Americans have great skiing in the Rockies, so the transatlantic flight to ski in the Alps can seem like an extravagance. And maybe it is, but once you arrive, you realize it was an extravagance worth every penny. If your only knowledge of life in the Alps is from The Sound of Music, be ready to be surprised. There's little kitsch — don't expect to see men dressed in lederhosen and even fewer alpenhorns — and lots of luxury.
"The tradition and atmosphere are a very big part of skiing in Switzerland," says Amade Perrig, a former pro skier, alpine guide, and longtime champion for Swiss tourism. But, he adds, it's the Swiss traditions of high-end hospitality, precision, and passion for the sport — not the accordion music or yodeling. Here are seven reasons to set an airfare alert for Zurich before the season comes to a close.
This Is Where Alpine Skiing Began
Humans have been skiing for a very long time. In fact, according to Skiing Heritage, the journal for the International Skiing History Association, the first evidence of skiing comes from prehistoric rock carvings in the Arctic Circle. But the first time a daredevil pointed his skis down a steep mountainside, thought, "What could go wrong?" and lived long enough to realize the sport was marketable? That happened in the Alps.
Skiing is such a part of Swiss culture that almost everyone does it in some capacity. If you take a lesson, ask your instructor when he or she first learned. Chances are it was as a tiny tot. Plus, Perrig says, the government, not private resorts (like in the U.S.), maintains much of Switzerland's massive ski infrastructure. "Private resorts have to make money, and that's okay," he says. But often this means only the moneymaking runs get top-notch grooming and snowmaking. In Switzerland, cross-country trails are just as well maintained as the downhill runs, and lifts serve winter hiking trails too.
The Adrenaline-Per-Mountain Ratio Is Absurd
The Rockies and the Alps are similar in height, but the difference, says Perrig, is that ski towns in the Alps tend to be located at lower altitudes, so you can ski longer and enjoy even more vertical drop before your tips hit asphalt. "In Aspen, for example, the longest ski run is about five miles. In Zermatt, for example, the longest run is 12 miles long." Likewise, the average run in Colorado has 3,000 to 4,000 feet of vertical drop, while Swiss routes can have as much as 8,000 feet. Also, you get more time above the tree line in the Alps. Due to differences in climate, in Switzerland the trees can stop growing as low as 7,500 feet. In parts of the Colorado Rockies they continue upwards all the way to 11,000 feet.
There's No Shame In Snacking
"In America when you go skiing, you go skiing," says Perrig. "In Switzerland, maybe you stop for a coffee on the top of the mountain, then take an hour and a half lunch between runs."
Food is such a part of the ski experience in the Alps that warming huts with hefty fondue pots and espresso machines are everywhere. In Zermatt, for example, there are 80 on-mountain eateries. Best of all, you'll never be served the mass-market Sodexho burgers and month-old muffin that passes for lunch at an American ski resort. Like its French and Italian neighbors, the Swiss seem to have a zero-tolerance policy for substandard fare. After four days of trying, I gave up on finding a mediocre sandwich — even the airport café couldn't deliver before my flight home.
Luxury Is Standard
You can find ample mid-range lodging in the Swiss Alps, but why would you want to? The Swiss have been doing luxury for so long that they really do it right. With the second-highest proportion of millionaires in the world (Singapore has the most, and the U.S. ranks seventh), the Swiss expect a certain level of comfort and service — and they get it. Walk into the lobby of the Gstaad Palace, a 100-room hotel that seems more fairytale than real life, and you'll instantly wonder if perhaps the staff has confused you with the Prince of Monaco.
For example, don't even try to take your bags up to your hotel room, they'll be swept away before you've finished checking in. And if you leave your shirt on the floor, it will be neatly folded during turndown service. Absolutely anything can be delivered to your room at a moment's notice, and the staff makes you feel as if they are grateful to have had the opportunity to bring it.
Apres Ski Is Serious Business
In Switzerland, skiing hard is expected — but so too is playing hard. There's actually a schedule for how you enjoy après ski food and drink in Switzerland. First you start with a warm cocktail. "Something warm like glühwein or a bull shot [a vodka and beef broth cocktail] is the best way to start," says Mario Guzzetti, a bartender at Gstaad Palace's Lobby Bar. "When you're warm enough, you can move onto cold things."
These cold things are usually consumed in combo with a snack, since dinner is a late-night affair. Americans tend to ask for mixed drinks, but Perrig says that's less the case for the Swiss. Glasses of schnapps and Champaign are more likely to accompany the plates of olives, fresh bread, and local cheeses.
Pre-dinner drinks roll all the way until it's finally time to sit down and dip bread and meat into a bubbling pot of cheese. "It's warm, it's community, it's very nice to sit together and just share after a day of skiing — it's the atmosphere," says Perrig of why fondue is so prevalent at après-ski dinner tables.
As stuffed as you may be from the lethal combo of carbs and fat, the evening isn't over until you've properly night-capped. At Gstaad Palace, that means staking out a table at GreenGo, its resident nightclub, and wondering if tonight is the night that a world famous DJ just happens to pop in for a set.
There's Plenty For Non-Skiers
"Twenty percent of the winter guests don't ski at all," says Perrig about those staying in mountain towns. "They want to enjoy the scenery, try the food, go for winter walks." This means that the concierge won't give you a blank stare when you ask, "What else is there to do?" Or, heaven forbid you sprain your knee on the first day, you'll find other ways to spend your vacation.
No Piste? No Problem
"In American ski areas, there is usually a ski boundary. Many resorts border national forest land and you cannot ski outside these boundaries," says Perrig. In Switzerland it's basically a free-for-all. "You can ski everywhere. You can go off-piste — no one is going to stop you."
Plus, the way most ski areas are laid out, you can actually traverse multiple mountains in the span of a day, all without ever taking off your boots. "In America you go up the mountain and come back down, go up and come back down. In Switzerland you can ski from one valley to the next," says Perrig. Essentially there are trams, cable cars, and chair lifts through each valley, and you can hook these lifts together to cover a lot of territory. In some of the larger ski areas, you could ski all day without ever riding the same lift twice.