Hiking the Swiss Alps: Alpstein Reviews
Hiking the Swiss Alps: Alpstein Apr 03, 2008
A Vacation Playground Fit for Frodo Wannabes
BY CHRIS NORDEN
Imagine what would happen if the art directors behind the “Lord of the Rings” movies were let loose to create the ideal vacation escape for those who live in the Lowcountry. What would they conjure up?
They would probably imagine a world that was impossibly, breathtakingly vertical (to contrast our horizontal landscape). It would have few insects (for obvious reasons). And unlike ours, it would be a soil that has never known violence or war--one that emanates a palpable, soothing peace.
Well, the “Rings” art directors can stop their dream work, for this place already exists, and unlike the far-flung New Zealand settings of the “Rings” movies, you can get to this place with a non-stop Delta flight from Atlanta. It’s called the Alpstein, and it’s in the center of the peaceful, hobbit-sized, Shire-like canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden in northeastern Switzerland, just an hour and a half by train from the Zürich airport. Would-be Frodos looking for exploration and adventure in a jaw-dropping mountain setting will find their real-life dream set here.
To say that the Alpstein is “spectacular” is, quite simply, a spectacular understatement. Three rows of jagged, uplifted rock abruptly soar to 8200 feet out of a serene and pastoral cow-dotted landscape that looks like a cross-pollenation of the sets for “Heidi,” “The Sound of Music” and “Teletubbies.” Think of the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy and her friends are walking the yellow brick road from the Poppy Fields toward the Emerald City, but imagine the city composed of towers of rock and alpine meadow … and you’ll get the picture. Being there is like being plopped down into the midst of an incomprehensibly stunning 3-D movie set. You’ll be pinching yourself, though, as you breathe in deep of the crystal-pure air and remind yourself over and over again that this place is not a movie; it’s REAL. And you’re IN IT!
Little-known outside of Switzerland – and therefore delightfully undiscovered by Americans – the Alpstein is everything an adventurous vacationing explorer could desire, and more. It is one of the most rugged and vertical landscapes on our planet, but it’s remarkably accessible. The sturdy, tradition-loving people of the Appenzell canton have developed Switzerland’s densest network of walking and hiking paths–about 750 miles in all. Centuries-old trails weave and wend their way around, up and into these jagged mountains, allowing one to experience them intimately--touching them, gazing upon them, breathing them in--from every angle. Five separate cable car routes provide swift ascents to the peaks--including Säntis, the highest in the region--for those who want to skip the climbs.
Each trail intersection is well-marked with bright yellow directional signs pointing the way to various peaks, passes, trail intersections, and inns, with hiking time estimates supplied (though the estimates seem to be figured for mountain goats; multiply the time given by 1.5 for more accurate estimates). A goblet icon next to the destination name indicates that the sign points to a mountain inn, where food and drink and a puffy down comforter await you.
The 28 mountain inns of the Alpstein (called “Berggasthäuser,” meaning “mountain guest houses”), are each spaced less than a two-hour hike apart, which means you won’t need to carry more than a day pack with you in whichever direction you head, leaving you free to scramble about like Frodo and Sam without being weighed down by a big pack. These mountain inns serve gourmet lunches and dinners, ice creams and Appenzeller biber (spiced honey cakes), and the beers of the renowned Brauerei Locher Appenzeller brewery.
Accomodations are either in private rooms or “Matratzenlager”--inexpensive dormitories with down comforters, complete with delicious breakfast. The Matratzenlager rooms, in particular, at about half the price of the already inexpensive private rooms, make the Alpstein an especially affordable vacation destination for families with kids.
One can either base one’s Alpstein adventure out of one of the inns (we recommend Berggasthaus Meglisalp for this–see sidebar), or choose a circular inn-to-inn hiking route. Here’s a sample itinerary:
Instead of taking the Appenzellerbahn all the way to Wasserauen like you would if you were headed to Meglisalp (see “Getting There,” below), get off one stop early at Weissbad and take the connecting Postbus to Brülisau. From here, you can catch a cable car that will whisk you to Hoher Kasten (5886 feet, www.hoherkasten.ch). Savor lunch while enjoying a stunning panoramic introduction to the entire Alpstein region, the Rhine Valley, and the Alps of Liechtenstein and Austria. From Hoher Kasten, a four-hour hike along the mountain ridge (with Stauberen—another cable-car-equipped mountain peak restaurant—at its midpoint) leads you to Berggasthaus Bollenwees (4823 feet, www.bollenwees.ch).
Bollenwees sits high above the head of the Fählensee, a glacial lake surrounded by jagged “Lord of the Rings”-style peaks that look as though they were painted there by some Hollywood scenic artist with a hyper-active imagination. Hike to the end of the lake to explore the tiny scenic settlement of Fählenalp, an active little summer farm with sheep, pigs, cows, and cheese-making that, again, is so perfect, it looks like a movie set.
