(Editor's Note: As of 2015 the Swiss Pass is now called The Swiss Travel Pass.)
Idle a while in the edelweiss with Edelweiss Air, the budget arm of Swiss International Airlines; both are members of the Lufthansa Group. Edelweiss Airlines celebrates its 20th year of operation in 2015, and with new non-stop service from Las Vegas to Zurich's Kloten International Airport you can schussboom the Alps in style with no East Coast connections. Train transfers at the bottom of the ZHR airport terminal connect to the entire country.
Celebrate St. Moritz' 150th anniversary as a winter sports center this year (2014), which hosted the 1928 and the 1948 Winter Olympics; or rope up for the 150th anniversary of the summiting of the Matterhorn in 2015 in Zermatt, which offers the only year around skiing in Switzerland; even the U.S. ski team trains here.
Edelweiss Air will run the Vegas flight thrice weekly in the summer/fall season starting in June, 2015; presently it offers a weekly winter flight. Edelweiss primarily utilizes 285-seat Airbus A330 aircraft with a Business Class equipped with fully lie-flat seats and a new in-flight entertainment system. Its Economy Max offers passengers almost six inches more legroom. Edelweiss Economy Class received a makeover with new seats and a new entertainment system. Edelweiss serves 45 destinations in 28 nations worldwide. www.flywedelweiss.com
Switzerland is renowned for its dark chocolate, the food source highest for endorphins, the natural substance that the brain creates which enhances outdoor activity. With the rarified air of the Alps and a choco bar in the pack, mountain bike or hike the endless trails on the Haute Route. Many ski resorts offer half off on chairs and trams when utilizing the Swiss Pass.
Rail Europe (Eurail) sells the Swiss Pass but it is not incorporated into any of its country passes or flex passes. A consecutive 8 day Swiss Pass gave me plenty of opportunities to see every corner of the Swiss countryside.
The Swiss Pass is good for all rail travel, the double-decker yellow AutoPost buses, city trolleys, boat excursions (seasonal in the summer), and over 470 museums. One caveat is that there is a nominal surcharge for the Panorama trains such as the Bernina Express and Glacier Express, usually about 14 Swiss Francs (CHF) each way. There is no surcharge on the panorama GoldenPass train from Montreux to Gstaad.
Also, not all museums and all ski lifts honor the pass. In Gstaad I rode half price on the Swiss Pass to the restaurant at the end of one of the lifts and enjoyed a veal curry lunch on the sunny deck with a kid goat curled up at my feet. What is more Swiss than that? A square of Swiss dark chocolate saw me hiking away from the restaurant along a ridge line with tinker toy villages far below. In St. Moritz I had to pay the full 72 CHE to get to the top of the mountain for a delightful lunch of Swiss venison with panoramic views of the Alps.
The Swiss trains are called either Bahn or Zug (not to be confused with the town of Zug, near Zurich). A train station is the hof, so a Bahnhof or hofBahn is the train station. Most trains have first/business and second class carriages. Upgrade to first class on your Swiss Pass for only a few Swiss francs more. The tracks or platforms are numbered as sektors (sectors) and alphabetized as A, B, C, or D. Smaller station tracks only have B or C sectors.
Before the train arrives an announcement breaks in over the platform to alert which sector is business or second class. Each track has a timetable schedule posted of the train destinations and times. With all the Swiss timekeeping precision, you don't need a watch, most tracks have an overhead clock. Be warned that the trains are always on time. The posted schedules also have icons for the number of cars on each train by business/first or second class. BZ on the schedule means business Zone, FZ is family zone, and RZ is quiet zone, which I presume excludes children.
Some of the intercity trains are double-deckers and offer a TV screen signaling stops that are highlighted and enlarged for the next station. Some cities have more that one Bahnhof. Geneva has the financial or city center station which is much smaller than the Geneva Airport station, where you can catch the French TVG bullet trains all the way to Paris or other regions of France, but these trains are not part of a Swiss Pass.
Interlaken is a long lake. with the West Station, which has few services, and the East or Ost station which is the tourist zone on the north shore at mid-lake. Catch the Die Zentralbahn Interlaken to Lucerne Express at this stop . Brienz is a local stop on the far eastern end of the lake. The Ost stop is also where you can connect with the Jungfrau Railway to the highest rail station in Europe, the Jungfrraujoch, at 3,454 meters.
The Zurich stations include the Bahn HB (Hauptbahnhof”, or main station) at the financial center of Switzerland's largest city; where six rail lines converge; the city has been a crossroads since the Medieval Ages; a second station is at the Zurich airport.
Some stations are end terminals, where all passengers must disembark, such as Geneva Airport, Zurich Airport, and the steel and aluminum modernistic station at Lucerne. The Lucerne Art museum is next door to the station with the same architectural motif. In the future when I catch an Edelweiss Air flight I plan to stay in the pleasant Old City of Lucerne and then take the train directly to the Zurich airport; trains runs twice hourly from Lucerne to ZHR and the hotels are less expensive in Lucerne. All train stations offer free Wi-Fi, but charge for it on the trains themselves.
