Think of Switzerland, and doubtlessly your thoughts drift to emerald foothills dotted with cows grazing happily in the shadow of some daunting Alpine peak. But there’s teal in them thar hills, so we set off to find it.
Kandersteg is a little adventure outpost, with a modest population of 1314 (according to my 2017 Lonely Planet) and the most silent Saturday night I’ve ever heard. To be fair, I wouldn’t be looking for a wild night out on the eve of my 3-hour Via Ferrata or early-morning leap off of some cliff with my paragliding pals. (We did neither of these things, though I’m not saying I wouldn’t.)
On a Saturday morning in early September, Dan and I took the train from SBB to Kandersteg, a nearly 2.5-hour journey one way with a transfer at Spiez. For someone with pitiful geography, it took me a long time to realize that we’d been near Spiez only a few months earlier for Rebecca and J’s wedding on the lake at Thun. And then, when we stepped off the train and onto the tiny Kandersteg platform, we realized that this had been the town where, back in April, we’d taken a car train in order to access Blausee on our way back from Zermatt.
I have always envisioned Switzerland as some expansive land, a European version of Australia, but really, it’s all rather small. When I asked J how it compared to the US, he told me it was about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. This still seems unbelievably small, but I’m processing it.
We realized that Blausee was a short hike away, and we couldn’t check into our hotel until 3pm. With the sun bright in the sky and the whole day ahead of us, we laced up our hiking boots and ventured out.
Switzerland’s majestic hiking trails are wonderfully well-marked with yellow signs indicating which trail leads where, and approximately how many hours or minutes it will take to cover the distance. We found ourselves at a crossroads: one sign pointed into the grassy, cow-strewn meadows, a 2-hour journey to Blausee, while another pointed beneath a concrete bridge and past a hydroelectric dam, with only 1.5 hours of walking. For whatever reason, we opted for the urban trail.
There was little to write home about, with a white gravel road winding through the occasional patch of trees before looping back out to follow power lines or reveal a bulldozer sitting idly beside some construction site. But a hike is a hike, and we were outside in the clean mountain air, and in a little over an hour, we arrived at Blausee.
We’d been there in April with Rebecca and J, but the lake was entirely different in the last weeks of summer. The sun was bright, the trout were crowding the surface, and groups of tourists piled into a rowboat that drifted lazily into the middle of the lake and back to the dock.
Our construction route hike had made us both hungry, so we decided to try the pricey restaurant (there were limited options). It wasn’t terribly expensive for the portion size, and the table we snagged offered a good view of the lake.
I should pause for a minute here to add that throughout my entire weekend mountain experience, I had the most bizarre cold. It felt as if the left side of my head was completely clogged, and for entire swaths of time, I felt on the verge of a powerful sneeze only instead of sneezing, my left eye would inexplicably water and awkwardly leak.
“What are you thinking for lunch?” Dan might ask, or, “Look at that hut on the hill” to which I would reply, “My eye is leaking again.” Apart from feeling like a weepy Bond villain, my leaky eye put the weekend into, ironically, a clearer perspective for me, because how incredible does a place have to be to distract you from the fact that tears are pouring out of your one eye socket at random, flood-like intervals throughout the day?
We finished lunch and hopped on a bus back to the hotel, where we were literally deposited on our doorstep. Inside, we found a rustic room with creaky floorboards and a bathtub that looked enticing enough to read a book in. I scanned my Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor for dinner recommendations, but Kandersteg’s best restaurants are attached to hotels and our own was a top contender. (There was also a place called the Hayloft, a short walk outside of town, but their most recent TripAdvisor review had a weird comment from their management.)
Dinner was delicious and followed by a chilly walk up and down the main street. I do love a foggy mountain evening, when the clouds roll in and you have to put on a jacket. We did this and found ourselves a little bar just across the road from our hotel where we tucked in for a few beers before going to bed.
In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast (included, buffet style, plastic COVID-safe gloves to boot) before catching the cable car up to Oeschinensee. The cable car opens at 8:30am and comes with a discount if you stay at Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria or you have a half-tax/SwissPass. We’d been advised to forego the hike up the mountain as the views are apparently not amazing, so we rode for about 15 minutes in the cable car to a little restaurant near an Alpine slide (must try this next time). Two coffees later and we were on our way to Oeschinensee, a stunning lake created by glacier runoff.
It’s only about a 20-minute walk to the lake, which was not swarming with people yet. We spotted a dock with a small kiosk by the water’s edge and decided to rent a rowboat for about 28 francs an hour. Dan insisted on rowing – really, I offered – while I snapped no less than a million photos of the lake and surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, there is no camera or word in the English language to truly capture the blue-green of the lake. Trailing my hand through the water, it was remarkably clear. It reminded me a little of Silfra in Iceland, where divers and snorkelers flocked to swim between continental plates and glimpse something like 100m of visibility. Oescheninsee was perfection. My only regret is not having packed a swimsuit.
As the sun heated up and Dan rowed us for a pretty impressive 60 minutes, I was ready to dive in fully-clothed. Other people had the right idea, clustering along the pebbly shores and plunging into the cold-not-frigid water. In any case, it was gorgeous, and the views were like swims for my eyes. (My left eye was still taking this literally.)
We found snacks at a little wooden stand and then tried to figure out an easy hike around the lake. Dan spotted a little waterfall on some rocks, so we walked along a hiking trail until it brought us to the foot of a little rock scramble that led to a narrow ridge up along a rock face. The ridge was so narrow that someone had bolted a rope to the rock so you could hold on like a handle as you sidled along the cliff between a cool waterfall and a spiky rock death.
We turned back.
In the end, we hiked down the mountain to Kandersteg to get our last gulps of mountain air. The hike was mostly down a wide-open expanse of white, rocky scree. Absent were the Alpine fields of cows and the cool breezes that sweep through wildflowers. Here, we found construction signs and barricades and the occasional piece of equipment.
Walking down, we encountered loads of people walking up, and felt a sort of sympathy for them. It was well after 12:30 and the sun was baking, and knowing how far they had to go and how charmless their hike made me feel a little sad. Nearly three quarters of the way down, we saw a man helping a woman totter over some wobbly rocks in 4-inch platform wedge sandals.
When our train cruised into Basel 2.5 hours later, we wondered if she’d given up or made it to the top. It may not be worth the climb, but Oeschinensee – and Kandersteg, for that matter – are well worth the visit.