The HÃ¶rnli-Express gondola is making its final ascent to the top terminal, and I prepare to click my boots into my skis to make my first run, the breathtaking landscape of Arosa, Switzerland unfolding in front of me.
There’s no skiing in Arosa in July.
That’s just as well; although known primarily as a winter destination resort, Arosa, located in the canton of GraubÃ¼nden in Switzerland, offers a spectacular assortment of summer treats. Chief among them is the hiking — miles and miles of hiking with classic Switzerland postcard views, an almost ever-present sun, and clean, cool mountain air.
Or, in other words: paradise. With a side of Swiss chocolate. And cowbells, clanking like windchimes in the distance.
I hadn’t planned on spending eight nights here. An early July trip to Switzerland had me staying in Arosa three nights, followed by eight nights in Wengen — an Alps mountain town in the Jungfrau region that I had stayed at last summer. Rising above Interlaken, the Jungfrau region is beautiful, no question — but it’s also grand central for International tourists in July. Each day, trains are packed full of tourists making the expensive trek to the Jungfrau, a glacier serviced by the highest railroad in Europe.
After arriving in Wengen, I checked into my hotel, and discovered that the room was about the size of a coffin. An old, dated coffin, adorned by a strange mix of linoleum, laminate, and carpet from the 60s. This was a very expensive room, and there was barely space to turn around — in almost comic contrast to the pictures on the hotel’s web site. Rather than hearing distant cowbells, I could hear a neighbor snoring through the wall, and construction going on just down the hill, beginning every morning at 7 a.m.
This wasn’t going to do. Rather than spending eight nights in Wengen, I decided to slash it to three and return right where my trip started: back to Arosa for another five nights.
It was the right choice; Arosa won me over.
One of the chief reasons: the Tschuggen Grand hotel. I’ve stayed at many luxury properties over the years, including the Plaza in New York City, the Arrabelle at Vail, Four Seasons in Jackson Hole, and Skylofts in Las Vegas. Those are all great properties, but Tschuggen Grand rises confidently above them all. It gets the little and the big things right.
Perched up high in a prime location of Arosa, the Tschuggen Grand provides unparalleled vistas of mountains in every direction. The logo for Tschuggen Grand features six stars, and that’s apt; five stars wouldn’t do this property justice. The hotel provided a complimentary pickup at the Arosa train station, and upon arrival, I was greeted by several enthusiastic members of the staff, including Leo Maissen, the General Manager. On the way to my room, I was given a tour of the property, including several restaurants and one of the finest spas in Europe (more on that later). The room itself was pure luxury: a wall of windows opened out onto a covered, private balcony. Facing south, this balcony provided incredible views, and an ever-present cool mountain breeze.
The Tschuggen Grand clearly prides itself on getting all the little details just right. Every floor has a bowl of apples, and each room comes with complimentary bottled water (in glass bottles, no less) — still or sparkling, your choice. Toiletries are generously sized, and there’s even a candle and matches next to the bathtub. The shower features multiple shower heads, including a rainfall head; the shower drain whimsically spins as water flows down it. Ample closets are fitted with motion-activated lights that turn on when you open the closet door, and turn off automatically when no motion is sensed. There is no shortage of hangers in these rooms. Rooms come equipped with an umbrella and other thoughtful amenities, including a blooming orchid plant. On checkout, you’re sent off with a warm handshake and a bag with two apples, two bottles of water, homemade tea, and a chocolate shaped like one of the architectural peaks of the Tschuggen spa.
The staff is always eager to help, but not overbearing. I was greeted by name by almost every staff member I ran into, in a way that was almost surreal. (Each time I felt a bit bad, because I didn’t know the name of the staff member!) Without exception, every single employee was world-class, and collectively turned the Tschuggen Grand into one of the finest hotels I’ve ever experienced.
A generous breakfast buffet is included with the rooms, which includes a wide assortment of items. My favorites were the fresh-squeezed juices, which came in many varieties (wild berry, mango, and peach were my regular picks); the Arosa strawberry yogurt was also delicious. I included a made-to-order ham, cheese, and tomato omelette with each breakfast, providing a protein boost to power the day’s hikes.
Timelapse video by M. Scott Smith.
Many nights, I ordered room service for dinner (don’t judge: I was on vacation!), which was a good choice: the food was tasty and the views out my room were spectacular. But there are other options for dinner within the hotel, including al fresco dining on a deck, under the stars.
