Virtuoso Traveler 2018 April Best Family Trips: Swiss Alps

Best Family Trips: Swiss Alps

A peak photo op for the author and his family.
A peak photo op for the author and his family.
Photo by Steve Jermanok
Time together in the Alps is just right for active families with college-age kids.

Grindelwald is one of those fairy-tale Swiss mountain villages that serve as a gateway to the heart of the Alps. Wander from your hotel to the Grindelwald-First gondola, ride it to the last stop, and soon you’ll be staring at a crown of majestic 13,000-foot peaks. While it’s the Jungfrau region’s largest ski resort, in summer Grindelwald offers scenic walks, bike rides, and hikes past lakes and waterfalls and through flower-bedecked alpine meadows.
A fresh dusting of snow atop the jagged ridges this July morning only adds to the luster as my family and I set out on a six-mile hike along the Bachalpsee route to a remote lake deep in an emerald valley. To make our descent back to town, we hop aboard scooter-bicycle hybrids called Trottibikes; I point mine downhill on a paved path and pray. Directly across from me lies the mighty Eiger peak, its massive girth only adding to my anxiety. I decide to step off to gather my nerves, and pretend to take photos.
That’s when my daughter, Melanie, whizzes by me at breakneck speed and screams, “Yeah, Trottibikes!” (Translation: You’re getting old, Dad.)

Such are the memorable, out-of-the-box moments a parent hopes for when planning a summer vacation. It’s also the type of experience we anticipated when we booked this six-day family multisport Switzerland tour with Backroads, one of only a few tour providers that design adventures specifically for families with older kids. “Backroads’ Family Breakaway small-group tours are perfectly suited for active travelers with children in their upper teens and 20s, and typically include 26 or fewer guests,” notes Lisa Leavitt, a Boston-based Virtuoso travel advisor who also happens to be my wife. We have two children in college – Jake (21) and Melanie (18) – who love adventure and have always wanted to hike in Switzerland. “With the added rewards of cheese fondue and Swiss chocolate, this trip’s a no-brainer,” Lisa adds.
Our summer vacations have always been the longer, more cherished of our family getaways, where we kiss the hectic pace of our modern life goodbye and visit the diverse landscapes and cultures of distant lands while spending precious time with one another. Indeed, my children have grown up in the pages of travel publications as they ventured in hot-air balloons over Cappadocia, snorkeled with sea lions in the Galápagos, and spotted grizzlies while hiking in the Canadian Rockies. But this trip was different: In the fall, Melanie would be heading off for her sophomore year in college, and Jake would be graduating the following May and then embarking on his own career. We could no longer take our summer trips for granted and needed a memorable send-off.

Happy Hours 

Melanie and Jake had opted to share a room during the trip, which was initially concerning, because they both tend to sleep until 11 am at home during the summer. How, Lisa and I wondered, would they wake for breakfast every day at 8? Much to my delight, though, as we make our way to the dining room this morning, we see Mel and Jake (on his 21st birthday, no less) eating with a group of their peers. We join them for carb-loaded stacks of French toast and pancakes.
Our plan today: bike from Kandersteg along a complex network of backcountry roads and cycling trails. Beginning with a precipitous downhill run, we lean into a series of hairpin turns and then wind our way through a velvety-green valley surrounded with towering snowcapped peaks. Our group passes ambling cows with jingling cowbells and small villages where chalets display red geraniums in flowerboxes, ubiquitous in Swiss villages during the summer. Soon we’re crossing grated bridges, listening to the soundtrack of a rushing river below, before finishing up on a forested trail that leads to the lakeside town of Thun.
I catch up to Jake and notice he has a cut on his knee. “A little slip in the woods,” he says. “No biggie. A souvenir.” It’s a far cry from the days when a minor scrape would lead to tears and SpongeBob Band-Aids, and one of those moments when I realize, proudly, that he’s now fully grown and his own man.
That’s certainly true after the day’s outing. While Jake has now reached the legal drinking age in America, in Switzerland he and Mel quickly realized that you only need to be 18 to drink spirits. To our relief, they’d consumed responsibly, which leads to one of the true highlights of our trip: happy hours at sunset. This evening, freshly showered and rested after our ride, we reconvene on our hotel veranda to toast Jake’s big birthday … with mojitos and caipirinhas. True, our drinks aren’t exactly Swiss, but how much kirsch (cherry brandy, the national drink) can you consume?


The Wetterhorn soars over Grindelwald village.
The Wetterhorn soars over Grindelwald village.
Photo by Michael Utech/Getty Images

The Final Challenge

Backroads offers a choice each day between moderate and slightly strenuous routes. Throughout our tour, I took the easier option, rationalizing that I was on vacation, after all, while Lisa and the kids often chose the more difficult trails.
“This is the type of trip where you and your children can challenge yourselves under the watchful eye of extremely skilled guides,” Lisa notes. What’s more, “when the day is over, you can bask in your accomplishments, which instill a sense of confidence that kids will bring with them as they head back to college.”
That’s the persuasive reasoning that somehow convinces me toward the end of our trip to join my family for a hike on the classic Eiger Trail and onward to the Grindelwald-Männlichen gondola – a 7.5-mile thigh burner that’s by far one of the most arduous options of our adventure. On the second of three steep slogs uphill, I begin to regret my decision, but eventually come around as we stare up at lofty Eiger peak, near the trailhead to mountaineering’s epic climb, the North Face. As the clouds begin to part, we’re treated to magical views of the Jungfrau and hanging glaciers stepped down the hillside. For the next hour, we trek alongside these craggy peaks before reaching the mountain pass of Kleine Scheidegg, home to one of Switzerland’s highest train stations.
After lunch, we make our way along relatively level ground to the gondola and our hotel. The only obstacle is a herd of cows we encounter on the narrow path. One comes straight toward me, and I dive into the grass above the trail to avoid being trampled. My exhausted legs aren’t working too well by this point, but I’m happy to see that my brain is. Lisa and the kids laugh at my evasive maneuver, and I soon join them, the four of us fully together and in the present.
“Having a little trouble over there?” Lisa asks. “No, just relishing the moment,” I answer.

When You Go

Plan to hike, bike, kayak, and even blow a traditional 13-foot alpenhorn on Backroads’ six-day multisport Switzerland tour for families with young-adult children. Rest up each night in iconic lodgings such as the Grandhotel Giessbach, perched dramatically atop turquoise Lake Brienz near the tumbling, 1,640-foot Giessbach waterfall. Departures: July 24 and August 14, 2018. Other multi-adventure family tours from Backroads head to California, Iceland, Patagonia, the Dolomites, Basque Country, and beyond.
Grandhotel Giessbach from above.
Grandhotel Giessbach from above.
Photo by Grandhotel Giessbach