Destination Guide: Alpes vaudoisesInspiration
Where Tradition meets the Outdoors
Written by Anke Eberhardt // Photography: Johny Cook // Film: Summit Fever Media
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism
Nestled amongst flourishing vineyards, impressive mountains, and gorgeous lakes, the Swiss Alpes vaudoises are part of the unique Lake Geneva Region. While Lake Geneva is already famous, the villages of Villars, Leysin, and Château-d’Œx are secret highlights between the surrounding peaks, even though they are reachable from Geneva Airport in no time.
Talking about time: here, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, centuries-old traditions are well preserved – and in such harmony with modern amenities that you can jump back and forth between medieval castles and fast mountain carts in the blink of an eye. And there’s so much to do and see: hiking, biking, and climbing, of course, but also canyoning in wild gorges or ballooning amongst the quiet heights, tackling the most challenging via ferratas or getting artsy in a paper-cutting workshop, sweating on your bike or in a thermal spa.
The same goes for the culinary excursions in the region. From artisanal cheese making to futuristic revolving restaurants, whatever you’re craving is served to perfection. Wine and cheese lovers will roam the authentic old towns and their picturesque streets for fine restaurants while mountaineers taste the delicacies in the rustic mountain huts. And, thanks to the pleasant climate, everyone will end up on a sunny terrace sooner or later.
Whether through sport, history, gastronomy, or quite simply by gazing at the wonderful scenery, discover the region with Sidetracked’s favourite to-dos.
Villars – In Harmony with Alpine Heritage
If a village could pick its location, it is likely that it would end up exactly where you find Villars: high up at 1,300m on a sunny, south-facing terrace with views of the Mont Blanc Massif, the Dents du Midi mountain range, and as far as Lake Geneva. It is the closest mountain destination to Geneva Airport, but Villars and its neighbouring villages Gryon and Les Diablerets are still traditional mountain towns in the untouched nature of the Swiss Alps.
In these unspoiled surroundings, you can choose from over 300km of signposted footpaths and 150km of mountain bike routes. It’s no surprise that the Climbing World Cup is held here, as there are challenging climbing routes as well as via ferratas all over the beautiful rocky outcrops. But Villars is not only about traditional mountain sports. There’s also modern fun like mountain carts, Nordic walking trails, and even an 18-hole golf course at 1,600m of altitude. In short: it’s Swissneyland for outdoor sports.
And even in summer, fresh snow is just a gondola ride away. At the Glacier 3000, winter lovers get their ice axes out and explore the perennial snow, while others just come to enjoy the incredible view from the 107m-long Peak Walk bridge – the only suspension bridge in the world that connects two mountain peaks. From up there, at the Scex Rouge, mountain majesties like the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau grace the panorama in the distance. And the kids (or never-grown-up adults) get on board the world’s highest roller coaster.
In the picturesque village, plenty of excellent restaurants will court your stomach. And down in the valley, the salt mines of Bex are waiting with impressive tours through the salty caves – as well as thermal baths in Lavey-les-Bains in which to relax after one of the many mountain adventures. So the hardest part is really just to decide which activity to pick first.
Favourite Tours in Villars
Climbing the Miroir d’Argentine
The Miroir d’Argentine is an ancient seabed, and the smooth slab of the face is an invitation to sport climbers. There are about 15 bolted routes up its 400m height and you’ll be regularly greeted by fossils in the rock. The steepness of the face diminishes on the way up, as it is curved, following the great fold that once upon a time formed the massif – and the cracks that were created back then now form the perfect routes up to the stunning view.
Road Biking Col de la Croix
This climb is a classic of the Tour de Romandie. The Col de la Croix is a must-do for road cyclists in the area – but it’s a challenge for your legs. Villars is located midway up the mountain, and this 61km tour splits the climb in two, starting with the final part through Alpine meadows before you enjoy the fast descent to Aigle and back to Bex. More than 1,500m of altitude must be mastered, but the view of Grand Muveran (3,051m) will make up for it while you pedal back up.
Where to Eat and Sleep in Villars
Le Refuge de Solalex
After climbing or hiking the Miroir d’Argentine, it’s an absolute must to visit Le Refuge de Solalex at its feet for lunch or dinner. Chef Martin and his team welcome hungry mountaineers in this rustic cabin. While listening to folk music, savour local produce: cuisine of the soil, raclette on a wood fire, fondue, puff pastry with mushrooms; there’s just too much to try! And don’t miss out on the wine of the region – it is one of the best.
