With a face full of Swiss chocolate, I began to fully realise what they meant when they said there’s much more than just skiing and snowboarding in the Bernese Oberland in winter.
I had a pretty good idea already, having been lucky enough to visit the Jungfrau region a good many times in the past, but this time I was treated to a world of indulgence which did nothing for my waistline or ski fitness – although, to be fair, there was some stiff walking involved which would have burned at least some calories.
The good times started with mini-bars of chocolate dished out on the comfortable SWISS flight from Manchester to Zurich, a snack I saved for the train ride to Interlaken, always a treat as the trains are spotless and spot on time, with great views of the countryside on the route via Bern.
Once in the picturesque town between the twin lakes, Brienzersee and Thunersee, it was a testing walk to the rather splendid Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa, testing not because of distance or any gradient, but because of running the gauntlet of chocolate shops and cafes setting out all manner of temptation. And I don’t just mean the Co-op with giant bars of that triangular treat that appears in every Christmas stocking.
Armed with the logic that chocolate comes from cocoa, which grows on trees and therefore counts as a salad, our ostensibly ski-fit party headed off to the old part of town to the Funky Chocolate Club, an Aladdin’s cave for choccy lovers, where we donned aprons and cheffy hats and joined a chocolate-making workshop looking like Santa’s Little Helpers, secure in the knowledge that any mistakes could be eaten.
With the tuition and guidance of charming co-owner Tatiana, we tackled the techniques, tips and tricks of blending and tempering chocolate, and at the end of a fascinating session, we all had bars of self-crafted chocolate and huge chocolatey grins on our faces.
There was another chocolate ‘high’ in store on a trip which should be on everyone’s bucket list – the heady journey to the Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe, a couple of hours from Interlaken, with a spectacular cog railway ride to Wengen; another cog railway link to Kleine Scheidegg (one of my favourite spots in the world!); and then the spectacular cog railway ride carved through the Eiger, with windows in the rock face, to reach the highest railway station on the Continent at 3,454 metres.
The altitude gain is so rapid that the trip and the views en route leave you breathless enough, but trek on even higher to the viewing platforms and what’s left of your breath will be taken away – the snowscape panorama is beyond stunning.
Back inside the mountain, there’s a 250-metre adventure tour taking in the Ice Palace, with brilliant ice carvings by local artist Bruno Hanggi; and then there’s also what the world-famous Lindt company calls their Swiss Chocolate Heaven, a title that reflects the altitude and surroundings.
A discovery tour takes you from the raw materials to a holographic maître chocolatiere and touch-screen workplace, plus a ‘machine’ with animated movies which interact with mechanical bits to show how their truffle is made, and, of course, a chocolate shop with free samples.
But as a Funky Swiss Chocolatier with a certificate to prove it, I moved on, and managed to shed some of the guilt by joining a quick and fairly energetic way down from Kleine Scheidegg towards Grindelwald.
This involved collecting a sled from the sports store by the railway station and taking a short ride to Alpiglen, where you take a gentle walk along a picturesque path under the intimidating North Wall of the Eiger – then you get on the sled, cling on and plunge down the narrow, scary Eiger Run sledging track, trying not to career off into the trees or demolish anybody else when it joins the ski piste as it reaches the train station at Brandegg. Time for a quick and very necessary livener before catching the train to Grindelwald, with a great sunset over the Wetterhorn (once climbed by ‘Our Kid’, my late, lamented big brother Peter), and then another train to Interlaken for yet more indulgence.
No chocolate again just yet, but a welcome mug of glühwein before a traditional, delicious cheese fondue in the Igloo Restaurant, part of the incredibly successful Ice Magic attraction in the centre of town, just across the Hoheweg promenade from our hotel, on a meadow also used as a landing ground by heart-thumping tandem paragliders.
Another day, another treat, starting with a boat cruise to the lakeside town of Thun (charmingly pronounced ‘Toon’), with lunch on board a ‘steamer’ used in summer for parties and weddings. On the menu was traditional Swiss fare which some might find a bit surprising, rejoicing in the name of ghackets mit hornli und apfelmus – savoury minced beef with elbow macaroni and a large side dish of cold apple sauce.
Thun was just the place to walk it off, a cosmopolitan old town at the far end of the lake from Interlaken, with ancient sluice bridges which control the river volume as far downstream as Bern, which has to be a great bargaining chip once the snow starts to melt. The bustling place is steeped in history, with a popular route along steep-ish, cobbled streets and among double-storeyed shops offering plenty to see and plenty of places to browse.
Another evening, too, and it was off to the old part of Interlaken again, this time to enjoy dinner in the market square’s Ox Restaurant & Grill, where the name gives a clue that vegans might struggle a bit. The same was true of my final evening at the Husi Bierhaus, where I had had a very reasonably-priced bowl of rich, meaty gulaschsuppe I could literally stand a spoon up in; and couldn’t help but stare when another diner had mash and red cabbage topped with a ham hock, complete with crackling, that looked like half a pig and would have easily fed a family of four.
Far too full to stop on the way back to the Victoria-Jungfrau for a large hot chocolate at Ice Magic, I was also secure in the knowledge that waiting for me on my pillow would be a little box shaped like the hotel’s central tower – containing a lovely little chocolate.
Swiss International Air Lines offers up to 115 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich alone, with fares from £71 one-way. SWISS operates more than 180 flights to Switzerland as a whole from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Dublin from £38 one-way with hand luggage only – but skis are free. Call 0345 990 9161 or visit www.swiss.com
The Swiss Travel System provides a range of exclusive passes and tickets for road, rail and waterways. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £94 2nd class and £151 in 1st class.