Interlaken is seen as the adventure capital of Switzerland. The city is surrounded by five different ski resorts and by some of the most famous peaks of the Alps, but the Swiss winter has a lot on offer for non-skiers as well. Trot Op! hopped on a Thalys train in Brussels and went for a quick visit.
Ah, the Swiss Alps in winter: if there’s a more beautiful place on this dreary planet to go for a holiday right now, I’d like to hear it. The morning sun lighting up the fresh snow; the cold mountain air tasting like spring water and easing even the most brutal of hangovers; the ski lift taking you to the top of the slopes only for you to elegantly swoosh down from them again like an arrow in the wind; the freakish amount of Jägermeister you pour down your throat in the après-ski afterwards: wonderful stuff. And the next morning you’ll simply start the whole process anew.
“Switzerland in winter is not just for skiers. There’s a lot to do in and around Interlaken away from the slopes as well.”
The mountain life is a pleasant one indeed, but one I will never experience to the fullest. This is because I can’t ski, not even if my life depended on it. I was never taught as a child, but a more important factor in this matter is that my feet are pointing outwards like a clock stuck at ten to two. As a result, I did not only cultivate a charming and recognisable gait, I also can’t keep my skis in a straight line. This causes me to turn into an unguided projectile of mass destruction on each descent, my legs sliding further and further away from each other until eventually my torn and mangled body arrives at two different ski stations at the same time. It’s safe to say skiing will never by my jam, but does this mean I should ignore Switzerland in wintertime? Of course not. There are plenty of wild things to do for non-skiers as well. Things I will now show you.
*Yes, I’m aware snowboarding exists and that I will probably be just fine trying it out, but story-wise it didn’t fit this article okay. Get off my back. :p
Visit Interlaken: winter sports in Switzerland without skiing
As luck would have it, the trip to Interlaken the lovely people of Switzerland Tourism invited me to, fitted me perfectly as far as the above was concerned. I was going to spend a long weekend in the mountains without having to clip a single ski to my boots – which would immediately diminish the chances of any horrific accidents occuring. Interlaken is not just any winter destination by the way. The city is located between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz (two beautiful glacial lakes) and in the shadow of some of the country’s most iconic peaks. Interlaken is part of the canton of Bern, and is a small and at first glance somewhat odd town. In the past, the bourgeoisie lounged here in luxurious Victorian hotels; now an amazing number of Singaporeans and other Asians come spend their holidays in the city. They shop themselves into a stupor in the many luxury boutiques in the centre, but in the actual mountains you’ll hardly see any of them. This is quite strange, because Interlaken is known as the adventure capital of Europe. Five ski resorts can be found in the immediate vicinity, as well as it being the gateway to the beautiful Jungfrau region. The number of winter activities offered here is impressive, so it would be tragic not to go out and at least try some of them. Here are the eight most exciting activities in Interlaken for people who can’t ski. Take your pick.
