Alps driving tour
The Alps offer some of the most exhilarating driving you will find – nowhere more so than on the dramatic Stelvio Pass in Italy’s South Tyrol region. Named by the BBC’s Top Gear
programme as the world’s best driving road, it is a wild ride of twists and curves amidst stunning mountain and valley vistas.
Stelvio is just one of the majestic highlights of this eight-day alpine driving tour through Switzerland, Austria and the South Tyrol, for which we have enlisted the help of Swiss-based motoring experts Ultimate Drives.
You can either drive your own car via a Channel crossing or fly to Zurich and rent a car for the 1,700km (1,050-mile) alpine route.
Besides Stelvio, the route encompasses magnificent mountain passes such as Austria’s Grossglockner and Switzerland’s Albula and Klausen, as well as pristine high Alps environment and pretty alpine towns and villages.
Day 1 Calais-Zurich
Driving time: 8 hours 30 minutes plus stops
The drive: Take a cross-Channel ferry or Eurotunnel train then head south-east from Calais, bypassing Reims and Nancy and crossing into Switzerland near Basel then continuing on to Zurich. Alternatively, fly straight to Zurich and rent a car.
Overnight: Zurich. Try the three-star Hotel Seefeld (www.hotelseefeld.ch).
Day 2 Zurich-Lermoos
Driving time: 6 hours 30 minutes plus stops Mountain passes: 5 including Hahntennjoch
The drive: After setting off bright and early from Zurich, today’s drive takes you east and into some of the greatest mountain roads in the Austrian Vorarlberg. About 90 minutes from Zurich and you are onto your first mountain pass, Furkajoch, from which the Austrians have kindly banned caravans.
You then head further east and into the beautiful, sweeping Lech river valley, over the Hochtannbergpass, then onto the jet-set ski resort of Lech, where you can stop for lunch.
After lunch, continue east along the Lech River valley, before cutting off and heading over a favourite alpine pass, the Hahntennjoch. One more long and sweeping pass takes you due east in the direction of Innsbruck, before which you head north to the Tyrolean
mountain resort of Lermoos.
Highlight: The lunar-like landscape on the south side of the Hahntennjoch will make you feel like you have been transported to another planet, before heading into the beautiful national park near the foot of the pass, a wonderful contrast over a 5km ascent.
Overnight: Lermoos. Stay at the four-star Mohr Life Resort (www.mohr-life-resort.at).
Day 3 Lermoos-Salzburg
Driving time: 5 hours plus stops
Mountain passes: 2 including Gerlos
The drive: This morning, continue further east into Austria, past Innsbruck and on into the Salzburg region. After tackling the beautiful Gerlos Pass and a run up to the end of the deserted Stubachtal Valley, head north via the Thurn Pass to Kitzbuhel, where you can stop for lunch and a stroll through its pretty streets. Continue on via St Johann, crossing briefly into Germany before arriving in Salzburg. Spend the evening unwinding in the city, perhaps taking a gentle walk through its charming Old Town – a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site – past Mozart’s birthplace on the historic Getreidegasse pedestrian-only street and relaxing in a street-side beer garden prior to dinner.
Highlight: Just after tackling the Gerlos Pass, stop off near the town of Krimml to see the spectacular Krimmler Waterfalls. Europe’s highest falls and the world’s fifth-highest, they cascade 380m in three stages. A 15- minute walk up the Waterfall Trail from a car park by the main road takes you to the lowest waterfall. You can continue for another hour to the top one, getting close to this amazing spectacle on special platforms while taking in fabulous views of the Hohe Tauern National Park.
Overnight: Salzburg. The Blaue Gans boutique arthotel (www.blauegans.at) is Salzburg’s oldest inn.
Day 4 Salzburg
Explore: Make today a carefree, and car-free, day to discover the delights of one of Austria’s most beguiling cities. Salzburg is easy to explore, both on foot or by bus – and the good-value SalzburgerLand Card gives free entry to all the city’s major attractions as well as free travel on the city’s buses and on the Hohensalzburg Fortress cable railway. You can also take in the Old Town sights on a traditional fiaker horse and buggy.
Wander the maze of streets, alleyways and squares and take in grand edifices such as the cathedral, Residence Palace (Residenz), St. Peter’s Abbey (Stift St Peter) and its fascinating cemetery, and Mirabell Palace (Schloss Mirabell) with its romantic river-side gardens, looking up at facades spanning the Middle Ages, Romanesque, Baroque and Renaissance periods.
Highlight: Salzburg is the city of music and the setting for The Sound of Music. Enjoy a Mozart concert high above the city in the elegant State Rooms of the Hohensalzburg Fortress after dinner in the fortress restaurant, looking out to the nearby mountains.
Overnight: Salzburg again – the Blaue Gans.
Day 5 Salzburg-Cortina
Driving time: 4 hours plus stops
Mountain passes: 3 including Grossglockner
The drive: Head south-west from Salzburg, retracing your steps towards Kitzbuhel and briefly transiting Germany before turning off south past Saafelden and the popular lake-side resort town of Zell am See, dominated by the Kitzsteinhorn peak and glacier.
As you re-enter the Hohe Tauern National Park, your sights will be set on the Grossglockner Pass. At almost 2,600m, it’s one of the highest and most spectacular passes in the Alps and is set in the shadow of the majestic Grossglockner Masif, standing 3,797m and n Salzburg and the Hohensalzburg Fortress truly a sight to behold.
Take lunch near the top of the pass, then head over the Iselsberg Pass and on through beautiful Lienz, the main city in the East Tyrol which is also known as the “Pearl of the Dolomites”.
