Switzerland travel guide: The easiest way to travel around Switzerland

Walensee is a narrow finger of a lake wedged between the bare limestone flanks of the Churfirsten range and the 2441-metre Murtschenstock massif in Switzerland's northeast, close to its border with Liechtenstein. From the historic town of Weesen at its westernmost point, one can just see its eastern counterpart in Walenstadt, 14 kilometres distant. Never at any stage though does the lake stretch wider than two kilometres from north to south, and it is perhaps this last detail that lulls me into thinking that paddling a kayak across it alone would be a good idea.

From the lake's midpoint at Murg, I glide past elderly men and women swimming in their underwear before changing tack outside the village of Unterterzen. Holiday cabins, accessible only by boat, sprinkle the opposite shoreline, surrounded by sloping vineyards and orchards. On a calm day, the paddle across to them would be truly lovely. But today isn't calm.

Away from the wind-protected indentations of the shoreline a stiff summer breeze that I'd barely noticed fans my face, whipping up white caps that cause me to question whether I might have bitten off more than I can chew. But I'm a strong, experienced paddler, I tell myself. And besides, that breeze and those waves should propel me back towards Murg on the return leg.

Of course, events take a turn in the form of the wind changing direction by the time I'm ready to paddle back, and it's now gusting across my hull. Each squall threatens to capsize me and the paddle back becomes a nerve-wracking exercise in trying to stay afloat. More than once, I ask myself why I ever thought this might have been a good idea.

By the time I reach Murg, instead of feeling pleasantly rewarded from a morning spent pottering about on the water, I'm relieved to hand my kayak back. When the rental owner glances at her watch, she looks at me quizzically; I'm well ahead of my allotted time – a commodity not readily fooled with in Switzerland. On the flipside, I'm 30 minutes early for my train back to Zurich, one of many I'll catch during the week ahead.

Switzerland's excellent public transport system links its cosmopolitan cities with lakeside resort towns and alpine villages. The Swiss describe this network as the "densest" in the world, and with 5232 kilometres of rail track, 18,713 kilometres of bus routes and 28,298 public transport stops, it's a claim that's hard to argue against.

My weeklong Swiss Travel Pass will allow me to use the entire network of rail, bus and boat lines throughout the country, while also including free admission to more than 480 museums and a 50 per cent discount on most funiculars, cable cars and cog railways. Children under the age of 16 also travel free as long as they are accompanied by at least one parent. But in the coming week, I'll also be hiking, biking, canoeing and zip lining. Transport-wise, it's the most varied itinerary I ever expect to follow. And, like Swiss clockwork, it will go down without a hitch.

After bedding down in the cosy Hotel Ambassador, immediately behind Zurich's Opera House, I board an early morning train south to Meiringen then wave down a canary-yellow Post Bus to take me up the Aare Valley to the Grimsel Hospiz – a hotel built on a island outcrop that forms part of the Grimselsee dam. The hotel is owned by the Kraftwerke Oberhasli power company, which has its own tourism department, and is set in a spectacular location at the foot of the 2164-metre Grimsel Pass – a popular motoring route and access road into Northern Italy. Snow blankets the road in winter, when the hotel is only accessible using a series of gondolas and a three-kilometre-long bus ride through the power plant's tunnel system.

Further back down the valley, the Gelmer Funicular is Europe's steepest, allowing access to the glacier-fed Gelmersee (see means "lake") that was dammed in 1929 as part of a hydroelectric scheme. The funicular was built nine years earlier to ferry goods up the mountain. Today, it ferries tourists to a series of walks around the lake and when I board it, I sit immediately behind a dog. Unlike me, it seems completely unfazed by the funicular's 106-degree gradient.

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After skirting the lake on a trail that is eventually buried beneath a landslide, I return to Meiringen, where jets from a nearby Air Force base roar overhead. I learn that Sherlock Holmes gained honorary citizenship in town after Arthur Conan Doyle set part of his story here, climaxing beside the nearby Reichenbach Falls. A statue of the tweeded sleuth has been erected in the town square.

The train to Interlaken next morning is full of teenagers commuting to high school. As I gaze out over the misty Brienzersee, it occurs to me that I could do nothing other than sit on Swiss trains for the week and never be bored. Thus far, the scenery through my window has never failed to astound me.

