The Lakes of Switzerland

The Lakes of Switzerland

by Marge Nichols 5-11-00    Photos by Marge Nichols    © Copyright 2001 Marge Nichols

It was my first morning in Switzerland, 5:00 a.m., and dark out. But dawn was imminent and I was dying to paddle Lake Geneva. I jumped out of my bunk. My inflatable kayak was rolled up in the trunk of our rental car, just around the corner from the youth hostel where we were staying. I wheeled the boat in its bag down the road to a park. Light started to creep into the sky as I pumped up the boat and in 15 minutes I was on the water.

As the sun rose from behind the 10,000-foot snow-capped peaks of Les Dents du Midi, I paddled down lake to the Castle of Chillon. The castle's dark impenetrable outer wall rose 5 stories above the water, broken by small Gothic windows, and flanked by towers. Part of this castle was begun 1,000 years ago, on a huge submerged rock. The rock drops a sheer 230 feet into the depths of the lake and is split from shore by a natural moat. It was here that the "The Prisoner of Chillon," subject of Byron's famous poem, was chained to the fifth pillar in the dungeon for four years in the 16th century.

I sat bobbing in the castle's reflection. No one was on this enormous lake but two fishermen in a small boat and myself. Not a sound but the early morning birds.

Switzerland is a fabulous place to paddle - not only for the breathtaking beauty, but it is very kayak-friendly. I paddled on 3 large lakes, surrounded by mountains, reflections and the occasional Romanesque church, medieval castle or village rising up steep slopes. Yet, each lake was extremely easy to access, the water clean and swimmable, and there were no highspeed power boats. Indeed, hardly any other boats at all, except the gleaming white multi-deck tour boats that make leisurely circuits from town dock to town dock. And this was high tourist season, late July, early August.

In addition there are numerous budget-friendly "youth" hostels on or near the waterfronts of most lakes. If we weren't right on the water, I was able to hop a bus with my inflatable kayak rolled up in its bag.

Over the years, I have taken my inflatable kayak to Yellowstone National Park, and to Jackson Lake and the Snake River in the Grand Tetons. I have also paddled some remote, undeveloped islands in the Caribbean, as well as Florida's Intercoastal Waterway and part of Everglades National Park.

Now it was time for Europe. Switzerland, with its dozen or more major lakes, seemed the perfect destination. One of our plans for this trip was to stay at hostels close to water and this we did - Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) in the French-speaking section, Lago di Lugano in the Italian area and Brienzer See in the German part - rather linguistically challenging, as you might imagine.


I knew that the Montreux Youth Hostel was by the shore of Lake Geneva, but I couldn't have been more thrilled to discover the hostel front door a mere 150 feet from the water. And when I returned from my excursion to the Castle of Chillon that morning, I discovered a small metal ladder embedded in the stone wall and a shelf of rock to easily stand on at water's edge. I was able to haul my light inflatable kayak right up over the wall directly in front of the hostel.

Switzerland is generally an expensive country to visit, but we chose to stay at hostels. Large and spotlessly clean, Swiss hostels are only an average of $17 a night including breakfast. And you don't have to be a "youth" to stay at a hostel - my friend and I are both hovering around the 50 mark. There are over 60 hostels in Switzerland. At least 22 are on or near large and beautiful lakes.

Lake Geneva is a good 50 miles long, maybe 10 miles across at its widest and hundreds of feet deep. Bottom drops off quickly into the abyss. But it was marvelously clear and clean - close in to shore I could easily see 30 feet down.

At the Montreux (eastern) end, you've got a 6 mile-crossing to reach France, or you can skirt along shore for 8 to 10 miles (bring your passport). The mild climate makes the Lake Geneva region a major wine producing area and its steep slopes on the Swiss side are terraced with vineyards. Despite its depth and enormous size, the water temperature in hot late July was perfect for swimming and I wasted no time getting in to escape the heat later in the day.

Along the miles of lake shore, small groups of adults and kids were sunbathing or jumping off rock walls or stone steps that led down into the water. There were no "No Trespassing" signs or warnings about lack of life guards. Everywhere, Lake Geneva was accessible for swimmers or paddlers, even at the town waterfronts. You could walk for miles on a flower-edged path along the shore.

But I'd rather paddle. Now, some may laugh over the idea of an inflatable kayak. But the company that made mine, Grabner Luftboote of Austria, makes some very rigid and well-designed models that look and paddle like hardshells. With narrow side tubes, they are sleek and have plenty of room for camping gear. They have a rudder for wind. They are not just your fat "rubber duckies."

Audrey Sutherland, author of Paddling Hawaii and Paddling My Own Canoe, has long been my inspiration. She paddles all over the world in inflatable kayaks. She has regularly traveled 20 mile days in a boat similar to mine. In fact, after reading her books, I wrote to her. It was she who kindly told me where to find a Grabner boat.

