David Bowden travels to Switzerland in winter to explore the country by train and to enjoy a range of adventurous activities in arguably the world’s most picturesque alpine scenery.
In the 19th century, Switzerland was one of the first countries to welcome global travellers and it still ranks as one of world’s most visited nations.
With the establishment of railways across Europe, people could for the first time travel long distances over land and the concept of taking a holiday became a reality. A grand tour of Europe became the essential activity for the wealthy.
While snow-capped mountains (200 above 3,000m) and quaint alpine villages are what many travel to see and experience, Switzerland is a year-round destination but one that’s especially enchanting during winter.
Considered the world’s best connected country by rail, Switzerland now offers the Grand Train Tour (GTT). This covers a mesmerising 20,000km of rail, bus and ferry routes and provides a systematic journey that ensures the leading sights can be visited in one week.
However, I realised that trying to accomplish this would mean doing nothing but sitting on public transport so I researched the possibilities using a seven-day travel pass.
Day One: Zürich to St. Moritz
My SWISS flight arrived at daybreak and I collected a pre-booked, seven-day, Swiss Travel Pass from the railway office within the airport. Trains to many parts of Switzerland radiate from the airport and I was soon heading towards St. Moritz on a scenic three-hour journey. St. Moritz is a mountainous resort and one of Switzerland’s most acclaimed and glamorous destinations for winter skiing and après socialising.
Swiss people speak German, French, Italian or a local dialect but most importantly; English is understood and this makes travel very easy. I discovered this when checking into Hotel Steffani in the centre of St. Moritz overlooking a plaza and close to the Corviglia funicular railway.
The town wraps around sections of a lake with towering peaks overhead. Divided into the main town called St. Moritz Dorf and lakeside settlement of St. Moritz Bad, this part of Switzerland has been popular with international jetsetters since 1864 when the Engadine Valley welcomed visitors to the Hotel Kulm, the mountain’s first luxury hotel.
Having hosted the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics, alpine sports have a long tradition in St. Moritz. In winter, the ski slopes of Corvatsch, Diavolezza and Corviglia attract serious skiers while novices like me could join ski lessons to enjoy the thrill of skiing.
Ski lift passes covering all Engadine Valley pistes are available for experienced skiers. While skiing may not appeal to all, the town’s glitz and glamour is hard to ignore. It is compact and while hilly; its narrow streets especially Via Serlas are lined with boutiques like Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld plus watch manufacturers such as Bucherer.
While St. Moritz has many restaurants (including Chesa Veglia dating back to 1658), travelling up the nearby Punt Muragl funicular railway to Muottas Muragl and the Romantik Hotel was recommended by the hotel concierge for its delicious cuisine and panoramic views. At 2,456m above sea level, the restaurant has spectacular views over St. Moritz and the food served matches the scenery. I dined on delicacies of pizokel (pasta and cheese) and grilled veal steak with morel sauce.
Day Two: St. Moritz to Andermatt
Regarded as the world’s slowest express train, the Glacier Express is one of Switzerland’s most famous rail odysseys. Panoramic windows enabled uninterrupted views of the spectacular alpine scenery that was like watching the Discovery Channel on wheels.
The train departing St. Moritz in the morning takes eight-hours to reach Zermatt for dramatic views of the Matterhorn (a train also departs from Zermatt to St. Moritz at a similar time). A gourmet, three-course lunch complemented by Swiss wines and beers made the journey memorable. Highlights included passing through Switzerland’s ‘Grand Canyon’ located in a gorge on the Rhône River and watching skiers on the snow-capped slopes of Nätschen.
After lunch, the train pulled into Andermatt which boomed in the 19th century when English travellers were the first to appreciate the therapeutic qualities of Switzerland’s alpine air. Travelling from Switzerland into neighbouring countries meant crossing mountain passes like the one near Andermatt but the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel in 1884 made the Gotthard Pass almost redundant and Andermatt’s tourism declined.
However, Andermatt is undergoing a resurgence with the Chedi Andermatt being an essential part of an integrated resort development. At 1,500m above sea level, Andermatt village is typically alpine with wooden buildings and fantastic restaurants serving hearty Swiss food. It’s all walkable too with The Chedi being just minutes from the railway station.
