Blister-Free Mont Blanc
Three Gore-Tex-clad mountaineers are making their arduous slog up Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s tallest peak. Its 15,771-foot summit looms still some 3,000 feet above them. Their top-of-the-world vista takes in a snow-dusted Alpine massif that spans France, Switzerland, and Italy.
My friend and I share nearly the same epic view the climbers have, but not the same foot blisters or crevasse hazards. Unlike them, we have arrived at 12,395 feet via a 20-minute cable car ride from the French resort town of Chamonix to this observation deck on Aiguille du Midi, a peak neighbouring Mont Blanc.
Gondolas have ferried passengers to surrounding heights from Chamonix since 1924. The Aiguille du Midi gives them a taste of what it’s like to be an alpinist—but without the need for expensive hiking boots. It’s bright, cold, and blustery, though, and we still need warm layers, sunscreen, and sunglasses on the observatory walkway.
We pull up Instagram to capture the “Step Into The Void,” a glass cube off the walkway that thrills with the spectacle of a sheer Alpine drop below our feet.
While the mountain climbers are refuelling on energy bars, we enjoy strong coffee and chocolate cake at Le 3842, one of the highest restaurants in Europe. The Aiguille du Midi also has one of the world’s highest museums. Located in a rocky chamber deep in the mountain, the Musée de l’Alpinisme Pointe displays photos and memorabilia from the early days of extreme sports—such as BASE jumping, for which Chamonix has historically been considered a top spot.
We hop on the cable car back to town, with a new appreciation of Alpine peaks and the adventurous people who explore them.
—Mary Anne Potts
New York, U.S.A.
Rock Climb in the Shawangunk Mountains
Located about 145 kilometres north of New York City, the “Gunks” is a rite of passage for any gym climber aspiring to scale the rocks—in this case, solid quartz conglomerate—of Greater Gotham. For easy climbs, head to the Trapps, the largest and most popular cliff, ideally on a weekday to avoid crowds.
Learn to Fly on Lookout Mountain
No experience is required to tandem hang glide with an instructor above verdant Lookout Valley, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Non-fliers in the group can picnic on the grounds (hanglide.com).
British Columbia, Canada
Zip Line in Whistler
Gravity does all the work on Ziptrek’s impressive array of zip line tours through old-growth British Columbian rainforests and over creeks (whistler.ziptrek.com).
Do a Ropes Course
Explore the tree canopy at one of 10 Treetop Trekking locations in Quebec or Ontario. Suspension bridges, viewing platforms, and zip lines take you safely out of your comfort zone (treetoptrekking.com).
Balloon over the Atacama
Drift above the driest place on Earth for a humbling aerial perspective of the fragile desert landscape, including 19,409-foot Licancabur Volcano and the Cordillera de la Sal, on a sunrise hot-air balloon ride departing from San Pedro de Atacama (atacamaballooning.com).
On Horseback in the Land of Fire and Ice
My horse knows the land better than I, so I loosen the reins and let her lead the way across Iceland’s southern highlands. Single file, our small group trots towards the row of mossy green mountains on the horizon, following the ancient Kjölur Route that crosses the barren middle of the country from coast to coast. Steady hooves crunch over kilometres of new black volcanic earth, lumpy as a field of crushed Oreos. The tall dome of glistening ice is Hekla—the most active volcano in Iceland and the gateway to hell, according to ancient lore. The Vikings rode this same cross-country route more than a thousand years ago, and since then, Iceland’s wild-maned horses—small and tough—have remained a separate breed largely untouched by outside influence.
The Icelandic horse is equal parts strong and gentle. In the saddle, even the least experienced equestrian can manage this desolate Game of Thrones scenery thanks to the horses’ agility, while more advanced riders upshift to a jaunty tölt—the rocking fifth gait that is entirely unique to this venerable breed.
I breathe in time with my animal, inhaling the damp northern wind as we skirt the glassy Sauðafellsvatn lake. Iceland is remarkably elemental like this—at any moment, you see and feel the earth, air, water, and fire.
Evening comes, but the summer sun never disappears. Instead the horizon blushes pink and the land glows, lighting up the soulful eyes of these fuzzy beasts with tongue-twister names like Eldbjörn, Hroki, and Töfrandi, which roughly translate to “Fire Bear,” “Arrogant,” and “Magic.” Unsaddled, the horses wander off to graze in a field while the humans slip into bubbling natural hot pools to soak our tired bodies outside the cosy huts near Hveravellir. Pleasantly exhausted, we revel in the warmth that emanates from the heart of the Earth, grateful for the horses that carried us here, into the rugged silence of off-road Iceland.
Bike the Danube Cycle Path
The increasingly popular about 4,000-kilometre EuroVelo 6 bike path runs along the Danube River from its source in Germany, and through eight more countries (France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania), to the Black Sea. The path is wide and mostly flat or slightly downhill, ideal for first-time cyclists who want to pedal past romantic castles and old world villages (eurovelo.com).
