In the Swiss Alps, take time to walk from village to village

In the Swiss Alps, take time to walk from village to village

Every tree branch and blade of grass was encrusted in ice. Pam LeBlanc photo

With this week’s cheese, butter and chocolate consumption off the charts, I needed to hike.

Fortunately, that’s easy to do in Switzerland, where you can explore the countryside via a network of well-marked gravel pathways.

Ice crystals formed on every surface. Pam LeBlanc photo

I squeezed in two hikes my last full day in Gstaad, starting with a chilly walk along a twisting river in Lauenen, where cows outnumber humans and an overnight storm had put a delicate crust of diamonds on every twig and blade of grass. When the sun broke over the mountains, the entire forest shimmered.

I passed frozen stacks of hay, shaped just like the ones Van Gogh famously painted, and crossed a narrow wooden bridge over a half-frozen stream. My walk felt like a tour inside a glass-blowers factory.

The Swiss make the best hot chocolate! Pam LeBlanc photo

After an hour, my fingers turned to popsicles, so I stopped in the coffeeshop at the Hotel Alpenland, where I ordered hot chocolate. You can get two kinds here – the classic type, made with dark chocolate, or a maltier version called Ovomaltine. I opted for the darker stuff, which came in a ceramic mug with a small cinnamon cookie and a sifting of grated chocolate.

In the afternoon, after the other journalists in my group had departed, I hitched a ride to Schonried, a 20-minute drive from Gstaad. From there, I followed the “wanderweg” signs (I love the Swiss term for hiking). Even though it had snowed a day earlier, the trails had been cleared, another indication of that perpetual Swiss tidiness.

I struck out for Gstaad.

I soaked up this view while hiking around Gstaad. Pam LeBlanc photo

My route began with a dip alongside a ski lift that was busily whisking skiers up a nearby slope. I shivered a little, as snowflakes stacked up on my knit cap. I stopped to snap pictures, then followed the gravel path as it swung around a corner and headed into the farmland. I clomped past farmhouses and the occasional bed and breakfast, inspected some pumpkin-sized cowbells hanging from a barn, admired fields frosted in white, and followed the trail as it led me across a ridge with views of old chalets and hillside villages.

At one spot, I discovered a wooden cabinet holding an array of milk and cheeses for sale. What a concept – just pop your money in the cash box, using the honor system instead of a credit card, and help yourself to a snack.

Many farmers sell cheese from self-service boxes in the countryside. Pam LeBlanc photo

At one point, the trail forked, with signs pointing in opposite directions, both labeled Gstaad. I stood perplexed for a few minutes, until a farmer pushing a cart magically appeared and asked if I needed help. (The people here seem to pop up just when you need them, eager to offer assistance.) I told him I didn’t know which trail to take, and he directed me toward a snow-covered route marked by poles. That, he pronounced, would take me to Gstaad Palace, where stars including Richard Burton, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor have all stayed.

Perfect. I stuck my tongue out to catch a few snowflakes, descended into the village, passing the palace’s striking turrets, and found my way back to Park Gstaad, my temporary home away from home, in an hour and a half.

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The slower pace of skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland

The slower pace of skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland

A young skier navigates the slopes of Eggli. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’ve spent a week or two every year for the past 25 years skiing resorts across the western United States and Canada.

I’ve burned through the trees in Lake Louise, braved the winds of Big Sky, blasted down the slopes of Telluride and kicked back in the fine mountain lodges of Sun Valley, but until this week, I’d never stepped a ski-clad foot on a European slope. I figured the skiing didn’t get any better than it did in the Rockies, and if I was going to go to Europe, I’d rather spend my time exploring villages and museums then schussing down mountains. Plus, I’d heard the lift lines described with a two-word term that loosely translates as chaotic.

Skiers relax during lunch on the slopes of Eggli. Pam LeBlanc photo

This past week, though, I packed my parka and goggles and aimed for Gstaad, Switzerland. And in a nutshell, I can’t wait to go back.

