Click photo to enlarge
Hikers refuel in the chocolate shops of Grindelwald, Switzlerland. (Pam Booth, The Denver Post)
IF YOU GO

Transportation

In Zurich, the intercity train system has a station in the basement of the airport shopping mall. It s about a 2 1/2-hour trip to Lauterbrunnen, transferring to a smaller train in Interlaken. Switzerland timetables are easy to read and dead-on accurate; start at www.sbb.ch/en.

If you will be touring Switzerland for a few days or more, a Swiss Pass rail ticket is a money saver and eliminates ticket lines. Our eight-day pass ($355, second class) included access to all intercity and small-town railways, and we used two or three a day.

In the Bernese Oberland, the pass lets you ride some cog trains and cable cars; The higher into the mountains, the more likely you ll encounter a private railway charging separate fees. Even then, though, the pass gave us half off the expensive Schilthorn cable system.
Visit traintickets.myswitzerland.com.

Stay

There are many housing options in the Lauterbrunnen valley, from the fraying but expensive grande dame hotels in Interlaken to apartment rentals and youth hostels near the trailheads.

Valley Hostel in the middle of Lauterbrunnen is a great choice for adults and teenagers, with spiffy bunk rooms, a laundry and kitchen, and tremendous views of Lauterbrunnen s misty waterfall. Far from a dank Eurotrash hangout, it s a sunny spot with an outdoor barbecue and patio.
Visit www.valleyhostel.ch. Doubles are about $39 per person; with enough notice, groups can book all dorm rooms that sleep four-eight.

For slightly less-adaptable hikers, Hotel Silberhorn www.silberhorn.com awaits a block from the train station and literally underneath a cable car to Mürren.

Silberhorn includes an enormous breakfast bar (about $184 per night for a double); the restaurant is pricey for dinner but delicious, serving local variations on the hearty Alpine potato dish called Rösti. The Silberhorn has a bright patio garden and friendly staff helpful in putting together hiking plans.

Things to do

Five days in the Oberland is enough time to feel you know the place. If you re looking elsewhere for stops, another 2 1/2 hours to Zermatt brings you to the Vail of Switzerland, with the mighty Matterhorn more than earning its wondrous reputation as it arches high above town.

Train lovers will want to hop the Glacier Express in Zermatt. The seven-hour sightseeing trip to St. Moritz may feel more glacial than express, and your 6-year-old will eventually squirm. But there s no denying the beauty of the scenes out the window.
Visit www.glacierexpress.ch.

In a more reasonable three hours, the Bernina Express www.rhb.ch will cart you from boutique-filled St. Moritz over the Italian border and down into charming Tirano.

LAUTERBRUNNEN, Switzerland

The brown-and-white calf with the sad eyes and the bell around its neck arrived just on cue.

My daughter had just declared, "It feels like we're in a movie." Hiking high above the valley floor, we emerged from a pine forest into the ecstatic sunlight of the Bernese Oberland.

Purple, orange, yellow and white wildflowers swayed in a slight breeze, coaxing us along the gentle gravel path between high pastures.

Across the emerald-green valley below us soared the dizzying peaks of the jagged Jungfraujoch: menacing Eiger, protective M nch, playful Jungfrau. The eyes darted and perception reeled across the chasms of Swiss scenery, erupting from 2,000 feet to 13,000 feet, from evergreen to ever-glaciered, in just a few miles.

So yes, of course, roll the film and bring in the cow.

If the Swiss insist on living amid a meticulous movie set, or in the manner we'd been imagining since Heidi traipsed through the meadows of our minds when we were 9 years old, then by all means our family was willing to play along.

To step off the cable car and onto the plush carpet of a Swiss Alp walking path is to see a vacation cliche come to life - in a good way. The chalets where fondue pots simmer, the cheery hikers in silly shorts and permanent grins, the trains plying the mountaintops exactly on schedule, the pampered cows masticating their way across the countryside like docile gods. It's all true in southern Switzerland.


Advertisement

We found the legendary Oberland an ideal spot for a family escape, at the end of a long and tiring school year. Mountains of homework and college applications melted into mountains of scenery, and we were never far from the reward of a Toblerone bar delivered to an outdoor table.

Each morning began with the opening of the intriguing puzzle box that is the clockwork Swiss transit system. There are literally endless combinations of cable-car rides, hikes, cog rail jaunts and downhill strolls connecting city to village to warming shack to mountaintop. (Public-television travel guru Rick Steves, by the way, has a crude but handy sketch in his chapter on the Oberland, showing train and cable options on both sides of the Lauterbrunnen valley, and how many minutes each one takes.)

On our first morning, we caught the cable car running over the top of our hotel, up 1,500 feet to a station called Gr tschalp. From there we began the gentle uphill walk to the spectacular town of M rren, greeted along the way by that friendly cow - not to mention the fields of outrageous flowers.

But we were waylaid at what must be one of the most beautiful perches for a snack shop in all of Europe. At the small ski station of Winteregg, the eponymous cafe has outdoor seating dominated by the Eiger, and a jumping trampoline for your little grindel-pests. The local beer, Rugenbr u, goes down smoothly, and the three-berry cheesecake disappears fast.

Another morning took us up the cog railway across the valley, to the major ski resort of Wengen, and from there a towering cable car a few thousand more feet to a high ridge just below the famous Eiger. We hiked away from the Eiger to a horn rock called M nnlichen Gipfel, under a glorious June sun.

A guide with another group said he'd been to that spot 30 times, and only three or four days had been as clear as ours. With that bit of Swiss luck in our pockets, we paid respects to the looming face of the Eiger and enjoyed the views to distant towns like Grindelwald.

Some Swiss gondolas hold 100 people, and we learned why the next day as we took the four-legged trip up the Schilthorn. "Bond. James Bond," translates to all languages - thus a worldwide pilgrimage to the revolving restaurant at 10,000-foot Schilthorn, where "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" shot a key chase scene.

Schilthorn's "Piz Gloria" offers overpriced food, decently priced coffee and chocolate, plenty of Bond T-shirts and spectacular views of the high Alpine tundra, with signature ravens soaring in and out of the fog.

While Colorado's mountains and lakes compare favorably to southern Switzerland, there is history and perspective in Switzerland you won't find in Colorado.

Masons wedged bricks into the Thun castle eight centuries ago, for example. And for all the beauty of Colorado's San Juan mountains, those peaks don't offer the unique Swiss vista of low village, high pasture and snowbound fourteener in such dizzying proximity.

The danger in such picturesque territory might be that it will feel overrun. Steves, for one, showcases the Oberland so much you expect a PBS logo on street signs.

But not to worry. There's plenty of room to spread out, over hill and dale and waterfall veil. The wide array of trains and cable cars take a few tourists at a time in all directions, and meanwhile you mix in with Swiss schoolchildren, day hikers and business travelers.

Even the town Steves warns you about, Grindelwald, turned out to be an uncrowded shopping mecca with equally stunning patio views of the Wetterhorn.

Perhaps Steves is embarrassed by American chocoholics. Guilty as charged.

Grindelwald's main street is, well, coated with glorious chocolate shops, supervised by imperious Swiss maids who make the Soup Nazi look like Mister Rogers.

My daughter ignored the stern faces behind the counter and hefted a 3-foot Toblerone bar, weighing half as much as Heidi herself.

I could have sworn I heard somebody yodel.