An insider's view of an often overlooked resort
By Roland Reimann
It is hard to find a place in Switzerland that is as well endowed with natural alpine beauty and rich traditions as Kandersteg. And that is saying a lot, since it is up against some very serious competition. Yet what puts this town head and shoulders above Swiss mountain resorts, such as Grindelwald and Zermatt, is that it has managed to benefit from tourism without having sold its soul. You won’t be the only tourist here, but neither will you have to fight your way through the crowds.
Kandersteg is the last village in the Bernese Alps for travelers journeying south through the Lötschberg train tunnel on their way to the resorts of the Rhone Valley or even further south to Milan, Venice, and Rome. Yet, regardless of how many times I have traveled this line, I always feel the urge to disembark in Kandersteg to stroll through its laid back village center, rediscover the wild side valley, Gasterntal, take the quaint chairlift to the emerald alpine lake, Oeschinensee, or throw on my backpack and cross from north to south the way Mark Twain once did; on foot over the Gemmi Pass.
It does not matter whether you arrive by train or car, the only thing you need to get around during your stay—whether two days or a couple of weeks—is your hiking boots. The village is more than manageable on foot, and there are regularly scheduled buses linking the center and hotels with the resort’s cable car and chairlift stations located on its edges.
Hiking is Kandersteg’s raison d’etre, and is as good as it gets in the Alps, with a variety of walks from demanding full-day mountain scrambles to smell-the-flower strolls. The best part: you can get to most trail heads at little expense compared with what you would have to spend on the often overpriced rides on the cable cars, funiculars, and cog railways in bigger resorts.
You could do worse than invest the money saved in a Nordic Walking course. Nordic Walking, essentially cross-country skiing without the skis, has become the latest rage in Switzerland, and Kandersteg was one of the first to catch onto the trend, becoming a center for the fitness activity.
There are eight specially marked Nordic Walking trails in Kandersteg, and poles can be rented at all the sport shops in the village, as well as some hotels. A one-day introductory course (which I found was all that was necessary) costs 79 CHF and includes poles and lunch at the Hotel Victoria-Ritter (64 CHF without lunch; see lodging details below).
There are 25 Nordic Walking instructors in the resort, and many speak English. It is their job to show how best to use the poles to support your stride, promising a total-body workout while also relieving joints of the strain associated with jogging. Once I tried it, I understood immediately why it has become so popular among the 50-plus crowd.
My instructor was Casi Platzer, the affable owner and manager of the Victoria-Ritter and the driving force behind Nordic Walking in the resort (see Lodging and Food sections below). Casi was the first to understand that a resort popular with cross-country skiers in winter had untapped potential in summer.
With or without poles, a visit to the resort would not be complete without a hike through the Gasterntal, a crossing on foot of the Gemmi Pass, and a lazy day walking and picnicking on the shores of Oeschinensee. Doing any of these walks requires only a moderate level of fitness, since each is accessible by either cable car, chairlift, or bus.
Gasterntal: The Gasterntal is a deep-cut valley which the Swiss have left untamed. Its river runs wild, and high, thin waterfalls flow in glistening ribbons to the valley floor. A single-track dirt toll road leads up and in to the valley from Kandersteg.
The best way to explore the Gasterntal while having time to stop for lunch or a drink is to take the small bus from Kandersteg, which does this spectacular run a few times a day (part of the approach road has been chiseled out of the side of a cliff) to the last stop and walk back (about 10 km). The Gasternal bus costs 12 CHF one way, and it is advisable to reserve your seat in advance, tel. +41/33/671 11 72 or ask your hotel reception to reserve for you.
It was worth stopping to admire the Geltenbach waterfall on the way out of the valley. The Geltenbach does not flow over the cliff but springs from a hole in the granite face, fed by an underground lake. Waterfalls like these were once considered fountains of youth.
Gemmi Pass: There is a trail near the top of the Gasterntal gorge which leads up to the Gemmi Pass, one of Switzerland’s oldest north-south trading routes, which first became popular with prominent tourists about 200 years ago. The trail through the forest and along a stream is rewarding, but steep, requiring about two hours to the top.
Leaving the cable car, you find yourself above 6,000 feet and at the top of the tree line. The only scar on the landscape are the electricity transmission lines strung across the pass.
