Adventure to be found in Interlaken
Mark Twain was comfortably perched on the balcony of his hotel suite in Interlaken when he wrote: "One looks across ... to the most engaging and beguiling and fascinating spectacle that exists on the Earth ... it's the most impressive mountain mass that the globe can show ... it's as if heaven's gates had swung open and exposed the throne."
My observations, about 120 years later, are less ethereal: "Keep feet raised, coming in fast over town, church steeples to avoid, pilot says we may have to abandon landing area for a field on this side of the river, says will wait and see what wind does; also says people have crash-landed on buildings in downtown Interlaken but that most have walked away unscathed."
As I plummet to Earth, I see holidaymakers in cafes and bars. Before, they looked like ants; now, I see what they're sipping. Here it comes, the paragliding pilot says behind me. A cross-breeze has blown in from nowhere; I feel the lift immediately. To celebrate, the pilot starts a victory spin over Interlaken. My view from underneath the canopy is nothing like Twain's: "Nothing could be purer, nothing could be saintlier of aspect," he wrote. All I see is a blur of Europe's mightiest mountains, a gigantic lake, a river that cuts the town in half and overexcited children sprinting to greet us as we land on the green, green grass of the Hohematte meadow that encircles Interlaken.
There is no more impressive alpine location in the world than Interlaken and the mountains that surround it. Enclosed by three of Europe's tallest (and most famous) peaks - the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau - and straddling two gigantic alpine lakes, Lake Brienz and Lake Thun, this is the only alpine destination I have been to that is more visually arresting than New Zealand's South Island.
Although its credentials as a ski destination make it a winter mecca for adrenaline lovers, it's in summer that Interlaken truly shines.
Even the train ride from Bern is a bona fide tourist attraction. The tracks are a few metres from Lake Thun, where homes framed by neat hedges and atriums of yellow, pink, green and white flowers teeter at ungodly angles on the edge of the water. The locals sit outside in carefully mown gardens - this is Switzerland, after all - soaking up the sunshine. Children jump from pontoons into the chilly water, old paddle-steamers chug up and down and chubby cows chew cud in rolling meadows of green grass.
The pastoral scene is at odds with the mountains that dominate the countryside, for these aren't gentle, rolling ranges. Mountains jut out at right angles; they're sharp, jagged landmarks that plunge straight down for kilometres the Jungfrau, for instance, is more than four kilometres high.
Along the face of these foreboding mountains, waterfalls, some also kilometres high, drop on to green valleys below.
Weaving through this treacherous, stunning landscape is a network of railways, cable cars and chairlifts that give visitors access to the kinds of locations generally only reserved for the nimblest of mountain climbers, or mountain goats.
Tunnels have been blasted through mountains, tracks laid through valley passes just metres from kilometre-high dropoffs. Just riding a train here can at times feel like a high-adrenaline tourist adventure.
As you would imagine, a railway system such as this gives visitors endless adventure options. There are more than 200km of hiking trails within a 20km radius of Interlaken, while the region is world-renowned for its cycling – on and off the road. Cycling is so significant to Interlaken that some trains have designated bike-storage carriages.
There are trails to test the bravest mountain biker – narrow, twisting tracks through alpine forest and across rocky mountain passes – but I prefer to meander from village to village, stopping for coffee and locally brewed beer at log-covered inns with beer gardens fringed by wildflowers offering unimpeded views over the Swiss Alps.
Although the area is a beacon for international tourists, hiking and riding allow you to peek inside a traditional Swiss mountain lifestyle that somehow seems unaffected by visitors. Just watch out for farmers aboard tractors on narrow bike trails or old men with axes, off to chop wood for fires that seem to burn non-stop, despite the warmth of summer.
Two routes of the Swiss national cycling network pass through Interlaken but forget the paths for a time and take wrong turns, then try to find your way out of endless, picturesque mountainside villages with their labyrinth of dead-end cobblestone streets.
It would be quite feasible to do nothing but cycle and hike the Interlaken region on holiday but the area has also become one of the world's famed adventure-sport locations. Because of its dramatic topography, there is nowhere better to paraglide.
Launching off the slopes high above Interlaken from the village of Beatenberg-Niederhorn, we glide out across the lakes while my pilot plots a course through a mountain pass.
If you prefer to get that little bit higher, you can jump into Interlaken strapped to the stomach of a skydive instructor.
There's nothing like dropping at speeds of more than 200kmh, feeling the rush of freefall after the sickening initial fear that comes when you jump from a perfectly safe plane. Once the stomach churn subsides, there's pure elation of a kind you won't find anywhere but in these insane moments.
When the chute opens, you drift almost soundlessly across the scene with just the occasional flapping of your chute as your instructor brings you back to Earth.
Interlaken is also a renowned base-jumping location. You might prefer just to watch that.
There's everything you'd expect of an adrenaline mecca in Interlaken and more: canyoning, river rafting, kayaking, water-skiing, sailing and an 18-hole golf course that runs beside Lake Thun. There's even scuba diving in the alpine lakes.
THREE OTHER THINGS TO DO
1.Take a boat tour around Lake Brun and see the region's best preserved castles on a tour from Interlaken. You'll see five of the region's most striking castles - including Spiez Castle, Oberhofen Castle and Huenegg Castle - all stunning examples of Switzerland's medieval and Baroque architecture. interlaken.ch.
2. Ride a series of cable cars until you reach the film location of James Bond's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The movie was set just outside Interlaken at Schilthorn's Piz Gloria - the world's first revolving restaurant. Here, at almost 3000 metres, you'll see 200 snow-capped peaks, including the Jungfrau and the Eiger. schilthorn.ch.
3. Feel like taking some pressure off your legs and putting it on your stomach instead? The Interlaken region is renowned for its huge range of dairy products, pastries, wines, schnapps, beer and meat, all of which may be sampled on a Tasty Treats tour through Interlaken's butchers, bakers, dairy farms and tea, wine and schnapps merchants. interlaken.ch.
Getting there: Swiss International Air Lines has daily connections via Sydney to Switzerland, priced from $2400. swiss.com. From Bern or Zurich, travel to Interlaken by train. raileurope.com.
Staying there: Hotel Interlaken, in the town centre, is housed in a building dating to the 14th century and has rooms with balconies that look out to surrounding mountains. Rooms are priced from 199 Swiss francs (NZ$292) a night. hotelinterlaken.ch.
Getting around: Rail Europe is a fast, efficient and inexpensive way to get to Interlaken from Zurich and to travel around the Interlaken region.
While there: For paragliding above Interlaken paragliding-interlaken.ch. Bike hire rates are daily and hourly balmers.com/en. In spring, skydiving with Skydive Switzerland is available at skydive switzerland.com.
More information: interlakenadventure.com, interlaken.ch
The Dominion Post