Nestled under the gaze of the trinity of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, Interlaken is accessible by train from Zurich, Bern and Geneva airports and whichever route you approach the town you're guaranteed a heady mix of scenery and anticipation. Our mission was to see just how many adventures we could fit in in just 3 days.
There's no getting away from the fact that Switzerland's no budget destination but at only two hours flying time from the UK it offers a unique blend of German efficiency and French flair. In a land famous for its clocks and watches it's no surprise that everything runs on time but paradoxically the pace of life seems somehow more relaxed. Likewise, with a bit of research and a pinch of compromise there's affordable adventure to be had.
We flew with Swiss to Zurich from Manchester but with Bern, Basel and Geneva as options there's a choice of UK departure points and prices, with a return flight between the end of the summer season and the start of skiing costing as little as £65. The key to getting around affordably once on the ground lies in understanding the legendary Swiss Railway system and making use of tourist targeted local transport cards. For a 3 or 4 day trip based in a single area, the Swiss Transfer Ticket will get you from airport to destination and back again for £102 2nd class or £168 1st class, or add an extra £40 and you get the bonus of half price fares on any additional journeys.
From Zurich the train quickly, quietly, and very efficiently deposits you at Bern, where trains from Basel and Geneva also converge, before heading south towards the increasingly impressive mountains. An alternative route to Interlaken via Lucerne is promoted as the "scenic route" but the approach alongside Thunersee is far from bland, its shoreline dotted with fairy-tale castles and the snow covered peaks of the Alps growing ever larger through the windows.
Rather than being just a destination in itself part of Interlaken's beauty is in being a base, a springboard from which to launch yourself into a multitude of adventures then return there to sleep. Seen from above the three distinct settlements of Unterseen, Wilderswil and Interlaken hug the flat land alongside the River Aare, offering a choice of water based sports from Stand Up Paddleboard to water skiing and windsurfing to kayaking but the gaze naturally returns to the mountains that dominate the view to the South. In winter this is the preserve of the skier and snowboarder but between the seasons the funiculars instead ferry hikers and bikers to the hills.
As with any tourist destination there's a range of accomodation from the iconic and historical Victoria Jungfrau at the pricey end to a network of hostels catering for the less affluent. Swiss hostels, however, are a far cry from the usual UK perception of a hostel. While there's the traditional dormitary accomodation from around £30 a night the Backpackers Villa, close to the centre of town, also offers single and double rooms with full en-suite from around £50 a night. As with all accomodation in Interlaken the hostel provides overnight visitors with a travel card for the local bus services but in reality the town is small enough to get around on foot or bike. Throw in free breakfasts, free wifi, free tea (or a couple of coffee/chocolates a day) and Switzerland or not, it's starting to be real value for money. The Backpackers Villa is also home to one of several pargliding schools in the area, with sizeable discounts available by booking through the hostel. As a final draw the hostel offers special deals at selected resaurants in town with a set price, 3 course, meal for a little over £15 per person.
If your budget doesn't stretch to restaurant eating there's no problem, with Coop supermarkets at both Interlaken Ost and West railway stations and a well equipped kitchen at the hostel self-service is a realistic option and provides a flexibility unavailable in hotels. It also frees up resources for those "one-off" meals in iconic locations in mountain huts and restaurants. In Interlaken you don't even have to travel outside the confines of the town to find one! Sitting high above the town at over 1300m Harder Kulm can be reached by a steep, very steep, climb or a 10 minute ride on the steeply inclined funicular and while renowned for its night time view over the town it's equally hard to think of a better location to start the day over a traditional alpine breakfast.
On a short trip there's no time to be wasted and while the mountains are the big draw they're a day out in themselves, but if time allows there's adventure to be had within walking distance of the town centre on arrival day. Outdoor Interlaken, the biggest single provider of adventure activities in the area, run a ropes course and "Vertical Rush" combination of highline, BASE jump simulator, rope swing and fastline (ziplne) just minutes from the bustling town centre.
Interlaken really comes alive at night as day adventurers head back to their overnight accomodation. In the day it seems like every second shop is a high-end watch retailer catering for the hordes of tourists but as the shops close the restaurants start opening, offering cuisine from every corner of the Earth. A high proportion of Korean and Chinese visitors has seen an upturn in Thai, Korean and Chinese eateries but take a wander over the Aare into the old town on the north bank and you'll find delightful traditional restaurants
An early start on day 2 saw us heading for Grindelwald and the Eiger, the railway line climbing steadily to Gundlishwand then splitting in two either side of the mountain. Right heads up to Lauterbrunen, Wengen and Murren, legendary destinations i the ski world while left acends in the shadow of Switzerland's most famous, and notorious, north face. By the time you reach Grindelwald itself the Eiger dominates everything; for 4 months of the year half the village sees no sun as the shadow of the fearsome Nordwand hides its low trajectory from sight. The shadow of the north face is so pronounced that house prices on the sunny side of the village can be more than double that of the "dark" side.
As alpine resorts go Grindelwald is unique. A single ski lift leaves the village North to First (pronounced Fearced) and it's adventure hub while West and South West the funicular heads up to Kleine Sheidegg and the Junfrau. From here a train winds its way through the mountain to the highest restaurant in Europe perched high on the col between the Monch and Jungfrau; a truly unique experience.
