Here we've assembled a roundup of sports highlights -- some of the very best ways to get outdoors and enjoy Switzerland's magnificent scenery. Most activities can be enjoyed independently, but if you like to have someone else sweat the details, we've also listed some of the region's best outfitters.
Balloon rides over Switzerland are even more spectacular than those in France. Contact Buddy Bombard's Europe (tel. 800/862-8537 or 561/837-6610; www.buddybombard.com).
Biking is a great way to see the Swiss countryside. You can rent a bike for a small fee at one railroad station and return it at another. In addition, bikes can be transported on passenger trains for a nominal fee. You should reserve your bike a day or so in advance at the station from which you plan to start.
Touring Club Swiss (TCS) maintains 10 cycling centers that rent bicycles and offer brochures and maps of nearby bike routes. The club will direct you along the least congested routes, taking you through villages and past castles and manor houses that you would not otherwise discover. Even in remote areas, you can usually find someone who speaks English to help you if you have a problem or get lost. The central information office of the touring club is in a suburb of Geneva at 4, rue Blandonnet, 1214 Vernier (tel. 022/417-22-20; www.tcs.ch).
Erickson Cycle Tours, 1667 SW 176, Seattle, WA 98116 (tel. 888/972-0140 or 206/524-7731; www.ecycletours.com), offers some of the best bike tours in Switzerland, through the Alps, past lakes and valleys, for groups limited in size to some 20 riders. Included are the mountain venues of Zermatt, Grindelwald, Bernina, and the San Bernardino passes.
Curling & Skating
Curling is currently a hot team sport in Switzerland, particularly popular in Davos, Villars, Gstaad, and Zermatt. Curling, of course, is a game played by sliding a large, smooth stone along the ice at a mark (called the tee) 35m (115 ft.) away.
Ice-skating is one of the leading winter sports of Switzerland, and nearly all major resorts have natural ice rinks. Also, there are dozens of artificial ones, of which Davos has the best.
In this relatively small country, there are at least 32,000km (20,000 miles) of rivers and streams, as well as 1,349 sq. km (526 sq. miles) of lakes. These waters are situated at heights between 210m and 1,965m (689-6,445 ft.) above sea level, and vary in configuration and fauna as much as in altitude. Such a wide choice of conditions certainly puts anglers on their mettle, for they're presented with a fascinating range of challenges. For those who know how to adapt themselves, there is excellent sport in store. Angling techniques and bait must be suited to the particular water one happens to be fishing. With few exceptions, fly-fishing, spinning, and ground fishing, with natural or artificial bait, are permitted in most waters. Trout can be found in most waters up to altitudes of 1,800m (5,904 ft.), and lake trout have been known to weigh up to 10 kilograms (22 lb.). You need a license to fish, but they're easily acquired through municipal authorities, beginning at 50F per day. Regulations vary from place to place, so to be sure you're legal; inquire at a hotel or local tourist office.
There are more than 30 golf courses in Switzerland, 24 of them with 18 holes. Not a lot for a whole country, you may think, but they're located so strategically that, wherever you happen to be in Switzerland, you're likely to find a course nearby -- and one within a wide range of altitudes: The lowest course is in Ascona, which lies a mere 210m (689 ft.) above sea level; among the highest are St. Moritz, at 1,692m (5,550 ft.), and Riederalp, at 1,920m (6,297 ft.). All the local clubs cater to visitors, who have the advantage of being able to play on weekdays while the locals earn their daily bread. If you left your clubs at home, a set can be rented locally. Should you want to improve your swing, "pros" are available, too.
For more information, contact the Swiss Golf Association, 19, place de la Croix-Blanche, CH-1066, Epalinges VD, Switzerland (tel. 021/785-70-00; www.asg.ch). Another tool for computer-savvy golfers is the Swiss Golf Network (www.swissgolfnetwork.ch), which includes information on all major golf courses in Switzerland.
Some of the top courses include Golf Club Davos at Davos Dorf (tel. 081/416-56-34; www.golfdavos.ch), Golf Club de Verbier, Verbier (tel. 027/771-53-14; www.verbiergolf.com), and Golf Club Interlaken-Unterseen at Interlaken (tel. 033/823-60-16; www.interlakengolf.ch).
With 48,000km (29,760 miles) of well-marked and well-maintained walking paths, Switzerland is a Valhalla for hikers. The paths lead through alpine valleys, over lowlands, up hills to meadows, and into the heart of the Alps. Whether you choose a gentle walk or a rigorous trek, you're sure to see miles and miles of unspoiled beauty.
Many hotels offer walking or hiking excursions, with a serious hiking tour possibly entailing 4 to 7 hours of hiking each day.
