When it comes to summer holidays, many people choose to head for the sun, sea and Mediterranean beaches and all that goes with that type of holiday – crowds of people you’d perhaps rather not be with, traffic, air delays and all the other hassle that goes with a beach holiday in the sun.
But I recently discovered an altogether far more pleasant alternative which shares the same sun but is altogether more restorative. In stark contrast, it is quiet, offers plenty of space and really allows you to relax and unwind. Where is this place I hear you ask? Well it’s none other than the Europe’s highest mountains in the Swiss Alps.
My first port of call was the home to one of most famous mountains in not only Europe, but perhaps the world – The Matterhorn and the beautiful ski resort of Zermatt.
What I like about Zermatt is its authenticity. It’s still very much a working community and not solely a tourist resort, with the men dressed in short woollen trousers and the women in long thick dark red wool dresses. There are parades and festivals, singing and yodelling, squeezeboxes and zithers. These days this German-speaking town has a Portuguese community that’s some 3,000 strong alongside the original Zermatters (2,000) and other foreigners (1,000). You’ll find that the main church has mass at 10:00am for the Germans, at 4:00pm for the Italians and at 5:00pm for the Portuguese. This progressive harmony is similarly evident in the lack of rubbish and graffiti in the village. There are no cars but rather electric taxis and the electricity is all powered by the local water supply.
The summer season, which runs from mid-June to the end of September, is a third less busy than its December to April winter ski season. It took me a bit of time to adapt to the altitude but twenty yawns later and I was ready to explore. It’s all about early rising here and for the goats too who come directly through the village at 9:00am!
On my first day, I took myself off on a hike up the mountains along the supposed ‘granny trail’ that turned out to be a little steeper and more arduous than I had bargained for. I was told, “It’s not the mountain we have to conquer, but ourselves”. I got the just desserts of a lunch at the perfect food stop of Chez Vrony a family-run restaurant on the Sunnegga mountain next to a charming 18th century chapel. And was delighted to be able to put my feet up literally on a lounger wrapped in wool as I took in the fantastic views and a local beer in one hand.
Whilst in Zermatt, I stayed at Chalet Les Anges, courtesy of Sylvia Delvaille Jones of Villas and Apartments Abroad. It’s open plan and spacious with a grand piano in one corner and has an indoor-outdoor feel. When you pull back the curtains in the morning you can see The Matterhorn towering over the town and below in the valley all the clustered charm of the Alpine chalets.
Before leaving for my next port of call, I saw the fantastic sight of runners from all over the world competing in a marathon pacing themselves as they ran steeply uphill. From one ‘peak bashing’ competition to the next as Nendaz, my next destination, was also having a summer contest that was equally bracing and demanding. No granny trails for them!
At Nendaz I stayed at the Chalet Etoile, part of The Hideaways Club, membership to which allows you access to a portfolio of properties all over the world. It’s also great for kids with many families saying how much their children preferred the many activities on offer to a beach holiday.
Nendaz is famous for its historic bisses, which are small irrigation canals that form a vital water source and reminded me vividly of the Jean de Florette film. It must have taken years to construct them but they also offered a refreshing dip for Kelsie a lovely huge fluffy St. Bernard who escorted me half the length of my bisse walk from the tourist office to Planchouet. Much more a ‘granny trail‘ I thought, being an hour and a bit along level paths. However, for those of you with families, I would suggest the engaging qualities of trails and treasure hunts devised by the local tourist board.
For that true dining out experience, I highly recommend the passionate creations of chef Loris Lathion and sommelier Romain Arnaud at Le Mont-Rouge. Loris is also known for his variety and said that ‘If I have to do the same thing for too long, I go crazy”. “That is why I change my menu at least six times a year”. He is indeed passionate about what he does.
Whilst watching other enthusiasts I found the mountain dwellers most infectious. They are unbelievably fit and healthy and I met two people who as a matter of course are awake at 5:00am to climb 2,000 feet to the top of a peak before roller skiing back down for a day’s work out.
Personally, I took the romantic walk from my chalet down the piste (before a challenging walk back up) to Restaurant Les Etagnes. It’s well-positioned at the bottom of the slopes for all the après-ski crowd and it’s where I had a wonderfully healthy and hearty dinner courtesy of the manager Onno, one of the impressive dawn raiders.
My travel then took me on to Interlaken where it’s easy to see why this tourist resort is so popular. It is uniquely set between two of the other great Swiss mountains, the Eiger and the Jungfrau, and two of the larger Swiss lakes, the Brienzersee and Thunersee.
The real delight of Interlaken however, is its ‘glacier milk’. This beautiful aquamarine channel of water unites the two lakes and is so stunning it deserves the following explanation. When temperatures warm up during the summer the snow on the Alps begins to melt and cascade to meet tiny particles of rock. This results in a green, cloudy appearance by the time it enters the rivers and streams and hence the name ‘glacier milk’, a type of blue that I had only ever witnessed before in the seas of the South Pacific.
My final resting spot was at Interlaken’s foremost hotel the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa, which has a state-of-the-art Nescens Spa and is the perfect way to finish a day up the mountains.
This trip really helped me appreciate how the Alps form the backbone of Europe and to see the fairytale charm of the farm buildings amongst the patchwork of pasture and tilled land. It’s all green and abundant and the Swiss literally carve out their existence from the Alps. They have also developed robust, healthy, grounded, non-showy, undramatic characteristics. All formed, I felt, by the environment.
It seems most strange to me that people are prepared to arrive in the Mediterranean in their hordes to search for their overcrowded beach holiday when for children as well as adults there is so much more variety and opportunities to relax in the sun, take in the fresh air and come back fully restored from a summer holiday in the Swiss Alps. Even for laggards like me!
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064) offers 3 nights at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa from £1,049 per person. Prices are based on 2 adults sharing a superior double room on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Zürich and first-class rail transfers.
7 nights at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa cost from £2,416 per person on the same basis as above.
Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of the BBC panel game QI for Stephen Fry. He is a British author having written three books about unusual words with Penguin Press.
Photographs of Zermatt by ©Michael Portmann. Photographs of Nendaz by ©Yasmine Gaudin and ©Roger Glasson and photograph of Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa by ©Stefano Candito.