The wide trail rises gently from the cable car station to the other end and it takes 2.5hrs one way. This is ideal Nordic Walking terrain, although the likes of Mark Twain, Jules Verne and Picasso tackled the trail without the aid of carbon fibre poles. Twain immortalized his crossing in the European travelogue, “A Tramp Abroad”.
After absorbing a little of the history and quenching your thirst on the Hotel Schwarenbach’s generous outdoor patio (see Lodging, below), it is time to continue the journey to the end of the pass, a little more than an hour away. It is recommended if only for the breathtaking views straight down to the spa resort of Leukerbad.
If you want to sooth your aching muscles in Leukerbad’s thermal springs, you can take the cable car, or descend by foot down the spectacular switchback mule trail hewn out of the vertical face. But this is a two-day option from Kandersteg. To do it in a day, you will need to get an early morning start in order to make all the bus and train connections to be back in your hotel in time for dinner.
Oeschinensee: The mountain lake is an alpine crown jewel that leaves many a tourist rubbing their eyes in disbelief. This is Switzerland in miniature: a turquoise lake sheltered by high granite cliffs and watched over by snowy peaks. Trails meander through a forest of firs on one side and lazy cows graze in a meadow on the other.
The Unesco World Heritage Site, Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn, is expected to be expanded in the next couple of years to include the Oeschinensee and surrounding area.
But Oeschinensee is less of a paradise on sunny summer weekends when hordes of Swiss families head up here to laze about and roast fat sausages over open fires. By avoiding the weekend, you will be able to enjoy the tranquil setting. Before heading up here though, be sure to stuff your backpack with wine and cheese instead of water and energy bars.
It takes a little over an hour to walk up to the lake from Kandersteg, or you can pay CHF 12 for a one-way trip (CHF 17 roundtrip) on the old, but well-maintained two-person chairlift. The resort markets the ride on the unusual side-facing chairs as “nostalgic”.
Rowboats can be rented at the rustic restaurant which sits near the shores, and if you really feel the urge to move your feet, there is a three-hour loop above the lake with three-star views, according to the Michelin Green Guide.
You will also see lots of hikers on fine weather days following the paths up to the high-alpine huts, Doldenhorn, Fründen, and Blüemlisalp, which sit exposed on the rocks below the peaks of the same name.
The first party to climb the Blüemlisalp (11,800 ft.) did so in 1860. The British and American tourists were led by a local guide, Fritz Ogi. He was an ancestor of Adolf Ogi, a member of the Swiss government in the 1990s, who twice held the presidency. Adolf is now in his 60s, but in keeping with family tradition, still climbs and has taken many a visiting dignitary on walks around Kandersteg, including Prince Charles and United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan.
Other Worthwhile Walks
The BLS Nordrampe trail starts in Kandersteg and hugs the slope above the scenic railway line connecting Kandersteg with the villages of Frutigen and Reichenbach (7 hrs).
The BLS railway trail (Eisenbahn Erlebnis Pfad) follows the Nordrampe before heading down to the valley where it stays close to the tracks all the way to Frutigen (5 hrs).
The valley, Kiental, is tucked away behind Reichenbach. It is a tranquil and picturesque valley and offers a variety of low and high hikes, all starting from the chalet-strewn village of Kiental.
Riding the Rails
The train journey south through the Lötschberg tunnel takes 20 minutes. Get out in the small station of Goppenstein, change onto a bus, and explore the villages in the narrow alpine valley of Lötschental. You have crossed into canton Valais and will notice a change in traditional architecture and landscape.
If you would rather be on the water, take the fast train from Kandersteg to Spiez (direction Bern), where you can hop on a boat for a pleasant ride around Lake Thun. The boat stops in nearly every village on the shore, so this is definitely worth doing on a take-it-easy day. The train ride from Kandersteg to Spiez takes 30 minutes, and roundtrip on the boat from Spiez to Interlaken takes 2 hours.
Exploring the Town
Junger has been described as a walking history book; so keen is he on relating the events and stories of the people who have shaped the village. If he has both German and English speakers in his group, it is remarkable how effortlessly he switches between the two languages as he points out fascinating details about the village’s oldest wooden houses. Inside the church, he heads to the pulpit where he preaches history—not religion.
A Swiss-Canadian journalist, Roland Reimann reports on the current and cultural affairs of the country he has made his home, Switzerland, since the early 1990s.