Switzerland: Between the cowbells and snowboards

When the skiers leave Interlaken, it's not the end of the season. Peter Moss discovers this is a year-round resort

Enter Interlaken and you forget all of Switzerland's petty annoyances - garden gnomes, obsessive punctuality, dubious wartime associations, and hordes of hairy great men using some sort of ethnic folk dance as a rather flimsy excuse to slap each others' thighs. You enter, instead, a year-round resort, from spring through winter, the buttercups and cowbells making way for the skis and snowboards which whoosh past as you make your way up the mountain, before gazing back down, hot chocolate cupped in mittened hands, upon a town of picture-postcard prettiness.

Enter Interlaken and you forget all of Switzerland's petty annoyances - garden gnomes, obsessive punctuality, dubious wartime associations, and hordes of hairy great men using some sort of ethnic folk dance as a rather flimsy excuse to slap each others' thighs. You enter, instead, a year-round resort, from spring through winter, the buttercups and cowbells making way for the skis and snowboards which whoosh past as you make your way up the mountain, before gazing back down, hot chocolate cupped in mittened hands, upon a town of picture-postcard prettiness.

When to go

You want to ski, you go in winter. You want to soar - and the sky over Interlaken is awash with parascenders and their multicoloured chutes - you go in summer. You want just to sit and admire the changing scenery, you go in autumn or spring. What can I tell you? With activities and excursions embracing the mountains, the lakes, dry land and up above the clouds, Interlaken is a place for all seasons. Hold a gun to my head for the definitive answer, though, and I'll say October. The leaves are falling, the cable- cars and the chair-lifts are that little bit emptier, and the train that takes you up the Jungfrau passes through a kaleidoscope of colours.

Getting there

The nearest international airports are Basel, Geneva and Zurich. All are approximately two hours by train to Interlaken. Swissair (tel: 0845 6010956) offers return flights from Heathrow to Zurich from pounds 85 plus pounds 33 tax, and Heathrow to Geneva from pounds 86 plus pounds 23 tax. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) will fly you Heathrow to Basel return for pounds 84 plus pounds 25 tax. EasyJet (tel: 0870 6000000) looks the most competitive, flying from Luton to Geneva from pounds 40 return plus pounds 10 tax, and Luton to Zurich from pounds 60 return plus pounds 20 tax. Their cheapest prices, however, depend on your booking well in advance. Travel Extras (tel: 01582 545400) is part of the easyJet group and will arrange packages including car hire and hotel accommodation.

If you have the time to drive, Eurotunnel (tel: 0990 353535) goes Folkestone to Calais from pounds 59 per vehicle. Stopping over perhaps at Reims, or maybe further on at Dijon, the drive into Switzerland through the Grand St Bernard Pass is unmissable and well worth the extra day either end of your trip.

Where to stay

The Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel, Hoheweg Promenade (tel: 0041 33 828 2828) is, simply, one of Europe's great hotels. Indoor tennis and golf centre, health spa, direct views across the three great peaks. It has got the lot. Beg, steal, borrow - do whatever it takes to stay there. Singles from pounds 135, doubles from pounds 210.

The Metropole, further down the Hoheweg Promenade (tel: 0041 33 828 6666) has similarly gorgeous views, if one star less in terms of opulence. The Top O'Met rooftop bar is worth a visit, even if you don't stay at the hotel. Look at the mountains and you can almost see George Kennedy trying to garrote Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction. Singles from pounds 65, doubles from pounds 105.

The Chalet Hotel Oberland, Postgasse 1 (tel: 0041 33 827 8787) is on the main street in the heart of town. Fewer views, lively ambience. Singles from pounds 45, doubles from pounds 75.

The Beau-Site Hotel, Seestrasse 16 (tel: 0041 33 826 7575). Quiet location, surrounded by rolling lawns with private menagerie, this small family- run hotel is warm and welcoming, an absolute treasure. The hotel of my childhood, and still we go back. Singles from pounds 65, doubles from pounds 100.

What to see and do

Where to begin? Well, the mountains of course. Take the astonishing train ride to the top of the Jungfraujoch, at 11,333ft (3,454m) the highest railway station in Europe. The Ice Palace inside the peak is pure Disney. Slightly further afield is the 10,000ft peak of the Schilthorn, on top of which sits the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, presenting a 360-degree panorama across the entire Alpine massif. When the cable- car pokes up through the clouds, you'll wonder what kind of hallucinogenic you were slipped at breakfast. They once shot a Bond movie here. Great production values.

