Swiss Alps Perfect Ski Weekend!






Jeff and I are always on the lookout for great weekend getaways, especially during London's dreary winters. We like to ski, so naturally a weekend in the Swiss Alps sounded intriguing. Why not head to Switzerland and see how the skiing compares to our native Lake Tahoe, California slopes? Sounds good to us! and the answer to that question is Switzerland wins: Longer runs, zero lift lines, ability to ski multiple resorts on one ticket.
I'm all about the charm, and once we had heard that there were adorable car-free villages in the Swiss Alps which could only be reached by a cog train, we were "IN"! After a bit of research, we decided on Wengen ("W's" are pronounced as a V in German). Gotta say, it couldn't have been a more perfect weekend. Well, except that Switzerland is expensive... that would be Expensive with a capital E.



Day1: Thursday ..."PLANES AND TRAINS"
We hopped on an 8:30am flight from London's City Airport (so EASY!), and landed in Zurich, Switzerland by 11:15am. (Zurich's Flughafen Airport (ZRH) is the largest airport in Switzerland, and is really nice and modern; one could easily spend an afternoon there.) With the time change, the flight was only 1 1/2 hours, and bonus---Swiss Air serves Lindt Swiss Chocolate on board! 

After the flight, we needed to catch the train to Wengen, and conveniently, the train station is located inside the Zurich Airport facility. We pre-purchased our train tickets to Wengen on-line, so it was an easy transfer. And lucky us! Because we hand-carried our luggage, we were able to catch the 12:38 train, less than 1/2 hour from the time of our landing. (I'll talk more about the train ticket specifics at the bottom of this blog). 

Sooooo.... it takes 4 trains to get to Wengen from Zurich. I'm not kidding, 4 trains! The first segment is Zurich to Bern, then there is Bern to Interlochen Ost, Interlochen Ost to Lauterbrunnen and finally, Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, WHEW!!! All that in 3 hours!



But don't be deterred by all the transfers. The first two train segments are about an hour each, just enough time to eat in the dining car, or to catch a nice snooze. 

The third and 4th segments are short--25 min, and 10 minutes, and you absolutely won't want to miss the gorgeous scenery. Plus, the last segment is serviced by an old fashioned cog train. 

At 2:45pm, we arrive in Wengen, a village of 1300 year-round residents, literally at the top of the world.  We stand an incredible 4180 feet above sea level, and overlook the jagged Bernese Oberland mountains: the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch peaks form a semi-circle around this tiny village.  I'm from Alaska and am used to rugged mountains, but this is really something! I can see 7 glaciers from where we stand. And wow, the puffy clouds!


We wheel our suitcases through the slushy sidewalks, noticing happy people meandering around in their ski clothes. Charming shops line the street. It truly is idyllic.

Our hotel, Hotel Schonegg, is just down the main street, perfectly located at the crossroad, with views of every mountain, and it's next to the gondola. We would definitely recommend this hotel. Great food, staff, rooms, service.


After we check in, we wander around town, and check out the shops. FYI, if we were to do it over, I would head over to one of the rental shops and check out a sled for 13 Swiss Francs (CHF), @$13.  Sledding is big here, and there is a lovely sledding hill in town (you can also take the free train up, and sled all the way down the mountain!)  Instead, we head to the Eiger Hotel for a hot mulled wine for me, and a lager beer for Jeff. Come to think of it, maybe we did make the right choice. :)


This is not a town with a lot of nightlife, which is fine for us. We enjoy a great meal at the hotel, then head to the hotel's sauna. Back in the room, as we look out over this charming village from our balcony,we can't help but feel blessed.

Day 2: Friday..."DECISIONS, DECISIONS.... AND YOU CAN NEVER BRING ENOUGH MONEY TO SWITZERLAND"
We wake to a beautiful sunny day, and are faced with our biggest dilemma....should we ski or take a 1 hour train to Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe?   We choose Jungfraujoch (pronounced: yung-frow-yok), a glacial saddle 11,332 feet above sea level, connecting two of Europe's highest peaks, Jungfrau and Monch.  Jungfraujoch is reached by taking the same cog train we took to Wengen. It has tunneled through the Eiger since 1912, carrying skiers, scientists and tourists alike. The Sphinx observatory is  located at the top, just through a tunnel and up an elevator from the station.... at 11,719 feet, it is the highest observatory in Europe. 

We have heard that Jungfraujoch is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not-to-be-missed on a sunny day, but not-worth-the-money on a cloudy day. All good, because it's sunny! But 176 Swiss Francs (CHF) for a ticket to the top, which is a 1 hour train ride? That works out to $175 per person. Yikes!  

We visited the tourist center and they told us that there are ways to diminish the cost a wee bit, one of which is to purchase a 3-day Jungfrau region travel pass for 190 CHF and then purchase an additional Jungfraujoch pass for a super discounted 61 CHF.  I'm not exactly sure how the math worked, but the total for our 3 days including Jungfraujoch was 245 CHF each (@$250), and that included free travel anywhere in the region, including Murren, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, as well as 3 days of skiing at any resort in the region). Definitely this was the way to go. And Fyi, one does not need to purchase these tickets in advance--just go to either the tourist office or the train station and they will help you figure out the best way.