Cross into the Italian Dolomites to end the day in the alpine town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, host of the 1956 Winter Olympics.
Highlight: Built between 1930 and 1935 to connect Austria’s Salzburg and Carinthia provinces, the Grossglockner High Alpine Road is a breathtaking 30 miles of 36 hairpin turns ascending 2,500m through the Grossglockner Pass. Stop along the route to take in the spectacular views, augmented by information boards and exhibitions.
Overnight: Cortina. The four-star Hotel Cortina (www.hotelcortina.com) is in the city centre.
Day 6 Cortina-St Moritz
Driving time: 5 hours 30 minutes plus stops Mountain passes: 4 including the stunning Stelvio
The drive: Begin your journey back towards Switzerland today, heading through the South Tyrol over the Di Rombo Pass, continuing down into the Parco dello Stelvio, where you will tackle the celebrated Stelvio Pass – regarded as one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world.
Approaching from the north, the best way to experience it, this pass has a stunning wall of 48 switchback turns, each individually numbered with small cobbled stones; it’s a spectacular sight and even better drive, in every sense. Lunch can be taken just before you head over the pass in Trafoi, at the Hotel Bella Vista.
After lunch, tackle the north wall, stopping briefly at the top to admire the amazing vista. Start the ascent but then rather than continuing to Bormio, head north and onto the twisty Unbrail Pass, which takes you into Switzerland via Santa Maria Val Mustair, then directly into the Swiss National Park.
One final treat of the day is a run along the Lower Engadine Valley to the village of Tarasp, where one of the most beautiful medieval castles in Switzerland is located, on an elevated rocky outcrop setting overlooking the Lower Engadine Valley.
Highlight: Arriving safely at the top of the Stelvio Pass, knowing that even Sterling Moss managed to crash off the road during a vintage event in the 90s, gives you an enormous sense of accomplishment, and the view back down from the top is pretty special, too.
Overnight: The three-star Hotel Steinbok (www.hotelsteinbock.ch) is in Pontresina, near St Moritz.
Day 7 St Moritz-Zurich
Driving time: 5 hours 30 minutes plus stops
Mountain passes: 3 including Albula and Klausen
The drive: Your final run back to Zurich takes you east towards the central Swiss Alps, home to some of the most scenic passes anywhere in the Alps.
The initial run takes you up and out of Engadine via the rugged Albula Pass, tracing the path of the Glacier Express. The Albula is one of the most untouched passes in the region, and a highlight is passing by some of the amazing railway viaducts that bring the trains south and through the Alps.
From the pass, head across to the resort of Davos/Klosters, where you can stop for a first coffee of the day. Try the hotel Chesa Grischuna, where you can take drinks on their terrace in the centre of this picturesque village.
Exit Klosters and continue north. You are now heading towards the Klausen Pass –home of the legendary Klausen Run (Klausenrennen), a 21.5km pre-war hill climb. The race (and, of course, the pass) consisted of 136 curves with an altitude difference of 1,237m from bottom to top.
A light lunch can be taken at the summit of the pass in the small Klausen Cafe. After lunch, head back down the pass, which drops you close to the shores of Lake Lucerne. Follow the western shoreline of the lake (one of the prettiest as it hugs its way literally all the way around the waters edge), before arriving at the lakeside resort of Weggis, for sundown drinks overlooking Lake Lucerne.
Known as the Garden of Switzerland, this region boasts some of the most beautiful flora and Weggis itself is always immaculately turned out. This oasis of calm overlooking the
lake is the perfect place to reflect back on a stunning week of touring the Alps.
Either spend the night in Weggis or take the final run back to Zurich, around 60 minutes away.
Highlight: Arriving in Weggis for late afternoon drinks, you couldn’t be in a more beautiful setting. The resort looks directly out onto Lake Lucerne, without question the most beautiful lake in the Swiss Alps, and you can while away the time on the terrace of the Post Hotel watching the paddle steamers and pleasure craft criss-crossing the lake.
Overnight: Weggis – try the Seehotel Gotthard (http://gotthard-weggis.ch). Or Zurich for the Hotel Seefeld again.
Day 8 Zurich-Calais
Driving time: 9 hours plus stops
The drive: Retrace your journey back to Calais, perhaps breaking the drive with a detour to Epernay in the Champagne region. For a more relaxed return, stay overnight and after exploring the area before setting off early next morning for a midday Channel crossing.
Alps driving facts
When to go
The high passes of Austria, Italy and Switzerland can be driven from June until mid-October. However, snow can close alpine roads even in summer.
The circular mountain driving route from Zurich totals around 1,700km – just over 1,000 miles. Getting to and from Zurich by car from Calais will add another 1,550km (970 miles) to the total, with the distance from your home to Dover on top.
Ultimate Drives (www.ultimatedrives.net) offers touring packages of the Austrian, Swiss and Italian Alps, with or without rental cars. A package based on the featured tour would cost 985 euros per person, including hotel stays and driving itinerary. Fly to Zurich and rent a car to do it in style; Ultimate Drives offers a range of sports cars and supercars for rental. A Mini Coupe S costs from 1,400 euros, an Audi A5 Cabrio S Line is from 1,850 euros and a Porsche Boxster S starts at 2,800 euros, all for one week’s rental.
Austrian National Tourist Office: www.austria.info
Salzburg Tourist Office: www.salzburg.info
South Tyrol Tourist Office: www.suedtirol.info
Switzerland Tourism: www.myswitzerland.com
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel.