Thank you forum for all the advice and information. Here is my lengthy and wordy trip report. I hope there is some information that is helpful to someone. We had a great time, despite a little rain.
Day 1. San Diego to Montreux. Flight San Diego – DC – Geneva.
Arrived a 7 am; about 40 minutes early! Seemed to be the only flight, so customs and passport were very quick. Got to the SBB ticket office – no line – bought ½ fare passes with family card, stopped and got some water and made the 7:50 AM no-change train to Montreux. At the Montreux station headed to Hotel Splendid - walking distance. Used elevator down to street, crossed street and were faced with daunting stairs down to the next street where hotel was located. A local saw our consternation and pointed us to a public elevator that took us down to lake level right next to the hotel. Perfect! Checked in, dropped our bags. The hotel manager gave us a nice overview of things to do, provided a Montreux Riviera Card (free transportation) and a map and off we went. Walked the lake a little, saw the Freddie Mercury statute. We needed food and went to the Migros in the lakeside shopping promenade (also stopped in electronics store to replace a charger left on plane), but nothing looked appetizing to the crew. TA led us to Zurcher, a coffee shop of sorts I guess. We were a little flummoxed about how it operated and our server didn’t seem interested in helping with our lack of French. We sat for coffee and then figured out we could buy food from the display counter and eat it at the table. Very tasty and cheap (for Switzerland, of course), sat outside watching the locals go about their morning; a nice start.
The bus to Chateau de Chillon ran right in front, so we hopped on. Short bus ride was free with the Riviera Card. Chateau de Chillon was great. Based on advice, we paid for the audio tour which was the right call. Being tired after a long travel, we would have just stumbled around without it; having the audio tour forced us to take our time and see the whole castle, which was interesting and well worth it. We spent about 2+ hours or so. The plan was to take a boat back to Montreux, which is what we did. But in sleep-deprived state it was a little confusing and we hopped on the first boat that arrived, which did get us back to Montreux, but turned out to be in the direction that included 4 or 5 stops – so we had an unintentional long tour of the lake, which was nice, and explained why our tickets cost 2x as much as we thought they should have. After a nap at the hotel, we wanted familiar food and a beer or two. TA pointed us to Barrel Oak, an Irish pub across from the train station. Friendly place, with a good view of the lake. Very good pub food and beer selection at decent prices. A very good call to end a long and successful first travel day.
Day 2. Cheese and Chocolate. (Maison Cailler, Broc & Gruyeres).
Morning train ride up to the chocolate factory. Noticed that our Riviera Card included a free ride as far as Les Avants (a few stops on the route) so used SBB mobile app to buy round-trip from Les Avants to Broc Fabrique. Probably only saved a couple francs, but was proud of the savy-traveller aspect of that move; the family wasn’t as impressed. The conductor noticed and did make me produce the Riviera Card in addition to showing him the tickets on my phone. A slight hitch on the way up -- this train was one of the Golden Pass lines with the Panorama. As such, many of the 2nd class coaches were pre-reserved and we arrived behind several large groups scurrying for the unreserved 2nd class cars. There were no seats left, or at least none together. Quickly bought a 1st class upgrade for the Montreux to Montbovon portion (where you change) and had an entire car to ourselves. The ride up was very scenic and I would say if you are in Montreux and have the Riviera Card and want a free scenic trip to overlook the lake, just ride up to Les Avants walk around and come back.
Arriving at Broc Fabrique/Maison Cailler (nothing else there) we proceeded to get our tour number – I just showed the lady all our train passes and expected to pay something for admission, but she just handed me a tour number. We had an 1 ½ hour wait. Walked around outside a little. Looked at a cow. Watched the presentation in the theater and looked at all the chocolate in the shop and grabbed a snack. Did the tour, which was, frankly, a bit odd and made me think of a child attraction at Disneyland. I guess I was expecting more of a factory tour as opposed to an animated history of chocolate. Of course, sampled copious amounts of the chocolate at the end of the tour. On reflection, the train ride and waiting for the tour etc… was not worth the time we spent. Perhaps if the kids were younger. I saw they had a demonstration kitchen where you can sign up for a class where you make your own chocolate. They were sold out on our day. That would have been the thing for us to do. Note: you need to keep an eye on the time since there is only 1 train per hour leaving at :37 past the hour. There is nothing really to do there, so after having waited for the tour etc… missing the train by a couple of minutes might be frustrating.
