The Med in the mountains
Switzerland is not just about snowy mountains and public transport that runs like, well, a Swiss watch.
Here in Locarno in the canton of Ticino on the Italian border it is purely, beautifully, chaotically Italian. Our train arrives exactly on time - as they always do - but the prearranged courtesy van to the Hotel Belvedere is nowhere to be seen.
Locals - who surely know exactly where one of the finest hotels in the district is - shrug and turn up their palms in that classic Italian body language that both excites and infuriates travellers, and which translates into Australian as "Buggered if I know mate, why not just relax and have another chianti?"
A couple of phone calls and chiantis later, the bus arrives full of apologies and the lilting Italian vernacular that immediately makes you forget the slight.
Further amelioration is achieved as we set eyes on the Belvedere. It is a magnificent edifice, perched on a steep hill with a stunning view over Locarno, out to Lake Maggiore and the Gambarogno Mountains beyond.
It is early summer and this southern locale is a good six to eight degrees warmer than what we have been used to for the past week in northern Switzerland.
We sun ourselves in the hotel's perfectly manicured grounds, enjoy a delicious light lunch in the outdoor Restaurant Grotto with leafy olive vines dripping from the pergola above and swim in the 17-metre, 28 degree pool, which, in a nod to the variable climate, is half-inside and half-outside.
A giant chess set and ping pong table occupies the kids as we relax in the sun, sample a pinot grigio and enjoy a slice of la dolce vita.
The upmarket Hotel Belvedere is all white linen table cloths, chandeliers, artworks and the happiest staff imaginable. The Restaurant Affresco is an ornate masterpiece in its own right with a fifth-century fireplace and seventh-century stuccos and frescoes gazing down on diners.
With children in tow and the evening still warm we eschew the Affresco silverware and dine al fresco on the terrace of the Restaurant Fontana among palm trees with a decorative 1815 fountain bubbling away.
Our suite is immaculate - roomy, comfortable and modern - and the view from the balcony is hard to turn away from. The Belvedere offers six levels of accommodation in its 89 rooms, from standard room to apartment.
We find the best way down the hill into Locarno is via the funicular, a small train that runs every 15 minutes at a maximum speed of 3.5 metres a second and costs CHF6.60 (NZ$8.4) return.
Wandering around it's easy to forget we are actually in Switzerland, for this is more a Mediterranean experience, replete with loud talking, stylish clothes and a complete lack of urgency.
Locarno was a holiday resort as early as Roman times and the Castello Visconteo and its Renaissance-style courtyard is an archaeological museum, which boasts an impressive collection of Roman glassware.
We wander the Piazza Grande and browse the colourful shops and cafes before heading down to the lake for more people watching. Relaxed seniors hold animated discussions over picnic lunches and pizza, pretty young things in expensive sunglasses are strolling and even younger ones feed the birdlife.
It is enchantingly Italian. Just out of town and accessible by another funicular is the hilltop commune of Orselina and the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso, a 16th century pilgrimage church and Casa del Padre, a museum of sacred objects.
The town also hosts the Festival del film Locarno every August, when movies compete for the prized Golden Leopard and the Leopard of Honour and screenings are held for up to 8000 people in the Piazza Grande.
More life-affirming Latin vibe is to be found in the nearby town of Ascona, a short local bus ride away on the north shore of Lake Maggiore. The car-free Old Town around the 16th-century church of San Pietro e Paolo is the main attraction, being a chic shopper's heaven.
The Lake Promenade is packed with sunny cafes and shady spots to sit and watch sailing boats and swimmers. From here you can take a boat to the Brissago Islands, see the gorges, waterfalls and villages of Centovalli, and the hillside village of Ronco sopra Ascona - reportedly one of Ian Thorpe's retreats - which has an 800-step footpath down to the lake.
The writer travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.
GETTING THERE Connect by train to Locarno using Swiss Pass, which can be bought for four, eight, 15 or 22 consecutive days. Includes unlimited travel on all public transport in the country, 50 per cent off most mountain railways and cable cars, as well as free admission to more than 470 museums. An eight-day Swiss Pass is about $440 based on two or more adults travelling together. Kids under 16 travel free. See myswitzerland.com/rail.
STAYING THERE Hotel Belvedere, Via ai Monti della Trinita 44, Locarno, Switzerland. Standard room for two including breakfast from about $330 a night (low season) and $481 (high season). See belvedere-locarno.com/en.
MORE INFORMATION myswitzerland.com/rail.