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I reach my destination of Kandersteg on time, of course. The alpine village has been a favourite with the British since Victorian times. For them, the bracing mountain air was regarded as a tonic more potent than almost any other. They would hike in the summer months and, in winter, pioneer the new sport of downhill or alpine skiing. Set in a monumental amphitheatre of peaks, ridges and jagged stone bluffs, it's far more rugged than the sweeping farmlands at Appenzell.

In the days I spend at Kandersteg, I find myself reflecting on the courtesy of the people I encounter. However rushed or busy, there is always time for good manners. As seems to be so in most Swiss villages, complete strangers in Kandersteg greet each other as they walk past. Men still tip their hats, in a well-honed system with "do-as-you-would-be-done-by" at its core.

A cable car connects the village with the magnificent Lake Oeschinen, whose azure waters mirror the sky. The slopes are abundant with wild flowers and lizard green ferns, with soft moss and lichens. The air is thick with bumblebees and marbled white butterflies. At the water's edge I meet an American woman in a wide-brimmed hat, searching for tiny wild orchids. She has one of those smiles that sticks in the mind and tells me that she's been coming to Kandersteg every year on the same day for four decades. "My fiancé proposed where we're standing," she says. When I ask if he is with her, the woman's smile fades. "He died in Vietnam," she says.

The journey northwest to Lake Lucerne involves three trains and a paddle steamer in a single afternoon, each one running on a schedule as precise as Swiss clockwork. Set on the western edge of the lake, the town of Lucerne is as placid as the waters in which its medieval buildings are reflected. Rust-brown tiled rooftops, church spires and onion domes: its skyline is a credit to Swiss understatement. Switzerland seems set on quality over quantity. As a visitor you feel fortunate at being allowed in at all. It is rather like peeking under the curtain to see a play for which all the tickets were long since sold.

Gliding across the lake like princesses dancing at a ball are the steamers. Although built in 1901, the one I climb aboard looks spanking new, and was christened after the Swiss folk-hero Wilhelm Tell. One of five such vessels plying Lake Lucerne's gleaming waters for more than a century, its mechanism was a marvel of the late Victorian age. Pistons heaving up and down, it ushers me gracefully past swans and pedalos, around the zigzag margins of the lake. As we move forward, I glimpse a handful of fabulous chateaux poking out from between the trees high above the waterline.

The steamer pulls up at Weggis, little more than a hamlet. As the sun sets, long shadows waning into night, I take a meal in the Weggiser Stübli. A fragment of Swiss life from antiquity, the wood-panelled salon has escaped the ever-threatening need to renovate. As elsewhere in a land where tradition dies hard, the Stübli at Weggis remains an important hub for the local community. It is a restaurant, bar and meeting room all rolled into one. With portraits of the hamlet's leaders looming down, I dine on bratwurst and bauernrösti (a ham, cheese and potato dish), washed down with a glass of Les Murailles wine.

Seated at the next table is a wizened old man who looks as Swiss as Toblerone. I half think he might break out yodelling any moment. Raising his glass of reisling, he catches my eye.

"We ought to keep it secret," he smiles.

"Do you mean the food, or the wine... or the Stübli itself?"

The man sips his drink, thinks for a moment. He frowns. "All of it," he says. "Let's keep it all to ourselves."

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