Stopped in Gruyeres on the way back. It was too late to tour the cheese factory, so we walked up to the castle. The walk looked daunting at first, but it wasn’t bad. It was quite a surprise because we weren’t expecting that the town was up in the shadow of the castle; it was really neat. But our day had already been long, so we didn’t spend much time there. In retrospect, we would have been happier to skip Maison Callier and just spend the day in and around Gruyeres. Back in Montreux, walked along the lake again and then, on recommendation of the hotel, had dinner at Restaurant Au Parc, just a few blocks away. Italian. He said it was the best pizza anywhere. Period. So we all had Pizza. He was right. It was terrific. Quite pricey, but worth it.
Day 3. Montreux to Wengen.
Ok. I’ll vent on SBB a little bit here. Our plan was to ship luggage to Wengen using SBB luggage service and spend the day sightseeing as the mood struck us. On Day 2, I stopped in to the SBB office to clarify the procedure and was advised that I couldn’t ship luggage from Montreux, but had to go back to Lausanne to do that. So we recalculated our plans and decided to just ride to Wengen on the Golden Pass route with luggage a little earlier and then go from there.
I had previously asked the SBB office at Geneva Airport if I could buy the Regional pass - Bernese Oberland in Montreux and they said yes. So I went to the SBB office early morning to buy the BO pass but was told they didn’t sell that pass there. Flummoxed. Went back to collect the luggage and family and returned to the SBB office. Got a different agent who said they didn’t sell the BO Pass, but he could call Interlaken and they could process it and he could print them up. Not sure why the first agent didn’t offer this. While waiting for him to do that, I noticed people checking luggage. I asked him if we could have checked luggage for transport to Wengen and he said ‘of course’, but we had missed the time (9am) for same day delivery. It was nice of the agent to take the time to process getting the BO passes; I just didn’t anticipate it would take 25 minutes. By the time we got the transaction completed we ran to catch the Golden Pass train, and missed it by about 30 seconds. Trains do run on-time. We didn’t want to wait an hour, so we jumped on the fast route through Visp and the tunnel to Spiez. The ride down the valley to Visp was scenic and interesting to us, and the train wasn’t crowded, so we didn’t feel bad about missing the Golden Pass, and it was a shorter ride overall; we arrived 30 minutes earlier than had we been on our intended train. In retrospect, if I had not double-checked anything on Day 2, and just showed up en-masse at train station at 8 am with luggage to check etc… the original plan probably would have worked.
Our route was Montreux-Visp-Spiez-Interlaken-Lauterbrunnen-Wengen.
Sounds like a lot of changes, but really, it is as easy as can be (as long as you are just dealing with reasonable-size rolling luggage) and the scenic payoff, really once you get to Spiez, and especially once you start up from Interlaken, made even the jaded teenagers go “Wow”. The first big scenic reveal on the train up from Lauterbrunnento Wengen is really something. I think the word I heard was “magical”. Walked down to our hotel in Wengen – Hotel Edelweiss (outstanding value; cannot recommend highly enough) and checked into our view rooms. Just in awe at this point. Had a family member joining the trip this day, and plan was to go and meet her in route in Interlaken later on. So we walked around Wengen a bit, grabbed some food and drinks at the surprisingly well-stocked COOP grocery story and decided, since we had the BO passes, to take the cable car up to Männlichen.
We walked around a bit there and ate our lunch and decided to take the gondola down to Grindenwald (you end up across a parking lot from Grindenwald Grund train station; not in-town). The Cable car up from Wengen takes less than 10 minutes; the gondola down to Grindenwald was very long, maybe 30+ minutes? But scenic and fun seeing all the cows and hearing the loud cow-bells. We weren’t planning on being in Grindelwald on this day, but a quick check of SBB app showed a train back to Wengen through Kleine Scheidegg leaving soon so we took that (about an hour). Lets just say everywhere you go in this area will be scenic x10. I left the group in Wengen and headed down to Interlaken to meet up with our straggler. Had time to pop into the COOP across from the Interlaken train station which is a huge grocery store with everything you could need; got some food for our weary traveler and also grabbed a rather tasty Gyro to-go from a restaurant adjacent to the train station. Back in Wengen, met up with the rest of the group at the Rock Bar, which had live music and a festive atmosphere until the wee hour of 10 or 11. Wengen is great in all respects, but not a place if you want to party all night (we didn’t, so perfect).