Many of the larger Bahnhofs have rail representatives dressed in yellow lifejacket-style vests to assist passengers. The tracks are on the lower levels and above the escalators leading to them are TV screens with posted destinations leaving from that track. Not all stations have TV screens or escalators, some have long ramps, a few have elevators or lifts.
Railing through Switzerland is a breeze; I never needed a car except for a cab ride to the Swissotel in Gemeva. Each train station has a blue sign with white lettering demarking the station or city. SBB is the government rail agency, and this is imprinted on all SBB trains. The main stations all have SBB offices; smaller stations such as Zermatt, St. Moritz, and Gstaad have smaller SBB offices. You can buy or change a ticket at any office, or purchase tickets in kiosks at most smaller stops.
In the big tourist areas such as Gstaad the local tourism office can set up hotels accommodations. The Zurich Airport SBB office has a complete travel agency with brochures and they set up tours, hotels, and more all across Switzerland. The local tourist offices set up hotels only for their locale. In St. Moritz an interactive hotel board at the hofBahn magically made my hotel reservation. I punched a button next to the Eden Hotel, a voice came on the speaker, a booking was made, and 15 minutes later the hotel shuttle picked me up, with Pia, the hotel owner, at the wheel.
I used my Swiss Pass to take lesser known routes like the BLS RegioExpress from Spiez to Brig which wound through the Emmantal region with colossal granite spires spiking the skies at Kandersteg, which I noted for mountaineering and mountain biking. Each route has something splendid to discover. The century old historic Neo-Classic station at Brig, near the Italian border, was impressive, but it charged 1 franc to use the WC or toilets; the Lucerne station charged 2 francs. If you don't have the right denomination you are SOL. I over-nighted in Brig in the extreme southern region of Switzerland and a classical choral festival was in progress on numerous church steps. It was a pleasure to see the elders and the youth singing their hearts out in the heart of the Alps.
The main station in the Zurich financial district was a Baroque-style edifice, like many of the office buildings outside the station; a children's carnival was underway right in the huge station. I noted the Clydesdales hooked up to a beer wagon.
Basel had the most beautiful Bahnhof — a Classic Belle Époque style copper domed Victorian era station. Trolley lines branched out in dendritic patterns at the Basel station to serve various parts of the city, including Renzo Piano's Modernist Foundation Beyeler Museum in the suburbs where I viewed a gallery of Gustave Courbet's Modernistic/Naturalist paintings. Geneva and Zurich also had city trolleys, which move faster than they appear, so crossing the tracks means total awareness.
Basel is the cultural heart of Switzerland and known for the Rhine River, located at the three country bend of Germany , France, and Switzerland. The best way to visit the Old City is on a guided walking tour, topped off with dinner at the first 5 star hotel in Europe (1844), Les Trois Rois, overlooking the Rhine. Many luxury barge cruises depart from Basel.
On the Swiss Pass I rode the Jura Foot Line from Basel to Geneva, along the three lakes region of Biel, Murten, and Neuchatal. Vineyards covered the hillsides leading into Geneva. Jesus, yes that was his name, was my cab driver to the Swissotel Geneva, right on the lake near the marina, and I was checked in by Caesar, yes that was his name.
There are three splendid Swissotels in Switzerland: Basel, Geneva, and Zurich. My digs overlooked the sailing boats on Lake Geneva. The next day I hiked the hill behind the hotel to the Old City and discovered the Auguste Rodin exhibit at the Museum of Art and History. Many of the other exhibits are free, but my Swiss Pass didn't cover the modest 15 CHF Rodin displays. Uniworld's luxury hotel barge Angleterre plies the Rhône River at Geneva.
It was Autumn and the boats from Geneva to Montreux were stored for the season, but my Swiss Pass carried me by rail along the Lavaux Line to the far eastern end of Lake Geneva. The vineyards along the route from Lausanne to Montreux are probably the only ones given UNESCO World Heritage status. I certainly enjoyed the Swiss wines in the fine dining emporiums I encountered throughout the country. Switzerland has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other country.
At the small Montreux station no one got off the train and I waited for the doors to automatically open, but suddenly the train was on the move and I had to get off at Aiole a half hour down the line. Not all doors open automatically, There was a green button that must be pressed. I never made this mistake again. A local tour boat plies the Montreux harbor area of the city to the ancient castle, and it was a perfect day viewing the Alps as they spilled down to the lake. The two week Montreux Jazz Festival is held in July.
The Panorama train from Montreux to Gstaad is part of the GoldenPass Line, which is covered by the Swiss Pass, but a reservation is needed. There are two classes of service: The GoldenPass Classic and the GoldenPass Panoramic. Get the Panoramic option.
For me the most impressive 2 1/2 hour train trip was the Bernina Express between St. Moritz and Tarino, Italy. The train also can be boarded at the historic town of Chur and then climbs into the Engadine and behind the Bernina Hosptiz, through the amazing Poschiavo Valley, and then the Vlllelinea Valley to Tarino. In the summer you can catch the AutoPost bus to the Lugano area in Ticino canton, which protrudes into Italy like an advancing glacier.
