If it's 2004, it must be Grindelwald.
Our ski trip to Switzerland in early February was another fine one organized by Pete Bleyler - a long time graduate Dartmouth Ski Clubber who has been putting together these tours for several years. We were fortunate to have been included with his group on an earlier (2001) visit to St. Moritz, so with the timing being favorable again this season, opted to join them for another excursion overseas.
The flight from Denver through DFW and then directly to Zurich was uneventful where we hooked up with the rest of the party - most of whom had flown in from the East Coast. Rather than heading directly to Grindelwald we detoured to Lucerne for a day & a half of sight seeing and shopping. Great fun it was.
Lucerne is fabulously interesting, quite historical, and packed with wonderful shops. We stayed at a slightly strange hotel - the Astoria - although it's nicely located near the old town area and thus we were able to easily walk to the river and through the main part of the tourist area. We enjoyed a fine lunch at what appeared to be a local's restaurant - Le Lapin - and then picked up bread, cheese, sausage, and wine for a lighter supper in the hotel room that night.
Just before leaving Lucerne and heading to our ski resort destination we were able to spend a few minutes in an extraordinary department store similar to Harrods in London with an outstanding gourmet food section in the basement. Given more time I suspect we'd have spent most of the day there picking through their wonderful assortment of foodstuffs.
The roundabout back road trip to Grindelwald was very scenic and we arrived too early on Saturday to check in immediately so spent the first of many hours exploring this smallish mountain community. With a typically narrow twisting main street and cars that slow for virtually no one, it's seemingly a dangerous place to survive, but for some reason no one (including ourselves) was run down during our stay.
While clearly not an upscale resort on the order of a St. Moritz, Gstaad, or Davos, this more modest mountain community still offers a decent variety of shopping and other tourist type amenities that can keep the visitor well occupied for many days on end. Our four star hotel - the Sunstar - was very comfortable and certainly superior in many ways to a similarly rated one where we stayed last in St. Moritz. The Sunstar's location directly across from an alley leading up to the gondola at Grindelwald "First" ski area is probably as good a location as one could have in town.
The food at our hotel was excellent, although as on previous group trips, we have some strong objections at having to sit with the same "group" every dinner at longer communal tables. Fortunately Sue inquired about other dining possibilities, and we were able to get dinner chits for credits to use in either of the hotel's other restaurants. Our gourmet experience with a guest chef specializing in truffle dishes in the upscale Adlerstube was outstanding.
A couple of other meals were devoted to fondue and related dishes in the Alpi family style restaurant, and these too were completely satisfactory.
Though we didn't go anywhere near the hotel's disco, the very nice lap pool in a solarium type room was enjoyable nearly every day after skiing.
And ah, the scenery. Although it's really great everywhere in this country, I would suspect that with the possible exception of Zermatt and its view of the Matterhorn, this part of the alps may well be the most spectacular. The Eiger, Jungfraujoch, Monch, and other nearby peaks draw the eye at every turn.
Now to the skiing - the main reason for our trip. In this part of the country basically four different areas are lift accessible by buying the "Top" pass. They'd be the "First" area in Grindelwald proper, the "Kleine Scheidegg/Mannlichen" section just below the Eiger, the "Lauberhorn/Wengen" area, and the "Schilthorn" region above Winteregg and Murren.
"First" tends to be busiest as the sole gondola access is right in Grindelwald's town limits. It's also pretty tame skiing with the obvious exception of some off piste slopes that generally are not skiable due to the less than tolerable snow conditions. However, the only named "bump" run we found in this entire area was located on a section near the top of the gondola, and I'll have to admit we skied it far more times than we would normally consider doing on a similarly gentle bump run here in Colorado just for want of something more interesting and challenging.
The Kleine Scheidegg - Mannlichen area may be the largest in expanse and most extensive locally, consisting of many miles of chair and surface lift served terrain near the base of the Eiger. The Mannlichen gondola is reputed to be the longest in Europe. Our daily return runs back to town were done through this part of the mountains almost every day, and from the top lift may average 4-6 miles of steady downhill skiing - albeit not demanding.
The Wengen ski experience is very limited. In fact if it were not for the existence of the famous Lauberhorn downhill course, it's tough to understand the reason for Wengen even existing as a resort town. Admittedly a pretty alpine village perched high above the valley floor, Wengen has little in the way of slopes to ski in and about the town itself. There is a large tram that hauls village dwellers to the Mannlichen area above the town and also to the Lauberhorn downhill course but there's very little else in the way of terrain to ski.
Our favorite skiing experiences took forever to get to from Grindelwald - that being the terrain in and around what is called the Schilthorn region - on the cliffs well above the town of Lauterbrunnen where the tiny village of Murren is located. Being higher in elevation than most of the other ski areas, the snow simply was better here, as were most of the runs. They were significantly steeper in pitch and much more interesting in contours. And of course this is the site of the Piz Gloria restaurant which was more or less immortalized in an older James Bond movie. We'd anticipated that the place might be a tourist trap, but it was nothing like that at all.
We enjoyed two wonderful lunches and happily sat for the roughly forty five minutes it takes this fascinating restaurant to revolve through a full 360 degrees of ever changing alpine views.
Just so the reader understands the complications in getting to this spot however, the following is the route required to make it to the top of the highest tram and to this restaurant.
From the Sunstar hotel we took a bus to the Bahnhof. Then it was a cog train down to Grund and subsequently up to the pass atop Kleine Scheidegg. A lift ride put us at the Lauberhorn start house, and we then skied the downhill race course to Wengen. Another cog train took us to Lauterbrunnen where we hopped on a funicular to the top of the cliffs. The next cog train took us to Winteregg where we could use a chair or remain on the train to Murren and then walk to the lower tram. The most skiing was had by using the Winteregg chairlift and then skiing down to Murren, riding another funicular and then skiing directly to the lower tram. After unloading at the top of the first tram, a second one is boarded, and finally one arrives at the Piz Gloria. All in all we suspect it was 3-4 hours of travel including some decent skiing, to finally get to lunch.