Day 4. Rain. Lauterbrunnen Valley; Trumblebuch Falls, Murren.
Yesterday was sunny and warm; shorts and t-shirt. Today, colder and overcast with some rain. Still beautiful, in a different way, but no view of the peaks. Need to stay low, so rain jackets and umbrellas and train down to Lauterbrunnen. Short walk over to Staubbach Fall, very pretty lots of water. Steep walk up to the viewing platform which, we didn’t know, snakes all the way up and behind the waterfall, so that was an unexpected surprise. We continued on the walking path going toward Trummelbach Falls. It was raining on and off; never too hard. We decided to try and get on the other side river/valley so we could walk near the road/bus line in case we wanted to jump on. Cut through the camping park since there was a bridge there. Got on the path on the other side, but it eventually just led us back across the river to our original path. No matter, the rain had stopped. Walked by a little goat dairy that was selling its goat cheese from a vending machine on the side of the path, which was novel. So we bought some and ate it while we walked; quite good. Arrived at Trummelbach Falls maybe an hour and a half (?) after we had first left the train station. Stopped for some coffee at the shop and then paid the (relatively high I thought) entrance fee and took the elevator ride up to the mid-point of the falls and climbed the rest of the way. It was quite impressive and loud, and a little ominous. Everyone agreed it was a good stop and worthwhile. I think we spent about an hour, including walking down as opposed to taking the elevator back down.
Went out to the bus stop and took it to the Stechelberg (Schilthornbahn) cable car to Murren. It was quite crowded. Some folks had pre-bought tickets and were headed all the way up to the top, I had checked the webcam and didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was socked in. We got off and walked around Murren in the rain; a very cute town, but we are glad we chose Wengen since getting in and out of Murren is a bit more of an undertaking than Wengen. Bought some sausages from a lady selling them in front of a store; she said her husband made them and they are the same ones they sell down in Lauterbrunen. Very tasty! Were going to hike back on the trail to the Grütschalp cable car, but the rain picked up and teenager was grumpy, so we jumped on the little train instead. Down the cable car and up the train to Wengen to dry out. Dinner at the hotel (they have 4 course dinner for guests for $25, a value for sure). We ate there a couple of the nights.
Day 5. Rain; Overcast. Interlaken; Lake Brienz; Giessbach Fall; Brienz. Hikes up in the mountains were off, so we decided to head down to Interlaken. Bern was an option, but it was Sunday, so wasn’t sure how much of the town would be open. Walked around Interlaken and looked in some of tourist shops which were mostly open, even though it was Sunday. A lot of TA contributors, especially locals, talk poorly of Interlaken. I understand their point since it is clearly a tourist town and doesn’t retain quintessential Swiss mountain town charm, but it seems a nice town and certainly centrally located for easy connections to explore the region. If you have a train pass and your plan is to visit a different destination each day, a hotel easy walking distance to Interlaken Ost wouldn’t be a bad solution; especially if it ends up being more affordable than the mountain towns.
