23 November 2014

Sleigh ride in Davos Dischmatal

A horse-drawn sleigh ride is a fun way to counter the after-Christmas blues. A few years ago, we did one in Raten that I wrote about here. Last year, we took a sleigh ride in Davos and really enjoyed it. It's about an hour long ride from the center of Davos up the Dischma valley to Restaurant Teufi, where we ate lunch, then rode back into town.

Our sleigh had three benches; each bench fits 3 adults or 4 kids. Some sleighs charge per person, some charge for the whole sleigh. If you don't fill up the sleigh, they might add another party. So I recommend bringing some friends along. We had 5 adults, 4 kids and a dog, which cost about 200chf. Our driver let one of the kids ride up front with him, which was a special treat.

The sleigh provides lots of blankets, which kept us very cosy. But you still need to dress very warmly, especially your feet, head and hands. We were there are on an especially chilly day and we were happy to have all our snow gear on.

You need to make reservations separately for the sleigh and the restaurant (the restaurant is optional). When reserving with the sleigh, tell them if you want a one way or return trip and if you intend to eat at the restaurant. You can ride the sleigh there and back with a break to eat. You could alternatively ride the sleigh one way, then return by taxi or foot (there is a winter trail next to the road). When reserving the restaurant, tell them that you are coming with the sleigh so they know your arrival time might be a little flexible. The Restaurant Teufi website implies that they also arrange sleigh rides, so you may be able to arrange everything directly with the restaurant.

Kutschenzentrale Davos Platz
Tel. +41 (0)81 413 50 00

Restaurant Teufi, Dischma
Tel. +41 81 416 35 82

Other websites offering sleigh rides in this area:

Now for a few pics...

The sleigh picked us up in town, which was a little funny to see the sleigh driving among traffic. The first part of the ride through town wasn't very interesting and I was a little worried. But once we got to the Dischmatal, it was very pretty.

Heading out of town.

The Dischmatal, looking back to Davos.

Riding backwards.

The sleigh goes up a snowy road alongside a river.

A very pretty river.

The sun was very bright that day and our kids didn't have sunglasses. So sometimes they hid under the blankets.

Restaurant Teufi.

Rösti and sausages for our crew.

Loading back up for our return trip. The horses had a nice break too.

All snug as a bug in a rug.

Sihlwald Forest Theme Trail, aka "Walderlebnispfad"

Summary: interactive theme trail through forest

The Sihlwald "Walderlebnispfad" is an enjoyable 2km loop trail through the forest with 12 interactive stations, including a wood log xylophone, a barefoot path, an animal long jump, and raised path through a mysterious bog. This is a good choice for children as it is short and the stations help keep kids motivated. Although it is open all year, it is particularly charming in October when the fall leaves are changing.

Car: ~20mins from ZH Trail: 2km, ~2hrs Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: 25mins from ZH Stroller: yes, see notes Fire pit: yes
Cost: free Theme: yes, nature Playground: yes

The trail is not difficult, but be aware that the beginning and end of the trail are quite steep with stairs (only a short section), which could be challenging or even dangerous for very small children. However, there is a dirt road detour for both steep sections, which also makes the trail possible with a stroller. There is a fire pit with a picnic table in the middle of the trail and also a few fire pits at the visitor center at the end of the trail. The trail starts at the train station (which is adjacent to the park visitor center), so it's also a good choice for those taking public transportation.

The trail and park are open year around, but the visitor center and other services are closed during winter. Also there were "kein Winterdienst" signs, meaning that snow will not be cleared or groomed unlike "Winterweg" trails where the snow is packed down so you can walk with regular shoes. We went in November, which mean the trail was often covered in slippery leaves and mud. It was still very nice, but just something to consider.

This trail is only one of many attractions at Wildnispark Zürich: Sihlwald, a nature reserve along the Sihl river, about 15 minutes south of Zurich. At the park, you'll find a visitor center (open late Mar through early Nov), animal exhibits (including beaver and fish otter habitats), a variety of trails, a large playground, fire pits, a cafe, etc. This trail takes about 2 hours, including time spent at each station. But you could spend several hours at the park, visiting the animals, on the playground, and wandering along the river.

I'm always surprised how difficult it can be to find trail information even if you know what you're looking for. I knew about this trail and it still took me a long time to find any information about it, which reminded me why I write this blog - so you don't have to work so hard! This trail is hidden on their website under the odd title "Auf eigene Faust" which translates to "On your own". This page has a link to a very helpful PDF flyer for this trail, which has a trail map and a description of each station. The flyer is in German, but happily all the interactive stations include text in English.

How to get there:

Using the map above, drive south of Zurich to the Sihlwald Bahnhof. The Wildnispark Zurich: Sihlwald visitor center is directly north of the train station. There is lots of metered parking next to the train station. It costs 5CHF for the day. For those taking the train, it runs once an hour so check the schedule beforehand. On Sundays from April to October, a special steam train, aka "Dampfbahn," goes from Zurich to the Sihlwald (details here). On 6.Dec, your kids can ride the steam train with Samichlaus (details here).

Trail details:

The trail is a loop, so it doesn't really matter where you start or which direction you take. I would recommend starting at the train station/parking and going south first, which means you'll end your walk at the visitor center and the playground. That way your kids will be rewarded by playground at the end instead of spending all their energy there before even starting the hike.

Below is the trail map from their PDF flyer. I looked through various paper brochures available at the park, but I didn't see one with this map. So recommend printing it from the PDF before you go. It show where all the interactive stations are, which helped when the kids got a little anxious.

The trail is easy follow. Just look for the black signs labeled "Walderlebnispfad" (as shown above), which appear at every junction. To start the trail, walk south of the train station, following the paved road that veers to your left and crosses the river. After crossing the river, on your right, you'll see one of those black trail signs pointing to a small path up the hill. This part is steep and has lots of stairs (shown below left).

If you need the stroller-friendly detour, take the dirt path on your left that heads up the hill (not the path that follows the river), shown with red dashes on the map above. It's a long detour and skips one station, but it will eventually reconnect with the main trail. The solid red parts of the trail are wide dirt paths (shown below right), which are manageable with an all-terrain stroller.

Theme Trail Interactive Stations:

There are 12 interactive stations along the trail, with some educational information and usually something for the kids to do. Here are a few to peak your interest...

At the "Balance" station, the kids had to try to balance each stick on top of a pointed log. It was very tricky and the kids felt quite a sense of accomplishment once they completed them all.

Seems like every trail has a barefoot path these days, but we still like them. The sign encourages you to close your eyes so you can concentrate on your other senses during the walk.

This "Long Jump" station was our boys' favorite. Along the jumping area were signs indicating how far various animals could jump. We laughed when we saw that frogs and rabbits could jump farther than we could. We were surprised to see that the human world record is a whopping 8.95 meters. Unbelievable!

The "Fairy Tale Forest" is a short loop on a raised wooden walkway through a bog. The wood can be very slippery so be careful and keep a close eye on very small children. No strollers on this part (some stairs). The loop returns to the main path, so you can just leave strollers at the entrance.

On the left, you stick your head in the rock and hear vibrations traveling through the rock. On the right, you can see how old the tree is by counting the rings.

On the left, just a typical section of the path through the forest. On the right, a xylophone of wood logs. Each log has a different sound depending on type, humidity, size, etc.

Here's the picnic area and fire pit in the middle of the loop trail, near the barefoot trail. There are two fire pits, lots of benches and a picnic table. The wood box was locked up when we were there, but maybe in summer it's open. But bring your own wood just in case. There is also a water fountain with drinkable water behind the picnic area.

After you finish the trail, there's plenty back at the Sihlwald visitor center to entertain you. First, there's the lovely river.

Here's the playground near the visitor center.

One of the big picnic areas and fire pits near the visitor center. They have lots of wood available in the bins next to the picnic area.

Don't forget the beaver and fish otter habitats. We didn't see any animals except fish (maybe it was too cold in November), but the educational signboards were entertaining.

Well, that's all she wrote, folks. I hope you enjoy it!

16 October 2014

Free Walking Tour Zurich

Last weekend, my brother was visiting so I took him to Free Walking Tour Zurich, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was great! Even after living in Zurich for over nine years, I was delighted to find I still had a few things to learn about my adopted city. We really liked our tour guide Maria (with me in the above pic), who was very enthusiastic and had a fun story-telling style. The guides have different specialties and interests, so while the main information is the same, some of the details with differ.

Although the tour is not specifically designed for kids, I think the tour is a good option for families, not only because it's a good tour, but it's flexible. For the free tours, you don't have to book ahead, so you can decide minutes beforehand whether your kids are up for a tour or not. Since the tour is free (tips are appreciated, but not expected), it's not a big deal if your kids have a meltdown halfway through and you have to leave early.

