour’s walk ahead at La Peule, farm owners Sabine and Nicolas Coppey offer the delightfully gooey treat, called croute, oven baked white bread doused with white wine and layered with eggs, tomatoes and cheese made on site. Route de Ferret, 1944 La Fouly. www.lapeulaz.skyrock.com.
3. Hotel Spendide, Champex-Lac, Switzerland
Soldiers who first occupied this grande dame during WWII would be surprised by the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style glass elevator installed in 1994. Somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel, the Hotel Splendide, built in the 1930s, still retains a certain old-world elegance. Fourth generation Richer-Lonfat family members welcome weary walkers with an extensive menu including traditional Swiss Raclette. After a meander along the Ferret Valley through the charming Swiss village of Issert, the steep 90-minute climb to get there is worth the slog. 1938 Champex-Lac, Switzerland. www.hotel-splendide.ch.
4. The Guest House, Vallorcine-Chamonix, France
Breakfast by candlelight, a serene way to start the day in this completely renovated village retreat in Vallorcine, originally built as a family getaway by a Parisian Scientist with eight children. Owners Helen Magnussen and Steve Dowse have only two so there are loads of ensuite rooms left for guests. Comfortable country chic décor in the guest lounge invites you to rest your aching feet on the wooden coffee table and check email in front of a roaring fire. Pssst. Helen is a Registered Massage Therapist. Book ahead. Le Morzay, 74660 Vallorcine. www.theguesthousechamonix.com.
5. Lac Blanc via Col des Montets, Chamonix-Mont-Blanc
Save this for a clear day. The views of peaks, glaciers and Mont Blanc aiguiette are unparalleled. Steep at the start, the trail flattens out to follow the contours into the Chamonix Valley. Don’t get too complacent, the final climb to Lac Blanc is punctuated with a couple of vertical iron ladders bolted to the rock slabs, interspersed with log and iron steps. For thrill seekers, the alternate route to Lac Blanc beginning in Tre-le-Champ offers many more ladders and extensive vertical exposure. Le Lac Blanc, 74400 Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. No website.
IF YOU GO
The TMB can be arranged by Canmore, Alberta couple Louis Marino and Karin Stubenvoll, owners of Alpine Interface. 1-800-368-5056. www.alpineinterface.com. Book six months in advance.