1. Winter kayaking on Lake Brienz
Switzerland’s photogenic blue mountain lakes are ideal stuff for kayakers. Lake Brienz near Interlaken is no exception to this rule, and with Hightide Kayak School you can also get on the water in wintertime. You do this led by a certified guide and with some cautionary measures. To make sure you don’t get a heart attack and sink into an icy water grave as soon as your kayak capsizes, they give you a thermal suit to put on. Getting into it takes some practice, but this so called dry suit does exactly what the name suggests: it keeps you waterproof and warm. Winter kayaking is wonderful, and the fog and the snowy mountains all around provide a completely different feeling compared to what you would experience in summer. The suit works perfectly, the lake is vast and pretty (the water is potable by the way) and paddling under dizzying cliffs covered in icicles makes for a slightly more impressive afternoon than struggling on some dried-up little stream in the Ardennes in July. Winter kayaking tours can be booked from November to April. You can rent a kayak on your own the rest of the year. www.hightide.ch
2. Snowshoeing on the Stockhorn
Like working up a sweat? Venture into the mountains then and go for a snowshoe hike. Snowshoes are the modern versions of those weird old tennis rackets you’ve seen the Inuit tie to their boots. With these, and with the help of some ski poles, you’ll soon be walking through and over the snow in a relatively nimble fashion. The nearby Stockhorn – easily reachable by train and gondola – offers a number of hiking trails to explore. Near the gondola station is an igloo where you can buy some mulled wine to warm up with, and then you’ll be walking almost exclusively uphill for quite a while. You’ll hike past frozen lakes and through surprisingly dense forests, to finally end up at a nice viewpoint near a large cabin. Your boots won’t get stuck in the snow, but this doesn’t mean it will be a breezy walk. After half an hour of plodding uphill, I was sweating to such a degree steam came off of my back. Fortunately the view was worth the effort. The scenery is fantastic, and whenever the sun pierced the fog, I pictured myself walking through some fantasy epic. Tired of hiking? Go for some ice fishing or skating on the nearby lake instead. For a great view over the Alps, take the gondola one extra stop to the top of the peak. www.stockhorn.ch
3. The HotTug: floating on an icy lake in a steam bath boat
By far the most unique activity I enjoyed in Switzerland was a boat trip in the HotTug. This is a floating steam bath on Lake Brienz, in which the water is kept at 100°F with a wood stove you can replenish yourself. The vessel was built in the Netherlands, is electric and can be sailed at leisure. Picture yourself floating on the ice-cold lake under a starry sky with a prosecco in hand and – it’s your fantasy – with a Swiss bikini model under every arm. Now wonder why you haven’t booked this thing yet. Daredevils can even go for the Scandinavian sauna treatment and take a quick plunge into the lake. This will not be the most pleasant of endeavours – the water is near freezing temperature – but afterwards you’ll feel rejuvenated. The views and the overall experience are great, especially when the sun goes down and the hot tub is lit with romantic mood lighting. Having to get out of it in the winter cold afterwards to change is not very pleasant either, but humanity has gotten through worse ordeals. Completely unique activity, and this is the only place in Switzerland you can actually try it. www.pirate-bay.ch
4. Night sledding on the Niederhorn
Can’t ski at all but still want to test your might against the slopes? Why not go sledding instead? It’s fun, and you don’t have to have to possess any skills for it – except for a measure of self-preservation. Every weekend on the Niederhorn you can even go for some sledding after sunset. After a cheese fondue at the Niederhorn Mountain Restaurant next to the gondola station – every night in Switzerland legally has to start with a cheese fondue or they’ll kick you out of the country – you can romantically sled off the moonlit slopes until you can sled no more. Cloudy night and can’t see sh*t? No problemo mi amigo: the entire slope is illuminated with cosy lanterns. Sadly we didn’t do much sledding when we were there. There simply wasn’t enough snow for us to do it safely. The mountain is rocky, and having an intact tailbone that didn’t shatter after hitting 500 pebbles, is quite crucial for living a pleasant life. Isn’t global warming fun guys? www.niedernhorn.ch
5. Paragliding from the mountains to Interlaken’s city centre
Another spectacular activity Interlaken is particularly known for is paragliding. Every day when the weather is clear, you’ll see dozens of paragliders coming down from the mountains floating right into the city centre. You’re free to book a flight, but ideally you’ll do this attached to someone who knows his or her stuff, just so as not to traumatize a hotel full of Singaporeans by loudly crashing into their cocktail party. Once the obstacle of flattening yourself against a hotel window is overcome, only a total sense of freedom will remain. I could literally almost see it on their faces, as my hotel balcony stood right onto their flying route. Just remember to wrap yourself into a towel when you get out of the shower to enjoy the view. Accidents have happened due to lesser atrocities.
