KANDERSTEG, Switzerland — In a valley 2 1/2 hours from Zurich, time has taken a holiday. It is dawn, with the soothing sounds of a brook flowing past my window and the voice of a bird in a linden tree. Otherwise the world is as silent as a cloud that scuds across the morning horizon.
Cradled between Grindelwald and Gstaad, Kandersteg is a mountain village whose meadows stretch to infinity and whose Alpine peaks soar into heavens as blue as the lakes below.
The Waldhotel Doldenhorn backs up flush against a mountain, so that the sun rises over the Allmenalp and settles behind the Blumlisalp. Built originally for railroad workers, the little chalet-style hotel is an Alpine delight whose rooms are as snug as an eiderdown on a wintry night.
During summer, geraniums flow from planters and window boxes, and wrought-iron lamps surround the terrace where guests gather to sip espresso and Swiss wines while sunning themselves on warm summer days. Sofas are scattered across a salon near a chess set and an antique cart brimming over with books. In another corner stands a piano and a hutch filled with rare wines.
The lazy ticking of a grandfather clock sets the mood.
Just as Kandersteg is in an extraordinary valley, the Waldhotel Doldenhorn is a remarkable shelter whose restaurant is rated one of Switzerland's best. Unpretentious, the Waldhotel Doldenhorn is barely a mile from the center of the village and a chairlift that delivers vacationers to a mountain station for a 20-minute hike through a forest and Alpine meadows framed by snowy peaks to the Oeschinensee, which is a lake with a couple of small hotels and decks for outdoor dining. Rooms in one of the dormitories are without grace, but the setting is stunning and the price figures out to barely $13 a night.
In the valley below, Kandersteg is one of those timeless Swiss villages with a tiny church dating from the 16th Century and farmhouses hundreds of years old, along with a number of fair to excellent hotels.
During summer one may skate on artificial ice, fish in the lakes and streams, attend classical concerts and hike over an endless network of trails for both beginners and serious Alpine adventurers.
Postal buses deliver hikers to peaks and valleys, or there are gondolas and chairlifts that deposit them on trails above the timberline.
A dozen miles southeast of Kandersteg, the Gasterntal Valley is barely touched by civilization. The narrow road between Kandersteg and the Gasterntal Valley is carved out of sheer rock. Cliffs fall away hundreds of feet, so that cars and postal buses move cautiously until they reach this pristine valley with its 11,000-foot mountains and magnificent waterfalls. Few places on earth offer the tranquillity and awesome silence of this valley with its jagged peaks and glacial rivers.
Only seven rooms are available at the modest Hotel Gasterntal, none with bath, although breakfast is included in the $16-a-night rate. It's even more primitive at the four-room Hotel Waldhaus where candles and kerosene burn in place of electricity. What's more, there is no hot water, no TV.
Scene of Snowy Peaks
The world outside its door is a scene of snowy peaks and a river along whose banks vacationers picnic on sunny days.
Summer visitors from Kandersteg hike to the Gasterntal Valley with its meadows filled with wildflowers and later return to their hotels on the postal bus.
Others ride a tram and a chairlift to Sunnbuhl and a warming hut for a splendid view of Kandersteg in the valley far below. After this, hikers follow a trail to the Gemmi Pass and a haunting view of the Matterhorn and a world that appears to have been created only a whisper ago.
Charles Dickens was overcome by what he saw:
Vast plains of snow range up the mountainsides, and tremendous waterfalls go thundering down from precipices into deep chasms, the blue water tearing through the white snow with an awful beauty that is most sublime. . . . Oh God! What a beautiful country it is!
Kandersteg lies at the north end of one of the longest tunnels in the Alps, the Loetschberg, and often when it is raining in Kandersteg the weather is clear on the other side of the mountain, so that hikers ride the train to Goppenstein at the opposite end of the tunnel and take the 10-minute bus ride to Kippel. That's a village wedged in the Lotschenthal Valley, which holds the dubious distinction of being pummeled by the greatest number of avalanches of all the valleys of Switzerland.
Untouched by Time
With 400- and 500-year-old houses, Kippel, like the Gasterntal Valley, appears untouched by time. Roman coins have been discovered in its meadows and the village's first church, which was founded by feudal lords, dates from AD 233.
Chalets appear on wooded hillsides and public water troughs are fed by streams that flow eternally from peaks surrounding Kippel.