Minty Clinch negotiates hairpin Alpine bends in an Aston Martin Vantage S during an Ultimate Drive experience of 007's favourite Swiss hideaways.
A tour of James Bond's favourite haunts in a supercar to match
The Furka Pass snakes upwards towards snow-capped Alpine peaks. A touch on the throttle and my Aston Martin snarls into the hairpin bends like a greyhound off its leash. The throaty roar says it all: this is a 4.7L, eight-cylinder engine doing what it was born to do. Behind the wheel, I am dressed to survive. James Bond may have preferred polished leather footwear, but Converse plimsolls are much better for driving, less likely to slip off the pedal and put the Vantage S over a cliff.
As the debt crisis bites in lesser nations, hiring a supercar is one way travellers can taste the high life. The Alps are designed to test skill sets under pressure, while Germany, less than an hour from Zurich, is the only country where you can put your foot on the gas and not be pulled over for speeding. When driving any car that does zero to 100kph in less than five seconds, the Black Forest is the perfect refuge from the long arm of European law.
Essex-born Mark Heather sold a flourishing IT consultancy to start Ultimate Drives in 2009. His grandfather worked as a mechanic in the Air Force during the Normandy landings in the Second World War, so engines are in his blood. He bought his first car - a Ford Escort - when he was 17, but soon graduated to an Alfa Romeo and then a Porsche. When he fell in love with driving mean machines round tight Alpine bends, he chose Zurich for the headquarters of his fledgling petrolhead operation.
Of the cars you can rent on his Ultimate Drives menu, my shiny new Vantage S comes near the bottom of the pecking order. If I were to buy it new, it would cost a mere Dh635,285, small change compared with a Ferrari 458 Italia, on sale for more than Dh1m. Alternatively, you could hire a Mercedes SLS AMG - that's the one with doors that open upwards like wings. Purchase price? From Dh1m.
Typical Ultimate Drive clients are testosterone-led boys on tour. That's boys in spirit rather than in age because insurance doesn't allow for those under 27. The lucky ones, mainly high-profile clients in their 30s and 40s, are on corporate jollies. Their sponsors put a fleet of two-seaters at their disposal but they're not into sharing, preferring to race their mates and claim bragging rights at the top of the pass. Couples come into the equation for landmark birthdays: she gives the gift, he takes the wheel and they have a lovely romantic time, which is fair enough, provided those familiar bones of contention - dangerous driving (his), route guidance (hers) - don't spoil the mood.
Stag dos are up there, too, though the drivers are encouraged to tackle the popular but demanding four-passes route from Zurich to St Moritz on day one before the party gets into gear. That's where James Bond comes in - Heather's tailor-made 007 trips provide adrenalin-fuelled escapism for guys on the brink of matrimony. This is a big year for Bond, with the 50th anniversary of the first movie, Dr No, and an opening for Skyfall, the third outing for Daniel Craig, in the autumn, so I have signed up for a commemorative tour.
My mission to check out all his Swiss haunts, both on celluloid and paper, begins the moment I land at Zurich Airport. Heather escorts me though baggage collection and on to the five-star Widder, a boutique hotel in Zurich's historic heart. A composite of nine town houses, one of them dating back to the 12th century, it combines character with chic, frescoes on walls and ceilings, Le Corbusier's cube chairs and classic chaises longues in salons and libraries.
My penthouse duplex, 708, is a very white experience: white leather sofas, white orchids, luxuriant white fur rugs. It is easy to imagine Bond lounging amorously or placing drinks poured from cut-glass decanters on the marble surrounding the double Jacuzzi bath. He'd probably ignore the Rauschenberg on the stairs, but the top-floor terrace would be perfect for targeting enemies hiding out among the rooftops and church towers of medieval Zurich. The courtyard restaurant is a treat, not least because Switzerland's traditional stuffed-shirt formality has given way to young waiters in stylish casual clothes. The caviar's great, too.
After breakfast the next day, the Aston Martin, in 007 gunmetal grey, waits illegally in the pedestrian street, fuelled up and ready to go.
