There are a few drawbacks to taking a tour. Don’t get me wrong – I love taking a tour and there are many reasons why they’re a good choice. But there is one thing that gets me – the extras. Not paying for your own food here and there, not any shopping you do or any attractions you enter. No, it’s the extras that are a part of the tour but are add-ons to the “main” tour and price. They are “optional”. However, if you choose not to partake in the optional excursions the tour company often doesn’t give you many other options for your time.
So, when I went on my Grand Contiki Tour, I chose them all… or almost all (I just couldn’t justify the cost of para-sailing in the Alps). I went to the cabaret, toured Pompeii, tasted authentic meals in every country, went on wine tastings. And it was fantastic… I’d definitely recommend doing as many extras as you can afford.
Because of the length of my tour, we got to make decisions twice. The first day we had to decide what “extras” we would take on the first half of the trip and half-way through we had to do it again for the second half. As I said, I chose them all, the only other thing that I waffled about was the Jungfrau Mountain visit as it was by far the most expensive option. But in the end I decided to bite the bullet and go.
And it was the best decision I ever made.
You started the day in a sleepy little town of Lauterbrunnen in the middle of the Swiss Alps where you made your way from the little cabin you’d stayed in the night before to the train station. This is where the fun begins – I love trains. I don’t know why, I just do. There’s something about a train that gives me childish excitement over the prospect of riding in one. And this was the best train ever.
The train crawled up the picturesque Swiss mountains. Wending it’s way slowly up through the town towards the charming Swiss farms that dot the sides of the mountains. Unlike our Canadian Rockies the Swiss Alps (and the Austrian Alps) seem much more livable, though no less magnificent.
Crawling up the mountains on a warm summer day with the train windows open you hear a tinkling in the distance, slowly getting louder. It is melodious and beautiful and makes you think of movies like the Sound of Music. As the train rounds the curve you realize it is a field full of cows with literal cowbells on. As they graze their continual movement creates the tinkling sound that clinched my love for this place. It was the sort of thing you saw in movies, the kind of thing you dreamt about when planning your trip. Not the thing you believed would actually happen.
The train continued its ascent through the farmers fields, ever higher, until the lush green grass started turning to the grey rock of the mountain tops and patches of snow started to appear.
And then… then you went into the mountain. The top of the tracks isn’t at the top of the mountain, it’s in the mountain.
Jungfraujoch is the highest railway station in Europe, one of the highest astronomical observatories in the world, and boasts Europe’s highest post office (from which of course I sent a postcard home). It is known as the Top of Europe.
You emerge from the train in the centre of the mountain and follow the tunnels through ice caverns filled with ice sculptures.
You then have the choice of exiting out onto the glacier or you can take the elevator even higher to the Sphinx Observatory and the viewing platform there.
We did it all. I honestly couldn’t tell you what we did first, it wasn’t important. Up at the top you had stunning views down onto the glacier and up to the tops of the surrounding peaks. Down on the glacier there was the opportunity for dog sled rides, building snowmen, and partaking in snow ball fights.
As a Canadian, one of the best parts of taking this “optional excursion” was doing so with some of the Australians on the trip. People who had never seen snow before. Never felt the icy bite of a snowball hitting you in the face or the satisfaction of rolling that perfect snowball for a snowman.
Winter and snow is such a regular occurrence for Canadians that we forget most of the time that there’s something magical about it. That it is beautiful and amazing. That is what I took away from this. The Swiss Alps are so serene, so majestically beautiful and full of stark contrast. It made everything else fall away. It was what you dream about, what you don’t dare to hope to see.
So, if you get the chance – take it. Don’t worry about money, don’t worry about time. Just do it. I promise, you’ll never regret it.