Did I mention that Switzerland is expensive?

Ok, having sorted that out, we get on the 9:20am train (it runs every 1/2 hour), and are surprised to find that the train is completely filled with photo-snapping tourists who have come up the mountain for the day. (clearly, the Japanese tourist industry promotes this adventure). We have a lovely stop about mid-way up, at Kleine Scheidegg for some photos.



(If we were to do this trip again, we would rent our skis the night before,  we would bring them up to Kleine Scheidegg and leave them there until we finished the tour.... That way, we could have skied from 12pm instead of going down the mountain, renting the skis, going back up,  and skiing from 2:15pm)


After our stop in Kleine Scheidegg, we re-board the train, and it chug, chug, chugs up the mountain at an even steeper angle, as we enter a tunnel taking us through the Eiger Mountain. 



When we arrive at the Jungfrau station, we are over 11,000 feet above sea level. We are clearly inside a mountain tunnel that looks like a space station. We venture to the right, and the tourist throngs go left. Smart move! :)   
But then I start to feel dizzy and tiny black molecules start appearing in my sight.  I don't think I'm going to be awake much longer. Jeff tells me to sit down on a rock in the tunnel and to take deep breaths. Better. We walk a few steps. same thing. sit. walk. sit. walk slowly. Turns out I have altitude sickness!  
Jeff buys an oxygen canister in the gift shop for 20 CHF, and I puff on that for awhile, while we sit, drinking hot chocolate and watching the clouds come in.   It turns out that our blood pressure drops at high altitudes, and if one has lower than normal blood pressure, he/she is more strongly affected. good to know. Guess I won't be climbing Everest any time soon.

After my little bout of head spinning, we venture out to the viewpoint, take some photos in the -20 degree weather and zip back in likkety-split, before our ears freeze off!


For those who don't wish to venture into the cold, there is a fake photo backdrop of the Phoenix Observatory.
And in the hallways, there is a really nice pictorial history of how the tunnel and train were built, back at the turn of the century. 




Next, we head to the ice tunnel system and some great ice sculptures.


The 360 degree movie is not running, because they are doing some repairs today, but that's fine with us. And, although there are several restaurants we could choose from, we aren't hungry, so we head up to the Sphinx Observatory, at 11,782 feet.



By now, the sun has completely gone, it's windy and it is SNOWING! This high up, the place creates its own weather. Surprisingly, there is a bird sitting on the railing. Gotta think there might be warmer places for a bird to live.... Hawaii, Bahamas come to mind?

After about an hour and a half, we are ready to go back down the mountain. But, just before we board the train, we see a lady nearby suffering from altitude sickness, so I give her my canister. Seems to me they should have an air canister vending machine by the train, just sayin'. 
We lumber back down the mountain in our little cog train, back into the sparkling sunlight, and Wengen, where we rent skis, and then gondola back up the mountain for two glorious hours of skiing. Feels like we have had 2 days in one. Then dinner, sauna. Perfect day. 



Day 3: Saturday...LONG RUNS AND GRINDELWALD

After a big breakfast (included) at our hotel, we tramp towards the gondola at 9am. By now, we feel like we have a feel for the mountain and its 19 lifts (which can carry 20,000 people in an hour). This is a good time to talk about the actual ski resort. The resort claims to be mostly intermediate slopes, but I disagree. I would say that yes, there are a lot of groomed slopes and not too many moguls, but there are a lot of minimally skied powder runs and some steep slopes. Beginners will find easy slopes at the bottom of the mountain. Intermediate skiers will enjoy almost all runs. This resort is home to the Lauterbrunnen World Cup (which was last weekend) and attracts world class skiers.  Advanced skiers will enjoy the long runs, some steep inclines and carving turns just outside the groomed areas.  The Swiss learn to ski at a young age, and are really good. I saw very few beginner or intermediate skiers. But skiers at all levels will enjoy this resort. There are snowboarders, but the main snowboard parks are at Grindewald, which I'll get to next.


Around lunchtime, we decide to take a long 2.5 mile vertical run down to the connecting village of Grindelwald, for lunch (a better idea would be to eat at one of the dozen restaurants on the slopes) and to check out the Snow Festival. We have the entire run to ourselves, and I think it was my favorite run of the day..... BUT... when we got to the bottom, we found that we were not in Grindelwald, but Grindelwald Grund, which was below Grindelwald! Turns out that there is no way to ski directly into Grindelwald. You have to take the cog train from Grindewald Grund to Grindelwald. So we did.  After waiting a half hour for the train, it was a 5 minute ride.




Grindelwald is another charming village, although this one has cars, and is a bit bigger. Gorgeous scenery! We had $25 hamburgers at the local restaurant and enjoyed seeing the Snow Sculptures (Team Alaska won!).