Accommodation at The Chedi offers unparalleled luxury with which many Asian travellers are very familiar. Guests check in to a back-lit cellar of wines including several vintages of Château d’Yquem that will capture the attention of wine connoisseurs.
While soaking up the luxury of The Chedi, it’s hard to resist charming village restaurants like Restaurant Ochsen with its rustic interior and where traditional Swiss dishes like fondue, Aplermagronen (macaroni with cheese, ham, cream, potatoes and onions) and raclette (melted cheese) are served.
Day Three: Andermatt
While there’s a golf course adjoining The Chedi that will appeal to summer visitors, it freezes over in winter as skiers arrive to enjoy 75km of slopes over several mountains using 24 cable cars. Gemsstock is mostly black runs and the domain of experienced skiers while Nätschen appeals to families and beginners.
Winter provides a fairy-tale setting with the bars of The Chedi and their log fireplaces being perfect for après skiing gluhwein or schnapps. Relaxing in the afternoon after a morning’s skiing was one of the most enjoyable parts of my holiday.
The Restaurant in the Chedi has a prominent wine and cheese vault in the centre of the dining space to represent the hotel’s heart and hearth. While its décor is understated, The Chedi is the domain of the rich and famous. Its plush interior, impressive wine list and menu featuring premium produce have all the trappings of a grand alpine lodge. I dined on lardo di colonnata with smoked trout, beef carpaccio with shimej mushrooms, artichokes and truffles and, a tempting cheese platter accompanied by a glass of Port in front of an open fireplace.
Day Four: Andermatt to Interlaken
My morning train journey from Andermatt to Interlaken Ost traversed amazing scenery and took four hours with a change of trains at Visp and Spiez.
Interlaken, the tourist town between Lakes Brienz and Thun, is one of Switzerland’s most popular destinations offering a magical combination of lakes, mountains and exhilarating year-round activities. Its biggest attraction is the famous Jungfrau Railway that starts here and climbs to the ‘Top of Europe’.
While many visitors enjoy shopping especially for watches in reportedly the world’s largest watch shop, others are more adventurous in choosing rafting, canyoning, para-gliding and bungee jumping. Interlaken is Europe’s premiere adventure destination with winter activities like tobogganing, skating and ice fishing.
My accommodation was one of the town’s leading hotels, the five-star Lindner Grand Hotel Beau Rivage, a grand European hotel within walking distance of Interlaken Ost Station (it’s important to note there are two stations; West and Ost).
Ice fishing is a new tourist activity that’s worth trying even if just to admire the alpine scenery of Mount Stockhorn and Lake Hinterstocken located above Erlenbach. With the assistance of ice fishing professionals, a hole was cut into the frozen lake using an ice auger and then it was time to wait for trout to take the bait. While only one fish was caught it was a relaxing afternoon in the snowy but sunny setting.
Returning to Interlaken, I took a seat at a bar along the Höhewag strip to watch para-gliders landing on the snowy H?henmatte parklands. Para-gliding appeals to adventurous visitors who are taken up the mountain before launching off into the skies above Interlaken.
Every winter, ice skating rinks are established near where the para-gliders land and skates may be hired or visitors can relax over dinner in IGLOO Restaurant.
Day Five: Interlaken to Jungfraujoch
Swiss breakfasts are sumptuous and the one at the Lindner Hotel is particularly noteworthy in that it fuelled me for a full day’s sightseeing. I caught an early train for a day’s alpine adventure in the Bernese Alps. On the two and a half hour journey to the Jungfraujoch summit the train passes Mount Eiger and terminates at Europe’s highest railway station at 3,454m. Despite the train being crowded with skiers and sightseers the views across the mountains and the Aletsch Glacier are magnificent.
After enjoying the scenery, it was time to return via Grindelwald to make a looped circuit back to Interlaken. Half-way down the mountain, I alighted from the train at Alpiglen to toboggan on the 3km-long, Eiger-Run into Brandegg near Grindelwald. While exhilarating, it took time to learn how to ‘steer’ and, like many adventure sports; knowing how to stop became paramount.
