I HAVE somehow managed to stumble into a time warp. There are gentlemen in bowler hats and frock coats, and ladies in fancy bonnets. Horse-drawn carriages pass me by, their drivers waving cheerily. I conclude that a bizarre ritual is taking place here in my dream. Time, it would seem, is standing still. Yet my watch is still ticking.
I spot more people in Edwardian dress at the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria, where lunch is being served on the terrace. Odd. Snow lies dormant on the distant peaks, yet the sun is a striking blue, and people are eating outside in mid-winter. Maybe the music in my head and the people before me will disappear, a bit like for Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Ah, that sequence of the film was set in a hotel ballroom, but then I note there is one here, too.
In a nutshell, this is an annual calendar occasion when the village turns back its Swiss clock a century, and the 1,200 residents head to the attic to dust off their great grandparents’ period dress. It is all very jolly, with a week of events held in and around Kandersteg. An occasion unique to Europe, in fact.
Belle Epoque (Beautiful Era) has been staged here each January since 2009. I am told it is a way of filling the ‘down’ period between Christmas and February, when the resort once again begins to draw the tourists to this winter wonderland.
As an Alpine village of laidback, significant charm, each winter it is very much overshadowed by the likes of its big brothers, the mega-popular ski resorts, although it is a huge draw for ice climbers, with its inviting sheer rock walls and frozen waterfalls. However, what Kandersteg lacks in black runs, it makes up for in sheer beauty, and January is clearly a particularly romantic time of the year to vacation here.
There is little rubber traffic to speak off, although the village boasts the highest bus route in Europe. I am taken to a shop where I am encouraged to select any number of items of period clothing. Ladies to the left rail, gentlemen to the right, if you please. Rather than ending up looking like a drag queen, I opt for a top hat and tails, striped trousers, flowing white shirt and matching waistcoat. I must admit I look rather dashing, chums, even though the trousers are a tad baggy, but a hearty meal should sort that. I could have done with a silver-tipped cane, but possibly a ski pole might suffice.
The evening begins with a welcome G&T, before we are swept into the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria’s dining room. The men brush up rather well, with neatly trimmed beards and sporting creased dinner suits and tails, their partners gliding past me in glamorous evening dresses, feather bows and fascinators. Do you know what, I could easily warm to this, as I realise how easy it is to fall under the spell of the occasion. For here we all are, a mirror image of the late 19th century. To the accompaniment of a pianist/singer and nostalgic female choir, dinner is a running buffet of chicken soup, salad, meats and fish, followed by a selection of desserts.
I have not admitted this to my wife, because it would hardly ever happen when we are out, but the occasion clearly gets to me, because I actually take to the dance floor and make an appalling attempt at a waltz. Poor Briony, she is clearly glad when the music stops. Perhaps the pianist, too, is happy to spare me further embarrassment.
Aside from Belle Epoque week, Kandersteg certainly has plenty to offer the visitor in terms of winter activities. Wednesday morning, for example, we head to the Alpine Centre sports store (www.alpine-center.ch) to collect cross-country skis and boots. Having only participated in this activity once before, I admit to being slightly tense. We are meeting Urs Niedhart, owner of a cross-country school (www.myedelweiss.ch) and a former Olympian, who took part in the 1992 Nordic Combined event. And here he is, gliding across the circuit and looking particularly dapper in Belle Epoque attire.
As my colleagues and I are fitting into our skis, I happen to complete a backwards flip. An ominous beginning, then. Amusement over, Urs insists we lay down our poles and try gaining our balance as we make slow headway across the compacted snow. It is all a question of confidence, he cheerily tells us, something that I am decidedly lacking.
However, we manage to complete a couple of short circuits before Urs decides we are ready to tackle the 3km circuit. He then leads Sabi and myself on a shortcut, fearing we may otherwise come to harm or be lost in the hinterland.
After the instruction, or rather, full body workout, Urs takes us for a heartening Gluhwine, made with white wine, which is delicious. No time for a lie down, though, as we next collect a wooden toboggan each and take a gondola to Oeschinensee (www.oeschinensee.ch), a spectacular UNESCO world heritage area. Now this is more like it.
