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Published: August 22nd 2018
SWITZERLAND and THE ALPS “A day in the life of a Tour Manager”
I exited the aircraft in Zurich, Switzerland. After settling in to my hotel and aware of the age-old statement to stay awake if you can, to correct your internal clock, I immediately ventured out. During the train ride into the city, the introduction to the centuries old European sandstone buildings, the charming rooftops, steeples and chiming of church bells flooded my jet lagged mind. I wandered the ancient cobblestone streets. The passing of trams with a quiet hum that doesn't seem to disturb the wellbeing of the environment was such a pleasant beginning to my travels.
I wandered over quaint bridges and found what I’d planned to be my first dinner in Switzerland. Raclette is a meal of melted cheese over small potatoes, garnished with pickled onions and cornichon pickles. This dish also included and a couple other creative veggies that made it less an authentic presentation the Swiss enjoy and more a dining presentation. It was at the Adler Hotel Chuchi in Old Town Zurich. I took a table outdoors. People watching is something I can never get enough of. As I looked around, I found the seating area was filled with Americans. One from Chicago heading to Israel, the other with the grand kids had just finished their swiss travels in Zermatt and heading home the next day - they were from Florida. Another couple from New Jersey and Texas; then me from San Diego. We all laughed at how we seemed to be here and represented each area of the U.S. of A. Street shows and musicians started to fill the cobblestone streets; acrobats, music and of course I was there right in the middle of the World Cup play offs. All the locals were stuck to TVs watching Switzerland and Yugoslavia play.
My hotel was in a suburb of Zurich, so the train trip back to the hotel was a bit challenging and shows why you need to stay alert. There was a young lady at the station who helped me get to the right tracks for the return to Rumlah and my hotel. 7:37pm came and went and the train didn’t show. In asking another for help, they told me the train had some problem and we would have to take a bus, then the train and then again, a bus to get to Rumlah. That didn’t seem like something I wanted to deal with at this time of night. I knew the alternative was to go back to Zurich airport and take the hotel shuttle from there. Of course, in day dreaming, I missed the airport stop and ended up out in the countryside. Again, jumping tracks to return to Zurich airport. With this, though, I saw quite a bit of beautiful countryside. The upside. I finally made it back and fell into a deep well-earned sleep.
What a gorgeous day to watch the scenery of Switzerland. The perfectly manicured villages, green vines, grass and flowers everywhere. Houses lined up perfectly, golf courses being played, paths where you could see runners, bikers, horses being ridden, all on a beautiful sunny day. We traveled along the lake for quite some time and the quietness of the train and movement can make you sleepy. Wait, there is too much to see.... stay awake! Foothills came into view and finally coming into Lucerne station, I disembarked. My mind went immediately to all the novels written about European train stations and the charming small streets of...is that a spy lurking in that corner over there?
I walked over the bridge into Old Town Lucerne; I sat down with the reservations manager at the Schweizerhoff. My job now began. Our tour group was coming into the hotel the next day. We hammered out who should get priority on rooms based on their arrivals into the hotel. His plan was to issue rooms randomly, which meant those who may come in much later in the day, may have their room ready, but those that arrived at 8am may have to wait till 3pm to get their room. He also walked me through the property to see where the group would be having their breakfast and the reception area for our welcome reception the next night. We discussed a plan of how the buses would pull up behind the hotel for easier off load of luggage as well as people moving into the hotel lobby. The front of the hotel could not handle disembarkation of groups. It was a quick visit, but enough to be ready for a smooth transition.
A day in the life of a Tour Director. The morning began with arrivals at Zurich airport of those flying in from both the USA and Canada. Bleary eyed, they came out and we gathered them and their luggage for the hour drive to Lucerne. Europe hotels are inflexible with groups checking into their rooms before 3pm no matter how far you've flown and how frail you might be. The group of 30 I was bringing to the hotel at 10am were prepared for the situation and made the best of it. The hotel opened a Salon for us to drop our hand carry bags and off they went to discover Lucerne for the day. It was sunny, and the glistening water awaited their wanders to sit in the outdoor cafes along the water edge for coffee and lunches. Views of mountains across the lake were unobstructed. Being a small city, it doesn’t take long to walk the highlights and tomorrow we will be out for a day sightseeing.
Once in the hotel, the tour manager goes to work in reassuring the guests that as soon as the rooms are available I would let them know. Working with the reservations Manager Pascal, he was doing his best to distribute rooms. Those that flew in the earliest, I asked again if he could prioritize them, especially one frail lady in a wheelchair. Good spirited about it, I could see her quietly squirming to get into her room. FINALLY, about 11 am, I got that first room and in they went. Pulling teeth for two more came around noon and then the rest were ready right about 2:30pm.
