I didn’t quite know what to make of it when the invitation dropped through the door to ‘Fly like an Eagle’ in a delightful Swiss village.
But it was not so much flying like an eagle as jumping for joy, delighted to be in a glorious little corner of Switzerland which isn’t a slave to full-on, wall-to-wall Alpine skiing and all the ersatz glitz and glamour that can often go with it.
If you put your mind to it, you can fly in Kandersteg for a fair distance, as Eddie the Eagle found when he stayed there for a while back in the day (1987!) although I chose not to follow the great man’s example.
He’s fondly remembered there for turning up in his pre-Winter Olympic days as just plain Michael Edwards with not two ha’pennies to rub together, staying at the world-famous local Scouts centre, and grafting to pay for his accommodation and food so that he could practice on the village’s ski jumps.
The jumps which served him so well in the Nordic Arena at one end of Kandersteg make use of natural mountainside contours rather than looming over the place like a concrete tower block and spending time there is a world away from the frantic snowsports image served up on the much-hyped TV embarrassment called The Jump.
Our home-grown Eagle, who is now the hero of a heartwarming Hollywood film, was axed from Channel 4’s 2017 show as a commentator after he raised safety concerns, but after seeing the tacky, injury-plagued series, I’m sure he’d agree that he was well out of it!
The lack of Alpine skiing, with just one gondola and a couple of smaller lifts serving a limited number of pretty gentle runs, is not really an issue when it comes to exploring this Nordic haven and ice-climbing centre, set amid glorious scenery not far from Interlaken and within easy reach of resorts with all the downhill skiing you could want.
It is, indeed, a brilliant place to bring young grandchildren for their first taste of ‘real’ downhill in the mountains, as opposed to a dry slope or indoor ski centre back home, but an improver or intermediate skier would probably soon get bored and need more challenges.
Happily, there’s no shortage of challenges for downhill skiers wanting a change of scene for a while, starting with those jumps! The jumping hills fell out of favour a bit after Eddie’s heyday and neglect and lack of investment took their toll, but the villagers appreciated the value of what they had and were determined not to let it go. As well as recognising it as a great playground for their youngsters, they had a canny eye on the 2028 Winter Olympics and there’s now an 11-year project on the move costing 7.2 million Swiss francs and an army of volunteers helping out.
As a measure of commitment and support, locals in this lovely corner of the Berner Oberland voted to pay an extra 1,000 Swiss francs in taxes to help fund the ambitious project, and the jumping hills are already upgraded more than somewhat since Eddie first clapped eyes on them, with more work in the pipeline.
And guess what? Yes, you can have a go, with expert tuition on how to get started and maybe try out the small training jump, although you don’t have to really look the part and climb into a shiny, brightly-coloured onesie (unless you really want to, that is).
For a standard of skier brought up on the mantra that if your skis are off the snow, you’re likely to be in real trouble, it’s difficult to accept that being in the air for more than a couple of seconds will not be life-threatening, but those long, long skis do provide a degree of stability and some intrepid souls did manage to clear a metre or two.
Our delightful village guide Doris Kallen told us local youngsters do it as a matter of course and it’s seen as a fun thing to do after school on many days, rather than just hanging out around the village centre.
Even if you don’t have a go yourself, it’s quite an experience to tag along with the jumpers as they make their way to the top of their launch pad. It’s a stiff walk to the top of the smaller hills and you can be breathless enough just doing that, but the trek to the top of the big hill is a challenge and the experience of being poised above the village far, far below is really breathtaking.
A handy, purpose-built mini-funicular takes you a good way up, but the final, short stretch to the very top is on foot, along a twisting narrow path that defies you to look back until you have reached the start ramps, where you can cling on and pretend to look nonchalant.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Eddie a few times and I know he’s a splendid chap, but he soared even higher in my estimation as I perched at the top of the jump and looked down, knuckles turning white as I clenched my fists and face turning green as I registered the fact that the jumpers disappeared from view after hurtling down and taking off from the ‘table’, only reappearing after landing a seemingly impossible distance further down, hopefully still on their skis and not spreadeagled on the snow as they hurtled into the finish arena.
If a foray into flying isn’t for you, put the mega-long skis to one side and grab some that are just extra-long to indulge in another side of Nordic fun with a spot of langlauf, or cross-country skiing.
This is one thing you can do around the village with locals of all ages, because there are signposted, dedicated routes to follow as well as numerous other paths you can explore. It’s a great way to just get around as well; and it doesn’t need to be too taxing to glide around the place as the valley floor along the River Kander is pretty flat.
It can be as taxing as you want, for a good many people use cross-country skiing as the perfect antidote to jogging, because although I find it quite easy to fall down at times, it is a lot safer than trying to run on an icy or slushy stretch of road or footpath and it is acknowledged as about the most comprehensive full-body workout you can get.
There is no shortage of marked routes to follow, for both classic and skating techniques, from dead easy to pretty difficult, ranging from a 3km ‘blue’ to a 14km panoramic trail with great views and even a 6km floodlit night trail; plus a high-altitude 8km route reached by the Sunnbuel cable car at more than 1,900 metres, giving access to the flat, pine-forested Spittelmatte area.
The gear is a lot lighter than downhill equipment, too, of course, so it’s no problem at all to stop at a village cafe, click out of the light bindings and just walk inside in the very comfy, trainer-style langlauf shoes or boots without risking either slipping on your back thanks to clunky downhill boots, or risking the wrath of the cafe owner by ruining his rugs or polished floors.
It’s a great way to link up with the locals, perhaps under the guidance of Urs Niedhart, a former Olympic athlete and owner of the local Nordic ski school and you may well meet up with one or more former professional athletes in any of the restaurants, coffee shops and hotels used as meeting places around the village, where there is no big, raucous ‘apres’ scene.
There wasn’t much time for ‘apres’ either, with the attraction of a superb spa at our base in the Waldhotel Doldenhorn, where you could relax under the stars in the outdoor jacuzzi section of its main pool and then be spoiled for choice with a splendid menu. The food was excellent and the nearby historic Landgasthof Ruedihus, owned and run by the same family team of René and Anne Maeder and son Patric, offered us an insight into regional cuisine at its finest.
Food was good, too, at the Chalet Hotel Adler in the centre of the village, but here was another twist on fun at altitude, with fun-loving owner Andreas Fetzer showing off his ‘loverooms’, featuring whirlpool baths made for two which glide outside onto private balconies at the touch of a button.
More great food at the Hotel Ermitage, where Rosemarie Bieri rules supreme in the kitchen and husband Karl runs front-of-house, in a handy setting next to the gondola which you take to reach the easy downhill slopes and the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site of Oeschinensee, with walks and even ice fishing on offer as well as stunning scenery. There’s also a super lunch spot at a remote, fifth-generation-owned restaurant by the lake, reached by skiing, sledging or taking a half-hour hike, before you either take a return gondola trip or bomb back to the village on a dedicated sledge run.
Back in the village for a coffee in the popular Hotel Blumlisalp, where one morning we found the Swiss Ski youth team loading up with carbs before training; and where one evening we had dinner and also found why Master Chef Christian Wyss-Wandfluh and his wife Madi have Swiss Gilde credentials for their brilliant cooking and hospitality.
Balance is a key part of skiing, ski jumping, sledging and even ice-climbing, but it’s also one heck of a job trying to balance any of those with great food and self-indulgence in such a marvellous setting as Kandersteg.
And if you’re tempted to go there, do what Eddie the Eagle did, jump at the chance!
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