Following our introduction to the Jungfrau region in Switzerland, Tom Leahy delves a little deeper, staying at its finest hotel and taking advantage of those mountains nearby…
“Surely a weekend isn’t long enough to go skiing?” is a familiar response from friends and acquaintances who are less obsessed with spending as much time in the white stuff as I. Of course a weekend is plenty of time to go skiing. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, especially when you have the Swiss rail system on your side.
A recent weekend trip to the Alps started with a Friday afternoon 5pm flight from London to Zurich, succeeded by two perfectly on-time rail connections that were separated by a brisk eight minute interchange at Bern – not so easy to manage when you are wrestling a two metre ski bag through a crowded station. But with a minimum of fuss and just a couple of hours after landing, ski friend JF and I found ourselves pulling into a very snowy Interlaken train station, with plenty of time left to unpack, admire the snowy surrounds and enjoy couple of drinks before bedtime.
Met at the station by a friendly (and muscular) man from the Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau, our lodging for the weekend, I was made to feel rather puny as he manhandled my bulky ski bag into the back of the hotel’s minivan, before whisking us through a veritable winter wonderland and straight up to the hotel’s front door.
Safely checked into our junior suite, which was beautifully decked out with everything you might expect in a grand five star hotel, including the all-important ‘his and his’ sinks in the palatial bathroom, we moseyed on down to the hotel bar for a night cap or two. This turned out to be in the company of some very smartly dressed Swiss military types and their glamorous inamoratas, who were holding court in the hotel’s ballroom. Indeed, a hark back to its heyday, the Grand Victoria has a ballroom. Soberly, it was decided that rather than follow the soldiers in to the cigar lounge, we should head to bed in expectation of an early trip up to the ski-slopes of Kleine Scheidegg and Wengen.
Interlaken is perhaps best known as a summer destination; and for good reason, if you have seen any of the pictures of its idyllic location. Set in an Alpine amphitheatre and squeezed into a narrow strip of land between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun, it is real Sound of Music territory. However, the town is also close to some of Switzerland’s most famous ski resorts, and with the snow still falling out of the sky, I was optimistic that my struggles with the ski bag would not be wasted.
Horror of horrors, waiting at Interlaken Ost station the next morning, our first train up to the slopes was cancelled due to a points failure – eat your heart out, Transport for London! Thankfully, you could say that was the exception that proves the rule, as the rest of the weekend’s trains were as regular as clockwork.
Train ‘debacle’ aside, it was actually a relatively lengthy trip up to the slopes – Interlaken is only 500m above sea level, so to get up to ski worthy terrain can take a while. The journey though gives you plenty of time to admire the stupendous views as you travel up through Grindelwald and onwards to the slopes. It also allows a moment to ponder the grizzly fate of some of the courageous Alpinists who flocked to Kleine Scheidegg in the 1930s to make an assault on the legendary north face of the Eiger, which towers over this tiny mountain hamlet like a huge ogre. A challenge that seemed so severe at the time, the then president of the Alpine Club, a pompous chap named Edward Lisle Strutt, said it was an “obsession for the mentally deranged”.
Back on safer ground, the recent snowfall had pepped up the slopes and we schussed up and down the pistes happily enough, while eyeing up some of the runs through the trees and off to the side. But, with a high avalanche danger rating and no local knowledge to rely on, it seemed prudent to remain on the blacks, reds and blues. Even so, with the chance to take on the legendary downhill run, the Lauberhorn, which runs from the top of Kleine Scheidegg for over 4km and down in to the pretty village of Wengen, who’s to complain?
After yet more time on the trains back down the mountain, it was to the Victoria Jungfrau we returned, in time to enjoy the huge spa area. This had all the usual trimmings – pool, sauna, steam room and whirlpool – but held a trump card in the guise of an outdoor saltwater pool. While this is a feature I’ve encountered in other Swiss mountain hotels, lying back in the warm water watching snowflakes tumble down from the inky darkness is a treat that I never tire of.
Dinner in town was followed by more drinks in the hotel bar: thankfully there were no smart soldiers to show me up in my favourite Nordic style winter jumper this time. With yet more snow falling, I couldn’t resist a gloating message to those chums back in the UK who doubted the viability of my Swiss ski weekend. Wish you were here, chaps?
Breakfasting the next morning on the hotel’s delicious home made version of that Swiss classic birchermuesli, a lurid green smoothie that promised to right last night’s wrongs and a plate of bacon and eggs (both bases covered) I gazed outside. Yesterday’s view of the 4,000m Jungfrau had disappeared into the clouds and all I could see was snow, snow and more snow!
Sunday’s plan was to ski in Murren, where Sir Arnold Lunn, of Lunn Poly fame, was reputed to have held the first ever ski race, thus founding the modern discipline of winter sports as we know it. With all the snow, conditions on piste weren’t ideal for an icy slalom course, but they were for my Swiss made fat skis, which suited me much better in any case.
A highlight of any trip to Murren is the cable car up to the Schilthorn. Here, at just under 3,000m, you can lunch on ‘Alpine wrestler’s pasta’ in the revolving restaurant and then go off to explore the new James Bond museum downstairs. Odd, perhaps, to find a James Bond museum at this altitude, but it is in honour of the fact the Schilthorn was used a location in Bond film number six, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Unfortunately though, a ski weekend by definition is destined to come to a halt sometime on a Sunday afternoon, and all too soon we found ourselves at Lauterbrunnen train station (yes more trains) waiting for our ride back to Interlaken and then home.
I can’t say Interlaken is the most convenient place for a ski getaway because of the time it takes to get to the slopes in the morning, but it is a real town and not just a ski resort. Ideal then, if you want to enjoy a break that combines skiing in some of the best and most historic resorts in the Alps with a some of the other winter activities on offer.
And, if you stay at the Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau, you won’t be disappointed. It is grand in the traditional sense of the word: it looks grand, it is very grand inside, the breakfast was grand indeed, and the staff are the model of friendly professionalism. Oh, and if that all sounds like it might be a bit too grand for you, oddly, there’s a branch of Hooters next door. Who says you can’t have it all on a ski weekend?
For more information about the Hotel Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, including details of offers and events, visit www.victoria-jungfrau.ch.