Travel

By Daniel Geiger

As you dream of a romantic getaway with your love – beachside cottage and umbrella-adorned fruity cocktails, an elegant riverboat trip down the Siene in couture – it’s likely that you aren’t throwing around the following idea: a hiking trip through the Alps. Or perhaps your partner is, and your response is, “But…what will I WEAR?!” Get out of your own head for a moment and realize that for some trips, fashion (among other things) is simply unimportant. When you arrive halfway across the world to Switzerland and are staring up at the Matterhorn in all its grandeur, we doubt you’ll disagree. Here, BN takes you on a trip through the Alps that will surely be one for the history books – and photo books for that matter (complete with snapshots of unfashionable, blissful, hiking-gear-clad you).

Start your trip by flying into Milan – a city whose rich history and proximity to the Alps makes it the perfect vantage point to begin your trek through the region. But no need to stay longer than two days since the real action will take place once you arrive in Switzerland. Rest your head on the pillows in the contemporary-designed hotel The Gray, (http://www.hotelthegray.com) which sits right outside Milan’s famous cathedral, one of the oldest in Italy. After exploring the church and its neighbor, the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, dine in the southern part of the city by the canal at one of various bars that offer a happy hour special for 6 to 8 euro – which includes one cocktail and unlimited trips to the bar-top buffet which consists of the best Italian veggies, pasta and bean salads you’ll find in the city.

The Milan Cathedral and the interior of the Gray Hotel

The next day, hop on the metro (New Yorkers read: subway) and make your way to Milano Centrale station to venture into the heart of the Swiss Alps. Purchase a Swiss Pass, (available through http://www.myswitzerland.com) and you’ll be able to get to Interlaken in about three hours, not to mention being able to use it as many times as you’d like as you travel through the Swiss countryside for the next week. Because the Alps (a nearly 600-mile mountain chain stretching from France to Slovenia) run through so many countries, you’ll learn that the mountains are populated with a variety of cultures, and many regions feature distinctive terrain, from the ice-encrusted giants in the west, the more arid landscapes of its Italian frontier to the vertiginous but lower-lying peaks of Austria. Perhaps nowhere though does its grandeur meet so seductively with modern comforts and amenities than in the storybook resort towns of the Swiss Jungfrau Region. Located in the Bernese Alps, an area renowned for its hulking mountain faces and stunning glaciers, its hiking, skiing and myriad of other activities, Jungfrau is dotted with a circuit of towns and quaint villages that cater as much to fine dining, shopping and accommodations as they do to the outdoors.

The Jungfrau Region and the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa in the center of Interlaken

The hub of this area is Interlaken, and as its name implies, the municipality is sandwiched between two lakes, Thun and Brienz, from whose glassy banks the region’s steep alpine foothills begin to dramatically rise. Interlaken offers the area’s widest variety of accommodations, but located in the center of town is the Victoria Jungfrau, (http://www.victoria-jungfrau.ch) a hotel whose chateau-like profile and vaulted spire convey the luxury that has made Interlaken a long time European retreat. We highly recommend you not leave Interlaken without at least a tour – preferably a stay at this historical hotel, where behind the grand faà§ade, guests will be pleased to discover a facility that hasn’t refrained from enhancing its classic old world theme of luxury with modern cues. The lobby features an impressive room-length skylight and a glass elevator and its rooms are bright and pristine. The hotel has even renovated one of its wings, employing a bolder and more modern interior design.

Although mountain scenery abounds here, the hotel offers an awe-inspiring view of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau directly to the south. Together, these three peaks sit shoulder to shoulder, an imposing trio that soars above Interlaken and is generally regarded as one the most iconic vistas in the area, if not the entire Alps. For those entranced by the mountains and the activities they offer, this view will beckon. For warm-weather adventure seekers, an even more exciting view from the vantage point of a paraglider will attract you. You’ll see dozens of fliers advertising the sport around town, but your best bet is to give Michael a call over at AlpinAir Tandemflights (http://www.alpinair.ch). He and a colleague will whisk you and your partner in a van up a steep hill where you’ll get set up with a trained professional paraglider with whom you’ll jump off a cliff and soar over the city and amid the mountains. Fortunately a more intimate perusal of the stunning terrain ahead is as simple as hopping on the Berner Oberland Bahn. This railway winds through forest, pasturelands dotted with quaint Swiss wood chalets and, of course, the increasingly precipitous peaks that dominate the terrain. This will take you further into the heart of the Bernese Alps and, if you choose, even close to the summit of Jungfrau itself.

Stunning Swiss views and the Hotel Belvedere

The level of transportation infrastructure and the options and conveniences it allows is one of the unique amenities of this area. The Berner Oberland Bahn, or BOB, takes travelers to Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. But branching from these towns are further mountain railways and cable car routes that provide access to the highlands where the region’s most spectacular scenery awaits. Your Swiss Pass will give you discounts on cable car rides and mountain train lines and you’ll find that not only is the transportation convenient, there is something fun about riding the various types of vintage railway cars the BOB keeps in service and maintains in near pristine condition. A must-see mountain area is Schynige Platte, accessible through a steep cog railway on the BOB that starts at Wilderswil. The gorgeous antique electric motorcars and carriages, which have been in use since the early part of the 20th century, carry travelers to what’s arguably the most stunning scenery in the Jungfrau region.

When you jump off the train at Grindelwald, a town which looks nothing short of a fairytale come to life, mosey a few feet down the road and check into the Hotel Belvedere (http://www.belvedere-grindelwald.ch). Its large outdoor porch will inspire you and your mate to sit outdoors, no matter what the temperature, and contemplate the majesty and enormity of the Eiger, all while reclining in a comfortable lounge chair and being attended to by the hotel’s staff. Dinners at the Belvedere are served formally, in several courses, which requires patience from those who shuffle in, famished from a day’s worth of rigorous exercise. But the quality of the food and wine is generally excellent, a noteworthy accomplishment as Swiss cuisine (beyond the fondue and chocolate) is generally less than spectacular, especially in comparison with the culinary meccas of France and Italy at its borders.

Cog train and the Jungfraujoch, the highest rail station in Europe

There is perhaps no better place than Grindelwald to explore the Jungfrau region’s treasures. Hop on the Wengernalpbahn, a narrow gauge cog railway, to travel to Kleine Scheidegg, a mountain pass between the valleys of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen where the Jungfraubahn departs, a railway that snakes through a tunnel cut into the Eiger all the way up to the Jungfraujoch, the ridge between Monch and Jungfrau where there is an observatory and atmospheric station. At roughly 11,300 feet, Jungfraujoch is covered with snow year-round and is the highest rail station in Europe with stunning views of three countries and access to one of the mountaintop’s glacial fields. Perhaps one of the most brilliant spots in the world for you and your partner to share a kiss!

Next month: Zermatt to Geneva

Originally published February 2010
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