A short ride on the gondola from Grindelwald takes you to First where the panoramic views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau really come into view. In winter the slopes here are full of skiers but as summer comes to the Alps it's a family centred adventure base. From the typically alpine Bergrestaurant the views of the Eiger are breathtaking but even this has been superceded over recent years with a suspended walkway around the cliff to a glass floored viweing platform on the First Tissot Cliff Walk.
For the energetic or those just wanting some relief from the crowds a signposted 45 minute walk from the restaurant leads up to the incomparable Bachalpsee, where it feels a million miles from the camera-toting crowds. Here, in September, you can have the whole lake to yourself with the only interuption to the the stunning vistas and the refection of the Schreckhorn in the lake's placid waters being the occassional call of birds.
For many the descent from First back to Grindelwald is the highlight of the day, with a combination of zipline, mountain cart and scooter to complete the journet. Reaching 50m above the ground the 800 metre First Flyer propels you downhill on 800 metres of steel cable to Schreckfeld, reaching speeds of over 50 miles an hour.
From Schreckfeld the journey continues by Mountain Cart; a mix of go-cart and sledge, starting on access roads shared with service vehicles before heading off-road to deliver you to the cable car at Bort.
The three wheeler mountain carts come with a comfortable seat, good tyres, and independent rear left and right brakes along with a helmet. The descent is almost continuous from the start at Schreckfeld and as your confidence grows the sweeping bends allow you to drift, braking on one side to keep the momentum and speed up as you descend towards Grindelwald.
At Bort it's time for another transportation change as you swap 3 wheels for two and the Trottibike. Put simply the Trottibike is a child's scooter for adults; Two wheels, a platform just wide enough for your feet, and brakes.
Once onboard all illusions of the Trottibike being a child's toy, however, disappear as the road steepens and the speed picks up. A subtle bend of the knees allows you to corner a little faster and soon you're reaching the outskirts of Grindelwald. Here the track joins the road and you weave through parked (and even moving) cars back to the cable car station where your day started.
With an early start and time in hand you can join the queues at Grindelwald station for the mountain railway up to Kleine Sheidegg or on to the Jungfraujoch or alternatively head back down the valley to Zweilütschinen and change to the cog railway from Wilderswil up to Schynige Platte on one of the most scenic panoramic trails in the whole of the Bernese Oberland.
By day three in Interlaken the extraordinary has become mundane but there's still no shortage of new adventures to be had. A short bus ride from the centre of Interlaken gives you access to Neuhaus, the centre for watersports on Thunersee. Here you can pick from water skiing, wakeboard, kayaking or SUP with Mounatain Surf.
For us the highlight of Day 3 (second full day), however, had to be the unique experience of a maiden tandem skydive with Scenic Air. Taking off from Reichenbach, east of Thunersee, you have the option of helicopter or plane. If you can we'd advise the plane option; By helicopter you go straight up and straight down but by plane you get the bonus of a circuit of the Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau before jumping out at 15000 feet (14000 in less favourable weather).
Of course skydiving's not cheap, and if you want a video or pictures of your jump it's going to set you back the best part of £300 (or more) but if you're going to take your first jump there can hardly be a better location. For the more budget minded you can still get airborne by either hang glider or paragliding, with the advantage of a landing point directly in front of the Backpackers Villa and a discount when bought direct through the hostel.
Paragliding will set you back around £140 with Hang gliding an extra £40 and as with the skydiving the price includes collection from the door and drop-off back at the hostel if required. With a landing in the centre of town, however, it's only a short walk to any of the town's hostels and hotels. The view of Interlaken from above is spectacular, highlighting the difference in colour between Interlaken's two lakes. Brienzersee is fed from glaciers resulting in a clear, turquoise, hue while Thunersee is fed by a combination of water from Brienzersee, the Aare and runoff from a 2,500 square kilometre catchment reaching as far as the 4,270m Finsteraarhorn.
The two lakes were connected in 1835, heralding not only the start of tourism to Interlaken but also a hydroelectric system that still powers a third of the town's houses that takes advantage of a 5m height difference between the two lakes. The Interlaken and Thun Ship Canals also make the return trip to Bern, and onwards home, a relaxing experience if time allows. The Swiss Transfer Ticket that takes you from your point of entry into Switzerlnd to your destination and back covers boats as well as trains and after the adrenaline overload of the mountains there's no better way to start your journey home that a cruise along the length of Thunersee from Interlaken to Thun (pronounced Toon). Hopping from settlement to settlement along the shores of the lake the cruise takes around 2 hours, passing lakeside castles dating back to the 14th Century before delivering you within a few paces of Thun's main train station for a train direct to Zurich Airport via Bern (change for Basel and Geneva).
Even with a packed schedule from breakfast to dinner 3 days only scratches the surface of what's available within a half hour of Interlaken. From canyoning to white water rafting and bungee jumps to enormous rope swings there's a host of activities to bring you back again
We'd like to thank Swiss Tourism, MyInterlaken, Ferretti Tourism and Jungfrau.ch for all their assistance throughout the weekend, without which it would have been impossible to fit so much in and the Backpackers Villa in Interlaken for an eye opening experience of just how gow much you can get for so little money.