A company called Bohag (tel: 0041 33 828 9000) operates private helicopter flights above the entire Oberland, hovering beside the rugged face of the Eiger, before flirting with the glaciers and circling the Jungfrau for views of the Matterhorn. Down on the water there are various day and evening cruises on lakes Thun and Brienz. Some of the paddle-steamers even have children's clubs on board. Back up the slopes, the glacier waterfalls at Truemmelbach are actually inside the mountain, stunningly illuminated and accessible only by tunnel lift.

Train, funicular, cable-car, funnel lift. There are no end of ways up a Swiss mountain. Best by far, for the fresh air and fear factor, is to have your feet dangle limply from the chair-lift that rises 5,000 or so feet from the pretty ski resort of Grindelwald to Furst. Back at Grindelwald, walk up the mountain to the blissfully car-free resort of Murren, before heading back down, through the valley and via the geranium-dotted village of Wilderswil, to Interlaken. The Kursaal is the meeting- place for everyone who's hip. Actually, no one in Interlaken is very hip, but the Kursaal tries damn hard nonetheless.

Incorporating a theatre, several discotheques, winter gardens, and even a casino (very un-Swiss) - whatever happens in Interlaken happens here.

Food and drink

We Brits have nothing to brag about in the culinary stakes. It's good to know, then, that the Swiss are not much better. Their contribution? The fondue, and ... er, that's it. Still, at the Harder Minerva restaurant, Harderstrasse 15 (tel: 33 823 2313) the fondue comes thick and gooey, whether cheese or chocolate, and since three courses, plus wine, can be had for less than a tenner, I'll give it my vote. The best pizzas in town reside at Piz-Paz on Centralplatz (tel: 33 822 2533).

Crossing the international divide, Fujiyama at Hoheweg 71 (tel: 33 827 6100) has Japanese food to die for. The sushi is sensational, pounds 25 a head, dessert lychees included.

If it's a good old-fashioned high tea you're after, with a slab of gateau, try the Slegenthaler Tea Room, Jungfraustrasse 10 (tel: 33 822 3561). You might pay pounds 3 for your hot chocolate, but you'll be served with attitude and you'll be serenaded by the kind of music you'd rather assumed had gone down with the Titanic. Best of all, though, is the dining-room at the Victoria-Jungfrau Hotel. Hang the expense. When chateaubriand comes at pounds 25 a throw, you're past caring.

Special events

On 30 and 31 October, the Swiss Bands Festival comes to The Kursaal. A week later and the Swiss National Circus do their thing, followed on 28 November by an Advent Concert complete with alphorn-blowing and flag- throwing. Christmas comes to the town centre on 10 and 11 December, in the form of an open market, with live music and festive entertainment for all. Finally, Interlaken welcomes, on 26 December and for a fortnight after, the World International Millennium Party. Two weeks of "non-stop entertainment and jollity". OK, it's not Las Vegas, but we invented morris dancing, so let's not be churlish.

Out of town

Ask anyone what is the capital of Switzerland and, much head-scratching later, you'll get answers that range from Geneva to Zurich via Basel and Lucerne. In fact, it's Berne, less than one hour from Interlaken and joyously off the tourist trail. The Lauben, a 6km stretch of covered shopping arcades, is a shopper's paradise, and the lovely old town, marked out by 11 historic fountains, is well worth a stroll. Equally close at hand is Lucerne, and half a day should be sufficient to cross the exquisite wooden Kapellbrucke (Chapel Bridge), admire the sandstone Lion Monument, and even take the circular train ride around Mount Pilatus.

Deals and packages

Swiss Travel Service (tel: 01992 456123) offers a three-day package, flying Heathrow-Zurich, staying half-board at the three-star Hotel Splendid, for pounds 357 per person based on two sharing, including first-class train transfer to and from Interlaken. Plus Travel (tel: 0171-259 0199) offers three nights b&b at the three-star Hotel Sonne, flying from London City Airport to Zurich, for pounds 299 per person based on two sharing, including standard train transfer to and from Interlaken. Both deals offer good discounts on unlimited train travel throughout the region.

Further information

Interlaken's main tourist office is at Hoheweg 37 (tel: 0041 33 822 2121). In London, contact the Switzerland Travel Centre, Swiss Court, London W1V 8EE (tel: 0171-734 1921).

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