Sweet Swiss surprise

No, not chocolate - family-friendly and affordable skiing.

alps 88.298 (photo credit: )
alps 88.298
(photo credit: )
The train pulled out of the station just before the break of dawn, zigzagging its way up the mountain above Montreux as it glided noiselessly through empty backyards. A light snow was falling, and the still-slumbering city appeared as if out of a fairy tale: Wisps of smoke rose from chimneys atop snow-covered roofs, a golden glow shown from the windows of cozy mountain chalets, and the fir trees beside the train grew thicker as the lakeside city gave way to snow-blanketed alpine hills disturbed only by the occasional farmhouse or lonely train station. The train's whistle would have roused me from this fantasy had it been a dream, but this was no reverie: It was the Swiss Alps. Just a hop, skip and a jump from Tel Aviv by way of a four-hour flight to Geneva, I had come to find a little peace and tranquility in the mountains of Switzerland, where some of Europe's best ski slopes share space with dairy farms, snug little homes, picturesque villages and stunning mountain vistas of rock, snow and deep blue sky. Zipping down a sharp slope at 60 kilometers an hour, at an elevation of 2,000 meters, with my eyes tearing and the wind howling at my ears reminded me of how sweet the simple pleasures of life can be: snow, solitude, skiing. It was a reminder that skiing doesn't have to be a complicated, commercial affair. In the Swiss Alps, skiing is part and parcel of the landscape. Children ski to school, farmhouses dot the slopes, trams ferry skiers to the mountain directly from the center of town, and the whole enterprise is much more affordable than skiing in, say, the American Rockies. In Switzerland, adult tickets range from 15 to 35 euros, depending on where you ski and for how long, and kids under nine ski free. And though the places I visited in Switzerland - Chateau D'Oex and Villars - are not the country's most famous, biggest or fanciest ski resorts, their charm, proximity to Geneva, family friendly atmosphere and combination of activities for skiers and non-skiers make them ideal destinations for visitors from abroad. Because Europe's Alps allow for village-to-village skiing, you can stay in whichever village you want based on where you want to be and how much you want to pay. At Chateau D'Oex (www.chateau-doex.ch), a lovely little town about an hour from Montreux (and two from Geneva), I stayed at the distinctly low-budget Hotel Roc et Neige (Tel. +41-26-924-55-25) rather than the ritzy town of Gstaad just down the road and on the German side of Switzerland's French-German divide. I spent my first day at Chateau D'Oex skiing at the town's modest mountain, and the next day I put on my skis 10 kilometers down the road, where the ski areas of half a dozen towns are all linked by chairlifts and alpine slopes. Between Rougemont, Saanen, Gstaad and a few other postcard-perfect towns all linked by a rail line, I had more than 100 kilometers of piste to ski without ever having to step out of my bindings. Wherever you stay, wandering the streets of these little towns is a delight, the buildings‚ architecture and the locals' friendliness evocative of earlier, simpler times. In the Swiss Alps, many of the locals retain the customs that have sustained them for hundreds of years: manufacturing cheese, raising a herd of cattle or, closer to Montreux, maintaining a vineyard. Even the skiers have their customs. At Chateau D'Oex, groups of friends sometimes ride up to the mountain's peak at night, eat stinky fondue with wine and then ski down the mountain by torchlight. The same young men and women who teach ski school during the winter may serve as farmhands in the summer, and many plan on remaining in the villages in which they grew up to raise their own families. It's not rare to meet local residents whose parents grew up in the same 700-person town. The ski slopes, too, sometimes reflect this intimate life: On one day when most of the locals stayed home because of snowy, windy conditions, I had the unique experience of being one of only about a dozen people on the entire mountain. I felt like I had the Alps all to myself. There's much more to the Alps than just skiing, of course, as I was reminded each time I dodged my way between alpine sledders - usually howling children and their laughing parents - and cross-country alpinists pushing their way along the mountain's easier slopes. There's also snowshoeing, winter hiking and even hot-air ballooning, for which Chateau D'Oex is famous. Indoors, of course, there's apr s ski, which at some places has been elevated to the level of art. I spent one night in between two different ski areas getting pampered at Montreux's finest hotel, the five-star Raffles Le Montreux Palace (www.montreux-palace.com), situated on the shores of Lake Geneva in an area known as the Swiss Riviera. Arriving after two days of straining my muscles on the slopes, I immediately was ushered into the hotel's Amrita Wellness Center, where