By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
Bleh, Bleh, Bleh….
We are sharing the hiking trail — and the spectacular Swiss Alpine views with a herd of goats in the Jungfrau region of the Alps and one goat keeps nudging me from behind, just like my two daughters who have been urging me to hike faster up the steep terrain.
But I can’t help pausing to look around at the thundering waterfalls, the Alpine meadows dotted with colorful wildflowers, the huge grazing cows with their distinctive cowbells around their necks and the rustic mountain houses that look like they’re straight out of “Heidi.” Farmers spend their summers in these small houses so that their cows and goats can graze in the high Alpine meadows.
We see a lot fewer hikers on the trail than we would at a U.S. national park, though this is a UNESCO World Heritage region, and those we do meet (everyone from young kids to those in their 80s) are exceedingly fit.
“Hiking is a way of life for the Swiss,” explains Greg Witt, the bestselling hiking books author and founder of Alpenwild, now the largest tour operator offering walking and hiking tours in the Alps. The Swiss, he says, walk nearly twice as many steps a day as the average American.
Our destination is the 15-room Hotel Obersteinberg, which can only be reached by a long uphill hike and is open only from June 1 through September. There are more than 200 Alpine huts in Switzerland where guests can get dinner, breakfast and a comfortable bed, though there may not be electricity or hot showers.
This is the start of a two-week, self-guided hiking trip arranged by Alpenwild for my husband, me and our two daughters — a rare time together now that the girls are grown — that will also enable us to hike on the Eiger Trail and see the Matterhorn. As the company does for half its clients, including many outdoor-loving families like ours, Alpenwild booked the hotels and arranged luggage transfers, suggested hikes and other sites. Such trips can be affordable, starting at under $1,000 per person; our Swiss Half Fare Card provided more savings, half off train, bus or boat travel on most mountain railway and public transport (children under 16 travel free when a parent has a valid Swiss Travel System card with the Swiss Family Card).
Except for this foray, if we got tired hiking, we would have another way down the mountain as the Jungfrau region — this is where J.R.R. Tolkien got his inspiration for Rivendell in “Lord of the Rings” — offers such a huge network of mountain rails and cableways, including the famous cogwheel Jungrau Railway that first opened in 1912 and now shepherds more than a million tourists a year to the “Top of Europe,” Europe’s highest railways station (11,332.5 feet above sea level). (Read more in my trip diaries and in future columns.)
No wonder tiny Switzerland — California is 10 times larger and New York city has more people than in all of Switzerland — is particularly popular with Americans hungry for an authentic experience to share with their kids, one that will take them away from big cities and tourist sites that have been repeated terrorist targets.
Nearly a million Americans have visited in the last year with tourism from the United States increasing more than 50 percent since 2009.
That’s despite the fact that Switzerland, with its own currency, can prove more expensive than other countries (the U.S. dollar and Swiss franc are about an even exchange). The pluses; Switzerland is a safe and stable country, people speak English and the country is exceedingly easy to navigate whether on the trains or the well-marked hiking trails that give you an estimated time to reach nearby towns.
Jamison Dondero, visiting from Dallas, likes most everything in Switzerland — the chance to ride scooters down the snow-capped mountain, the quaint mountain towns and the cozy, family-owned inns, but the food not so much. “I’d like the fondue better if there weren’t so many kinds of cheese in it,” she said without a hint of irony. She can be excused because she is only 9.
“Nature is what brings the people here,” observed Ruth Fuchs, owner of the popular Restaurant Weidstubli and Camping Jungfrau Holiday Park in Lauterbrunner, which offers more than 400 beds and room for 1,000 visitors in the campground. “There may always be something new (paragliding, hang gliding, scooters, mountain bikes and more) but what remains is the nature.”
“It is so pretty everywhere,” said Reese Dondero, 12.
Especially at the Hotel Obersteinberg, a working dairy farm and hotel that dates from the 1880s set in a remote valley. There are no roads. Mules transport what the hotel needs. There are chamois, red deer and even ibex in this protected area. (Rates seem a bargain given the experience — $70 for a dormitory bed; $91 per adult in a private room and $67 for kids starting at age six.)
We eat dinner by candlelight — vegetable soup, farm-produced sausages and Spätzle, a kind of soft egg noodle traditional here — and then fall into bed under down quilts in paneled rooms. We don’t mind the shared bathroom or the fact that only outdoor cold showers are available. Breakfast is freshly baked bread with cheese and butter that is produced here.
The opportunity for such a unique and remote adventure is what draws families. We met the Arbons, the parents carrying heavy packs, leading their three boys aged 5, 9 and 10 on the trail to the hotel. The biggest plus: “There are no cars and no tourist shops,” explained Lea Arbon.
Yann, 10, loves the mountain hut without electricity or showers, “because it is so different than home.”
After dinner at Obersteinberg, we sat outside nursing schnapps with our two daughters while taking in the spectacular views across the valley. That it took so much effort to get here made it all the more gratifying.
Lea and Peter Arbon agreed. They were hiking to another mountain hut hotel for a second night. The boys couldn’t be happier at the prospect of another night without showers.
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© 2018 EILEEN OGINTZ
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