Source: Best Health magazine, November/December 2015
‘Everything you do in Switzerland, you have to deserve it,’ says Francesca Martini, our guide in Les Diablerets, a picturesque village in the French-speaking Swiss Alps. And as I gaze at the endless rocky mountaintops surrounding us, set off by a brilliant blue sky and the bright white of a ski area far above the treeline, I think that, however spectacular the view, I’ve more than deserved it today.
We’re at the ski area Glacier 3000, so named for the number of metres it sits above sea level, catching our breath (or mine, at least) after a two-stage, 1,500-metre ascent in massive gondolas. This ‘easy’ run started with the steepest hill this beginner has ever skied and was followed by a harrowing ride up a T-bar with dizzying vertical on legs still tired from the previous day’s zigzags across mountains via ski trails and lifts. We had stopped for lunch at stable-turned-restaurant L’Étable before returning to Les Diablerets, descending into the village as the sun dropped down behind us.
The effort’s all worth it for the view, though, and I’m not in Switzerland to be spoiled. A Canadian who loves nothing more than to escape the cold, I’d heard rumours that the Swiss are puzzled by our collective addiction to winter getaways in tropical destinations. For them, winter is a time to be outdoors, to enjoy the winter sports and activities that their rugged country offers in abundance and with such easy access.
Chairlifts, gondolas, trains and buses run frequently and are well integrated into communities. They’re so easy to use that you’ll spot local skiers boarding transit already wearing boots and gear, knowing that they’ll be dropped off either right at the lift or already at the top of a run. So this year I skipped the Caribbean and headed across the Atlantic instead to make use of the famed Swiss transportation system and get to know a few of its mountain communities.
We headed by train to Grindelwald, a German-speaking town that features views of outdoor hockey games and hikers crossing snowy winter trails. Here, we learn to ride a velogemel, a vehicle invented by a local who couldn’t sit on a regular sled due to disability from polio. Half bicycle, half sled, it’s made entirely of wood by local craftspeople.
According to former velogemel world champion Hans Brunner, everyone in town has a few of them in their homes, and some prefer it to skis.
Brunner learned to ride the velogemel as a child and would take his up the chairlift to school so that he and his friends could sled back down afterwards. We rent ours from the train station and alternately push and carry them 10 minutes uphill to the gondola station. We manage to cram three of us and our velogemels into a cabin and head to the summit to ride them back down the ski hill’s sledding trail, a common feature in a country where wooden sleds are stacked outside grocery stores and inside trains and the longest sledding run ‘ which requires a 21/2-hour hike ‘ is 15 kilometres long.
The town of Andermatt, though, is where we really get a feel for the Swiss sense of winter fun. On our first day, the clouds are low, the snow is falling and I take a ski lesson to help me get my bearings. I meet a group of young children, not older than five, on the quiet mid-week slopes who happily hop on and off the lifts and follow their leaders like ducklings in perfect S-curves down the gentle terrain. It’s normal here, I realize, to be adept at these activities and at home in the mountains, and it’s also expected that kids will learn to ski and sled like they learn to walk and run.
On our last day, we wake up to open skies that reveal the vast landscape that had been hidden by the clouds, and we race out to rent sleds at the train station before boarding and climbing up into the peaks for our next adventure. It’s still mid-week, but today the slopes are bustling and the trains are packed. The fresh snow and perfect weather are seemingly driving everyone in town up into the hills, whether they’re skiing, sledding or simply walking the trails for some fresh mountain air and gorgeous sunlight.
We disembark for the short walk to the lift and the attendant hooks our sleds onto the backs of the chairs for the quick ride to the summit. Before we start our descent, I pause in silence, taking it all in: the sleds, the skis, the wooden farm buildings dotting the landscape and the church steeple in the village below. Though the country runs like clockwork, nothing is easy in Switzerland, I think. But that makes what you do here feel all the more worthwhile.
What to know more about Switzerland? Check out our travel guide for where to stay and eat and for information on the best ski tours.