The next morning, hike to Berggasthaus Meglisalp (4977 feet, www.meglisalp.ch), via Widderalp and Bötzel (about 3 hours), through towering landscapes with breathtaking mountains soaring overhead that will make you feel more like Frodo with each passing minute. As the most personal (and personable) of all the Alpstein’s mountain inns, Meglisalp charms with its location high above the cloudline in an alpine saddle at the heart of the Alpstein.
After overnighting at Meglisalp, hike up to Berggasthaus Schäfler (6312 feet, www.schaefler.ch, about 4-5 hours), enjoying lunch at Mesmer (www.mesmer.ch) along the way. Schäfler sits at the very summit of one of the area's peaks, commanding amazing 360 degree views. Overnight either here (if you want a private room) or at Berggasthaus Äscher-Wildkirchli, an hour down the mountain (4770 feet, Matratzenlager only, www.aescher-ai.ch). The oldest mountain inn in the Alpstein (c. 1805), Äscher was built right into the side of the mountain’s rock face; the back wall of the inn is actually all rock. From Äscher, either take the Ebenalp cable car (www.ebenalp.ch) back down to Wasserauen or hike down via the mirror-still, turquoise Seealpsee (www.seealpsee.com and www.gasthausforelle.ch), where you may want to enjoy another night of peace in the Alpstein before heading home.
While Frodo and Sam faced countless dangers along their path, you can experience in the Alpstein all the scenic beauty they did, without the threats. No ominous soundtrack here; the Alpstein serenades you instead with majestic stillness, tinkling cowbells, the flow of waterfalls, your individual footsteps, and an occasional alpenhorn being played by a mountain herdsman echoing over Alpstein valleys. As the most traditional of all Swiss cantons, you’ll find more authentic Swiss folklife in Appenzell than in any other part of Switzerland—an added bonus in an already perfect adventure vacation region.
Finally, while Frodo and Sam’s journey brought them far from the comforts of the Shire, you’ll be comforted by the fact that--no matter how fantastical the landscape around you gets--in the Alpstein, you’re never more than a two hours’ walk from a mountain inn, where a down comforter and gourmet meal await you. The rock parapets and soaring heights of the “Rings” remain, but this is a ruggedness that’s hospitable, and for this reason, the Alpstein is unlike any other place you’ll find on Earth.
SIDEBAR: BERGGASTHAUS MEGLISALP
Gasthaus Meglisalp (www.meglisalp.ch) is the quintessential Appenzell Innerrhoden Berggasthaus. The most centrally located, it’s the ideal base for a single-inn-based Alpstein holiday. Bergwege (mountain hiking trails tagged with white-red-white striped markings painted on trailside rocks) head off in six different directions from this tiny shepherd’s hamlet nestled in a quiet alpine saddle, accessible only by foot from the Wasserauen train station in the valley 2000 feet (a two hour hike) below.
Owners Sepp and Gaby Manser-Neff are the perfect hosts—friendly, warm, inviting and generous—and their staff match their loving personality. 39-year-old Sepp’s ancestors built the little community of Meglisalp in 1861, and the inn has remained in his family ever since. All materials to build Meglisalp were brought up on men’s backs. The idyllic settlement even has its own tiny Catholic chapel, Maria zum Schnee, where mass is actually yodeled once a year.
The entire downstairs of the lodge is paneled in a lovely white fir, with the upstairs done in red spruce. All beds—the singles in the private rooms and the floor mattresses in the Matratzenlager—come with double-sized feather pillows and huge featherbed down comforters for snuggling down in heavenly comfort. At night, looking out your bedroom window as a full moon bathes the otherworldly mountain peaks around you in blue light is an unforgettable experience.
Restrooms are down the hall, with automated showers on the lower level (3 minutes per token—tokens may be purchased for 2CHF [Swiss Francs] each at the inn’s register). Private rooms have old-fashioned porcelain bowls with pitchers of fresh water. Remove your hiking boots upon entering the inn to protect the floors (pad around the inn in your stocking feet), and dry out your boots (and clothes) in the Trockenraum (drying room) next to the showers on the lower level. You’ll be amazed by the spotlessness of the place; every surface at Meglisalp is kept sparkling clean and everything is in perfect working order.
