The sun is hot. I'm on my butt—again—and staring up at the most incredible blue sky. Diana's down the slope, perched on her skis, waiting for me. A pack of colorful skiers schuss by as gracefully as gazelles, and for the thousandth time this week I'm wondering what ever possessed me to try to learn to snowboard during my first winter stay in the Alps.
Three years ago, during a late-summer trip to Europe, some friends convinced me to cycle with them in the Swiss Alps. We hired a guide, rented bikes, and spent two days in the mountains around Gstaad. We rode past herds of grazing cows and wooden houses that were half barn, half dwelling, and smelled of animals and ripening cheese. The towns we saw, even chic Gstaad, were working farm villages. These same hillsides where cows were grazing would turn into ski runs come snowfall, and these same farmers would operate the lifts they had built on their property to earn a winter income. I started dreaming of a cold-weather return.
Flash-forward to the following February: Diana, an old college friend, and I—bored and trapped in New York—make a pact to go skiing the next winter. We start investigating the costs of various resorts and are shocked at how expensive skiing is in the United States. I check out the European alternatives and discover, unbelievably, that a trip abroad can be cheaper.
It also sounds a lot more glamorous when we start telling friends and co-workers about our plans.
Where to go?Switzerland, of course! but we want no part of a jet-set town like St. Moritz, where fur-clad princesses shop rather than ski. We're in the mood for something more low-key. Also, as experienced but not aggressive skiers, we want a place that's good for easygoing intermediates.
A Swiss friend recommends the tiny village of Wengen, in the shadow of the awesome Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains. The Jungfrau region, comprising Grindelwald and the tiny, car-free sister villages of Wengen and Mürren, is one of the birthplaces of modern ski tourism. At the turn of the century, mountain-crazy Brits became obsessed with scaling the Eiger, among the most dangerous peaks in Europe. A Methodist minister named Henry Lunn introduced the first-ever ski packages here in the winter of 1910-11, after convincing the region that it should operate winter trains for access to the slopes. Those same trains still deliver you into town.
From Basel, where our flight lands, we go by rail to Interlaken. The last hour of the trip skirts the Lake of Thun—a beautiful introduction to the region. At Interlaken, we change trains to head into the mountains. And at Lauterbrunnen, a town on the valley floor, we change once more, this time to a cogwheel train that takes riders up 1,558 feet to Wengen, switchbacking sharply as it ascends the slopes. These hard-to-reach places are like remote islands, landlocked in mountains, completely dependent on trains. The views are breathtaking. Fifteen minutes later we land smack in the center of a quintessential Alpine town overrun with skiers.
At the station, our hotel's representative directs us to the Alpenrose—a short walk away. We give him our luggage claim tickets. (For a mere $15, Swissair travelers have the invaluable luxury of sending bags all the way through to their final destination. Once we check in at New York, we don't have to deal with our luggage again—even for customs. With Swiss efficiency, it shows up in our hotel room a few hours after we arrive.)
A steep hill leads down to the Alpenrose, which, at 118 years, is the oldest hotel in Wengen. Rooms are somewhat plain: simple wood furniture, crisp white duvet-covered beds, big windows, French doors, and a balcony with mountain views. The public areas are a study in Alpine gemütlichkeit: comfortable, but a little too cozy, with beige tones, heavy curtains, macramé lampshades. Everything is very, very clean.
Though we're both tired, Di rallies us to take care of business. First stop, ski school, where we sign up for classes: Di, a one-day orientation to learn the slopes; me, six mornings of snowboarding lessons. Then to Central Sport for equipment rental (board, boots, wrist guards, skis, and poles). Then back to the train station for six-day lift passes. Luckily, we don't have to carry our stuff down the steep hill; anyone who rents from Central Sport can stow the gear there overnight.
Our package comes with breakfast and dinner each day. The evening meal usually consists of five hearty courses, and the food is delicious: cream of leek soup, mushrooms on toast, a salad buffet, grilled pork chops or poached salmon with chive potatoes, and Bavarian cream or fruit and cheese for dessert. Breakfast is a traditional Germanic spread—crusty white rolls, dark grainy loaves, fresh jam, butter, cheese, muesli—as fuel for active days.
And what about those days?
I spend five straight mornings with Kevin, my Scottish snowboard instructor, who is very cool but, thankfully, not nearly as gonzo as an American teacher might be. The class starts out small enough, and by the last two days I've scored private lessons.
We end each morning on the long, narrow run into town, passing chalets, barns, docile cows, piles of manure, and the end-of-the-run bar, Kari's Schneebar. I usually grab lunch around there (the terrace restaurant at the Eiger hotel has the most delicious tomato cream soup) and sit in the sun before meeting Diana at the Kleine Scheidegg train stop, the top of the slopes, for the afternoon.
Every day is warm and sunny, with crystal clear skies and fresh mountain air: a cliché of Alpine health. There was a record snowfall earlier in the season, and on several occasions we hear a sound like thunder and look up to see tiny avalanches in the distance—nowhere near any ski trails.
Nights are quiet. A couple of times we motivate ourselves to go out for a drink after dinner, even though there's a perfectly fine bar in our hotel. One night we attend a concert by the Heidelberg Chamber Orchestra at a church in town. Mostly we stay in, read, and fall asleep—early. Resting for another day on the slopes, which is, after all, why we came.
