Angie Kelly makes tracks across Switzerland on a family adventure of a different scale.
We are looking at the mother of all train sets. Think 350 metres of track, a shiny-red electric engine and alpine scenery re-created in such intricate miniature detail it took 30,000 man hours to build. Now picture the model carriages as they bend and straighten their way through crayon-perfect green pastures, punctuated by clusters of houses, window boxes bursting with colour and pitched roofs ready to shake off snow.
Mini miracles of engineering fly by the carriages - bridges reach across deep valleys, roads soar straight up at impossible angles, cable cars dangle.
Whizzing by beach-fringed lakes, historic churches and whole villages perched on skinny mountain ledges, the little train running around this model version of the country's famous Gotthard railway then speeds right into the middle of the Alps - climbing the snow-topped peaks from the inside in a series of spiral tunnels.
Today we are in the hugely entertaining Swiss Museum of Transport - a sprawling, interactive shrine to planes, trains and automobiles - where you can wander through a jumbo jet, go inside a dinkum former spacecraft and bring a vintage car to you via a visitor-controlled car stacker.
Tomorrow we'll take the real Gotthard rail journey from chilly German-speaking Lucerne, through the country's alpine heart and emerge on the other side in Switzerland's sunny southern canton of Ticino, where we'll spend three days under blue sky practising our Italian.
Switzerland is not top of mind for an Aussie family holiday, competing as it must with Fiji, Bali, Hawaii, Disneyland and the Queensland theme parks. But who could blame us, since the amazing things to do for kids are not exactly "out there" in a big way, brand-awareness wise.
Yet what you get is a kind of Disneyland for outdoorsy families - and what Aussie tribe doesn't love that? - plus a three-cultures-in-one eye-opener on language, food and European life. In one country you can say "danke" as you feast on (Swiss-German favourite) melted cheese and bread in Zurich, people-watch in Swiss-French cafes while sipping on milky coffee and lunch on bruschetta in a sunny hill-top vineyard run by Swiss Italians.
And after you've eaten, you can ski, toboggan, cycle, hike, sail and sun yourself from one end of the country to the other. And you can see and do it all easily by catching the fast intercity red trains.
Speeding away from the urban fringes of Lucerne, we quickly find ourselves captivated by the real version of the scenes so expertly re-created in the museum's model railway. Countryside that is chocolate-box perfect. The train's huge panorama windows seem to bring the dazzling beauty closer. The pretty villages, majestic bridges, rivers, lakes and snowy mountains are all there - with evenly spaced red-and-white Swiss flags flapping proudly in almost every garden along the way.
With so much to see, the three-hour trip to Bellinzona, where we change trains, passes in a blink.
The first-class carriage of our train is smooth, roomy, quiet and comfortable. There's Wi-Fi, power outlets to charge your devices, large luggage racks and coat hooks. However, we were a little surprised to find no dining car on the longer trips we took. A cup of tea would have been nice!
Earlier in the day, we had stood on the station bundled in layers of winter clobber: woolly hats, socks and boots, the children in parkas. But a glittering warm summer day was waiting on the other side of the mountains, and we peeled off our layers as we sped past the beaches watching picnickers, bikini-clad and dozing in the Italian sunshine. On our week-long trip from north to south and back again, we travelled in easy, short chunks from Lucerne to Bellinzona, Locarno to Rivera and back through the Alps to Zurich. In that week we packed our days with fun family activities and, like the locals, spent much of our time outdoors, even in the colder northern cities.
Here are the highlights.
MOUNT TAMARO ADVENTURE PARK
A theme park for thrill seekers. The national passion for hiking means there are scores of marked trails criss-crossing the mountain, with several stretches for beginners to choose from for fit older kids. The mountain has bike trails for people for whom the words "straight down head first" get the heart racing. Paragliders soar on the alpine breezes high above the distant whoops of riders on the country's longest flying fox, which has 440 metres of views over Ticino.
Adventurers on their training wheels can tackle the coaster-bob, a guaranteed "woo-hoo" moment. Racing around 800 metres of track, the toboggan means you can take in the view relatively close to the ground and with a seatbelt on.