Topographic maps, hiking maps, and books can be ordered from such outlets as Amazon.com and various bookstores. These include Walking Switzerland -- The Swiss Way, which describes numerous hikes and a selection of inn-to-inn tours in the mountain areas. Also of interest is 100 Hikes in the Alps, containing an interesting section on Switzerland. Walking Easy in the Swiss Alps is a 192-page book featuring day walks in six alpine villages, including Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Champex, Kandersteg, Lauterbrunnen, and Samedan/St. Moritz.
A specialist in walking and hiking tours is Mountain Travel Sobek, 1266 66th St., Ste. 4, Emeryville, CA 94608 (tel. 888/687-6235; www.mtsobek.com). You can wander with this adventure company across the full landscape of Switzerland, from alpine mountains of the Bernese Oberland to lakeside vistas in Mediterranean-like Ticino. Most nights are spent in old-fashioned hotels or hikers' lodges, and at least 1 night is in an alpine refuge. Hikes are ranked as easy, moderate, or strenuous; one of the most challenging tours, the "Mount Blanc Circuit," is a 12-day hike that covers parts of Switzerland along with areas of Italy and France. The company will provide complete details about all tours.
Recognizing the allures (and the very real dangers) of climbing up the rocky crags that dot the surface of Switzerland, the 86,000-member Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), founded in 1863, promotes mountaineering and ski tours in the high Alps. Although its primary function is to organize alpine rescue services, it also lobbies politically to protect the alpine ecology. Working closely with equivalent associations in Austria, Germany, France, and Italy, the club has built mountain huts at strategic spots throughout the country, often hauling in building supplies by helicopter during the short summer season when construction is possible. The huts are modest, with bunk rooms sleeping 10 to 20 people. The average rate for a night's lodging (without food) for members of the club is from 26F per person per night. You can write the club and reserve space.
Applicants for membership in the club must be at least 10 years of age and should mail their applications, along with a passport-size photo and a check covering membership fees, to whatever branch of the club interests them the most. (Membership in any regional club grants the right to discounted accommodations at huts throughout the country.) To learn about branch offices, contact the organization's headquarters in Bern: the Swiss Alpine Club, Mombionstrasse 61, P.O. Box 3000, Bern, Switzerland 23 (tel. 031/370-18-18; www.sac-cas.ch). If you're looking for a particularly active regional branch, consider joining the group in Zermatt. Their address is Swiss Alpine Club, Sektion Zermatt, c/o Herr Kreiger, Haus Dolomit, CH-3920 Zermatt, Switzerland (tel. 027/967-26-10). Membership fees range from 75F to 130F, depending on the individual branch you join. Checks should be drawn on a Swiss bank. Membership includes a subscription to the organization's German- or French-language magazine, Die Alpen, and the above-mentioned discounted accommodations at the mountain shelters maintained by the club.
The organization is affiliated with mountain-climbing schools throughout the country, including branches in Andermatt, Champéry, Crans, Davos, Les Diablerets, Fiesch, La Fouly, Glarus, Grindelwald, Kandersteg, Klosters, Meiringen, Pontresina, Riederalp, Saas-Fee, Saas-Grund, Schwende, Tasch, Zermatt, and Zinal. Guides that are accredited by the Swiss Alpine Club are available at many other resorts as well, and usually remain in close contact with the staffs at the local tourist offices.
Skiing in Switzerland, a tradition that goes back 2 centuries, is big business -- an estimated 40% of the tourist dollar is spent on it. There are more than 1,700 mountain railways and ski lifts, and ski schools, ski instructors, and the best ski equipment in the world are available throughout the country.
Switzerland, which faces heavy competition from Austria (for a complete guide to resorts in that country, see Frommer's Austria), has been called Europe's winter playground. What were once simple alpine farming villages have been transformed into bustling ski resorts, and there are more than 200 throughout the country. Nearly all of them have ski-rental shops.
All the cantons have skiing centers, but most are in the Bernese Oberland, the Grisons, and the Valais. The ideal ski season is from January to late March. At the very highest resorts, the season begins around mid-December. Even at some of the resorts at lower elevations, there is a ski season that begins before Christmas if there are suitable weather conditions and snow is adequate. February is the peak month, in which reservations are most difficult to come by. Skiing in some areas of the country continues until late April or, in other areas such as Zermatt, throughout the summer around the Klein Matterhorn.
Most slopes are nothing short of spectacular in Switzerland, as are the facilities, which cater to every type of skier from the beginner to the Olympic champion.
Europeans have always sought out family-oriented villages for inexpensive ski vacations, whereas Americans have traditionally preferred the more famous meccas such as St. Moritz and Gstaad. Happily, that is changing now, and many Americans (and Canadians) are choosing ski packages in the smaller alpine villages.
At the tourist offices of most resorts, ask for an area map depicting the various slopes. These maps also grade the ski trails for difficulty. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the resort's signs before hitting the slopes. Obviously, avalanche zones are particularly important to learn.
At more than 50 resorts in Switzerland, the Swiss Rent-a-Ski program prevails. This service allows you to rent skis (either downhill or cross-country), poles, and boots on a weekly basis.
