Alpen Afterglow

Reviewing Euro-tours is really tough work. Really.

Rider Magazine, Feb. 1995
Story and photographs by Bill Stermer

At a grand dinner at a round table in Annecy, France, Liz Beach leaned across and said to the group in her husky Bacall voice, "Tomorrow when we stay in Veytaux, Switzerland, you should be aware that your bathroom may be down the hall." Oh. Okay. It had been a great tour so far, the hotels had been fine, so sure, we could put up with one night of inconvenience.

The next evening when we opened our door at the Hotel Bonivard we found a hall. With a bedroom on the left. And a bathroom. And a master bedroom with bath. And at the end of the L-shaped hall was a well-appointed living room with a view of Lake Leman and the Castle of Chillon. Ah, so this was why Liz had had that little sparkle in her eye!

I was now midway through my third stint with the Beaches in 15 years, a two-week Alpine Adventure motorcycle tour, and among all the good-natured give-and-take I should have caught on to when I was being had. With the Beaches, it was always a good kind of had.

Alpine Adventures begin and end in Munich, Germany, but the Beaches wisely sequester their jet-lagged charges in a small, quiet hotel in nearby Olching. Two and three week tours run simultaneously, the longer rides leaving a week earlier and heading south for Austria and Italy.

Then one of the Beaches hustles back to meet the two-week folks. Both of the groups then rendezvous in Obergurgl, Austria, and from there the combined groups orbit through Switzerland, dip a toe into France and return to Munich via Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Austria.

Last August my wife, Margery, and I participated in a two-week Alpine Adventure that was, for whatever reason, the Beaches' smallest group in years. The July and September groups consisted of 30 members each, but our August group had only five. Hmmm, apparently my reputation precedes me. The afterglow from that trip is with us yet.

We were soon riding south on our first day, sharing a pleasant reunion ride with Dick and Mary Pase. They work in aerospace in Florida, and we'd first met on a Beach's British Bat tour (no longer available) in 1986. Our second day out, from Obergurgl, Austria, to St. Moritz, Switzerland, introduced us to the challenging Stelvio Pass. At over 9,000 feet it offers views of the dirty-white Ortles Glacier, and as it turtles up one side of a long valley the Stelvio threw at us 48 uphill hairpin turns in succession. They demanded intense concentration until I thought to drag the rear brake in the tight right-handers to slow and stabilize the bike.

Over dinner we talked with our companion from the three-week tour, Kevin Sahr, a Chevron petroleum engineer who works in Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union. Sahr works 28 consecutive 14-hour days, then gets a round-trip airline ticket anywhere in the world and 28 days off. Because of our unusually small "group," he had been receiving a one-on-one private tour.

Dinners were times to relive the day's adventures. Anyone who suffered ground-up plastic or serious confusion during the day was awarded a yellow Ach Scheisse (aw, sh-t!) button. The Beaches end dinner with a discussion of the morrow's possible routes, what to see, and what to watch out for.

More serious Alpine riding lay between St. Moritz and Andermatt, Switzerland. Our route could cross up to I I passes, ranging in altitude from 5,445 to 7,583 feet.

Our little group of five rode together, along with Rob Beach, son of Bob and Liz, as the senior Beaches humped the luggage van over the mountains by the least demanding route.

From Chiavenna we picked our way north over the old, rough Splugen Pass with its steep hairpins, narrow tunnels and an overall air of disrepair. We stopped for cappuccino at a run-down gasthof and lay in the sun on the old concrete walls.

The San Bernardino Pass staggers through 18 stairstep hairpin bends to descend a steep hillside, then continues to drop through Soazza and Rovereto. Back down in the hot lowlands we bought picnic items at a deli in shady Biasca before tackling the high ground again. Then at the top of the 6,286-foot Lukmanier Pass we picnicked on an exposed rock overlooking a quiet, wild, mountain-bordered lake.

Andermatt was our first double overnight, an opportunity to do wash, repack and get to know an area. All dinners except one on double overnights are included in the tour price, so on the second night Margery and I stole off by ourselves. We wound up in a little place advertising raclette, a Swiss specialty involving a cheese with a rather heady aroma that's melted into a fondue sauce. When they started up the raclette pot behind me and the aroma began wafting, I checked surreptitiously under the table to see if perhaps some clod had removed his shoes. When they served it, my reaction was whoa, so that's raclette! Sorry, but I have a personal rule -- I never put anything in my mouth that smells worse than my own feet!

