By Ted Scull.
Danube and Rhine river cruises often start or finish up at a city just a few hours by train from the Swiss lakes. In May, my wife and I spent three nights in Lucerne, a lovely city set at the head of its namesake lake.
From our hotel facing the covered wooden Chapel Bridge, we could see and hear the steamboats whistle their departure with three backing whistle blasts. Lake Lucerne boasts five active early 20th-century sidewheelers that crisscross between lakeside towns, providing local transportation as well as pleasure trips for visitors.
Our boat, the sidewheeler Unterwalden, freshly refurbished for the season, was built in 1902. Its graceful lines and gleaming white hull give a sense of purpose and speed. Aboard, three saloons are furnished with tables and chairs for having a drink, a full meal or simply enjoying the mountain scenery through the huge plate glass windows.
Outdoor deck chairs at the bow and stern provide a perch to watch the captain, standing at the controls on the open bridge wing, deftly maneuver his paddler alongside a landing. The deck crew, working as a team, quickly tie up the boat, draw the gangways into place, and within less than 30 seconds, passengers begin to disembark and new ones come aboard — parents with children in strollers, a dog on a leash, travelers wheeling suitcases, a school group.
In the next two hours, the Interwalden makes 16 landings en route to Fluelen at the southern end of the lake where the boat then turns around and heads back north. We stay aboard to Brunnen, and in the interim, enjoy a grilled sausage and potato lunch in the lovely aft dining saloon, its wooden ceiling decorated with painted scenes.
Stepping off at Brunnen, we watch the boat depart, sliding by like a proud swan on an important mission. From the stern, she appears just as lovely as she steams off into the far distance. We board a connecting train back to Lucerne.
Three days later we repeat the lakeside scene at Montreux, a city fronting on Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), a long arcing inland sea with a view looking across to France on the south shore and along a deep valley to the snow-covered peak of Mont Blanc, at 15,781 feet (4,810 meters), the highest mountain in the Europe Union.
Virtually at our doorstep we board two more sidewheelers — the Vevey built in 1907, and newer by seven years, the Savoie. As it turns out we happen to be here for the annual parade of steamers, an all-day event to herald the beginning of the summer season when all the boats begin operating from Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux and a more than a dozen other lakeside landings in Switzerland and a few in France.
Today the sun is shining on the heritage fleets of steamboats operating on a half-dozen Swiss lakes. Let the celebrations begin.
Click here to see more lovely lake-going steamboats!