Travel: Switzerland

Ernest Rudd finds Swiss travel as smooth-running as you'd imagine, but a deal cheaper than you'd think

The Foreign Office travel advice unit has never, as far as its collective memory can determine, issued a bulletin about Switzerland. So if travelling through a mosquito-infested jungle on the back of a crowded truck is your idea of hell, the Alps may be what you need for a summer holiday. And since the pound has risen by about one-third against the Swiss franc over the past few years, alarm about high prices is (mostly) misplaced.

As winter melts away, the formidable attractions of Switzerland take on a sharper focus. Besides the obvious ones (comfortable hotels, good food, wonderful scenery), there are plenty of surprises. Where else would one find, near the top of a mountain, a scrupulously clean, hi-tech loo whose urinals flush automatically when the user breaks a lightbeam?

The business of making life easy begins even before you arrive at your hotel. Using the FlyRail Baggage System, you check in your luggage at the airport in Britain, and do not see it again until, after you have arrived at your hotel, a porter fetches it from the station or boat-landing. Departing travellers are treated even more regally: before breakfast, the hotel porter takes your luggage and air tickets, and he returns after breakfast with the aircraft boarding cards. The next time you rendezvous with your baggage is in the customs hall at the airport in Britain. Everything runs like... well, clockwork.

Because Switzerland seems specifically designed to eliminate the drudge of travel, you have all the more time to devote to its rewards. What most visitors do in Switzerland is walk, often with a flower book in one hand. The valley meadows and mountainsides are covered with flowers - a challenge to the painter and a delight equally to the botanist and to those who neither know nor want to know the names of any of them. If you hear a high-pitched whistling noise as you go round a corner, stop and look for a marmot doing sentry duty on top of a rock.

Where you find cairns dotted along our mountain paths, in Switzerland you find very welcome seats. A notice by the Brienzersee reads "Do not depose your litter" - and no one does. Everywhere there are plenty of well-maintained and well-signposted paths offering walks of varying rigour, from gentle valley or lakeside strolls to longer treks involving an overnight stay at a mountain hut.

Reaching the starting points for walks is easy, using the excellent public transport system in which high-speed trains dovetail effortlessly with post buses, and even - in some car-free valleys - horse buses.

However, it is the profusion of mountain transport that makes the walking really easy. lt takes many forms: mountain railways, going up by rack and pinion; funiculars, with two trains on cables passing each other half- way up; cable cars - both luftseilbahnen, on which one car goes up as the other goes down, and gondalbahnen, on which a continuous string of small cars goes round like beads on a necklace - and chairlifts for those who can control their vertigo. Often it is possible to be carried up one way, walk along a high-level path, and then be carried down from a different place.

Back to that 64,000 franc question: how much? As the main tour operators fixed their prices last autumn, I had expected the recent rise in the value of the pound to have made it cheaper to book direct, but a calculation showed the packages are still cheaper, even before the usual travel agent's discount.

In my experience the three firms whose brochures are stocked by most travel agents are Inghams, Kuoni and Swiss Travel. Kuoni offers holidays in the widest range of places, and also the widest choice of hotels. For stays of up to a fortnight, Inghams is often cheapest, but for longer periods Kuoni generally comes out better. It is always worth doing a careful comparison of prices. For a fortnight at two different places in comfortable three-star hotels you can expect to pay about pounds 750 for half board, and for three weeks about pounds 950. All three package firms offer holidays only in the more popular places, and for less well known destinations you may need to book directly at a hotel. But off the beaten track there will be less transport up and around the mountains.

A word of warning for those wanting to travel in the next three months: many of the cable cars close down between the end of the skiing season and the beginning of July. But by the summer, sterling may not be so strong.

Swiss essentials

Tour operators: Inghams (0181-780 4444); Kuoni (01306 742500); and Swiss Travel Service (01992 456123). A small, innovative firm, Inntravel (01653 628811), offers independent walking tours on which you make your own way, but your luggage is taken on for you.

More details: Swiss Tourist Office, Swiss Centre, Coventry Street, London WlV 8EE (0171-734 1921).

Recommended reading: Switzerland by Rail, by Anthony Lambert (Bradt Publications, pounds 10.95).

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