Arrive in Innsbruck, capital of Austria's Tyrol. Located on the Inn River in a broad valley backed by the tall mountain rampart of Nordkette, Innsbruck is an internationally renowned winter sports center and two-time Winter Olympics host. The 800-year-old city center is a classic Austrian melding of medieval and baroque, with pastel townhouses mingling among grand imperial architecture from the Habsburg dynasty. Enjoy a welcome dinner this evening with your Expedition Leaders.
Day 2: Nordkette / Italy's South Tyrol
Our alpine adventure begins with a cable car ride to the top of Nordkette, Innsbruck's imposing backdrop that is a playground for skiers, hikers and climbers. Nordkette lies at the heart of Karwendel Nature Park, home to ibex, marmot, chamois, red deer, golden eagles and bearded vultures. From its summit atop 7,500-foot Hafelekar Peak, survey the 360-degree view of the Inn Valley and Tyrolean Alps.
Later this morning, cross into Italy over the Brenner Pass. This low-lying saddle has been one of the most important passages through the Alps since ancient times. Our destination, the South Tyrol, is an idyllic landscape of alpine pastures, deep valleys, waterfalls and crystalline lakes. In summer, meadows bloom with edelweiss and alpine roses. The South Tyrol contains Italy's grandest mountain scenery, with seven nature reserves and a national park that is one of the largest protected areas in the Alps. Lying at a cultural crossroads, South Tyrol was part of Austria until the end of World War I, and today the autonomous province remains more Germanic than Italian; 70% of its people speak German as their native language. About 5% speak Ladin, a form of colloquial Latin that was widespread in the Alps during the decline of the Roman Empire and is one of South Tyrol's three official languages today. Our focus is Val di Funes, home of Reinhold Messner, one of the world's most celebrated alpinists and the first to summit Everest solo. On foot, we explore the area around Santa Maddalena, a small village that's often called the prettiest in the Dolomites, set against the sheer wall of the Odle Peaks. Continue to Braies to spend two nights.
Day 3: Lago di Braies / Exploring the Dolomites
Rise early for a quiet hike around Lago di Braies, the largest natural lake in the Dolomites and one of the most beautiful in Europe. Famous for its blue-green color, the lake is a reflecting mirror for 9,200-foot Croda del Becco, the rugged peak that rises abruptly behind it. We're joined by a certified Italian mountain guide who will be with us throughout our time in the Dolomites, offering local insight into the best trails and secret spots that are less discovered. After lunch, another hike awaits. Continuing deeper into the range, survey some of the most dramatic mountains on Earth as we explore via hiking trails and cable cars over the next several days. Born from coral reefs that formed 250 million years ago, the Dolomites rise in vertical towers of pale sedimentary stone, dominating the narrow valleys and villages below. Renowned architect Le Corbusier called the Dolomites “the most beautiful work of architecture in the world." The range was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 for its unique geology and character, with cultural and language diversity also a hallmark. The inhabitants of the Val Gardena and Alta Badia valleys speak Ladin as their first language, and road signs are in all three languages.
Day 4: Tre Cime / Lagazuoi Dolomiti Cable Car
Hike this morning in the shadow of Tre Cime, three colossal pinnacles that form one of the Dolomites' most iconic vistas. A mostly flat loop circumnavigates the trio of towers that dominates the surrounding landscape. After lunch, we follow a portion of the Great Dolomites Road as it snakes through through the Alta Badia region. This exceptionally scenic route was built in the early 1900s to facilitate tourism in the Dolomites, connecting Cortina with Bolzano. Our destination is 9,114-foot Mount Lagazuoi, which we ascend via a thrilling cable car ride. Hike rocky trails across the barren alpine summit, and visit the Open Air Museum that showcases the site of battles fought here in World War I. During the Great War, the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies dug shelters via tunnels and trenches in the bowels of the mountain, turning this veritable stone castle with its spires and turrets into an alpine fortress in which to hide men and arms. Continue to Passo Sella to spend two nights at the highest hotel in the Dolomites at 7,150 feet.
