|The Matterhorn's unmistakable silhouette (Zefa Visual Media/Index Stock)|
Switzerland may be one of the smaller nations in Europe, but with high craggy peaks, palm-fringed lakes, and lovely back roads, it's not hard to find adventure just about any time of the year.
The shoulder season here falls on those same months that befall most alpine resorts in the United States: late September to early November and April and May. Summer months in this alpine kingdom are terribly idyllic, with grassy mountain meadows burgeoning with wildflowers, while the winter months bring out the skiers and snowboarders and prices during these times naturally rise. But go during the shoulder season and you won't have to give up much in the way of activities. Many Swiss ski resorts offer the chance to carve turns on glaciers year-round, and finding places to take a hike is still a breeze, limited only by desire and skill level.
One of my favorite places to visit during the slower seasons is the canton of Vaud, just outside of Geneva. The Jura Mountainsmuch smaller than their Alp neighbors but still strikingoffer great opportunities to get out and shake the bones. For instance, you can load a bike (mountain or otherwise) onto the train in Nyon and motor up to the unspeakably quaint towns of Givrine and Saint-Cergue. A ticket, with your bike, won't cost more than about $10 for the hour-long ride. From there, you can order a brat and a Cardinal beer and then bomb back down the road or around trails near La Dôle, a small ski hill. Hiking around this area can also be spectacular, with stunning views of Lake Geneva and the Alps to the east. The tourism bureau in the town (www.st-cergue.ch; in French) can help you find accommodation, bike rentals, and offer good recommendations on where to eat. Drop them an e-mail and don't worry about not speaking French; people in Switzerland, as in most of Europe, speak English very well.
If the desire to go play in the Alps is just too great, you're not out of luck. Though weather during the shoulder season can be testy (as it is any time of the year, for that matter) the mountains here have such huge vertical relief that it's always possible to find great places to hike, bike, paraglide, or even ski during the fall.
Make a trip out to Leysin, a great ski town high in the mountains east of Montreux in the range called the Alpes Vaudoise. Here you're still in the French-speaking part of the country, so it is easy and practical to hit both the Jura and Leysin in one fell swoop.
Leysin has numerous hiking trails around the town, a quaint burg of chalets and boulangeries, some of which are even good for trail running. Check out the trails that weave up toward Solacyre Mountain, La Riondaz, or at lower elevations like those near the Flot de Crettaz. Your best bet, though, would be to check in with the Leysin Tourism Office (www.leysin.ch) to find out about maps and good places to go for the weather at hand.
Another good ski resort worth visiting in this area during the not-too-much-snow months, Les Diablerets, offers the chance to make some turns any time of the year, but you may have to head up in the cable car to about 10,000 feet to find runs on a glacier surrounded by towering rock cliffs. As you can imagine, the views are awe-inspiring. I stayed at a place called the Hôtel des Diablerets on Chemin des Ormonts (www.hoteldesdiablerets.ch; 011-41-24-492-09-09) that was comfortable and conveniently located. It's not the cheapest at about $200 for doubles in the off-season (compared to $240 in the high-season), but the service and helpfulness of the staff make it a worthy indulgence.
Of course there is more to Switzerland than the French-speaking areas, so if you end up in the Bernese Oberland, as you should, you'll find great opportunities for rafting and paragliding. Swiss Adventures (www.swissadventures.ch) is a good place to begin your inquiries on what to do. This outfitter runs canyoneering and rafting trips, among other adventures, and can cater an outing based on your interest and the overall climate conditions.
Then there's Ticino, the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland that doesn't seem to get as much notice as the other cantons. Don't make that mistake yourself. This area just north of Italy is A-1 turf, with a unique blend of chill Italian attitude and Swiss reliability. The landscape isn't shoddy either, with huge mountains diving into cool lakes. You'll even find palm trees here. There are several great hikesnot to mention good opportunities for getting out in a boat on lakesnear Lugano. I hiked up and over a pass near Mount Zucaro that left me breathless, and not just from the effort. But if you go, be prepared; we hit snow up highin May. Check out Walking in Ticino by Kev Reynolds for some ideas on where to explore. The Web site www.switzerland.isyours.com is also a good clearinghouse for information, not just on this tiny area (just 10 percent of the Swiss speak Italian) but for the country in general.
And what would a trip to Europe be without a little biking? Or a little wine? Or a little biking and wine? Cyclists will have the chance to stop in at a few wineries that flank the steep hillsides above towns like Rolle, Stain-Prex, and Morges while following the twisting country roads along "La Route du Vignoble," or, you guessed it, "The Wine Route." Spend a day pedaling through the lower elevations from the Roman town of Nyon along the lake to the northeast, up into the foothills of the Jura, and back to Nyon. Castles? You'll find a few here.
The Tourism Office of Switzerland for the Lake Geneva Region (www.lake-geneva-region.ch; 011-41-21-613-26-26) is just what you'd expect from a country known for its meticulousness: hyper-organized and well ahead of the curve. The group has some of the best maps for bike routes, hiking routes, and great suggestions on how to tailor your trip to the best the region offers at any particular time. The "Discoveries à la Carte" and suggested hikes maps are both particularly good for giving you an overview of what to do.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication