Big fat snowflakes fall gently from the sky as I walk along a mountain path high above the Swiss village of Meiringen, in the heart of the Alps. The whirling snow blocks my view of some of the country's loftiest peaks, but also adds to the serenity I've felt since arriving.
I'm in Europe, but Switzerland is one of the few European countries not in the European Union, and right now it seems like an island of relative tranquillity in a stormy sea, cocooned from the rest of the continent.
Meiringen proves to be a particularly pleasing refuge and a good place to start my winter hiking holiday. The village – between Interlaken and Lucerne in Switzerland's Jungfrau region – was popular with wealthy Brits in the late 19th century, when alpine tourism took off. Since then, it has been overshadowed by bigger, brasher resorts.
These days, it's a quiet, family-friendly village of three-star hotels with an enduring connection to the world's most famous detective. It was near here, at Reichenbach Falls, that Sherlock Holmes plunged to his death in 1891 while wrestling with his nemesis, the diabolical Professor Moriarty.
I pass a bronze statue of Holmes, smoking his pipe and looking pensive, on the way to my hotel, the Parkhotel du Sauvage, where, it turns out, Holmes's creator – Arthur Conan Doyle – also stayed during his frequent visits here. It would be easy to get distracted by Holmes, his presence is so prominent, but I'm here to hike.
A few years ago while in Switzerland to ski, I made the delightful discovery that mountain resorts groom trails for winter hiking. Hikers can ride gondolas into the mountains with skiers (at lower rates) and find wide, well-marked trails of varying lengths. On that trip, I hiked a short trail above Riederalp with spectacular views over the Aletsch Glacier, and another day I hiked part of the Gemmi Pass, an old Roman road that connects the spa town of Leukerbad with Kandersteg.
On this visit, I intend to forgo skiing altogether and simply hike. "You mean snowshoe?" I was asked more than once before leaving Canada. No, I mean hike, with hiking boots. (I actually despise the clumsiness of snowshoes, and on hard-packed trails what's the point?)
Meiringen offers about 25 kilometres of groomed hiking trails in the winter. Reaching those up in the alpine is fast and easy. From my hotel, I can walk to the gondola in mere minutes. From there, a series of lifts whisk me to the Alpen Tower, 1,650 metres above the village, where I can see … well, on this January morning, admittedly nothing. I'm in a whiteout of fog and snow.
"In the summer, there are lots of cows up here," says my guide, Andrea Nydegger, who was born on this mountain. (One of the lifts we take goes directly over her parents' house.) Partway back down the mountain, the visibility improves and we walk in muffled silence through a winter wonderland, hearing only the crunch of snow under our boots. The trail meanders gently downhill, far from the hustle and bustle of the ski slopes, across frozen meadows and along a wooded ravine. We pass a few other hikers, but mostly we have the trail to ourselves.
For lunch, we stop at an alpine hut that was originally a cow stable and converted into the rustic Balis Alpine Restaurant five years ago. "They made the alpine cheese here as well," Nydegger tells me as we each dig into a traditional Alplerosti – a pancake of grated potatoes stuffed with melted cheese.
This is one of the best parts about hiking in Switzerland; there's always a mountain hut somewhere nearby serving up local specialties. Älplermagronen – a kind of gratin made with potatoes, macaroni, cheese and cream, and served with apple sauce on the side – is another one, as are, of course, cheese fondue and raclette, the latter cheese served with potatoes and pickles. Later, back in Meiringen, I indulge in another local specialty: meringues. They were invented here about 400 years ago. Served like a sandwich with whipped cream oozing from the middle, they're deliciously decadent.
From Meiringen, it's just half an hour by train to Interlaken, my next hiking destination. It takes longer to reach the alpine from Interlaken than it does from Meiringen, but once you do – wow! – the possibilities seem endless.
One morning, I ride the train to Grindelwald, then continue by gondola high above the tree line to the mountain station First, where the alpine is bathed in sunshine, the snow resembles the freshly whipped cream I enjoyed on those meringues, and the north face of the Eiger looms dramatically close.
I decide to cheat a little today and rent a sledge. Wooden sleds on steel runners are ubiquitous in ski resorts in Switzerland and just as popular with adults as with kids. Hikers and sledgers often share the same groomed trail. Soon, I'm whizzing down the steeper sections and walking on the flats. About 15 kilometres and three glorious hours later, I'm back in Grindelwald.
One summer about 10 years ago, I hiked in Switzerland's Pays-d'Enhaut, high above Montreux and Lake Geneva, and about two hours by train from Interlaken. I still remember its lush green meadows with grazing cows, their bells tinkling as they walked. Could it be even half as charming in winter? I'm going to find out.
On my penultimate morning, I meet mountaineering guide Caril Capt in the village of Château-d'Oex. We shop for some picnic fare, then drive to the nearby trailhead of Mount Chevreuils. After an easy, hour-long hike, we reach the summit, with panoramic views of snow-covered pastures dotted with evergreen trees. Multicoloured hot air balloons float above the valley below, part of the 38th International Balloon Festival in Château-d'Oex.
Normally, reaching the summit would be the climax of any hike, but not today's. On our descent, we veer off the trail, walk over the crusty snow and find a spot in the shelter of some pine trees, where Capt begins collecting dead branches. Soon, he has a small fire going.
Reclining on a patch of bare ground and soaking up the sunshine, I marvel at our freedom to use this privately owned land as though it's our own backyard. "In Switzerland, the constitution says you can walk everywhere," Capt tells me as he spreads out our feast: a loaf of crusty bread, some beef salami, sausages, Swiss chocolate, a bottled of blended red wine from Montreux, and several kinds of local cheese, including a fragrant L'Etivaz. It's a hard cheese made by hand from raw milk in big copper pots over an open fire between May and October, when the cows are eating fresh grass.
Sipping my wine while the sausages sizzle over the fire, I have to admire Switzerland's determined independence, and how fiercely it protects its culture and traditions from outside pressures. Cows haven't been traded for condos at mountain resorts here. Church bells still ring out, marking the quarter of every hour. And we can light a fire on a mountainside without getting permission from the farmer whose pasture we're on. When I mention it, Capt laughs and says, "That's perhaps why we don't want to be in the European Union. We want to keep building fires!"
If you go
Air Canada flies direct from Toronto to Zurich once daily.
Where to stay
In Meiringen, you'll be in good company at the Parkhotel du Sauvage. Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here, as well as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. In Doyle's book The Final Problem, the hotel was called the Englischer Hof, and Holmes and Watson slept here the night of May 3, 1891. The next day, Holmes had his fatal encounter at Reichenbach Falls with Professor Moriarty. Double rooms from about $350 a night. sauvage.ch
In Interlaken, the 19th-century Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa can also claim eminent literary guests from its past such as Mark Twain. The five-star hotel is within walking distance of the Interlaken Ost rail station, from where the train to Grindelwald departs. Rates from $490 in the winter for a double. victoria-jungfrau.ch/en/home-en
In Château-d'Oex, the three-star Hotel-Lodge Roc et Neige is a five-minute walk from the train station and shops. Double rooms from about $190 in the winter, including breakfast. roc-et-neige.ch/en/
What to do
Rates for riding gondolas vary with the resort, but hikers generally pay less than skiers. In Meiringen, for instance, a one-day pass for hikers on all gondolas in the area is about $63 compared with $80 for a one-day ski pass.
The writer was a guest of Switzerland Tourism. It did not review or approve this article.