Day 5: Passo Sella—Sassolungo Cable Car / Val Gardena
From our lodge atop Passo Sella, we have unparalleled access to a high-alpine hiking wonderland. The pass is located between the Sella and Sassolungo mountain groups, and a gondola just outside the door whisks us up one vertical mile to a saddle between two monumental peaks.
Endless trails lace the alpine plateau here, and we'll wander to our hearts' content beneath Sassolungo's spiky towers. At the top, a rifugio, one of many high-altitude huts in the Dolomites, offers respite and refreshment for hikers and skiers. Those who wish may hike back down to our lodge. After lunch, we explore the area further, with hiking opportunities from the pass itself or in Val Gardena, one of the most idyllic and traditional valleys in the Dolomites. The ancient Ladin language is still taught in schools, and Val Gardena is famous for its local crafts, especially woodcarving, which has garnered acclaim for the region since the 17th century.
Day 6: Bolzano—Iceman Exhibit & Messner Museum / Brenta Mountains
This morning, drive west to Bolzano, the provincial capital of South Tyrol, where we stop at the Museum of Archaeology to see Otzi, the world-famous Iceman. Some 5,300 years ago this Copper Age man died as he was traversing a glacial valley in the South Tyrol, and his body was preserved in the ice. Older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge, he was discovered accidentally by hikers in 1991, together with his clothing and equipment, and has been the subject of intensive research since. We also visit the Messner Mountain Museum, founded by climbing giant Reinhold Messner to commemorate the subject of humankind's encounter with mountains. Located in Sigmundskron Castle, the 10th-century fortress overlooking Bolzano, the setting offers 360-degree views of the imposing Schlern, Texel Mountains and Otz Valley Alps. Our journey continues after lunch as we leave the South Tyrol andenter the Trentino-Alto-Adige autonomous province, spending the next two nights near Pinzolo in the Brenta Dolomites.
Day 7: Adamello-Brenta Nature Park
The subalpine Brenta Mountains receive fewer visitors than the main Dolomite range next door, though the area's wild scenery is striking. At its core is the Adamello-Brenta Nature Park, the largest protected area within the Trentino region. Set aside as Italy's first nature reserve in 1967, it covers 240 square miles, encompassing the Adamello and Brenta massifs, the Adamello Glacier, spruce forests, lush pastures and more than 50 lakes. Among its rich fauna are various mountain mammals including ibex, chamois, roe deer and alpine marmots, all of which are sometimes on view, though we're unlikely to see the more elusive carnivores such as brown bears, wolves and lynx. A full day of exploring these unspoiled mountains is in store as we set off on a hike from Madonna di Campiglio, with a lunch stop at a mountain rifugio along the way. The region is renowned for its waterfalls, with countless cascades that pour off the limestone massifs.
Day 8: Lake Garda—Private Boat Cruise / Villa Quaranta
After a last morning in the Italian Alps, we descend to Lake Garda, lying in the foothills to the south. Famed for its crystalline water and intense blue color, glacially carved Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy. The region enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate, and the lake's lower shores are a tapestry of vineyards, olive groves and citrus orchards. We'll have lunch in San Viglio, then embark on a private three-hour boat cruise to explore the lake, which is dotted with islands and picturesque villages along its shoreline. Late this afternoon, continue to Villa Quaranta in the heart of the Valpolicella wine country, where we'll enjoy a wine tasting and festive farewell dinner. The 17th-century villa, today the heart of this genteel inn, was once the home of the noble family Quaranta. The grounds include a lavish garden courtyard, medieval chapel, olive trees and a small lake.
Day 9: Verona / Depart
Verona is just a short drive away, and a transfer is included to the airport for homeward flights. If time permits, continue your Italian sojourn on your own with a visit to Verona's medieval old town built along the meandering Adige River. The city is famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.