The Secret of Ryder-Walker's "Secret Swiss Valleys"
TELLURIDE, COLORADO -- Ryder-Walker does have a secret about their "Secret Swiss Valleys" inn-to-inn hiking tour in the Swiss Alps, but it's not one you're going to like, and it's a surprise you won't learn about until the first night of the tour.
I went on the "Secret Swiss Valleys" tour in August of 2008. Except for the secret, there's a lot about the tour to like. The tour cost about $3000, including a single supplement.
I chose this tour because Ryder-Walker advertised that we'd be hiking inn-to-inn carrying only day-packs each day, staying at 3-star inns at night. It's mostly true.
We began the trip in Leukerbad, a charming small but well-heeled spa town in the Valais, a few hours by train east of Geneva. The group -- four couples and me, plus our two guides -- met for our orientation. Our guides told us about the trip, and cheerfully mentioned that one part of our adventure -- and this came as a complete surprise to every one of us -- was going to be a night at a hostel, without showers, or even hot water. (They didn't mention that there would be no linens -- fortunately I decided to buy a dishtowel at the Leukerbad supermarket.) Also, there would be two nights when they wouldn't bring our baggage to our inn, so we'd have to backpack in whatever we needed. We were all very good sports about it all.
Our hikes took us across terrain with views that were great to spectacular. The highlight of the trip was the hike along a ridge overlooking the Aletsch glacier, Europe's largest, a long curving tongue of ice stretched out below us. We generally stayed in inns in small towns with great views, such as Hotel Belalp in Belalp (on a point of land overlooking the valley), or the Hotel Edelweiss in Blatten (on a stream on the valley floor, looking down the valley), or the Hotel Panorama in Bettmeralp (in a charming mountain town with -- you guessed it -- a panoramic view). The food was generally good; breakfasts and dinners were included, while lunch wasn't.
The hiking was true to the advertised difficulty level, but I learned that I had no idea how to gauge difficulty level. We generally walked 7-9 miles each day, but the length doesn't make for the difficulty: it's the number of feet of ascent that counts. I learned that 1500 feet of ascent is a substantial hike. On our most strenuous hike, we climbed up 2900 feet. You must be in good shape for this and be prepared for serious uphill, although there is no technical climbing.
Finally the night arrived for the stay at the hostel. We arrived to find we were sharing it with, among others, 26 Belgian teens. I was put in a room with a French family with 3 small children. I was given a (fairly dirty) sleeping area with (fairly dirty) pillow and blanket, with eight of us in the bottom bunk and eight on top. We all (meaning all 35-40 of us) shared one bathroom with one towel, nailed to the wall. (I was glad I had bought that dishcloth.) The teens got served dinner first, and we waited outside in the rain. Then we had spaghetti. Thank god I had brought sleeping pills and earplugs!
We were blessed on the trip by good weather. It was only in the last half-hour of hiking on the last day that there was any significant rain. Otherwise there were only a few drops here and there but, of course, the weather in the mountains cannot be guaranteed. We said goodbye at a farewell dinner. It had been a good group to travel with -- we were all over 50, educated, sociable, spirited, and good company.
When I came home, I wrote to Peter Walker, owner of Ryder-Walker, to say that I felt that I should get some kind of refund because the accommodations were not as advertised. I never got any response. I tried disputing part of the charge through my credit-card company, but Ryder-Walker said that I had accepted the trip as it was (what choice did I have?), and the credit card company sided with them.
What a shame. Other than the secrets, "Secret Swiss Valleys" was a good trip.