After lunch at the Hotel Oeschinensee, run by the sixth generation Wandfluh family, we take to our simple form of transport and hurtle down the mountain, this proving to be one of most exhilarating rides I have enjoyed in many a year. Breathless and ruddy-faced, we make it back to the hotel for a relaxing hour before we once again don Belle Epoque clothing and prepare for dinner, but not before taking a short walk through the village to compete in a toboggan race in the Oeschiwald, in the dark, with only the merest of dim lights attempting to patchily light up the icy, glistening track.
Fortified with a black tea plus dark rum and sugar, and to the accompanying sounds of the alphorn group of Kanderdsteg, I haul my sled up the mountainside to the start point, heart pounding and legs wobbling, more from the uphill slog than the fear of what is coming up. ‘Three, two, one, go!” and I am off, bouncing off the sides and desperately trying to avoid the occasional tree stump, each one sticking up two twisted wooden fingers as they try to up-skittle me.
Dinner takes place in the cowshed of the Chalet Hotel Adler***, a quaint building in Kandersteg, and heaving with diners. Candlight flickers on the tables, as we are served salad, followed by Raclette and Fondue. The evening culminates back at the Belle Epoque bar, where owner Casimir Platzer joins us for beers.
It is Casimir who guides four of us on a three-hour snowshoe walk the next day. We catch a cable car to Sunnbuel (www.sunnbuel.ch) and emerge at 1,936 metres into an almost pristine wilderness, save for the occasional barn and pole markers to aid cross-country skiers.
We walk along part of the historic Gemmipass route which connects Kandersteg to Leukerbad, an area which has a long history as an Alpine passage and trade route. It is not long before Casimir leads us off the main track and into deep snow. This is a land of marmots, hares, ibex and eagles, and where wolves and bears are slowly making a welcome return. Ten kilometres later, my bobble hat has been lost somewhere back on the trail, but no way am I going back to search for it. If you happen upon a hare bob, bob, bobbin’ along wearing a bobble hat, you will know where it came from.
Back in Kandersteg, we have a couple of hours’ downtown before we engage in a torchlight procession through the village led by Casimir to a hearty Gluhwine stop, where cross-country skiers fly by with head torches piercing the darkness, many from neighbouring villages, here for evening exercise after a day at the office.
Our farewell dinner is at the Restaurant Ritter, part of the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria. Dating back to 1789, it is the oldest inn in Kandersteg, and has a very special atmosphere. We are joined by Casimir and his charming wife, Mimi, and enjoy various meats cooked on a Tatarenhut, a special fondue set in the form of a traditional Tatar hat, consisting of heat-resistant steel with steel tips upon which diners overlay the meat. At the bottom of the hat is a juice groove where we placed mushrooms and pineapple.
Friday morning, and we have a farewell lunch at the hotel comprising Kandersteg delicacies, including smoked trout, marinated pumpkin and a delicious local cheese. New guests pour into the Belle Epoque, here to enjoy a weekend of festivities, including a Ball of the Century with a classical orchestra, held in the magnificent chandeliered dining-room of the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria.
There is little wonder that this unique and charming weeklong programme of events is proving increasingly popular in this quintessentially Swiss village, re-living a period in history which otherwise could so easily have been forgotten.
If you fancy partying like it’s 1899, where the backdrop is breathtaking, the gastronomy superb, the people friendly and courteous, then I have no hesitation in recommending Kandersteg. For where else in this world, I ask myself, would one expect to see ladies in such elegant dress, and gentlemen doffing their caps to passers-by? So thank-you Kandersteg, for annually reliving an era which was indeed truly beautiful.
- All images © Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys
Switzerland Tourism – For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on the international freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information firstname.lastname@example.org; for packages, trains and air tickets email@example.com
Inntravel – Two of Inntravel’s relevant winter holidays to Kandersteg:
Swiss International Air Lines
UK to Zurich: SWISS offers up to 115 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares include all airport taxes: one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage (excluding Economy Light fare). Fares start from £71* one-way (Economy Light fare) and from £86* one-way (Economy Classic fare). (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0345 990 9161 or visit www.swiss.com
UK & Ireland to Switzerland: SWISS operates more than 180 flights to Switzerland from London Heathrow, London City, London Gatwick (seasonal during winter), Birmingham, Manchester and Dublin from as little as £38 one-way* (Economy Light Fare only includes hand luggage). The all-inclusive fares start from £54 one-way*, including all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage. (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0345 990 9161 or visit www.swiss.com
Swiss Travel System – By road, rail and waterway throughout Switzerland: The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £94 in 2nd class and £151 in 1st class. For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk
Check out specialist tour operator Inntravel’s Snow Holidays in the Bernese Oberland in 2016
Featuring limitless ways to have fun in the white stuff, Inntravel’s Snow programme offers so much more than skiing and always on the quiet side of the mountain. Though cross-country skiing lies at the heart of many of the tempting breaks, the snow-covered landscapes can be explored by a variety of other means too – whether downhill skiing on uncrowded slopes, snowshoeing through silent forests, winter walking, husky sledding, or glimpsing the Northern Lights. Hand-picked locations boasting picturesque villages, magical landscapes and relaxed activity offer charmingly unspoiled havens far removed from the busy whirl of most modern-day ski resorts – among them is Inntravel’s long-standing favourite Alpine village, Kandersteg. Here in the Bernese Oberland, where the scenery is grand and the cross-country skiing is some of the best in Switzerland, the 3-star Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria gives guests the warmest of welcomes.
Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria, Kandersteg – Enjoy cross-country skiing for all levels, fun downhill skiing, winter walking and much more on a week’s stay at this deservedly popular hotel. Seven nights from £960. Short breaks are also available from £598.
Belle Epoque Week at Hotel Victoria – Step back in time with villagers some 100 years and enjoy traditional sledging, bob sleigh races and an afternoon tea dance, as well as a horse-drawn sleigh ride and guided torchlit walk, all culminating in a fancy-dress ball. Seven nights’ B&B and 4 dinners from £1,280. Takes place during the last week in January 2017.
Cross-Country Try It Out Week – Learn cross-country skiing in picture-book surroundings with like-minded Inntravel guests at the hotel’s own ski school, and try your hand at other winter activities between lessons. Set dates only. Seven nights, cross-country pass, ski hire and 3 x2hour lessons from £1,160.
Victoria Alpine Park, Kandersteg – Enjoy the snow to your heart’s content – and the complete freedom that staying in high-quality self-catering apartments brings. These self-catering apartments – part of the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria – offer families, in particular, the perfect solution, with the choice to eat in or out when and where they choose and more space to call their own. Why not use the hotel pool, too. Seven nights from £642 (based on 4 people sharing a 2-bedroomed apartment).
A Taste of Winter – Special taster weeks, ideal for those who have never been on a winter holiday before, introduce visitors to a wide range of winter pastimes. Set departures. Seven nights, cross-country ski and curling lessons, snowshoe excursion, horse-drawn sleigh ride, torchlit stroll with mulled wine, tobogganing session, and equipment hire from £1,162.
Winter Walking Week – Explore the beautiful snowy landscapes around Kandersteg on day-long guided excursions on foot and on snowshoes. No experience or special technique is required. Set departures. Seven nights, three guided excursions and a horse-drawn sleigh ride from £1,065.
The Glacier Express in Winter – One of the most beautiful train journeys in the world is at its most dramatic in the winter months, taking passengers up to 2,033 metres through scenery of incomparable grandeur. Two nights at Kandersteg are bookended by stays in the handsome cities of Chur and Lucerne. Seven nights’ B&B, 3 dinners, rail travel from £1,170.
All prices include return flights, transfers, as well as accommodation on a half-board basis, unless otherwise stated.
Included in the price are return flights with Swiss Heathrow-Zürich (1h40) or Heathrow-Geneva (1h40) as well as connecting journey by rail (2h30 from Zürich, 3h20 from Geneva) and transfer (0h05).
For more information on Inntravel Snow holidays visit inntravel.co.uk, call 01653 617000 or follow on Twitter @inntravel