This summer, I took my first trip outside of Canada since the beginning of the pandemic. As I outlined in last week’s post, I participated in the Air Canada Race in Switzerland and got the chance to visit Basel and Gstaad.
Aside from the thrill of being overseas again, this trip was unique for me in several ways. I stayed in hotels that I wouldn’t use stay at, I did activities that I may not usually consider doing, and other (lovely) people looked after all of the details.
In this post, I’ll go over my wonderful experience in Switzerland and outline why I’m already planning to return for trips in the summer and the winter.
Getting to Switzerland
For the first time since becoming a Miles & Points enthusiast, I flew long-haul flights in economy. As the flights were included as part of the package, I didn’t really have a choice in the class of service I’d fly.
On the overnight flight from Toronto to Zurich, I was lucky to have the middle seat empty between me and my seat mate. I did my best to catch some form of rest with a new neck pillow, but I’d describe it more as falling in and out of a trance than a deep, lie-flat slumber.
Needless to say, upon arrival, there were aches and pains that I hadn’t felt in a few years, but the energy of being overseas again kept me motivated to stay awake until the evening in an effort to get a head start on jet lag.
Swiss Travel Pass
Switzerland isn’t necessarily known for being the most affordable country. As one way to stretch your Francs a bit further, I’d strongly recommend looking into the Swiss Travel Pass, which I used to travel around the country.
The pass gets you unlimited travel on the country’s excellent network of trains, boats, buses, and public transportation. Also included with the pass is free entrance to more than 500 museums, 50% discounts on many mountain excursions, and travel on premium panoramic trains.
Children under 6 travel for free, and children between 6 and 16 travel for free with a parent who holds a valid Swiss Travel Pass. For a family vacation to Switzerland, this is a great deal!
As Switzerland’s transit system is so extensive, you can take a train to a trail head, hike up a mountain, and take another train on the other side of the mountain back to your comfortable lodging for the night.
There are several passes available that suit different itineraries:
- The regular Swiss Travel Pass is available for unlimited travel on fixed, consecutive days. You can buy passes for travel for three, four, eight, or 15 days. Depending on the class of service you choose, the passes range in price from US$258 for a three-day second class pass to US$900 for a 15-day First Class pass.
This pass is great if you plan on covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
- The Swiss Travel Pass Flex offers many of same benefits as the regular Swiss Travel Pass. The major difference is that this pass is valid for unlimited travel on flexible days within one month, rather than being valid for consecutive days.
You can buy the pass for travel on three, four, eight, or 15 days within a month. The prices range from US$297 for a three-day second class pass to US$989 for a 15-day First Class pass.
This pass is a better fit if you plan on spacing out your travel in the country across a longer time span. The Flex Pass is slightly more costly than the regular pass, which is understandable given its greater flexibility.
- Lastly, there is a Swiss Half Fare Card, which gives you unlimited half-price tickets on trains, buses, boats, and public transit in cities over the course of a month.
This pass would be good if you don’t plan on moving around the country very much.
Passes can be purchased online through the Switzerland Travel Centre.
Part 1: Basel
The first three nights of my trip were spent in Basel, Switzerland’s third-most populous city. The city borders France and Germany in the north of the country, and is around 1.5 hours from Zurich Airport by train.
I stayed at the Mövenpick Hotel Basel, which is conveniently located within a walking distance from the train station. The Mövenpick brand falls under the Accor umbrella of hotels, although it is Swiss in origin.
While I’ve experienced a few “new car smells” in my life, never had I had a “new hotel smell” before. The hotel wasn’t yet open to public during our stay, which was a unique experience in that we were literally the first people to stay here.
I appreciated the design of my room and the hotel in general. The room was well-equipped with electronic black-out blinds, a desk, a comfortable bed, a rain shower, and a Nespresso machine.
During my first backpacking trip in 2005, I stayed in Basel for a day or two visiting a friend who happened to be there. Being so long ago, and given that we spent more time in pubs than in museums, the trip was a bit of a blur, so it was nice to return to the city and to experience it at a different stage of my life.
Basel is a very walkable city, but if you don’t feel like walking, there is an extensive network of trams to speed up your trip.
My very limited spare time was spent on foot walking or jogging through the narrow streets, appreciating the sights and sounds of an old European city. I managed to sneak in a stein of local beer, too, which was delicious.
Basel is known for having interesting architecture, a number of public art displays, and river cruises down the Rhine, amongst other things. An organized walking tour took us by Tinguely Fountain, the Basel Cathedral (Basler Munster), City Hall, Old Town, and by the riverbank.
In the summer, locals will fill a wickelfisch bag (a fish-shaped dry bag that is unique to Basel) with important belongings and use it to stay buoyant as they float down the warm Rhine river.
The slow current and warm water is perfect for an afternoon swim, and you can stop for a refreshing beverage at one of the buvettes on the riverbank along the way.
Our full itinerary didn’t leave any time to swim down the river or to experience more of the city, but I will be sure to immerse myself in the city on my next visit, which will hopefully be sooner than later.
Basel Tourism’s website has a great overview of the many different ways to enjoy the city throughout the year.
