The Jungfrau/Lauterbrunnen Valley region tops our list of Essential Swiss Destinations.
By Jim Johnson
The Jungfrau region has attracted throngs of travelers since the British tourism boom of the late 19th century. Then, as now, this four-season wonderland draws outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers, as well as those who come simply to relax and be overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of stunning mountains with blue-green glaciers.
Active visitors can ski, hike, bike, snowshoe, fish, paraglide, sled, swim, skate, ride horses, boat and climb—and that's the short list. Such adventurous types mingle amicably with the more laid-back visitors who are content to watch the world from their hotel balcony or from a cable car or funicular.
Whether arriving by train or car, visitors must pass through Interlaken, the valley gateway to the nearby mountain villages of Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Mürren and WengenThis four-season wonderland draws outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers, as well as those who come simply to relax and be overwhelmed by the incredible beauty.the Jungfrau region's main stops. While some make Interlaken their valley base camp for Jungfrau activities and take daily excursions into the mountains, travelers already in the mountains have a head start on most of the fun. There, rugged trails - for both hikers and cyclists start at their doorsteps. In some villages, ski lifts are just a graceful glide away.
For many, the culmination of a trip to the region is a visit to the Jungfraujoch. From Kleine Scheidegg (a high plateau accessible by train from either Grindelwald or Wengen), the Jungfrau Railway travels primarily through a tunnel to the Top of Europe station, where visitors can view the panorama from an observation terrace or outdoor viewing areas, tour the Ice Palace in the Aletsch glacier, dine in a variety of restaurants, and ski (generally April-October), hike, or go sledding with huskies.
Grindelwald and Wengen are foremost among the many alpine communities in the Bernese Oberland region: farm towns that have migrated to the less physically demanding profession of tourism. Today, it is the number one industry, with all the attendant pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the tourism infrastructure is strong, excellent lodging exists in all categories, and restaurants meet most tastes. Even the region's six independent railways recently got their act together to create a single ticketing authority.
On the other hand, the commercial centers of each town have an almost cookie-cutter, post-1950s feel. Even car-free Wengen can seem congested. Though in both villages souvenir stores dominate, it's not the shopping areas people come for. It's the mountains, the glaciers, the clear air and the outdoor activities.
The village lies at the base of the legendary North Face of the Eiger, one of climbing's best-known challenges. The mountain stands starkly as a nearly vertical wall, climbing to a 13,025-foot (3,970-meter) summit. Behind it looms the Jungfrau in snow-topped majesty. Between them, two glaciers carve through stone. Lifts carry guests to adjacent ski and hiking areas, or higher toward activities nearer the Jungfrau.
Vestiges of the Victorian golden age remain in structures like the Grand Hotel Regina, the Hotel Schweizerhof and the chalet-style Hotel Kirchbühl. Rustic charm is just a short distance away where chalets overlook valleys, farms and, of course, those prime drawing cards, mountains and glaciers.
Though cars are allowed in Grindelwald, there's not a lot of traffic. Still, visitors will find the town's charm increases in direct proportion to distance from the train station and the main road.
Though higher, car-free, and more remote than Grindelwald, some visitors find less charm in Wengen. Much of the town's activity away from the hills and slopes is focused in a small commercial area, and when its busy the town can feel uncomfortably confining. When it isn't, it seems a bit desolate.
Wengen appeals especially to visitors who want to be close to the outdoor action. In Grindelwald, though hiking routes crisscross the town, skiers and mountaineers still must travel a short distance on foot, by bus, car or lift. But access to such activities is virtually at your doorstep in Wengen.
Grand Hotel Regina
Built in 1902 for the British tourist boom, the Regina retains much of the character of that bygone era. The exterior is still impressive with Victorian façade and turrets. Inside, public spaces are elegant, made even more so by centuries-old clocks, paintings and sculptures from the owner's private collection. its 100 rooms are generally spacious, comfortable and well-appointed, most with superb views to the Eiger North Face.
The hotel is across from the rail station on the south side of the main road. Among the south-facing rooms, Room 414 is a double with a stunning view straight to the Eiger. Walls are whitewashed plaster, and the decor emphasizes brass and glass. Room 416 has the same view but its wooden ceilings and fabric wall coverings give it a more historic feel. South-facing second-floor rooms have large terraces but the views aren't quite as spectacular.
Sauna fans will especially enjoy the Regina's new Alpin Wellfit Club, which contains an extensive and creative sauna complex.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 295 to 400 ($222-301), doubles CHF 430 to 500 ($323-376), Jr. suites CHF 640-820 ($481-617). Breakfast is an additional CHF 35 ($26) per person.
