We all know things in Switzerland just work. The trains run with military precision, no one would ever dream of breaking the speed limit and they make watches almost as well as they do chocolate. But, for me, Switzerland is more than that. It’s about the beauty and purity of the mountains – and not just in winter when they are covered in snow. The mountains in summer offer so much more variety than sliding down them on two planks of wood. This, coming from a dyed-in-the-wool skier, is quite a statement.
The British love affair with the Swiss mountains started primarily as an escape from the smog of Victorian London. Without the need of a cure for consumption, I was in search of more modern and exciting mountain activities. So I travelled to the Graubünden region of Switzerland and headed to the picturesque resort of Flims. Whereas the Victorians just visited for the fresh air, I would be sampling the pure mountain water too – and discovering a new way of getting about.
It would be a week of wheels and water.
The story of Flims and its neighbouring resort Laax actually started 10,000 years BC. As the ice age glaciers receded, one massive chunk of rock – the size of a mountain – decided to break loose and slide, completely blocking the valley below. The river flowing out of the glacier then started the slow process of carving its way through the limestone blockage. Geology lesson over: what was left behind is a beautiful mountain plateau that sits above what is now known as the Swiss Grand Canyon. Sitting on the Flims plateau is a series of beautiful mountain lakes in seemingly magical shades of blue, green and turquoise.
The Swiss are always on the look out for ways of making life efficient and easy for visitors. In Flims they recognise that not everyone has the energy or leg power to get around the many mountain-biking trails that lead to wonderful views of the lakes, across the valley and down into the canyon. I met up with local mountain-bike guide Christian Suter, who introduced me to the concept of electro-bicycles or e-bikes; every push of the pedal is matched by the electric motor, making riding uphill about 50% easier. Initially skeptical of the idea – as I am in training for an Ironman Triathlon – I soon began to appreciate the extra help. It’s surprising just how much power is in these bikes. Suter even said that while he was out mountain biking the good old fashioned way, he was overtaken by a rather out of shape German on an e-bike.
Our destination was Lake Cresta, surrounded by trees that give the water a beautiful green hue. Now, if you have ever been brave enough to swim in a mountain lake, you will know that the icy cold mountain rivers feeding most of them keep the water rather chilly. What makes the lakes in Flims unique is that they are linked by of a system of underground rivers, which means the water is surprisingly warm. As I dived in I was amazed at the difference to the icy plunges that I am used to while filming for the BBC – diving under ice in the Southern Alps and skinny dipping into icy waters in Sweden (much to the amusement of Simon Le Bon, who had just beaten me in the ice sailing).
The largest of the three lakes that are open for swimming is the Caumasee; on a warm summers day I defy anyone not to want to take a dip, and swim over to the island and bask on the rocks in the sun. The shimmering water of the lake with its myriad azure shades, surrounded by the emerald trees, makes this one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. The water has a clarity that not only would be the envy of any British water authority, but also allows you to see the wonderful rock formations on the lakebed.
Later in the week I met up with Suter again to try out the new downhill mountain biking route, called the Runca trail. Again, the Swiss have found a way to make life easy for you. This isn’t mountain biking as we know it, the whole lower section of the trail is a wooden construction, built to be ridden on without need for a full-suspension mountain bike and is great fun to ride. Indeed we would be riding on hard-tail cross-country bikes and our route up gave us a chance to admire the spectacular scenery, while we caught our breath. The chair lift was running for those who had the heavier downhill mountain bikes, which would have been impossible to ride uphill.
On our way up we passed the start point for the Flims Via Ferrata, a metal staircase that allows you to climb the cliff while safely harnessed to a sturdy wire. According to Suter, the Via Ferrata was constructed by a local farmer in the 1800s to access a tiny pasture midway up the rock face. Apparently, it supplied enough hay to feed one cow for the winter. Later, with the birth of tourism, this same farmer put white rabbits into the pasture and charged those brave enough to climb to it. Unfortunately his business plan did not work as the eagles ate most of the rabbits.
After a tough but exhilarating day in the saddle, it was time to sample the waters again but, this time, in the luxury spa of the Hotel Waldhaus. After relaxing in the sauna and steam room, I plunged into the cold pool where I swam with the fishes, not as the Godfather would have it, but in the outdoor pool that is also home to a pair of Koi carp.
There are many excellent restaurants in the Flims/Laax area, but one of the most interesting is the Grandis Ustria da Vin in Laax’s rocksresort. I turned up on my mountain bike, straight from the spa, but when I walked in and saw the huge display of wines, I knew that the ride home was going to be a wobbly one. The wines ranged from excellent home-grown Swiss wines, to French, Austrian and Italian, and as I walked through the displays, I made a note of which bottle I would like. Wine noted, I was then seated and presented with the menu to choose the food. It was a tough choice between steak or going for the excellent Swiss raclette, but given the exertions of the day, the steak won out.
My final date with water was a white-water rafting trip down the tributary of the Rhine, known as the Vorderrhein. This is the aforementioned river – still carving its meandering course through the ancient rockslide. If you’ve not rafted before you need to know that you will get wet – very wet. Our guide, Oscar Castillo, was originally from Costa Rica and had learned his rafting skills in California where the water was considerably warmer. Luckily wetsuits and spray jackets were provided. Castillo was a bit of a loose cannon, having instructed us on what to do if we fell out of the boat, he then seemed to steer us to the biggest, roughest rapids in the river in an attempt to ensure we would fall out of the boat. The ride was awesome. The towering white limestone mountains above the canyon and the tumbling turquoise water make the most amazing backdrop to a nail-biting, stomach-lurching adventure, which for me is the most perfect way to spend a holiday. The other summer activities in the area are enough to keep any active family entertained: rock climbing, golf, a high-wire route in the trees and the indoor Freestyle Academy, which is perfect for any budding skier, snowboarder or skateboarder to practice their tricks with the safety of landing in a foam pit.
I’m sure I’ll come back to the region when the snow has fallen – cycling and swimming is one thing, but you can’t really know a mountain until you’ve skied it too.
A Swiss rail transfer ticket from Zurich Airport to Flims (return) starts from £34; go to swisstravelsystem.ch to book.
Return flights from London City to Zurich start from £127 with SWISS at swiss.com. For more information on Graubünden visit: pure.graubunden.com