Canoe the Boundary Waters
The 814,441 acres of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness protect lakes and streams, and primordial pine, birch, and spruce forests, making it a prized destination for paddling adventures. For novices, try the Kelso loop, linking up Sawbill, Alton, and Kelso Lakes (sawbill.com).
Nicaragua may not have the best surfing waves of Central America—and that’s precisely the draw. Playa Remanso, located 10 minutes from the popular San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Coast, offers a white sand beach and rolling waves ideal for surfers of all levels.
Kayak Prince William Sound
Paddle around the creaking and calving glaciers and icebergs of Blackstone Bay in Prince William Sound, just an hour and a half’s drive from Anchorage. Sea otters, harbour seals, bald eagles, and orcas could all make an appearance (lazyottercharters.com).
Raft the Owyhee
Few white-water trips can compare to the scenery, wildlife, and adventure of Idaho and Oregon’s Owyhee River. For a mellow trip, the Lower Owyhee delights with the most hot springs and the gentlest rapids (rowadventures.com).
Skim on Nordic Ice
Glide across prime natural ice around Stockholm—beginners welcome. Depending on ice conditions, excursions range from small lakes to the Baltic Sea (stockholmad-ventures.com).
Swimming in Sinkholes
Beneath lush greenery, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is like Swiss cheese. The bedrock is pocked with thousands of sinkholes, formed when limestone collapses and cool groundwater seeps in.
In centuries past, the Maya relied on cenotes or sinkholes for fresh water and believed they were portals to the gods. Now divers explore the depths, but you don’t need special certifications to enjoy the pools at the surface.
Down a dirt road fringed by jungle, Dos Ojos Cenote was almost ready to close by the time we got there. Divers in wet suits and kids in swimsuits trundled out into the parking lot, but—happily— the clerk let us in. Down the creaky wooden steps that led into the pool, we discovered we were completely alone.
We sank into the 24°C water, illuminated in gem-tone shades of blue and green by the late afternoon light. Our hushed voices echoed against the cave ceiling, which swept over our heads like a grand opera house.
Below, rock formations sank away into a 30-foot-deep pool, while passages led much deeper. We floated and breast stroked until our fingers were wrinkly, taking in the delicate stillness of this singular window into the Earth.
A couple of days later, we visited Gran Cenote and found a very different experience: a lively party. Families and couples picnicked on a small lawn as we descended stairs to the sunlit pool, teeming with snorkellers. Through our masks, we watched fish and turtles circle stalactites and stalagmites. About 30 feet below, divers’ headlamps lit the craggy depths.
We finned back and forth then warmed up above ground with others who had come to delight in the luminous pleasures and wild wonders of this stone-rimmed pool in the jungle.
Sandboard Bruneau Dunes
Spring and fall are prime for exploring North America’s tallest free-standing sand dune, rising 470 feet in Idaho’s Bruneau Dunes State Park. Rent a “sand” board (similar to a snowboard or sled), or walk, to experience an otherworldly oasis (parksandrecreation.idaho.gov).
Snuba in Aruba
A hybrid between snorkelling and scuba diving, snuba frees divers from having to carry their air tank around. Instead the tank floats on a raft trailing behind the diver. Swim down to 20 feet, without prior diving experience, to see marine life in more than 70 snuba locations worldwide, including Aruba’s De Palm Island, where you can drift past blue parrotfish and other denizens of the Caribbean (depalmisland.com).
Coasteer the Emerald Isle
Ireland, with its scalloped, rocky shore, is a perfect setting for the growing sport of coasteering. Adventurers as young as 10 don helmets and wet suits to scout the Irish coastline by whatever means possible—swimming, rock hopping, sea caving, wildlife viewing, and even jumping off cliffs—all under the supervision of a skilled guide (extremesports.ie/coasteering).
Ski Park City
With its mix of old mining-town charm and Sundance cinephile sophistication, Park City welcomes skiers and non-skiers alike. All levels of skiers will find their fix among 300-plus trails over 7,300 acres at Park City Mountain Resort, now the largest ski resort in the U.S. Or sample the groomed, skiers-only terrain at Deer Valley. Park City is also home to the U.S. Ski Team and High West Distillery and Saloon (parkcitymountain.com).
Hike Rim to River in the Grand Canyon
A hike from the canyon rim down to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon provides an intimate look at an iconic landscape carved by time and used for millennia by Native Americans. Just over five kilometres one way with 4,380 feet of elevation change, the Bright Angel Trail is well-maintained with toilets, periodic water sources for staying hydrated, and a campground. The heat can be dangerous, so consult a park ranger to make a plan suited to your fitness level and the season (nps.gov/grca).
New Mexico, U.S.A.
The natural spectacles of Carlsbad Caverns National Park have been alluring to humans since prehistoric times. The more than 119 limestone caves, part of an ancient fossil reef, contain huge chambers of stalactites and mind-boggling formations, pools, and resident bats. Don’t miss the knockout Big Room, accessible by elevator or foot (nps.gov/cave).