Interlaken is often dismissed as the touristy town good only for excursions in the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the glorious Jungfrau region. Our Jim Johnson says otherwise.
By Jim Johnson
For most travelers, Interlaken is a base from which to enjoy the nearby mountain villages and alpine scenery of Switzerland's Jungfrau region. This correspondent, however, though delighted by the villages and the mountains, became enthralled with Interlaken itself - its history, its architecture, its charm (much of it hidden) and its lack of pretense.
This conclusion was reached during six December days spent walking through back streets, narrow alleys and pleasant hiking paths in and around the town. Just behind my hotel, I explored the empty grounds of Interlaken's 14th-century castle. A five-minute walk away in Matten, once home to the area's patrician farmers, I stared down cows and listened to farmers yodel while loading hay into a 400-year-old hut. In Unterseen, the oldest part of Interlaken, I walked past centuries-old mills and canals, factories from the days of the Industrial Revolution, the town's 17th-century palace, and a medieval moat that once protected the 500-year-old houses that line it.
A short distance along the Lake Brienz shoreline is Bönigen, once just a farming community but for more than a century now an active lakefront resort complete with ship landing, beaches and 19th-century hotels as well as farms and medieval houses. Across the lake looms the towering ruins of the 13th-century Ringgenberg Castle.
In the nearby village of Wilderswil, a well-marked trail flows around and through the village, past a collection of medieval houses built around a square. A covered bridge, circa 1738, crosses the Lütschine River to a 12th-century church and the 600-year-old Gasthaus Steinbock. It's but a short climb to the medieval farming village of Gsteigweiler where there's nary a hotel nor restaurant.
In Interlaken's very center is the Höhenweg, a wide promenade along the Höhematte, a 35-acre meadow set aside in 1864 where no trees can be felled, no buildings constructed, and the land can't be divided. However, once a year, when the farmers lead their cows from the mountains, the pasture takes on its old purpose as a holding area for cattle.
Those who enjoy historic architecture could devote an entire vacation to Interlaken. Beyond the medieval buildings, Interlaken is a collection of treasures from the mid-19th-century Industrial period through early 20th-century Jugendstil.
None of this is to diminish the delights of the surrounding mountains and Alpine villages like Mürren (see Gemütlichkeit, July 2002), Grindelwald and Wengen, all of which are easily reached by train from Interlaken's East railway station.
Grand Hotel Victoria-Jungfrau
There is no hotel experience quite like that found at the great, grand Swiss hotels and the VJ is one of the greatest and grandest.
The Höheweg is dominated by the hotel's long Belle époque façade, striped awnings over every window, and signature Victorian tower.
Inside are high, wide corridors, marble fountains, dazzling crystal chandeliers, and 10-foot high, wood framed, beveled glass doors that open to elegant salons.
The term "swimming pool" doesn't begin to adequately describe the VJ's extravagant natatorium of Roman opulence and Art Deco ritz. Under an arching roof that opens to the sky, azure columns rise from the water. Each narrows to a black cylinder that supports a white, basketball-sized, light globe. Nearby are the hotel's four indoor tennis courts. Outside are several more.
And, of course, framed in almost every window, floating in and out of the clouds, is the imposing mountain for which the hotel is named.
Guestrooms are sumptuous havens of elegance and comfort with every convenience. Many have huge, brilliantly lit, marble baths with separate showers and Jacuzzi tubs. Even the standard rooms, though a bit smaller, are posh.
There are three restaurants, the most ambitious being La Terrasse, a shimmering room of floor to ceiling windows, dazzling silver, gleaming crystal and snowy linens. Always there is a pianist and hovering tuxedoed servers. To be in this room on a summer evening, as the last of the sun lights the Jungfrau, is a lifetime memory.
The food is another story. It is expensive and we approach meals here with expectations that have not always been fulfilled. The cuisine is rich, substantial and "Old World;" the service stiff and correct, though not unfriendly.
Victoria-Jungfrau's less serious restaurants are the more contemporary, Jungfrau Brasserie, which features lighter fare of fresh Swiss products, and Pastateca, which serves Italian and Asian pasta dishes.
By any measurement, this is one of the world's finest hotels. For most, it is a destination for very special occasions. Check the hotel's website for discount deals. On offer at the end of February was a double room with breakfast and dinner in any of the restaurants for two persons for CHF 590 ($432) per night.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 430-620, doubles CHF 530-850, not including breakfast.
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 12/20
Hotel du Nord
Although parts of the du Nord date to the 12th century, the feeling is much more late 19th or early 20th century with a loving blend of rustic charm and contemporary style. Fifth-generation owner Simone Engel, who took over from her parents in 1999, grew up in the hotel and has a passion for it and her hometown. Like her veteran staff, she's personable, warm, and attentive.
Public spaces are bright and cheerful with special accents from shimmering candles to colors that match just right.
Guest rooms are generally spacious with a harmony of soft colors in upholstery, carpeting and drapery. Rooms 404, 406, 407 and 409 are top-floor doubles with balconies and mountain views. Bathrooms are midsize and offer a tub with shower.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 145-175, doubles CHF 190-300. Free parking and shuttle service to golf course.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 12/20
The Hotel-Gasthof Hirschen has been in the same family since 1666, and Frau Marian Graf - the cordial, ninth-generation innkeeper - has succeeded, during a recent renovation, in balancing history and tradition with modern comfort.
