Switzerland: Turn over a new leaf this autumn

While leaf-peeping in the Upper Engadine valley, Kate Simon welcomes the changing of the seasons

The view through my train window is too green. The forests of pine that clad the surrounding slopes of the Swiss Alps remain as regimented in shade as form. Yet, I am on my way to the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina to try out a special package designed to encourage guests to view the glorious autumn colours of the Upper Engadine Valley.

The scene is certainly glorious, irrespective of the lack of autumnal colour. I am riding the Glacier Express, a little red train that scuttles up the Alps from Zermatt to St Moritz, crossing vertiginous viaducts, and popping in and out of holes in the mountains as it goes. The stretches of track in the Albula and Bernina landscapes are architectural and engineering feats, now recognised by Unesco in its list of World Heritage Sites.

Ever higher we climb, but still the screens of pine trees offer no contrast for the eye. I pull out the hotel's publicity material, which assures me the Swiss Alps can easily rival the great autumn shows of North America. It says that nothing announces the arrival of the new season quite so dramatically as the "striking red, glimmering gold and burnt orange" leaves of the trees of the Engadine valley. I look back through the window; if I screw up my eyes, I can just about make out a frond of yellow, deep in the canopy.

By the time I reach the hotel and meet Flavio, my guide for a leaf-peeping tour of the area, I'm almost in despair. It seems my arrival in late September is just a little too early in the season to bear witness to this natural phenomenon.

"If you wait another couple of weeks, then you will see the trees changing colour. It's starting – you see a yellow tree here and there – but soon the whole forest will be a mixture of greens, browns and oranges."

Flavio is not just a guide; in summer he also works as a forester. "We're in an avalanche zone, so it's really important to cut the trees to ensure they're healthy," he tells me. "They provide a natural barrier. They fix the snow."

It seems to me, a forester who is also a guide is a great asset on a leaf-peeping trip. However, it turns out Flavio doesn't need to have swallowed a book on tree identification; he says there are only three kinds that grow this high up in the mountains – the red pine, the arve (aka the Swiss pine) and the larch. It's the larch that causes the colourful commotion in the otherwise evergreen canopy, turning to shades of yellow and orange.

Flavio tells me that, when the autumn leaves are in full show, I'd be able to step out of my hotel and take any path or railway track into the mountains to enjoy the sight. For now, we must actively seek out any turning leaves, so he takes me to the shores of two of the main lakes of the Engadine valley – Silvaplana and Staz – to uncover some early signs of autumn. There, by the cold, clear waters, we find a few larches shaking out a yellow branch or two.

But, my attention is captured by the mountain tops. This is the roof of Europe, somewhere I've seen before only from the window of a plane. Our distance from the seashore is evidenced by the treeline, the point at which nature cannot summon up the strength to germinate another seed. Where there are no trees, there is the brown mulch of dead alpine rose, edelweiss and primrose and, at the very peaks, just cold, hard rock, nude yet of snow. This looks more like autumn to me.

Travellers have come to the Upper Engadine for centuries, attracted by the views, which can often be admired in bright sunlight (this area gets more sunshine hours than anywhere else in Switzerland), and sparse cloud cover. Yet, on the second day of my visit, a storm settles into the valley, and I am confined to the hotel.

This is not a new challenge for the Kronenhof, which originally opened in 1851 as a guesthouse for Switzerland's army of postmen. The explosion in tourism to the Upper Engadine in the 1870s spurred on numerous improvements that brought it rather more upmarket.

These included a "Bellavista" wing of gracious salons, set against the backdrop of the mountain panorama, the best place from which to view the ghostly spectre of the Roseg Glacier, which never removes its white winter coat. Amid these drawing rooms, the visitors who enjoyed extended stays here, made necessary in the 1800s by the remoteness of this Alpine retreat, could while away days of poor weather playing bridge and billiards, and even bowling in the specially constructed alley.

Today's guests can still play all those traditional games in the carefully preserved rooms, but they are more likely to head to the new spa, a contemporary space as bold as the 19th-century confection on which it has been bolted. I take a swim in the vast infinity pool that sits beneath its central dome, pausing at the water's edge to look through the wall of windows at the mountains beyond. But my eye is caught by something in the foreground: it's a larch that has turned almost fully yellow. Autumn is definitely on its way.


Getting there

Kate Simon travelled to Zurich with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com/zurich), which flies from Heathrow and London City to Zurich from £135 return. Alternatives include Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com). The writer took the train from Zurich to Pontresina. A Swiss Transfer Ticket for a round trip between the airport or border and destinations across the country costs from £90 (00 800 100 200 300; swisstravelsystem.co.uk).

Staying there

The Grand Hotel Kronenhof (00 41 81 830 30 30; kronenhof.com) offers a two-night autumn package until 20 October. It costs Sfr415 (£273) per person, based on two sharing, with breakfast and dinner included, unlimited use of the mountain railways in the Engadine/St Moritz area and access to the spa.

More information

myswitzerland.com. glacierexpress.ch (which runs until 28 Oct and starts again from 9 Dec)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?