Think Alpine skiing and you think mountains – it’s a no-brainer, really. Most ski resorts I can think of are part of an often stunning range of peaks... and yet there aren’t that many areas that can boast a truly iconic mountain as part of the package.
Sure, Chamonix has the mighty Mont Blanc and Zermatt the Matterhorn, but no ski area I’ve visited can be as truly defined by its very own Big Mountain as completely as Wengen/Grindelwald – where huge swathes of the skiing are dominated by the big beast known as the Eiger.
The dark, intimidating North Face of the Eiger scowls down on the pistes in its shadow, a reminder that the Alps are so much more than just a playground for skiers and boarders – and it is this looming presence that helps give Wengen and Grindelwald a truly unique atmosphere and ambience.
Don’t get me wrong, the skiing here is great, with many wide and sunny confidence-building pistes for improving intermediates, but glance over your shoulder and the grim North Face is there to remind you exactly where you are...
It’s the Eiger and sister behemoth the Jungfrau that have attracted climbers and visitors to Wengen and Grindelwald since Victorian times and the resorts have a calm, timeless quality quite unlike some of the big, brash, modern resorts you’ll find elsewhere in the Alps. Not that Wengen, where I stayed last March, isn’t a buzzing place – quite the opposite in many ways.
To reach the hotels and restaurants of Kleine Scheidegg, the centre of the ski area and situated at the foot of the Eiger, you travel on a delightful cog railway that winds its way up from Wengen – and surprisingly you’ll find that most of your fellow-passengers will not be skiers or boarders. The Eiger/Jungfrau is firmly established as one of the essential destinations on the modern European tourism route, and large groups of well-to-do Japanese, South Korean and Chinese make the day trip up from Interlaken to see – and endlessly photograph - the fantastic sights.
The good news is that they will be going on up the railway to the extraordinary Jungfraujoch (more of which later), leaving the beautifully-prepared slopes inviting and almost empty for a day’s skiing. The Wengen/Grindelwald area offers more than 150 kilometres of piste, with the majority best suited to intermediates, although if you want a challenge try the fearsome Lauberhorn World Cup Downhill run.
It’s the longest, and one of the toughest on the World Cup circuit – and on my visit our tourist office guide took us nice and slowly, showing us various points of interest on the way down.
We must have taken about 20 minutes to reach the bottom – quite fast enough for me – but colleagues on the trip who were younger, fitter and infinitely better skiers than me (two had been ski instructors at some stage) had a blast down it the next morning, taking about five minutes top to bottom. And to put that into context, the record time for the 2.78 mile course is an astonishing 2 minutes 24.23 seconds by Italian Kristian Ghedina back in 1997...
The Lauberhorn apart, the area doesn’t offer a huge amount to tempt the hardcore expert skier or boarder, confirming its reputation as primarily a family-orientated resort. That feeling continues after the day’s skiing has finished – Wengen is a resort made up mainly of hotelsand private chalets and the après ski is pretty calm and relaxed. If you are after loud, wild partying until the early hours I’d suggest you look elsewhere, although there are, of course, good bars and restaurants both in resort and on the mountain.
For lunch I can recommend the Rostizza (like a pizza but with rosti potatoes instead of a dough base) at the busy Banhoff restaurant at Kleine Scheidegg, although you will need to ski hard in the afternoon to work it off...
Our group stayed at the traditional and comfortable four star Hotel Silberhorn in the heart of Wengen and conveniently just across the road from the station for trains up to the slopes.
Most packages will include evening meals here, which are buffet-style with a wide choice of dishes. The hotel also boasts a spa and wellness area with saunas, jacuzzis and more to ease tired muscles after a hard day on the slopes.
An alternative to skiing for an afternoon is to hire sledges at Kleine Scheidegg and head down a combination of pistes and specially prepared runs back to Wengen. It’s surprisingly hard work, but exhilarating – be prepared to get snow in places you hadn’t thought possible, though, and hang on to the reins so when you inevitably fall off your sled doesn’t carry on without you all the way to the bottom of the piste, as one colleague discovered to his dismay.
If you are planning a week’s package, the other must-do is a trip up to the amazing Jungfraujoch. It will take at least half a day, so you will have to sacrifice precious time on the slopes, and it is far from cheap at more than £50 a head return – but pick a clear day and you’ll find it’s well worth the investment.
It’s what the aforementioned Japanese, South Korean and Chinese tourists – not to mention plenty of other nationalities – have come for, and involves getting back on the cog railway at Kleine Scheidegg and heading upwards, and into the mountain. An amazing feat of engineering, and completed in 1912, the Jungfrau Railway takes you inside the fearsome Eiger and winds upwards until it eventually reaches the Jungfraujoch – the highest railway station in Europe at a giddy 3,454 metres above sea level.
On the way up, the train stops twice at viewing areas carved out of solid rock which let you gaze out onto the dreaded North Face of the Eiger. From a position of perfect safety you can vicariously enjoy the chilling experience of climbers brave or foolhardy enough to attempt the ascent, before scuttling back to the warmth of the train.
At the top, the clever Swiss have created an impressive subterranean complex that includes an almost Disney-esque ice palace and interactive Alpine experience, but more interestingly the opportunity to step out onto viewing platforms giving a spectacular 360-degree panorama as far away as the Vosges and the Black Forest. But do make sure you pick a fine day to visit the Jungfraujoch – we staggered out onto the viewing platform to be met with a full-on blizzard and visibility of about three feet...
• Jan Henderson travelled to Wengen as a guest of Crystal Ski – for more information about Wengen and Grindelwald, and a huge variety of other ski destinations, visit www.crystalski.co.uk