An avid skier ditches business to ski the Swiss Alps, then returns with his family to share the wealth of sights, slopes and culture.
Every ski season is a blessing, and last year I was not once — but twice — blessed. Not only did I do more skiing than I had in years, I was able to do most of it in Switzerland. For the uninitiated, the pistes of Europe open a new dimension to Americans used to skiing East or West.
Like the Rockies, the Swiss Alps offer elevation, but with conifered trails and snow conditions often more reminiscent of New England. Slopes are often not groomed. Many beginning and intermediate skiers may recoil at this lack of mollycoddling, but the scenery is always spectacular and the food and wine give new meaning to lunch on the slopes. In the Alps, far more than in North American resorts, skiing is more likely to retain its original, authentic origins as sport, unpampered. For Americans used to destination resorts, it may seem a little rough, that is “European,” around the edges.
A business trip to Bern in March 2005 offered an opportunity to make long-deferred plans to steal a couple of days skiing with a London-based friend from our days in Jerusalem. He flew to Geneva on a cheap Easyjet fare, rented a car and met me at the train station in Lausanne, on the eastern edge of Lake Geneva. Because time was short, we didn’t want to spend a lot of time driving. As luck would have it, we had the run of a mountaintop chalet in the Vaud Alps town of Leysin, an hour’s ride to the southeast.
Leysin & Vaud Alps
Leysin is perched at the top of a series of steep switchbacks which rise from the main road to Aigle. Although home to the posh Leysin American school, the Kumon Academy, and the Glion Hotel School, Leysin, with its 13 lifts and 160km of trails, is far less known than Les Diablerets and Gstaad. It retains the feel of a small provincial village where skiing complements but does not define character. Situated at a reasonable 1263 meters with a skiable summit, there are no acclimatization issues … as if a little less oxygen would slow us down.
Out early the next morning, we were quickly short of breath, but not because of the altitude. The overnight storm that had tested our driving and navigation skills more than compensated for this hardship by depositing a cool six-inches up top.
Fresh Swiss snow suffers by comparison with its Colorado cousin, but this stuff was untracked and above treeline, and the sun was shining. One route led from top of the Chaux de Mont chair at 2205 meters, down the face of a slightly wind-packed snow field, broken only by occasional rock outcroppings and snowboarders on their way to the freestyle park. The other option required a traverse under the shadow of the imposing Tour d’Ai rock face, before turning down a steeper but shorter route leading into the main slope.
After too many runs to count, we headed to Leysin’s signature Kuklos restaurant, a dramatic structure where diners can enjoy not only food and local wines as the floor slowly rotates, but a magnificent 360-degree-view including Lake Geneva and Mount Blanc.
The more faint of heart can access intermediate level terrain by exiting the chairlift at the halfway station. In fact, there are only two expert runs in the entire 13-lift complex that includes the nearby village of Vers Vuarin. The trail mix at nearby Les Mosses is similar, with plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain, almost all of it above treeline, throughout the system.
This bias, and the unassuming yet authentic ambiance of the town, make Leysin a worthwhile destination for intermediate skiers and their families seeking local and decidedly non-chic Swiss skiing, touring and other winter outdoor sport.
Champery & Portes du Soleil
Much sooner than anticipated, I was heading to another such village, Champery, this time with my wife and son. Champery, in the Chablais region, boasts many of the advantages of Leysin as a small, unpretentious Swiss hideaway not far from Geneva. Although we skied the last week of March, my 10-year-old son Josh was comfortable wearing his winter jacket. The tail end of the season produced classic spring skiing conditions – hard, crusty snow in the morning softened by early afternoon into what my son graciously described as “Swiss powder.” Still, there was plenty of it.