6. Jungfraujoch: visit Europe’s highest train station
Europe’s highest train station – the highest in the world is in Tibet: remember it for your next pub quiz – can be found at an altitude of 3454 meters on the beautiful Jungfraujoch (which is a passage between two peaks). The trip there is an expensive one, but it’s worth the price. From Interlaken you’ll ride different trains for two hours, past a number of magnificent views on one of the most beautiful routes on the continent. Once you arrive you can enjoy a panorama on the viewing platform or take a walk through the eternal snow. The cogwheel train up is the only way to get here. It’s impossible on foot and there is no gondola to be found. Do check the weather in advance though. It makes little sense to put down 150 euros if you’re going to find yourself lost in nothing but a dense fog once there. Also buy your tickets in advance and get there as early as possible. It will only get busier during the day.
7. Win the Velogemel World Championship in Grindelwald
Want to go crazy on the slopes and look somewhat ridiculous in the process? Head to Grindelwald. This is not just some weird wizard from the Harry Potter universe; it’s also a Swiss municipality near Interlaken, where velogemel was invented about a hundred years ago. This is a funny looking combination of a bicycle and a sled, allowing you to swoop through the snow as if on a moped. Grindelwald is also home to the Big Pintenfritz. This is a sledding run with the best name ever, which also happens to be the longest in the world. They’ve been organising the official Velogemel World Championship here since the mid-nineties. It takes place every February. Register now: it’s probably the best chance you’ll ever get at being a world champion at something.
8. Jungfraupark: visit an insane pseudoscience museum
Those who used to zap to the National Geographic Channel after a drunken night out in the early 2000s, were often greeted by shady documentaries explaining how aliens were somehow responsible for the construction of the pyramids. This is of course absolute drivel. These conspiracy theories mainly served as a coping mechanism for people troubled by the fact non-western civilisations were capable of building some pretty impressive stuff in their own right. Yet some people actually believed it. Swiss author Erich Von Däniken, for example. He got into it to such a degree, that in 2003 he put his fortune into a gigantic preposterous museum showcasing all of his ravings. According to Von Däniken, aliens were not only responsible for the pyramids, but also for Stonehenge, the Mayan and Aztec temples, and for what he called “flying castles”. It goes without saying this pseudoscientific atrocity made little to no profit after its grand opening, and after three years he already pulled the plug. In 2009 the complex was bought by investors and renamed Jungfrau Park. The exhibitions are still there for illustration purposes, but in the meantime it’s also an event space, an indoor playground, and a place to play all kinds of VR games. An interesting option for when the weather’s not on your side, but unfortunately only open from May to September. www.jungfraupark.ch
Visit Interlaken by train
Switzerland can easily be reached from the Brussels Midi Railway station. We transferred in Paris on the outward trip, and on the return journey we changed trains in Strasbourg. It takes a little longer than flying, but it’s way less stressful and more comfortable. It’s also sustainable, which will help us actually keep some snow in the Alps throughout the next fifty years. With a Swiss Travel Pass, you can use all public transport for free. You’ll also get free access to over 500 museums. www.swiss-pass.ch
Hotels and restaurants in Interlaken
In Interlaken we stayed at Hotel Metropole. It’s located in a huge tower, just a five minute walk from the train station. www.metropole-interlaken.ch
The first evening, we dined at Hotel Eden Spiez in the town with the same name. www.eden-spiez.ch
The second day, dinner was served in Ristorante Sapori. www.ristorante-sapori.ch
For more info on Switzerland as a destination, visit the official Switzerland Tourism website. www.MySwitzerland.com
Want to know more about Interlaken, surf to www.interlaken.ch.
Want to go for some other European trips? read my articles on Amsterdam, Lodz, Porto, Zuid-Limburg, Vilnius of Riga.
Pictures of the winter kayaking, night sledding, paragliding, Jungfraujoch and Jungfraupark were provided by Interlaken Tourism.
The velogemel picture was taken from the Tourism Switzerland image library.