THE GOLDEN ROUND TRIP, MOUNT PILATUS, LUCERNE
The Golden Round Trip begins with a two-hour cruise on picturesque Lake Lucerne. At Alpnachstad, you board the 125-year-old cog railway for the 4.6-kilometre run up to the summit of Mount Pilatus. The train climbs a vertical distance of 1629 metres at inclines as steep as 48 degrees and passes through mountain meadows that are home to edelweiss, cows and wild goats.
The views are incredible - endless snow-capped mountains, the Black Forest in the distance and Lake Lucerne far below. Sip on a hot chocolate and try the local sausages before heading down the other side by cable car. Halfway down at Frakmuntegg, you'll find kid-friendly fun in the form of a rope park, flying fox and a 1350-metre toboggan run. Take a second cable car down to Kriens and catch a bus back to Lucerne.
SPLASH AND SPA, TAMARO
It's a good thing the new centre, billed as Europe's newest water park, is at the foot of Mount Tamaro as, after playing action Jackson, you're going to need a swim. Rides, slides and wave thrills plus gadgets that squirt, spray and drench are always a big hit with kids, and if it's too much for mum and dad, there is a spa and a bar too, meaning you can watch the youngsters in shifts.
LINDT CHOCOLATE MASTERCLASS, ZURICH
OK, so outdoor adventure may be fun, but ask any child if they would like to be let loose on three huge bowls of melted chocolate with a free pass to gobble as they go and how do you think they'll answer?
Playing chocolatier at the headquarters of the world-famous confectioner is great fun for kids (and their parents), with two hours to squeeze, freeze and decorate their very own tasty milk, dark and white treats.
Run by masters of the craft, the classes run day and night.
Hear how the Lindt & Sprungli company began in 1845 creating masterpieces now enjoyed in 80 countries. The hardest part? Making sure there are some left to package and take away in the little white boxes with the blue ribbon. The factory is an easy 30-minute bus ride from Zurich to suburban Kilchberg.
TRANSPORT MUSEUM, LUCERNE
Anyone who thinks they're not interested in the contraptions that get us from A to B hasn't been to this amazing interactive wonderland celebrating mankind's drive to travel across the sea, through tunnels, between mountains and through the air. Hands down one of the best-executed, innovative and interesting museums of our family's experience. And entry is free when you flash your Swiss Pass. Gold.
RUNS LIKE CLOCKWORK
Switzerland is a transport nut's nirvana. And for junior fans that means getting around truly is half the fun of the holiday. For all Switzerland's breathtaking natural beauty, what really made an impression on our eight-year-old was the dizzying number of contraptions you can take to go up, down and around mountains, across lakes, through tunnels and around the city streets. On one day out in Lucerne we chugged on a steam ship, crawled up Mount Pilatus on the world's steepest cog railway and slipped down the other side of the Alps on two different kinds of cable car. Throw in a funicular (the way in and out of our hotel in the Swiss-Italian town of Locarno), bendy buses, trams, long, low ferries called limmats and a network of luxury intercity trains, and you have a public transport system that would make Gladys Berejiklian's head spin. And all of it unbelievably clean, comfortable and on time. In Switzerland, you're on time or you miss the boat, train and bus.
Trust the super efficient Swiss to come up with the genius Swiss Pass - just one ticket to get you on almost every variety of transport from one end of the country to the other. Plus you'll get entry to more than 450 museums and exhibitions and unlimited travel across the rail, bus and boat network in the Swiss Travel Systeam plus scenic routes, local trams and buses in 41 towns and cities. It also entitles you to 50 per cent off most cable cars and mountain-top trains. And kids under 16 travel free.
Buy one online for four, eight, 15 or 22 days.
The writer and family were guests of Switzerland Tourism.
We had either interconnecting or adjacent rooms in comfortable, modern hotels, with breakfasts included (remember to BYO Vegemite). In Lucerne, the Ibis Styles (8 Friedenstrasse), in the historic part of the city, has rooms from 179 Swiss francs ($210) a night. +41 414 184 848, ibis.com.
In Zurich, the Sorell Hotel Rutli (43 Zahringerstrasse) has recently-renovated double rooms from $311 a night and is located close to bars, shopping and affordable eateries in the nightlife district. rutli.ch.
In Locarno, the four-star Hotel Belvedere on a hill above the town is the pick, with standard double rooms from $307 a night, including breakfast. belvedere-locarno.ch.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Traveller on Sunday editor Angie Kelly overcame her vertigo and her kids' ribbing, taking on the high life in Switzerland.