Walked back to the ferry terminal (adjacent to the train station) for a boat ride on Lake Brienz. We were keen to get on first and get seats inside in 2nd class since the rain was on and off; good thing since there is limited indoor seating in 2nd class. Despite the low clouds and periodic rain, we had a nice scenic cruise. After an hour we got off at Giessbach See, and took the funicular up to the hotel, and then hiked up to the waterfalls. If you have someone with mobility issues, they can easily just stay at the hotel and look at the falls from there. The area was pretty and there are several falls that cascade down the hill, not just one big waterfall, and the hike up includes a nice view back to the hotel and the lake. The first trail takes you to a place where you can walk behind the falls. The next section up is a little more climbing and is worth it for the larger view. We didn’t go any further. Walked down and debated having lunch at the hotel, but checked the timetable and saw that if we hurried we could make the next boat to Brienz, so we did. That meant riding the funicular back down, when we had planned to walk down (not that far). For four of us, spending $20 each way for the short funicular ride seemed a bit much especially when the walk would have been nice. Caught the short boat ride to Brienz and walked around town and the waterfront with no purpose in general. Had a late snack and secured some beverages for our train ride back. When we arrived in Lauterbrunnen, the clouds were still there but the rain was done. The others took the train up to Wengen, I decided to walk the path up. It is a steep climb up to be sure; and I saw many people coming down. The views up the valley were something else. The hiking sign-post said it would be 1.5 hours up. I beat the time, but not without some huffing and puffing for sure. Went out to dinner in Wengen to Pizzeria da Sina (as suggested by Wengen TripAdvisor contributor Kim) and it was very good and reasonable.
Day 6. No rain. Sun! (Well, sort-of) Männlichen to Klein Scheidegg. Grindelwald to First.
Woke up to mostly sunny skies, the peaks were in view with some clouds. Our view room finally worth it. By the time we were done with breakfast, there were swirling clouds around Jungfrau, Schilthorn and Männlichen. They would briefly appear and then disappear. Checked the webcams for Jungfrau and Schilthorn and both were clear at the top, but mostly with views of the top of the clouds. Took the cable car up to Männlichen for the walk over to Klein Scheidegg. It really is just an easy walk, not really much of a hike and very suitable for most everyone I would think. By the time we reached the top it was a bit foggy with not much view; nevertheless the trail was lovely as the wildflowers were out in force, which was really nice. Every now and then the clouds would part a bit and reveal the peaks and then the clouds would close in again. It was like a game of peek-a-boo. I didn’t record our time for the walk, but we really were just strolling and stopping and it didn’t seem all that long.
As we approached Klein Scheidegg we stopped at the first restaurant, Grindelwaldblick, to have some hot chocolate on their big deck while we tried to will the clouds away for the view. Just more peek-a-boo. Sitting there, we looked over to Grindenwald and it looked to be in full sun. So we decided to go that way and take the cable car up to First.
We were a little chilly up on the mountain, but it was quite warm down in Grindelwald. We got off the train and really didn’t know what to do since it wasn’t the plan for the day. There were signs to the First cable car but it was a little unclear. A check of google maps confirmed we had a 10 or 15 minute walk. Passed a Coop so jumped inside for a few fresh waters. At the cable car we decided that we were going to do the adventure way down, - zip line, scooters, trottibike so went to buy that combination ticket. Thankfully, the nice lady at the ticket office suggested we wait until we are up top just in case the line for the zip line was longer than we wanted (turns out it was a 1.5+ hour line, so we were glad we didn’t buy the ticket first). The cable car ride up is quite long; made longer by periods of time where it would just stop. No big deal, but if you are considering a trip up to First in connection with other activities for a day, you need to account for the walk to/from the train station and the time of the ride up and down. We should have grabbed a quick snack in Grindelwald (there was a take-out type place very near the station that we walked right by), so when we got to the top, we bought some expensive food at the cafeteria and sat outside on the deck, which was actually very nice. Warm, sunny with fantastic views. All the good tables on the deck are reserved for people that buy food, so that was worth it. We took a little walk around and started out for Bachalpsee but calculated our time and realized we wouldn’t have enough to do the whole hike so turned around and did the Cliff Walk, which was very neat, and headed over to check the line for the First Flyer. It was still a 1.5 hour line, so we took the gondola down one stop and jumped on the scooters to ride from Schreckfeld to Bort – a lot of fun. But be aware, you can get going pretty fast if you don’t mind what you are doing. Despite the fact they look impossible to tip over, let’s just say if you have a wild teenager, you can get proven wrong every day. Thankfully, we had no need to experience Switzerland’s outstanding medical system. Despite my better judgement, at Bort we traded in the scooters for the Trottibikes for the ride down to Grindelwald -- they looked a little more dangerous than the scooters due to the smaller wheels + balance required + unknown road conditions. But they turned out to be easy and great fun down (especially since Dad was in front regulating the speed of the group). Back down, we walked around Grindelwald a bit and back to the train station. Grindelwald is much bigger and has much more activity that Wengen and Murren for sure. During prime time season, I could see it getting a little overrun perhaps.
