Call me crazy, but when it comes to the shaping of our planet, I’m pretty sure Mother Nature was playing favorites. It’s a small hunch, and my theory is swayed as I traverse the various regions of Switzerland on its award-winning railways. The mountains of the Swiss Alps peak majestically high as the green landscape is dotted by cabins and homes perched carefully on hills. The sky is completely unadulterated. Sure, I could be wrong but trekking deep into the Alps, I can’t help but think Mother Nature spent extra time perfecting the region, perhaps her baby, with clouds set against a vast expanse of blue, sunlight breaking through the clouds over rolling valleys lush of green trees, pines and evergreens, waterfalls spouting gracefully from glaciers, gorges cut deep in the valleys that are shaped and formed almost artistically to perfection. It’s quite unreal, but this is Switzerland, often referred to the “greenest country on the planet.” And if I’m not mistaken, I would put all my francs into believing that Mother Nature considers it her crowning achievement.
Home of ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biospheres, Switzerland leads the green movement with its wealth of environmentally aware and precious regions. The landscapes (from Lake Geneva to the Swiss Alps) are unbeatable; they may even be the screensaver on your desktop. Effortlessly packing in some breathtaking, sweeping terrain that rivals the best in the world (here, it just may be the best in the world), Switzerland is a beautiful, enchanting country of which most can be explored via the Swiss Railway, which also features some prime views through several regions.
RIDING THE RAILS, HISTORICALLY
There are many different train routes across Switzerland, but I was impressed with the Bernina Express line on the Rhaetian Railway, which chugs along courtesy of a super-scenic historic steam engine from Chur, nestled in the Alps in eastern Switzerland through St. Moritz to Tirano, just across Italy’s border. The train route blends harmoniously into the landscape with incredibly preserved constructions (like spirals, viaducts and bridges). Needless to say—with the prime views—my tendency to sleep on trains came abruptly to an end.
The full route begins in Chur, but you can board as I did in St. Mortiz. From there, riding along the Bernina Express you can jump off and hike (or just lunch) at the Alp Grüm Station (2,090 m/6,858 ft), checking out stunning Lake Poschiavo, nearly 1,300 meters below. And after passing Brusio, the train nimbly scales a raised, narrow corkscrew stone viaduct. Nearby highway traffic comes to a standstill while drivers and passengers watch the descent. From there it’s on to Tirano, Italy where you can then hop a handy bus which will shuttle you to Lugano, in Switzerland’s Canton Ticino. It’s basically a beyond-gorgeous day trip around the Italian border, amid some ridiculously breathtaking scenery.
GO-CARTS, ZIPLINES & BIKES
While the natural aesthetics of Switzerland are commanding, so are the wealth of activities and attractions that come with the whole Alpine-gorgeous package. This I experienced first-hand when I trekked my way to Savognin, a small village with a population capping 1,000 in the Graubunden region of Italy-bordering Eastern Switzerland. Off the beaten track, in the warmer months it’s a hot spot for backpackers and adventure-hungry enthusiasts. Summertime outdoor activities abound, including some of the most unique you’ll ever experience. I found this out when, after arriving, I was promptly whisked away on the gondola, high into the mountains, treating me to some amazing views. Nostalgic moments arose when I was presented to the “Flying Fox” park, a thrilling course of zip lines and aerial obstacles in the trees. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, and the backdrop of the town below is dynamic.
Instead of taking the gondola down the course, I opted for a mountain cart (it’s essentially a go-cart with no engine). Down windy paths along the hills, this sucker gave me a rush worth the ride as it went up to 40 mph. Obviously, I felt like a kid all over again, but it was the mountain biking that had me at hello (or hoi!).
Zip-lining comes with a killer view. (Photo by Jimmy Im)
There are routes for all levels and I opted for intermediate. Sure, it wasn’t the best idea as I haven’t dared step into a spin class for years but as I geared through some tough hills I was introduced to some breathtaking views along the way. I never made it to the top (Alp Fix at 2,000 meters) where more stunning scenery awaits and a path leads you straight into Italy but it gave me ample time to explore the region’s aqua-green rivers and lakes that—at the right time of day—mirror an awe-inspiring reflection of the landscape.
Savognin’s Cube Hotel (Photo: Flickr/Roger&Sandra)
While the small village of Savognin is quite traditional, the avant-garde Cube Savognin hotel serves the amenities most modern travelers seek. Stylish rooms, a cool café, indoor game room with a climbing wall and even a disco make the trek attractive for the guest who needs it all.
GET STEAMED, GET RITZY
Thermal baths are ubiquitous in the Alps and the sulfur-rich spa of Bad Alvaneu was a must to relax and recharge after a day’s exertion in activities. While the bath was small and intimate, nothing competed with Engadin Bad Scuol in Scuol. A destination for spa enthusiasts, this bath featured a Roman-Irish spa with steam rooms and saunas, treatment rooms for massages and facials, a large indoor/outdoor mineral-rich pool and natural mineral water springs to savor for hydration. The small town is equally as charming as Savognin so if you’re looking for a more cosmopolitan experience, head to St. Moritz.
A favorite destination for the jet-set who thrive on nature, St Moritz in the Engadine Valley Region is frequently referred to as the “Aspen” of Europe, and it can’t get any more accurate. The small streets are crammed with designer stores like Gucci and Prada while grand hotels are ubiquitous. Originally known as a summer retreat, St. Moritz is a haven for popular winter activities, including skiing and bobsledding which actually was birthed here in 1885 (St. Moritz is the home of the only natural ice bob run in the world). For the adventure enthusiasts, book a bob taxi ride. Though it only lasts 68 seconds, it’s one of the most riveting moments you may experience (though at a price: $220 per person).
Incidentally, the culture and history preserved in St. Moritz is just as rich as the visitors. Hanselmann’s was a favorite for the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Alfred Hitchcock, who frequented this charming cafe. Just down the street is the Segantini Museum, where works of native Giovanni Segantini are displayed and remains an emblematic highlight to the region.
All of these locales are just a sliver of the legendary options for outdoorsy travelers in Switzerland’s Alpine regions. Don’t think you can begin to tackle them all. Pick and region, dive into the Swiss Travel System, get a Swiss Pass, plot out a journey and work up a touristy mountain-biking, hiking, train-riding sweat!
See you in Switzerland!