Our second bus for later arrivals at Zurich airport had just pulled up, with my colleague, right at 2:30. Their timing couldn’t have been better. It’s just amazing how all those keys disappeared and all in to their rooms. The beautiful Schweizerhoff, hotel to novel writers, celebrities and royalty. Each room has an autograph on the wall of whatever entertainer or prestigious visitor might have stayed in that room.
During the day issues came up like lost luggage and being on the airline to both find and deliver the luggage in a timely manner. Through the day, at the hospitality desk, I answered questions of where to eat dinner, when would the rooms be ready, how far to walk to the train station, how long before the rooms are ready, can you walk on the wall in Lucerne, when are the rooms going to be ready! My favorite one was how to retrieve the VAT tax (duty free refund) when we would be leaving Switzerland by boat instead of an airport. Turns out you cannot retrieve it, so the purchase was made with full 25% taxes for Switzerland. She returned the necklace.
The tour guide and I walked through the next day’s activities of the walking tour, visiting Mt Pilatus, how we would pace the tour, gondolas up the mountain, lunch on top then the Cogwheel descent to pick up a boat and cruise on the lake. With a total of 60 passengers we will be handling we wanted to make sure we can keep all together and happy with the movement. I then set out to re write the daily program with updated times and instructions Sheri, my colleague, had added before we printed it out for the tour members to have and study before tomorrow.
6:00pm was the welcome reception in the elegant ballroom of the Schweizerhoff. Before the group came in, we made sure everything was set out properly, drinks poured, staff ready to distribute poured wines, mineral waters and orange juice. Cheeses were set out in a visually effective manner and all came together. The buzz of the new tour members mingling and meeting was music to our ears. A perfect get together.
Afterward, Sheri and I ventured out to dinner, walking about 15 minutes to a hotel "The Montana", with a cable car ride up to the hotel and a fabulous unobstructed view of the lake and Mt Pilatus. We could see a storm settling in over the mountain and felt concerned about the next days trip to Mt Pilatus. Doing this day excursion in the rain would not be the best way to visit it. It started lightning and then thunder. The storm was blasting into the city of Lucerne. We enjoyed our meal of veal and fish. Just out the windows, the storm whipped up. The trees blowing furiously. More lightning and thunder amidst the chiming of church bells. We were cozy in our swiss restaurant, a candle on the table and a glass of wine, we toasted to the success of the day. Only another tour manager knows how that feels and was glad to share that with her. As I mention in my book "Camels to Caviar", it can be very lonely as a tour manager, but to be able to share this evening and dinner with my colleague was very special.
Our experience with Mt Pilatus was beyond memorable. What started out as a sunny warm day which turned out quite differently. The Gondola up most of the mountain was like heading to the ski fields. We changed to cable cars about 5,000ft altitude to continue by cable car up to the 7,000 ft summit. We headed to lunch of salad and salmon at the Kulm Hotel. Just afterward a huge storm hit the peak with a whopping force. Thunder, lightning, hail, winds and pouring rain. The driver of the cogwheel tram which descends at a 50 degree angle at times down the mountain said he'd never seen a force of storm like this. It all added to the excitement of the trip back down the mountain. In the rain, We bolted to our awaiting steam boat for the hour cruise back into Lucerne. All the while the group visiting having afternoon coffee, tea, wine, beer and the rainy scenery as we traversed lake Lucerne. The two guides and Sheri and I were planning our next move of tomorrow; heading to Andermatt and Zermatt.
There was an interesting twist in this visit, with all the other goings on. while waiting to load the buses, for our day excursion, I saw her again as she stepped outside the Hotel Schweizerhoff lobby door onto the driveway. Her large brimmed black hat hid her face. Her slim body donned a black dress with a thin belt at her waist. Usually you don’t see gloves with an outfit like this in the U.S, but she wore black gloves up to her elbows. I thought she was maybe going to a funeral. She turned the curve at the end of the Hotel. That’s where I saw her meet Jean Pierre, the man from last night. He gave her the traditional European kiss on both checks, but I could tell there was more to this! I could only imagine where this interlude was going! The night before, I was standing in the bar, with the bar manager signing off on our reception bill and was within earshot just behind her to hear her introduce herself. "I’m Stash, Stash McCullough". It was the way she said it that made my antennae go up. He was Jean Pierre Le’Blu (how much more novel could you get!?). I could see the twinkle in her eye and the gaze from him. It was almost like a James Bond or Jason Bourne moment. People watching paid off again, this couldn’t have been a more perfect moment. Ahh the international crowd.
