If I asked what your most special family experience or vacation was, what would it be? That question came up over our family dinner last weekend, as we chatted about what we should do for vacation this summer. What did I mean by “special”? Well…the one that was the most memorable…had the greatest impact…left the greatest impression…resulted in the best photos… the one we think about the most often…or even all of the above.

My family has been fortunate to have had many wonderful family vacations with magical moments sprinkled across the years. Some people give me a hard time when I write about the array of places we have visited and the things we have done as a family, since not everyone has had the same opportunities. But some people choose to live in fancy houses, drive expensive cars, go out to eat a lot or have a house filled with toys for their children or grandchildren. Instead, we placed a priority on investing in time with our family and developing a sense of adventure in our daughters. We created indelible memories of funny statements from our girls…visions of them snuggling with their daddy…new places seen and, sometimes, challenges overcome.

For example, on one sailing trip, we had to stand in the back cabin of the sailboat—as far from the mast as possible—during an enormously scary electrical storm playing silly word games to distract our six- and nine-year-old daughters without letting them sit down. Why? Because if the boat were hit by lightning, sitting increased the points of contact and the risk of being electrocuted. Yeah, that was a memorable vacation.

If I had to choose the one experience that was a turning point for our family—that included new experiences, beautiful scenery, lots of laughter, challenges confronted and overcome and a shift in the family dynamic—it would be our hiking trip in Switzerland for my 50th birthday.

My husband, Ron, planned the perfect trip that brought us to a variety of locations around Switzerland and allowed us to experience a broad expanse of what the country has to offer. This was our first trip to Europe as a family…and it was Ron and the girls’ first visit ever. It was a really big deal!

We planned to start in the charming town of Lucerne, then hike in Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn. Next, we were going to Interlaken and the mountain towns of Wengen, Murren and Kleine Scheidegg, where we could eat delicious Potato Rösti and hike the famed Eiger Trail. Then we would head south to the French region and the city of Lausanne and finish up in Zurich. Well, that’s how it was supposed to go, but not everything happens as planned—and that was part of the richness of the experience.

Because of plane problems, we never made it to Lucerne. We spent 24 hours at JFK Airport—not the way you want to start your trip of a lifetime. But I believe it is better to be safe on the ground than airborne with a problem. Then a miracle happened. The girls, who were age 13 and 16 at the time and had quite a reputation for bickering and badgering, magically didn’t—they were angels at the airport. By the time we arrived at our first hotel in Zermatt—where we had gotten the girls their own hotel room for the very first time—they seemed to have aged about five years each. Suddenly we weren’t traveling with children but rather with people. My theory is that somewhere between being on this very special trip and trusting them to have more independence with their own hotel room, they rose to the occasion. As I’ve said before, it’s amazing what happens when you let children fly.

And fly they did. We were in Switzerland to hike, and we did—despite the fact that the weather didn’t cooperate. We spent three days in Zermatt so that we could see the Matterhorn, but because of the clouds, our only view of it was on a giant poster in the downtown area. Yet we put on our rain gear and hiked anyway. We found a wonderful restaurant tucked into the mountain and enjoyed the strudel and fondue. Throughout the trip, the girls were amazing adventurers, both on the trails and off. They were hiking buddies and great roomies. Even my dental emergency did not detract from our many adventures.

We went on a bike ride through small French towns outside Lausanne. Sounds lovely, right? Except that the bikes were a little rickety, and by the time we arrived for lunch, all the restaurants had closed. We were quite a site—four “hangry” people inhaling baguettes and cheese when we finally came upon a grocery store. Many others might have been discouraged by these challenges and would have gone looking for souvenir shops or a spa in lieu of gray drippy hikes, but I think that the assorted challenges made the family connection stronger. We worked together to learn and master the network of trains and trails that took us on our daily adventures.

In the end, Switzerland was the start of a whole new world for our family. Ron and I returned from that trip with traveling companions we wanted to be with, rather than just cute children for whom we were responsible. While our children respect Ron and me as the parents, the efforts we have invested in quality family time away from video screens and technology have helped us develop relationships with them as individuals. We truly enjoy talking to them…learning from them…and simply being with them.

Our lives changed forever after Switzerland in both our relationships with the girls and the broadening of their horizons beyond their local borders.

As for what we decided about this summer—still in the planning stage, but you can be assured that hiking will be involved.

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