Rating: Quality 18/20 Value 10/20
Central Hotel Wolter
The three-star Central Hotel Wolter offers views to the Eiger but over the main street. For many guests, this is an acceptable trade-off for lower prices. Some also like the theme-based rooms and ask for them specifically. There are Flower Rooms with flowers and vines carved into head- and foot-boards, blue sky with tiny star lights overhead, and floral murals throughout. The Cliff Rooms give insecure sleepers the chance to look up and see realistic stone outcroppings looming over their beds. Cheese Rooms and Cow Rooms (where you open the closet doors by putting your fingers in a cows nostrils) offer less threatening motifs. Farm Room 459, with cows and goats carved in the headboard, is the best bet with a balcony and bathroom with tub/shower.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 105-125 ($79-94), double CHF 210-250 ($158-188). Parking is CHF 5 ($4) per day.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Although the Schweizerhof was built just a decade before the Grand Hotel Regina, it seems much older not in the sense of rundown but in Old World charm and character. During an extensive 1994 makeover, the owners obviously put more emphasis on restoration than renovation. The place is gorgeous.
To the left of the lobby is a quiet sitting area with richly upholstered furniture, fireplace and extensive library. Antique farm furniture such as giant chests and wardrobes lend a sense of permanence and country charm to landings, hallways and other public spaces.
Guestrooms are bright and cheerful, and many have large balconies and windows. All doubles have both tub and shower. The new section has less character than the old.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 210-250 ($151-180), double CHF 375-435 ($270-313). Rates include parking, breakfast and dinner.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 17/20
The four-star Eiger is about 500 meters from the railway station on the north side of the street. All 46 rooms are named after famous mountain peaks and were completely renovated in 2001. Rooms are generally spacious and bright and make extensive use of local wood. Closets and bathrooms are large and each room's namesake peak is depicted in a mural above the bed. Number 403 (the Münch) sits high above the town and has a large balcony with Eiger view. Number 406 lacks the balcony and Eiger view but is much larger.
A nice touch for families with infants is walkie-talkies that enable parents in the restaurant to keep an electronic ear out for crying babies.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 150-160 ($108-115), double CHF 300-320 ($216-230).
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20
In a quiet country setting about 10 minutes walk from the village center, this four-story, four-star, chalet-style hotel has large, airy guestrooms. South-facing ones offer stunning views of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier between the Eiger and the Lauteraarhorn. All have balconies. The style is Swiss-modern: lots of wood, glass and sunny spaces.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 165-210 ($119-151), double CHF 270-340 ($194-245).
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 16/20
The sprawling six-story Beausite Park Hotel stands proudly over Wengen, with red-trimmed balconies and full four-star glory. From its glass-rimmed lobby, guests can look straight across to the Jungfraujoch.
Under the direction of owners Magrit and Erich Leeman-von Allmen, the Park places great emphasis on guest pampering, in large part via an extensive spa that offers massage, saunas, beauty treatments, and a grotto-like indoor pool overlooking the mountains. The 50 rooms are above average in size with plenty of closet space and room to spread out.
The house's best view is from the balcony of Number 416 and you can even mountain-gaze from your bed through the floor-to-ceiling sliders. If views and balconies aren't important, Number 206, a standard double, is as large as a junior suite.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 155-200 ($111-144), doubles CHF 280-346 ($201-249), suites CHF 380-430 ($274-310).
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 17/20
For those who want to avoid the Swiss chalet or Victorian look, the Caprice is an 18-room boutique hotel that's more Laura Ashley than Heidi. Unlike many hotels passed from generation to generation, the Caprice is owned by an Englishman and managed by a Frenchman. It was built 12 years ago and just underwent a complete renovation. Rooms are large and well-appointed. Number 46, on the top floor, has a balcony with Jungfrau view, slanted ceiling, ample closet and a big bathroom with a skylight and Jacuzzi-style tub. Number 26 is an especially large standard double with balcony and mountain view.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 160-270 ($115-195), doubles CHF 230-300 ($166-216), suites CHF 350-460 ($252-332)
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 15/20
The charming Alpenrose is set on a sunny terrace about a 15 minute-stroll from the village center. It feels farther than that and most guests prefer the isolation.
The 1881 hotel has a delightful sitting room, parlor, bar, and an excellent restaurant that looks into the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Most of the furniture and many of the carvings and artwork are original and passed down to the current fourth-generation owners (including the charming Frau von Allmen, whose Scottish accent and spirit have stayed with her since she moved here 30 years ago). Though rooms in the hotel proper are more than adequate (with Number 401 being your best bet, followed by Number 301), try to reserve a unit in the adjacent guest house, which feels like a private chalet. Number 506 is your best choice. In addition to spacious, pleasant quarters, it offers a large balcony that overlooks the Breithorn and the valley.