Hotel Alpe Fleurie
Located just across from the Villars train station and with the unlimited views over the Rhône Valley to the other side, this hotel supports both eco-friendly travelling and the enjoyment of nature. The cozy rooms embrace the mountain heritage and mix it up with modern interior to find the right balance as well. And after a day in the outdoors, you can simply stay on the terrace for your homemade cheese or meat fondue.
Leysin – Where Clear Air Meets Pure Adventure
Setting foot on the ground in Leysin feels like time travel to the 1950s. Located on a gorgeous mountain terrace at 1,260m above sea level, the village in the Alpes vaudoises used to be a famous health resort back in the day. No surprise: thanks to its mild climate and the sun-rich south-facing setting, it was the place to be for clean air and relaxation. Many wonderful mid-century mansions with huge terraces pay tribute to this history, and nowadays it’s also outdoor activities that get the lungs pumping.
Of course, there’s great skiing in winter, but in summer, the options seem even more endless. You’ll find 250km of hiking trails threading through the stunning landscapes around the Tour d’Aï. Despite its name, the Tour d’Aï is not a tour but a mountain: at 2,331m the highest one in Leysin to be exact. The three mountain lakes near Tour de Mayen and Tour de Famelon are popular destinations to reach on foot.
But save some for the pedals, as there is also world-class cycling terrain waiting to be ridden. It’s no coincidence that the World Cycling Association (UCI) is located nearby in Aigle: surrounding the area is smooth tarmac for road bikes, flowing trails for mountain bikes, perfect gravel for gravel bikes, and plenty of other fun for two wheels. A mellow tour with the family or a thrilling day in the bike park is just a matter of choice.
The local mountains might remind climbers of the famous Dolomites, as the precipitous chalk faces offer exquisite climbing. From easy via ferratas that give beginners their first fix to serious challenges for experienced mountaineers, Leysin has it all. If you prefer to go up in the air, the paragliding here is superlative. And should you feel like going underground, the fascinating natural underworld can be explored in many of the natural caves.
Foodies might simply go on an eating vacation. Innumerable mountain huts guarantee that you won’t go hungry on your hikes, and you can also let your restaurant do the work for a 360-degree panorama; at the top of the Berneuse mountain, the futuristic Kuklos revolving restaurant completes one turn every hour and a half, offering stunning views of Lake Geneva, the Jura mountain range, and the Rhône Valley – all while enjoying great food.
So no matter if you’re here for the adventure or for relaxation, sipping a glass of local wine on one of the many terraces and soaking up the view, a day in the mountains feels like the outdoorsy version of a climatic spa.
Favourite Tours in Leysin
Via Ferrata Tour d’Aï
If you’ve never even heard of vertigo and heights are your passion, this is for you. The via ferrata at the Tour d’Aï is as beautiful as intense. It starts with an easy arrival off the cable car at La Berneuse and a walk of about an hour. Then, this technical tour with vertical passages and exposed metal steps offers some of the most breathtaking views of the Alpes vaudoises and Lake Geneva. And if that’s not enough, simply extend it with a visit to the gorgeous Lake Aï.
Leysin Bike Park
From the top of the Berneuse mountain all the way down to Leysin village, a dramatic 700m drop fulfils every mountain biker’s dream. From mellow flow trails to challenging terrain, this bike park provides all forms of fun: cross-country, downhill, endure, and dirt. The Nérine jump line, for example, is the official track for the 2021 Swiss Downhill Championships, and mixes natural technical terrain, banked turns, and jumps. Just board the cable car in the centre of Leysin and it’s only a few minutes to access the trails.
Where to Eat and Sleep in Leysin
Built in the 1700s, this chalet is one of the most picturesque buildings in Leysin and is both a restaurant and a museum. Before you taste some of the delicious dishes, experience how the cheese is made on site. Over an open fire right in the centre of the restaurant, the master cheese maker expertly curdles the milk in an enormous cast-iron cauldron. Sharing a fondue afterwards is always a social event; the huge wooden tables seat at least 10 people.
Sometimes a bunk bed is more luxurious than a five-star resort. In the rustic mountain hut Monts Chevreuils you can find out why. Waking up with a panoramic view across the Pays-d’Enhaut is priceless. And, because it is only accessible by foot or by mountain bike, this cabin above La Lécherette is spoiled with calm. Sneak out of your bedroom or dormitory and experience the sunrise over the mountains at 1,700m.
Château-d’Œx – Pays-d’Enhaut – A Peaceful Taste of the Mountains
Far away from urban noise and modern disturbances, situated at around 1,000m, you’ll find Château-d’Œx. The peaceful village is best reached with the Montreux Bernese Oberland train – and not only because of the incredible scenery between the riviera of Lake Geneva and the peaks of the Pays-d’Enhaut. This luxury train with its belle époque carriages also has a special wine cellar coach that serves a range of local wines and regional specialities. So you can get a taste of the region from the very beginning of your journey.
