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Interlaken: Peaks of Perfection

Feb 1, 2011
2011 / February 2011

photo: Michael Defreitas

The elegant Parisian-style hotels along the north side of Interlaken’s charming Höheweg were reminiscent of my last visit to Paris. But as I ambled further west, the distant snowcapped peaks played hide-and-seek through the branches of the walnut and buttonwood trees lining the wide promenade. My pace quickened as I neared the section of the street every visitor talks about.

Interlaken, as the name suggests, is nestled between two lakes, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. Höheweg, the town’s main thoroughfare, runs east to west along the flat delta between the two lakes and offers a sneak preview of what the region has to offer. About halfway down the street, the trees and souvenir shops on the south side give way to a large open meadow in the center of town called the Höhematte. It’s the “city with one view” spot that my concierge and a few hotel guests had told me about, the view that sums up Interlaken and the spectacular Jungfrau region.

Flanking the far southeast end of the pasture are the steep pine-fringed cliffs of the Schynige Platte and to the southwest, the distant alpine meadows of Mürren. Bridging the gap between them, the majestic snow-covered peaks and glaciers of the Jungfrau rise above the Lütschine Gorge and Lauterbrunnen Valley. In the pasture, grazing cows and goats with bells around their necks complete the alpine canvas.

Switzerland offers hundreds of outstanding vistas, but few combine and contrast the region’s pastoral beauty and wild mountain grandeur better than Interlaken’s “one view.” The next day, I took the funicular to the top of nearby Harden Kulm to see if a bird’s-eye view of the town and the surrounding mountains could compete with the “spot.”

From the summit’s observation deck, I traced the rail line south from Interlaken with its two emerald-green lakes to the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the awe-inspiring peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. It’s rumored that after climbing Harden Kulm, the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote, “If you haven’t seen the Interlaken countryside, you haven’t seen Switzerland.” Although the aerial view was spectacular, the Höheweg’s first-impression view was definitely more memorable.

Few places in Switzerland offer such a concentration of the very best of Swiss scenery and culture as the Jungfrau region with its towering snowcapped mountains, glaciers, pristine lakes and waterfalls, meadows of edelweiss, pastures echoing with the clang of cowbells and traditional log chalets adorned with geranium-filled window boxes.

The town is conveniently located about halfway between Zürich and Geneva, at the intersection of the Jungfrau’s two main valleys. By 1912, the rising importance of rail travel and Interlaken’s location prompted the completion of two major rail lines into the valleys. Today, only a few villages are accessible by car, and Interlaken has become the main rail hub and transit point for the region’s more than 45 rail lines and aerial cableways, earning it the title of “gateway to the Jungfrau.”

Historical records show that the first tourists arrived around 1323 and stayed in the town’s monastery hospice (now the 4-star Hotel Interlaken). At that time, the monastery also doubled as the city hall. The town’s first real hotels and much of its beautiful architecture date to the first half of the 19th century. In those days, most visitors came for the pure mountain air, spectacular scenery and to hike and climb in the Alps.

Today, dozens of hotels, including a number of 4- and 5-star properties, cater to year-round visitors who come to the region to enjoy water sports on the two lakes and to explore the 400 miles of alpine hiking and biking trails and the 150 miles of ski runs in the surrounding Bernese Highlands. Most of these diversions are within a 20-mile radius of downtown Interlaken.

About eight miles south of Interlaken, at the base of the Jungfrau massif, is the lively town of Lauterbrunnen. Nestled on the banks of the Lütschine River, the town sits at the foot of the glaciated valley’s 1,000-foot cliffs. The cliffs are so steep that sunlight doesn’t hit the village until nearly noon.

The town gets its name (which means “many fountains”) from the more than 72 waterfalls that spill down the valley’s steep rock faces. A couple of hundred yards from town is Staubbach Falls, the valley’s most impressive cascade and the highest freefalling waterfall in Europe. Its name, meaning, “spray stream” comes from its 900-foot wedding-veil-like flow that, when observed from the train station platform, appears to fall on the town.

Lauterbrunnen is also the main departure point for day trips up to the Jungfraujoch, or Top of Europe (Europe’s highest railway station, at 10,400 feet). Completed in 1912, the six-mile rack-and-pinion railway, or Jungfraubahn, from Kleine Scheidegg to the glacier plateau below the Jungfrau summit, took 16 years to construct. The line incorporates a five-mile-long tunnel cut diagonally through the heart of the Eiger and Mönch. One of the highlights of the trip is touring the Ice Palace, a series of glacier ice caves below the
station.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the uniqueness of the region’s geography and the significant engineering feat by designating the Jungfrau and her sister peaks, the Eiger and Mönch, part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn World Natural Heritage site. The 325-square-mile site encompasses the largest glaciated area in Eurasia; Europe’s longest glacier; 3,000-foot-thick ice flows; and nine mountains over 12,000 feet high.

Perched at the cliff edge of a beautiful terraced alpine meadow some 3,000 feet above Lauterbrunnen sits the sleepy hamlet of Mürren. There are no roads, so visitors must take a cable car and electric train to reach this intimate alpine hideaway. The views of the valley and surrounding Jungfrau and Gspaltenhorn ranges are well worth the effort. The intimate cafés and hotels that hug the cliff edge are ideal vantage points for viewing the dramatic scenery and for watching paragliders launching off the overhanging bluffs.

