After a recent stay in Geneva, I shimmied around the lake to Montreux, to put the GoldenPass Line to the test.
It's reputed to be the pioneer of the panorama train, lustily sporting giant picture windows to maximise the vistas. Operating on a line that has seen well over a century of service, it's not just a tourist line but a crucial commuter route, weaving through countless towns and village.
It was a crisp, clear November morning as my train chugged out of Montreux, ascending the thickly wreathed slopes of the Lavaux vineyard terraces, set against glinting peaks and a millpond-smooth lake.
I virtually had the entire first-class carriage to myself, with just Tom and Sharon, a charming couple from Melbourne, sharing my journey. Spaciously seated within our glassed cocoon of comfort, we oohed and ahead like school children on a sugar hit, all the way to Interlaken. Gloriously clear weather sans the crowds — there's a lot to be said for off-peak travel!
The climb out of Montreux was strikingly steep, with the first 10km ascending to 1110 metres, as those Unesco-protected vineyards, medieval watchtowers and ravishing country estates glided by the curving cogwheel track.
A fresh coating of snow carpeted the verdant green valleys, adding to the cinematic spectacle, as we delved deeper into the alpine hinterland. Spruce, fir and pine forests were mantled in snow, as we whizzed by plump dairy cows and weathered wooden chalets, half expecting Heidi to come skipping into view.
Rather surreally, the Goldenpass train threads its way through the heart of villages, right down the main street, bringing all vehicular traffic to a stop, as we peered intimately into the yards and homes, flanking the track.
The elaborate carvings of the chalets seemed to get ever more impressive and ornate, as we tootled through Les Avants. Noel Coward was so enchanted by this town when he visited in 1959, that he swiftly bought a chalet and spent the rest of his life here.
Clinging to the steep mountainside and crossing a multitude of bridges, we entered the long summit tunnel of Jaman, before soaking up more scenic spoils through Montbovon, the cheese region of Gruyere, Saanen, and Chateau d'Oex — which hosts the International Ballooning Festival every January. Beautifully decorated chalets and the spires of alpine church steeples abound in these parts.
In picturesque Rossiniere, I swooned at the sight of the Grand Chalet — Switzerland's largest, a five-storey intricately carved and painted masterpiece constructed in the 1700s to produce cheese, complete with 113 windows. This palatial construction, which became the home of the world-famous artist Balthus, has hosted a roll-call of distinguished guests, from the Dalai Lama to David Bowie.
Glitz and glamour down the line
Further down the line, the enchantment factor meets all-star glamour, glitz and Gucci in the high-end alpine resort town of Gstaad, where the chalets looked impeccably stylish.
As you pass from French-speaking to German-speaking Switzerland, put the wood-pile theory to the test. I'm convinced that while the French-speaking residents stack their wood in free-form style, the German-speaking folk tidily pile wood with absolute precision.
The route's highest point tops out at nearly 1300 metres at Saanenmoser, before changing trains on the wide valley floor at Zweisimmen. Purring through the Simmen Valley to Spiez, half-timbered houses, sigh-inducing chalets and forested mountains studded this quintessential pastoral pocket of Switzerland.
The stately 15th century Wimmis Castle lorded over us, like a valley sentinel, as we neared Spiez and Lake Thun.
One of nature's own guards, the pyramid-shaped might of Mt Niesen, shimmered in the early winter sun, casting its towering triangular shadow over the lake. Interlaken beckoned ever closer, as we breezed by a host of seductive lakefront hamlets, like Faulensee and Leissigen.
For day-trippers on the GoldenPass line, a carefully choreographed change in trains at Interlaken leads you on to Luzern, but I had places to see and people to meet in Interlaken, first.
In the great alpine cradle of the Bernese Oberland region, Jungfraujoch and Schilthorn were calling me. The full journey between Montreux and Luzern is just 210km, taking under four hours to complete. Interlaken is the halfway point. www.myswitzerland.com/rail