Train back to Wengen. Made a mistake. You can take the train up and over with a change in Kleine Scheidegg, or down towards Interlaken (but not all the way) and then through Lauterbrunen. Both are a little over an hour. We went towards Kleine Scheidegg. Problem is late in the day, everyone is making their way back down so the change in Kleine Scheidegg was a bit of a madhouse and there were no seats on the train down to Wengen. Not catastrophic, but after a fun and long day, crammed in and standing for the final 30 minutes of train ride was sour. Fortunately, we arrived at our wonderful hotel to an impromptu wine and cheese reception – they were pouring some sort of local sweet wine and sampling cheeses they make from their cow (they lease a cow every year for the milk and make their own cheese – I guess it is a fairly common thing). Spirits lifted, we enjoyed a great dinner at the hotel.
Day 7. Off To Italy, but first...
Of course, a sunny, warm cloud-free day. On the day we are leaving. I knew it was coming, so had booked a morning paraglide in Lauterbrunnen. Met them at the train station a little after 8 am, took the cable car up to Grütschalp, hiked straight up a little bit and then went. A 15 minute flight down to the valley in front of Staubbachfall. Landed right in Lauterbrunnen in a field next to Camping Jungfrau. Very spectacular and fun. I suppose there is some danger to such an activity, but never felt uneasy about it at all. They aren’t going to fly if it is unsafe conditions. I asked them about cancellations, and they said there are times it looks good, but then when they get up to the top, it changes and they cancel. More so apparently for the flights out of First since the transport time to the top is so much longer. We were done by 10, so hopped the train back up to collect the bags and off to Lake Como. It’s a long day to get to Lake Como from Wengen, so we booked the fast train the runs Zurich to Milan (got tickets on Trenitalia for $20 euro each) - we just needed to get to Spiez. Tip – this train is crowded and there is really no good space for luggage. It all just gets piled up in between the cars. You definitely need to reserve your seat. We had reserved seats and felt bad having to evict people that were sitting in them (but not bad enough to stand and let them have our seats).
Train Passes. We bought the ½ fare pass when we arrived ($120) and then the BO Regional pass for 4 days ($188). I tried to keep a list of all the trains/boats/cable cars I took. If my tally is correct, if I had no pass at all, the full fare of everything would have been about $802 (not including the $20 euro train to Milan). If I just had the ½ fare card it would have been $401 + $120 = $521. The way I did it, it was $120 + $188 + 108 = $416. If you just have the ½ fare card, using the mobile app to buy tickets is very easy. I never bought a ticket from a machine. With the BO Pass, for the cable cars/gondolas etc… you just get their attention and flash your pass and they open the gate for you. We never had to actually get a physical ticket from them.
Planning Things to do: Be flexible. Plan general itinerary days, but don’t assign a specific day of the trip to them. If it is clear – head up the mountains. You never know if tomorrow is rain.
Cell service/data: We use Sprint in the USA. The International plan is free and includes unlimited texts and data; phone calls for 0.20 a minute. The “free” data is speed throttled however, so it is not great. I paid for an upgrade in speed -- $5 a day per phone or $25 for a week – and it worked fantastic everywhere. I think the network was Salt? I was never without service as far as I could tell. WIFI at hotels was all fine. No WIFI on trains. There appeared to be WIFI in some train stations, but we never used it since the data on cell service was fine.
Food prices. Yikes. Sitting down in a restaurant can come with a bit of sticker shock. But you can navigate this is you plan a little. Waiting until everyone is starving and cranky so you have to sit down at the next place you see is a sure-fire way to spend 2x as much. The Coop and Migros were handy, but we never came across one that had the full-scale food court that people describe. In reality, for us, since beer on the menu is much cheaper than where we live, and tax and tip is included in the price, we didn’t have too many real sticker-shock events. Having the option for the very reasonable set-price dinner at the hotel was very handy too.