Maybe it was the conveyor belt of exotic scenery rolling past my window. Or perhaps the fact I had some legroom for once. But as I slouched back in my second-class seat on the train from Geneva, watching foothills turn to Alpine peaks, it occurred to me that there’s something unashamedly romantic about travelling by train.
I’m talking about a sense of grandeur, of great expectations, which is all too often lost these days in the modern world of package trips and organised tours, no matter how bespoke they claim to be. As I trundled along the edge of Lake Geneva, on the 15.47 to Brig, however, it felt like the beginning of something exciting. Something unknown.
For fear of coming across as a complete train nerd, I should probably point out that I wasn’t here simply to get my locomotive kicks. Having spent the past decade repeatedly skiing Switzerland’s ‘hero’ resorts — Verbier, Zermatt and St Moritz, to name a few — I was looking for something a little more, well, ‘Swiss’.
As the popularity of skiing has soared in recent years, these famous hotspots have become more international than ever. And more crowded. But in a country that’s home to hundreds of resorts, it’s not that hard to get authentic local culture and runs to yourself — if you know where to look.
I’d bypassed the usual ski blogs and online guides, and clicked instead on the SBB (Schweizerische Bundesbahnen, or Swiss Federal Railways) website (www.sbb.ch). Alongside timetables and stats that would leave your average trainspotter weak at the knees, there’s an interactive map with details about different resorts dotted all over the country. Once you’ve picked where you want to go, you can simply buy your tickets online and print them straight off.
So that was that, with a train pass in my back pocket and the whole of the Swiss rail network at my disposal, I found myself embarking on my own mini inter-railing adventure.
On my itinerary over the next three days were the resorts of Gryon, Les Diablerets and Leysin — each generally overlooked by British skiers, as they whizz past on their way to better-known destinations. What’s more, they were close enough together — and sufficiently easy to access from Geneva — that I wouldn’t be wasting valuable slope time on the train.
Having arranged flights and train tickets myself, I’d booked accommodation through self-catering specialist, Interhome, which lined up lodgings at all three resorts that matched my requirements. All I had to do was jump on the train, dump my bags and hit the slopes.
While it all felt terribly daring, let’s be honest: you couldn’t get much more predictable than the Swiss railway system. Even if hell did freeze over, they’d still manage to find a way of sticking to the timetable. There are no leaves on the line in this corner of Europe, and you never encounter the wrong kind of snow.
My first stop was Gryon, about an hour and a half from Geneva airport. I sat back in the generously proportioned carriage and soaked up the view of Lake Geneva as the train snaked its way up to Bex. For the whole journey, a constant supply of skyscraping scenery had been gliding past the window — impossibly cute farms sitting like scale models against a backdrop of majestic mountains.
But this was nothing compared to the view from the funicular train that clambered straight up the rock-face to Gryon. Gazing out, I spied row upon row of jagged peaks puncturing the horizon like a grin of mismatched white teeth.
Gryon has a charmingly quiet and rustic atmosphere. My smart apartment, close to the lifts, offered more comfort and square-footage than the average ski hotel suite but made nowhere near the same dent on my wallet.
Having left the UK at stupid o’clock that morning, I now felt the benefit of the early alarm call. After dropping off my bags and slipping into my snowboarding gear I still had the bulk of the afternoon in which to attack the slopes, before the weekend crowds arrived.
“I’ve been skiing here since I was in nappies,” said my guide, Bart, as he sidled up to me outside the main cable car. A good thing, as I was expecting him to help me pack as many miles under my skis as possible during my stay.
After strapping in he led me away from Gryon’s slopes, across the top of Villars via a series of mellow pistes, to the Chaux Ronde peak (6,500ft), where we spent the next hour or so carving new tracks over a deserted face of fresh powder. The great thing about this area of the resort is that you can access plenty of ungroomed routes just a few minutes from the La Rasse-Chaux Rond chair. And the chances are, the snow will be superb.
Gryon may not be the highest of resorts, but its position on the northwest edge of the Alps makes it a dumping ground for any fronts that pass through — ensuring plenty of fresh tracks if you know where to look. And Bart knew exactly where to look.
Staying on the Villars side we continued over to Roc d’Orsay, where we found more untracked terrain — including a cheeky little tree run close to the Bretaye-Orsay lift. Most of the time we were the only people on the hill, something I’d only experienced before in North America.
Although its lifts are joined to neighbouring Gryon, the nightlife in Villars is a lot livelier. Charlie’s Bar, in the centre of town, is great for apres-ski beers and a game of pool; for something more upbeat, though, there’s Le P’tit Chalet — in the market place, opposite the railway station — where you can sip the froth off a beer at the al fresco bar, while a DJ provides the soundtrack.
There’s plenty of choice when it comes to eating out, too. My favourites were La Toscana, a cosy Italian with wood walls and intimate lighting, located on the high street conveniently close to Charlie’s Bar; and the stone-walled Au Feu de Bois, in the Hotel du Golf, which served up rustic Swiss fare and grilled meat straight from the fire.
The next day in Gryon-Villars involved more skiing and eating, and by the time it drew to a close I’d managed to work my way through most of the piste map. I jumped on a bus for the 45-minute ride down to the town of Aigle, where a train was waiting to whisk me along the tracks to the resort of Les Diablerets.
