Cheese, Chocolate, and Cows: Hiking and Biking the Swiss Alps

Diposting oleh hotels di 05.46
The couch potato in me cringed at the thought of an "active vacation," but since I won it in a Web site giveaway, I wasn't going to turn it down. Even though I'm an out-of-shape cubicle rat, within five minutes of gliding on a sleek touring bike through a cool valley in the Swiss Alps, I became a believer.

My first thought upon winning a trip to Switzerland was, "I'm going to Europe!" When I found out the tour would include miles of biking and hiking every day, I was concerned. I long to be athletic, but the reality is, I watch TV while riding the bike at the gym and consider it a workout. I decided to keep an open mind and hoped the trip would be the start of the new, healthier me.

An active vacation, where you spend part of the trip getting somewhere under your own power, is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry. From once-in-awhile athletes to those looking for a stamina-pushing challenge, active vacation tours allow you to bike, walk, kayak, hike, canoe, or sail all over the world. My tour was through Backroads, a company based in Berkeley, Calif. that was founded in 1979. While reading through their deliciously glossy catalogue, I found that Backroads has over 140 itineraries to 100 destinations in 34 countries. My trip, Switzerland Multisport, was billed as the ultimate in cheese, chocolate, and cows, as well as hiking and biking through the Berenese Oberland region of central Switzerland.

The trip started in the mountain village of Kandersteg. A chairlift carried us to 5,500 feet, then walking along a ridge over the brilliant blue-green water of the Oeschinensee and under glacier mountains recently capped in snow. The scenery was so blindingly beautiful it became surreal. I got the vague feeling that it was just being projected on a screen in front of me. The excitement and adrenalin of beginning the journey easily got me through five miles of mountain hiking.

The bikes were brought out the second day for a ride down the mountains and around Lake Thun to the resort town of Interlaken. I always wondered who buys $1,800 bikes and it soon became clear. It's the person who wants a comfortable, safe, and easy-to-operate ride like the ones provided by the Backroads bikes. Even those who claimed not to have biked in years breezed 25 miles through the valley to enjoy a picnic by the lakeshore.

After the unfettered European travel of my 20s (the local joke is that if you don't like Americans, you only have to see them twice: once after college and once after retirement), I found there was a luxury to the service a tour provides. But the Backroads trip never felt like the typical tour I swore never to pay good money for. There are no buses, no nametags, and little herding. Luggage was brought from hotel to hotel, and the food and accommodations were exquisite. We were told in the morning where to be by the afternoon and given extensive directions. After that, it was up to us.

There was the option to bike or hike the entire route. There were alternate short or long routes that took advantage of the widest variety of transportation I've ever seen, courtesy of a Swiss Rail pass that was included. We traveled by ferry, cable car, train and funicular - a staircase-shaped car that appears to drag you up and down a mountain. There was also the option of spending time with a dark regional beer in an outdoor café.

The middle portion of the tour was based in Murren, a resort village so high in the mountains, there are no cars. The hiking took us under waterfalls hidden by dense forest, along ridges overlooking chalets where cheese is made the old-fashioned way, and through valleys where vanilla-colored cows wearing huge, clanging bells munched lazily on Alpine grass.

For extra adventure, paragliding is popular, and advanced climbers can go near the top of the Schilthorn at over 10,000 feet. For those still acclimating themselves to adventurous life, a cable car takes you to the top where you actually walk among the clouds.

We were back to biking on the fourth and fifth day, winding through valleys where dozens of waterfalls spill endlessly down the mountainsides into pure blue-white streams. The Swiss have a fondness and respect for bicycling, and many of the trails literally took us through front yards where Swiss grannies waved happily from flower-decked porches.

The last evening brought the greatest luxury of all: en-suite rooms at a five-star hotel near Lucerne listed as one of the best in Europe. A peek at the price list told me I was lounging in a room that would normally cost over $350 a night. Our guides told us that many of the luxury hotels in Europe are experiencing financial difficulty, so group rates were now more reasonable. After spoiling myself on my private balcony, and the mini-bar, I was prepared for the last day of hiking.

We climbed to a glass elevator that took us several hundred feet up the side of the mountain. It's the highest outdoor lift in Europe and from the top, we could wander around looking over the Vierwaldsee at Lucerne twinkling in the distance. After listening to our last wistful cow bells, it was back down to gather our belongings and take a ferry to Lucerne. My traveling companions ranged in age from early 30s to late 50s, but many had become friendly enough to spend time together in Lucerne after the official tour ended.

Backroads tours are not cheap, and the European ones are understandably more expensive. But the service, variety and convenience worked its charm on me. I've returned thinking not only that all-day rides or hikes up the shore of Lake Superior would be way more enjoyable than treadmills, but that an action travel tour is definitely worth it for someone like me who only wants to climb the Alps once every few years.

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