Breakfast is a welcoming spread of Müsli and other healthy cereals, Appenzeller cheese, fresh Appenzeller bread, fresh plain local yogurt, assorted fruit preserves, orange juice, and strong hot coffee with fresh steamed local milk. The lunch menu starts off with homemade goulasches and soups and delicious salads like fresh butter lettuce and radicchio draped in a homemade honey mustard vinaigrette and garnished with fresh roasted pumpkin seeds and sesame. The culinary delights continue with local specialties like Chäsmagerone, a gourmet mac’n’cheese featuring fragrant Appenzeller cheese stirred into bowl of steaming hot macaroni, then topped with caramelized onions, and served with cinnamon applesauce on the side. Dinner entrees run from 12CHF to 29CHF, but are included in your rate if you choose the Halbpension plan (see end of sidebar). The extensive beverage menu includes specialty coffees, Appenzeller beers, liquors and spirits, the delicious local Goba mineral waters, and a selection of Swiss, Austrian, and Italian wines. Desserts include elegant ice cream preparations one would expect to find in a Parisian sidewalk café, not a remote mountain retreat. Pastries are also available.
Early autumn brings a seasonal “Wildspeisekarte,” a special menu of gourmet preparations of wild game. The venison medallions in a rich red wine sauce with homemade Spätzli dumplings and savory red cabbage will leave you drooling, shaking your head in amazement that you are eating so fabulously in the middle of nowhere! A special autumn dessert is “Vermicelles,” a meringue topped with a cold homemade spaghetti pasta made from freshly frozen local horsechestnuts and surrounded by mountains of fresh whipped cream.
In the evenings, the firelit dining room of Meglisalp comes alive as the local gathering spot for this small herdsmen’s community. A worker may whip out his accordian and start yodeling Swiss folk songs while people start dancing polkas around the room. Children gather and laugh and draw and play games, while other people read the wonderful collection of books on the Alpstein and Switzerland that line the shelves of the room. Towards the end of the evening, people toast one another with Meglisalp’s exclusive signature cordial, “Alpsteinhüpfer” (Alpstein Hopper)-- kiwi liqueur and grapefruit juice with a little bright green marshmallow gummi frog dropped in for good luck.
Because the process of transporting food up there is so involved, meals and drinks at Meglisalp are a bit pricey, but thankfully the inn’s delightful accommodations are not. Private double rooms run only 52CHF per person (includes breakfast), 38CHF for children. The Matratzenlager are even more reasonable--only 32CHF per person (includes breakfast), 20CHF for children up to 14 years old. A good way of controlling your expense is to choose Meglisalp’s “Halbpension” plan, which gives you your accommodations, breakfast, and your dinner all for one price (inquire for current rate, beverages charged separately).
Meglisalp is one of the few Alpstein inns that will take a credit card (VISA only); most of the other inns are on a cash-only (Swiss Francs) basis. ATMs just outside of customs at the Zürich airport make it easy for you to withdraw cash in Swiss Francs from your American bank account before heading downstairs to board your train to magical Appenzellerland.
IF YOU GO…
Planning Information. Appenzell Innerrhoden’s excellent tourism Web site, www.appenzell.ch, is an invaluable resource for the traveler. The “Mountain Inns” link under “Accomodation” will take you to a page listing Web sites of all the mountain inns. At “Contact/Downloads” you can access downloadable PDFs of Appenzell’s tourism brochures, or there’s a form you can fill out and submit if you prefer to have them mailed to you. If you download the hotels guide, go to pages 40-41 for a visual spread of the entire Alpstein region with keyed photos of all the mountain inns; the next page has a grid that allows you to compare the inns’ prices (listed in Swiss Francs; go to the handy online currency calculator at www.xe.com/ucc to easily convert Swiss Francs [CHF] to U.S. Dollars [USD]). The best map of the area is the “Alpsteingebiet Panorama-Wanderkarte/Dorfplan Appenzell,” (Panoramic Hiking Map of the Alpstein Region with detailed map of the village of Appenzell) published by Appenzellerland Tourismus AI. It is a MUST (purchase before you go for 8.20CHF by calling them at 011 41 71 788 96 42 and using your credit card; allow enough time for the map to be mailed to you before your trip). Not only does this map show all Alpstein area hiking and walking trails with time estimates set against a topographical painting of the region, but it also lists all Appenzell Innerrhoden hotels, inns, restaurants, cable cars, and attractions. Your best investment, you will refer to this map again and again as you explore the fascinating trails of the Alpstein. The book “Switzerland’s Mountain Inns: A Walking Vacation in A World Apart,” by Marcia & Philip Lieberman (available at www.amazon.com), can also help you plan, providing you with highly accurate reviews of eleven of Appenzell Innerrhoden’s 28 mountain inns, and giving you valuable background on Berggasthaus culture.
