A family journey to “the happiest country in the world,” from Conde Nast Traveller
It was only September, but I was standing in front of one of Europe’s biggest Christmas trees. A giant sequoia, over 100 years old, it stood majestically in a park under wooded hills in the spa town of Bad Ragaz,in northeastern Switzerland.
Kathrin Bechtold, the director of business development at the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, had just shown me around her hotel. She took me to the spa baths, filled with thermal waters naturally heated to 36.5°C degrees and piped from the Tamina Gorge up in the hills. She also showed me the resort’s well-appointed health facilities, designed for wealthy patients recuperating from surgery or illness. Now in front of the sequoia, its trunk lined with years, its leaves just starting to yellow with the advance of autumn, Kathrin told me how the tree would be decked out with lights and bells at Christmas. “There is a very special atmosphere here,” she said. “There is a mood.” She stretched out her hand and invited me to hug the tree.
Not really being the tree-hugging type, I demurred. But I do believe in trying new things while travelling. So I returned a little later and approached the tree. Gingerly, a little self-consciously, I wrapped my arms around its trunk. I looked up and saw only cloudless blue sky and forest-covered green hills all around. Maybe, just maybe, I was starting to feel something.
My communion with nature was rudely interrupted by a tug on my shirt. I turned around and my two sons, Aman and Emil, aged 9 and 7, were laughing at me. “Come on, let’s go,” they said. They pointed in the direction of a mini-golf course. Embarrassed, I dusted myself off and started off towards the golf course. At this point, my wife came up. “Where are you going?” she asked. She wanted to go check out the spa waters.
And so we stood in the middle of the park, a family at a standstill, each of us pulling in a different direction.
When I was younger, I used to travel alone a lot. I loved the sense of discovery, of newness and serendipity. Most of all, I revelled in the freedom: no one to consult, no permission to be asked. Travelling with family—with any group, really—is more complicated. It has its joys, of course, but I’ve learnt the hard way that much time on family trips is likely to be spent planning, weighing everyone’s preferences, working out compromises to keep the peace.
Consider the question of choosing a restaurant. Emil likes his food simple: pasta, fried chicken, chips. Aman has more sophisticated tastes: he’s been known to try frog legs. My wife likes her food healthy and light. And I… Well, I like to think I’m easy-going, though you should check with my family on that.
The difficulty of harmonising preferences is directly proportionate to the attractiveness of a destination. As a family, it’s easier to visit cities with a single attraction, towns with few good restaurants. The less there is to choose from, the less there is to argue about.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Switzerland—that tiny, land-locked country that famously contains multitudes within its tight boundaries. “Switzerland would be a mighty big place if it were ironed flat,” Mark Twain once wrote. He was referring to the mountains, of course. But there was a sense, too, of densely packed plenitude, of a variety in experience and landscape that has drawn eager travellers for centuries. It was precisely this plenitude that worried me. How would we decide what to do?
My anxiety was only heightened a few weeks before leaving India, when I came across an article headlined “Switzerland named the happiest country in the world”. According to the 2015 World Happiness Report, the nation ranked highest among 158 nations in various measures of life satisfaction. “Too much of a good thing,” I muttered, and, as if to confirm my worries, I found another article: “31 reasons why Switzerland is the happiest country”.
My wife rolled her eyes and accused me of being an inveterate pessimist. “Just try to enjoy yourself,” she said. “Maybe we can all learn something from the happiness.” She’s usually right, and as we flew into Zürich, I resolved to take her admonishment to heart. Maybe in the happiest country in the world, I would find the key to happy family travel.
For the ancient Greeks, happiness was related to excellence. Developing his notion of eudaimonia (or ‘human flourishing’), Aristotle argued that the search for happiness lay in the “cultivation of virtue”. Perhaps here, I thought, lay an opportunity. After all, Switzerland is famous for its meticulousness: its punctuality, its hygiene, its rigorous attention to detail.
It didn’t take long for us to experience Swiss perfection first-hand. Our train from the Zürich airport was scheduled to depart at 13.51; it was to arrive in Bad Ragaz at 15.26. When I read our programme before leaving, I laughed. But my jaw dropped when the train really did pull out and then pull in, precisely as scheduled.
The writer W Somerset Maugham, a noted curmudgeon, famously decried Switzerland’s flawlessness. “…The lake was absurd,” he wrote, “… the water was too blue, the mountains too snowy, and its beauty, hitting you in the face, exasperated rather than thrilled.” That wasn’t my experience at all. I found a kind of soothing quality in the perfection, a welcome antidote to the chaos and dysfunction of the world at large.
