Three awesome Alps adventures
Stretching across roughly 1,200 km, Europe’s highest mountain range, the Alps, arcs across eight countries, from the Mediterranean coast of France to the eastern fringes in Austria and Slovenia. Along the way, alpine cultures and landscapes offer a fascinating variety of experiences.
France may be home to the tallest peak (Mont Blanc), but Switzerland’s Alps are the high point for most travellers. With majestic snow-capped summits, waterfall-laced cliffs, and picturesque lakes, they have hiker-friendly amenities — well-marked trails, restful mountain huts, and a system of lifts and trains that let you effortlessly ascend to dramatic heights.
As famously great engineers, and ardent nature lovers, the Swiss know how to make alpine thrills accessible to almost everyone, regardless of stamina or skills.
My favourite region in the Swiss Alps is the Berner Oberland, south of Bern and crowned by a trio of formidable peaks: The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
A good, easy hike is along the ridge between Mannlichen and Kleine Scheidegg, which separates the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen valleys. To do this hike with minimal exertion, take the train from the valley base of Lauterbrunnen up to Wengen, then a gondola to Mannlichen. From there, the trail winds gently down past staggering views, contented cows, a perfect picnic spot, and a fine restaurant.
You’ll get a loftier view of those same mountains from the 3,050-metre Schilthorn summit. The Schilthornbahn cable car takes riders up in four stages. At about $100 round-trip, it’s pricey, but when you’re surrounded by cut-glass peaks and breathing fresh mountain air, it’s one of Europe’s great deals.
The Swiss love to cap their peaks with restaurants, and one of the most popular is the Schilthorn’s revolving Piz Gloria. It was the setting of key scenes in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Today, there’s a fun 007 exhibit — even Bondthemed toilets.
Casual hikers can take the cable car down to Birg station. The station, while a fine springboard for hikes, also offers the Skyline Walk — a viewing platform with a transparent floor that juts over the cliff edge, and the Thrill Walk, a 183-metre course with a steel-and-glassbottom floor, rope bridge, and tunnel. From Birg, you can walk down to the rustic hamlet of Gimmelwald (a great place for a post-hike beer or overnight stay).
The French Alps are no less dramatic than Switzerland’s — and cheaper (Switzerland is Europe’s most expensive country). My pick there is the range that hovers just above the resort of Chamonix — near the junction of France, Switzerland and Italy.
In Chamonix, if the weather’s right, there’s nothing better than riding the cable car to Aiguille du Midi, a 3,840-metre rock “needle of midday” high above town and across from Mont Blanc.
Up there, the air is thin, visitors are giddy, and even when the sun’s out, it’s still bitterly cold in July. Europe’s highest gondola glides along a 4.8-km cable, dangling over the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) to Helbronner Point.
Above Chamonix Valley, the Grand Balcon Sud hike is lovely. Being a hiking lightweight, I prefer a trail where I can ride a lift to one end, enjoy high-mountain kicks (with minimal altitude gain), and then ride the lift down from the other end. This three-hour walk comes with unforgettable views of Mont Blanc, glaciers, and wildflowers.
Much farther east, near the Austrian border, Italy’s Dolomites offer a different alpine flavour. This region is unique for its Austrian roots, which still survive from the food to the bilingual German/ Italian-speaking locals.
The city of Bolzano — blending Austrian tidiness with an Italian love for life — is the Dolomites’ gateway. But I prefer settling in higher up, in Kastelruth, right in the midst of mountain splendour.
Both towns provide easy access to the Seiser Alm, Europe’s largest alpine meadow with rushing streams and evergreens, Seiser Alm is a well-run national park with buses, well-kept huts, trails and lifts, fab views and lots of dairy cows. On a summer day, it’s like a day at the beach.
No matter which corner you explore, the Alps provide a symphony of experiences that can endlessly delight.
The super-scenic walk from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg in Switzerland is both dramatic and relatively easy — and comes with great views and fine company.