Terminal Velocity: Winter in Grindelwald


Not a lot of people know this but the phenomena of the modern day Downhill and Slalom ski race came from a turn of events initiated by English toff and soon to be travel behomoth, Sir Henry Lunn (his company Lunn Poly dominated British package holidays in the 1970-90s). At the turn of the 20th Century, the religious Lunn visited the Jungfrau region to organise a meeting of Protestant Churches but ended up forming the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club in Wengen after his son and he were bitten by the nascent ski bug. Eligible only to English public school attendees or those who frequented an ‘older’ university, it organised ski championships exclusively for Brits.

A decade later, still going strong in 1921, the club decided to shake things up. Instead of holding the Nordic (cross-country) races, ubiquitous at the time, it opted for a new and unique approach: the need for speed or ‘straight down’ as they called it. Slalom races (through trees) were also introduced by Lunn and together, these marked Wengen and the Jungfrau district as the birthplace of modern day ski racing.

With its crazy turns, death-defying jumps, and average speeds of 110kmh, today’s Lauberhorn downhill race is one of the world’s most famous – and infamous – competitions and would surely boggle Henry Lunn’s mind but there’s something else which might just change contemporary ski-ing in the way Lunn did a century ago. It’s not as revolutionary, per se, but it does lift the ski experience firmly into the 21st Century.

A new cable car station might not sound ground-breaking but it’s the concept and the sheer ambition of what is known as ‘The Terminal’ that makes it unique and the current flagship for the region. The name gives it away; rather than being crowded out by a bunch of feral skiers pushing and barging their way past each other to scramble onto the next (slow) cable car, the Terminal aims and succeeds in changing this experience.

Conceptually styled after an airport terminal (once you’ve passed security), the journey to the slopes has never been more relaxing. Or, indeed, more expensive, if you want to give your wallet a workout before your legs. There’s an impressive grocery store to satiate your stomach’s every whim as well as a noodle bar with a tuk tuk as a serving station. If you need a typically Swiss souvenir for your loved ones or, indeed, just want to treat yourself, don’t fear, there’s a couple of shops selling everything from wooden toy cows to Victorinox penknives.

Naturally, there’s a ski shop selling every accessory a skier could dream of and two bars, outdoor and indoor bar (the latter sponsored by Audi), for that well-earned après ski guzzle. There’s a Lindt chocolate shop and a high-end fashion shop and, not surprisingly, there’s even a plush VIP space, The Platinum Club, which offers complimentary prosecco and local made chocolate before (and after) your ski. At 18,000 Swiss Francs for two people per annum, this really is one for the high income earner only but is a nice touch if you can afford it and includes your own private cable car when heading to or from the slopes.

In a paradoxical way, all this enforced consumerism is at odds with the purity of the mountains and the spirituality of skiing. Then again, no-one’s forcing anyone into the shops and the cable car itself is, without a doubt, impressive. It’s larger, quicker, technologically more advanced and more sustainable than its predecessors and competitors. The windows are wider, the views, therefore, more spectacular and, a nice little touch, there are slits in the floor in which to insert your skis. Most important of all, it’s quicker than the location’s previous cable car, which, at an overall cost of almost half a billion Swiss Francs, it should be. Depending on where you’re headed (it goes to the very top of the Eiger glacier, the Jungfraujoch), it subtracts between 15-30 minutes from your journey which isn’t to be knocked as this adds to your all valuable ski time.

Of the skiing itself in the Jungfrau, there are three ski which cover over 200 kilometres of piste. Much of the terrain consists of wide, long blue slopes which offer relaxed and not necessarily challenging ski-ing but given their length, quite a speed is easy to attain. The majority of the black slopes tend to be nearer Wengen but each area has its fair share of off-piste and, should you want a break from ski-ing (the very idea!), most ski passes allow access to the First Flyer and First Glider.

Intrigued? Indeed. These are two features offering an alternative route down the slopes, shall we say. Situated between First and Schreckfeld, in the former, you sit in a sling high above the slopes and shoot down a wire. It’s a sensation similar to being in a dream where you can fly; blending trepidation with awe, and is definitely recommended. The latter is similar but it’s a shared experience; you lie in a glider (with up to three other people) and glide above the slopes, rather more like a glorified zipline. Both are worth the go, particularly if you’re fortunate enough to catch them when the queue’s at a minimum.

The Terminal is situated in Grindelwald (no Harry Potter jokes, please), a village on the other side of the mountain to Wengen. Not as bling as some Swiss resorts, what it lacks in ostentation, it makes up for in old school charm and postcard picture beauty. It’s quiet and relaxed and almost entirely lacking in English accents. Nestling in its own little valley, the holy trinity of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau mountains, guard over it from on high. Less of a crazed après ski destination, Grindelwald is more suited for a family holiday destination or an amorous trip for two and Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof, a minute’s walk from the train station, offers one of the only 5* experiences in the whole region.

A traditional Swiss style hotel, which feels like it’s been recently renovated to contemporary standards, there are several advantages to basing oneself at the Romantik for the duration of your trip. The Abba-esque piano player serenading guests during cocktail hour is a welcome backdrop to a three-course dinner as delicious as you’d wish for of a relaxing evening in the ornately-decorated Schmitte restaurant, but it’s the spa in the basement that takes the biscuit; two saunas, a steam room, an ice pool and a decent-sized swimming pool is just what the doctor ordered after a thigh busting day on the slopes.

Right, all set for tomorrow, it’s time to get my PB down the Lauberhorn…

For more information about skiing in the Jungfrau region, including details of ski passes, accommodation and other activities, please visit www.jungfrau.ch.

For more information about Grindelwald and other destinations in Switzerland, including details of winter sports and ski resorts, please visit the official Swiss Tourism website at www.myswitzerland.com.