20 October 2017

Cover Story


Naturally engaging Switzerland
July 2017 1438

As this journalist discovered, a visit to Switzerland is not just a sublime experience but also an epic journey of discovery engaging with nature as well as enjoying the cultural, gastronomic and historic richness of the country.

Arrival from Saudi Arabia to Zurich, courtesy of Lufthansa and Swiss Airlines via Frankfurt was efficient and comfortable with the plane and the trains taking the strain. Landing in Zurich is a dream as one can find one’s way around from the airport to the city in ten minutes utilising superbly super-efficient Swiss trains, which, by definition, are the benchmark for how railways should operate – clean, punctual, fast and always reliable. 

Later on, during my visit I had the opportunity to return to Zurich from Lugano which sits close to the Italian border in Ticino. Sitting on a train hurtling through the new 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) reaffirmed the intensity of locomotive power and engineering expertise, as well as underling the vital importance of transit through the Alps since antiquity.

The new GBT, the world’s longest and deepest tunnel opened in December 2016 to create the shortest link between the rivers Rhine and Po. If my watch timings and calculations were correct, the express train silently glided through the GBT tunnel at a speed of more than 171 km per hour including high-speed internet connectivity too. This fast-track north- south route creates an economic artery from the North Sea to the Adriatic whilst reaching back to the days of the Roman Empire when Zurich was originally a Roman town, Turicum.

A travel guide mentioned to me that Thomas Cook organized its first Grand Tour in Switzerland in 1856. Fast-forward 150 years and the palpable attractions of Switzerland as a vacation destination remain undiminished for discerning travellers.  

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates lead the way with inbound tourists, and comprise in the main families taking their annual summer vacation. The Middle East is an increasingly important sector and Switzerland Tourism takes its responsibilities seriously providing enhancements to make the holiday experience special.

Although many visitors from the Middle East hire cars, the Swiss Travel Pass is a fabulous way to travel across the most dense rail network in Europe with 5,250km of electrified lines. The Swiss travel pass offers heavily discounted package deal for trains, funicular railways, public transport buses and free entry to the country’s museums. All one needs is the bar code and one can travel everywhere with ease. One can also criss-cross the country and have one’s luggage sent in advance from hotel to hotel, or station to station. Again, let the train take the strain.

First stop from Zurich airport was to Crans-Montana, at a distance of 300km, in Valais one of 26 cantons in Switzerland. A veritable summer and winter wonderland, Crans Montana was once a remote area of mountains and valleys with hill farmers living in some hardship looking up to the immensity of the Matterhorn (4,478 m high) and other mountains and the Rhone valley.

In 1896, Crans-Montana started to develop the medical tourism industry in Switzerland with the creation of sanitoriums for tuberculosis patients. The first golf course was built in 1908 and medical patients have been steadily displaced by golfers and skiers ever since.

Stretching from the Rhone valley at 500m high to the Plaine Morte Glacier at 3,000m, there are picture-postcard panoramic views from Dufourspitze to Mont Blanc. This area is not for the faint-hearted as the outdoor life beckons with hiking, cycling, and hill-walking to enjoy the experiences of the pristine natural landscape bundled together with a host of cultural, musical and sporting events.

Staying in the Crans Ambassador, the ultimate getaway, one was perched on a plateau at an altitude of 1,500m overlooking rugged valleys with bisses (falaj), mountain pastures, forests, lakes whilst looking up to snow-capped mountain peaks even in mid-July. 

Crans-Montana is deemed one of the top family destinations in Valais and was awarded the label “Family Destination 2016-2018” by Swiss Tourism. Crans-Montana has long been a cycling centre since the 1950s and continues to attract increasing numbers of visitors.

In winter, the entire area would be covered in snow with access limited to funicular railways and ski lifts in order to reach the hotels, chalets and ski slopes. Inside one can enjoy fine dining facilities, an indoor pool, spa and a patio area which overlooks the valley below where one has breathtaking views of the high alps and embrace untamed nature whilst breathing invigorating mountain air.

Crans-Montana is famous for its clientele with luminaries including Sir Roger Moore who lived nearby until his recent death.  But everybody is famous in Switzerland and a visit to a local farm on mountain pastures included a man that makes cheese every day, seven days a week, as well as tending his herds of cows, and in the winter transforms into one of the region’s top ski instructors.

All Swiss always seem busy and self-reliant providing for the tourist a wealth of activities from horse-riding, zip-wiring, golf and hiking. Later this summer, Crans-Montana hosts a European masters golf tournament, the largest event after the British open, which attracts 50,000 visitors a year. Then there is the equestrian completion staged at the end of July and much more.

The Chetzeron, a south-facing mountain hotel and restaurant perches 2,112m above the Rhone valley amid the alpine summits within the Crans-Montana ski area. Chetzeron is a converted 1960s cable-car station with 16 en-suite rooms all offering stunning views overlooking the mountains and valleys with top class cuisine. Total tranquillity and silence prevails except for the occasional cow bell echoing below.



Zurich
Crans-Montana
Switzerland





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