The rocky path led to a lookout point over the Engadine valley, and as a Swiss flag flapped in the wind above us, we all stopped to take in the incredible view. A hundred yards off was the Muottas Muragl lodge—its forbidding name like something out of Tolkien—where a bright red funicular had deposited us after ratcheting up the steep mountainside. Below us were sloping green meadows and faraway villages, and on all sides, looming mountain peaks, their sharp ridges etched into the sky as if by a superhuman razor.
Our troop—me, my wife, Yumi, and our 2½-year-old daughter, Sachi; my parents, John and Catrine; my uncle Thomas, his wife, Susanne, and their 4-year-old son, Valentin—continued up the path until we reached a plateau. Sachi, released from my backpack, ran around in circles and discovered a large, mysterious brown disc on the ground with a large, mysterious white mushroom growing out of it. "It’s a cow patty," my dad explained. I lay down on the prickly grass nearby and closed my eyes. My mother lay down, too.
"Nudel," I said.
It was a nickname for my mom that my brother had invented decades ago. "Ja, doch," she replied in German, meaning "Yes, indeed, that’s me." We tossed the words back and forth affectionately, a shorthand for love.
This would be our last vacation with my mother. None of us knew it at the time—she was happy and energetic and seemed to be doing well—but, then again, we knew she had breast cancer. How much time was left?How many more vacations would there be?Such thoughts were always present on this trip, which was a homecoming of sorts. After my Swiss mother met my American father in the sixties, they moved to California to raise a family. We lived in Switzerland for several years when I was in my teens and visited frequently before and after that, but it had been 20 years since we’d come to the mountains together to hike and swim, cook and eat.
For me, the Alps, especially in summer, deserve their storybook reputation. I say this, of course, as a partisan Swiss citizen, but consider: you’ve got dark-green trains—some with children’s play cars—winding through mountain tunnels; lakes and medieval castles; meadows filled with wildflowers; fresh milk and cheese and, yes, you’ve got chocolate. Sachi was going to love it here. We would make this a vacation tradition, renewed by my young family, which is also an international one, since Yumi is Japanese.
My mother and I had stretched out the planning period, looking at maps together and recalling our many happy summer vacations past (in the mountain village of Kandersteg, by the lake in Lausanne, in Grindelwald beneath the famous Eiger peak). We finally decided on the Engadine, in the southeastern canton of Graubünden, perhaps the grandest of the Swiss alpine valleys. Online, we reserved a week at a house with four bedrooms and plenty of outdoor space in the village of Madulain, population 180, in the upper part of the valley about a half-hour’s drive east of St. Moritz. Here, as in most alpine spots, winter is high season and skiing the sport. But the area also has well-marked hiking trails, several golf courses, and a bike path, part paved, part gravel, that rolls along the bottom of the 56-mile-long valley, from town to town through the fields—car-free, except for the odd tractor. We would definitely be doing some biking, we decided, and buying new hiking boots.
Six weeks after booking our house, Yumi, Sachi and I rendezvoused with my parents in Zurich, packed ourselves into a sleek VW Passat from Avis, and headed toward the mountains, my father at the wheel. The three-hour ride was smooth, thanks to the neurotically maintained Swiss roads, and the hairpin turns up and over the 7,493-foot-high Julier Pass highly entertaining. The route was marked by a string of 16th-century villages—each with its own massive stone water fountain, where townspeople once drew their drinking water and did their wash—and by groups of placid, exceptionally satisfied-looking cows. Sachi waved a hand out the window.
Touching down in the wide Engadine valley, we drove through St. Moritz, admiring its small lake, palatial hotels, Rodeo Drive–like shops, and, Yumi noticed, a swank children’s boutique. But there was no time to dawdle. Our sights were set on the supermarket in the town of Samedan, a few miles from our house.
Provisioning, I must admit, is one of my favorite vacation activities. There’s nothing better than shopping for groceries on the first day of a weeklong stay in a house with a decent kitchen and a family full of cooks. We cruised the aisles, calculating our menus: Yes, we’ll be needing Emmenthaler and prosciutto and Gruyère and what’s this?Thin-sliced air-dried Bündnerfleisch, the traditional beef cold cut of Graübunden; potatoes and veal for a stew my mom was planning; and wine, don’t forget the wine. And juices and plums and strawberries, and a variety of yogurts (hazelnut is amazing) and creamy fruit-flavored ricottas (called Quark), and a round of whole-wheat bread, and tubes of Thomy mustard and mayonnaise. Was it enough?Maybe.
Our place was called Chesa Aivla, which means "Eagle House" in Romansch, the regional dialect and one of the closest living languages to Latin (though German is the area’s lingua franca). Thick-walled and spacious, the villa was stucco, stone, and dark wood on the outside, pale wood and no-frills modern furnishings inside. The balcony and terrace overlooked a field that led down to the Inn River, from which the valley got its name, and up the street was the general store, where we put in an order for daily fresh-baked bread.
