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.
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?