“Okay, get ready. Run!” Heart pounding, I heed the command, leaning forward as I break into a jog, feeling the hot breath of a stranger on my neck. Seconds later, as my orange-and-white paraglider catches the breeze, I’m like a cartoon character treading thin air.
The rolling foothills of the Alps quickly recede beneath me, and the palm-sweating terror I felt just moments ago is replaced with goggle-eyed awe. As the silent pilot strapped in behind me maneuvers us towards an updraft, following a pair of circling hawks, the only sound I hear is the wind rushing in my ears.
At 7,500 feet above the chilly blue-green waters of Lake Thun, the quaint Alpine chalets below resemble Monopoly houses on a field of velvet, and my feet dangle above–ABOVE!–snowcapped peaks. Glancing down, I feel as if I’m orbiting the earth in a swing.
Just as I’m beginning to feel at home in my airborne perch, strapped atop the lap of a blue-eyed enigma who holds my life in his hands, he motions to the right. There, fifty yards away, another paraglider has swooped alongside–and he is SHOOTING at us.
Instead of panicking, my pilot turns to me with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Do you like rollercoasters?” he asks with a wicked grin, and suddenly, we’re swaying erratically through the sky before he takes us into a spin over the holiday resort town of Interlaken, its red-tiled roofs twirling like a kaleidoscope and growing closer by the second.
Then, as quickly as our descent began, it stops. We seem to hover in mid-air until, perfectly positioned over a grassy commons in the center of town, we glide to a running stop. My knees are still shaking when my pilot (Dean…Richi Dean) nonchalantly invites me to join him for a drink.
It could be the opening scene from a “007” film–almost. Because, in reality, the guy “shooting” at us was no knuckle-cracking villain, but another paraglider snapping photos to immortalize our high-flying adventure.
But here in the Bernese Oberland, arguably Switzerland’s most ruggedly beautiful region, it’s hard to avoid a 007 frame of mind. That’s because “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the only Bond film starring George Lazenby as the iconic super-spy, immortalized this panorama of white peaks and Alpine villages more than 50 years ago.
My headquarters for this Swiss mission is the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa in Interlaken, located across from the park where I made my dramatic airborne entrance (though not with my luggage). This five star luxury hotel, distinguished by its wisteria-draped terrace, wrought iron balconies and a gleaming dome, is a 19th-century grande dame that has preserved the gilded glory of the Belle Époque.
It’s easy to imagine your favorite Bond, decked out in a white tuxedo jacket, gliding down the broad marble steps into the hotel’s Jungfrau Brasserie, where carved columns support a painted coffered ceiling; flicking ash from a cigar in the Salon Davidoff, with its closet-sized humidor and selection of blended whiskies and single malts within easy reach at the bar; or sweeping a girl off her feet beneath the candle-lit crystal chandeliers at the 19th century La Salle de Versailles ballroom.
In the morning, though, Bond might wake to an unfamiliar sight–a Virgin. But, even for the world’s sexiest superspy, it’s practically unavoidable, as most of the hotel’s 224 rooms boast spectacular views of the Jungfrau, an 11,333-foot pointed peak whose name means “The Virgin,” due to its perpetually snow-capped (read: frigid) appearance.
But the mountain that intrigues 007 aficionados is the Schilthorn, a half-hour drive from Interlaken through the verdant Lauterbrunnen Valley, where the most action-packed scenes of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” were filmed. Atop this 9,742-foot peak, accessed by the longest aerial cableway in the Alps, the villainous Count Blofeld (the inspiration for “Austin Powers’” chrome-domed Dr. Evil) based his headquarters in a round revolving aerie that today serves as a restaurant, the Piz Gloria.
Feasting on a “James Bond buffet” (Swiss cheese, scrambled eggs, and champagne–breakfast of international super-spies), I notice that the Piz Gloria still features the same bleached blonde wood and groovy gold grillwork from the film. There’s also a gift shop hawking everything from cow bells to 007 embroidered T-shirts and hats, a “Bond World 007” exhibit offering helicopter simulator rides, and a movie theater showing key scenes of Lazenby as Bond, Telly Savalas as Count Bloefield, and Diana Rigg as the strong-willed “Bond girl.” I wonder briefly if the sign I saw outside on a snowy precipice–the one with a red circle around a high-heeled shoe indicating an inappropriate choice of footwear–was put there to deter Bond babe wannabe’s eager to follow in Rigg’s sexy stilettos.
I wisely eschew the Jimmy Choos in favor of rubber-soled boots for a hike through the mountain village of Beatenberg with Markus Metzger. Leading me along a winding path that threads past stands of pines and fields abloom with wildflowers, the lanky, gray-bearded druggist reveals a secret use for just about every plant in the Alps.
“I think all plants have a reason to be on the earth and help us bring our health back,” maintains Metzger. “There are no weeds,” he insists, deftly sidestepping a cow patty.
Got a cough? Small pink daisies with yellow centers should help, he says. Want to clean your kidneys? Metzger suggests cow lips (the plant, that is–not a bovine pucker). Suffering from menstrual cramps? Woman’s mantle can alleviate the pain–which is nice to know, except I wonder how this information might help 007, unless he’s trying to keep a PMS’ing femme fatale off his back.
So what WOULD interest a sex-crazed secret agent? “Ah,” my woodsman says with a knowing smile. “Vegetable Viagra.” Metzger assures me he has one such plant–Horse Tail, sporting suspiciously perky shafts–growing just outside his shop in Beatenberg.
But before heading back to the village–with its classic slope-roofed chalets and blooming window boxes populated by tiny ceramic gnomes–Metzger has a surprise. Pausing for a picnic, he ducks into the woods and returns with a bottle of champagne and fluted glasses. It’s an elegant touch worthy of Bond himself–though Metzger blends the bubbly with Drachensirip (the druggist’s own non-alcoholic syrup) and a couple of freshly picked daisies to create a uniquely Alpine cocktail.
Cheers, Markus. I’ll have mine shaken—not stirred.
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay: Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa, www.victoria-jungfrau.ch.
Activities: Twin paragliding, www.twinparagliding.com.
Visit the Schilthorn, www.schilthorn.ch.
Nature hikes in Beatenberg, www.naturpur.ch.
More information: Interlaken Tourism, www.interlakentourism.ch.
Switzerland Tourism, www.myswitzerland.com.