Mount Rigi train, Switzerland: One of the country's most spectacular rides (and it's only 40 minutes)

The train lurches forward from its lakeside station, and soon I'm pressed against my seatback as it claws its way upwards, cogs grinding. We pass snowbound chalets, shutters closed. As we climb higher, the train swings around tight bends, giving new vistas over an increasingly wide winter landscape. Lake Lucerne shrinks to a puddle, and my starting point at Vitznau below looks like Legoland.

Beyond the windows of my carriage, everything is white. The only colour is the red train, whose tail-end carriages I can see as it corkscrews around bends, hauling towards the summit of Rigi mountain. I'm rather excited. I've made this journey in summer, but now it looks like a different destination, frozen and ice-tinkling. Fir trees slump under snow, and ice crystals bead the train windows like fine lace.

In truth, this is a short ride – just 40 minutes – but one of the best in Switzerland, which is saying something. This train journey has pedigree. The rack railway between Vitznau and Rigi was opened in 1871, making it the oldest alpine railway in Europe. It made Rigi famous in the great 19th-century era of alpine travel. William Turner painted it and Queen Victoria made the ascent. American author Mark Twain declined to ride its rails in 1880. He walked up Rigi instead, but was so exhausted that he slept in at his Rigi Kulm hotel, missing the fabled sunrise in a tale hilariously recounted in A Tramp Abroad.

At 1797 metres above sea level, Rigi Kulm is the train's last stop. The doors clang open and passengers spill out, delighted chatter fogging the crisp air. I don't know if it's the altitude, cold or scenery, but it leaves me a tad breathless. Jagged snow-capped peaks are strung along the horizon and it's easy to see why Rigi is nicknamed the "island mountain", because it appears almost entirely surrounded by lakes. Rigi Kulm is far from the highest of alpine viewpoints, but it certainly provides a landscape to make the soul sing.

Train journeys are all very well, but the destination should count too. I've ascended higher viewpoints in the Alps and lingered only a half-hour, trapped on a rock platform. Rigi is different. It's a 50-kilometre ridge of rolling meadows dotted with accommodation and restaurants. It has limited, easy skiing plus sleigh rides and an ice rink with a view to eternity.

The latter is at Rigi Kaltbad which, though lower on the mountain, has a stupendous outlook. One of the best things about the train ride is that you can hop on and off at several stations or, better yet, walk between them before boarding a later train. There are 35 kilometres of rolled walking paths in winter and, as I squeak along between Rigi Kulm and Staffel, I'm treated to some of the best panoramas on the mountain. You can toboggan too: there's a glorious six-kilometre run, and some slopes are illuminated on Friday nights, with special night trains laid on for thrill seekers.

The station platforms are casual affairs adrift in oceans of snow, but nothing stops the trains rolling in as the bright red hand on the station clock moves upright. I clamber back on board for the descent, banging the snow off my boots. My toes, wedged against an under-seat heater, tingle as we start downwards. I rub my breath off the window and stare out at a 200-kilometre range of Alps, pavlova-jagged across the horizon. Then it's gone like a winter dream, and we're deep into the shadow of fir trees.

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FLY

Cathay Pacific flies to Zurich via Hong Kong from six Australian cities including Sydney and Melbourne. Phone 131 747, see cathaypacific.com.au

TRAIN

Trains run up Mount Rigi from both Vitznau and Goldau, but the Vitznau train is more scenic. A day pass costs from CHF 36. See rigi.ch

STAY

You'll find a variety of hotels, guest houses and apartments on Mount Rigi, and a further, more upmarket range of hotels in Vitznau and Weggis below. See rigi.com

Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense.

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