Which leads to another unpleasantry for American innocents abroad. When I first toured Switzerland in 1977, it took 40 cents to buy one Swiss franc. In 1994, it took 83 cents; things had become doubly expensive in this pleasant mountain paradise, and our tour spent seven nights there. An informal lunch of, say, spaghetti with a small salad and a bottle of mineral water commonly cost $20. Forty dollar lunches per couple get old fast, but illustrate one of the benefits of a tour. Your tour check covers the major expenses of hotels, most dinners and the bike; breakfast is included each morning, so all you've got to cover out of pocket is lunches, perhaps three dinners, gas and the beverages you might consume in the evening.

The next rainy morning, Dick Pase was a tad sore from a little disagreement he'd had with his motorcycle, but wearing his Ach Scheisse button proudly. As the ladies were going shopping, Rob, Kevin and I made a loop of the Furka, Grimsel and Susten passes. BMW had kindly loaned me an R1100RS new twin, and on this wet day it presented another reason for having anti-lock brakes. I was stuck behind a string of stinking little cars spewing black clouds of effluent through the Grimsel Pass, and could feel the cilia in my lungs curling up like so many dead bugs on a windowsill. Into a series of short downhill straights that ended in hairpins I would normally hang back on such a wet day, unsure if I could brake safely from the speed I'd build up during a pass. But today it was just, gas and pass as the ABS dealt with the finer points of traction in the wet. Another beauty of' the new twin was that, you could go hard into a bumpy turn, two-up and fully loaded, and nothing flexed.

Some of the most pleasant aspects of' the Beach tours are the sense of freedom, attention to detail and the loads of information riders receive. Pamphlets and notes rolled in by mail during the preceding months; each rider is also mailed a booklet with the full tour route and options. At the Munich airport baggage carts rent for two Deutschmarks; in the final info package was affixed a two-mark coin! And this is no hand-holding, schedule-keeping, get-on-the-bus grind. You have your motorcycle, itinerary and map -- you depart when you wish, choose your own route and ride with whom you please. Other than having your bags ready for the luggage van by 9 a.m., the only rule on Beach's Alpine Adventure is be there in time for dinner, or call so they'll know you're safe.

One of the real pluses of traveling with the gregarious Beach family is that they have made and kept many friends along the way. During our night in Hohenschwangau we were joined for dinner by a delightful German couple and their adult son. There we learned it was the mother, Annaleise, who had ridden her own bike on a Beach tour of New Zealand! And we were asked to arrive a little earlier than usual in Uvrier, Switzerland, because Andre, a charming man Beaches had chanced to meet years ago, was taking us on an informal tasting tour of Swiss wines. He conducted us to a private cellar where we were served many delightful varieties and a platter of Swiss dried meats It was lovely, but the joke was on us when we returned to our hotel and found that dinner was, whoa, more dried meat! After that overload, our standard joke on the tour was, "Hey, hope they serve dried meat!"

In Veytaux, where our bathroom was "down the hall," we toured the castle of Chillon with the Pases. Built from the 11th to the 13th centuries, it was used to imprison Bonivard, prior of St. Victor's in Geneva. For four years, Bonivard was chained to the fifth pillar in a lower room for having the audacity to favor independence for Geneva; he was rescued in 1536. The iron ring to which he was chained is still imbedded in that pillar, which is worn away by his restless movements. Three centuries later British poet Lord Byron immortalized Bonivard in his poem "The Prisoner of Chillon," and Byron carved his name, which is still visible, in the third pillar.

Every tour has its favorite moment, and for us it was the last night on the road, in Germany. Because we were so few, everyone got a prime room. Ours had a fruit basket waiting when we checked in, and out one window was Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle, while out another was his parents' Schloss Hohenschwangau. It was a stormy evening, and from our darkened room we watched as a romantic lightning display flickered behind the castles.

My latest Beach's Alpine Adventure tour came 15 years after my first, yet several of the hotels were the same as before because of their excellent ambience and service. They ranged from the magnificent to the merely comfortable, and the food was always tasty. But what really shined were the Beaches themselves, a family that you become a part of just by coming along. As I concluded 15 years ago they're quietly in control but never controlling, always ready with a thoughtful recommendation or clever anecdote, all underscored by an attitude that says, "Whatever's wrong, chum, we can fix." These alpen afterglows last for years, and when finances and circumstances allow, you can bet we'll return for another Beach tour.

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