GENEVA - Friends and I played a game during our visit to this Alpine beauty, checking our Japanese- made watches to see if the trains would arrive at the time posted on the station clock. Without fail, each pulled into the charming stations with the mountain views right on time.
Traveling by train is the best way to see Switzerland, that most beautiful of European countries where snow-capped mountains, idyllic pastures, glacial lakes and quaint towns appear at your coach window around every corner.
An added bonus of train travel here is that it gives you a chance to meet the likeable Swiss, who are always willing to fill you with local information.
Like the woman we met while traveling by train to the lakeside town of Vevey, where Charlie Chaplin once hung his derby hat.
“Do you see those vineyards,” said the lady pointing to lush terraced fields that swept down to Lake Geneva. “One of them is owned by (Michael) Schumacher, the Formula 1 racing star. He owns a home here, I believe.
“The vineyards in this part of Switzerland were planted by the Romans and the wine from this region is light bodied – very good,” said the lady whose red cheeks suggested she had sampled some earlier in the day.
Above: Charlie Chaplin lived in Vevey.
A few miles further down the tracks, the lady told us: “Lake Geneva is actually called Lac Leman. Only foreigners call it Lake Geneva. We Swiss always call it Lac Leman.”
We bid farewell to the lovely lady at Vevey station and walked a short distance to the Hotel des Trois Couronnes (Three Crowns), a palace-like property that oozes history and charm.
While enjoying a gourmet meal on the hotel’s terrace, a server told us the town we were looking at across the lake was Evian, the French town where the most famous of bottled waters come from.
“Yes, Evian’s water is very good but the spas in that town are even better,” said the server as he delivered another portion of food swimming in a delicate sauce.
Vevey is a discrete little town where they sweep the streets in the early morning and tend to the lovely flower beds that line its shores in the late afternoon. This is where the French and Swiss Alps meet and as you can imagine, the scenery here is breathtakingly beautiful, especially at sunset.
Along the boardwalk that runs parallel to the shore in Vevey stands a statue dedicated to Chaplin, one of many North American stars who used the town as a respite from their hectic lives. The latest star to call this area home is country singer Shania Twain, who owns a palace in nearby Tour-de-Peilz, just outside Vevey.
Vevey is also the town that inspired Anita Brookner to pen her Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac from a room with the stunning lake view at the Grand Hotel du Lac.
Vevey’s sister city is Montreux, the next train stop up the line. Montreux is more Riviera than Switzerland, the total opposite of Vevey. Montreux’s chic shopping area is always filled with top end cars carrying the rich and famous. That is where you can catch a boat and sail back to Vevey, something we were only too happy to do.
Above: Getting around Switzerland is easy thanks to its great rail service.
It’s not just the national train service that runs like clockwork in Switzerland. The smaller local trains are just as efficient, as we learned when we rode a slow moving two-car Edwardian train from Bex (pronounced Bay) up a fairytale mountain to the Alpine village of Villars.
Along the way we stopped in other small villages to pick up passengers and watched some energetic Swiss peddle up the steep climb beside the train – without breaking a sweat. The trip took us past glacial streams and through the belly of the mountain in tunnels so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
Villars is a ski retreat that wins many awards for its stunning facilities that have become a favorite with French and Swiss families. This is another village the rich and famous like to find solitude – another Formula 1 star, Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve who loves skiing in the off-season, has a home here.
Skiers ride a gondola to the top of Roc d’Orsay, 6,000 feet above the town and ski to neighboring villages in snow that is baby powder soft.
In recent years Villars has become known as a golf retreat, which is probably why the local hotel we stayed in had changed its name to Hotel du Golf. It’s an above par property and very reasonably priced.
The best place to eat in Villars is Peppino Restaurant, where hearty traditional meals are served up in an chalet atmosphere that is quite simply delightful.
We took the tiny train back down the mountain the next morning and caught the national train to Verbier where we jumped on a cable car for a thrill ride to Crans-Montana, the delightful twin ski towns that sit high in the Alps, offering visitors some of the most stunning vistas in the world.
Here locals claim their towns sit on the sunniest plateau in the Alps, towering over the enchanting Rhŏne Valley with some spectacular peaks yawning beyond.
While famous for its amazing skiing, Crans-Montana is also revered as the “best shopping town” in all of Switzerland. The high end shops are usually jammed with people who don’t see to mind paying the exorbitant prices being asked.
Above: Crans-Montana is a magical place.
Ironically, it’s golf, not skiing that Crans-Montana has become most noted for. The delightful Crans-sur-Sierre golf club hosts the European Masters each year and has made Crans-Montana an all-seasons resort town. The course, which the legendary Greg Norman once described as: “by far the most spectacular tournament site in the world” was designed by famed Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros and is truly a delight to play.
This is where our train journey of Switzerland ended. From here we took a car back down into the fertile valley and proceeded to Geneva.
The road trip was also delightful but we missed the comfort and companionship that Swiss trains offer tourists.