Now let’s talk about the spa, the Tschuggen Bergoase. I’m not normally a spa person, but the Tschuggen facility may have changed that. Designed by architect Mario Botta and built in 2006, the spa blends into the mountainside just above the Tschuggen Grand. It almost disappears into the environment, with various peaks protruding above the ground. Underneath those peaks is one of the finest spas in Europe. It includes 5,000 square meters of space spread over four stories, including a “water world” on the top floor, saunas and steam baths, treatment rooms, lounge areas, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. The facility is designed with granite stone from the Alps, rock from Arosa, Canadian maple, and glass.
The “water world” is one of a kind, and after a long day of hiking, I ended each day in this unique pool area. The water world includes a number of pools including an indoor/outdoor heated pool, equipped with many water “features.” Part of the pool has seats built into it, and at regular intervals, a cascade of bubbles rises from below the seats. There are many other areas that feature whirlpool-like or waterfall features. It’s a lot of fun to explore, and each provides relaxation for sore muscles. There’s a deep pool (with cooler water) great for doing laps, and shallow pools with stone walkways and water at two different temperatures — warm and seriously-freezing-get-me-out-of-here cold. The whole environment is beautifully designed. A floor below, there are multiple sauna and stream rooms, including a steam room set at a toasty 90 degrees Centigrade — or about 194 degrees Fahrenheit. I could only manage about 10-15 minutes in that room!
Of course, a wide variety of extra-cost treatments (such as massages) are offered in the spa, but guests of the Tschuggen Grand gain free access to the facility. It was sheer bliss, and so refreshing to spend time in the pool or relaxation rooms after hiking.
One might be tempted to spend the entire day inside the Tschuggen Grand, but the mountains of Arosa beckon. The Tschuggen Grand features its own private mountain railway — the Tschuggen Express. With a swipe of a smart card, the Express is summoned and arrives at the station just outside the hotel.
Reaching a gradient of 52 degrees, the Tschuggen Express whisks you nearly 500 feet in altitude up the mountain, landing you at a perfect spot to begin your ski adventure (in the winter) or hiking adventure (in the summer). It’s a fun ride.
You’ve arrived in Arosa, you’ve checked into the luxurious Tschuggen Grand hotel; now what?
In the winter, Arosa is a winter playground. That’s “high season” for the resort town, which is surrounded by mountains that are sheltered from heavy winds. Arosa is a moderately-sized ski resort, offering above-treeline bowl skiing with great views. The Weisshorn peak is at 8,704 feet above sea level, with the town of Arosa at about 5,800 feet. Those elevations shouldn’t cause many problems with altitude sickness. Arosa offers about 43 miles of downhill trails, although that is set to expand dramatically this winter, as a new tram will connect Arosa with the Lenzerheide ski area, adding another 96 miles of lift-served skiing and snowboarding.
Alas, I could only daydream about skiing as I hiked in the shadows of chairlifts. Thankfully, the hiking in Arosa is very good, offering the very best of Switzerland. Mountain trails are surrounded by carpets of delicate, colorful mountain flowers, each one calling out to passing butterflies with the promise of nectar. A range of trails are offered, from steep, above-treeline treks that begin in one small Swiss town and end in another, to forested valley trails that chase crystal-clear streams.
To attract summer guests, the Municipality of Arosa came up with a clever idea: all summer overnight guests are entitled to an all-inclusive card that provides free access to virtually all activities in and around Arosa. If you’re not staying in Arosa, day-trippers can purchase a daily all-inclusive card for 18 Swiss Francs per person (9 CHF for children 7-16; children under 7 are free).
What’s included with the pass? A lot. With the pass, you can receive unlimited rides on the HÃ¶rnli Express gondola cable car, as well as the Arosa-Weisshorn cable car. Cable car rides in Switzerland can be quite expensive, so that alone is a good value, and cable car trips up the mountain provide for less taxing hiking down the mountain (although some steep trails are tough going up or down).
You also get unlimited rides on the Arosa town bus, and the Rhaetian railroad between Arosa and Langweis. Activities are provided for free at the Untersee lake in the Arosa town center, including a lido beach with swimming, diving towers, a playground, and a beach volleyball court. You can rent a paddleboat for free, and try out a free rope park. In the town’s Obersee lake, right next to the train station, there is also an after-dark “waterworks” show that uses fountains synchronized with lights and music, similar to the Fountains at Bellagio in Las Vegas. This show generally runs three days a week; check with the Information Center at town center for the current schedule.
