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A Swiss ski resort that doesn’t cost the earth? Welcome to Interlaken

<span>Photograph: Jungfraubahnen 2019</span>
Photograph: Jungfraubahnen 2019

I’m a budget-conscious skier, so Switzerland is rarely on my radar. Sure, resorts such as St Moritz, Zermatt and Verbier are world-class, but I’ve always assumed they have sky-high prices to match. My last ski trip was to wallet-friendly Andorra. A quick check of the Post Office’s annual ski resort report confirmed my suspicions: Switzerland is consistently the priciest destination in Europe, while Bulgaria, Italy, Austria and Andorra offer more affordable skiing.

But then I heard about Interlaken. This lakeside town, better known as a summer destination, is the gateway to the Jungfrau ski region. It is a much cheaper place to stay than the region’s ski resorts, Wengen and Grindelwald. And, since December 2020, it has got a lot easier to reach the slopes from Interlaken. A short train ride from Interlaken Ost station connects with the shiny new Grindelwald Terminal building (where skiers can rent and store equipment). From here, it is just 15 minutes to the pistes on the new state-of-the art Eiger Express cable car – 47 minutes faster than before.

Grindelwald-Wengen has 160km of pistes and an altitude of up to 2,500 metres, plus an awe-inspiring backdrop of three mountains: the Maiden (Jungfrau), the Monk (Mönch) and the Ogre (Eiger). After a morning warming up on some blue and red runs, we decided to tackle its best-known black, the legendary Lauberhorn. This is a World Cup downhill course and, at nearly 5km, it is the longest on the circuit.

Races have been held here since 1930, attracting crowds of up to 30,000. The course record is 2min 24sec, and the top speed ever reached is 161.9km/h (100mph). Gulp.

After the annual race weekend in January, the Lauberhorn is open to the public. Skiers can have their photos taken at the starting hut and measure themselves against the pros at the speed check. Suffice to say, I won’t be breaking the record anytime soon. While I managed to stay on my feet all the way down, it took me at least 10 times longer than the racers to descend. At least I had time to enjoy the view …

The world’s longest toboggan route at 15km, Big Pintenfritz is not for the faint-hearted

Speaking of views, the other must-do in the Jungfrau is taking a trip to the highest railway station in Europe, at 3,454m. Jungfraujoch is reached by the Jungfrau line, which tunnels through the Mönch and the Eiger. This incredible feat of engineering opened more than a century ago, in 1912; and getting to it is now much quicker thanks to the Eiger Express, which connects with it. At the top, there are three restaurants, an Ice Palace and panoramic vistas from the Sphinx and Plateau viewing platforms. Or there are on clear days; all we could see was a snowstorm.

Other non-skiing activities include hiking – there is more than 100km of winter walking trails – and sledging. The 20-plus toboggan routes include one believed to be the world’s longest, at 15km. Big Pintenfritz is not for the faint-hearted: it takes about two and a half hours to reach it on foot, dragging your sledge behind you. There are also some night sledging trails for added excitement. Real adrenaline junkies could try the First Flyer and First Glider, 800m ziplines reaching speeds of up to 84km/h.

Our trip coincided with the SnowpenAir music festival. While perhaps not the most cutting-edge musically – next year’s headliners are Simply Red – it is a lot of fun rocking out at 2,000m. The festival is held in March to maximise the chance of sunshine, although the weather gods were against us again: it was absolutely freezing. During the rest of the season, the biggest parties take place outside the Grindelwald Terminal on Saturday nights, with DJ sets, bars and food.

On other nights, we headed back to Interlaken to find more affordable restaurants and bars. Restaurants such as 3a and Brasserie 17 have daily changing specials from about £13, such as porcini mushroom ravioli with spicy chorizo cubes (or spicy Quorn cubes), autumn vegetables and pumpkin sauce (for £17, they throw in soup or salad and ice-cream or coffee). Unlike many ski resorts, Interlaken caters well for plant-based diets. I sampled a cashew-based fondue and a meat-free meatloaf, while Velo Cafe is entirely vegetarian and vegan. The Husi Bierhaus is a fun hangout for a locally brewed craft beer.

More than half the emissions of a ski trip are generated by getting to the resort, and rail travel can drastically reduce that

We stayed in Hotel Interlaken, on the site of a cloister guesthouse dating from 1323. It’s now a four-star hotel with a modern Swiss restaurant. On the fifth floor are 10 budget rooms (from £133 B&B for a quad room). Other cheaper options include the Aarburg, a B&B and cafe with nine rooms (from £117 for a room sleeping five), and the Interlaken youth hostel, right next to the station, with private and shared rooms (dorms from £44pp).

Of course, food and accommodation are just part of the cost of a skiing holiday. The lift pass is another big outlay. Last season, a new all-inclusive Jungfrau winter sports pass was launched, covering the whole ski region, plus the train from Interlaken and the ziplines (adult £68 for one day, 16-19 years £40, under-16s £34; six days £347/£223/£165). On Saturdays, up to three children ski free with one adult.

Related: How to ski greener – switch from plane to train

As well as the cost, the carbon footprint of ski holidays is a huge concern for many. Here, the Jungfrau can claim to be leading the way. The Grindelwald Terminal and the Eiger Express was a massive construction project that took eight years, but sustainability was at the forefront. The gondola, which has huge 26-seater cabins, uses tricable technology, so only seven supports were needed. This meant the engineer did not have to cut a path through the forest below. It runs on locally generated hydroelectric power, and is helping to promote the shift from road to rail in the region.

Indeed, it is possible to take the train all the way from the UK. More than half the emissions of a ski trip are generated by getting to the resort, and rail travel can drastically reduce that. We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, a second train to Basel and a third to Interlaken. It is doable in a day (about 8am to 6pm) and more affordable the longer you book in advance (from about £200 return).

So, will I be switching to Switzerland for my ski holidays in future? Although Interlaken was more affordable than I expected, it still can’t match Andorra’s prices – but it is worth paying a premium to ski the legendary Lauberhorn at least once.

The trip was provided by the Jungfrau Railway Company and Jungfrau Region Tourism