News from the snow
Located in the German-speaking heart of Switzerland and also at the heart of Europe, Interlaken offers winter sports fans access to some of the most spectacular skiing in the Alps, with their base in a service-packed small city in a spectacular lakeside setting. Traditionally a 'summer' resort, Interlaken had long been attractive to winter sports enthusiasts because of its prime location and the fact that its excellent hotels and other facilities offered very low rates during the winter. Its status became 'official' however with the launch of the the Jungfrau Top Ski Region, more than 205km (128 miles ) of trails in ski centres above Grindelwald, Mürren and Wengen, all linked to Interlaken by a mountain railway included in the pass. The average length of runs in the area is a remarkable 6 - 12km (4 - 9 miles). With the pass it's possible to ski a different ski area every day for a week. The name 'Interlaken' actually means "Between the lakes" - Lake Thun and Lake Brienz to be precise and water is omnipresent throughout the area, with idyllic clear mountain streams and waterfalls running off the hills and into the lakes. Interlaken offers dozens of water-based activities too, throughout the year, if you ever get bored of sliding on the cold white variety you can always enjoy anything from a cruise on a lake steamer to just feeding the ducks or even frog watching! Visitors first started arriving at Interlaken long before downhill skiing was conceived. One of them, Lord Byron, famously remarked "It's a dream" on first seeing the town. The first hotels opened their doors in 1806, complementing the existing monastery hospice (now the four star hotel Interlaken) with the boom years beginning in the 1860s. Much of the beautiful architecture and grand design date from this 50 year era up to the First World War, but the impressive exteriors hide equally impressive fully modernised interiors, enabling Interlaken to offer the best of old and new. In the early days, when the likes of Goethe and Mendelssohn popped by, Interlaken was promoted for its healthy climate, as well as the spectacular views and, although the majority may head there in winter for the skiing, that healthy climate is still there!
Interlaken has no skiing of its own, with limited local skiing at Habkern, but it markets itself as the ideal base for skiing the different resorts in the Jungfrau (Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren) linked by ski bus or rail (trips to Zermatt are also arranged). It's certainly a beautiful place to stay and guests profit from low season hotel rates during winter.
It's a virtually unique skiing experience with, arguably, the most dramatic mountain scenery in Europe all around you - the Eiger, the Mönch, the Wetterhorn and Mürren's Schilthorn as well as the Jungfrau itself all rising up to heights peaking at 4158 metres (13642 feet) from your Interlaken base of only 567 metres (1860 feet). And what a way to see it all too, with a 100 year old mountain railway always running on time from Interlaken right the way up to the Jungfraujoch. It is Europe's highest railway station at 3454 metres (11,333 feet) and site of a tiny summer skiing area on the glacier, where there's a single drag lift. It is also one of the 10 highest lift-served points in Europe. The train from Interlaken is included on the Pass are there is also an option to take a bus to Lauterbrunnen (beneath Wengen and Mürren) or to Grindelwald from Interlaken.
The skiing of the Jungfrau region is of course legendary also, the annual Lauberhorn men's downhill race is the longest and one of the toughest FIS World Cup races, as well as one of the longest established. Indeed the reputation of Mürren and 'purpose-built' (in the mid-19th century) car-free Wengen in the history of competitive skiing, particularly with the early British pioneers of the sport, is well documented. It is home to the 'Downhill Only Club' (DHO) founded in the era after modern downhill skiing had been invented but before ski lifts had been. The 'new' mountain railway was then a wonderful way to reach the snow fields without walking and hence the Club was born, for people who didn't stand up to go uphill, just downhill only. I suppose most of us have since joined nominally, but you have to be the "right sort of chap" to be admitted in to Wengen's original, elite Club which still operates today.
Across the valley at Mürren the Kandahar Club (see St Anton for Arlberg - Kandahar collaboration) was founded in 1924, a year before the DHO, and Sir Arnold Lunn pioneered slalom ski competition. Whilst Wengen has its legendary Lauberhorn, Mürren has the Inferno every January, probably the longest downhill race in the world and attracting over a thousand competitors. The run descends from the Schilthorn (3066 metres / 10,059 feet) to Lauterbrunnen in the valley above Interlaken, at 796 metres / 2,611 feet, an incredible 2,270 metre / 7,448 feet vertical descent. The record time for the full descent is 16 minutes although some skiers take over an hour, as they did in the 1920s. A shortened version operates when snow cover is inadequate at the bottom.
For more general detail on the skiing of Mürren, Wengen and Grindelwald, which is generally described as an 'intermediates paradise', check the individual resort entries. There are three small ski areas within a few minutes of Interlaken at Wilderswil, first stop on the Jungfrau rail line out of the town, Beatenberg, and at Habkern. Wilderswil has only one surface lift but is well geared up for children and family skiing so should not be discounted as a starting point for beginners.
Spread out on a sunny plateau above Lake Thun, with magnificent views of the Jungfrau's highest peaks, Beatenberg is a small, totally unspoilt settlement attracting visitors throughout the year. Habkern, further out, has about 8km (5 miles) of trails and a vertical of up to 963 metres (3160 feet). Neither Beatenberg nor Habkern are on the Jungfrau Top Ski pass however.
The best choice for daycare up the mountain is in Wengen, which accepts children from 3 months (there's another in Grindelwald taking children from 3 years), but Wengen is an hour by train each way - a spectacular journey sure to thrill children if they are interested by such things!
On the other hand there are small family-friendly areas close to Interlaken if you don't care about missing out on the spectacular Jungfrau scenery and skiing to be with your child! Of course it's not such a big issue with older children, and all will appreciate the many child friendly facilities and eateries for kids down in Interlaken itself.
There is a night club, the Cabaret, with live music, dancing and entertainment at the Hotel Victoria - Jungfrau, with five additional discothèques open through to 3am and a popular "original English pub" at the Hotel Splendid. For typical rustic style stüblis try the Hirschen or Kreuz.
The Kursaal, built in 1859 and set in a romantic gas-lit park, is a major evening attraction, hosting shows, concerts, theatrical performance and including a casino. For Swiss Folklore visit the Spycher restaurant.