a massage therapist worked for an hour to relieve my aches and pains. I'm not sure if it was when she was massaging the space between my toes, or when I sank into the Jacuzzi afterward or when I turned down an offer of tea to rest in the spa's soundless relaxation room that I realized this probably wasn't what most people had in mind when they considered a ski vacation. But with everything so close - the hotel in Montreux is about an hour from at least a dozen ski areas - I figured, why not? The Raffles Le Montreux Palace is so decadent that the rooms even have heated towel holders. After all, why should we suffer any more than we have to? I nearly extended my spa experience with a visit to Leukerbad (www.leukerbad.ch), a spa and resort on the German side of Switzerland where outdoor thermal baths abut the slopes of the Torrent ski area, but I opted instead to spend some extra time at Villars (www.villars.ch), a charming town at the foot of one of the area's most beautiful ski destinations. About an hour from Montreux by public transportation and about the same distance from Chateau D'Oex on skis, Villars is a beautiful alpine town set slightly less than halfway up one of Switzerland's highest peaks, with access to more than 200 kilometers of marked trails. At Villars, even the beginner trails have breathtaking views. First-time skiers, experts and many people just out to see the sights ride a cog train together from the center of the town to the base of the ski area at 1,800 meters, called La Braye. As the cog train climbs the slope, passengers can watch skiers whizzing by on a nearby ski run, cross-country alpinists pushing through the snow and hikers digging their snowshoes into the mountain. I had the good fortune of arriving at Villars just in time for their annual 24 Hour Festival, a promotional charity weekend that includes skiing by moonlight, a race up the mountain and a nighttime rock concert on the ski slopes. While other spectators slept off hangovers from Saturday night's alcoholic fondue parties (don't ask), I spent my morning on Sunday exploring the bends and curves of the mountain, including the slopes leading to the nearby villages of Gryon and Les Diablerets. My only mistake was when I tried to get to the 3,000-meter-high glacier above the modest mountain village of Les Diablerets halfway through the afternoon, forgetting to leave myself enough time to get back to Villars before the lifts between the glacier and the downhill slopes began closing. Oblivious to the chairlift operator's warning of "Vous tes en retard!" - which I took as an insult rather than as the caution it was (He said, "You're tardy and can't return to Villars," but I heard, "You're a retard and won't get to Villars.") - I found myself stranded on the wrong side of the mountain at the end of the day. "Merde!" I exclaimed. What should have been a 20-minute ski run back to my hotel in Villars from Les Diablerets turned into a picturesque but frustrating two-hour train and bus ride back down to Lake Geneva and then up again to Villars. I consoled myself upon my return with a dip in the pool and a quarter hour in the hamam and sauna at the Residence Panorama (Tel. +41-24-496-21-11). By dinnertime, I was cooked and dreaming of sleep. Villars turned out to be the ideal location for a weekend stay, not just because of the 24 Hour Festival but also because it has a perfect mix of family restaurants, welcoming watering holes and quaint Swiss shops set in a friendly alpine town. And all this was just steps away from my one-bedroom flat at the Residence Panorama, so no car was necessary to get from my hotel to the ski rental shop (I rented at D twyler Sports, Tel. 024-495-23-85), ski slopes or train and bus station in the center of town. Conveniently, Villars also is home to Hotel Elite, a kosher hotel owned and run by Maagalim Tours (www.maagalimtours.com/Tel. 03-616-6177). Though I didn't stay at the hotel, which sits right at the foot of a ski slope and beside one of Villars' gondola stations, I was able to rely on the haredi management there for Shabbat meals and prayer services - a luxury for someone used to making do on ski trips with slapdash salami sandwiches and a few mumbled prayers atop the more difficult ski runs. Between outdoor picnics with stunning views at 2,000 meters to nighttime walks between snow-covered chalets to indulgent treatments at winter spas, it wasn't much of a struggle to acclimate to life in the Swiss Alps. And aside from my little mishap at Les Diablerets, I was able to get everywhere easily and on time thanks to the Swiss trains, which never run late and seem to reach every remote alpine farmhouse in the country (see www.sbb.ch for train schedules and fares). Plus, the views from the trains are far better than they are from the roads. Both El Al and Swiss have direct flights to Geneva from Tel Aviv. If you book wisely, you should pay less than $400. From Geneva, Montreux is slightly more than an hour by train, and Chateau D'Oex and Villars are each about an hour farther.