LONDON, July 7, 2010 -- 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.
Another affordable hotel, located in the charming old city of Montreux, is the very modern Tralala Hotel, designed around a music theme. Every room is different, dedicated to an artist who has performed in Montreux, including David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and Igor Stravinsky.
Things to Do in Montreux and Surrounding Towns
Take a steamboat ride on Lake Geneva, a wonder of colors and spectacular scenery. The Belle Epoque boats travel from town to town, and they also serve lunch. The boats evoke an era of grand elegance. They leave from the center of Montreux from the main dock.
Walking is the best way to explore this beautiful city. One of Montreux's best walking adventures is along its famous lakeside promenade Quai des Fleurs, or Flower Bank. It winds gently beside individually tended gardens and handmade works of art. Walk the path all the way to the Chillon Castle, a 45-minute stroll. The castle, built in the 12th century, is a must-see. It's the most visited monument in Switzerland. After the walk, treat yourself to an ice cream and take the No. 1 bus back to the center of town.
Who doesn't love a Swiss spa? While well-heeled celebs check in for weeks of pampering, my wife loved the 80-minute body scrub with special Swiss herbs she got at the day spa run by Pauline Burgener, whose health center is located at the Royal Plaza Hotel Montreux. Most hotels in Montreux offer spa treatments. One that gets raves is the spa at the Fairmont.
Take a chance at the roulette wheel at the Casino de Montreux. Located lakefront with a great view, the casino has 380 gaming machines and 27 table and poker games. There are three restaurants and two bars. I did not win, but losing in French made me feel as if I were in the movie "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
The Chocolate Train, one of the most popular train rides in Switzerland, departs from Montreux during the summer and fall months. The day trip includes the city of Gruyeres, home of the renowned cheese. Spend an afternoon in this lovely town, then continue on to Broc, where the Cailler-Nestle chocolate factory is located. Travel in style in a vintage Belle Epoque Pullman car. Make this your cheese and chocolate day.
The towns near Montreux are also filled with beauty, history and charm. Vevey has a famous outdoor market, good access to hiking and biking trails, and a picturesque cobblestoned old town. Its lakefront is especially delightful, with a statute of Charlie Chaplin (who left Hollywood for Vevey, where he lived with his family for decades), and another sculpture you can't miss: the famous "Fork in the River" that sits, appropriately enough, right in front of the wonderful Food Museum (a really fun place).
Vevey is also the birthplace of milk chocolate and is home to the international company Nestle. The town's tradition of artisan chocolatemakers is alive and well, with young chocolate superstar Blaise Poyet. Check out his shop. Yum.
Lavaux, easily reached by bus from Montreux, is a terraced wine-growing region with dozens of walking paths and six villages. You can walk from vineyard to vineyard on a wine-tasting tour. And be sure to try out one of its many gourmet restaurants. Lavaux dates back to the 11th century and has been recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO.
On to Lucerne
Getting to Lucerne on the train from Montreux was a snap. The only hard part was deciding whether to take the regular train, a three-hour ride, or the famed Golden Pass Panorama train that takes five hours and travels through some of the most scenic vistas in central Switzerland. We decided to take the shorter train because of time restraints. But everyone we spoke to about the Golden Pass trip confirms that it's all it's cracked up to be.
Lucerne, the largest city in central Switzerland, dates back to the 11th century, although monks had built the St. Leodegar monastery as far back as the eighth century.
Two of this medieval city's most important landmarks, the Water Tower and the Chapel Bridge, were both built in 1300 and still remain Lucerne's signature attractions. Millions of tourists visit these symbols of the city every year.
Today German-speaking Lucerne is a modern and beautiful home to 60,000 residents. The city, on the banks of lovely Lake Lucerne, has many upscale restaurants and hotels to choose from. We stayed at the chic, art deco style Hotel Montana. It has great lake views, stylish rooms, a jazz bar, a fabulous restaurant with an innovative chef, and the shortest funicular in the world (it goes from the street to the hillside lobby in 60 seconds).
But there's a wide range of hotels available in the city -- from five-stars to youth hostels -- because in addition to its sophisticated vibe, Lucerne is a gateway to the Alps.
Lucerne is a great walking city. From the modern city center to the charming and historic old town, Lucerne is a mecca for music lovers, museum goers and shoppers that begs to be explored.
It may be a big tourist attraction, but you really should not miss the famed sculpture of the "Lion of Lucerne," created in 1821 to honor the 500 Swiss guards who died protecting the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the French Revolution. After seeing the sculpture, Mark Twain wrote, "The Lion of Lucerne" is the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."
Lucerne has a number of great museums. Two that really stood out for us: The Swiss Transport Museum. With more than 3,000 items showing the history of transportation, this museum is considered the best of its kind in Europe, offering multimedia and hands-on exhibits.
The other museum that thrilled us: The Rosengart Museum, a gift to Lucerne from Picasso's friend, the art dealer, Siegfried Rosengart. It's a small museum that showcases an amazing private collection, including 50 Picassos and works by other artists, such as Cezanne, Renoir and Matisse, among other modern masters. Almost as delightful were the rare, intimate photos of Picasso and his family at home. We loved it. Our Swiss Pass got us in for free.
One other museum that caught our eye was the Glacier Garden Museum, a short walk from the famed "Lion of Lucerne." An open park museum, it offers fossils, a glacier pothole and artifacts from the town's history, going all the way back to the ice age.
Going up the Mountains
Lucerne is the perfect point of departure for day-trippers like us to head for the hills, the Alps that is.
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.