The world's most beautiful country from the air
Get a bird's-eye view of what is arguably the world's most beautiful country on this hot air balloon trip from Switzerland's Chateau-dâOex region. Video: Craig Platt
As a country, Switzerland can make some pretty great claims. Not only was it recently named the best country in the world, it also lays claim to the world's best country to see by train.
And it's true that the rail system in Switzerland not only offers everything you could want in a public transport service – reliability, comfort and, for visitors, an easy ticketing system (see Swiss Rail Pass in the Trip Notes below) – but it also features trains that travel through spectacular mountains and valleys, climbing high to the peaks with many trains offering oversized windows to maximise the views.
But to truly get a sense of the beauty of Switzerland, it's best to get off ground level and see it from the air.
This is where I find myself right now: floating above the Chateau-d'Oex region as peaks rise on either side of us.
Chateau-d'Oex is famed for hot air balloons. It plays host to an annual international ballooning festival in January, attracting pilots from all over the world, as well as being the spot where the first balloon to successfully circle the globe non-stop, the Breitling Orbiter 3, took off in 1999.
Fortunately our journey will not be as arduous or risky. We've taken off early in the morning, in brisk May weather but brilliant sunshine, nine of us piling into the hot air balloon basket after its inflation. An industrial fan blows air into the balloon, before the burner is used to heat the air inside.
Heating the air causes it to expand, giving it a lower density than the air outside the balloon and causing the balloon to rise. It's fairly simple really, though I soon discover there's a bit more to flying a hot air balloon than that.
It's my first time on a balloon and I'm not entirely sure what to expect. My first surprise is how quickly we ascend. Within a minute or two, we're already high above the village rooftops and roads as the valley stretches out before us.
We gently glide west before our pilot, Max, decides the time is right for us to climb even higher. We soon find ourselves floating more than two kilometres in the air at eye level with the surrounding peaks.
The clear skies let us see for kilometres in every direction. The French Alps loom to the south and we can see the white-capped Mount Blanc, the range's highest peak at 4808 metres, rising above its neighbours.
Max lowers us back down into the valley and we float above the treetops, passing over cute chalets, small lakes and farms. The trip is silent, apart from when Max occasionally blasts some heat into the balloon. As we pass over a herd of cows, we can clearly hear the clanking of the bells around their necks.
We change direction following the flow of the valley as the view becomes even more picturesque – rolling green hills, between imposing mountain peaks and dense fir forests on the slopes.
All too soon, it's time for us to land. Unfortunately the winds are not cooperating. Despite trying numerous different altitudes, Max can't find an air current to blow us back to the flat lands of the valley.
Instead, we're forced to expect a somewhat bumpy landing on a slope, brushing tree branches as we come down. It's all a bit exciting but gentler than we expect, as Max expertly places us down with a thud.
From here, we all pitch in to help deflate the balloon and fold it up to be packed away in the support vehicle that comes to pick us up.
It's been quite an adventure. I feel like I've seen the entire country in one hit, and it's not even lunchtime yet.
Swiss flies to Zurich with connections to Australia though alliance partners Singapore Airlines (Singapore) and Thai Airways (Bangkok). See swiss.com
A train from Zurich to Chateau-d'Oex take a little over one hour. A Swiss Travel Pass provides unlimited access to Switzerland's rail system, along with buses, ferries and various other benefits. See myswitzerland.com/rail
Ballon Chateau-d'Oex offers early morning flights year round, with evening flights from May to October. Prices start from CHF340 for adults. See ballonchateaudoex.ch/en.html
The pretty, traditional village of Rougemont is a short distance from Chateau-d'Oex. Hotel Valrose, a traditional inn and restaurant, is located next to the local train station and easily reached via rail from Zurich. See hotelvalrose.ch
The writer travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.