Reversing the process was a bit easier as we could ski down off the top and by using a series of chairs finally get back to Lauterbrunnen where we again took a cog train back to the top of Kl. Scheidegg and the downhill run home.
We estimated that it may have been a good 15-20 miles of skiing from the top of Piz Gloria back to Lauterbrunnen in the valley. Much of this was a cat track after Winteregg.
As with our other experiences in Europe, we simply cannot rate the skiing very highly. With lower elevations than here in Colorado and spotty snow conditions, if the skier simply enjoys cruising well manicured wide trails, it's possible for an intermediate to be made happy for days on end. A more advanced skier is not likely to be so long satisfied. The off piste conditions were relatively unpleasant for the most part as ice and breakable crust were more the norm than not. We found very few bump runs and even fewer skiers who had any interest in trying them.
Despite all this the lack of quality skiing does not materially reduce the pleasantness of the overall experience. It's all about ambience and enjoying new surroundings, great food, and a cultural environment that is somewhat foreign to that with which we are normally accustomed.
Some general comments might be in order. As far as skier quality is concerned, there was little change from what we observed at St. Moritz. The average European seems to be a decent intermediate who likes to ski fairly fast on groomed boulevard-like runs. We saw very few really expert skiers - and the ones we did see were probably local instructors. Despite the pace at which people ski here, we saw no collisions, which is at least partially attributable to the decent skill levels of almost everyone on the hill, but possibly also because it appears that being rescued in the event of an accident would be a major (financial) problem.
I saw only one emergency phone on all the runs we skied, and there is absolutely no sign of anything resembling a ski patrol. Every day we would watch one or more of the ever present rescue helicopters overhead, and I think everyone knows that being hauled off by one of those birds would be more expensive than anyone wants to think about.
Snowboarding seemed popular though perhaps not as much so as here in the states. In all honesty the fairly hard snow on the groomed runs doesn't make for very good riding, and like their skiing cousins, the European boarders seemed less than excited about going off piste in tough conditions that might pose the potential for some kind of expensive injury situation.
Cross country skiing. In the valley below Grindelwald starting around the train station at Grund and then heading uphill are some very well maintained tracks for both classic style and skate type skiing. We used the course a couple of times and probably would have been out more, except the area was either a long hike from the hotel or a bus/train ride from the Bahnhof. While we appreciated the lack of traffic on the X-c track, there is much less interest in cross country skiing here than in other parts of this country.
Shopping. Sue is a rabid shopper so we must have visited every store in town at least a handful of times. In all honesty Grindelwald does not offer a great deal in the way of interesting shopping experiences. As always, we enjoyed the local Co-op for food items and wine, but the store here is far less inviting than those in larger communities. There's a small, but nicely stocked wine shop directly across from the Sunstar named Vinothek. The "Swiss Made" shops in both Gr. & Wengen actually had some decent touristy types of items.
The gift shop at the top of the gondola at "First" and at the top of Kleine Scheidegg surprisingly had better values than did similar shops in the villages. Perhaps this is because unlike similar operations here in the states, the mountain top stores are not only independently owned, but also have to be concerned that buyers may be reluctant to haul purchases around with them while still having to ski back home. Whatever the case, Sue found four different and well designed rucksacks at the top of First and bought them all for personal use and for gifts. Prices simply were better on the mountain than off it.
Sledding. Maybe the most fascinating observance in this part of Switzerland is the use of sleds and sledding. It seems like half the population walks up and down the streets in town with either a full or empty personal sled behind them. The mountains - especially First - were full of marked and staked trails for use by sledders. In fact even at the top of Kleine Scheidegg, we saw people heading back the 3-4 miles to town on these relatively crude wooden sleds which are steered and braked with the feet. This whole sub culture was very interesting to watch.
Lifts and other mountain transportation. Although perhaps not unusual in other parts of this country we found the reliance on cog railways to be extraordinary. Lift tickets cover the use of any of the trains throughout the area, and unless we chose to go up the gondola to the First area, a cog train would almost always be our initial ride of the day. The funiculars were similarly remarkable in the way they were able to ascend what we regarded as incredibly steep inclines. And of course the trams with their occasional 1500 foot or so vertical passage over ravines were the most spectacular of all.
The chairlifts for the most part were high speed detachables identical to what we have here in the states. Best of all for Sue on this trip, we managed to completely avoid riding the conveyance she fears and loathes the most - a T-bar!
So it was a fun trip. Skiing highlights were few and far between, but I'd say we most enjoyed skiing the Eiger Glacier run, the Lauberhorn downhill course, the tiny bump run at First, and almost everything in the Schilthorn region. Actually the 3-4 mile cruise back to town from the top of Kleine Scheidegg every afternoon was also delightful strictly from a cruising standpoint. Probably the best part of the trip was our two lunches at Piz Gloria and the views that changed as the building revolved.
The hotel was very nice - certainly better than a similarly rated one in Moritz, and we'd highly recommend it for a stay. Ask for a room in the newer section and one facing the Eiger.
While we stuck to our lodging for evening meals because of the group arrangement we had, there appear to be many other decent dining establishments in town to try.
So was the experience good enough that we'd want to return here? While we had a great time and enjoyed the scenery and most everything else about the region in general, we'd really not come back again unless we might be passing through in the summer. There simply are too many other places that will be worth visiting, not only in Switzerland, but in other parts of Europe.
On to Wengen -
And what would Switzerland be without???