At the south end of the village, a cable car takes visitors on an exhilarating ride up to Schilthorn peak, where they can enjoy exceptional panoramic views and sip cocktails in the revolving Piz Gloria summit restaurant, featured in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Tucked into the region’s other high valley at the base of the Eiger’s towering north face is Grindelwald, one of Europe’s oldest mountain resorts. At an elevation of about 3,500 feet, it is the only other major Jungfrau village besides Lauterbrunnen that is accessible by car.

Thanks to its magnificent backdrop of towering peaks, rolling alpine pastures and the Grindelwald Glacier that once reached the outskirts of town, Grindelwald has been attracting visitors since the late 1700s. Most of those first visitors were British mountaineers intent on scaling Europe’s great peaks. In 1858, the first ascent of the Eiger — considered one of Europe’s most challenging climbs — departed from Grindelwald, which remains a popular staging base for Jungfrau mountaineering.

The Grindelwald-First cable car was once the longest chair lift in Europe. Today, passengers enjoy the spine-tingling 25-minute, 3.25-mile ride from Grindelwald to the top of the First in comfortable, six-passenger gondolas. A short 30-minute walk from the peak’s station is Lake Bachalpsee, made famous by the fabulous reflections of the surrounding mountains on its mirror-like surface.

Interlaken’s popularity as a year-round destination lies in its essential connection to the Jungfrau and all the attractions the region has to offer. It may only have one view, but what a persuasive view it is.


Diversions

No visit to Interlaken would be complete without a cruise around one or both of the lakes aboard a classic century-old steam paddle wheeler, booked through Schifffahrt Berner Oberland (Lachenweg 19, Thun, tel 41 58 327 48 11). Cruises on the SS Lötschberg on Lake Brienz and the DS Blümlisalp on Thun start at $50 (free or up to a 50 percent discount with rail pass).

Another worthwhile vantage point with stunning views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau is from the 6,000-foot bluffs of Schynige Platte above Interlaken, accessed by cogwheel railway from Wilderswil. path leads from the summit station to the Botanical Alpine Garden (tel 41 33 822 28 35), where from May to October visitors get a unique look at some of the 500 species of plants and flowers endemic to the Swiss Alps.

Of course, Switzerland is famous for its chocolates, and there is no better way to appreciate these wonderful creations than to try chocolatiering at the chocolate factory in Restaurant Schuh (Höheweg 56, Interlaken, tel 41 33 888 80 50). The $15 admission includes a chocolate voucher.

More chocolate goodies along with pastry and craft shops abound in the tiny hamlet of Unterseen. Founded in 1280, Unterseen is a short walk across the Aare River bridge from Interlaken’s West Station. The hamlet’s Gothic church bell tower dates back to 1471.

Golfers will find the championship course at the Interlaken-Unterseen Golf Club (Seestrasse 117, Unterseen, tel 41 33 823 60 16) most challenging. Not only are the deer that frequent the fairways from the bordering nature reserve distracting, but so is the magnificent alpine scenery.

Besides the alpine wonders of the Jungfrau, the region around Interlaken also offers a number of sub- terranean attractions. The St. Beatus-Höhlen Caves (tel 41 33 841 16 43) are tucked into the mountainside above Lake Thun near Beatushöhlen/Sundlauenen. Legend has it that an Irish monk named Beatus banished the cave’s dragon into Lake Thun. At Trümmelbach Falls (Trümmelbach/Stechelberg, tel 41 33 855 32 32), about two miles south of Lauterbrunnen, 10 glacier waterfalls tumble down inside a mountain — the only accessible mountain-interior glacier falls in Europe.


Info To Go

Interlaken is about a 2.5-hour train ride from either Geneva (GVA) or Zürich (ZRH) airports. A Swiss Pass or Eurail Pass is highly recommended for exploring the Jungfrau. Passes cover trains, buses, trams and boat travel, free admission to most museums and 50 percent discounts on most mountain-top trains and cable cars. For more information, visit www.myswitzerland.com


Lodging

Grand Regina Alpin Well & Fit Hotel
This small boutique hotel under the north face of the Eiger offers great views and various massage and Alpienne treatments in its wellness center. Dorgstrasse, Grindelwald, tel 41 33 854 86 00 $$$$

Lindner Grand Hotel Beau Rivage
This intimate Parisian-style hotel has great views, four award-winning restaurants and the Japanese-themed Yasuragi Wellness & Beauty Centre. Höheweg 21, Interlaken, tel 41 33 826 70 07, $$$$

The Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa
Opened in 1865, this elegant hotel combines the style and sophistication of yesteryear with 21st-century comforts and conveniences. Höheweg 4, Interlaken, tel 41 33 828 28 28, $$$$.


Dining

Belvedere Brasserie
The brasserie serves international favorites such as veal in Merlot sauce alongside a handful of Swiss stalwarts like fondue and Berner rösti. Höheweg 95, Interlaken, tel 41 33 828 91 35, $$$$

Gasthof Hirschen
Incorporating fresh ingredients from its own farm, the hotel restaurant serves delicious potato soup with mountain cheese and filet of beef bordelaise. Hauptstrasse 11, Interlaken, tel 41 33 822 15 45, $$$

Im Gade
This elegant 100-year-old folkloric restaurant in Hotel du Nord features duckling breast with orange sauce and almond dumplings, served by dirndl-clad waitresses. Höheweg 70, Interlaken, tel 41 33 827 50 50, $$$$

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