If you prefer the “mountain view” suites at Hawai’i resorts, then you’re going to love the Swiss Alps-especially in winter. Schuss along to these famous winter wonderland towns.
By Bill Harby
FOR SURFERS, MECCA IS A PLACE CALLED HAWAI’I. For skiers, it’s got to be Switzerland – because the top Swiss winter resorts offer more than just mind-bogglingly beautiful mountain slopes for winter sports. Consider three of the most famous Swiss resort towns.
It took me just an afternoon to fall in love with Zermatt. Despite the throngs of tourists, winter and summer, the charm of the bustling village remains intact-its narrow lanes, stately old hotels, medieval chalets, enticing restaurants, souvenir shops selling 9 jillion Swiss Army Knife variations, and inspiring outdoor gear stores (you can climb that mountain with those $600 boots!).
Yes, there’s that famous mountain. I’ve gotten a stiff neck and sore jaw from staring up, mouth agape, transfixed by the piercing majesty of the Matterhorn. Sorry Diamond Head, but for sheer iconic beauty and mana, this Swiss peak one-ups you. (The Matterhorn is a tourist, too: A few millennia ago, tectonic upheaval sent it to Switzerland from Africa.)
Not least among Zermatt’s charms is what isn’t there: cars. You arrive by train, and the only vehicles are a few horse-drawn tourist carriages and silent electric micro-vans delivering goods and guests. But you’ll likely only take a taxi to and from your hotel, and walk otherwise.
I love staying at the striking Hotel Alex, only 3 minutes from the train station. This quietly dazzling 110-room, second-generation, family-owned hotel manages to beautifully blend rustic, renaissance and Bohemia. Every room is uniquely decorated-carved wood ceilings, Chagall-esque stained glass, Renaissance-style furnishings and lush draperies (all they have in common are flat-screen satellite TVs). Or if this style doesn’t ring your bell, you have more than 125 other hotels to pick from, including the venerable 5-star Grand Hotel Zermatthof, and the hip new super-modern V boutique hotel, which boasts an attached cinema for post-skiing movie night.
But you won’t be spending much time in your suite. During winter, it’s snow sports galore and après-ski Armagnac on sunny mountain terraces. During summer there’s great hiking, mountaineering and, yep, skiing-Zermatt is one of only a few winter resorts in the Alps offering year-round skiing.
Welcome to Chalet Land. Here too, I have experienced stiffWelcome to Chalet Land. Here too, I have experienced stiff- neck-sore-jaw syndrome. If you love historic architecture, you’ll love Gstaad. If you’ve ever dreamed of carrying out the fantasy of living like Heidi, this is your town. And if your passions lie in boutique shopping, gourmet eating and drinking-or perhaps a bobsled ride on steel rails-you’ve come to the right place.
Julie Andrews and Roman Polanski have chalets here. (Poor, poor Polanski was under house arrest at his deluxe “Milky Way” chalet during his recent Swiss-U.S. extradition hearings.) I stood outside Polanski’s chalet shivering in the snow a few winters ago, but he didn’t invite me in.
In winter, the little village center looks like a powdered sugar on gingerbread fantasy, complete with haute couture boutiques. Blessedly banned to cars as well, it’s fun to crunch through the snow among the exquisitely preserved 17th-century chalets where modern storefront display windows show off après-ski fashions, fancy kitchenware and fine wines.
You’ll want a car to sample the outlying country restaurants and hotels; and to get to the cable car stations that go up to the winter sports slopes.
Gstaad’s weirdest summer event: an international beach volleyball tournament. Or maybe it’s the country music festival. There’s also a tennis championship, and the famous Yehudi Menuhin Festival (a showcase of international music prodigies). Whether you come summer or winter, you’ll want to stay just one more day.
Swiss winter tourism began, so the story goes, in 1864, whSwiss winter tourism began, so the story goes, in 1864, when Johannes Badrutt, owner of the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz, told some visiting Englishmen that if they came back in winter they could stay at his hotel for free, and if they didn’t enjoy themselves, he’d pay all their return expenses. Apparently, they came, reveled in sunny St. Moritz (now advertised as having 300 sunny days a year), skied in shirtsleeves and told the world. (Confirming that Herr Badrutt was a man with a light bulb over his head, he also brought the first electric light to Switzerland.)
If Zermatt is a delightful tourist village, and Gstaad is Chalet Land, St. Moritz is a resort town riche. Really riche. The town is named for Saint Maurice, who sampled the healing springs here in the third century, some years before the Ferraris and Jaguars began whizzing around the six 5-star hotels. The frisson of money is in the air like ozone after a lightning storm.
You won’t feel left out if you forget your ski boots at home. Only about 40 percent of winter visitors even ski. Instead, they take cable cars and funiculars up the mountains to frolic in the snow and eat gourmet lunches at superb mountain restaurants while gazing upon the stunning panorama of snow-covered mountains and the lakes, whose colors shift through the day. The little lake aproning St. Moritz is where two interesting events with great Marx Brothers potential take place each winter: an ice-polo match, and a horse race with the jockeys towed behind on skis.
But St. Moritz is no joke. It’s an exciting little town in a gorgeous setting. Just make sure to pack an extra suitcase full of money.