As I stood on the balcony of my room at theVictoria-Jungfrau Hotel (+41(0)33-828-28-28; www.victoria-jungfrau.ch) in Switzerland,I felt sorry for Queen Victoria.This magnificent hotel was built in her honor, butshe never came here to enjoy the sweeping viewacross the meadows with the stark white peak of theJungfrau in the distance.
Looking for Excitement
I was distracted by what appeared to be colorful butterfliesdescending from the clear blue sky onto the softfields in front of the hotel. My peripheral vision hadtricked me; they were actually gliders on gossamerwings, soaring with the freedom of alpine eagles.
Within minutes I was standing in front of the deskin the lobby. A kindly gentleman with white hairlooked at me over the top of his wire-rimmed bifocals.The crossed keys on the lapels of his jacket were theinsignia of his profession. "Is there any way a guestcan fly on one of those gliders? On the ones that arelanding in the meadow," I asked. "Of course, monsieur,I can book it for you," the concierge replied."Would you like to fly tomorrow morning?"
I felt my heart jump into my throat. Was I out ofmy mind? Jumping off a mountain was usually suicide.Nevertheless, I reached for my wallet and mycredit card; it was an involuntary reflex.
The next morning I was picked up by a van fromAlpin Center (033-823-55-23; www.alpincenter.ch) atthe bus stop across the street from the hotel. A smilingyoung man, clearly younger than my son, introducedhimself. "I'm Stefan, and I will be your pilot." He spokewith a slight German accent. "We are on our way up theslopes of the mountain to the takeoff field." As wedrove, Stefan explained the unique sport of paragliding.The glider is actually a nylon parachute shaped like arectangle, and the harness is designed to carry one ortwo passengers. The procedure is to run down a slopeuntil the wind catches the nylon envelope, and thenyou're up and away. We arrived at the field just in timeto see another paraglider taking off. Several nylonenvelopes were spread out on the verdant green slope, asother pilots prepared for their flights.
Stefan spread out his envelope with meticulouscare. The brightly colored cords looked like ribbonsfrom gift wrappings. He attached the harness under myarms and across my chest. The mountain air was cooland crisp, but nervous beads of perspiration formedon my forehead. The moment of truth was fastapproaching, and adrenalin surged through my body.Stefan explained that on the count of one we wouldstart moving forward in long strides, on the count oftwo we would start jogging, and on the count of threewe would run like bandits. My heart hammering, westarted walking forward, then jogging, and finallyrunning. Suddenly I felt as if a giant hand had pulledme backwards with the harness. Then, in the blink ofan eye, we lifted off the slope and into the air.
It is difficult to describe the exhilaration I felt in thefirst minute. My nerves and fear evaporated. The camerahung from my neck, forgotten. The panoramabelow us changed slowly and I could see green patchquilts of fields and barn roofs below. We spiraled andswooped over the community of Interlaken, whichlooked like a toy village from a fairy tale. Stefan askedif I was OK and I replied, "Never better." "Theupdrafts are really good this morning," he said. "Wecould literally stay up all day under these conditions."
The flight actually lasted about an hour until wefinally spiraled down, like the original "butterflies" Ihad observed, and landed on the meadow, not farfrom a few nervous cows. Our feet touched theground and Stefan expertly deflated the envelope. Ishrugged off the harness and looked up at the elegantfaçade of the Victoria-Jungfrau Hotel.
"Vicki, old girl," I said to no one in particular, "youmissed the experience of a lifetime."