Champery is a Swiss member of Les Portes du Soleil (+33 0 450 73 3254), an integrated far-flung system that spans the border with France and turns a day on the slopes into an international adventure. Although the terrain is well marked, a network that boasts 650 kilometers of trails served by 24 six-seater high speed chairlifts, traversing seven terrain parks, two countries, and 14 mountain villages, can be intimidating. Add to this a healthy concern about the mountain weather and a desire not be caught in faraway France at the end of a long day, and it’s a wonder anyone ventures far from the nearest lift.
Each morning we would walk from our unassuming chalet to the teleferique that sped us to the entry point of the trail system. I must admit that our first day on the slopes, I did not explore beyond the local trail system. In other words, we stayed in Switzerland, moving between the summits at Vorlaz (altitude 2400 meters) and Mossettes (2300 meters). Each offered an array of chairlifts and pomalifts leading to expanses of intermediate terrain.
Be cautious about the rope tow pomalifts and small children. On certain lifts, our son Josh, weighing in at 65lbs., would literally take off into the air. He was too light to keep his skis on the ground. After a couple of failed attempts, he simply rode up with an adult.
Armed with the local knowledge gained on our first day, our subsequent skiing was much more adventurous, taking us well into the French sectors anchored by the towns of Avoriaz and Morzine. At times we were skiing a good two hours from Champery, but with fine weather, a map, and a backpack full of supplies for every contingency, it was an adventure without doubt, one for which we were well prepared.
We created our own route, guided by little more than an opportunistic assessment of which runs looked interesting. Skiing above treeline makes this kind of reconnoitering possible. Skiers interested in a more organized itinerary can follow one of the 12 “Discovery Routes,” arranged by ability, that traverse the system. Each route is well marked with different animal symbols.
Gastronomy, Spas & La Vie Douce
A story about skiing the Alps would be incomplete without at least a passing reference to alpine gastronomy. A well-appointed lunch at one of the many mountain refuges that dot the landscape has become, for our family, as much a part of the Swiss ski experience as the skiing itself.
There are a range of slopeside offerings, from the white table cloths at restaurant Chez Coquoz near the teleferique summit to less formal family-style tables near a roaring fire at small restaurants scattered throughout the system. What does not vary however, is the quality of the food and wine. Whether it was my son’s spaghetti and meatballs or my rack of lamb and locally produced Humagne Rouge or Petite Arvine white, not a day passed without a lunch that often became as integral a part of our day as skiing itself.
Since my days as a resident of Steamboat Springs, I have always sought to marry skiing with some aprÃ¨s-ski thermal aquatics. Just by chance both Leysin and Champery are not too far from Lavey les Bains (+41 024 486 15 55), a wonderful, affordable spa whose origins can be traced to a small hot spring discovered over a century ago.
At the Lavey les Bains complex, there is still a traditional sanitarium and medical center with the whitewashed, Spartan simplicity that one associates with the classic European stereotype. For the rest of us, a large outdoor thermal pool borders a series of indoor facilities with a range of sauna and steam options, including a Nordic Pavilion where a snowscape is reproduced (including the howling wind) and, my favorite, the cold plunge. My wife preferred choosing from the extensive menu of traditional European and Asian spa treatments.
We stayed overnight at Lavey. It wasn’t our bodies that cried out for the thermal R ‘n’ R as much as it was our desire to enjoy the facilities and walk along the nearby river at our leisure. Our days skiing in Champery, filled as they were with a relaxed regimen of sport, food, and wine, offered a fine introduction to Lavey’s aquatic charms.
For more information about the Chablais Region and the Portes du Soleil, visit www.chablais.info. The Champery Tourism Office’s website or the site www.telechampery.com are also helpful resources. In Champery, we enjoyed the Hotel Des Alpes (+41 04 14 17 20 60) whose rates included a hearty Swiss breakfast.
Les Bains de Lavey is a delightful postscript to your skiing holiday. If you choose to stay overnight as we did, we can recommend the Le Grand Hotel des Bains (+33 02 98 67 41 02).
Author and Middle East specialist Geoffrey Aronson travels frequently with his family from their base in Washington DC. Read about their other adventures at www.familytravels.com
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