Skiing, Swiss Alps
Photo: Skiing in Zermatt © MICHAEL PORTMANN
WITH FUR-LINED LOUNGE CHAIRS at mid-mountain huts, fondue for sustenance, chalet-style hotels and lift tickets costing less than what you’d pay at most American ski resorts, Switzerland caught my snow bunny daughter’s attention first for another reason. “Mom, can we go to the real Matterhorn?” Having seen the fake mountain at Disneyland, she was smitten. We’d been planning to go to Colorado for winter skiing, a ritual repeated for years and years. But why not make a change? While the Rockies never get old, perhaps it was time to point our skis (and snowboards) in a new direction.
Tiny Switzerland, just the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, holds a mind-boggling number of ski areas — some 250-plus. Many are large, others diminutive, and all — wedged cheerfully into mountainous terrain — occupy characteristic villages reflective of their regions. Though Norway gets the credit for inventing schussing, the Swiss embraced the sport in the late 19th century as a utilitarian means to traverse the landscape. Not long after, blue blood British tourists discovered skiing’s thrills during long winter stays at tony resorts such as St. Moritz, ensuring the cold-weather phenomenon took hold.
Today Switzerland, a legendary gathering place for glitterati, famous for its white-gloved service and having hosted the winter Olympics twice, reigns as a snow lover’s paradise. With ski destinations in all its three language regions, each accessible by the efficient Swiss train network, it offers riders long, meandering ski runs; heart-thumping vertical drops; glaciers galore; miles of treeless expanses; and eye-popping vistas. Not necessarily secluded, though set amid stunning nature, resorts often connect to one another, allowing skiers to S-turn from village to village — sometimes even to neighboring countries — all in the same day. Add in a vibrant après-ski culture plus chilly activities from tobogganing to skating to snow polo, and Switzerland’s largesse convinced us to give its slopes a try. Even better, we decided to ride the storybook Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt, a train trip that would allow us to try out two famous ski towns on one trip.
Upon arrival at Zürich Airport, we haul our suitcases, laden with puffy ski clothes and layers, to nab our first train for the adventure. We’ve bought a Swiss Pass, a remarkable travel savings allowing children under 16 to ride free on their parent’s unlimited travel ticket throughout Switzerland. It also provides gratis admittance to museums and transportation on boats and buses. With that magic ticket firmly in hand, we walk from the airport to the train station, find the platform for the next train to glamorous St. Moritz and take a seat.
St. Moritz, famous for its celebrity guests, nevertheless imparts a sporty vibe. We snuggle into swanky Badrutt’s Palace, poised minutes from the foot of Corviglia, perhaps the region’s most famous ski mountain. Ideally located for whooshing home at day’s end, the hotel also lies close to St. Moritz’s famous lake, frozen in winter but thronged with warmly clad revelers. That’s where we attempt skijoring, a nervy sport where a muscular horse pulls a scrambling person on skis across the ice. I decide I’m happier under blankets on a horse-drawn carriage ride, a hot wine in hand, tromping along the snow-carpeted forest trails. Later, after a much-deserved, truffle-strewn (pizza-like) flammkuchen, I retire to the Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski’s spa for a marmot oil massage, a time-honored Swiss tradition said to restore overused muscles. To wit, I return the following day, repaired and rewired, to redo my skijoring efforts with a modicum of success.
When it’s time to board the fabled Glacier Express to Zermatt, we’re sorry to leave St. Moritz. But once seated on the nostalgic-styled train, complete with panoramic windows, we’re ready for the next phase of our escapade. Called the “slowest fast train in the world,” the Glacier Express averages 22 miles an hour, chugging for nearly eight hours across Switzerland. Thankfully, it’s also famous for its cuisine, and along the way we sit at starched white-clothed tables, sipping Swiss libations and nibbling charcuterie. En route, the train passes through 91 tunnels, crosses 291 harrowing bridges, trundles out of snowcarpeted valleys and climbs myriad Toblerone-shaped peaks. From the windows we see cross-country skiers with groceries balanced on their backs, cows with bells, and children sledding.
As we near Zermatt, our excitement grows. We disembark and drag our bags up the pedestrian main street, filled with après-skiers, St. Bernard dogs and romantic carriages. “Where is it?” says my daughter, furtively searching for the Matterhorn, disappointed it isn’t in sight. Suddenly it appears as if summoned, majestic and authentic, at the end of the street — just waiting to be skied.
Info to Go
Fly to Zürich or Geneva on Swiss International Air Lines to make quick train connections to all regions of Switzerland. You can purchase a Swiss Travel Pass for the trains online through RailEurope.com. Swiss Deluxe Hotels offers a collection of characteristic yet opulent hotels across Switzerland.