If you are determined to go to Europe this year but do not want to leave your young children behind, your first task may be to decide what activities both you and your children will enjoy.
Clearly, your toddlers have neither the taste nor the grace for haute cuisine. They are likely to give the Renaissance Masters only a cursory glance as they race ahead of you into the next gallery. And shopping, for them, is merely the chance to handle breakable objects and disappear into clothing racks.
Your vacation is bound to be different from the trips you have enjoyed in the past. But if you keep this and your children in mind as you plan, you will not be disappointed.
Switzerland is an ideal country to visit with toddlers or young children. It is remarkably civilized: safe, clean, and efficient. Amenities for the tourist are unmatched anywhere. While you may be seasoned by mishaps that occurred on previous travels abroad - lost reservations and long waits for trains or buses, for example - your children aren't. In Switzerland, such inconveniences are rare. You can be confident of finding adequate accommodations and services wherever you go, as well as friendly and helpful interest in children from the Swiss themselves.
The easiest way to go may be to rent an apartment or chalet, which will become your home base for the duration of your trip. This way your children will have a chance to settle in. They will have their own room, and you will have a kitchen for fixing meals they are accustomed to.
An apartment in the country will give you the most of Switzerland's richest assets, the Alps and Alpine countryside. At the same time you will be able to take day or overnight excursions to many major cities.
My husband and I chose to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Hohflu, a small village above Meiringen in central Switzerland. We arranged this rental through Idyll Ltd., an American company sponsoring loosely structured three-week tours including orientation services and a few supervised events. Though we were already familiar with Switzerland, the Idyll plan offered us an extra margin of security through its Swiss agents, should any problem have arisen. (Idyll Ltd., PO Box 405, Media, Pa. 19063. Another agency that arranges for Swiss rentals is Interchange/Villas International, 213 East 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.)
Flying with young children, particularly overseas, can be trying. A few tips: Reserve seats in the bulkhead, where your small people can play and sleep on the floor in front of you. Call ahead to order a children's menu at no extra cost. Keep your children from napping the day of the flight, and bring their favorite foods to increase the chance of eating well either before you board or early in the flight. Remember to bring diapers, a sweater, and change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. A variety of books and small toys are also crucial.
Whatever airline you fly, be bold about asking for help in the form of snacks , extra pillows, blankets, washcloths, and, if they are available, complimentary toys.
Plan a quiet evening for the first night at your destination. Even if it is 2 a.m. back home, your children may have changed time zones altogether, and it may be difficult for them to sleep. Rest periods and gentle walks the first few days will help all of you recover from jet lag.
Waking in the morning to a view of the crystalline Alps, walking to a nearby cafe for fresh bread, past chalets whose windows and gardens spill over with flowers: These pleasures are only enriched by sharing them with your children.
You will probably want to take a train or postal motor bus (which doubles as a passenger bus) to a nearby lake. Pack a picnic or grab one en route: cheese, bread, chocolate, and fruit can be found everywhere. Take your stroller or backpack - both of these are invaluable to travelers with a toddler - and walk the lake's perimeter. If, instead, you decide on a scenic boat tour, you will be provided refreshments on board.
Early in your trip you should acquire the official timetable at a train station; it includes all rail, bus, and boat schedules. Switzerland's transportation system is so efficient it makes sense to dispense with car rentals. Your children will have more freedom in a train car then a car seat, and if you are traveling as a couple, you will have more hands to attend to them with.
Cable cars and gondolas, which sail above grassy slopes, will likely be your children's preferred method of transportation, if not the greatest joy of their trip.
In every Swiss locale, you should visit the tourist office for suggestions of activities for children. Basel boasts an exquisite zoo - considered by some one of the world's finest - which has a children's zoo within it. Among other attractions here is a playground for baby goats, where humans are invited to wander and pet the residents.
Two final suggestions: First, respect your children's nap times, and use them to give yourself a rest as well. Second, soon after your arrival, find a baby sitter through your landlady or tourist office. Knowledge of English, though helpful, is not a requirement for the person who sits for a toddler. One evening we asked our landlady to stay with our son for a few hours, knowing she could contact English-speaking neighbors if she had difficulty communicating with him. The next day our son surprised us by hailing her with the greeting, ''Grusse!'' They had clearly become fast friends.