Chugging through high mountain villages, I stared out at the surrounding slopes, turned pink by the late afternoon sun, while contemplating how refreshing it was to travel in the slow lane for once.
Like most of us these days, I spend so much of my time tearing around with multiple deadlines hanging over my head; here, however, all I had to think about was catching my next train — of which there were plenty. Even if I did happen to miss one, all it meant was spending an extra hour sipping a latte, while gazing at the mountains.
It’s actually possible to access Les Diablerets’ slopes straight from Gryon-Villars, if you prefer to spend an extra night in the latter. But travelling between the two, across the pistes, can be a bit of a mission. Plus, by basing myself in Les Diablerets I could check out the town itself, too.
If this place seems familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen it on a Christmas card or two. Think idyllic, snow-covered wooden chalets clustered in the shadow of towering peaks, and you’ll get the idea.
With 80 miles of skiable terrain, spread over three areas surrounding the village, a day or so of hard skiing is sufficient to see the bulk of Les Diablerets’ finest slopes. As in Gryon, I hired a guide, and spent the morning exploring the Isenau (5,750ft) and Meilleret areas, which are closest to the town.
The former is largely made up of blues with views out over the resort, making it great for beginners (or for a day taking it easy on your legs for a day); meanwhile, Meilleret is ideal for intermediates and has skiable access back to Villars, if you fancy going back there for more.
After lunch I headed up to the fabled Glacier 3000 for some steeper runs. This snow-packed giant dominated the skyline, rising up so close to the passing clouds that it looked as though it might prick them into spilling their contents. From the top of the Scex Rouge, at 9,750ft, I entered a white world where creamy pistes led off in various directions. I held firm for a six-mile thigh burner that took me all the way from the cable car down to the Oldenalp lift at 6,000ft, rewarded with an awe-inspiring vertical drop of almost a mile.
Les Diablerets is not known for its dusk ‘til dawn apres-ski action — which is just as well, as with fatigued limbs, all I wanted to do was lounge at the bar in Auberge de la Poste, soothing my muscles by the open fire and enjoying a steady stream of ice-cold beers.
For Swiss chocolate-box charm, however, nothing topped my final stop, Leysin. Just a few hours away, its tiny streets are littered with homely restaurants like Le Leysin, a traditional wooden chalet with super-size rosti bakes cooking over a roaring fire.
This was by far the emptiest of the resorts I’d visited and with just 40 miles of pistes, it was the smallest too. A lack of lift-queues was becoming the norm but Leysin was so quiet I wondered if I’d missed an avalanche warning. Heading up to admire the view from the top of the Chaux de Mont chair (7,250ft), the closest I came to encountering other skiers was the sight of two black specks at the foot of a distant slope. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.
But my capable guide knew what was what, and even when he led me over to a bunch of blues by the Brion chair, in the middle of the resort, it was still enchantingly quiet. The runs at Leysin are not particularly challenging (mostly blues and reds), and it was wonderful to be able to use the whole width of each slope to carve out huge, fast turns.
I could have stayed all day amid this meditative white terrain but it was time to let the train take the strain. And as we know, Swiss rail timetables wait for no man.
Perfect day in Gryon
■ 10am: Up for a leisurely breakfast on your apartment balcony, eating croissants and sipping tea with the sun warming your skin. Then grab your ski gear and amble along to the lifts.
■ 11.30am: By now you’ve been on the hill for an hour or so, and your legs are feeling good. Time for a quick mid-morning espresso? I think so.
■ 12.30pm: Make your way to lunch at the Refuge de Frience, a renovated farmhouse with views of the Dents du Midi. Try the air-dried beef in olive oil dressing, or hot smoked trout.
■ 2pm: Fully refreshed, it’s now time to hit the slopes once again.
■ 5pm: With the sun sinking low, turning everything to gold, it’s time for an apres-ski beer at the Harambee Café. www.harambee-cafe.ch
■ 7pm: Bags in hand, you’re on the train to Les Diablerets. Another day, another resort to explore…
Swiss tradition: Aside, of course, from sampling a cheese fondue, how about the Villars Night Show — featuring son et lumiere displays, fireworks, ski flying and more. Takes place throughout February and early March
ESSENTIALS Swiss Alps
EasyJet flies from a number of regional airports including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton, and Manchester to Geneva. Swiss International Air Lines flies from London City and Heathrow and to Geneva.
Average flight time: 1h50m.
Swiss trains are legendary for their punctuality and reliability, making it refreshingly easy to reach resorts. There are plenty of trains — even to lesser-known resorts — and travel is excellent value compared to the UK: a 15-day Swiss rail pass costs from £310 per person.
When to go
The ski season generally runs from late November to the end of April. If you’re after longer, warmer, sunnier days then plan your travels for March.
Need to know
Currency: Swiss Francs (CHF). £1 = 1.49 CHF.
International dial code: 00 41.
Time difference: GMT+1.
Places to stay
Le Bostan (Gryon): Two-room apartment from £295 for three nights (based on two sharing).
Diablerets-Parc (Les Diablerets): One-room apartment from £175 for three nights (based on two sharing).
Castel Club (Leysin): One-room apartment from £234 for three nights (based on two sharing). T: 00 41 024 494 26 22.
How to do it
Interhome offers a nine-night, accommodation-only package from £704, based on two people sharing.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)