Switzerland: It's More than Cheese and Chocolate

A 20-minute city bus ride from the center of Lucerne gets one to the foot of Mount Pilatus, one of the most beautiful and mysterious mountains in Switzerland. One could always start hiking, but there are a few other exhilarating (and yes, easier) ways to get to the top: A ride on the world's steepest cogwheel railway, or a gondola that floats over cows and fields of flowers and incredible rock formations, where legend has it a dragon lives. Both rides are truly fun.

Midway up the mountain (where both the train and the gondola make a stop) there is a summer toboggan run, great hiking paths and a suspension rope park where you can zipline yourself across the tops of trees. For the less adventurous, there's a nice restaurant.

At the 7,000-foot summit is a breathtaking view of over 70 Alpine peaks laid out for hundreds of miles. There are also two hotels on the top of the mountain, Hotel Pilatus Kulm and Hotel Bellevue. Both are undergoing extensive renovations, though the summit is still open for visitors.

We left Lucerne by boat for the resort town of Vitznau, nestled at the base of Mount Rigi, which is fondly called the "Queen of the Mountains." Vitznau and its neighboring town, Weggis, are known for their wellness hotels and proximity to great hiking. We stayed at the Hotel Vitznauerhof, a recently renovated 100-year-old five-star hotel that is home to a medical spa that specializes in anti-aging treatments -- from face-lifts to cell therapies. Although we did not partake of the anti-aging treatments, we did have two great massages.

Early the next morning after breakfast, with nothing more high-tech than our sneakers, a hiking map and a bottle of water, we headed out for Mount Rigi. First stop along the way: Weggis, a two-mile walk along Lake Lucerne, where we were joined at various points by young students on bikes, old men with fishing poles, and grandmas minding babies.

From Weggis, one can get the gondola or cogwheel train to the top of the mountain, where in addition to hiking trails there are hotels, restaurants and camping grounds. The quintessential Swiss roughing it is to sleep at the top of the mountain in a barn on a bed of straw. If that's not your cup of cocoa, the Rigikulm Hotel is on the summit and has a 360 degree view. The Edelweiss Hotel is half way down the mountain and offers modest room prices.

We had carefully studied the map, and since the weather was gray and cloudy, we decided it wasn't the day to head to the summit at 6,000 feet. So in Weggis we boarded the gondola to take us halfway up the mountain to Rigi Kaltbad. The 10-minute ride went through the clouds -- truly magical.

But the real magic was what we experienced on the four-hour journey down -- invigorating, tiring, mystical, a little scary at times, fulfilling and fun -- from the sounds of cowbells rolling down the valleys to the incredible beauty of snow-capped mountains and fields of flowers. At the end of the day we had hiked eight miles on the mountain.

Switzerland is a small country with lots to offer. If you have enough time, you might want to visit the French, German and Italian areas of Switzerland. The 3 Ls -- Lausanne, Lucerne and Lugano. For package deals to Switzerland, click here.

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