3 ski resorts in the Swiss Alps and 6 ways to enjoy them.
Situated at the southern end of the canton of Bern, Gstaad sparkles at an elevation of just over 1,000 meters above sea level in the west of the Bernese Oberland. The chic village’s pedigree is cemented with an enviable list of residents both past and present, including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Roger Moore, and is a two to three hour drive from Geneva or Zurich respectively, or 20 minutes via the scenic route in a helicopter from Geneva.
Winter: Over 220 kilometres of slopes carve out the three mountains in the area – from easiest to most difficult, the Eggli, the Wispile, and the Wasserngrat – making the valley ideal for average level downhill and cross-country, and heli-skiers. Peak snow season runs from December up until mid-February, but skiing is possible until May.
Despite its highbrow aura, Gstaad has specific snow parks, slopes, and courses catering to kids’ skiing and snowboarding, with accompanying children under the age of nine traveling free on the lifts. In addition to a handful of winter events such as the Glacier 3000 Invitational international freestyle skiing event and the snow-golfing action at the BOËRL & KROFF Snow Golf Turnier, there’s also the Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad classical music festival featuring some 20 concerts over 10 days.
Summer: There are over 300 reasons why Gstaad is known as a hiker’s dream destination – each reason a kilometre of well-marked trails or paths that range from multi-day Alpine hiking to the more tame family hiking trails with pitstop attractions for a more leisurely stroll.
For walking with a purpose – a retail purpose that is – the main street in Gstaad, called the Promenade, is just a 10 minute walk from north to south, but flanking the relatively short street are boutiques that range from Prada, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton to stockists such as Lorenz Bach, which further stocks everything from Ralph Lauren to Armani. Summer in Gstaad is anchored with Menuhin Festival, a classical music showcase named after the famed violinist, with a history dating back to 1957 when the first musical event was held.
What Verbier lacks in actual land footprint, the village more than compensates with in gilded lifestyle offerings (read: expensive), and a bustling après-ski circuit (which inadvertently melds into a thumping nightlife), and the chance to rub shoulders with its famous residents ranging from Branson to Blunt. Not to mention the off-piste powder runs that stretch for miles and miles and miles. The closest well-connected gateway to get to the 1,500-metre-high town is Geneva Airport, but helicopter transfers from smaller airports such as Sion provide a more scenic transfer and bubblies onboard to get you in the mood.
Winter: Over 96 kilometres of pistes in Verbier might not sound like an awful lot of powdery carpets, but the village is part of the larger Four Valleys ski area with access to some 190 individual pistes measuring over 400 kilometres of ski runs. The terrain is such that it also hosts the X Speed Ski World Cup and the Paragliding World Championship, the latter testament to the breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks in the area as fliers float over crevasses and glaciers. Over-skied guests can try their hand at ice karting (think go-kart on ice) and tobogganing, the official stretch hurtling 10 kilometres downhill. A cable car transports snow bunnies to 3,330 meters above sea level to Mont Fort, the topmost peak in Verbier.
Summer: After the exodus of snow pretties and snow fiends after the peak winter season, the town turns lush and blossoming with wild flowers. It’s then that partying – not skiing – becomes the order of the day. Come summer, slope-side sun loungers and deckchairs become as coveted as chairlifts, and Les Esserts ski slope transforms into an 18-hole, par-69 golf mountain course.
Open from June to October, every hole at the golf club features views over Mont-Blanc, Combin, and Rogneux mountain ranges. 200 kilometres of mountain bike piste and double that in hiking trails, plus mountain railway joyrides providing countless summer walk trails. The two week-long music extravaganza Verbier Festival starting late July should also not be missed.
St. Tropez is to the French Riviera what St. Moritz is to the Swiss Alps – sunny, fashionable, hedonistic.
Often described as having a “Champagne climate”, the town bills itself as being the “Top of the World”, and is just that – bubbling with glitteratti from 1,800 meters above the world. From Zurich airport, a train station takes you right to Lifestyleville’s doorsteps. Don’t be deterred by the four-hour travel time, as this will probably be one, if not the most, seductively scenic train rides you’ll ever take. Alternately, Samedan Airport (the regional airport located in Engadin which also serves private jets), gets you within five kilometre striking distance of St. Moritz.
Winter: 350 kilometres of ski runs (a 4.2 kilometre long-piste in Corvatsch is floodlit every Friday evening) and some 200 kilometres of cross-country trails through forests and across frozen lakes. Whatever the real figure, they take winter sports as seriously in St. Moritz – as they also do living the high life.
Advanced skiers can tackle Corviglia’s World Cup downhill race course, while snowboarders can fine-tune their tricks at the Corviglia Snow Park. Male visitors (only) can also try the legendary The Cresta, where riders shoot head-first down on a toboggan through a quarter-mile ice run. Myriad winter events include the St. Moritz Polo World Cup on the frozen St. Moritzsee lake, held from the end of January. To defrost after a day of frivolities with the family, herd the clan to Zernez Family Pool to warm up in the 34 degree Celsius outdoor pool.
Summer: Between June and September, conditions are ideal to shoot through rapids down Inn/En River on a white-water rafting trip. The 25 lakes at Engandine Valley offer scenic bicycle paths as well as sailing opportunities, while Alpine hiking is a sure-win activity (try Swiss National Park).
Five golf courses range between nine and 18 holes and sprawl out within the same valley. Hiking trails total almost 600 kilometres in length, with the lakes providing a pleasant way to cool off post-hike. There are also numerous mountain biking trails, which start with a cable car drop-off at an inspiring starting point. Summer visitors can also attend numerous gastronomic, cultural, and musical spectacles, including the British Classic Car Meeting in July, and Tour de Suisse, when riders cycle through Engadin.
The Swiss Alps bring to mind St. Bernards, Gruyère cheese fondue, world class skiing and hiking ops galore. Here are five facts you might not know about the region:
- 24 of The Alps’ 29 mountain peak higher than 4,000 meters are located in Switzerland.
- 9 of The Alps’ top 10 tallest mountains are located in the Valais or bordering the Swiss Canton.
- The first electric light ever switched on in Switzerland was in 1878 at the dining room of Kulm hotel in St. Moritz.
- One of the chairlifts in Verbier is named after one of its famous residents, James Blunt, which transports skiers 1,480 meters to La Vache on Attelas mountain.
- The ‘Institue Le Rosey’, the world’s most expensive school, has a winter campus in Gstaad from January to March. Lessons are only taken in the mornings (including Saturdays but with the exception of Thursday) to leave the afternoons free for snow sports.