Getting There. Delta (www.delta.com) has daily non-stops from Atlanta to Zürich’s Kloten airport (Zürich Flughafen). Clear customs. Walk downstairs following the signs with the train icon to the airport’s train station. Buy a ticket to Wasserauen via Gossau (about $12). At Gossau, you’ll transfer to the bright red Appenzeller Bahnen--with its toy train whistle and windows that open all the way to let the fresh air of Appenzell’s pristine meadows pour into your rocking train car–and within 30 minutes, you’ll be in Wasserauen, at the base of the Alpstein, ready to strap on your rucksack and begin your ascent into mountain fantasyland. You’ll arrive at Meglisalp in about 2 hours. Train schedules can be found at http://fahrplan.sbb.ch/bin/query.exe/en. Punch in “Zürich Flughafen” to “Wasserauen” (or “Brülisau, Kastenbahn” if you’re doing the inn-to-inn route) via “Gossau SG” to find your itinerary. The train’s connection with the Delta flight from Atlanta at the Zürich airport couldn’t be simpler.
When to Go. The Alpstein hiking season is from June through October, with July and August being prime. Some snow may possibly close the higher trails in early June and mid to late October. Each mountain inn has its own operational schedule, though, primarily based on elevation (see the grid on page 42 of appenzell.ch’s downloadable hotel guide PDF for each inn’s operational dates). Unforgettable Alpstein folk events worth planning your trip around include the “Alpfahrt”—the annual cattle drives by herdsmen and their families in traditional dress (www.appenzell.ch/e/kultur/alpfahrt.htm), and the “Alpstobeten”--the lively, festive and colorful herdsmen’s balls (www.appenzell.ch/e/kultur/alpstobete.htm) held outdoors at various inns throughout the Alpstein during the summer.
Reservations. The mountain inns of the Alpstein are popular weekend getaways for people from Zürich. Hence, Saturday night stays at the inns are booked well in advance. For Saturday night stays, follow this booking schedule: June, 1-2 weeks in advance; July/August, 1 month in advance; September, 2 months in advance. For other nights of the week, you should have no trouble getting a room--especially if you’re staying in the Matratzenlager—but the innkeepers prefer you make reservations for other nights of the week as well.
Physical Preparation/Safety. To prepare for your trip, make sure you’re aerobically fit. Alpstein trails will take you quickly up into the mountains, and if you haven’t been training your lungs down here at sea level, you will be CHALLENGED by steep grades at 6000 feet! Preparing properly in the months leading up to your trip—including doing weight training for your legs to strengthen your knees for the downhill trails—will allow you to focus on enjoying your Alpstein adventure instead of nursing your knees and catching your breath when you get there. Also, the Alpstein is NOT for people with weak knees, bad hearts, vertigo or a fear of heights, as some paths are very narrow with sheer dropoffs; some paths even have cables wired into the sides of the rock as well as steps carved into the cliffs to help you stabilize yourself on some of the steepest, sheerest sections. Be careful when hiking an Alpstein trail that’s wet as the rocks can become very slippery. Enquire locally about the current safety conditions of travel on the particular path you are interested in before heading out.
Language. With three official languages in their country (German, French and Italian—four if you count the half-official Latin-derived Romansch), the Swiss have their linguistic hands full just getting by in their own land; hence, English is not high on their agenda. Any attempt to learn some basic German prior to your arrival will help immensely and will add to your sense of adventure. Check out some “Learn German in Your Car” tapes from the Charleston County Library (www.ccpl.org/MARION/ABH-8201) to make good use of your commute time before your departure. The free online German-English dictionary at http://dict.leo.org/ is invaluable in helping you make sense of German-only Web sites or brochures. “Gruezi” is the standard local greeting for everyone you’ll meet in Switzerland, while “Ciao,” “Adieu,” or “Tschüss” work equally well for “so long!”
What to Pack. Dress in lightweight, quick-drying layers to accommodate the climate changes you’ll experience by changing altitudes so often. Half Moon Outfitters in Mount Pleasant (881-9472) and Downtown (853-0990) is a great local source for lightweight, warm clothes that will get you through every sort of weather situation you might find in the Alpstein, without adding much weight (remember you have to carry everything with you up the hiking trails into your mountain inn). If your inn has a Trockenraum (see sidebar), you can wash out your shirts each evening in the sink (bring a small baggie or bottle of laundry soap) and let them hang overnight in the Trockenraum so you’ll have dry, fresh clothing to wear the next morning. Stiff, sturdy mountain hiking boots are ESSENTIAL as Alpstein paths are rocky and require sure footing. Many people take collapsible trekking poles with them on the trails to help stabilize themselves and take pressure off their knees. Sunscreen and lip balm are important. The webcam at www.baeren-schlatt.ch/livecam points toward the Alpstein and can give you an idea of what the weather is currently doing over there to help you pack.
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