‘We’re inside a glacier, Mum!’
I was as surprised as my nine-year-old son Ethan to be walking beneath 30 metres of solid ice. Until the moment we set foot inside it, I hadn’t realised that the Jungfraujoch’s Eispalast or ‘Ice Palace’, home to various ice sculptures including penguins and polar bears, is within a vast mass of actual ice.
'As avalanches crackled like thunder in nearby valleys, we walked over the snowy Aletsch glacier – the longest in the Alps – past crevasses spiked with lethal-looking stalactites, to the Mönchejochhut, a hikers’ refuge serving suitably calorific mountain fare.'
The Jungfraujoch bills itself as ‘the roof of Europe’, and although it can’t lay claim to being the highest point on the Continent, it does have its highest railway station, at nearly 3.5km above sea level. To get there, you take a truly magical train-ride along a windowed tunnel that passes first through the mighty Eiger, then swings round to traverse the neighbouring Mönch. Pit-stops en-route allow you to climb out for superb vistas over otherworldly landscapes of snow and ice.
To our dismay, the ‘Snow Fun’ promised for the kids at the top of the Jungfraujoch – tobogganing and a zip wire – was closed due to an imminent snowstorm, but the outing was still a great adventure by virtue of us being so high up and surrounded by snowy peaks in early September. As avalanches crackled like thunder in nearby valleys, we walked over the snowy Aletsch glacier – the longest in the Alps – past crevasses spiked with lethal-looking stalactites, to the Mönchejochhut, a hikers’ refuge serving suitably calorific mountain fare plus hot chocolate for the kids and tea with hot wine for grown-ups. As the weather continued its decline, turning into a blizzard of hard little snowflakes that pecked at our skin, we headed back down towards the observation building, Ethan by now hoping against hope to hitch a ride on the snowplough as it lumbered past.
The Jungfraujoch excursion took up the third day of our trip to the Haslital and Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps, both of which offer fabulous family activities in winter and summer alike. Having flown to Bern, Switzerland’s capital, we headed first to the Hasliberg cable-car station. This took us up, over the heads of marmots fattening themselves for hibernation on the hillsides, to the Alpen Tower restaurant, where we refuelled on good Swiss specialities and pasta in readiness for tackling the Muggestutz, a children’s adventure trail based on the tale of local dwarves driven from their village up to these heights by nasty humans.
The trail, a five-kilometre downhill hike inhabited by tiny frogs and grasshoppers, takes you past an array of natural play areas connected with the legend of the dwarves, including a wooden maze, a woodcutter’s area where kids can try their hand at chopping logs, and a tiny house kitted out with a bed and table and chairs set out for tea. The chimes of cowbells are the only sounds you hear as you make your way down; at a farmhouse perched on the hillside you can stock up on cheese made from the products of the contented creatures. The hike takes about two hours, but you could spend an entire day on the trail – a barbecue area part-way along encourages you to bring some sausages and linger awhile.
Weary from our early flight and all that fresh mountain air and walking, we were delighted to check into our super-comfortable and enormously child-friendly hotel, the Kinder- und Hotel & Naturresort Handeck, about a 40-minute drive from the Hasliberg, near Guttannen. I was all for flopping out in our huge room with its inviting-looking bed and deep bathtub, but Ethan had spotted, against a backdrop of glacier-clad mountains, the playground within the hotel’s alpine garden, and insisted that we check it out, together with the resident goats and pigs. Afterwards, an excellent meal in the restaurant – including a salad brimming with fresh mountain herbs – left us fit for nothing but bed and a deep undisturbed sleep lasting a blissful 10 hours.
The Hotel Handeck is more than well-sited for the Haslital’s main attraction, the Gelmer funicular railway, first built for hydro workers but recently reopened as a tourist attraction with the USP of being Europe’s steepest funicular, with a rather shocking 106% gradient. Even worse (at least for vertigo-sufferers like me) is that it’s accessed from the hotel by means of a long hanging bridge that takes pedestrians over a rail tunnel and a gorge. Still, the sight of Gelmer lake at the top of the funicular in the early-morning light and the energetic hike down to Chuenzetennlen, along precipitous paths bordered by bushes of wild blueberries that we picked and munched en route, made the pure terror of the two experiences worth it (Ethan had loved every minute of both).
Down in the valley, we picked up the Crystal Trail, part of the old north-south Sbrinz Route for transporting salt, wine and cheese by foot and on horseback. This took us back to the hotel, where we made a final sortie past the on-site cheesemaker and through flower-strewn alpine meadows to a ‘crystal cavern’, where Ethan hand-cranked a flicker of electricity that let him spy into a small cave glittering with crystals.
I could have spent a week at the ultra-chilled Handeck – as well as the playground there’s a well-kitted-out, modern playroom. But it was time to head off Meiringen to catch a local Postbus through the stunning Rosenlaui Valley to Grindelwald, one of the region’s best-established hiking centres but best known for its family skiing, with slopes for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers. Our base here, the chalet-style Hotel Kirchbühl, was not as smart or truly cosy as the Handeck but did have play equipment outside and a basement playroom that came in handy. The food, here too, was very good, and the views were almost ridiculously picturesque – from the balcony of our self-catering studio room down the road from the main hotel building I was able to ogle the Eiger as I caught some rays.
Our last day in the region, after the Jungfraujoch trip, was spent at Mürren, another popular ski resort that’s great for younger kids because it’s completely traffic-free. Accessed by cable-car and cog railway, its main summer attraction is another children’s adventure trail, with a zip wire and woodland play areas, plus a hiking path that takes you alongside some waterfalls. We also spotted some chamois – wild mountain goats – and their young. Our experience of this part of the region was dampened more than a little by unremitting drizzle, but that was all the more reason to enjoy a hearty lunch in the Eiger Guesthouse, where a glass of Glühwein, a spicy bowl of pasta and a couple of games of pool and table football made all right with the world again. Alas, we weren’t able to stay, but had we been able to, there are numerous rooms suited to families upstairs, some with bunk beds.
The unlimited-travel Swiss Pass (swiss-pass.ch) we’d used on the Postbus and various local trains also served us for the journey back to Bern. If you do choose to use Switzerland’s rail system, it’s worth noting that doubledecker Intercity trains have family carriages with play equipment and games. But if that leaves you in any doubt about the fact that Switzerland is one of the most child-friendly of countries, just take your kid into any local grocery and watch their jaw hit the floor as they clock the mindboggling choice of chocolate – Toblerone is just the tip of the glacier.
See also our summer camping recommendation in the Bernese Oberland, Manor Farm Campsite overlooking the Thunersee lake at Interlaken, with a private beach.