The Arosa All-Inclusive card was recognized in 2003 with the Swiss Tourism “Milestone” award. The card is credited with allowing guests to take advantage of all the town offers at no extra cost, with no strings attached. After instituting the program, Arosa saw summer visits and revenue increase.
There are many summer activities such as horseback riding, but I focused my energy on hiking. Each day, I hiked anywhere from 5 to 14 miles.
There are miles and miles of hiking in and around Arosa (make that kilometers of hiking; we are in Europe, after all). With fresh mountain air, warm sunshine, and views that made you feel like you were hiking out of one postcard and into another, the hiking is superlative.
United Airlines offers daily non-stop flights from Dulles International Airport to Zurich. There isn’t much competition in this route, so prices can be expensive, but it’s a convenient way to get right to the heart of Switzerland.
From Zurich, almost any point in Switzerland is a comfortable train ride away. There’s no reason whatsoever to rent a car.
Many words can describe the Swiss rail network: clean, modern, extensive, expansive, electric, timely, comfortable. I’ll add an additional word to that list: envious. That describes how I feel when I ride Swiss trains; I wish we had a rail system like this in the United States.
They say you can set your clock (preferably a Swiss-made timepiece, of course) to the departure of Swiss trains, and that’s largely true. Over the past two weeks I’ve ridden dozens of trains, and nearly all left and arrived at the station at precisely the time they were supposed to. One was running late — three minutes late (or, in Amtrak terms, “suspiciously right on time”) — and you should see the commotion that caused. Loudspeaker announcements relayed the delay with great concern, and conductors rushed on the platform with a concerned look on their face.
Three minutes may not seem like much, but all of the trains in Switzerland are essentially interlinked and one small delay can throw the whole system off. You can easily get from almost any point in the country to almost any other point in the country, often making several train connections that have been integrated for maximum efficiency. When your train arrives at the station, you may only have minutes to switch platforms and hop on the train going to your destination. But wherever you’re aiming to go, there’s almost always an easy way to string together train connections to make it work, never spending more than 5-10 minutes waiting for the next train on a platform. Making these connections can be a bit stressful when you’re hauling heavy luggage through a crowded station, but I managed to always make them.
A few tips for the trains: many trains have a cafÃ© car, as well as a porter who pushes a cart through offering beverages and snacks. The web site www.sbb.ch has detailed timetables for the entire Swiss rail system; SBB also provides a mobile app. Note that platforms can change with little notice; this can be problematic when the announcements are made at the last second in a language you don’t understand. Also note that you shouldn’t put your feet up on the seats across from you, unless you want to be scolded sternly in German. I experienced this so you wouldn’t have to. Unless you buy a Swiss Rail Pass (more on that in a moment), note that you may need to validate your ticket on the platform before riding the train. If you’re caught without a valid rail ticket, you can expect to be on the receiving end of significant fines — as well as more of that stern German scolding.
If you plan on riding the train frequently during your stay in Switzerland, you’ll want to look into getting a Swiss Rail Pass. Available in different durations (such as an 8- or 15-day pass), these passes provide unlimited travel on much of Switzerland’s Travel Network, including trains, buses, and boats. You’ll even get free access to many museums. Only some high-mountain trains and trams are excluded, but for many of those, you can receive a discount as high as 50% with your Swiss Pass. If you only plan on staying in one spot in Switzerland, it might not be cost effective to get the Swiss Pass versus a single-destination ticket, but if you plan on exploring, this is a great deal.
Swiss Passes are sold in First or Second Class variations. Most Swiss trains have one or more First Class cars. These cars provide additional comfort and space, although Second Class is quite comfortable as well. One benefit of First Class is that the cars are likely to be far less crowded than Second Class. In many cases, I was the only individual riding in a First Class car.
Train trip from Zurich to Chur, sped up in post-production. (Swiss trains are fast, but not that fast!) Video by M. Scott Smith.
Arosa is about 2.5 hours away from Zurich. From the main train station in Zurich (Zurich HB, with routes branching out to all corners of Switzerland), hop on a train to Chur. Sit on the left side of the train to enjoy lake views. Trains to Chur generally run hourly. You’ll arrive in Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, in a little over an hour. Then, catch one of the hourly trains on the Rhaetian Railway from Chur to Arosa, and this time sit on the right side for the best views. These trains chug along at a measured pace as they wind up, up the mountain, sometimes tunneling through the mountain, sometimes crossing valleys on dizzyingly-high bridges that are probably older than you. After an hour, you’ll arrive in the village of Arosa.