Dozens of agencies specialize in weeklong, all-inclusive ski trips to Europe. Once travelers have selected from the menu of destinations, they can choose their hotel, usually from a range of properties. Because of prior good experience with the airline, I decided to go through Swissair's packager, Swisspak (formerly Swissair Vacations). After we reserved our flights, we were given a choice of hotels. I checked out the brief descriptions in a Wengen guide from the Swiss tourism office (212/757-5944) and made a choice. Two weeks passed without confirmation, and when I called to follow up we still had no hotel reservation. Our agent at Swisspak couldn't have been less helpful, simply insisting that we'd have to change our destination. By this time Di and I had our hearts set on tiny Wengen, so I did some more research.
A friend suggested Chips Lindenmeyr at Lindenmeyr Travel. I called, fully prepared to pull our booking with Swisspak and use her service. She patiently listened to my tale and, instead of stealing our reservation, offered some simple advice. We should keep our plane reservations, but push Swisspak to work harder to find us a suitable hotel. She then recommended a few more in Wengen, which is how we ended up at the Alpenrose.
To their credit, Swisspak finally did go outside their established circle of hotels to get us a room in Wengen. Lesson: Book early to avoid trouble, or be prepared to do some homework and prodding to get what you want.
HERE'S THE DEAL
Eight-day trip to Wengen:
Swisspak package, including seven nights' hotel accommodation, breakfast and dinner daily, round-trip economy-class airfare from New York, and first-class rail transfers $1,518
Fly-rail baggage check-through service for one bag $15
Six-day Jungfrau region lift pass $158
Six-day snowboard equipment rental $131
Swiss ski school, six group lessons $125
Jungfrau train fare $33
Lunches and snacks $109
PACKAGERS TO CHECK OUT
Swisspak 800/688-7947; www.swissair.com.
Lindenmeyr Travel 800/248-2807; www.lindenmeyrtravel.com.
Adventures on Skis 800/628-9655; www.adventuresonskis.com.
Holidaze Ski Tours 800/526-2827; www.holidaze.com.
Ski Europe 800/333-5533; www.ski-europe.com.
Value Holidays 800/558-6850; www.valhol.com.
longest run: 4.15 miles
number of lifts: 39
lift ticket price (per day): variable rate
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $99 (does not include lift ticket)
longest run: 5 miles
number of lifts: 49
lift ticket price (per day): $38
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $18 (does not include lift ticket)
longest run: 2 miles
number of lifts: 19
lift ticket price (per day): $60
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $68 (does not include lift ticket)
longest run: 9.3 miles
number of lifts: 43
lift ticket price (per day): $34
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $41 (includes lift ticket)
longest run: 3.5 miles
number of lifts: 14
lift ticket price (per day): variable rate
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $60 (three hours; does not include lift ticket)
longest run: 6.25 miles
number of lifts: 63
lift ticket price (per day): $25
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $38 (does not include lift tickets)
longest run: 4.5 miles
number of lifts: 29
lift ticket price (per day): $59
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $110 (includes lift ticket)
longest run: 6.38 miles
number of lifts: 84
lift ticket price (per day): $30
ski school rates (high-season and full-day, unless specified): $38 (does not include lift ticket)
Need a Break?
THREE DAY TRIPS FROM WENGEN
With a Jungfrau region ski pass, you can easily go by train to:
1. Mürren Catch the train to Lauterbrunnen, where you switch to a funicular railroad that goes straight up a very, very steep incline to Grütschalp. There switch to a train that passes through Winteregg on the way to Mürren. At Mürren, sheer-faced mountains sit directly across a huge chasm, right in your face; the view dwarfs everything in the tiny town. A strange mix of 17th-century buildings and some 1960's cinder-block structures snuggle into the mountainside. Mürren feels even more isolated than Wengen, and the skiing here is decidedly more difficult. Take the gondola up to the Schilthorn, where you catch another one to Piz Gloria, famous for its revolving restaurant (featured in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service). Have lunch there or stop in at Mürren's cozy Hotel Blumental.
2. Jungfrau A $103 round-trip ticket takes you to the highest train station in Europe, atop the Jungfrau. From Wengen, it's about 11/2 hours each way. At Kleine Scheidegg, switch to the Jungfrau train. It's a bit slow, and 41 minutes in a pitch-black tunnel will begin to unnerve anyone. The top, however, is bizarre and otherworldly. You can walk through a series of slick, eerily lit tunnels and grottoes carved out of the glacier. There are four places to eat: a buffet, a snack bar, a function hall, and the fancy Crystal, with waiters. The best part is the Sphinx terrace observatory, a stunning glass-and-steel structure, somehow anchored to the top of the peak, where the view is incredible. Pay attention to the time: trains leave every hour on the hour—Swiss precision.
3. Interlaken If Wengen gets claustrophobic, catch a train (one every 25 minutes) to Lauterbrunnen and then head all the way down to Interlaken. Flanked by the lakes of Thun and Brienz, and within view of the Jungfrau peaks, Interlaken has been the gateway to the mountains and a resort itself since the 19th century. Wander, window-shop, stop for something to eat. Or book a massage in the spa at the world-famous Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel.