Travel

A Canadian experiences the Swiss Alps

From slopes to ski lift passes and resorts to spas, the cost of a ski trip to Switzerland isn’t much more expensive than a visit to the Rockies

  • Sep 07, 2023
  • 1,106 words
  • 5 minutes
A view of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. (Photo: Victor He/Unsplash)
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Canada is 242 times larger than Switzerland and has nearly five times as many people. 

But the tiny landlocked European country has us beat cold in a number of vital areas: it not only has 356 ski resorts compared to our 297 (and 7,134 kilometres of ski runs compared to our 4,017), the quality of that skiing is incomparable. So is the quality of your time off the slope.

It’s been this way for years, and since the pandemic, something else has changed that may tempt skiers from Toronto, Montreal, and points east to fly across the Atlantic to the Alps rather than heading west to Alberta or B.C.

I flew to the ski slopes of Switzerland this past February and discovered to my surprise that it costs about the same to ski for a week in Switzerland as it does to head to resorts like Lake Louise, Banff, and Whistler. 

Skiers enjoying fresh snow in Arolla, Switzerland. (Photo: Xavier von Erlach/Unsplash)
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Of course, the cost of flights, hotels and lift tickets bounces up and down according to dates, demand and how you book. But generally, skiing in Switzerland is more affordable than you’d think. In fact, prices for a week of skiing, including international air, hotel and lift ticket for seven days are comparable. On the week I travelled, the costs would have been: Zermatt $6,350, St. Moritz $5,500, Whistler $5,668 and Banff-Lake Louise $5,325.

The big difference is the skiing experience itself. In Zermatt, Verbier, St. Moritz, Grindelwald and so many more Swiss destinations, it’s superb. Even this past winter, when snow was rare at lower altitudes and some runs were closed, most of Zermatt’s 54 lifts and 148 slopes were open and packed with snow.

One of my favourite Zermatt runs is Rotweng, an intermediate piste that starts at 3,104 metres at the Rothorn, a gondola station and restaurant with glorious views west to the Matterhorn. The view from the gondola ride up is eye-popping in all seasons, and all levels of pistes lead from Rothorn via Blauherd and Sunnegga down to Zermatt in the valley.

But the most “unlike the Rockies” experience is to take the Hohtälli piste that winds down from the Gornergrat Kulm Hotel. At 3,120 metres, it’s the highest hotel in the Swiss Alps, and  contains an observatory, two restaurants and a shopping mall.

Luois Vuitton pop up in St. Moritz. (Photo: Bob Ramsay)
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But what about at the bottom of the mountains? How long were the lift lines to get to the top? Well, on a sunny Saturday in February, I waited at most two minutes to get to the front of the lift-line.

 

But that could be because it was the main gondola at St. Moritz, which holds 80 skiers in a single car. As for the runs, they’re wider and have fewer moguls than in North America. That said, both the easy and expert slopes are more challenging than their North American equivalents. And when you can ski on an intermediate run from Switzerland to Italy and back in the same day and enjoy a gourmet Italian lunch on their side of the Matterhorn, it’s hard to beat.

“Après ski” is also sans pareil, and at Zermatt, the home to the Matterhorn, there are 50 restaurants on the mountain (compared to 17 at Whistler-Blackcomb), plus 100 more in the town below. Every kind of bar, club and restaurant, at every price point is yours for the tasting in Zermatt’s tightly-organized village. In fact, so deep is its commitment to après ski that you don’t have to wait till you’re off the mountain to begin. The party can start at lunch on the slope. Remember those iconic photos of Europeans sun-bathing row-upon-row mid-mountain after lunch? They’re real.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the biggest benefit of skiing in Switzerland isn’t the cost, it’s the country. It’s so… Swiss. Which means seamless, spotless and iconic. And remember who first opened the Rockies’ storied mountain sites? Swiss mountain guides who’ve been connected to the Canadian Rockies since 1899.

My eye-opening began when I landed at Zurich Airport on a direct flight from Toronto. I spent three days at Zermatt in the west of Switzerland, then three days in St. Moritz in the east, then two days in Engelberg in the centre.

Preparing the cheese course on the Glacier Express from Zermatt to St. Moritz. (Photo: Bob Ramsay)
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Chocolate everywhere. (Photo: Bob Ramsay)
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There was no need to rent a car — the country’s rail system runs like a Swiss watch, connecting most every town and city. Of course, there was a train station at Zurich Airport with a train running directly to Zermatt, whose station is right in the centre of the village. 

I settled in to my seat in a beautifully-appointed car. There was wifi, of course, and a man who came around with hot snacks. But when the conductor checked my ticket, she said: “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. You have a first-class pass. This car is second-class. Would you please move forward?” And yes, first-class was even more sumptuous. 

But I also learned just how easily efficient the Swiss train system is. Later in the week, I was in Pontresina, 15 km east of St. Moritz, checking out of my hotel to catch the train to Engelberg, near Lucerne. I asked the concierge how to get to the station for my 10:30 a.m. train. He said the hotel ran a bus service that leaves at 10:25 a.m.

“Five minutes before the train? Really?”

“Why, yes, sir…” I had the sense he’d said this to thousands of North Americans before. “It’s a two-minute drive to the station, which gives you three minutes to settle in.” I ask you, would any Canadian leave the Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto at 10:25 to catch a 10:30 train across the street at Union Station? Never.

But there’s another reason to think about heading east to ski in the mountains instead of west: novelty. 

The eternal beauty of the Rocky Mountains becomes less magnetic as we travel to the same slopes winter after winter. Yes, even the thrill of Whistler pales with habituation. This is not a Canadian trait; it’s a human one. To see the Matterhorn for the first time, to walk the Belle-Époque streets of St. Moritz for the first time, and to immerse yourself and your family in a different culture — all in a week — is, at the very least, a refreshing break.

Skiing in Switzerland when you’ve spent years doing that in Canada is not an unpatriotic act, especially when our Rocky Mountain resorts are packed. Indeed, heading out to enjoy different people and places around the world is the ultimate Canadian thing to do.

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