My kids really want to go back to Switzerland. I know this because at least once a month, they’ll say something like “Dad, are we going to go back to Switzerland sometime soon?” My kids are 6 and 10 now, and for 8 of the last 10 summers we have brought them to the Alps with us, sometimes for “short” trips of 6 weeks, and other times for entire summers. We used to stay for 4 months when my daughter was a baby, which is almost more of a move than a trip.
So we’ve had some experience with family travel in the Alps. I think people often don’t take their kids to the Alps because they imagine such a big trip is going to be hard. And, um, yeah… it is. It’s really tough, especially with the little ones, although I suspect every age has their own unique rewards and challenges. The jet lag is difficult, and shuttling around from train to train is stressful when you’re carrying a sleeping child (or screaming child) and pulling 4 bags. Shoot, we used to plan extra layovers where we would miss a train connection on purpose, take a break, get the kids something to eat, then take the next train. The 3 hour trips always took 4 or 5 hours. Then there are uncertain sleeping arrangements, untimely colds, 2 hour hotel dinners, or maybe a tired meltdown that you can’t deal with in the normal way. Whew! “Why didn’t we go to the beach? Everybody’s happy at the beach.”
Because having an adventure with your kids is awesome, that’s why. The Alps are fantastic for families, and the rewards, that last forever, clearly outweigh the hassles that you forget about pretty quickly. With apologies to South Tyrol, I’m going to lump the Dolomites into “Switzerland”, even though it isn’t Switzerland at all (the Dolomites are in Italy). We go back and forth a lot, and the same thoughts apply to both.
What do my kids love about Switzerland? Lots of things. One, they love the playgrounds. There are great playgrounds in the Alps. Open air trampolines, slack lines, zip lines, climbing walls, hobbit holes, plus all the swings and normal playground things. The playground at Bort above Grindelwald is a family favorite, but there are lots of good ones with great mountain views, nice, easy hikes and even a restaurant for the parents to sit and relax at.
They also love the pools. A lot of hotels have fun pools, and many of the best mountain villages have a town pool, and often a pretty elaborate one. The Alps are also dotted with hot springs resort villages, and these can be great places to visit for a day or two. Leukerbad is one of my favorites in Switzerland, with natural hot springs piped into an open-air pool that has jets and bubbles, a hot grotto, kids play areas, adult relaxing areas, and a couple of waterslides. We probably talk about the pools in Switzerland (and a couple memorable ones in the Dolomites) more than any other aspect of our family trips.
And they love the summer luges, big roller-coaster like rides up in the mountains where you sit on a sled with nothing but a brake, testing your confidence as you zip down the slide. Sometimes they are smaller and fairly self-contained, and other times you take a cable car half-way up a mountain and come zooming down for a very long time. Grindelwald, Kandersteg, Saas Fee and Chamonix all have fun summer luges (Rodelbahn in German), and the Stubaital valley near Innsbruck in Austria, has a great one.
There are so many other things, for older kids too. You might take them out on a hike and overnight in an alpine club hut, which is always an adventure. See cheese being made by hand in a centuries-old barn. You can take cable cars up to mountaintops for amazing views. Rent mountain bikes, or e-bikes, for a spin on some of the thousands of biking trails. Try out tandem paragliding or rope up on a via ferrata, which have moved beyond the Dolomites and are now common in many parts of Switzerland.
But it’s not just adventure, although there is plenty of that. I like what travel has done to open their world. It’s a chance to hear other accents and foreign languages, and to see places where people do not do things in quite the same way we do at home, and to see that it all works anyway. To get to Murren, the car-free village we base ourselves in most often, you take a cable car, and then walk to your house. Ok. We sent our daughter across town to play with a friend, by herself, when she was 6 (we don’t do that in Portland). They’ve met people and made friends from around the world, and I think gained a confidence that will stick with them.
Perhaps my favorite thing about traveling with kids, though, is it gets us out of routines and more engaged with what we’re doing that day. We’re all addicted to devices in one way or another… the kids are, I am, you are (admit it). At home, we have all our toys, and it’s easy to spend a few lazy hours with the kids in front of the tv, or playing a game. In Switzerland, we take phones and tablets still, but they don’t come out as often as they do at home. Instead, we’re catching trains cross-country to our next stop, going out for a family hike, looking for blueberries, carefully stepping around a cow patty minefield. We’re renting bikes, or going to the pool, or taking a cable car up to a glacier and walking through a tunnel cut into the ice. Just trying to navigate a country that is very easy to get around in, but is different and interesting and engaging all at the same time. We’re having an adventure.
At Alpinehikers, we organize a lot of custom tours for families, both in the Alps and in Arizona, and I have to admit I have a soft spot for putting together trips for people with their kids. Sometimes they are as short as a couple days, staying in a good family hotel, getting out into the mountains for a day or two. Having traveled with my kids so much, I always have an eye for places that would be fun for kids and still offer good options if weather (or kids cooperation level) doesn’t quite go as planned. Sometimes we’ll organize a larger family trip, like the two sisters last year who brought their families to the Alps, with 7 kids between them (from 5 to 18), and their 81 year old mom. We slowed the pace on an inn-to-inn tour, put them in family-friendly hotels, sent self-guided materials for the faster hikers and booked a local guide for their mom. They had a wonderful time. Another tour we arranged was for a family taking a full year to go around the world… Talk about an adventure! (Check out their blog – he’s also a very good photographer). We booked the Switzerland and Austria portions of their travels, 25 nights, which included a short guided hike in the Bernese Alps.
Regardless of the things you do on a family trip – and there are many, many adventures to be had – you have family time together. It’s sometimes hard to manufacture and maintain that kind of momentum at home. But when you’re traveling, that’s what happens naturally, and in the end, it’s the best part. The other day my son (the 6 year old) asked, “Do you ever feel like you just want to go to a hotel?” He doesn’t mean he wants to go to a hotel and play video games. He wants the travel experience, to spend time with his family, the same thing we all want from it.
“We call that a travel bug.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’ve got a travel bug!”