Traditional, yet modern. Buzzing with activity, but filled with peaceful pockets of relaxation. Where the Kloster Dhammapala (a serene Buddhist monastery) huddles in the shadow of the Klettersteig (a heart-pumping level-4 climbing path). Whatever paradox you're looking for can be found in Kandersteg, your Backroads gateway to a spectacular alpine adventure and the starting point of our Switzerland Family Multisport trip. Without a doubt, Kandersteg is one of my favorite places on earth. In fact, if I could convince my husband to give up his job and move to Switzerland, I'd be writing this right now in the shadow of the Blüemlisalp from my very own cheery Swiss chalet. Surrounded by picture-perfect peaks, the town is the ideal location for a low-key weekend before a Backroads trip - but also as a base for the adrenaline junkie who wants to scale towering cliffs or paraglide off a rocky ridge.
A village of approximately 1,200 souls, Kandersteg is nestled in the Bernese Oberland (Highlands) southwest of Interlaken (about a 2.5 hour train ride from Zürich). It's not a transportation hub - in fact, it's at the end of a road. The only routes continuing from Kandersteg are via train (through the 100-year-old Lötschberg Tunnel) or by hiking over the windswept Gemmi Pass (following in the footsteps of Mark Twain, Pablo Picasso and Sherlock Holmes). However, don't come expecting a dead-end village with broken signs hanging from rusty hinges. Amidst the traditional architecture and main street cow processions (hey, they have to get up to the grassy hillsides somehow!), the village maintains an up-to-date, lightly international vibe.
You'll definitely hear Swiss-German as you stroll past a bäckerei (bakery), but keep your ears open for a melodious mix of several other languages floating on the breeze. Not only is Kandersteg a mecca for hikers from around the globe, it's also home to the Kandersteg International Scout Centre, welcoming young people from more than 40 nations every year. It's always fun to try to guess the scouts' countries of origin - it's easiest when a bunch of kids in kilts get off the train! Even when the streets are overrun with visitors, Kandersteg still has a small-town feel. The owner of the grocery store always had my nusstorte pastry waiting on Saturday morning. The bank manager, out for a run, would stop by to update me with new information on an ATM fiasco. The Concours (horse-jumping festival), held every July, is reminiscent of a Midwestern county fair - with a Swiss twist (Wisconsin 4-H events never included a Rick Springfield doppelgänger dancing on my table whilst playing the alphorn)!
I hope you'll one day get the chance to experience Kandersteg. Sleep with your windows open and wake at 7 a.m. to church bells tolling in the crisp alpine air. Jog along the banks of the river Kander or relax in the grass along the Muggeseeli. Dance the night away to an Austrian band singing John Denver classics. Take selfies with the giant whisk or panoramas of the snow-capped peaks. Consult your trail map while savoring a bar of Swiss chocolate. Crack open your laptop and send a beautiful photo to friends at home as you sit in a chalet built in 1643. Kandersteg is the ideal balance of old-fashioned and modern. Relaxation and exhilaration. The ultimate scenic grandeur hovering over the fragile beauty of a wildflower. A strong native identity with hints of international flair. Got your hiking shoes on and camera in hand? The mountains are waiting.