If this is your year to return to travel, why not start with some of the best skiing in the world.
Need a reason to choose Switzerland this winter? Look up. Europe’s loftiest country has 52 signature peaks higher than 4,000m, with nine resorts perched enviably above 3,000m. Biggies like Crans-Montana, Saas-Fee, St. Moritz, Verbier and Zermatt have well-deserved reps, but Switzerland’s endless list of lesser-known gems like Arolla, Belalp, Lauchernalp/Lötschental and Val d’Anniviers are just as valuable.
When it comes to skiing and all things snowy, the Swiss have some of the best cards in the game. Tall peaks, sprawling glaciers, state-of-the-art lifts, and a culture of fabulous mountain restaurants and faultless hospitality makes for a perfect winter holiday. Oh, and Roger Federer. Advantage: Switzerland.
From exceptional freeride terrain to the raw luxury of the Kempinski Palace, Engelberg is five star.
“The Titlis is frightening and very high,” wrote Abbot Plazidus of Engelberg’s signature peak—in 1650. Since the 12th century, Benedictine monks like Plazidus have lived in the shadow of this awesome mountain under the maxim ora et labora—pray and work. If they were praying for snow, their prayers were answered. The charming end-of-the-valley village is chock full of powder-filled off-piste opportunities and home to one of the world’s biggest vertical drops. Little more than one hour from a non-stop Canada-Zurich flight, Engelberg’s most famous descent is The Laub, one of the Alps’ great lift-accessed powder runs. This baby rolls on and on, and then on a bit more for an incredible 1,200m of (often) deep powder thrills. The first revolving cable car in the world, the Titlis Rotair, lifted off in 1992. And if there were any doubt, the preponderance of film crews and Swedish ski bums mixing with the local population of this Belle Epoque town is the proof in the pudding. Engelberg is one sweet stash.
Après All That
Slip into your moonboots and join a guided tour of the Benedictine Monastery and its splendid Baroque church, with altar artwork by Spiegler and the largest pipe organ in Switzerland. In case you forgot which country you were in, you can nibble your way through a heaven-sanctioned cheese-making demonstration, too.
Classy New Digs
This winter Engelberg welcomes the relaunch of the splendid 1904 Belle Epoque-era palace hotel, now under white-gloved guidance of Kempinski. Lie back in the soothing waters of the swank rooftop infinity pool, and play “spot your tracks” at Palace Engelberg, the first and only five-star hotel in town.
If anything is as entertaining as St. Moritz’s slopes laced over four sunny peaks, it’s the glittering people that this legendary jet-set resort with seven five-star hotels attracts. St. Moritz does for the average skier what Coco Chanel did for women—makes them look fabulous. The wide-open slopes are also remarkable for their emptiness, and you can double that feeling in the off-piste department—particularly on the rare non-sunny powder days. As the oligarchs, industrialists and lesser royals sleep off the night before and rush to their 1:00 p.m. spa dates, the world’s your oyster.
From welcoming the first winter tourists in 1864, to the inaugural zoom down the bob run in 1904, to the opening of Switzerland’s first ski school here in 1929, the doyenne of slope chic and alpine flair is accustomed to taking first in show. And the easiest way to join the cash-flashing fun is by taking part in one of St. Moritz’s events, many of which are free.
One of the premier times to see how the other half lives is January at the Snow Polo weekend. The bejewelled and be-furred descend onto the frozen lake to admire ponies in the snow, and each other, making a serious dent in the world’s champagne supply at the same time. From the Bob & Skeleton World Cup on the only remaining natural-ice bob run in the world, to the women’s World Cup Downhill race in January, some spectacles are as amazing as they are free. Friday-night skiing on Switzerland’s longest floodlit run at Corvatsch until 2:00 a.m. is an event in itself, with mountain huts open for dancing and hot Pflaumi Schlumis. All the money saved is well dispensed for the evening cocktail splurge moment: for this, it’s gotta be Badrutt’s Palace, baby.
One more run
Climb aboard, hold on to your helmet-head and off you go: a 75-second adrenaline rush is guaranteed on the bobsleigh. Since the late 1930s, the Olympia Bob Run has been offering guest racetrack rides from St. Moritz to Celerina. A glass of bubbly to start, 4.5 G-force in the middle and a certificate to finish. A bob guest ride costs CHF269, or roughly $360.
Where to start? For cheese and potato lovers, there’s no better place than Verbier, the self-proclaimed raclette capital of the world. The cows of the beautiful Val de Bagnes work hard all summer to gain the revered AOC certification that also stamps the region’s excellent produce, air-dried meats and fine wines. Bless them. Valais is the country’s biggest wine-producing area as well.
With the most common accent heard around Verbier and the Les 4 Vallées, the massive resort may seem more British than Britain, but it’s also a true world-class destination for everyone from extreme skiers and cruisers, to the jet set and families of mixed abilities who populate the town’s roughly 1,000 chalets and apartments for hire. All types come back year after year for the massive terrain (over 400 km of pistes and more than 90 lifts and railways link Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, Thyon and La Tzoumaz), top restaurants, bars and full-on nightlife, and the sporty yet relaxed atmosphere.
Need a spot to escape the pressure of the paparazzi? From hanging out with a glass of Chasselas at Le Fer à Cheval, to Red Bull vodkas with Beatrice and Eugenie at the Farinet (best live bands in the Alps), to launching off the top of Mont Fort’s black run at 3,330m, rest assured that you, Richard Branson, Prince Andrew and the lot are welcome. Ain’t life grand when you’re living it?
