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Switzerland: All ends well in the Alps

Courtesy Switzerland Tourism

The Land of “-ing”
“You can spend a month here just walking,” said Newcomb, “and it’s so clean here we like to say you can swim with your mouth open. You can do everything here ending in ‘-ing’: skiing, snowboarding, hiking, paragliding. We are the center for adventure sports in Switzerland.”

Then Fausto Zaina of the Swiss Travel System welcomed us to the area. “Trains serve all of Switzerland,” he said. “They’re safe, punctual and comfortable. There’s no faster way to get from city to city in Switzerland. By law, every city of 300 residents or more must have public transportation by train.

“We have scenic trains like the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express, a seven-hour panoramic train ride through the Alps. Baggage services can be arranged for your travelers from their international departure city in the U.S. all the way to the rail station where they are going,” said Zaina. “And we are introducing a new direct train service between Paris and Interlaken.”

The next day we headed to Kleine Scheidegg to catch the tram up to the Jungfraujoch. By this time the weather was like a grouchy traveling companion, but the group was still excited.

Roland Fontanive was our guide for the Jungfraujoch. A veteran skier and mountain guide, this soft-spoken gentleman carried a lot of weight with the group.

“This is the valley of waterfalls,” he said as we passed through Lauterbrunnen, and there was a rush to that side of the train to photograph the valley as we passed.

“Wengen is a car-free village very famous for skiing,” said Fontanive as we pulled into its small station.

That’s when I began to miss my family. We stayed here for a week in 2006 at the Beausite Hotel, a family-run property that sits at the top of the town.

A Brazilian’s First Snow
Right there, a guest from Brazil saw snow for the first time in her life. She was laughing and smiling as the snow picked up intensity. By the time we got to Kleine Scheidegg, it was coming down hard. Fontanive invited me to sit in the locomotive with the driver, and he told me that at this elevation, you could see snow any month of the year.

“Kleine Sheidegg is the heart of the region, the heart of skiing,” said Fontanive as we came into the station. Moments later, we were on the Jungfrau Railway headed to the Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe.”

Adolf Guyer-Zeller envisioned building a railway up to the peak of the Jungfrau in 1893, and work began only five years later. After 14 years of work from 1898 until 1912, the Jungfraujoch opened. It is a gleaming silver bastion that can be seen easily from thousands of feet below. Thirty people died during its construction, which cost 16 million Swiss francs at the time. Sadly, Guyer-Zeller died of pneumonia before it was completed.

“We began the 100-year anniversary celebration in December with a spectacular flag laser show that shone on the Jungfrau,” said  Fontanive. “Earlier this month, we had a gathering of 200 people that included the president of Switzerland.”

Our first stop in this massive complex was its ice bar. Genier served us drinks, and a few of us took turns at curling, the Olympic sport that everyone thinks they could do, myself included. It’s harder than it looks.

As our first course for lunch, we had a delicious cream of saffron soup that was served very hot. I noticed that Genier had a Rugenbrau beer first, a glass of red wine next and afterward, an espresso. He must know something.

To Schynige Platte
The following day, we took a covered carriage to the train station in Wilderswil, where we would catch our train up to Schynige Platte. Fabiano Camargo, a Brazilian tour operator, looked at himself in red Swiss socks and shook his head.

“In Brazil, this would be very ugly,” he said, “but since we are in Switzerland, it is OK.”

We rode past a small cemetery, and Genier spoke up.

“This is a very small country. You have a place in the cemetery for 40 years here. After that, they give it to someone else.”

On the small cog train up to Schynige Platte, I spoke with Leora Hafri of Friendly Planet Travel in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

“We don’t do a lot of Europe currently,” she said. “Only Ireland and Italy. We thought Switzerland by rail would be a good start for us. It’s exactly what I was expecting. People are friendly; it’s very clean and reminds me a lot of Queenstown, New Zealand.

“Even in the rain, it’s beautiful,” she said. “I’ll write up a report with my hotel inspections and the receptives we’ve met while we’re here. I’d be doing all the marketing myself, so I need to see it.”

Schynige Platte is one of the region’s most storied stops. It includes a cogwheel railway and alpine flower garden, plus walking trails over a wide mountain meadow. The Berghotel Schynige Platte offers nearly three dozen sleeping rooms and traditional Swiss fare in its restaurant. The entire site offers wonderful views of the Bernese Alps in good weather.

Unfortunately, we visited on a gray day when visibility was very poor. But our hosts, hotel managers Thomas and Jasmin Willem, treated us to a wonderful lunch and tour of the iconic Swiss hiking resort.