Most Swiss trains run on alternative current electricity but the Bernina Express (BEX) uses 1,000 volts of direct current. The Panorama carriage gave perfect views of the Alps and at the top of the pass the White Lake (Lac Blanco) separated the glacial waters that drained either into the Po River and then the Adriatic, or the Black Sea via the Danube.
There is no official "Swiss" language, but German is predominate, as is French and Italian along those borders. The fourth official language, the ancient Latin Romansch, is spoken mainly on the eastern side of the Continental Divide that the Bernina Express traverses. On most Swiss trains announcements are first in German, then French, and then English, with Italian heard more in the Ticino area, I was eager to hear Romansch, but it never came up in conversation; only 1% of the Swiss speak it.
I over-nighted in Tarino. The town is in the Europzone, but the Bernina Hotel takes Swiss Francs for accommodations or dinner. I indulged in a fantastic linguini aspic for only 11 Euros and that included the house jug red wine. There are banks in the main square with ATMs where you can withdraw small amounts of Euros, such as 50 or 70 denominations.
Out of Brig I took an Italian train, which my Swiss Pass covered because I was only transiting Italy and hopping on the rack-and-pinion mountain train at Domodosolla, Italy, through the dark tree dense and smaller Italian Alps to Locarno. Locarno is a beautiful town with ancient alcoves, but the place to stay is the Relais Chateaux property, Castello del Sole, in the "Beverly Hills" of town. The resort is on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore (Magic), and it is the largest resort in Switzerland; its dining options are out of this world. Locarno is in the oldest Swiss canton, Ticino, which adjoins the Lombardy region of Italy. It is the hottest and lowest region in Switzerland, but there is skiing in the mountains around it.
I rode the Glacier Express from St, Moritz to Zermatt and the eight hour panorama ride was superb. You must book The Bernina Express and Glacier Express in advance because you will be assigned a seat on a certain numbered carriage, called a vert. Lunch is served from an ala carte menu at passengers' seats at your own cost. Half way through the trip a German family came onboard at Thuis and sat across from me. They opened their picnic basket and all of a sudden I was invited for a revelry of BBQ wienerschnitzel, salad, and lemon cake, washed down with Swiss Calanda Beer.
The Glacier Express basically runs along long steep walled valleys, unlike the Bernina Express. which is truly more Alpine, but at Obersaxen the accompanying red non-panoramic coach cars were uncoupled and a cog engine was hooked up for the slow grind up to the Oberalp Pass, dropping down into another long valley to Andermatt where the cog engine was swapped out for an electric one. Swiss engineers developed the cog rail lines back in the Victorian age when wide spread travel became popular on the Grand Tours of Europe.
The Glacier Express states it is the slowest express train in the world, but we didn't mind, the views were stunning. From Andermatt we turned south to Zermatt, a village embedded below the Matterhorn. Matt means valley and horn means mountain, and the megalodon granite tooth embodied everything Swiss. Zer means "to or toward" — Zermatt is toward the valley, which takes one hour to transit by rail from the hub at Visp.
The place to stay in Zermatt is the Chalet Hotel Schoenegg, which has spectacular views of the Matterhorn from some guest rooms, the restaurant, and decks. http://www.schonegg.ch/zermatt/hotel/home.html
Our group met up with the former mayor of Zermatt, Amade Perrig, for a cog railway ride up to the glaciers at Gornergrat! (opening photo). He noted that the glaciers had receded significantly since he was a boy. Then we hiked the beauty of the Alps from Roter Boden to Riffelalp, where Amade whipped up his Swiss specialty, a fondue-like treat of cheese and potatoes, called rocklidge. http://www.zermatt.ch/en/mountain-experiences/Excursions-Mountains
The next day Amade had us on the Little Matterhorn with a visit to the Glacier Palace. http://www.zermatt.ch/en/Media/Attractions/Glacier-palace
Amade also mentioned that camping is free any where in the Alps. For more information about the car free town visit http://www.zermatt.ch/en/
When you purchase your Swiss Pass, sign it, along with your Passport number. The pass is usually checked by conductors, but never collected for statistical purposes. Grab pastries and coffee and drinks at the Coop or Milagro shops either at or near the stations.
The website www.swisstravelsystem.com is not the official SBB website, but the website of Swiss Travel System (which was founded by SBB, Switzerland Tourism, and five private railways). SBB have their own website, where you can check the timetable and book single tickets: http://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html.
There are numerous Swiss Pass ticket lengths, and they have an app for all the train schedules.
For more info about Switzerland visit:
www.myswitzerland.com or www.switzerland.org or www.Switzerland.com
My endorphins are running low and I needed a boost of Swiss dark chocolate combined with Lavaux Valley wine flavonoids, so I explore the possibility of jumping on the Chocolate Train out of Zermatt. I would be riding the high country on my Swiss Pass to a cocoa infused high altitude rail bling.
Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature about Eurail Your Way through Europe.
— Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine. Photos courtesy of Swiss Travel System, SBB, and Edelweiss Air.