A tiny Alpenrose flaw is its thin walls, though that is somewhat mitigated by the absence of TVs.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 126-151 ($90-108), doubles CHF 222-324 ($160-233)
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 16/20
The 100-year-old Hotel Schönegg is known for its rustic, laid-back atmosphere and its simple but comfortable guest rooms with wrought-iron balconies, green shutters, floor-to-ceiling windows and views to the Jungfrau. Frau Berthod, the hotel's delightful hostess, has filled the Schönegg with charming antiques and matching, harmonious colors, as well as with old wood recycled from derelict farmhouses into charming walls and trim. With only 29 rooms, the hotel doesn't take groups, which allows its staff to focus on individuals. The restaurant, with fireplace and garden terrace, is a favorite coffee spot for local farmers, which adds even more character (and characters) to the setting. It's less than five minutes on foot from the rail station and from the cable car to Männlichen summit. The best room is the oversized Number 33 with a balcony facing south to the mountains. Backups would be the slightly smaller Numbers 3 or 8.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 100-125 ($72-90), doubles CHF 200-250 ($144-180)
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20
Lodging at Kleine Scheidegg
Hotel Bellevue Des Alpes
At 8,958 feet (2,700 meters), the base of the railway to the Jungfraujoch, the Hotel Bellevue Des Alpes offers 19th-century grand-hotel luxury, not in its polished, refurbished form, but as it was a once-grand hotel with plenty of Old World style.
Kleine Scheidegg isn't even a village, just a collection of buildings on a mountain plateau high above Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald and Wengen. Beyond the hotel, the only structures are the train station, a few shops and some utility buildings. When the last train leaves the station that's it, unless you're game for a long, dark descent. But such isolation is exactly what many guests seek.
Every room looks out to one or more of the Eiger, Münch, Lauberhorn, Wetterhorn, and Jungfrau, and though the hotel is very much alive and not a museum piece, a lot of its furniture, fixtures and decorations could be.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 170-210 ($123-151), doubles CHF 270-410 ($195-296) including dinner.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20
The restaurant at the Schweizerhof is charming; expansive and open, with sturdy wood beams, pastel table linens, an old tile oven and tons of character. It's been renovated without losing too much of its sense of tradition. One exceptional dining area has a terra-cotta floor, iron gates, scrollwork along the moldings and wood columns carved and painted with the signs of the zodiac.
The menu features imaginative approaches to traditional dishes. Guests can order entrées in either a large or, for about two-thirds the price, small version. The reduced size is enough for many, especially if preceded by an appetizer. Main dishes include lamb cutlets in a Rösti (fried potato) crust, beef fillet with vodka whole-ground mustard sauce, and poached sole stuffed with freshwater crayfish - each for about CHF 42 ($30) for a large portion and CHF 31 ($22) for the smaller size. A superb first course is carpaccio of smoked duck breast with apricot chutney and fresh shaved Parmesan.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 17/20
With perhaps the best view of any non-mountain top restaurant in the Jungfrau region, the Kirchübhl also offers one of the best overall dining experiences. There are actually three restaurants: the main dining room with Swiss and international cuisine, the Stube with Swiss specialties such as raclette and fondue, and an Asian restaurant. Since you can select from all three menus regardless of where you sit, try the main restaurant (or on its outside terrace) just to the left of the Swiss flag. You'll find yourself staring straight down into the maw of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier between the Eiger and the Lauteraarhorn. Kirchbühl's decor is a blend of traditional and modern with a distinctly rural elegance: freshly cut flowers and Stoke-on-Trent chinaware beneath hewn wooden beams. Service is a blend of upscale formality and country warmth. In the main restaurant, entrées are priced in the CHF 35-45 ($25-32) range. The Stube's main dishes are CHF 12-25 ($9-18). The Asian restaurant falls somewhere in between.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 17/20
The Hotel Eiger built its Barry's restaurant to resemble a village of chalets built within the main dining area. Guests can dine inside one of the chalets for privacy or sit on a terrace or balcony or along a passageway. Either way, the otherwise large space is broken up creatively and lends a cheerful note. Although the menu has a range of local and international specialties, the best bet is Barry's Napf, where guests choose from a variety of meats, fruits and vegetables which are then cooked by the chef (Mongolian style). There's also an extensive salad bar with plenty of fruit. Both dishes are all-you-can-eat. Barry, by the way, is a St. Bernard, and you'll see plenty of his stuffed puppies.
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20
Information current as of October 2003.