A few hours spent wandering the cobbled alleys of Geneva Old Town will leave you dosed up with all the charms of the Alte Welt. Perfect for a spot of lunch, chocolate buying and a last good coffee before your flight home.
Beautiful people, glittering peaks. The Swiss region of Valais boasts 47 mountains more than 4,000m. The top spot to soak up such a diamond-studded panorama is from the highest aerial cableway in Europe. Setting the bar for high-mountain hedonism, ride one of four bedazzling gondola cabins awash in Swarovski crystals, inside and out, up to the Klein Matterhorn. In your face: the Matterhorn, proudly touted by the Swiss as the most photographed mountain in the world and scarcely avoidable from the resort’s 360 km of pistes that blanket both the Swiss side and down into Italy’s Cervinia. One resort, two countries, good decision.
Voluptuous Valais is about quality, indulgence and sinfully delicious chocolate. The air in strollable car-free Zermatt is cleaner than clean and the sun shines 300 days a year. And come nightfall, all manner of exact Matterhorn replicas are available in gold, silver and chocolate in the many village shops. Ski down into Italy for a different perspective and cheaper pasta lunch at our Cervinia fave, Chalet Etoile—not that Zermatt’s 48 mountain restaurants aren’t worth every franc, vide alpine classics such as Chez Vrony and Zum See.
Cruise the longest piste in the world for 25 km, and the steepest one at 65 degrees on the Italian side. In Zermatt, the great outdoors delivers loads of cost-effective romance: skating, winter walking and sledging. The toboggan run off the top of the Gornergrat cog train is the highest in the Alps and yields a full Matterhorn reveal. Classic nightclubs such as always-amusing Broken and hip Vernissage have no cover charge. The ultimate franc-saving workaround—self-catering—leads to the Coop grocery store right across from the train station.
Remember: in Switzerland the tip is always included in the bill and, like the ad says, the view is priceless. With skiing 365 days a year, snow and style are guaranteed in Zermatt.
The chance to experience a dash of authentic hut life. Spend a night at Monte Rosa Hut, perched at 2,883m in the midst of Swiss glacial glory, surrounded by many 4,000m peaks and with perfect views onto the Matterhorn.
GRINDELWALD, WENGEN, MÜRREN AND INTERLAKEN
The magic begins the moment you board your little train, skis in hand, to ascend high into the stunning Swiss Alps, overlooked by the magnificent Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. This traditional fondue of snowy scenery, cog trains and cowbells forms the backdrop to the Jungfrau Region—the classic resorts of Wengen, Grindelwald and Mürren, all easily reached from Interlaken.
With direct views of the ice giants and 211 km of pistes, Switzerland has a knack for cultivating the highest peaks in Europe—and its latest long, tall and sparkly lift project is right here. What does almost C$700 million get you these days? A new glittering high-tech V-cableway starting from a joint terminal in Grindelwald with gondolas accessing both the Eiger Glacier and Männlichen ski areas. Travel time to skiing and to the Jungfraujoch (tippy-top of the Alps and gateway to the awesome Aletsch Glacier, at 24 km the longest icefield in the Alps and a UNESCO heritage site) will be shortened by a hefty 47 minutes—including an eye-popping stretch tracing the fearsome foot of the Eiger’s North Wall. Traditionalists, fear not: the classic narrow-gauge railways that have long served as the area’s charming lift system from Lauterbrunnen and Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg and on to Grindelwald aren’t going anywhere fast.
Ski a classic
Check out the longest and fastest downhill course on the World Cup circuit. More than four km long, the Lauberhorn, aka black run 49, is in fact a predominantly red run peppered with two steeps and some technical treats. To begin, the Hundschopf is a narrow rock-lined chute that leads into a path no wider than a car length; racers launch a harrowing 40m over this precipice. Not long after, the Kernen-S, a bridge regularly negotiated at around 80 kph, is named for Swiss Bruno Kernen, the 2003 winner, who smashed backwards into the net at 100 kph and catapulted back onto the icy slope like a human cannonball. France’s Johan Clarey broke the World Cup record reaching 161 kph on Haneggschuss. “There’s no other downhill as physically taxing or as taxing technically,” said two-time Lauberhorn champion Bode Miller. “To win that race you have to have every facet of downhill skiing completely dialed in.”
A good day out
Getting to the top by train isn’t cheating; it’s just Swiss. Completed in 1912, the Victorian-era miracle of engineering that is the Jungfraujoch bores through the bulk of the fearsome Eiger to its 3,454m summit. Nearly a century on more than 600,000 tourists, mountaineers and skiers disembark at the top—each year—blinking in the sunshine amid a swirl of glittering ice and superlatives, to find themselves at the head of the Aletsch Glacier.
Parts of it are a classic ski-tour day with a catchy name. The Lötschenlücke tour begins at the top of the Jungfraujoch, slides onto the Aletsch, then climbs up the Aletschfirn, and culminates in a rewardingly long, languid seven-km descent to the village of Blatten, in the Canton of Valais. The glacier is more than a kilometre wide in parts and, at its thickest, 800m deep. Ski down the wide seven-km stretch toward the Konkordiaplatz and, after three hours of building up-credit, it’s time to cash in the chips. As they say in the movies, it’s all downhill from here. Endless long arcs weaving through a yawning, sprawling valley. Kilometre after kilometre of sweet, sandy corn snow. No people, no lift towers, no signs—and no stopping.
Grindelwald Sports (grindelwaldsports.ch) offers Lötschenlücke ski tours with UIAGM mountain guides, plus train from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch and back to Interlaken from Blatten at the end of the day. Group size is between six and 11 skiers. Ski-touring kit for rent widely available.