An Amazing Race Through Switzerland

A four-day excursion through Eastern Switzerland

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Zurich shines during the Swiss Meetings Trophy 
 
The eighth Swiss Meetings Trophy, an annual familiarization trip arranged by the Swiss Convention & Incentive Bureau, is basically an "Amazing Race" competition. In it, a dozen North American meeting planners and journalists compete with teams from seven European countries in a three-day whirlwind tour of four cities in which arriving first doesn't count, as long as you enjoy the journey.

It's a great way to see Switzerland. The event makes it clear that the country is small enough, and the transportation infrastructure is robust and reliable enough, to plan multi-stop trips rather than settling in one spot - particularly if it's an incentive trip.

Zurich to Flims
The rally began in Zurich's old citywith a game of bocce in a courtyard off Lindenhofstrasse, high above the Limmat River, which flows through the old city before meeting Lake Zurich. It's a great place to start the day, with excellent views of the city. From there we walked through twisting, medieval streets lined with shops - they ranged from the Apple Store to small art galleries - to Brasserie Lipp, a well-regarded restaurant in an old building with a tall, domed tower, at the top of which is the Jules Verne Panorama Bar. It is a small space, round but fairly narrow with a capacity of 80, and has what may be the best view of the whole of Zurich.

From there, we were off to the Flims, Laax, and Falera region in Eastern Switzerland. There are more direct routes from Zurich than chartering a ferry to Thalwil, followed by a private train to Chur, and then bus to the Graubunden region, but it's a scenic, fun way to travel nonetheless. We were able to have hors d'oeuvres on the 30-minute ride in a chartered Zurichsee ferry, which also provides scheduled service along Lake Zurich.

The historic Churchill train (aka Little Red Train), built in 1939, is a small charter-only train that has transported royalty and other notables across the country for decades. We ate a lunch prepared onboard at tables with linen tablecloths and red roses while wetook in the views, and then took a chartered, Yellow Post Bus, which has regular service to many large and small destinations throughout the country, including some very scenic routes. Groups doing a lot of traveling will find the Swiss Pass invaluable. Available in four-day, eight-day, or longer versions, it permits unlimited travel on all trains, buses, and boats in the Swiss Travel System, taking much of the logistics out of transfers.

In the afternoon our group found ourselves at the striking, turquoise-green Lake Cauma in the Alps. It's about 3,300 feet above sea level, yet so deep inside a valley that it requires a short funicular to reach - the drop's too steep for stairs. There's a nice caf�, swimming docks, and two-person paddleboats. A small island in the lake is the right distance for a quick teambuilding competition - far enough to move quickly, but long enough to allow early sprinters to be overtaken.

Dinner was at Restaurant Tegia Curnia in nearby Laax, which is accessible only via cable car. A mile up in the Alps, the views from here are incredible. Cocktails and a traditional fondue were served at a rustic mountainside lodge, accompanied by music from long alphorns, before we retired to the glass-walled restaurant for Graubunden regional specialties.

Appenzell and St. Gallen
There may be a better way to travel through the Swiss Alps in summer than by the convertible Volkswagens and Audis we rented from Europcar, but it's hard to imagine what it might be. The mountainous route from Flims to Appenzell takes you through Lichtenstein, which provides even experienced road warriors with another country to add to their lists.

Take the long way into Appenzell, as some of the best scenery is on the road surrounding the city. It's a small city of 7,000, high up in the mountains, with ornate iron signs marking many businesses. It's a lovely old town to stroll around, and if you're looking for a genuine Swiss garden gnome, this is the place. Stop at the Appenzeller Bier brewery and distillery, where the Locher family has been making excellent beer for five generations and surprisingly good Scotch since the new millennium.

Outside of town, higher up in the mountains, is Restaurant Eggli. It's very casual - think picnic tables - but the food is good, the views are unmatched, and it's in an idyllic setting. If you're going to bring a photographer, this is where to take each attendee's "in the Alps" photo. That said, the serving staff was a bit overwhelmed by our roughly 100 participamts sitting down together, so you may want to consider a buffet meal here for large groups.

St. Gallen is a short, though equally scenic, drive away. Once there, our stops included a local cheese tasting at Chaslaube Kundig, and the not-to-be-missed library of the Abbey of St. Gall, a Rococo masterpiece in the cathedral that named the city. The Benedictine Abbey was a vital center of learning from the Middle Ages, and the main library room, which inspired the movie The Name of the Rose, can make a claim to being the most beautiful room in the country.

The final night awards dinner was held at the Pfaltzkeller restaurant, an underground facility perfect for a blow-out party. The restaurant - which you enter through a staircase that rises out of the sidewalk - is all flowing curves inside. It's a lovely facility that illuminates well, with excellent food and service.

Back to Zurich
That was the end of the Trophy portion of the trip, but Team North America took another day back in Zurich, spending more time seeing the city. On the way back, we stopped off at the Weinbau Muhle Stafa, a small, family-run winery where husband-and-wife team Stefan and Maya Reichling can give a short vineyard tour followed by an informative and delicious wine-tasting and pairing lesson using their award-winning products. The traditional Swiss wine soup package makes a nice gift.

Back in Zurich, an excellent local guide took us around the old city, sharing her excitement and infectious energy about her city. Zurich is a city rich in music. It is everywhere, from sidewalk brass bands and string quartets to jazz clubs and other nightlife, notably in the industrial west side and around the Limmat River.

Strolling around the medieval old city and along the river, taking in the shops and people, is a wonderful way to spend a day. The shopping is great, the near side of Lake Zurich is lined with parks and outdoor cafes, and the city's 1,200 fountains - every one of which has drinking water - are charming.