The tour lasted about 90 minutes, starting at Paradeplatz and ending at Grossmünster, about 2km long. For those with strollers, there are two long stair sections that you'll need to carry your stroller over (photo below), but otherwise it's stroller-friendly. Most stops on the tour are in open squares and pedestrian-only zones, so kids can relatively safely run around while you're listening to the tour guide.

The tour is full of fun, interesting facts about Zurich. For example, did you know that the Bahnhofstrasse used to be called Fröschengraben (ditch of frogs) because so many frogs lived in the water canal running down that street? I quickly put together a "quiz for kids" for the Downtown Zurich Tour, where kids can match the tour stop with a picture representing a story about that location. Maybe this will help you keep the kids interested. Remember to bring along some chocolate as a prize for your kids if they finish the quiz. You can see and print the quiz here.

They offer several tours, some free, some paid. I did the Downtown Zurich tour. The Architecture tour is the next one on my list. There is a Downtown Zurich tour almost everyday, more on the weekends. Check their website for details.

Now for a few pics of the tour...

Find out why these saints are carrying their own heads around town.

Find out what old name is hiding on this old roman tombstone.

Enjoy the view and learn which buildings are which.

Find out why this lady from 1291 is wearing armor.

Here are the two stair sections over which you'll need to carry your stroller.

Look up a Zahringerplatz to see a fancy sundial.

Walk down some new-to-you streets and learn how to tell which buildings are really old.

See an old map of the city.

Find out the super cool reason this model was built and how it brings good luck.

Don't forget to retrace your steps after the tour and get a hot chocolate at Cafe Schober!

10 September 2014

Ebenalp - Seealpsee hike

Summary: cable car up, then downhill hike to lovely lake

Ebenalp is a mountain area near Appenzell, where you'll find lots of hiking options. This time, we rode up the Wasserauen-Ebenalp cable car, then hiked down a steep mountain trail to Seealpsee, a pretty lake with stunning views all around (took us about 1hr30min). This lake is very popular, so don't expect to be in an empty, remote spot after working so hard to get there; many people simply walk up the service road from the parking areas. But you can hike around the lake and find a nice quiet place to relax and wade in the water. At the lake, you'll find a couple restaurants with large outdoor seating areas, a small playground.

Later, we hiked down more steep switchbacks all the way back to the valley station (took us about 1hr15mins). This hike is possible with children, but requires a motivated crew and some caution (more on that below). I also recommend walking sticks to provide stability as you navigate many stairs and some slippery slopes. This hike is a bit longer and more challenging than most hike I post here, but it's worth it.

For those of you with kids that are too small to walk and too big to carry, you can take the paved road from Wasserauen up to the lake (about 1 hr one way), which is appropriate for strollers unlike the other trails. The paved path is steep in parts, but completely doable with a stroller. For a less demanding option, see the Ebenalp-Wildkirchli Hike post that describes the short trail to the cliff restaurant.

Car: ~1:30 from ZH Trail: ~2.5-3hrs Restaurant: yes
Train/Bus: ~2:10 from ZH, 1 change Stroller: no Fire pit: yes
Cost: medium Theme: no Playground: yes

Details. Drive to Wasserauen and park near the base station of the Ebenalp cable car. There are a couple large parking lots, but on sunny weekends, it can fill up quickly. We usually go here in May when it's very quiet. So when we went on a sunny Saturday in late June, we were disturbed to see a couple hundred cars filling up two lots, a farmer's field and lining the main road (shown below), all requiring a small parking fee. Wasserauen is easy to reach by public transportation, as the train drops off directly across from the cable car station. It only requires one change from Zurich HB.

At the cable car station, buy a one way ticket as you will be hiking all the way down. It's relatively inexpensive and they accept Halbtax and Juniorkarten. In 2014, it was 20CHF/adult, 6.50CHF/child for one-way. We were worried about the crowds, but happily, we didn't have to wait in a long line for the cable car. It was packed with people at the top and along the short trail to the Wildkirchli (wild church) and restaurant. Once we split onto the trail to Seealpsee, there were less hikers and they were more spread out.

At the top, follow signs to Seealpsee, Wildkirchli-Höhlen, and Gasthaus Aescher. Pretty much everyone else is walking the same way at the beginning, so you shouldn't get lost. This part looks like you might be able to take a stroller, but no. It gets very lumpy and narrow. It also briefly passes through a dark, wet cave, that can be wet and slippery.