Thomas, Susanne, and Valentin arrived the day after we did, and we all walked to the edge of the fast-moving Inn. I dipped a toe into what felt like barely melted glacial runoff. Thomas stripped down to his Speedo and jumped in. "It’s just right!" he claimed. My mother smiled at her baby brother and rolled her eyes. Susanne waded in, too, while Sachi and Valentin poked sticks in the mud. "Isn’t the water freezing?" I asked Sachi. "No," she said, her chubby calves impervious to the cold. I hovered, American parent–style, making sure no one got swept away by the current.
The Engadine is full of impressive 19th- and early-20th-century resort hotels where European aristocrats once summered with their vast entourages. St. Moritz has a number of such places (Badrutt’s Palace, the Kulm, Suvretta House), and closer to Madulain is the Hotel Castell, in Zuoz, newly refurbished and decidedly hip, with minimalist interiors and a James Turrell light installation. My old friend Benoît, visiting from Paris, was staying at the Castell, and we decided to embark from there on a bike ride to explore the valley.
But first came the hotel’s breakfast buffet, an enormous spread, in typical mountain-resort fashion—everything from salamis to muesli to sweet rolls. This one included a quaint ritual: on one table were eggs, a pan of boiling water, and colored pencils. We wrote our initials on our eggs, put them in the bath, and took hourglass timers to our table. "Look," said Yumi, showing Sachi the trickling sand. Sachi was briefly interested but quickly turned her attention to a slice of Appenzeller. My mother was amused. "See—she’s Swiss!" she said.
Fortified, we borrowed bikes from the hotel—I strapped Sachi into a baby seat on the back of mine—and rode down the hill to town. As we bounced along the cobblestoned streets of Zuoz, we admired the buildings, some of them 500 years old, with heavy carved-wood doors and walls decorated with sgraffito, a style of drawing in plaster that dates from the Renaissance. Shifting to the smooth, uncrowded bike path, we pedaled to the well-preserved village of S-chanf (its unusual name a Romansch legacy), where we were passed by a bike-racing team in yellow spandex, 10 of them in tight formation. We stopped for a lunch of schnitzel and fries at an outdoor café, and late in the afternoon, circled back to Madulain. My mother, who’d returned home after breakfast, was preparing our favorite leek-and-potato soup. As it simmered, she joined us on the porch, where we drank excellent dry Swiss white wine, produced in small quantities and hard to find in the States. From the fields we could hear the hollow clanking of cowbells, a sound Sachi loved, as I had as a boy.
When I was eight or 10, we spent a summer vacation with friends in Zuoz. My most vivid memory of that trip: a visit to a cheesemaker high up on a mountain, where I drank a glass of milk in a dark, cool barn filled with the pungent smell of aging cheese. I relived that moment at the Alp-Shaukäserei Morteratsch, near Pontresina, a dairy we toured on our way to a hike around Lake Sils, farther down the valley. As Sachi admired a family of sheep in the field, we watched workers stir a gigantic pot of curds burbling over the fire, and added a round of cheese to our picnic backpack.
The hike we planned was an easy one that my mother and Thomas had done many times as children. They had an end spot in mind—"a sort of secret picnic area," said Thomas—a ways off the path. Yumi and my mother and I ambled along with Sachi, who was paying careful attention to every hole in the ground and wondering who lived in each.
"A rabbit?" Yumi proposed. "Or maybe a hedgehog?"
"Or maybe a kitty," Sachi said.
Thomas led the way, through the forest, across a pasture, and along a tiny stream down to the lake. And here, all to ourselves, was, as billed, the perfect picnic spot, a waterside meadow surrounded by mountains right out of a vintage Swiss travel poster. We gathered wood, got a blaze going in a fire ring, stuck sausages on sticks, and roasted away. After lunch, the kids splashed at the shore and watched windsurfers out on the lake. We all dozed in the shade, then we carefully extinguished the fire before heading home.
There were so many things we planned to do but never got around to: the Bernina Express to Italy past the magnificent Morteratsch Glacier, a guided walk at the nearby Swiss National Park, almond tortes at St. Moritz’s historic Hanselmann konditerei. Soon we were back in Zurich with my parents, where we checked into the Hotel Baur au Lac and treated ourselves to a few days of luxury, including swims in surprisingly warm Lake Zurich. My mother’s parents live in nearby Stäfa, and we all met there at a farmhouse restaurant. As we sat on the patio in the late-day sun, we filled them in on our week.
