Sipping a sunset-hued Aperol Spritz along the right bank of Lucerne's Reuss River earlier this month I was enveloped in pure holiday contentment.
From the snow-topped peaks of the Alps against Robin's-egg blue skies, to the welcome of belled Swiss Brown Cow ambassadors grazing in Alpine meadows, Switzerland captivated me from the moment I'd arrived.
Penurious vacation allotments and European holiday tours are the scourge of the American traveler. While seven country/ten-day highlight tours fill passports with enviable stamps to show off at the office, they don't ignite sparks or satisfy cultural curiosity the way a deep dive solo country sojourn can.
Switzerland is worthy of undivided attention, filling vacation days with storybook scenery, spontaneous detours, and those leisurely distractions the Alps provide at every turn.
Swiss Travel Pass
Armed with a Swiss Travel Pass, I struck a perfect balance of structured and serendipitous travel.
Good for unlimited travel over Switzerland's incredible transportation network of trains, busses, and boats as well as free and discounted museum entrances and excursions, the pass is a time saver and includes access to Switzerland's glorious panoramic scenic trains such as the Bernina and Glacier Express -- destinations on their own.
Two side trips I made from Lucerne illustrated the power of the pass.
A planned excursion to Mt. Pilatus began with crossing Lake Lucerne via boat to nearby Alpnachstad. Minutes after my short walk to the Mt. Pilatus station, I was aboard the steepest cogwheel train in the world. An engineering wonder built 125 years ago, the train ascends nearly 2,000 meters from its base, at times on grades as high as 48 degrees.
Unprepared for the stunning views and exhilarating moments spent suspended on Pilatus's steepest ledges, I was gob smacked seeing a small herd of Ibex scampering along a nearby cliff side. Visitors can arrange for special "safari- hikes" on Pilatus where multiple sightings of these curve-horned mountain goats are virtually guaranteed.
My original plan for a half a day excursion doubled as I realized all the Dragon Mountain offered. The longest summer toboggan run in all of Switzerland? Check - 1350 meters long - and as a bonus, you're towed up backward to soak up the view. I enjoyed watching fellow visitors navigate the expansive ropes course as I quaffed a hops-heavy Feldschlösschen from the patio of one of several on-mountain restaurants.
Pilatus visitor's center hosts historical archives, dining, and souvenirs. There are two hotels atop the mountain where you can overnight and witness sunrise at the peak, a most memorable sight.
Best of all when you're ready to descend, the Dragon Ride aerial tram whisks you down the mountainside opposite the route you ascended for additional spectacular views.
On a whim, I used my pass to find unanticipated delight discovering picturesque Altdorf, an hour train ride from Lucerne. Birthplace of the mythical Swiss patriot William Tell, Altdorf recently introduced an amazing scavenger hunt/crime solving game for children of all ages. In CSI Tell, participants learn of Tell's exploits, experience the area's beautiful countryside, and enjoy a sophisticated contemporary adventure without equal.
The game brings to life the 700-year-old crime of William Tell's killing of Hermann Gessler, the Hapsburg governor. Equipped with a backpack full of random "tools" (umbrella, mirror, keys, and dowel sticks are among the research equipment provided), crime scene investigators traverse the countryside around Altdorf and neighboring villages in search of clues used to solve the case.
Most fascinating was a rain shower installation that turned symphonic when the water vibrating against the provided umbrella delivered the promised clue. The game can last an entire day or be divided into smaller portions and is a wonderful diversion for couples, families or competing groups. Remarkably creative in its construction, CSI Tell routed me along hiking paths, through vineyards and delivered on an unexpected day of fun.
My last full day in Lucerne found me ascending the 33 meter Mannli Tower, one of the nine remaining medieval era watchtowers adorning the remaining section of rampart high atop the city of bridges. I lingered there, alone except for the little iron man perched overhead, waving his banner. The river, swollen from recent rains, rushed past the famed Chapel and Spreuer (Mill) Bridges, early commuters and a stray dogs scampering about.
Before most of the city's visitors enjoyed their morning croissants and coffee, I'd made my way through the historic Old City. I strolled to Kapellplatz, site of the 12th century St. Peter's Church, Lucerne's oldest. The colorful fountain in the square's center is the epicenter of Lucerne's Carnival, the city's "fifth season."
Picking up the pace I reach the Lion Monument while still deserted. The sculpture is a dedication to fallen Swiss mercenaries, hundreds who died in fighting foreign wars. The giant sandstone relief, hewn in 1820, depicts a lion in agony as it breathes its last breath; a broken spear plunged into its heart. American writer Mark Twain remarked the Lion was "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world."
That evening, I attended the symphony at Lucerne's jewel box concert hall, the KKL where the acoustic quality was matched only by the beauty of the hall's design.
Dinner featuring Wienerschnitzel prepared tableside at the incomparable Old Swiss House lived up to its Michelin billing.
Stopping for a nightcap on my way back to the historic Hotel Des Balances, I enjoyed a cocktail raising my glass to the swans bobbing along the river's edge. A tiny bagatelle of a country, Switzerland now held a giant place in my heart.