WENGERNALP, Switzerland — When choosing a mountain hotel in Switzerland, first I want some charm. Then I must have comfort. I hate to shoulder my skis at the end of a glorious day on the slopes to trudge blocks in ski boots, so I favor hotels that you can glide back to, just stepping out of your skis at the front door. That narrows your choices considerably.
High on my list is the Jungfrau Hotel in Wengernalp. One tiny railway stop and the hotel. Nothing else. When the last train departs for Wengen at 7 p.m., when the last ski patroller in his orange parka flashes by to close the piste , there is nothing but snow, the tracks and the impressive rock wall of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.
The 40-bed hotel is among the few old-time mountain hotels, way above a resort, that have become a skier's delight: spotless rooms that get a fresh coat of paint each spring, lacy quilt covers, waxed pine floors carpeted in blue, rustic painted chests and wardrobes, copper pans filled with plants or Erica von Almen's dried flower arrangements.
In the wood-paneled main room, a carrot cake is set out for tea by the fire. At the bar, a guide maps out the next day's excursion. In the kitchen, chef Peter Otto puts the finishing touches on dinner.
'Alpine and Proud'
On the landing, 19th-Century prints record the growth of the hotel from a cowherd's barn to today's cozy hideout.
Wengernalp is on a high Oberland passage that Lord Byron once rode feeling "Alpine and proud." In the steps of the poet came the "romantic tourists," then Thomas Cook's first tours.
The first hotel was built in 1865, a severe wooden cube faced with shingles. Later came the railway, the Victorians and finally the skiers. Each winter the Lauberhorn World Cup skiers pass what is still called Byron's Hill.
"We inherited the place in '62," said Kaspar von Almen, a third-generation hotelier. "Every year we have done something--enlarged the main room and terrace, put in bathrooms, converted rooms in the attic. We plan a sauna next. But we don't intend to get any bigger. We can just manage nicely in winter."
Running a hotel at 1,870 meters (about 6,155 feet) is complex. Everything must be stocked ahead in the vast cellars or brought in by train daily. Milk, bread and croissants come up from Wengen, fresh vegetables and meat from Interlaken.
"Twice a week our fishmonger meets a flight in Geneva to pick up seafood," Von Almen said, explaining how the hotel gets lobster to serve.
Despite the difficulties, all the young Von Almens have been trained to take over. Katrin will replace her mother; Christian, his father. Andreas, an architect, supervises the remodeling, but in time he will manage his aunt Heidi's hotel at Kleine Scheidegg, a turn-of-the-century palace at the foot of the Eiger, the base for mountain climbers' attempts on its North Wall.
Both hotels are for sports lovers who can skip discos to step out of the hotel and into their skis, for those who want to catch the first chairlift to the Lauberhorn's untracked snow, then work their way around Alpine terrain baptized long ago--by young British skiers or interned airmen--with names such as Punchbowl, Bumps, Mac's Leap, the Rat Run or, simply, Oh God.
World's Highest Railway
Eighty kilometers of runs connect to car-free Wengen and the cable car to the Mannlichen or over Kleine Scheidegg to the Eigergletscher station or the easy blue run to Grindelwald.
Non-skiers can ride by train through the same scenery or up the world's highest railway to the Jungfrau glacier. Skibob, a local invention, is another way to get around in an area where even the postman makes his rounds on a wooden ski bike.
For skiers and non-skiers alike, a grand hotel on the slopes, the Schatzalp, on a shelf 300 meters above Davos, is closer to the boutiques, bars, hockey matches and concerts of the busy snow city.
Before laying the first stone, the owner had to build a cog railway to bring up construction materials and the furnishings expected by the clientele: stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, Oriental rugs, a collection of Baedekers, hundreds of rattan chaise lounges.
The funicular yo-yos to town in four minutes. A sled run takes you down even faster, while skiers prefer to be whisked by gondola up to Strela Pass for the connection to Parsenn.
The Schatzalp is out of an Ingmar Bergman movie: Wide endless corridors lead to salons, dining rooms and reading rooms.
Schatzalp, like most palace hotels, was geared to the elaborate taste of English dukes or Russian archdukes.
The idea of turning the Alps into a winter playground dates back to 1866 and is usually blamed on a bet by hotel keeper Johannes Badrutt II with some Englishmen that they would find sun in St. Moritz in January or he wouldn't charge them a centime.