The trip from Lucerne to Zermatt was shear eye tickling. We now had the group organized into two groups, yellow and red (30 guests in each group). As these were guests from various universities, we logically tried to put the alumni associations together based on their numbers and seats in the bus as well as comfort level for each bus. We traveled along the lake leaving Lucerne. As we travel in our comfortable touring coach I imagined those who commute to work and elsewhere on all the islands of Seattle; this is similar. It is nothing to live at one end of the lake and come into the city of Lucerne for work and recreation. The lake is like a three-leaf clover. Traffic was light as we drove through villages, towns with their spired church steeples, and again more of the lovely flowers filled window boxes outside of homes. We heard from our tour guide the renditions of William Tell, who lived in this area near Lucerne. We stopped for a quick lunch in Andermatt, Die Kronig. after a harrowing curvy road climbing in altitude, all in heavy fog. It was chilly and rainy when we left the bus. Once finished with lunch; a delicious half of chicken with a warm butter sauce, and soup which seems to be consistently delicious through Switzerland - we walked down to the train station to catch the "Glacier Express". Embarkation was trouble free as we had one full car and a few in another. The spirits of the group were high, and a lot of laughter came from the car filled with our guests. Walking through several times, a lot of beer, coffee, wine on the tables and rather than listening to the commentary, they were all getting to know each other.
The Gracier Express takes about 3 hours from Andermatt to Zermatt, a well-known tour train that winds closely to the mountain sides. We passed glorious waterfalls, green mountains, trails into the forest and small villages on the mountain sides, you wonder how they get to them once the snow falls. I would think you would have to have them well supplied for a long winter. You would see one home high on a pointed peak; that had to be a summer home or there must be a helicopter pad in the back. We finally made our way into Zermatt. There are no buses or cars in this small ski village. We walked one minute to the hotel ALEX which is a unique Ski Chalet type hotel with rooms of all sizes and shapes. The lounge spread out into nooks and comfortably decorated in a classy ski lodge atmosphere. Skiing still goes on, on the back side of the Matterhorn today - Summer.
After another gourmet dinner, we were all off to bed in anticipation of the next day train, the Gornergrachtbahn, up to the 10,000 ft altitude of Gornergracht and views of the Matterhorn. We scored on a gorgeous sunny day. There is also a hotel at the top, The Kulm, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee or fondue and more fine dining – sitting out on the sun deck looking at glaciers face on…. a 360-degree view of the majestic peaks……. all above10,000ft. The glaciers are in various stages of melting from winter; however, the massive hanging glaciers are at higher altitudes and were never going to be melting. The Matterhorn was out in all her glory. We sat for a meal of Fondue, Switzerland's special dish of hot melted cheeses with kirsch in a hot pot. You then put bread cubes on a long fork to dip in the cheese. Topped with a glass of white wine. We wandered back to the train and returned to Zermatt. A shopper's paradise. Of course, even in summer, ski clothing and equipment for sale. It’s interesting how people get around Zermatt. Mostly small electrical cars that drove people in and out of their hotels, and very small equipment for necessary repairs on the high storied hotel buildings. Horse drawn carriages were also on the streets.
Our visit comes to an end at a farewell reception and cheerful visit with several of the group at drinks in the lounge/bar area. I noticed how happy everyone is and how the group has gelled. There isn't a grumpy person, and everyone welcomes their travel companions in a touching way. The dinners you can tell are a hit as the voice levels of laughter and all talking at once. Sheri and I are eating in a corner of the restaurant at the Alex Hotel and finalizing our plans for the next move.
After our quick shuttle by train out of Zermatt and to Tasch, we board our touring motor coaches for the trip to Basel where we will board our boat, the Amadeus Silver ll for a Rhine River cruise to Amsterdam. On either side, we pass sun lit pine forest mountain sides, with the tops craggier then, before leading up to the snowcapped mountain peaks. Villages hang alongside cliffs making you wonder how you reside 3,000 feet directly above the roadway. Postal electric cars bring the residents to these villages from train stations that do not connect to these cliffs hanging homes. Everything seems so quiet in the early 8am morning. We drive along a river crossing several old arched bridges, looking down into canyons and waterfalls. We pass vineyards, which, by the way, the Swiss wine, to me is okay. A bit light in their reds if you like the heavy Chateau Neuf de Pap types. The whites are crisp. Again, if you like Pinot Grigio crisp citrus types, they don’t compare. We head toward Interlaken for a quick break then on to Basel for a lunch in an old wine cellar, the Kornhauskeller. Everyone in good spirits as we climb aboard our river boat and again, sit down to a wonderful dinner on board the Silver ll. Off to Amsterdam we head. Come along next time.
**Katherine Whitley, author “Camels to Caviar” The exotic adventures of a Tour Manager.
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