Exploring Interlaken, the adventure capital of Europe

Switzerland's mountain town is the place to go for action-packed discoveries amid breathtaking natural surroundings

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“The way we jump is like this … feet first. You don’t need to jump far, you can just take one step and go straight down. And then you’re falling, falling, falling and, at some point, hopefully … swinging through the canyon,” says our tour guide, matter-of-factly, while perched on the edge of the wooden platform we’re standing on, 90 metres above the ground.

On either side of us are towering cliff faces – smoothed and shaped by years of glacial water – and a dark river rushing through the middle. I’ve been in Interlaken for less than 24 hours, and I’m already geared up and about to get my adrenalin pumping on what can only be described as an utterly terrifying canyon swing.

But I can't be too surprised. This canton of Bern in Switzerland bills itself as Europe’s adventure capital, so a baptism of fire involving a sheer free fall inside a mighty glacial gorge seems rather fitting.

When it's my turn, I step on to the ledge and force myself to act excited. Honestly, I’m more than a tad nervous and thankful for the pouring rain that I think might disguise the stray tear that sneaks out of the corner of my eye as I step towards the edge.

But work is work, and you can’t get paid to be a travel writer then not take part in the experiences that come along with that. So I take a deep breath, close my eyes and step out with rigid legs into the open vastness in front of me.

Air whooshes past my face as I plunge towards the earth, struggling to catch a breath. Opening my eyes, I realise I’m actually freefalling. Even more surprising is that not only am I not crying, I’m positively thrilled. At the bottom of the drop, I feel the rope catch my weight and I begin hurtling between the canyon walls. From the top of the ledge the space between these ancient walls looked worryingly narrow – but now I’m on the same plane it’s obvious there’s plenty of room. I lean back and laugh out loud as I fly past a group of onlookers at the base of the canyon mouth.

Grabbing hold of a rope thrown to me by one of the guides standing on the side of the river, I haul myself to the bank and climb up a set of wooden ladders, touching my feet back on solid ground. Buzzing from the thrill of it, I look back up to where I’ve come from and feel immensely proud of myself for making the leap. If this is what Swiss adventures are all about then I’m definitely glad I came.

But the action doesn’t stop there.

Blizzards, gondolas and freewheeling down a mountain

Next morning, after a restful night at the quirky Carlton-Europe Vintage Hotel, which has been welcoming guests to picturesque Interlaken since 1898, it’s time to hop aboard one of the country’s renowned super efficient trains and head towards Grindelwald.

Nestled in the mountains, the Swiss village is located 1,034 metres above sea level and is overlooked by a section of the Bernese Alps. Long famed as a tourist destination, Grindelwald is filled with quaint cafes and lodge-style restaurants, as well as plenty of shops selling souvenirs and adventure gear. We traipse uphill towards Grindelwald-First and its gondola ride that whisks us even higher up the mountain, offering gorgeous alpine vistas.

Our original plan was to embark on a high-altitude hike, but snow-filled clouds rolling in over the hills force our tour guide to make a last-minute change. With the weather not playing ball, we head instead to the First View Vantage Platform, a metal bridge perched at the top of the peak offering 360-degree views of the Schwarzhorn slops and wider Bernese Alps. I brave the elements to capture some photographs from the end of the platform, then head inside to warm up just as the blizzard arrives.

Thankfully, there's some decent Swiss fare on offer inside the wooden-clad Berggasthaus First restaurant, and I tuck into some piping hot raclette paired with a creamy hot chocolate as I watch the snow flakes fall. After an hour or so, there's a lull in the weather so we set off on a steady downhill trundle, sheltered from the worst of the elements by the alpine slopes. Lower down the hill, we pass fields full of cows wearing traditional bells, something that seems to be an essential part of the Swiss soul. Apparently, the dairy cows have only just been let out after winter, when they're brought in to well-insulated barns to keep them comfortable rather than battling the elements.