While cooking classes are conducted at the Lindner Hotel, I opted for a two-hour chocolate workshop at the Funky Chocolate Club on Jungfraustrasse in downtown Interlaken in the late afternoon.
Now late and with an early departure to Lucerne, I dined in the Lindner Hotel with pre-dinner drinks in the Le Vieux Rivage Bar and then dinner by the fireplace in La Bonne Fourchette. Both outlets incorporate local produce with a Château d’Auvernie Chardonnay aperitif and a Maienfelder Pinot Noir with dinner of beef from Central Switzerland served with grilled lobster tail.
Day Six: Interlaken to Zürich via Lucerne
The train from Lucerne (Luzern) took two hours. Located beside Lake Lucerne, the first thing I noticed was just how clean Swiss lakes and rivers are. In my planning, I factored in the Saturday morning market located near the famous Kapellbrücke Bridge. Farm produce, cheeses and breads kept me distracted until it was time to cross the wooden footbridge called the Kapellbrücke dating back to the mid 14th century but rebuilt after a fire in 1993.
Lake Lucerne is 38km long and various vessels ferry holidaymakers to all parts with an historic paddle steamer ride on the ‘P.S. Uri’ being the most thrilling. My three-hour cruise to Flüelen included lunch and passed landmarks such as Mount Pilatus, Mount Rigi and William Tell’s Chapel.
With Zürich being just one hour by train from Lucerne, I left my departure until the late afternoon to maximise my time in historic Flüelen.
Zürich West is the happening part of Zürich and its reclaimed industrial buildings exude chic grunge. I checked into the Sheraton Zürich Hotel so I could explore on foot what was once an inner city wasteland. The contemporary and artistic surrounds of the luxurious Sheraton Zürich are in stark contrast to its surroundings.
Being late, I dined in the Sheraton’s Route Twenty-six Restaurant which specialises in beef dishes. The concierge told me of other interesting places to dine include the Bahnhof Bar, Restaurant Markthalle (inside the Viadukt Produce Market) and the bar at Freitag (outdoor and rooftop in summer).
Day Seven: Zürich
Cities don’t get much more picturesque than Zürich with Lake Zürich, the surrounding snow-peaked mountains, historic Niederdorf and Limmat River making an enchanting setting made more memorable with a dusting of snow. The city has a cool hipster art scene fuelled by a vibrant student community so this means many bars, cafés, galleries and clubs.
Zürich West has been rejuvenated into the liveliest part of Switzerland’s financial capital. Its real charm is in the creative recycling of derelict buildings into smart new uses. Rejuvenated buildings include the Schiffbau, the former Löwenbräu Brewery and, old container yards that the trendy recycled Freitag bag shop now occupies.
Winter is a great time to visit and be immersed in the fairytale setting and join the locals for a hot mug of gluhwein at the Advent Markt (Christmas Markets) with the biggest in the Zürich train station. Skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing are available within one hour of Zürich.
Nobody leaves Switzerland without buying delicious chocolates and Sprüngli is a designer chocolatier with several outlets while Conditorei Schober in Niederdorf is another favourite. For last minute shopping before a late evening flight back to Singapore, head to Bahnhofstraase for designer stores or Niederdorf for quirky boutiques.
My ‘last Swiss supper’ was saved for Les Halles, a retail complex with a restaurant and bar that look like they’ve been incorporated into the former industrial space without any modification. Sip a pre-dinner drink at Peugot Bar and then enjoy a signature dish of moules and frites (mussels and fries).
Local wines produced on Lake Zürich’s northern shore are served in Les Halles and other outlets. Pinot Noir from Müli Winery located at Stäfa is one of the region’s finest reds.
Fly from Singapore to Zürich on daily flights with SWISS (www.swiss.com) in the comfort of Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. SWISS features Swiss cuisine and passengers are guaranteed innovative dishes prepared with the finest ingredients.
Swiss trains are clean, fast and punctual and everyone uses them. Synchronicity is another feature so that as passengers alight from a train, the bus or ferry to the next destination is minutes away. I travelled on a seven-day Swiss Rail Pass (www.SwissTravelSystem.com).