The bright stuff

With dinky trains, fresh air and fabulous views, the Swiss Alps are perfect for a family summer holiday, says Caroline Stacey. Just keep the kids away from the penknives
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The Independent Travel

Chocolate is a more effective bait for mice and for children than cheese. I know this because we have both at home. And when we wanted to leave the feral mice behind and take the semi-tamed children to Switzerland for a summer holiday and feared controversy, it didn't have to be sold too hard as a destination. The promise of chocolate did the trick. Sure, the holey cheese helped, too. And we told them about snow-topped mountains in summer, the smooth-running trains, cuckoo clocks, famous penknives, clear lakes for swimming and lack of sand (which, perversely, they've always loathed). What we didn't tell them was that the main recreation would be walking.

Chocolate is a more effective bait for mice and for children than cheese. I know this because we have both at home. And when we wanted to leave the feral mice behind and take the semi-tamed children to Switzerland for a summer holiday and feared controversy, it didn't have to be sold too hard as a destination. The promise of chocolate did the trick. Sure, the holey cheese helped, too. And we told them about snow-topped mountains in summer, the smooth-running trains, cuckoo clocks, famous penknives, clear lakes for swimming and lack of sand (which, perversely, they've always loathed). What we didn't tell them was that the main recreation would be walking.

We arrived at night in Interlaken, the town on a flat piece of land between lakes Thunder See and Brienzer See. (Such a literal name, like Euro-lingo for beginners.) We had a one-week travel pass covering trains, cable cars and funiculars of the Berner Oberland region, up into villages like Wengen and Grindelwald under the north face of the Eiger, and further up to the still snow-capped mountains. To get there from Zurich airport we changed trains at Bern. Already the benefits of new forms of locomotion were apparent. One of the trains was a double decker and our first novelty was climbing the natty little carpeted staircase to the first level and having the whole carriage to ourselves.

Next morning we woke to the sound of church and cow bells. "There are clouds on top of the mountains and the houses are all old and wood," said child A, looking out of the window. Elaborately carved wooden chalets trimmed with gaudy floral motifs were surrounded by fields and gardens. Into the precious few acres of flat land and the short summer, the Swiss cram extravagant yet ordered productivity: geraniums on every balcony and on the ground, rows of corn, runner beans and sunflowers. But the children had their eyes on higher things; scanning the clouds that masked the peaks, they were impatient for the mist to clear and the mountain tops to be revealed.

Highest of these is the Jungfrau, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The railway is one of the world's wonders, constructed at the turn of the century, through tunnels and past glaciers to the 11,333ft summit, the Junfraujoch. From Interlaken the train heads for Wengen, where you change to trundle up to the junction of Kleine Scheidegg, the last stop below the snow line and chilly in the shadow of the Eiger. From there the journey continues inside the mountain, making a couple of pit stops so you can use the spotless chemical loos and look out onto the snowy mountains. Eventually you arrive at the underground terminus, which is the highest railway station in Europe. Through a series of eerie, ice corridors carved with birds and animals, and out into dazzling sunshine, we crunched through the snow to the little plateau looking along the glacier. That was where the first of two particularly Swiss accidents happened.

The children had been bought alpenstocks (walking sticks) from a tourist shop in Interlaken, and with these props had taken to their role as doughty hikers. On our first day, after an hour by steam train to Brienz and up to Rothorn through a great grassy bowl, we'd hiked back through woods and meadows down to the Brienzer See. The walks were clearly signposted with timings that exactly matched our own pace. Soon we were boarding a boat decorated inside and out with alpine flowers. It glided in zig zags from shore to shore across the utterly smooth, nacreous water.

However, up on top of the Jungfrau, the already indispensible alpenstock slipped from my son's hand as he fell, while avoiding a snow ball thrown by his dad. It slid under the safety rope and kept sliding down onto the glacier below. The stick was unreachable. The young hiker wept. Shamefaced father approached a passing mountaineer and asked if it was possible to get down there and rescue it. The mountaineer said it wasn't safe.

Mountains, we realised, are not places to lark around on - except in designated ways. And on the Jungfrau these consist of a little ski slope, spinning, plastic toboggans, and huskies pulling a sleigh, chivvied by a woman shouting herself hoarse. More exhilaratingly, on the zip wire the younger child was attached to Connie, who works as a ski instructor in winter and mountain guide-cum-zip wire operator in summer. She said she could not imagine living anywhere else. We could see why.

Before the afternoon's safety-approved gallivanting on the glacier, we'd spent what remained of the morning gazing longingly at the stranded stick from the bars and restaurant built into the side of the mountain. Was the stick so unreachable that it would stay there all winter, be covered in snow and revealed again next spring?

If that was a mystery, so was the bizarre existence of the Bollywood restaurant. The "highest Indian restaurant in Europe" - how much competition can there be for that title? -served a lunchtime buffet pretty much as you'd find in Southall. Or India. The children had their first curry there, looking out of the window at the August snow, under posters of Bollywood stars. We were the only customers. What on earth was it doing there in the first place? Apparently so many Indian tourists come to the Junfraujoch that it seemed worth opening a restaurant for them.