A step into the Hirschen is a step back in time. The 20 guestrooms come with modern amenities and lots of warm wood, soft-colored fabrics and rustic touches. Number 6 is a large double with view to the Jungfrau, while Number 26 looks over the garden terrace and lawn. The hotel's farm produces meat, cheese, vegetables and berries for hotel use and general sale. The Hirschen is about a 10-minute walk from the Ostbahnhof.
Though the Hirschen looks better to us than it did on our first visit in 1994, the three "suburban" hotels listed below are better value
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 90-140, doubles CHF 180-260
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 10/20
Located in the quiet community of Wilderswil, the Hotel Bären, an inn since 1706, has a typical country feeling - nothing plush, but certainly clean, pleasant and tasteful. Antiques decorate public spaces, and bears are everywhere, from wood carvings and stuffed animals to painted pottery.
Most of the 50 guestrooms are larger than average and the slanting roof lends character to top-floor chambers. In addition to a sauna, TV lounge and small fitness area, guests can also make use of a self-service laundry room and free use of bicycles and mountain bikes. Rail travelers should note that the hotel is an 8-10 minute walk from the generally taxi-less Wilderswil station.
The included breakfast is one of the best and most complete anywhere.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 78-130, doubles CHF 130-210
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 12/20
It's just a three-minute walk from the Wilderswil train station, past historic houses, across the covered wooden bridge, over the rapids of the Lütschine River, past the early medieval village church, to the 14th-century Gasthaus Steinbock. Rooms are mid-sized and straightforward, but the character of the overall setting more than makes up for any shortcomings.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 85-95, doubles CHF 150-160
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 15/20
Hotel Schlössli am See
For travelers seeking a lakeside location, the Hotel Schlössli am See in Bönigen offers good value on the Brienzersee. In this pleasant combination lakefront resort and medieval farming village, the Schlössli has been a landmark for more than a century. Guests can relax outdoors on a private beach or on the hotel's extensive lakefront lawn.
The Schlössli's exterior and public spaces are a bit past their prime, but guestrooms were recently renovated and are clean, comfortable and full of character.
The hotel is reached easily by car, bus (12 minutes and CHF 3.20 from Interlaken Ost station) or ship. Request a north-facing room with balcony in the old building, but specify one whose views are not obstructed by the large tree out front.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 70-130, doubles CHF 100-210
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 14/20
Located in the center of town, this cozy chalet-style restaurant gets a Michelin "Bib Gourmand" designation for "good food at moderate prices." A meal of salad, entreé and dessert will start at about $35.
Owner/chef Leo Stocker, who once toiled in the kitchens of the Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau's Restaurant La Terrasse, lightens and brightens traditional Swiss dishes.
The farm house interior has a refined rustic charm.
Contact: Stocker's Degusta, 3 Centralstr., CH-3800, Interlaken, tel. +41/033/822 00 29, fax 822 00 29
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 12/20
The menu at the Hotel Bären's Restaurant Rustica in Wilderswil makes four points about the roasted chicken: it's from the neighborhood, delivered fresh, has never had animal feed, and should be eaten with the fingers. Any concern about etiquette disappears when the server returns with a finger bowl and outfits you in a cloth bib.
This is an upbeat and informal dining spot in a 300-year-old building with plenty of old wood and character. The resident-to-tourist ratio is high, and the prices are quite moderate; main dishes average around CHF 20 with several choices under CHF 15. For those who prefer knives and forks, trout, lamb and a half-score of Rösti options stand at the ready.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
Owners Giacomo Verardo and Giuseppe Fanciullo serve up traditional Italian food in an atmospheric setting in Interlaken's Unterseen neighborhood. Entrées are priced between CHF 20-38 with most falling toward the lower end.
Popular menu choices include a seafood risotto, time-honored Saltimbocca, penne pasta with salmon, and whisky-flamed jumbo shrimp with hot peppers and tomatoes served over risotto.
Contact: Ristorante Arcobaleno, Hauptstrasse 18, CH-1800 Unterseen, tel. +41/033/823 1243
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 14/20
Restaurant Pizzeria Da Rafmi
While most area restaurants have Swiss country settings, Pizzeria Da Rafmi goes south of the border for a distinctly Italian feel with a splash of art deco added in.
During one evening visit last December virtually every customer in the restaurant was Italian (or Italian Swiss) and/or known to the servers. Despite a full house, service was quick. The bread was warm, fresh and dense, and the salads colorful, cool and creative.
In a simple risotto mari et monti (sea and mountains), the rice was cooked to a just-right al dente with plenty of baby shrimp and firm mushrooms. Other entrées - such as veal scallopini, gnocchi with tomatoes and gorgonzola, and grilled salmon - range in price from CHF 22-34 with an average around CHF 27.
Contact: Restaurant Pizzeria Da Rafmi (Weisses Kreuz), Höheweg, CH-3800 Interlaken, tel./fax: +41/033/822 5383
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Try this Italian restaurant for its fondue chinoise a discretion, an all-you-can-eat broth fondue with a variety of meats and vegetables and an attractive salad and fruit bar. The fondue special is Thursday through Saturday evenings and costs CHF 33 per person.
Contact: Il Giardino, Hotel Interlaken, Höheweg 74, CH-3800 Interlaken, tel.: +41 033 826 6868, fax: +41 033 826 6869.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20