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American writers high on the Alps

American travel writers chose to experience life in the high pastures

A dozen travel writers from the United States have spent three hours climbing a rain-soaked Alp in the Bernese Oberland to get a taste of real life in a mountain hut.

swissinfo’s Elizabeth Meen went along to hear their impressions of the country – and the Alpine overnight.

The mountain-bound group was among 500 members of the Society of Travel Writers of America who had gathered in St Moritz, and then fanned out to see the country.

For two weeks, they’d walked the glaciers and peaks, rafted, cycled, and explored the waterfalls and the Rhein Gorge.

On September 12, after climbing to 1,700 metres they arrived at the “Candlelight Hotel” and dairy, known by most people as Hotel Obersteinberg, and run for generations by the power of busy hands instead of electricity.

Tired and damp, Claire Walter and the other travel writers unpacked in the dormitory. They were in a separate lodge lined with rows of unmade beds, each neatly stacked with two folded wool blankets and a pillow.

Outdoor toilet

They were in for a feast at the hotel’s candlelight supper. But there was no running water for a shower and no heat when you changed your clothes after the hike. Toilet and washbasins were in an out-building.

“That’s fine,” said Walter, a freelance travel writer based in Boulder Colorado. “If you don’t like that, you don’t sleep in mountain huts.”

Walter said her colleagues were fascinated by the decision to forego electricity, which could be installed at considerable expense.

“Americans mechanise everything, then go to the gym,” she said.

“What I like is the individual responsibility the Swiss seem to show for the land and natural resources,” said Liliane Opsomer, a promoter for the Belgian tourism office in New York City.

Energy wasters

“North Americans are great energy wasters,” said Walter. “The SUV is the most popular vehicle, and, compared to Switzerland, we have no public transportation system except in some major cities.”

Bob Sehlinger, a travel book publisher from Birmingham, Alabama, said they were “continually blown away by the scenery” of the Alps.

Peter Lehner organised the adventure as director of the local tourist office in Lauterbrunnen. He said the mountain hotel was a Swiss treasure.

“I wanted them to see all elements of Swiss life, from the four-star hotel where you can still have a shower and all the comforts, to the mountain hotel, with its spectacular views.”

Lehner appeared for candlelight supper with hair still wet from a bracing cold-water wash.

In case you don’t want to sleep in the mountain hut at SFr60 per night, Hotel Obersteinberg – promoted as “the Candlelight Hotel” by Switzerland Tourism – also has 15 rooms with two beds each, at SFr80 per bed.

High pastures

Its owners, the von Allmens, could put in electricity but they prefer to offer a glimpse of life in the high pastures as they have lived for generations.

The name “von Allmen” actually means “of the high pastures” in Swiss German.

So Dora von Allmen, along with her brothers, their spouses and grown children, milk cows, make cheese, cook, clean and wash their clothes, and do it all by hand for an estimated 2,000 guests per year.

“It’s a very hard life. But it is my responsibility. My father was born here,” she said.

The American who stayed

The von Allmens are no strangers to Americans. About 11 years ago, they hired a young American to tend the dairy cows. Three years later she married Dora’s nephew, Hans-Christen, a farmer and cheese-maker.

Vicki von Allmen, born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, said five months a year of mountain living took some getting used to, despite the fact that she loved Switzerland.

“I think I whined a lot at first,” she said with a quick smile. “I used to say, ‘can’t we just put in a shower?’ But I’ve gotten used to the electricity thing. The only thing I really miss about America is my big cup [of coffee].”

She added that working the old fashioned way teaches a lesson in productivity; the von Allmens have absolutely no time to watch the clock, and are happier for it.

“I come from a ‘time-is-money’ culture. My husband knows me well, and he is always telling me ‘don’t look at your watch’. It’s a lesson I’m struggling to learn.”

swissinfo, Elizabeth Meen at Hotel Obersteinberg

Hotel Obersteinberg is run by the von Allmen family in the Bernese Alps.
The von Allmens walk their 15 dairy cows to the high pastures in May, three hours above their winter home in Stechelberg.
Until the hotel closes on September 30, one of them hikes to town almost every day to fetch supplies.
The family mule carries fresh food up the mountain to an estimated 2,000 visitors per season.

The Society of American Travel Writers represents tourism interests and organises trips to publicise tourism destinations around the world.

The national tourist office, Switzerland Tourism, hosted this year’s convention, welcoming 500 people to St Moritz in early September.

From there, the Americans fanned out to experience Swiss life from mountain living to posh hotels.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR