Review of Wengen

17th March 2009 by Mark Surridge 

Inevitably there will be mixed reviews on a ski area like the Jungfrau where the three resorts, Wengen, Grindlewald and Murren, are geographically spread and the transport systems painfully slow. However if you are looking for a relaxing week, in a quiet traditional Swiss village, full of old school charm and set in the most dramatic and spectacularly beautiful Alpine location, with long wide well groomed runs, no lift queues, and ideal for the Intermediate skier, then Wengen is for you. And in the first week of March I had the best snow conditions I’ve ever enjoyed in my 35 years skiing.

Above Wengen there are three breathtaking, overarching peaks: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, and for this reason there is always a degree of anxiety in the resort when heavy snow falls, as it did this year, as a painful recent experience is fresh in mind, when in February 1999, after a rapid build up of fresh snow on a hard base, the Männlichen cable car felt the full force of an avalanche which struck the valley lift station burying the platform area under more than ten metres of snow, trees and rock. The cableway had to close for several months. The mountain security were vigilant during my stay, judging by the frequency of the explosions, and their dynamiting ensured the pistes were all kept open and skiers and boarders were able to enjoy all the fresh snow with no pistes or lifts closed. No mean achievement. Similarly in both Grindlewald and Murren the pistes were groomed after fresh snow and the pistes opened as soon as possible. Sadly poor visibility and avalanche danger closed the long black off the Schilthorn in Murren, but the fast and intimidating long reds under the Birg gondola were empty and the Piz Gloria restaurant with all its James Bond memorabilia was open to non skiers. (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed here.)

Wengen is a traditional, ‘traffic-free’ Alpine village, reached only by cog railway and a twenty minute journey from Lauterbrunnen. After the arrival of the railway in the 1880s, the first hotels were built and the British tourists arrived soon afterwards. The Jungfraubahn railway in the Bernese Oberland, a feat of engineering for its time, is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site today. The railway reaches to the Jungfraujoch station, the highest one in Europe at 3454 m above sea level. Ironically Wengen, a walkers’ paradise, only became a popular ski destination after the British visitors persuaded the local railway company to keep the line open during the winter months so they could enjoy their downhill skiing.

Wengen, which shares the very reasonably priced Jungfrau lift pass with Grindlewald and Murren, has 132 miles of piste and 14 lifts are spread over a large area linked by rack-and-pinion mountain railways that provide the backbone of the lift system. People’s reactions to the transport up the mountain vary widely; no hotel is far from the railway or cable car but if you are in a hurry then this is not the resort for you. However if you ski hard then a leisurely return to the top of the mountain is a welcome alternative after a punishing long descent.

Early departures from Wengen station allow skiers to travel down to Lauterbrunnen for rail or bus connections to gondolas at Grindlewald and Murren, and still be in those resorts for the opening lifts of the day. A degree of patience is required as the buses run infrequently along the valley and in peak times bottlenecks do occur. The local authorities are belatedly addressing this poor transport problem as the declining numbers of younger skiers in the resort would suggest impatience with such inefficiency. Their preference for more modern resorts with efficient navettes ensuring the rapid movement of large numbers from piste to piste has alerted the Jungfrau ski authorities to remedying the situation for next year where a reduction in the number of skiers and snowboarders is feared.

However for those happy to remain in resort access from Wengen to one of the best ski areas in Europe is by train up to Kleine Scheidegg where you can ski to your heart’s content, and virtually alone, underneath the looming north face of the Eiger and the dramatic Jungfrau, with the sun sparkling off the glistening glaciers. While I was skiing on empty, freshly groomed slopes with a light topping of new snow, my son was boarding off piste and literally riding up to his waist in fresh powder snow.

Unlike some resorts that close off their prize world cup slopes, the adventurous have the opportunity, as we did on at least half a dozen occasions, to jump out of the starting gate and race down the Lauberhorn, one of the six classic downhill courses. The course is one of the most demanding on the circuit, being the longest, at 4km (2.5 miles), and toughest, descending over 1,000 vertical metres (3,300 feet).

There are many British skiers who return annually and with characteristic aplomb their ingrained national resistance to brutal change has seen them organise a petition to one proposed change for 2009/2010 - the plan to replace their much loved but antique Salzegg t-bar to Eigergletscher with a fast six-pack chair lift. The regulars fear the ‘best snow on the mountain’ which falls off the Eiger to cover the aptly named but somewhat inaccessible ‘Oh God’ piste, will be tracked out by increasing numbers who are currently put off by the steep drag, a particularly uninviting ascent for the less adventurous.

Throughout the week the wide pistes were well groomed and uncrowded - even at weekends the slopes seemed sparsely populated. They were not particularly well marked, however, and the heavy snowfalls meant that some piste markers had literally disappeared beneath the deep snow. In poor visibility this became a tedious and potentially dangerous, not to mention avoidable, problem. There were good restaurants around the station at Kleine Scheidegg, notably the classy Station Restaurant which served wonderful food at reasonable prices, and the Zimmer Restaurant. The one undiscovered gem is the Pizzeria down at the Lauterbrunnen station, serving wonderful pizza, and an ideal stop after the magnificent long blue, down through the trees from the Winteregg chair in Murren.

Although the après ski is more restrained than in Austria there are some lively bars on the slopes. At the top of the Wixi chair there is the Start Bar, perched at the top of the Lauberhorn, offering fantastic views and live music at weekends. On the way down there is more fun to be had at the Wasche Bar and the Schnee Bar before reaching the outdoor snow bar at the front of the family run Hotel Brunner. This hotel offers door to door skiing - where we enjoyed another Glühwein, before enjoying a sumptuous four course meal each evening in our elegant dining room, where the delicious homemade soups were particularly noteworthy. Friends stayed in the Falken Hotel and were equally complimentary about the cuisine and the old school charm and faded grandeur, enjoying the unique Piano Bar.

The bars on the mountain close at the same time as the lifts but for those wishing to party on further the Wigwam at the Kleine Scheidegg allows longer après ski and revellers return down the mountain by the train which runs through to 11.30pm. In the village itself, Sina’s Bar and the Rocks Bar offer large screen televisions for those wishing to watch their satellite sport while the more traditional Tanne Bar offers more sophisticated fare.

Was Wengen something special? Certainly the best ski holiday of my life.

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