Once you disembark at Château-d’Œx – Pays-d’Enhaut, there are plenty of options to work off the calories. Discover 300km of hiking trails and everything from higher peaks to the beautiful pre-Alpine reserve of La Pierreuse. The largest nature conservation area in western Switzerland contains rock formations, forests, abundant flora, and flat moors.
If you prefer to spend your days in the saddle, the Pays-d’Enhaut also offers a large network of marked mountain-biking trails along the tracks of the 1997 World Championships. Or you can plunge in the clear mountain waters and test yourself in whitewater sports on the fast-flowing River Sarine: canyoning, hydrospeed, canoeing, kayaking, and river rafting. One of Switzerland’s most beautiful rafting routes lies between the wild Vanel and Gérignoz gorges, waiting to be explored.
Thanks to its favourable microclimate, Château-d‘Œx is also a mecca for hot-air ballooning. It was here where Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones started their impressive non-stop balloon circumnavigation of the Earth in 1999. Much shorter – but still definitely impressive – balloon flights are available for visitors throughout the year. Seemingly unlimited mountain peaks serve the perfect panorama on the horizon, and, down below, you can see the cows graze, doing the groundwork for some of the best cheese in the country: L’Etivaz AOP.
This hard Alpine cheese makes every connoisseur’s heart beat faster. The production procedure is centuries old and under strict regulations: more than 2,800 cows feast on 130 Alpine pastures located at an altitude of between 1,000 and 2,000 metres (not below!). Due to the large quantities of herbs they eat in this beautiful mountain landscape, their rich milk has a flowery bloom and unparalleled powerful aroma. This milk is then heated solely in copper cauldrons over a wood fire, and, after a long ripening process, the resulting cheese is best enjoyed on a mountain peak. A visit to one of the rustic cheeseries is always a good excuse for a tasty break during a hike.
And down in the valley, Aigle is worth a visit with its medieval castle and wine museum, or you could get on board one of the many boats to cruise on the eponymous beauty of the region: Lake Geneva.
Favourite Tours in Château-d’Œx – Pays-d’Enhaut
Rafting the Sarine River
As quiet and peaceful as the surroundings may be, the Sarine River is guaranteed to boost your adrenaline. Whether it’s canyoning, whitewater rafting, or riverboarding (hydrospeed), this wild, forest-clad river tumbles just for you. Master the spectacular Vanel and Gérignoz gorges with nothing but the strength of your arms and legs. From fast rapids to quiet passages that let you marvel at the magic scenery, it’s time to dive in the clear mountain waters.
Hike La Pierreuse Nature Reserve
Exploring La Pierreuse by foot is the perfect way to be active and unwind at the same time. This characteristic pre-Alpine landscape covers an area of 34km2 and its idyllic valleys are overlooked by limestone rock faces. A spectacular 9.5km walk starts from Les Granges, climbing through forest and encircling the peak of Tête de la Minaude. You’ll find traditional Alpine pastures where the famous L’Etivaz AOP cheese is made, as well as a wide variety of wildlife such as ibex, chamois, marmot, golden eagle, lynx, and black grouse.
Where to Eat and Sleep in Château-d’Œx – Pays-d’Enhaut
Maison d’Hôtes Ermitage, Château-d‘Œx
What an example of how to blend tradition with modern influences: Sophie Labarraque, a former decorator who worked in the fashion world, took over this charming country inn and completely remodelled it. Now there’s a tearoom, a coffee corner, a wine bar, a large terrace, and of course, an exhibition space. In addition to the tastefully furnished hotel rooms, the restaurant offers fresh seasonal dishes and is an ambassador for authentic Pays-d’Enhaut products and slow food.
Hotel Valrose, Rougemont
This modern and family friendly hotel in the heart of Rougemont village was established in 1904, and completely renovated in 2016, is equipped with 12 bright, spacious rooms with superb views of the surrounding mountains. It’s renowned for its food, too, and has been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand and 14/20 Gault&Millau. An authentic and friendly destination for your stay.
Hôtel de Ville, Château-d‘Œx
Located in the heart of the charming village and only three minutes away from the train station, the Hôtel de Ville in Château-d‘Œx is the perfect choice for a relaxed stay. As the mountains are so close, all outdoor activities such as hiking, climbing, trail running, or biking start pretty much at your doorstep. The same goes for the hotel’s own restaurant, Le Bistrot, and the Caribou Bar next door, where you deserve a glass of local wine after your excursions.