After a few minutes, you'll reach the hermit cave and this little house and a church built into a cave.

A few minutes later, you'll reach the Gasthaus Aescher (shown below), which has a restaurant and some outdoor seating. The food is typical Swiss fare, nothing special, but the views are fantastic. On busy days, expect the small restaurant to be completely packed, as this is the main destination for most visitors.

To continue the trail to Seealpsee, walk through the patio seating and rejoin the trail on the other side, always following signs to "Seealpsee."

There are a couple paths going down the mountain, but ignore them until you see this sign below, with the yellow trail sign pointing to Seealpsee. At this point, the trail splits. The right fork goes back up the mountain on a narrow switchback and eventually ends up back at the Ebenalp top station. The left fork goes down the mountain to the lake. Take the left fork.

This warning sign says: "Descent to Seealp lake is a dangerous mountain trail! Secure children with a rope. Ropes are available in Gasthaus Äscher!" I was quite worried by this sign and imagined us scuttling along the edges of sheer cliffs. We proceeded with caution, but no rope. It wasn't nearly as bad as I imagined.

As shown in these pictures, it is a steep narrow mountain trail, with lots of stairs, but no more than other steep mountain trails we've been on. There are sections where the mountain descends steeply on one side of the trail (look at the pic above right), but no drop-offs. We kept our kids (6 and 10 at the time) close but I never felt that they were in danger. I wouldn't recommend it for very small kids (like under 5), particularly those that run off, don't always heed your warnings, trip a lot, etc. This is a trail for confident walkers that can go the distance.

After about an hour, the mountain path with join the paved road, where you'll probably encounter more people walking up that road, those who didn't want to hike down like you did.

After about 10 mins after you join the paved road, you'll see a few barns, buildings and cows.

A couple minutes later, the road ends at the lake. The day we were there, lots of families were spread around this area, splashing in the water. It's a nice spot, but you'll probably want to walk around the lake a bit to escape some of the crowds. A narrow dirt path circles the lake. It's easy walking but not particularly stroller-friendly.

There are 2 restaurants with outdoor patios overlooking the lake. Directly to your left is Gasthaus Forelle, with lots of outdoor seating and a small playground. We didn't eat there, so I can't tell you about the food.

You can rent rowboats from the Gasthaus. I think it was 8CHF for 30 minutes. It's very informal; we didn't have to sign anything or leave a deposit or check in when we were done. But they wouldn't let us rent it for longer than 30 minutes because they want other people to have an opportunity to use the boat. That's not much time, but we managed to row our crew around a bit and drop them off on the other side of the lake. I rowed back and returned the boat, then walked around to meet my family. They didn't have life vests, so use at your own risk.

If you walk through the restaurant patio and follow the path through a small forest, you'll end up on the narrow eastern leg of the lake. Lots of people were sunbathing here and some even splashing around in the water. It's shallow here and probably the best section if you have small kids that want to get wet.

I didn't see any official fire pits, but there were lots of informal ones around the lake. It was a little tricky to gather up enough firewood, but we managed it in the end. We tried to swim, but it was so icy cold, none of us got in very deep.

A little more of the view, this time looking north back to Ebenalp.

When you are ready to walk back to Wasserauen (and your car or the train), you can either take the paved road you came up on.

Or you can take a hiking trail, which I'll show you below. This trail starts on the east side of the lake, a little southeast of the restaurant, at the same spot I mentioned above that was shallow and good for splashing around. Below we are just starting the trail away from the lake.

The trail starts through some wide open fields.

Then lots and lots and lots of stairs and some switchbacks through a dark forest. I thought this was the hardest part of the trail. Some of it was under construction and was a little difficult to manage. But it looked like they are repairing the trail, so hopefully it will be in better condition when you go.

A little more than an hour after leaving the lake, we had the car park in sight. Our knees were hurting a bit from all the downhill. But it was a great day and I'd definitely recommend it.

Our 2.5 year old was about to fall asleep in the backpack so we decided to take that as an opportunity to do a more strenuous hike & try to lose some of the crowds. The trail from Wildkirchli to Seealpsee is down a lot of steep steps and is definitely not child friendly. I thought a quiet & remote Alpine lake would be the reward for the punishment that my knees were taking. However, our trail merged with a paved trail just before the lake & we were once again amongst the crowds.

Note: This is my update to a 2007 post written by my good friend Inga, who has since left Switzerland and is hiking in other parts of the world now. We miss you!