There was beauty, too, and a certain otherworldliness. The lakes were crystal clear and seemed devoid of pollution, or even a trace of algae. The mountains, their peaks neat little cones of snow, were so well defined that they seemed etched into the sky, like sculptures. My kids admired the smoothness of the trains and boats—running, they said, “as if on Rolls-Royce engines”.
Travel is an accumulation of moments; one morning in Switzerland seemed to sum it all up. We were on a boat on Lake Brienz, outside the town of Interlaken. We were surrounded by dramatic Alpine peaks and hillside villages with wooden chalets that spilled gently down grassy slopes. The lake itself was aquamarine, like a piece of the Caribbean Sea. Every now and then, we’d sail past a grand old mansion, perched delicately at the top of a cliff.
It was truly a perfect morning, and the four of us just sat at the front of the boat, the wind crisp against our faces, exhilarated, a little stunned. Even the kids had put away their iPhones to take it all in. “Is this real?” my wife asked at one point. We were sitting side by side, arms wrapped around each other. At that moment, we were all travelling together, a family headed in the same direction.
Not everything can go right all the time, however, even in Switzerland. I knew that banking on perfection was a fool’s errand and possibly even worse: a recipe for disaster. Nothing upsets harmony so much on a trip as a minor mishap—a missed train, bad weather, a bout of food poisoning—that leaves everyone in a foul mood and longing for home. Exhilarating as Switzerland’s perfection could be, I was convinced that the key to sustainable happiness lay elsewhere.
We set out one morning for Jungfraujoch—11,330ft up the Jungfrau mountain, billed as “the highest-altitude railway station in Europe”.
It was a clear, cloudless day. In the lobby of our hotel in Wengen, an Alpine village, a webcam broadcast scenery from the top of Jungfrau; the views were breathtaking.
We climbed higher and higher until my ears were popping, and as the air grew thinner, I began to feel a slight pounding in the temples, perhaps a quickening of the pulse. Jungfrau is a truly impressive mountain; its sight makes one feel, in Mark Twain’s evocative phrase, “as if heaven’s gates had swung open and exposed the throne”. The other tourists seemed to agree. They ran around the carriage clicking away their experience of this natural beauty mediated by their phones and cameras.
But then as we got nearer to the top, a small cloud sailed over Jungfrau’s peak. At first, it was merely a puff, barely noticeable. It grew and kept growing, until it was just about large enough to cover the observatory—our destination—at the top of the mountain. At first, the implications of that spoiler cloud didn’t hit home. But when we got to the observatory, the building was enveloped in grey; looking out through the large glass panes that were intended to provide views over the surrounding peaks and valleys, we could, in fact, see nothing. A heavy mood filled the air, people hung around, aimless, frustrated. In the basement, at a restaurant called Bollywood, a few bored tourists picked at their parathas and chana masala.
We stepped outside, onto what should have been a bracing hiking trail. It was snowing; the ground was slippery and slushy, and the wind howled. We rushed back in and took the next train down. There was silence in the train too. The cameras were quieter now. Then, all of a sudden, my younger son, Emil, erupted into a wide smile, an incongruous exuberance. “That was so cool!” he said. We all looked at him perplexed. I realised he had found the proverbial silver lining. “That was awesome,” he continued. “I’ve never been inside a cloud before!”
From Jungfrau, we took the GoldenPass train, passing through landscapes of rolling green hills and ski chalets to the town of Montreux. From Montreux, we explored the region of Lavaux, a Swiss wine country, its UNESCO-protected terraced vineyards sloping into a shimmering Lake Geneva. We spent a sunny morning walking those slopes, picking the occasional grape, sampling underrated Swiss wines at Lavaux Vinorama, where you can also learn about the region and its history of winemaking.
The next morning, we were on a platform waiting for another train, this one to the international airport in Geneva. It would be our last ride in Switzerland. The mountains rose into the cloudless sky, and below the train station, the lake was iridescent. The train arrived precisely on schedule. It was shaping up to be another perfect Swiss day.
Then something unusual happened. My sons, timing the train on their iPhones, noticed that we were a little off schedule. Soon, a conductor’s voice came over the public announcement system and apologised for the delay. It was just a little ripple: a minor hold-up, something I would have probably barely noticed in any other country. Nonetheless, a murmur of dissatisfaction arose in the carriage.
I paid no attention. I just sat there with my family, looking out the window, onto the lake, its waters silver under the setting sun. I didn’t care about the delay, I didn’t worry about the flight. I was simply enjoying our time together.
I had learned a valuable lesson up on Jungfrau. My son had helped me find answers to the questions—about family travel, about happiness—that I had been asking since landing in Switzerland.
Travel, like life, is the art of adaptability. Nothing is anything but what you make of it. “Happiness,” as Aristotle once wrote, “depends upon ourselves.”