After lunch, we rode the train back to Grindelwald Grund, then it was an 1 hour trip on train back up to Kleine Scheidegg.  Hindsight being 20/20, with only one full day of skiing, we should have stayed in the main Wengen area.  I think ideal would have been 3-4 days of skiing--then we could have spent one day skiing Grindelwald-First, and one day in Murren.

The afternoon was gorgeous and only once did we need to wait in a lift line for 5-10 minutes. One thing that was super interesting to me was to see all the huts on the mountain. This area is known for their cheese, and in the summer, the farmers bring their cows up to the high altitudes to graze, and the cow herders stay in these huts. 


At the very end of the day, we discovered our favorite lift, WIX, which was on the sunny side, had long and little traveled runs and a bar and restaurant at the top.  At the end of the day, it is super fun to ski all the way down to Wengen on the groomed path. Plus, there are several bars along the run where you can stop and enjoy a beer and snacks.

The last evening we tried the fondue restaurant at the Bernerhof Hotel, which was cozy and awesome, and less expensive than the other restaurants. 29 CHF gets you a fondue large enough for 2, and 8 each gets you salad bar. By Swiss standards, dinner was practically free.



Day 4: Sunday...ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END....AND A QUICK VISIT TO BERN

Our 3 day pass is still active, and we don't technically have to leave until 12:06 on the cog train. That is plenty of time to either get some skiing in, or for sledding. We did neither.  At breakfast, we met a local, who talked us into seeing Bern, which is the capitol of Switzerland. So we jumped on an early train and made the trek back.... Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, Lauterbrunnen to Interlochen Ost, Interlochen Ost to Bern.....

The scenery was again fabulous...


Bern
Bern is also fabulous, but just not fabulous on a Sunday. The entire town is closed, even McDonalds!
But there are some beautiful sights to see, and if it were not Sunday, and if it were warmer, and if we were not dragging our suitcases (we could not find the lockers at the train station), we probably would have enjoyed it to the extent it deserved.


Bern is the capitol of Switzerland, and its Old Town is UNESCO certified. In the city center, which is just a 5-10 min walk from the train station, you will find beautiful sandstone buildings fashioned around 6 kilometers of arcade covered streets, housing shops and restaurants on the ground floor. The Parliment building takes center stage, as does the Bern Cathedral and Zytglogge Clock located on the 12th century gate to the city. This town was also home to Einstein, and you can visit one of his homes here.  Here are some highlights:
















As it was, we spent less than an hour there, caught an earlier train to Zurich and were able to get on an early plane back to London City, arriving by 5:30pm Sunday. There is something about getting back early on a Sunday that is so satisfying. 

So did we have a perfect ski weekend? YES! did we fall in love with Wengen? YES! Would we come back? YES! and we would definitely recommend it! 

This was a fabulous trip, but there are a few things we would do differently the second time around: 
1. Stay 5 days instead of 4---even one extra day would have allowed us to ski the other areas.
2. We would have visited the other car-free village of Murren, which is the home to Piz Gloria, a mountaintop revolving restaurant featured in James Bond's 1969 "In her Majesty's Service" film.
3.We would have spent a day skiing the Grindelwald side, and would have tried the mountaintop zipline.
4. Would have gone sledding...they call it Sledging.
5. Would have skied from Kleine Scheidegg after visiting Jungfraujoch.
6. Five days would have also allowed us to make use of a Swiss train pass, making travel much less expensive. (I think?)
7. We would definitely come visit again in summer (it might even be more beautiful in summer, if that's possible!)
8. We would have done more research on places to eat. 
9. Maybe would have tried to win the lottery before coming to Switzerland! :)


SWISS TRAINS
As promised, here is some information on using the Swiss Trains:
The Swiss trains were much easier to use than I thought they would be.  First of all, they run like clockwork, they serve food on board in dining cars, and what was really great is that the connections seem coordinated, so that you don't find yourself rushing to catch a train that just left!

I had researched all the train ticket options, and I was pretty nervous, because I had read that the conductors check to make sure you have the correct timed ticket, and that even being in the wrong coach will garner you a fine (which may be true, I'm not sure!) 

There are 2 classes of travel, 1st and 2nd class. We did 1st class going and 2nd class going back. There is not a lot of difference, and honestly, I'd recommend going 2nd class, and sitting in the plush dining car (if your train has a dining car). I generally like 1st class because it is empty, but in Switzerland, many people purchase a 1st class cabin fare using the 1/2 fare Swiss Pass, and so the 1st class cars can be just as full as the 2nd class. So unless you are on a long trip, I'm not sure it is worth the price difference. 
All that being said, all fares are quite expensive, compared to trains in the UK. 
Here are some sites which can help you plan your train travel:

Jungfrau region travel pass

Beginners guide to swiss train travel

How to find the best train fares-travel hacks

Half fare travel card


Auf Wiedersehen from Switzerland!

Comments

  1. Absolutely amazing post. I will say I think that skiing in generally is expensive. I guess it always has been, but can you believe that a single day lift ticket at Mammoth is now $189?!

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  2. VERY NICELY SAID YOUR MIND IS AS BEAUTIFUL AS YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS. KEEP UP THE BEAUTIFUL WORK !!!!!

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