Part 2: Gstaad
The second half of my trip was spent in the upscale resort town of Gstaad, nestled in the Bernese Oberland region of the Swiss Alps.
Gstaad is known as a playground of the rich and famous, and judging by the number of luxury vehicles and private jets I saw during my short stay, its reputation is indeed valid.
We arrived in Gstaad on the GoldenPass Panoramic train from Spiez, after connecting in Bern and Zweisimmen. The train rolled through picturesque mountain villages as cows clad with the iconic bell grazed in fields of grass nearby.
This became one of my most memorable hotel stays due to its outstanding views, unique rooms with handmade Swiss beds, numerous amenities, and the overall memorable experience.
I loved the design of my room. I appreciated a number of its finer details, including:
- the colour palette with blue, copper, and natural wood,
- the bench and table that added a nice place to sit and work,
- the sliding door in the rain shower so I could enjoy mountain views,
- having a backpack supplied for hiking the local trails,
- the working cuckoo clock, and
- a patio to relax on
The rest of the hotel was equally as impressive. The lobby and bar area was designed to feel like a massive living room, complete with a massive bookshelf above a fireplace and one of the most visually appealing bar areas I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying.
I spent several sessions in one of the two saunas on site. The main sauna has an automatic aufguss or water being added to the rocks. There is also a steam room, pool, and spa area.
We were treated to a site tour by one of the managers, and I was impressed with all of the other amenities on site.
There were two restaurants (with a supervised play area for children next to one of them), a sushi/sake bar, a games area, a nightclub, a ski shop, conference rooms, a gorgeous patio, and a fondue barrel.
I could have spent my entire time in and around the hotel, but we were treated to three activities during our stay.
The first was an e-mountain bike excursion, which took us from Gstaad to an alpine lake and back. This was my first time on a battery-assisted bike, and while I’m usually one to enjoy a good sweat, it was very refreshing to not be completely out of breath after biking up a large hill for once.
The afternoon was outstanding. Everywhere we looked, there were picturesque wooden cottages, happy cows grazing, and incredible mountain views as we rode through valleys and alongside a river. I could hear a chorus of wows with each turn we made.
Our second excursion was to Glacier 3000, a nearby site that takes visitors up to a glacier at 3,000 meters above sea level on a pair of massive gondolas.
The site offers panoramic, stunning views of the Swiss Alps and the surrounding region.
The peak walk along the Tissot suspension bridge brought us to a viewing platform, where we delighted in clear-sky views of a number of iconic Swiss mountains and surrounding valleys.
Then, we got a hefty dose of adrenaline as we took turns flying down the side of a mountain on the Alpine Coaster, the world’s highest toboggan run.
As I veered into a sharp turn at full speed, the adult in me envisioned myself cartwheeling off the side of a cliff to a spectacular death while the child in me giggled with delight.
Our guide took us on what looked like a gigantic snowmobile onto the glacier, before we settled in for a scenic lunch of local charcuterie, risotto, and a delicious almond apricot cake in one of the two restaurants on site.
In the winter, the site also offers downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, dog-sledding, and an ice cathedral, too.
After a late afternoon jog and a scenic sweat in the hotel’s sauna, I contemplated what, if anything, could make this trip even better. We had one more night before heading back to Canada, and on our itinerary was a surprise evening and farewell dinner.
The evening began with a glass of local wine at one of Gstaad’s luxury hotels, the five-star Gstaad Palace Hotel. The manager explained that his intention was to give us a full site tour after our aperitif, but due to the recent arrival of a very high-profile guest, he was unable to for security and privacy.
We had seen a private jet land at the airstrip earlier that day, and he smirked (and quickly changed the subject) as we took turns guessing who the guest might be.
From there, we were driven on narrow, single-lane country roads into the countryside nearby. We arrived at a quaint, old, wooden farm-building with a woman playing a song of welcome on a gigantic alpenhorn on a balcony overlooking the nearby valley.
After settling in to a candlelit room in the former farm building, I sipped on a glass of local wine as the alpenhorn player was joined by an accordion player. As our hosts brought out plates of raclette, the duo serenaded us with a number of Swiss folk songs, complete with all of the yodelling I could ever wish for.
After dinner, I spoke with Thomas, our local host, thanking him for such warm hospitality and a remarkable experience.
I told him about my earlier contemplation about what could possibly make this trip even better, and how his surprise plan for our last evening accomplished exactly that with the music, food, and scenery.
During the long journey back to Vancouver Island by planes, trains, and automobiles, I remarked at how good it felt to have had an overseas trip once again after a long pandemic-induced hiatus. Of course, it was different than before with all the mask wearing, hand sanitizing, physical distancing, and nasal swabs.
I came home fulfilled by my experience and excited to begin planning more international trips for future travel. Sure, getting on an international flight felt strange, but so did having friends over for dinner for the first time since COVID began.
My week in Switzerland was more than enough to inspire me to come back again in the summer for a hiking trip and in the winter for a ski trip. The small country has so much to offer, and I look forward to exploring the country more over the coming years.