In Search of the Perfect Ski Village
They don't ski the powder. Of all the cultural peculiarities that North American skiers and snowboarders discover in the Alps, that one leaves them the most dumbfounded. In Colorado and Vermont and British Columbia, diehards have been known to stand in lift lines before daybreak if it means fresh tracks. But in Europe, the overwhelming majority prefer the fluffiness squeezed out of the snow to make for easy cruising runs. Carving turns in powder, while fun, is an awful lot of work, and anything coming close to the W-word is a no-no for Europeans on holiday. That just means more freshies for you and me.
Everything else that goes along with the Alpine village experience in Europe makes absolute sense. Instead of day trips or long weekends, people primarily come for weeks at a time so that it's actually possible to relax. They use intricate train and bus links in lieu of cars, reserving the compact village centers for peaceful walking. And then there's that indefinable charm--the snow-topped chalets, narrow alleys, cozy après-ski pubs, and sheltering mountain surroundings are so irresistible that resorts around the world have been imitating them for decades. We're spotlighting three of these storybook ski villages, in Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Each is authentic to its roots, more affordable than people imagine, and perfect in its own way.
Wengen, Switzerland: An Alpine classic
Switzerland is known for its idyllic ski villages, with traditional wooden chalets nestled amid craggy peaks jutting up into a baby-blue sky. Wengen (Ven-ghen) stands out because of its location in the middle of three interconnected ski areas, each of which would be considered well above average on its own in North America. Wengen is a pedestrians-only village--no diesel fumes, no cars revving their engines, no parking lots the size of football fields--so people find it that much easier to decompress here. And decompress they do: The ski holiday in Switzerland focuses as much on the idea of "holiday" as it does on "ski," and savoring a two-hour midday meal or hoisting a mug of frothy beer on a sundeck is more important than logging lots of mileage up and down the mountain.
Instead of cars, Wengen relies on an elaborate, efficient system of trains, gondolas, cable cars, chairlifts, and T-bars that could only be the work of Swiss engineers. Visitors drive or take the train to the town of Lauterbrunnen. From there, a cog railway carts them past old timber farm sheds and over the crest of a cliff to Wengen. Across the Lauterbrunnen valley from Wengen is its smaller mirror image, Mürren, which is similarly car-free and situated on top of a dramatic bluff. On the Wengen side, a cable car in town shoots up to the top of a peak, and skiers can cruise down 4,000 vertical feet on the other side to find themselves in yet another quintessential ski hub, Grindelwald. The three villages form the heart of the Jungfrau region, smack in the center of Switzerland, just south of Interlaken and about three hours from Zürich. To access the Jungfrau's terrain--or any of the snowy landscape's restaurants, bars, cafés, and toboggan runs--all you have to do is roll out of your hotel and walk (or ski) to the nearest train stop. A ski pass covers all transportation within the Jungfrau region, and the trail maps come printed with train schedules.
There's hardly a bad room in town, but since most ski hotels in Switzerland include breakfast and dinner in their rates, it's essential to factor in the quality of the kitchen. (If you don't want dinner, most hotels will take it off the bill, but only if you tell them ahead of time.) At the Hotel Hirschen in Wengen, the delicious pastas, tangy soups, and weekly fondue parties more than make up for the smallish guest rooms. Ski trails lead right to the hotel door, and most west-facing rooms come with terraces and views of the town, the mountains, and the valley. The village center is just a few minutes away on foot, quicker if you're on skis.
Each morning, skiers and boarders face a mountain range's worth of options: hopping into the Männlichenbahn cable car for wide-open groomers leading down to Grindelwald; boarding the train and heading up above Mürren to the Schilthorn, a 9,748-foot peak known for its revolving restaurant, steep slopes, and the fact that the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service was filmed there; or taking the train in the opposite direction, up to the sunny Kleine Scheidegg area, where people toss back schnapps inside a giant tepee or soak up sun on the decks, gathering the nerve to try the Lauberhorn, a famous downhill course where a World Cup race takes place every January.