This time, I'm travelling to a pre-arranged rendezvous with hiking guide Sandra Kaiser. Together we switch trains to Wilderswil Station, where Sandra arranges for my luggage to be forwarded to Grindelwald so I can collect it later in the day, after we've completed our hike. If only travelling was always this easy.

Our transport to the start of the hike is on a cog railway that first rattled its way uphill in 1893. From the Schynige Platte terminal, high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, we spend the next eight hours traipsing across a ridgeline facilitating uninterrupted views over the World Heritage-listed Jungfrau Range before descending to Grindelwald via cable cars, billy carts and scooters – surely, the most thrilling end to a day's hike imaginable.

Not surprisingly, considering my lengthy hike, I enjoy my best night's sleep that evening, ahead of waking to the impeccable vista of the Eiger's treacherous north face through my hotel window. With no time to linger, however, I race to catch an early train to Lucerne, and after my luggage is transported to my hotel I jump aboard a steamboat bound for the resort town of Vitznau, passing waterfront mansions and castles with commanding views towards Mt Pilatus and Burgenstock.

From Vitznau, a cog railway – this time Europe's oldest, having started operations in 1871 – takes me to the 1978-metre-high summit of Rigi Kulm. A communications tower commands the skies from the top, lording over a summit hotel and restaurant affording views over the Lakes District as far as Zurich.

Boat cruises on the cross-shaped, 38-kilometre-long Lake Lucerne can last one hour or three, with the fleet currently totalling 19 steam boats and motor vessels. After soaking up the sun on the aft deck of the PS Uri during a cruise back to Lucerne, I can't resist the chance to try Swiss fondue at Zunfthausrestaurant Pfistern. The alfresco bistro overlooks the River Reuss outside the Town Hall building. A brewery nestles snugly into the Town Hall cellars and I cleanse my palette with a refreshing post-dinner pilsner before calling it a night.

A brisk stroll through the Farmer's Market either side of the River Reuss next morning acts as a warm-up for an E-bike tour I have booked through the back country west of Lucerne. My starting point is the medieval village of Willisau – better known today for an annual jazz festival that has attracted the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane to perform in the past.

Our trail follows one of 54 designated regional bike routes criss-crossing the country. Ours is listed as number 38 and it's a 100km route connecting Pfaffnertal with the lakeside village of Brunnen. Called the Lucerne Hinterland-Rigi, the route is broken up into three stages and we're doing the 37-kilometre-long middle stage through the nation's largest farming municipality.

Baroque-style church steeples rise above villages where schoolchildren compete in traditional wrestling trials on a bed of sawdust while wearing hessian shorts. After cycling past a lonely chapel on Brunau Ridge, we begin our descent into Lucerne, following a bike path along the Reuss' southern bank until we reach the city's iconic Chapel Bridge. From there, we can return our bikes to a depot behind the central train station.

Engelberg is a monastery town that's nestled in the bosom of Mt Titlis, 25 kilometres south of Lucerne. With skiing in winter and hiking and other activities in summer, the mountain is a year-round destination connected to Engelberg by the world's first rotating cable car, the Titlis ROTAIR. Inaugurated in 1992 and able to fit 80 passengers at a time, the cable car climbs 600 metres to a glacier that's surrounded by some of Switzerland's highest mountains.

The views here are stupendous, but there are also many activities on offer and I start with several turns at sliding down the glacier on a snow tube. I then traverse a 100-metre long Cliff Walk across Europe's highest suspension bridge before burrowing through the glacier inside a 150-metre long cave.

Rather than return to Engelberg the same way, I hike down past an alpine lake to a privately owned cable car, which I'm able to ride down to Untertrubsee after ringing the proprietor using a vintage wall-mounted telephone. From Untertrubsee, I scooter down a winding blacktop road into Engelberg, where I seamlessly connect with my train back to Lucerne – proof that in Switzerland, timing is everything.

TRIP NOTES

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Traveller.com.au/switzerland

MySwitzerland.com/rail

FLY

Swiss International Air Lines flies to Zurich via Singapore or Hong Kong, code sharing with Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific. Prices start from $1760. See swiss.com

TOUR

Organise package deals and transport through MySwitzerland.com

Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.

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