This is a travel experiment that can go horribly wrong. For the first time in my life, I am taking a trip expressly designed for families traveling with children.
As I walk into the lounge of the Hotel Schweizerhof in Lucerne, Switzerland, at the cocktail hour to meet my fellow guests for the first time, I do so with a fair bit of trepidation.
I scan the room. Everyone is there, and I count 21 children, only one of whom is mine. Reality sets in quickly. My family will be spending an actual vacation without the company of several dozen clients. Instead, I will be in the company of other travelers and their kids, or grandkids, 20 of them, sharing the sightseeing, the meals and the motorcoach for a Tauck Bridges program that encompasses portions of Switzerland, Austria and a bit of northern Germany.
It is like a Chevy Chase "Vacation" movie with 41 family members.
This trip had to happen. My daughter has been traveling with us since she was 4 years old. At age 10, she is a frequent flyer with three international airlines. Virtually all her trips have been in the company of our clients. She has never traveled with kids her own age. We owe her this vacation.
But we also owe it to ourselves to experience an important conceptual approach to touring. I have long advocated that the biggest travel trend of the past decade is the growing tendency of adults to travel abroad with their children. Some postulate that this began after the events of 9/11, when parents decided, "I will never be separated for weeks at a time from my children again."
I think there is some truth to that. But an even more compelling reason is the growth of high-quality, family-oriented programs by cruise lines, upscale tour operators, safari companies and river cruise lines. If you build it well for families, they will come. I think someone at Disney might have once said that.
Companies as diverse as Trafalgar, Abercrombie & Kent, Uniworld and Backroads dedicate vacations to families traveling together. And virtually all of these trips are multigenerational.
Many industry leaders have been surprised by the level of interest in these trips on the part of grandparents willing to gift their grandkids with a special trip that has the added benefit of providing some downtime for Mom and Dad.
So I stand here at Tauck's evening welcome reception in Lucerne. We watch our daughter eye the crowd, wondering if she will walk up to the teenagers in the group. Suddenly, a sweet young girl named Kendall leaves her parents' side and walks up to our Bree, sticks out her hand and formally introduces herself.
They start talking, laughing and expressing great joy that they have met. Her parents walk up, and we all know quickly that we will become friends.
The girls just have to sit with one another at dinner that night. My outlook is being shaped by the obvious joy my kid was feeling one hour into the tour experience.
We had arrived in Zurich the previous afternoon. It was a typical Swiss arrival ceremony, which is to say there was no ceremony at all. All flowed easily, smoothly, with no issues. Everyone in the airport seemed to actually know what they were doing and seemed to genuinely understand that their goal was efficiency.
And so I notice my first big Swiss reveal in baggage claim. The bags are coming out of the chute onto the carousel, as they do everywhere on the planet. But here in Zurich, the baggage-handlers down below have placed each piece of luggage on the chute so that the handles on every piece are facing the waiting passengers. Simple but emblematic of thoughtful planning and execution.
There are no required entry forms for Americans. The Swiss welcome us as long as we don't overstay our welcome.
In order to be able to reside in the country you would have to demonstrate to officials that you have the capacity to deposit sufficient funds in one of their banks to enable you to live in the country totally independent of the need for income and in the style of the Swiss. I didn't qualify.
The Tauck driver is waiting to provide the private transfer from the airport to Lucerne, where the tour began. Memo to Tauck: Advertise the private Mercedes-Benz transfers, an elegant and considerate inclusion after connecting flights.
Our room is not ready, so we sit in the hotel's street-level cafe as locals wander in for small sandwiches, coffee and conversation.
We sit on a settee, center stage, able to observe several dozen conversational collisions and greetings. It turns out that one of the secrets of Swiss society is that every resident feels that every city is a small village.
It is necessary for Swiss to follow the "Schweizer Knigge," a sort of etiquette guide that dictates their rules of hospitality. At work, for example, you can walk the halls of a UBS bank and see employees who barely know one another greeting everyone they pass in the hallway. The word gruezi is used to say hello to shopkeepers and strangers. If you pass someone on a ski lift, you greet them, and you also acknowledge strangers on the streets and in the railroad station. I was greeted by every single Swiss citizen we pass on hiking trails, although that might have been because they wanted to see if I was still breathing.
Getting city residents to conduct themselves as they would in a small village is a concept I will explore further. It has to be considered a significant accomplishment, although the Swiss never mention it.
In the cafe, we notice the Swiss constantly getting up from their coffee to walk over to other tables to say hello. You can tell they were not greeting friends, just people they might have seen before.
And anytime the Swiss meet one another, they shake hands. They are, I observe, the handshakingest people on Earth.
It all starts in kindergarten, where children are taught to shake their teacher's hand at the start and end of each school day. In business meetings, everyone must be greeted with a handshake.
My theory is that the reason the Swiss do not engage in war is because they insist on first shaking hands with any potential combatants.
The next day, our tour officially starts. We walk through Lucerne. The swans pose along the edge of the lake that laps up against the city center. The city is wrapped around the inner lake like a well-heeled horseshoe. I notice that many of the swans are fighting obesity, and one or two look like they can barely float.
I learn that one of the swans had to be put down recently. The lake is used for swimming, and this swan would attempt to bite the swimmers.
As I walk along one of the main paths around the city I note that half of my fellow walkers are dressed in suits. They are headed for work. Later, they might change and go for a quick dip in the lake or take a boat ride out to any one of a number of small islands for lunch.
After I return, what I remember most about Lucerne is a conversation I had with someone from the tourist board. I had asked why no one was fishing in the lake that laps gently against their spotless city.
There is no fishing, she explained, because there are no fish. Lucerne's residents drink their lake water. It is too free of algae and chemicals to sustain fish. The fish have nothing to eat "so they don't come here," she said. "Our water is too pure."