In Switzerland, a see and stay vacation Package: Idyll Ltd.'s Untour gets you to your destination, finds you an apartment and provides a rail pass. The rest is up to you.

September 27, 1998|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

There's a trick you can play on your brain in the Swiss Alps. Look down at the ground for a moment, then look back up. No matter how many times you do this, your poor mortal mind will always be surprised at the grandeur of what you see.

My family abused its neurons on a regular basis during a 15-day visit to Kandersteg, Switzerland. Even vacationing Swiss seek out this village of 1,100 in a high, narrow valley where all roads dead end and the only way south is a train that ferries cars under the mountains to Brig.

After only a few mornings of leaving Kandersteg to spend the day in more famous destinations, we began to regard the town as home. The snowy peaks, waterfalls, meadows of wildflowers, the musky smell of cows and the wind-chime sound of their bells became our own private landscape.

That turned out to be the unique gift of the travel package that got us there, the Untour.

Organized by Idyll Ltd. of Media, Pa., Untours are designed for travelers who want a combination of structure and freedom in their vacation. For one price, Idyll gets you to a destination, sets you up in an apartment (not a hotel) and supplies you with a rail pass for that country's train system (or, in a few locations, a car).

The company also supplies detailed insider's guides before you depart, then provides a local support staff to answer questions once you arrive. If you want to take part in organized events - tour a dairy, visit a country market - there will usually be a few planned over the course of the stay.

Otherwise, you are armed with all you need to live like a native and see as much or as little of the country as you like.

Hal Taussig came up with the concept in 1976, when he was a professor arranging sabbaticals for his colleagues. He expanded the service, and today Taussig's company offers Untours in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany and even Vietnam.

The destination towns are usually out-of-the-way jewels such as Kandersteg; that was one of the reasons we wound up in the program.

Two years ago, on a more regimented tour package, my wife's parents spent a night in Kandersteg. The next morning, my father-in-law went out for a stroll and realized that the roar he had been hearing was from a waterfall tumbling hundreds of feet down an overhanging cliff. Beside the waterfall was a path leading up into the snowy mountains through a grove of spruce.

In all his travels - and my in-laws have been around - he had never seen anyplace more beautiful. He promised himself that one day, he would come back to Kandersteg and hike up that path.

Luckily for me, the promise intersected with my mother-in-law's long-standing plan to sponsor a trip for the whole family.

She learned about Untours through a fellow schoolteacher. Not only was Kandersteg one of the towns in the program's Swiss Oberland package - a term that refers to the south-central region of the country - but the cost was attractive.

Including airfare, most of the 15-day Untours this year cost less than $1,700 per person - less if you go in a group, and kids 15 and under stay free. Also, the unique setup looked like a good format for traveling in a group of five. My wife and I, her parents and her brother used the Kandersteg apartment as a home base, heading out on expeditions or hanging back for a quiet day alone.

The apartment was in a chalet near the main crossroads in Kandersteg. Another Untours couple was also in the building, but we seldom saw them. Our landlady lived next door. Some of the Untours landladies apparently take an active interest in the affairs of their tenants, but ours left us pretty much alone.

Frau Klopfenstein had stocked our kitchen before we arrived with fresh butter, cheese and milk, a loaf of bread, some jam and a few cooking staples such as oil and flour. A week into the stay, she took our towels for washing; the night before we left, she took our bags to the train station.

Otherwise, we took care of ourselves, buying groceries at the little co-op store down the street. We took turns making dinners and often put sandwiches in our backpacks for lunches. This wasn't a hardship, because the fresh breads and cheeses were so good.

It also saved money. Switzerland is many things - those stereotypes about cleanliness, orderliness and efficient trains are true - but it is not cheap. I don't think we found even the humblest lunch menu item for less than $10.

Hiking is free, though, and the scenery was a bigger attraction for us than the food. The second evening we were in Kandersteg, my father-in-law, brother-in-law and I went out for a walk and found ourselves at that trail by the waterfall.

Switzerland is webbed by walkways, or Wanderwegs, that penetrate even into the hostile heights of the Alps. Some of the most lung-raking snowscapes offer hotels for weary hikers, complete with restaurants and bars.

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