One thing I learned: The main pastime for most people who visit Gstaad isn’t really skiing. It’s a high-end destination, and most guests who stay in the luxury hotels or vacation homes have been coming for decades. And instead of hitting the ski slopes daily, like they do in Colorado, they fill their days with socializing, dining and shopping. Sure, they might squeeze in a day or two of skiing, but that’s not their focus.

That’s not to say the skiing isn’t fantastic. It is. It’s also different from skiing in the United States. The resorts around Gstaad are  smaller, more of a network of ski lifts connecting multiple towns.

My guide Bernhard steered me toward fresh snow with no tracks. Pam LeBlanc photo

We started on Eggli, skiing there one morning and pausing for lunch in a little wooden cabin atop a hill catered by a rotating cast of luxury hotels (the on-mountain restaurant is undergoing renovation, so it’s a temporary solution). Our group of eight tucked into the little shelter for an hour, enjoying wine, soup, pasata and thin, crusty pizza for an hour. Afterward, while the rest of the group ditched their skis for spa treatments, I talked the guide into spending more time on the slopes.

I love to ski, and those afternoon runs sent me to heaven. For an hour, we bypassed the intermediate slopes and headed for the ungroomed, off-piste areas. Over one ridge, we found untracked powder halfway up my calves. We dipped in and out of the trees and whooped and hollered all the way. I have no idea why no one else was back there, but it was the best tracks I’ve laid down in recent memory.

We wound up the next village over. And funny thing about Switzerland – some parts are German speaking, other parts are French speaking. We started on the German side and ended up in the French part, in the span of just a few miles.

Another difference here? Instead of swift-moving four-pack or five-pack chairlifts, we rode mostly T-bars and poma lifts. Slopes here are marked differently than in America, too – blue for beginner, red for intermediate and black for expert.

It’s a slower pace, yes, but civilized. We never once waited in line, even with fresh powder and a bluebird sky.

I also got to know my guide, Bernhard Hanswirth, a little bit. A local, he works part-time as a ski instructor for a company called Alpin Zentrum, and part-time as a dairy farmer and carpenter. He and his brother care for about 20 cows, just as their father and grandfather once did. While many of the local farmers make their own cheese from the milk they get from their cows, the Hanswirths sell it to a local creamery that does that part of the job. His oldest cow is 13 years old, he says, much older than a dairy cow typically lives in America. He obviously cares about his animals, and notes that by government regulation Swiss cows must spend at least every other day out in the pasture, not boxed up in a barn.

He prefers skiing of his three jobs, of course, and although he’s never skied in the United States, he likes the family friendly, casual vibe of skiing in this cozy slice of the Swiss Alps.

“Everything is a little bit smaller here” he says. “People like that it’s not as big or crowded as Aspen. The resorts are not as fancy.”

I want to go back and ski more in Gstaad! Pam LeBlanc photo

That surprises me, considering the luxe vibe of Gstaad, where designer stores like Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Prada line the narrow streets, and by regulation all the structures are built in the traditional wooden chalet style, none of them higher than three stories – above ground, anyway. Some extend like James Bond liars under the surface.

Lift tickets are less expensive here than in the big Colorado resorts, too, about $75 Swiss francs a day, and the U.S. exchange rate is currently about equal.

“You can ski six different villages from here,” added ski instructor Philipp Wirz of Bern, who has been teaching here for nine seasons.“It’s not so crowded. You can always find slopes that are not so steep for the beginner, too.”

The views are stupendous, he notes. You can see for miles, and a jagged peak called the Gummfluh draws the eye. “Everything is open,” Wirz says. “You can see over the mountains.”

Another bonus? The less-intense vibe. It’s possible to ski from village to village, pausing in each one to sip white wine and swirl crusty bread crusts in posts of cheese fondue in each one.

As Hanswirth and I make it to the bottom of the mountain, we glide right off the mountain to the back of a van driven by Wirz, who has driven to the next village to pick us up. That’s pretty impossible back home.

We ate lunch in a tiny cabin on the mountain. Pam LeBlanc photo



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