Car-free resort is the peak of perfection

Wengen's charms should not be eclipsed by tragedy.

By Alan Montague, February 25, 2010
Vast peaks but small scale charm: Wengen has resisted over-development and the advance of huge chains

Vast peaks but small scale charm: Wengen has resisted over-development and the advance of huge chains

The Swiss mountain village of Wengen - home of the famous Lauberhorn downhill race - hit the headlines at the end of last year in the worst possible way.

A 23-year-old British man, Myles Robinson, disappeared in the early hours of the morning after a night out in a local bar. His body was found a few days later at the bottom of steep, icy slope, but no one has come up with a convincing explanation as to how it got there.

Robinson's distraught family cut short their holiday, complaining about the inadequacies of the police investigation. The story was splashed over British and Swiss newspapers, and the village was left buzzing with speculation about how the young man could have died.

It was exactly the kind of incident any holiday destination dreads, but for Wengen it was particularly cruel, given its long and close association with British visitors.

It would be a shame if the tragedy put anyone off deciding to go there because the place has at least three compelling reasons why it is different from - and many would say superior to - other alpine ski resorts.

For one thing, it is relatively small. Only 1,300 people live there, and although the population swells to 10,000 during the peak winter season, it hardly ever seems overcrowded and queues for cable cars and ski lifts are usually short.

Because of its small size, everything is within manageable distance. No buses or yomping for miles with skis on your back to get to the slopes as in some of the industrial-scale resorts elsewhere in the Alps.

The nursery slopes are in the centre of the village - you can see beginners taking their ski lessons from your hotel bedroom. More challenging, long red runs are a five-minute cable car away, on the Mannlichen ridge. And, again, you pick up the cable car in the centre of the village.

And because it has guarded against rampant growth - with strict building regulations in force - Wengen has retained much of the intimate, cosy character that existed when the British skiers first arrived back in 1925, and founded the celebrated Downhill Only Ski Club, one of the oldest such organisations in the world.

The resort has been a favourite with Brits ever since, tending to inspire the kind of loyalty that sees them coming back year after year. Indeed the Robinson family was visiting for the 15th time when tragedy struck.

Much of that small-scale charm has been preserved because Wengen has resisted the advance of multinational chains. Most of the restaurants and shops that line the pretty high street are family run businesses.

The Molitor ski supply shop was established by the former Swiss Winter Olympic silver medallist, Karl Molitor.

The second great advantage
possessed by Wengen is its location. Any Alpine resort is going to be well off for stunning views, but here the views are more stunning than is strictly necessary.

Wengen is perched on a ridge 4,000 ft up one side of the Lauterbrunnen valley. Towering above it are some of the most imposing peaks in the Alps - the Monch, the Eiger, with its lethal north face, and the Jungfrau, at 13,642 ft, the highest of the three.

It is the kind of perfect mountain scenery that tends to attract filmmakers - Clint Eastwood starred in the spy thriller The Eiger Sanction here, while just over the other side of the valley is Piz Gloria, the revolving, mountain-top restaurant that served as the lair of Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

And if you tire of the mountains, the town of Interlaken is 40 minutes away by train, nestling, as its name suggests, between two textbook perfect Swiss lakes, Thun and Brienz.

The train gives a clue to Wengen's third big draw - it is one of the few places in Europe that is car-free. The only kind of four-wheeled transport allowed are the electric carts that serve as taxis taking arriving visitors from the station to their hotels.

The result is that Wengen seems more peaceful than other resorts, and there are no engine fumes to taint the pristine alpine air. The downside is that you can forget driving there. Motorists must park their cars at the bottom of the valley in Lauterbrunnen and ascend with their luggage on the charming Wenger Alp cog railway.

The journey takes 15 minutes, and this being Switzerland, delays are virtually unheard of. You can bet that the Wenger Alp drivers have never encountered the wrong kind of snow.

A couple of stops beyond Wengen, passengers can change on to the Jungfraubahn and climb even further, up to 11,388 ft to the Jungfraujoch, a popular and almost literally breathtaking viewing point just below the summit of the Jungfrau.

The opportunity to see the "top of the world" attracts visitors from all over the world. And mixed among them is a healthy contingent of strictly Orthodox Jews, incongruously dressed in black hat and gabardine. Many of Wengen's hotels cater to this market by offering supervised kosher meals.

Wengen's only real downside is that altitude of 4,000 ft. At such a relatively low height above sea level, good snow cannot be guaranteed. A couple of years ago, not only did very little snow fall, the artificial snow machines could not be used because temperatures were so mild.

Nothing spoils it for a holidaying skier - well, nothing short of actual injury - more than seeing the grass poking through a thin white covering on the slopes. Thankfully, given the recent healthy snowfalls, that hasn't been a problem this year.

Getting there

Crystal (0871 231 5659; offers seven-night packages in Wengen in March, at the four-star Wengenerhof Hotel from £738; at the three-star Belvedere Hotel from £638 and at the two-star Bernerhof from £483, all include flights, transfers and half-board accommodation. Prices all per adult, based on two sharing.

Last updated: 2:09pm, February 25 2010