We’d had a wonderful vacation. Truly, I will never forget it, the memories burned into my mind and lit up with a kind of helpless regret because I can’t go back, and I can’t have her back: three months later, my mother died at age 60, and she was too young to die. My heart is breaking as I type these words, but then, there, on the patio in Stäfa, we laughed as an enormous rainbow appeared on the horizon. It was an amazement, especially seen through the eyes of a child, which is how we all saw it, leaning in close to Sachi, pointing at the sky.
Luke Barr is News Director of Travel + Leisure.
When and How to Go
Even in midsummer, the Engadine is not crowded. Swiss International Air Lines (swiss.com) has the most direct U.S.-to-Zurich flights. From Zurich, board a train (sbb.ch) for St. Moritz, or rent a car and drive three hours on winding roads into the Alps.
Where to Stay
Engadin.ch covers the valley. Weekly rates start at about $575 for an apartment for four and $1,080 for a house that sleeps six.
Zuoz; 41-81/851-5253; www.hotelcastell.ch; two-room family suites from $227.
Simple rooms, ambitious dinner menu. La Punt; 41-81/854-1269; www.krone-la-punt.ch; rooms for four from $205, breakfast included.
Where to Eat
Order capuns, meat dumplings. Zuoz; 41-81/854-2040; dinner for four $80.
A St. Moritz landmark, for lunch and pastries. St. Moritz; 41-81/833-3864; hansel www.mann.ch; lunch for four $70.
What to Do
Rent wheels at Willy Sport, off the bike path outside of Zuoz. 41-81/854-1289; www.willy-sport.ch.
Go by funicular to Muottas Muragl lodge, your base camp—with playground—for easy walks. 41-81/842-8232; www.muottasmuragl.ch.
Attend a concert
The enchanting Engadiner Kantorei sings in valley churches. www.engadinerkantorei.ch.
Ride a train
A 2 1/2-hour run on the Bernina Express whisks you from St. Moritz to the palm trees of Tirano, Italy. 41-81/288-6104; www.rhb.ch.
See the Swiss National Park
This sanctuary has family nature walks and craft programs. 41-81/856-1282; www.nationalpark.ch.
Although the country is diminutive—you can drive from border to border in six hours—Switzerland packs in a dramatic range of landscapes, cities, languages, and cultures. These four locales are particularly lovely, and, like every place in Switzerland, welcome children. Note that most hotel rooms are priced for two people; kids over six are an additional charge.
This charming resort town is tucked into a sunny bay on Lake Maggiore, in the canton of Ticino, the country’s Italian-speaking region. Steep walkways and stone staircases crisscross the medieval center, where you can stop for an Italian meal at a garden restaurant (order the daily menu). Check in at the palazzo-like Hotel Eden Roc (16 Via Albarelle; 41-91/785-7171; www.edenroc.ch; doubles from $405), decorated in clear blues, yellows, and greens and offering kids’ activities on land and water. A popular time to come is during the town’s famous jazz festival (www.jazzascona.com)—this year from June 21–July 1, right on the lakeshore. You can also hike up the Maggia valley and swim in the Maggia River, with its huge boulders and hidden swimming holes.
Along the northern shore of Lake Geneva, the hilly city is Switzerland’s answer to San Francisco—and a counterpoint to business-oriented Geneva. Take a walking tour of the narrow streets of the Old Town, visit the vineyards north of Lausanne by train or bicycle, and explore the banquet halls and prison of the 12th-century Château de Chillon (www.chillon.ch), in a nearby village. The staff of the Beau-Rivage Palace (17–19 Place du Port; 41-21/613-3333; www.brp.ch; doubles from $388), a sumptuous 19th-century hotel, will arrange treasure hunts in the halls and kid-size lessons with the pastry chef.
The Matterhorn is the platonic ideal of a mountain, and in its shadow is the ridiculously picturesque village of Zermatt, where cars are banned and horse-drawn carriages roam the streets. Zermatt is a perfect base for hiking and glacier viewing; a gondola ferries visitors up the mountain. Riffelalp Resort (41-27/966-0555; doubles from $354) is a classic Alpine lodge, all wood paneling and floral brocades, with a spa and indoor pool.
Compact and walkable, cosmopolitan Zurich is at its peak in summertime. See it on wheels: you can pick up free bikes, scooters, and skateboards at several locations around the city (www.zuerirollt.ch). Jump into the lake at Tiefenbrunnen, a strand with grassy lawns, changing rooms, a waterslide, and pedal-boat rentals. Among the slick shops along the Bahnhofstrasse is, at No. 62, the Franz Carl Weber toy store— one of the best anywhere. The stately, opulent Hotel Baur au Lac (1 Talstrasse; 41-44/ 220-5030; www.bauraulac.ch; doubles from $645) is a Zurich landmark and has long been a watering hole for the European artistocracy (Wagner premiered Die Walküre there). Its shady garden is the perfect place for a late afternoon lemonade.
For comprehensive travel information, see www.myswitzerland.com, a site run with Swiss precision by the national tourism office.