My 13-foot inflatable is Grabner's Holiday 2 model. In its bag, including pump, PFD, paddle and seats, the Holiday weighs 15 pounds less than my same-size Feathercraft. I can unpack the boat and be waterborne in a quarter of an hour, while my folding kayak still takes me over an hour to assemble, even after a dozen trips and practice sessions. My inflatable is versatile - it can seat one or two adults. My model costs about half the price of a new Feathercraft.

The Grabner boats are not flimsy items that would pop. They are made of a tough but flexible rubber and Hypalon combination. I've had my boat 10 years now and it shows no signs of cracking, breaks or thinning. It is stable and difficult to capsize. It has flotation by definition: 5 separate air chambers - it will not sink. And it is sooo comfortable.

After leaving Lake Geneva, we headed past glaciers over the passes and down into the Italian part of Switzerland, to the town of Lugano. Suddenly we were in a Mediterranean climate with pastel buildings, palm trees, gardens full of begonias and bamboo groves. The hostel here, pink and ivy-covered, had an in-ground swimming pool in the green, lush backyard. This hostel is only about $15.00 a night, including breakfast, and we had a tiny but private room all to ourselves.

K-shaped Lake Lugano is 15 miles long at its longest. It stretches across a narrow finger of Switzerland, two of its ends poking into Italy. Our hostel was several miles from the lake, but I wheeled my boat bag a block or two to the bus stop. In just a few minutes I was at the waterfront, where I launched, to the amusement of local bystanders, from the waterfront park.

I spent a sparkling sunny, calm day paddling along Lake Lugano to Gandria, a medieval town built on tiers up the steep slope, whose "roads" consisted of stone steps and winding passages under arches, and whose tiny cafes perched on balconies overlooking the water.

It was at Gandria I pulled into a tiny grotto beneath the edge of the village. There I sat on vine-covered stone steps leading to a wooden door that looked as though it hadn't been opened in a hundred years. I had lunch, was visited by a hungry swan and went swimming in the crystal water. Was I in a hurry? No. But if I'd kept going just a few more miles, I could have paddled into Italy.

In the afternoon a flotilla of small sail boats moseyed about in front of the city of Lugano, but down this arm of the lake, I had it all to myself.

I saw evidence of kayaking activity around Lake Lugano - here and there a plastic sea kayak or white water kayak upended on shore, but no one out paddling - until my eyes caught the dipping of a paddle blade way in the distance. I sat out in the middle of this large lake and watched excitedly as the kayak headed straight for me. It was a German couple - in none other than a Grabner inflatable! They had the "Explorer" tandem sea-kayak, a model I wished was available when I bought my boat 10 years ago.

She spoke excellent English. So there we chatted out in the middle of the lake, against a dramatic backdrop of rugged Italian-Swiss Alps.

After 5 leisurely days around Lugano, we drove north into the German section of Switzerland. Our destination was Bonigen, a small village of flower-festooned chalets. The Bonigen hostel was right on the shore of Brienzer See, a 12-mile-long glacier-fed lake. Brienzer See and its larger twin, Thuner See, spread out like a pair of wings on either side of charming Interlaken. A milky, icy river pours tons of glacial silt into the lake not far from the hostel, giving it an opaque rich turquoise color. But, alas, too cold to swim in for my tastes.

Every evening, we watched wetsuit- and helmet-clad whitewater rafters come hooting down the rapids into Brienzer See. They put in 10 miles upriver and were down to the lake in less than 2 hours. It was in this same river that 19 extreme-sports enthusiasts were drowned last summer in one flash flood (they were body-jumping down the waterfalls high up the valley).

I launched my boat from the lawn directly in front of the hostel. Paddling across Brienzer See to the base of a 100-foot limestone cliff I found bushes heavy with fat juicy blackberries. I did see another paddler in a yellow plastic kayak way across the water. Bells echoed from an ancient stone church perched high up the slope.

The south shore of Brienzer See is edged by a tree-lined footpath. Beyond the town limits there is a wooded country road along the water, with numerous good put-ins at sandy spots along the banks. No "Keep Out" signs. And hardly a soul in this quiet setting.

I headed up the Aare River, which connects Brienzer See with Thunersee. A gleaming white tourboat passed me by with barely a wake. Clusters of geranium-bedecked wooden chalets rose above the river. Reluctantly, I turned back toward the hostel across Brienzer See. This was the final lake on our trip. I was sorry that my vacation didn't allow me to try every other lake in Switzerland, but - another time.

For information on Switzerland: Contact the Swiss Tourist Office on Long Island at (toll-free) 011-800-10020030 (this is the correct number to call within the U.S., also). They will send you brochures and information free of charge, including the map and prices of the youth hostels. Also check for details of all Swiss hostels ("ch" stands for Confederacy of Helvetia, the old name of Switzerland).