Our long day at the top of Europe left us with headaches and sunburn. And with the feeling that nothing else would quite live up to the Jungfrau. Not even the Schilthorn, the peak topped with the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant that featured in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. George Lazenby's only outing as 007 is nothing like as memorable as the restaurant. It's reached by a terrifying cablecar wobbling hundreds of feet over a shale moonscape, above the lovely, car-free village of Mürren. You reach this resort by a train that runs along the top of the ridge, after a funicular from the valley below, and another train right down the valley to Interlaken. See what heaven this is for train nerds (ie most small children and their dads)?

Our daily routine was to plan an excursion, buy a picnic in the Co-op, consult train timetables and set off on another adventure. We learned to take warm clothes with us as we headed up the mountains, leaving sunlit Interlaken behind. We learned that the trains were never ever late, there would always be deliciously fresh and free drinking water gushing from village fountains, and that every funicular would stop when it got to the bottom of a 45-degree slope. For children there were all the thrills of a theme park without the tat and noise. And as well as the natural risks from falling rocks (as shown on warning signs), changeable weather and slippery ice, there were man-made ones that make good stories afterwards.

The second accident involved - inevitably - a Swiss Army Knife. It happened on my afternoon off. The children came back from an excursion with their dad with a penknife each, one of them minus the top of his thumb, which was covered in a bloodstained bandage. Tips for parents: 1) Children under the age of eight should be very carefully supervised when they're playing with knives. 2) Buy them the small knives with just one blade. He cut himself on the blade he'd already opened as he tried to prise open the second one.

After days on the mountains, Interlaken itself seemed rather pedestrian. Even so, to sit in the park in front of the palatial Hapimag Belvedere and Victoria-Jungrau hotels as paragliders land beside you, having sailed off the mountains, is a bit of a thrill. You could do as the locals do and ride out to the camp site and swimming spot at Neuhaus on lake Thunersee. Or go by bus.

Most afternoons we'd arrive back at the hotel in time for dinner, and evening entertainment was of the make-your-own-fun variety: Scrabble, reading in the hotel bar by a 40-watt bulb and, for the children worn out by fresh air and walking, bed straight after supper. At the Hotel Beau-Site this quaintly formal four-course meal, was served by a lugubrious waiter called John. Starters: an unchanging buffet of beetroot, carrot, Russian salad, cold meats and cheese, and chips. Then a soup course, and then meat or fish in sauce, boiled potatoes and overcooked vegetables, followed by puddings involving tinned fruit.

This 1950s-style family meal programmed the children so effectively that we were able to read Heidi aloud to them every night. They listened eagerly to the cheesy tale of the little girl who lived up a mountain with old Alm-Uncle and goatherd Peter and how sickly city-girl Clara left her wheelchair behind on the mountainside and learned to walk again.

One night we went to see the town's weekly music extravaganza, then went for a fondue. The bells were still ringing in our ears. "You may shoot with your camera as much as you like and making videos," said the mayor and MC of the concert to the tourists gathered in the town square. It was so charmingly unpolished an event that it seemed done as much for the enjoyment of the participants as for the entertainment of the handful of visitors.

An Alphorn player took centre stage. Blowing a sonorous and not very distinctive tune, all the effort seemed to go into making a noise, any noise, with the ludicrously unweildy giant's pipe. This was followed by the "ancient art of Swiss flag throwing". Then someone playing on an enormous horn a plaintive tune very like the Last Post. For the finale, the cow bell ringers, each with a different sized bell, played rounds. The performance ended with the bell ringers, their stride encumbered by the huge bells, clanging their way home in formation under a starry night sky.

So much orderliness and wholesomeness. It appealled hugely to the children - and to us. We must be getting middle-aged. They even forgot about the chocolate most of the time.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Caroline Stacey and her family travelled to Switzerland with Inghams (020-8780 4433; www.inghams.co.uk). Seven nights' half-board at the Hotel Beausite starts at £928 per adult and £139 per child under 12.

The nearest international airport is Bern, served from London City by Darwin Airline (00 41 91 612 4500; www.darwinairline.com).

STAYING THERE

Hapimag Belvedere, Höheweg 95, Interlaken (00 41 33 828 91 00; www.hapimag.com). Apartments start at SF400 (£180), room only.

Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa, Höheweg 41, Interlaken (00 41 33 828 28 28; www.victoria-jungfrau.ch). Doubles start at SF562 (£250), room only.

GETTING AROUND

A one-week Regionalpass Bernese Oberland for travel on the trains, funicular and cable cars costs SF220 (£100) for adults and SF110 (£50) for children aged six to 16 and is available from May-October. Visit www.regiopass-berneroberland.ch.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Interlaken Tourism (00 41 33 826 53 00; www.interlakentourism.ch)

Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30; www.myswitzerland.com)

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