Enjoy skiing, hiking, biking, leisurely drives, and many more on-the-ground adventures as the slow-paced way to get to know Switzerland and neighboring Italy.
Mix stunning scenery with a new culture, wonderful cuisine, eons of history and the majesty of the Alps, and you'll understand why France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy are some top destinations for active on-the-ground vacations with all ages.
With more high peaks than any of its European neighbors — 100 mountains soar 12,000 feet or higher — Switzerland is one of the most popular destinations for an outdoors adventure. Since many families find the laid-back pace and engaging nature of hiking and biking journeys rewarding and economical, let's look at some ideas for touring Switzerland and Italy slowly with kids.
Switzerland Brings the Family to New Heights
If you're flying into Zurich, you can begin your overland tour on the water at Lake Zurichsee, via the Limmatschiff boat ride. Famous winter resorts like Gstaad, the castle-crowned valleys of Gruyeres, and the traditional Alpenzall are also popular destinations with fair weather visitors because of their many hiking and biking trails, and inexpensive pensiones serving a hearty Swiss breakfast.
FTF members have praised the Bernese Oberland, the mountainous region comprising Interlaken and picturesque Grindelwald. This little town is nestled in a valley at 3,400 feet at the foot of the Swiss Alps, just three hours by train from Zurich. Grindelwald is completely overrun with skiers in winter, in part due to its 130 miles of groomed runs, in part because of its well known downhill, cross-country ski, and snowboard schools.
Summer, when hikers arrive to "bag" the many easy trails, is low season, too. Swiss innkeepers are relaxed after the busy winter and welcome European families who stay for weeks at a time. Rates drop at the many cozy B&Bs where rustic rooms come with a breakfast of fresh bread and pastries, fresh milk, butter, yoghourt and fruit. The 27-room Hotel Sonnenberg (41/033/853-10 15; fax 41/033/853-28 02) is one of the prettier larger inns, with moderately priced doubles boasting great glacier views from each balcony. Many visitors like to stay in nearby Lauterbrunnen, where the Silberhorn and the Crystal are recommended; see www.wengen-muerren.ch for other lodging ideas.
Active families may never use its modern indoor sports center because Grindelwald is such a wholesome place to hike and hang around, with a dozen day hikes suitable for different ability levels. In summer, children can ride the colorful ski gondolas uphill to hike past grazing cows and fields of wild flowers. Even the least capable walkers will enjoy the easy, 90-minute Chantal One trail from Mannlichen (reached by gondola from Grindelwald or by cable car from Wengen) to Kleine Scheidegg, or the walks from Grindelwald First to Bachalpsee, Grosse Scheidegg or Faulhorn (this one's longer and more strenuous.)
Other diversions include a revolving restaurant on top of the Schilthorn (that peak conquered by James Bond), and the loftiest railway in Europe, the Jungfraubahn. Families enjoy taking this small, old steam train to the next town, then boarding a trolley through the nearest city. For kids who love any kind of transportation, the variety available in Switzerland is magical.
The Swiss rail system is one of the most efficient in the world, so travelers with weary little ones will often find a motorized way to see the region they're interested in. One of our favorite rides is a visit to the Gornergrat (over 10,000 feet) aboard the Glacier Express (41 27 927 77 77). This route crosses 291 bridges, 91 tunnels and a 2,033-meter pass on the route from St. Moritz or Davos to Chur or Zermatt.
The Internet makes planning this type of trip fun and relatively simple. For hard copy brochures and essential maps to share with the kids, call the nearest branch of the Switzerland Tourist Office (212/757-5944 in New York; 877/794-8037). They'll provide tourist and lodging information for the whole country; if you're only interested in the region described above, contact the Grindelwald Tourist Office (41/33/854-1212).
Guided tour more your style? For years, the Swiss Post system has operated a wonderful, down-to-earth sightseeing service called PostBus Tourism. You can find moderate-priced itineraries which include riding on the postal trucks as they deliver mail, savoring every country town and rural road. The sophisticated PostBus company also plans self-drive packages and escorted tours; contact them for a wealth of information if your planning to drive the region.
Do-It-Yourselfers will be interested in purchasing either a SwissPass for unlimited travel in a certain time period over the rail and other national transport systems (it also saves the hassle of figuring out fares or waiting in line to purchase tickets), or a Swiss Half Fare Card, providing a 50% discount on trains, buses, cog railways and cable cars when presented at time of purchase. Depending on your intended destination and length of travels, one of these options is sure to save you money.
So close to Switzerland, and even more moderately priced, the Italian Alps of the Val d'Aosta region are filled with small inns that welcome families for hiking and biking when skiers are long gone. Bergamo, Cortina, Pila and the Dolomiti foothills are top values in warm weather. However, beautiful Lake Garda is only at its best (therefore, most expensive) in summer when windsurfing, fishing, sailing and swimming keep Italians busy; contact Lake Garda information for villa rental info.
Independent-minded families will enjoy the trip-planning assistance and self-guided tours organized by Randonnee. All flights and accommodations are pre-arranged by the tour operator and, though you're on your own to explore; maps and local support are made available once you reach Tuscany. Contact them at 800/242-1835; 604/730-1247 for more information.
Other escorted tours include those of Butterfield & Robinson (877/794-8037; 416/864-1354), a well known firm which offers a variety of very high-end, pure luxe, skillfully guided biking and walking tours. Families with children age 10+ can join B&R each summer in the Czech Republic and Austria, Switzerland or France. Toddlers age 3+ are welcomed on walks through the Italian Dolomites or on bike rides through Ireland.
Another fully-escorted tour operator excelling with families is Tauck Bridges (800/788-7885); their deluxe multi-generational itineraries for Italy and several European capitals may be another way to go.
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