I'd traveled to about 35 countries, but the one place I'd never been was Switzerland. I knew it was the center of world banking, and that it had stunning ski slopes and picture-perfect villages.
But since I don't have a secret bank account and I don't ski, the country hadn't been high on my list, until the day my stressed-out wife came home from work and said, "You have to take me on vacation. I want to breathe fresh air, eat healthy food and hike, but nothing too strenuous. And I want to go to Europe."
So I did a little research, and Switzerland kept popping up. Before we knew it, we were landing in Geneva.
Since we had only eight days, I decided to focus on two distinct regions: the Swiss Riviera, where the French-speaking city of Montreux is located on the shores of Lake Geneva, and the German-speaking city of Lucerne, in central Switzerland. Each had its own distinct history, culture, language and style. Our plan was to do lots of walking and hiking in the Alps, enjoy some spa treatments, and just immerse ourselves in Switzerland.
From the Geneva airport, we took an hour-and-a half-train ride to Montreux, which gave us a panoramic view along beautiful Lake Geneva, the largest freshwater lake in Western Europe. Snow-capped mountains, terraced vineyards and those postcard villages flew past as the color of the lake changed from dark blue to turquoise. Swiss public transportation is excellent, and we found that a Swiss Pass was the most economical way to get around the country.
Switzerland is a movable feast of interconnected trains, buses, boats, cable cars, gondolas and cogwheel trains, and the Swiss Pass covers all these modes of transportation. It even offers free admission to many museums and the pass is flexible enough to accommodate a traveler's schedule.
The precision and timely arrival of trains is as accurate as ... a Swiss watch.
The Swiss use Swiss francs, not euros. The Swiss franc is the only version of the franc still issued in Europe. The best way to convert money is to use ATM machines, which are plentiful.
Montreux is a year-round resort, thanks to its warm Mediterranean-like micro-climate. Many of the glamorous hotels that dot Lake Geneva and the nearby hillsides are in the famed 1890s Belle Epoque style (think "Gigi").
One of the finest is the Fairmont Montreux Palace, a five-star hotel where famous people like to rest their heads as they gaze out at Lake Geneva's boats, windsurfers, hot air balloons and the French Alps across the water. Montreux has long been a magnet for the rich and famous. Everyone from the Romantic poet Lord Byron to rock star Freddie Mercury (of the band Queen ) has lived and loved in Montreux.
But Montreux is most famous for its Jazz Festival held every summer. The small city of 25,000 residents swells to more than 400,000 jazz lovers for the two-week jazz event.
But you don't have to be a rich celebrity to stay in Montreux. We stayed at the Eden Palace au Lac, a beautiful Belle Epoque hotel that overlooks the lake, offering excellent service, free computer access, spacious rooms and reasonable prices.