Founded in 1863, the Swiss Alpine Club promotes ski tours and mountaineering at lofty alpine altitudes.
Swiss Ski and Snowboard School is the most famous such institution in Europe. Federally run, it provides on-site instruction for beginners as well as advanced skiers. The majority of instructors speak English. Most of these ski schools -- found at all major resorts -- reduce their charges for five half-day classes. However, all-day classes are usually recommended. Check with the tourist office in the regions you visit for information about local branches of the school.
Warning: Always carry plenty of sunscreen, even in winter. The reflection of sunlight off the snow is intense.
Summer skiing, or glacier skiing, takes place on glaciers that retain their snow throughout July and August, and ski schools and lifts are open all summer. Locals say that glacier skiing is best before lunch, especially during the early morning hours. The best glacier ski resorts are Zermatt, St. Moritz, Engelberg, Saas-Fee, Gstaad, and Pontresina.
Experienced skiers may wish to take a popular spring ski tour, the Haute Route, which crosses the French Alps into Switzerland; it's a weeklong tour that is usually offered between March and May. Led by a professional guide, skiers stop overnight and for noon rests at cabins maintained by the Swiss Alpine Club.
Cross-country skiing, or langlauf, is the fastest-growing sport in Europe, especially at St. Moritz, Pontresina, and Montana. You go at your own speed and are not at the whim of slope conditions. There are no age limits or charges for use of the well-marked cross-country trails.
From mid-December through March, you can get information on conditions in major Swiss ski areas by linking up with the Switzerland Tourism Office's snow report at www.myswitzerlandtourism.com.
The best resort for families is Arosa. It's very family-oriented and offers runs suitable for every level of skier, especially beginners. Most of the runs, however, are intermediate.
Expert skiers head for the resort of Zermatt. In just minutes, skiers can be more than 3,600m (11,800 ft.) up on the Klein Matterhorn. Zermatt claims that it can guarantee a skier a vertical drop of some 2,700m (8,850 ft.), regardless of the snowfall.
Beginning skiers, often those with families, find the resort of Grindelwald ideal, the best base for skiing the Jungfrau area. It offers cable cars, lifts, funicular railways, and more than 160km (100 miles) of downhill runs.
A great center for intermediates is the resort of Davos along with its twin resort of Klosters. The ski terrain at Davos extends for some 35km (22 miles) in a relatively sheltered valley floor. Of course, these resorts have peaks for the more daring expert skier but offer miles of easy terrain for the intermediate as well.
The chic resort of St. Moritz in the Engadine has more nightlife possibilities than any other resort in Switzerland. All the major ski resorts have an active après-ski life, but St. Moritz offers more diversity, from pubbing to high casino action.
In a virtual ski valley, Verbier is ideal for early or late-season skiing. Its upper ski area, which culminates at Mont-Fort at 3,255m (10,676 ft.), is filled with a widely varied set of pistes. The snow falls early and lingers late into the spring.
For the Nonskier -- The number of nonskiers at ski resorts is growing. It's estimated that at such fashionable resorts as Gstaad, Pontresina, Arosa, and Davos, one out of two guests is a nonskier. Most resorts offer a host of other activities, such as sunbathing on mountain terraces, day hikes in the forest, sleigh rides, sightseeing excursions, and, of course, partying in the local bars and clubs. So if some of your family members ski and others don't, everyone will still be happy and entertained.
All the resorts mentioned under skiing offer snowboarding. The best centers are Celerina, Grindelwald, Gstaad, Kandersteg, St. Moritz, Wengen, and Zermatt. However, the top snowboard resort of Europe is Davos, which offers ideal slope conditions, snowboard schools, and a snowboard hotel. The resort also hosts national and international snowboarding events. Snowboarders will find a wide range of equipment to hire in all the resorts mentioned, with the largest concentration of sports shops in Davos.
Switzerland has 22 resorts with natural curative springs. Most of these spas, which have been approved by the Association of Swiss Health Spas and the Swiss Society of Balneology and Bioclimatology, include a medical examination, along with thermal baths and excursions, in their package plans for visitors. Many of them are open all year. All the spas offer various treatments, along with Turkish baths, mud baths, whirlpools, exercise/weight-loss programs, anti-stress programs, massages, and diets. You can request information from Switzerland Tourism, Tours Dept., 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020 (tel. 877/794-8037; www.myswitzerland.com).
For very specific data about individual spas, phone Great Spas of the World (tel. 800/SPA-TIME [772-8463] or 212/889-8170; www.greatspas.com).
For a spa vacation in Switzerland, one resort towers over all the rest -- chic St. Moritz in the Engadine. Its thermal springs were known 3,000 years ago. St. Moritz-Bad was the original spa resort lying at the base of the lake, although modern housing has spoiled much of its former character.