In Arosa, the answer is simple: the Tschuggen Grand hotel.
I began and ended my trip with a night in Zurich, where I stayed at the Swissotel in Oerlikon. Oerlikon is just on the outskirts of the city, a 4-minute train ride away from the airport. It’s relatively inexpensive, being outside the town center, but it was still $200 per night for a small but sufficient room. It’s right next to the Oerlikon train station, and every few minutes a train arrives. Many go directly to the main Zurich train station in 7 or 8 minutes, Zurich HB, which is right downtown.
Switzerland is many things, but it ain’t cheap. Getting to Switzerland is expensive, eating in Switzerland is expensive, and staying in Switzerland is expensive. Unlike much of Europe, Switzerland chose to forgo the Euro and continues to use the Swiss Franc as its currency. As of July, 2013, it takes about $1.06 in U.S. dollars to receive one Swiss Franc. The easiest and generally cheapest way to convert money is by withdrawing Swiss Francs from an ATM machine — you’ll find ATM machines at most train stations, and they offer much better exchange rates than you’ll find at those currency counters in the airport.
I haven’t had trouble using Mastercard and American Express throughout Switzerland (at least in hotels and most shops), but watch out for daily foreign transaction fees, which may be levied by your credit card company. Some merchants may require “chip and pin” credit cards; if your card was issued in the U.S., you probably don’t have one of those, so it’s always good to carry some cash. Finally, if you ignore my advice and rent a car, note that many gas stations will only accept chip and pin cards at night, so that would be a poor time to run out of gas.
Prices in Switzerland can be as breathtaking as the scenery, but there are ways to find value. A good benchmark for understanding the stratospheric prices: a Value Meal at McDonalds. In the U.S., a Value Meal might cost $6. In Switzerland, it can easily cost three times that much. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t taste three times better.) However, most hotels include an ample breakfast with their daily rates, and many include half-board — including a full (often multi-course, delicious) dinner. For nearly my entire trip, I ate breakfast and dinner at the hotel; during the day, I was hiking, and lunch consisted of chocolate bars or simply letting my stomach growl as I dreamed of the big dinner I’d be having later.
One way to save money is to head for the nearest Coop store. You’ll find them in practically every town, including small mountain towns such as Wengen and Arosa. Coop is one of the main grocery store chains, and the prices are reasonable. In fact, you can find perfectly good chocolate at very reasonable prices at Coop. A bottle of water won’t break the bank either, and you can then re-use the bottle throughout your trip (glacier-originating tap water throughout Switzerland is safe to drink, and refreshingly delicious). There are many fountains along trails as well, which I presume are safe to drink from, although I didn’t try. I did observe some hikers filling their water bottles from mountain streams, but unless you like playing intestinal roulette, I wouldn’t recommend this. There are lots of cows grazing in the high-mountain pastures upstream, and, well, you get the point.
If you get a Swiss Pass, take advantage of the discounts it offers on certain forms of transportation such as mountain cable cars (a 50% discount can reduce an exorbitant price for a cable car ride to something more palatable), and definitely use it for free entry to many museums.
I found Arosa to be a genuine summertime value. The hotel I stayed at was world-class, but like many American winter resort towns, prices plummet in the summer, which is considered the “off-season.” Rooms cost as little as $225 per night at the Tschuggen Grand during the summer, and specials (such as one night free promotions) can lower the nightly cost further. These rooms can cost twice as much in the winter season. You may also get a free upgraded room in the summer, particularly if you belong to the Leaders Club program ($100 per year, which provides free upgrades, free breakfast, and free Internet at top hotels worldwide, regardless of number of stays.)
Arosa seems to largely be a “locals” summer resort town; in many days of hiking, nearly everyone I encountered was from Switzerland. When you pass another hiker, it’s customary to provide a hearty and enthusiastic “Gruetzi” as a greeting — pronounced like “groyt-see.” (This may be followed by German that you don’t understand; in such cases, I smiled politely, nodded sheepishly, and carried on. My two years of German in high school seem to have prepared me only to recognize when someone is speaking in German, but not to converse back.) I only ran into a few native English-speaking visitors, and they were from England. Meanwhile, in the Jungfrau region, trains were packed with visitors from across the world (particularly Asia), willing to pay high prices to receive a quintessential Swiss experience. I found the mountains at Arosa no less beautiful; the visitors and residents friendlier; and the value significantly higher.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
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