"Supercars are a bit temperamental," says Mark, explaining that wheel rims suffer costly damage if you glance off the smallest of kerbs. As it's not very Bondian to worry about wrecking government or any other property, I settle into the deep black-leather seat, ignore the GPS - if Bond didn't need it, why would I? - and head for the High Alpine route through streets paved with potential rim-busters.
I doubt 007 had the time or inclination to stop for coffee, but I do, crossing the dam to the Grimsel Hospitz for the most spectacular views of my first pass, a bit of a midget at 2,165m. He probably didn't lose his wallet, either. I did.
At Belvedere, I pause again to walk down to the source of the Rhone, a brownish glacier partially covered to counteract the effects of global warming. Towards the end of summer, it is some way short of its best.
With paddle shifters and no clutch pedal, the Vantage's seven-speed gearbox is pretty simple. By now, I can now use it with confidence so it's time to kick gas. The highlights of Bond's Swiss assignments are Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In Goldfinger, our hero races Tilly Masterson, a lady who drives even faster that he does, an encounter that was staged on the Furka Pass for the 1964 movie. Like Sean Connery - here's hoping, anyway - I move smoothly through the gears, then rack up torque and tension as I attempt to hit the apexes accurately on increasingly tight corners. This works on the lower curves, but I'll admit to white-knuckle moments on the narrow upper section where the road runs out of safety barriers.
Go west from the Furka for the Schilthorn, better known as Piz Gloria, Blofeld's mountain hideaway, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (OHMSS). In 1969, when the ski resort of Murren ran out of money to complete the cablecar to the top, Cubby Broccoli's production company supplied the funds for the lift and the revolving restaurant that plays a key part in the film. This is quality Bond memorabilia but not a rewarding drive, because Murren is a car-free hamlet perched on the edge of an abyss opposite the Eiger.
Better to head down from the Furka into central Switzerland, the oldest and most picturesque part of the Federation, stopping to refuel in the Goldfinger garage on the approach to Andermatt. This small mountain town with narrow streets and houses faced with tiny wood shingles is typical of the region. The large barracks, a centre for mountain training in a country obsessed with military service, closed down recently, freeing up land for a five-star resort with a golf course on the valley floor. Plans already in place will drag Andermatt out of its peaceful time warp: enjoy air-dried meats and rosti on sunlit terraces while you can.
In the afternoon, I power over to St Moritz, the very essence of Swiss Bond. His creator Ian Fleming loved elite hotels, gourmet food, adrenalin sports and every other aspect of life in the fast lane. Accordingly, he based OHMSS - the most ski-intense of Bond's adventures - in and around the resort that catered for the crème de la crème half a century ago.
At the venerable Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina, 007 might find the skis he abandoned at the end of his epic descent under fire from Blofeld's thugs. Resort loyalty ruled in the 1950s, so repeat visitors stored their equipment year on year: judging by the racks of wooden skis gathering dust in the cellars, some of the clients ran out of time but the hotel has never run out of patience.
The Kronenhof has gone through many changes since it opened in 1848, but a recent refurbishment puts it right up there with regional five-star rivals such as Badrutt's Palace and the Suvretta House. Bond might not recognise the hotel's current magnificence, but he would certainly appreciate the pleasure implicit in the glass-fronted shower in the bedroom of the immaculate Valentino suite.
In St Moritz itself, the Cresta skeleton bob track was the model for the death-dealing ice slide in OHMSS. As it's only operational in winter, I didn't have to find an excuse to avoid hurling myself headfirst into the void. Golf at the Samedan Club may be a tame alternative but 007 would have enjoyed the traditions associated with a course that opened in 1893 as much as I did.
All too soon, it's time to head back over the Albula Pass to Zurich airport. As a secret agent in a hurry to report back to my superiors, I am entitled to leave the Aston Martin in the VIP car park. A sad parting. By now, I feel it's mine.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to Zurich from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh3,220, including taxes
The tour Ultimate Drives (www.ultimatedrives.net; 00 41 43 542 0867) offers two- to six-day James Bond-inspired drives across Switzerland and Italy in an Aston Martin Vantage S, from £1,595 (Dh9,200) per person, with accommodation (based on two sharing). Tailor-made itineraries in a range of supercars are available all year round in France, Italy, Germany and Austria as well as Switzerland. High Alpine passes are open from late May to September