Fly by sight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am

The noise is loud and sounds like a lion with croup.

'Hahhhhhahhhhhhwah'

And then it stops and all that can be heard on the northern flank of the Saane Valley, two hours from Geneva, is the whisper of snow falling, a slight sibilance that is almost a noise in reverse, like an anti-sound.

'Everything is muffled when it snows,' says Therese, the guide leading our party up a near vertical slope. 'Except the balloons.'

A distant hot-air balloon was the source of the leonine grumbling that made us stop, the spikes on our snow shoes jammed into a layer of snow, ice and rock, our bodies bent inward to the rock face as we fought gravity.

'No flying today,' says Therese. 'Too much wind.'

Reaching the top of a scree our party pauses and looks back across the valley to the village of Chateau d'Oex, the centre of the Pays-d'Enhaut in the Bernese Alps. Thick snowflakes divide the view into fragments but it is still possible to see a white field full of colourful balloons. Only one is fully inflated, tiny figures at its base straining to keep the wicker basket earthbound.

'Hahhhhahhhhwah,' the balloon roars again and an orange tongue of flame shoots up inside.

'That's Bernard in that balloon,' says Therese. 'He hates it when he can't fly.'

Chateau d'Oex is one of the world's most important centres for hot-air ballooning. Since 1979, it has been home to an international festival that draws thousands of balloonists each year. On March 1, 1999 the Orbiter 3, the first hot-air and helium balloon to circumnavigate the Earth, began its flight here and the village's tiny population of 3,000 held a two-week party. At any time of year, weather permitting, visitors can arrange balloon trips over the alpine valleys through Balloon Chateau d'Oex (www.balloonchateaudoex.ch). The annual festival is sponsored by Swiss watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier.

'Balloons follow the currents,' says Michel Parmigiani, the company's founder and a skilled balloonist - it takes seven years to qualify as a balloon pilot. 'The Saane Valley has a unique micro-climate that offers some of the most challenging airflows in Europe.'

That means it's possible to go up fast and move forward quickly but for now we are earthbound and, in the Pays-d'Enhaut , that's hardly a disappointment.

The morning after the day we didn't fly begins with a gym session in the Gstaad Palace (www.palace.ch), one of the most comfortable hotels in Europe. Imagine being a well-fed child wrapped in a pre-warmed mink coat. That's the kind of cosseting provided at this hotel, which was built in 1913 and where rates start at about HK$4,000 per night for a standard double room on a summer weekday and rise to HK$135,000 per night for the penthouse suite on a winter weekend. Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald often played here in the 1950s, actor Richard Burton used to drop in for card games and every James Bond (except George Lazenby, and he doesn't count) has stayed here. It's that kind of place; the martinis are shaken not stirred, the women wear Gucci ski boots at breakfast and infants who have only just learned how to walk buckle on Zai Spada skis for a trip to one of five ski lifts.

The gym itself is perched atop a terraced garden and looks out over the Wasserngrat mountain. Within the same complex is a heated pool, part of it outdoors, a spa, squash courts and a champagne bar. Fifty tonnes of granite were used to build the 60 metre wall that snakes through the health club to create a soothing light that reflects the pristine Alpine sky outside. The gym is a necessary accompaniment to the cosseting; last night's dinner was a fondue calorie-fest with chunks of bread to dip into the delicious Etivaz cheese, a local speciality.

In the summer, the Pays-d'Enhaut (www.chateau-doex.ch) becomes a centre for caving, mountain biking, Nordic walking (with ski poles), climbing, archery, horse-back riding, parachuting and white-water rafting - the Swiss championship for this last activity takes place here from May 1 to May 3. For the less adventurous, there's an annual music festival (from May 28 to June 1; www. festival-la-foila.ch), world-class restaurants and sightseeing among exquisite 17th century chalets.

But this is winter and although there is plenty of skiing and snowboarding on offer - the Stade Slalom Rougemont with its illuminated night skiing is especially recommended - we are returning to the Chateau-d'Oex launch pad to see if the winds are now favourable.

The trip from Gstaad to Chateau d'Oex takes about 20 minutes and weaves along the Saane River, passing through the pretty villages of Saanen and Rougemont, where wealth lies as thick and heavy as the fresh snow. This is a place for A-list celebrities (Bs and Cs go to Verbier) and billionaires (mere millionaires will struggle to buy one of the homes), although the ski-hire, restaurants and hotels are surprisingly reasonable. For those who don't need a 60 metre granite wall in their gym the Hotel Commune in Rougemont has rooms priced between HK$925 and HK$1,120 per night for two people (e-mail hotel.commune.rougemont@bluewin.ch for reservations), including breakfast.

Beyond Rougemont, Chateau-d'Oex appears and it has been transformed. In the large field below the 17th century church three dozen enormous blooms decorate the snow, each one a silk envelope plumped to bursting with hot gases and suspended above a wicker basket. The balloons have flowered and we are ready to take-off.

The pilot is none other than Bernard, the impatient balloonist from the day before. Once we are airborne it's apparent that his temperament changes as soon as his wicker basket is off the snow. The ascent makes me feel like a bubble in a glass of champagne, it's so dreamlike and serene. There is no wind and the only noise comes from the whisper of cold air running over the steel ropes that attach to the gaudily coloured envelope overhead. The valley seems to grow beneath our feet, cleaving the rock with its passage and scattering the occasional village, like Hansel and Gretel's trail of breadcrumbs.

Minutes later, some of the serenity vanishes. Two of the balloons ahead of us have been blown down a side valley and Bernard announces that these unfortunates will now have to land in Montreux, a two-hour drive away. In the small space, three metres by two, Bernard scuttles about, buffeting all five passengers in the basket as he pulls ropes and adjusts the flow of gas from the containers in each of the four corners. We descend rapidly and with Bernard still careening about it feels like we're playing blind-man's bluff in a large shopping-basket. Now the trees are speeding towards us like Macbeth's Birnam Wood, a threatening mass that looks all wrong when viewed from an unexpected angle.

Suddenly the descent is over and we are soaring up and to the south side of the valley, away from the Montreux gap. We bury our fear beneath jovial back-slapping and jokes at the expense of the two balloons that have now disappeared over the wrong mountain.

The trip finishes all too soon as we land at Gruyeres, birthplace of the cheese that bears its name and home to a 13th century castle (www.castle-gruyeres.ch) that hosts an antique music workshop in August. In the castle's shadow we become Bernard's crew and help to pack the balloon into a small trailer. As we return along the route there are dozens of balloons in the sky, in fields and silhouetted against the mountains. Twenty minutes later we are back in Chateau d'Oex, drinking champagne.

Leaving for Hong Kong an hour later the valley looks softened, the snow seductive. Chateau d'Oex does not let go easily, it plants too many memories. It will let you leave but you'll want to come back.

Getting there British Airways (www.ba.com) has regular flights from Hong Kong to Geneva via London. Hire a car at Geneva International Airport for the two-hour drive to Chateau d'Oex or take a train from Geneva to Montreux.