Self-guided hiking and cycling itineraries are increasingly on offer, but what exactly is the point when you could pay extra to be guided with far more provided or spend less and be completely free and independent? UTracks has introduced me to a style of travel I had never considered and, under the European summer sun, exposed me to two distinct variations on the self-guided theme.
By the end of the first day of a week's cycling trip through Slovenia, Italy and Croatia on the Parenzana rail trail it was as clear as the Adriatic that self-guided A-to-B-to-C-to-D and me were made for each other. Navigating my way along an ever-changing route was a physically challenging adventure with the reward of a new place to lay my head every night.
A week of self-guided day-hikes in the Bernese Oberland from a base in the Swiss mountain town of Meiringen was a totally different beast. And although A-to-B-to-A-to-C-to-A doesn't fire me up the way a journey does, it wasn't hard in that environment to appreciate the appeal for others of exploring one region while having familiar faces to return to each evening. My sister, for example, couldn't imagine a better way to structure an active holiday than around a stable nest.
Here is what else I discovered about self-guided travel, particularly the same-accommodation hiking version.
TAKES CARE OF BUSINESS
Pre-trip research isn't something I have much motivation for. Mainly because it feels like watching the middle of a movie first, and I want to be surprised by what unfolds before my eyes out there in the world rather than know exactly what I'm going to see. Most people, however, prefer to be organised and informed before they travel and self-guided eliminates all the time and stress spent trawling for information online wondering who to trust and what is relevant.
UTracks offers 173 self-guided Europe and UK hiking itineraries between four and 42 days long and graded introductory to challenging. That is a small selection relative to the area covered, so whatever has made the final cut is the best of the best. You just have to choose a route, pick a date and turn up. That works for me.
TELLS YOU WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Weeks before my hiking trip, I received a route notes booklet in the mail specific to my itinerary. The information thoroughly covers practicalities like walking directions from Meiringen train station to the hotel, how to get the local weather forecast, interpreting Swiss footpath signage, access to drinking water, whether or not there is a dairy at a trailhead, what time that dairy opens and how much their fresh strawberry yoghurt costs. There is a chatty detailed description of about 20 hikes, including info on transport and a few black and white images.
Along with the booklet is a wad of A3 colour printouts of corresponding 1:50,000 maps – routes are highlighted with a fluoro marker – plus some other sheets with walking times and distances and train timetables. All that paper feels a bit 90s, but it is practical once you're out on the trails.
The longest hike suggested is 21 kilometres from Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen via the 2061-metre Kleine Scheidegg with easy and hard options for reaching the pass. There are a few 12 to 15-kilometre hikes, some leading back into Meiringen. Short walks in nearby gorges are also suggested as well as non-walking activities like a train trip to Europe's highest railway station of Jungfraujoch or hanging around town in teahouses eating meringues.
LEAVES TIME MANAGEMENT TO YOU
Apart from seasonal limitations, there are rarely any restrictions on which day of the week to start a self-guided trip unless it's somewhere more remote or less populated with transport constraints like the Laugavegur route in Iceland. Self-guided itineraries are therefore quite easy to slot into evolving travel plans.
Once in Meiringen, you have complete control over how you organise your time aside from co-ordinating with hotel breakfasts and dinners – and you do not want to miss those. Each morning you can decide to start early, start late, have a lazy day in bed or any type of day in bed. Work your way up to the challenging walks or open the biggest presents first if the weather is good and your energy levels are high. Spend all the time you want over traditional mountain restaurant lunches.
YOU'RE NEVER REALLY ALONE
In the case of UTracks, the staff of whatever hotel you're based in will be used to people like you: hiker types not fluent in the local dialect. Jean-Claude Gerber at Alpbach – my hotel in Meiringen – is an enthusiastic trekker and tells me everything I need to know except on the two days he's off walking with a friend. Swiss people tend to be relatively reserved, but that just means you have to probe a little for the information you're after.
The hotel staff are also fully aware of your movements and will notice if you're not back for dinner. If you have serious problems on the trail, an emergency hotline number means that, even when treading solo, you have backup.
FORCES ASSERTION AND IMMERSION
It's easy to become childlike on a guided trip and end up asking questions like "what's the weather like today" or "do these steps go up or down". Letting others do the thinking for us isn't good for anyone's brain but self-guided – unless you're travelling as a co-dependent couple or a larger group – means constantly making decisions for yourself, following the map, watching the time, considering water and food supplies, staying alert and being fully aware of your surroundings.
UTracks says it expects you to use your personal problem-solving skills while self-guiding because there will be times you'll get a bit lost or confused. Even if you do BYO GPS. This means interacting with locals or other travellers in a way that never happens when you have a guide who speaks the language and can walk the trails in their sleep.
IT'S WORTH IT
My trip is in early September and a room for one adult at Hotel Alpbach at that time of year costs $A1399 for seven nights, including breakfast. The UTracks eight-day Meiringen self-guided package costs $A1490 a person plus my single supplement (from $A270) on a half-board booking that includes a three-course meal every evening. Once you've subtracted the square root and carried the one it all seems very reasonable if not just for the lavish local meals and dairy tip-offs.
Swiss International Air Lines, along with airline partners, offers daily connections from Sydney and Melbourne via Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. See www.swiss.com
Swiss Travel Pass gives travellers unlimited access to Switzerland's trains, trams, buses and boats and a 50 per cent discount on mountaintop trains and cable cars. See www.myswitzerland.com/rail
Eight-day self-guided UTracks Panoramas of the Swiss Alps hiking trips based out of Meiringen are available from mid-May to late October from $A1490 a person, including seven breakfasts and dinners, twin-share four-star hotel accommodation (single-supplement available), information pack including route notes and maps and an emergency hotline. Walks graded introductory to moderate range from two to eight hours. See www.utracks.com
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of UTracks and Switzerland Tourism.
FIVE MORE SWISS SUMMER BASES
For challenging day hikes and lunches in remote mountain huts, stay in this historic village and explore the high alpine centre of Saint-Gotthard massif on foot each day. See www.andermatt.ch
From the capital of Switzerland's least populated canton, it's less than an hour by train and cable car to the trails of the world's highest whisky trek in the Alpstein massif. See www.appenzell.ch
This village is closed to motorised traffic but wide open to the rich and famous in need of a discrete retreat. Hire a bike and cycle to Lake Lauenen or hike the surrounding mountains. See www.gstaad.ch
A cable car to hiking trails leaves straight from the cobbled centre of this famous Upper Engadine Valley town, 1822 metres above sea level. See www.stmoritz.ch
From this mountainside car-free village in the Lauterbrunnen Valley at the foot of the almighty Jungfrau you can easily access other parts of the Bernese Oberland by train. www.wengen.ch