Slide Back in Time in Grindelwald
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone should see the Eiger at least once.
A Michigander by birth, I grew up with winter wonderlands and hills that were great for sledding. So nothing was going to stop me from renting a rodelschlitten — a wooden toboggan — and taking to the slopes around the tiny village of Grindelwald (population 3,700), which sits in the shadow of the majestic 13,000-foot Eiger, just a 30-minute train ride from Interlaken.
Nothing, that is, until I got passed by a kid on a wooden bike, a sight that made me dig in my heels to gawk. Velogemels — snow bikes — were first patented by local carpenter Christian Bühlmann in 1911. Plagued by polio, Bühlmann created this “steerable sport sled with in-line runners” to more easily visit customers and make deliveries around town. Little has changed about the bikes over the past century, and visitors look like they’re traveling through time when they hit the slopes on them. For more experienced snow bikers, the Velogemel World Championship tests their wherewithal along a 1-mile track here every January.
You feel like you are walking inside a snow globe.
The sledding is great in Grindelwald, and the Bussalp-Grindelwald is considered a must for serious sledders, who can take a bus from town up to this nearly 6,000-foot point, complete with breathtaking views of the Bernese Alps, before plunging down the slopes and back into town at breakneck speed. Whether hiking, sledding or skiing, visitors should know that this cute little hamlet isn’t for the faint of heart. Since the 1930s, the Eiger has claimed more than 60 who have dared to scale its granite-colored face. Only experienced climbers can reach the top, but the rest of us can fake it by taking the Jungfrau Railway, which runs up inside the mountain — the engineering feat is cut into the rock — to viewing areas on the Eiger’s face and beyond, with the cogwheel train culminating at Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest-altitude railway stop. Brad Hines, a Massachusetts marketing specialist who has visited the region twice, says the trek is worth the “unmatched” views.
Hines loves how these small villages remain true to their old-fashioned-postcard images. “You feel like you are walking inside a snow globe,” he says. Like the majority of visitors, Hines goes for the downhill skiing, and also, in his case, the “world-class” snowboarding. There are nearly 100 miles of ski trails in the region, with 27 lifts in all, and the season gets underway as soon as snow falls, usually in late November. The slopes close, according to Caroline Blatter of the Grindelwald Tourist Office, by mid-April at the latest, depending on conditions.
Some 1,148,574 people overnighted in Grindelwald in 2014. The town offers 40 hotels — averaging from $210 to $250 a night — loads of rentable chalets and 50 restaurants. Those looking for a cozy but casual dinner should stop at Onkel Tom’s Hütte for pizza baked in an iron cookstove.
The resort also offers nonskiers plenty to do. Be sure to try an evening snowshoeing tour through farmland, woods and creek beds, organized by Grindelwald Sports. There’s also paragliding, cross-country skiing, hiking and, of course, the velogemel, which can be rented at the train station or through Intersport. And if you can’t bear to leave without one, they retail in town for approximately $50.