Switzerland’s Pristine Winter Wonderland Delights Visitors

Photo: Skiers enjoy the view in the Verbier Saint-Bernard region. © Switzerland Tourism

- February 4, 2016

The story regarding the rise of winter tourism in Switzerland is well-documented: In 1864, hotelier Johannes Badrutt, who owned the now-defunct Pension Feller, seduced his English summer guests with a generous proposition. He was so convinced they would enjoy wintering at his St. Moritz property (most visited only during the summer), he told them if they were not having fun, he would gladly absorb the cost of their stay and travel. More than 150 years later, there is a no more glamorous and sought-after winter destination than the mountains of Switzerland, where boundary-pushing slopes combine with luxury amenities to create one of travel’s most iconic experiences: a ski holiday in the Swiss Alps.

More than a mile high in the Engadin Valley in southeastern Switzerland, St. Moritz — its skiing area split into four sections and connected with nearly 60 lifts — offers that enviable combination of lots of snow and lots of sun, the key to its success as the birthplace of winter tourism. And it draws more than just affluent English travelers. Everyone who is anyone — Charlie Chaplin to Naomi Campbell — has skied here.

Corviglia, the ski resort perched just above St. Moritz, remains the most popular skiing area and can be easily accessed by funicular and cable cars. With most of its runs geared toward intermediate skiers (there are beginner slopes and the occasional black run for more experienced skiers), it’s no surprise the mountain is almost always packed with stylish ski bunnies decked in designer winter gear all smoothly navigating around each other on perfect, powdery snow. A bit higher up, at more than 10,000 feet, sits Piz Nair — the second-highest peak in the Engadin Valley after Corvatsch — where more challenging and awesome back bowls as well as off-piste runs await. Confident skiers (or snowboarders) can while away an entire day carving around these slopes, with gorgeous Alpine views setting a dramatic scene of pristine winter wonderland.

Badrutt's Palace Hotel

Badrutt’s Palace Hotel © Badrutt’s Palace Hotel

Once off the mountain, one easily discovers what makes St. Moritz really sing. The town itself — with skis off — can be just as crowded as the slopes. In fact, you can visit St. Moritz for a week with absolutely no intention of skiing and still have more than enough to fill your days.

Johannes Badrutt’s son, Caspar Badrutt, opened Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in 1896. St. Moritz’s grande dame is frequently packed with boldface names, which only underlines the glamorous cachet of this ski town. They stay not just for luxury suites but also the see-and-be-seen restaurants and King’s Club, the most sought-after nightlife venue in St. Moritz. A diverse clientele and DJs spinning an equally varied playlist make King’s Club a roaring party destination.

Glacier 3000 ski gondola climbing the mountain

Glacier 3000 ski gondola climbing the mountain © David Watts Jr. | Dreamstime.com

The concept of a ski resort offering much more than snowy adventures proves a countrywide phenomenon in most of Switzerland. To the west of St. Moritz, Gstaad offers the same synergy of high-octane activities and classic European opulence. Hotels like the 3-year-old Alpina Gstaad roll out red-carpet extravagance to travelers who seek top-of-the-line Alpine hospitality, while hundreds of miles of pistes for all levels and cross-country tracks keep skiers active. A ride up to Glacier 3000, which can rattle even the hardiest of heights enthusiasts, takes 45 minutes from Gstaad. From there, soak in unforgettable views of endless mountain summits, including the Matterhorn.

W Verbier

W Verbier © W Hotels

About 60 miles south lies Verbier, in the heart of 4 Vallées. While Gstaad and St. Moritz seem rooted in traditional luxury, Verbier buzzes with youthful energy. Après-ski and nightlife are as big a part of the Verbier scene as selecting your bindings, but make no mistake about it: Verbier draws serious mountain shredders. Beginners will likely have to learn on “nursery slopes” where they’ll share magic carpets with 4-year-old Europeans who look like they’re aspiring to become gold medal-winning Olympians. Should your skill level require more challenging courses, head up to Mont Fort for steep and likely moguled black runs with the occasional off-piste track. The 10,900-foot elevation provides gorgeous views as you majestically crisscross to the base of the mountain.

While Verbier has no shortage of chic chalets, the hustle and bustle of hotel life thrives in sleek boutique hideaways like the W Verbier, which bowed in December 2013 — the first mountain property for the hotel group. W really ingratiated itself into ski living with this outpost, offering its guests lift passes (a godsend, as patience-defying lines prove the norm in Verbier) and a ski-in bar. When the sun sets and the lifts shut down, Verbier gets even more exciting as the thumping bars and clubs become the focus of locals and visitors alike. Hot spots like Hotel Farinet and Farm Club welcome after-dark revelers well into the following morning. Where they get the energy to dance the night away is anyone’s guess, but maybe it’s the crisp, refreshing Alpine air.

Switzerland Info to Go

For international visitors, reaching Switzerland’s most famous ski resorts usually includes at least a couple of legs of travel. First, you fly into the international gateways of Geneva (GVA ), if you’re headed to mountains in the country’s French-speaking regions like Valais, or Zürich (ZRH), if you’re going to the German-speaking resorts like St. Moritz. From there, you may elect to drive to the Alps or opt for the always on-time Swiss train system, seamlessly snaking through Switzerland’s mountains, offering gorgeous vistas of striking bridges and sharp glaciers.

Where to Stay in Switzerland

The Alpina Gstaad A $336 million investment readied this 56-room, chalet-inspired hotel for its debut. Its stunning Six Senses Spa, opened in 2013, might offer the best pampering in the Alps. Alpinastrasse 23, Gstaad $$$$

Badrutt’s Palace Hotel An icon of the Swiss Alps’ hospitality scene, this historic palace set on the banks of St. Moritz Lake has welcomed celebrities and royalty for more than a century. Via Serlas 27, St. Moritz $$$$

W Verbier This 2-year-old ski-in/ski-out hotel deftly marries chalet style with W’s renowned urban aesthetics. Bonus: Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola oversees the culinary offerings. Rue de Médran 70, Verbier $$$$

Restaurants in Switzerland

Chesa Veglia This 17th-century farmhouse — the oldest building in town — now houses three restaurants and two bars. One, Grill Chadafö, specializes in perfectly prepared meat, from veal to venison. Via Veglia 2, St. Moritz $$$

La Cordée Restaurant This stylish restaurant serves dishes grounded in Italian cooking but with the occasional international flourish. Sit at the bar and watch the kitchen team work its magic. La Cordée des Alpes hotel, Route du Centre Sportif 24, Verbier $$$

Restaurant Sommet Chef Marcus G. Lindner’s Michelin-starred dining room inside The Alpina Gstaad is as known for its whimsical platings of modern European cuisine as for its inventory of hundreds of rare wines. The Alpina Gstaad, Alpinastrasse 23, Gstaad $$$$

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