A short while later, we reach a gondola station with some odd-looking bikes outside. The rain begins to fall in almost sleet-like sheets so we opt to speed things up and rent a few of the bikes to finish getting down the mountain. Hopping on to the trotti-bike – which looks a bit like a cross between a scooter and a push bike – I set off from the mountain station, freewheeling downhill and whizzing by a few bewildered-looking cows. The road becomes wetter, the turns become faster, and I plunge back into the village – almost causing a few collisions with pedestrians along the way, and I can’t help but think that as fun as the activity is for tourists, the locals must hate it.

Safely back down the mountain, my group and I take the train back to Interlaken. Our adventures are far from over, as the next day we drive to Lake Brienz for a spot of kayaking. Heading into Hightide Kayak School, on the banks of the lake, we come face-to-face with some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen.

Kayaking on a glacier-filled lake

“It’s because of the tiny glacier particles in the water,” says Barrie, one of the instructors at the watersports school. “It’s super bright just now because the glaciers are beginning to melt.”

Hopping into a colourful kayak, I set off paddling, with the rest of my group in tow. We speed through the glasslike water with a hint of vigour, to keep our bodies warm despite the biting cold coming off the glacier-filled lake. The surrounding views are spectacular, and being out on the water is a fantastic excuse to enjoy some quiet time in nature.

After a while, we reach a small bay on the north shoreline of the lake, where we leave our kayaks and clamber up some rocks. This is an entry point to Ringgenberg – a quaint village that looks as if it could be straight out of a Disney interpretation of Switzerland thanks to Toblerone-shaped wooden houses, flower-filled gardens and cattle grazing in the surrounding meadows.

In the heart of the village is Ringgenberg Castle Church, one of the Bernese Oberland’s most impressive castle complexes. Dating back to the 13th century, the structure houses the remains of a medieval aristocratic castle and a simple protestant baroque church. Climbing a set of metal stairs, we traipse to the top of the castle tower where a stunning vantage over Lake Brienz awaits. As we take in the view, Barrie produces a steaming hot flask of tea, which we all readily accept a cup of.

From the water to the air, our last stop in Europe’s adventure capital starts at Beatenberg, which we reach via a steep, windy drive up the mountains. Here, the plan is to run and jump off a cliff. Thankfully, we’ll be doing it attached to the experts from Interlaken's Skywings Paragliding.

Florian is my instructor and as we gear up, he asks if I’m nervous. Recalling my canyon jump a few days ago, I tell him that I’ve done worse and he smiles. When I find out he’s a former Swiss Speedflying Champion who grew up on Interlaken’s mountains, my nerves rescind even further. On the count of three, Florian tells me to start running towards the edge of the cliff in front of us and to simply keep running until I’m told otherwise. It sounds simple, but there’s something intrinsically wrong with this scene and I have to mentally battle with my brain not to put the brakes on as we plunge towards the horizon.

A few moments later, we’re gliding high in the air, surrounded by wispy clouds and peering down towards a tapestry of blue lakes, inky rivers, green forests and white-dusted mountain ridges. I get the chance to take control, steering the glider first one way and then the other, before Florian takes over and performs a few spins. Whooping, laughing and screaming, we come closer to Interlaken which is laid out below us in a colourful tapestry. Florian says that I need to stop screaming now, as Swiss rules dictate there should be no noise disturbances on Sundays, not even from tourists gliding in from above.

I’m unsure if he’s joking or not but given the nation’s well-deserved stereotype as having a penchant for order I decide it could be true and calm my giddy cries. A few moments later, we swoop silently in to land in the centre of a park – where my directions are to start moving my feet as soon as I can. Hitting the ground running, we travel a few metres across the grass right in front of the Jungfrau panorama and just a few metres from a small herd of bell-wearing cows – the perfect end to a quintessential Swiss adventure.

Updated: April 25, 2024, 7:04 AM