In July, 2013, I visited the town of Arosa, a ski town set in the beautiful mountains of Switzerland.
There was only one slight problem. There was no snow. No snow, no skiing.
Thankfully, Arosa has a lot going for it in the summer, such as incredible hiking and views.
But, having never skied in Europe before, I found myself day dreaming about what it would be like to return to Arosa in the winter. In March of 2014, I decided to make that dream a reality. Presto:
My trip began at Dulles International Airport on March 11, 2014 as I boarded a United flight bound for Zurich, Switzerland. Excited for the adventure that was about to unfold, I had trouble sleeping on the overnight flight. The sun began to rise just as the plane approached the modern and efficient Zurich airport, revealing snow-covered Alps that looked like fluffy marshmallows.
While at the airport, I used an ATM to withdraw some Swiss Francs and validated my Swiss Pass, which provides unlimited transportation on nearly all of the Swiss Travel System (including most trains, boats, and buses, with significant discounts on many mountain-top trains and cable cars.) With my validated Swiss Pass in hand, I hopped on a quick train ride to the city, checking into the Swissotel Zurich.
An important tip to minimize the effects of jet lag is to immediately adapt to the local time zone, forcing yourself to stay awake until night even if you’re really tired. As a rookie International traveler, I completely ignored this tip and immediately took a nap. After a nap, I focused all of my efforts on an essential goal: obtaining a cache of Swiss chocolates to sustain me for the next week.
With many options for world-class chocolate, first-time visitors to Switzerland face a dilemma: which store should they get chocolate from? As a Swiss chocolate expert, I’m happy to inform you that there is no reason to suffer through this (delicious) dilemma. You should get chocolate from all of the stores. All of ‘em. After all, how else will you know which one is best?
I do have my own favorite: Läderach. (Close runner-up: Confiserie Sprüngli. Second-closest-runner-up: Teuscher Chocolates.) I hopped on a train and headed to the main train station in Zurich, Zurich HB. Steps away from this station is Bahnhofstrasse, a street famous for its upscale shopping. You don’t have to walk far from the train station to find a Läderach store. Step in the store, and you are greeted with the most wonderful smell of chocolate you’ve ever experienced.
With dozens of hand-crafted, artistic, delectable chocolates to choose from, you might want to make sure you have a high credit limit on your credit card. (Nothing is cheap in Switzerland, including the chocolate.)
With a lighter wallet and soon-to-be fuller stomach, I left Läderach with a box full of chocolates and continued to explore downtown Zurich as night displaced day.
The next morning, it was time to leave Zurich behind and head to the mountains. Having fallen in love with Arosa the prior summer, I picked Arosa for my ski trip over higher-profile ski areas such as Zermatt or the Jungfrau region. A quieter area set in the canton of Graubünden, Arosa is popular with locals and some famous guests, including England’s Prince William and Prince Harry. And in early 2014, the Arosa and nearby Lenzerheide ski areas joined forces and terrain, thanks to a connecting tram that was installed in the summer of 2013. The combined ski area now has an impressive 225 kilometers of ski slopes, making Arosa-Lenzerheide one of the top 10 ski resorts in Switzerland.
Getting to Arosa from Zurich is straightforward; in fact, thanks to Switzerland’s immensely efficient train network, getting from Zurich to any part of Switzerland is a snap. There is absolutely no reason to rent a car. From Zurich, I took a fast train to the town of Chur, one of the oldest settlements in Switzerland.
From Chur, the Rhaetian Railway provides hourly 1-hour trips up the mountain to the town of Arosa. The first half of the ride provided scenic views as the train slowly rose higher and higher, hugging the side of mountain walls and occasionally punching through tunnels in the mountain. But, there wasn’t much snow. Would Arosa have snow?
I didn’t need to worry. Towards the end of the ride, the ground became covered in deep snow. In tall mounds of snow gracing the sides of the train tracks, you could see layers of snow with varying densities, providing evidence of a winter full of snowstorms, much like rings in the cross-section of a tree.
But spring was soon approaching, and as the train pulled into the terminus Arosa train station, the bright sun smiled upon Arosa and t-shirt-warm temperatures juxtaposed against the piles of snow.
I was greeted at the Arosa train station by a driver from the Tschuggen Grand hotel. During my summer stay in Arosa, the Tschuggen Grand rose to the top of my list of favorite hotels. The Tschuggen Grand is perched into the hillside in the upper part of Arosa, providing a commanding view of the ski area and nearby mountains. It’s about a 25-minute brisk walk from the town center to the Tschuggen Grand, but it’s uphill, so a complimentary ride in the hotel’s car is recommended if you have luggage in tow.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I was greeted warmly by Leo Maissen, who serves as General Manager. Mr. Maissen tries to greet every arriving guest, and sets an uncompromising standard for customer service that is followed by all of the Tschuggen Grand’s staff. Having stayed at the Tschuggen Grand the prior summer, I felt like I was returning home, and I recognized many of the staff from my prior visit.
I was soon settled in my room, which had a south-facing balcony providing incredible views of Arosa’s sun-kissed mountains. Gone were the summer views of undulating green, replaced with a velvety layer of smooth snow. Serpentine first tracks criss-crossed fall lines that proved irresistible to skiers who weren’t afraid to leave the defined bounds of the ski area.
Alas, it was too late in the afternoon for my inaugural European ski run, and that was probably for the best: I was still a bit jet-lagged, and my stomach still a bit heavy from a slight chocolate overindulgence. The town of Arosa is at a not-too-high 5,823 feet above sea level, with the peaks of the ski area rising about 3,000 feet above that. That makes altitude sickness less of a risk than some higher ski areas, although it’s still good to allow some time to adjust.
As the sun set and stars began to blink on like dim flashlights in the night sky, I was treated to an ever-evolving view from my hotel room, the mountains delicately lit by a rising moon. A fleet of distant snow groomers began to patiently till the ski slopes in the distance, their headlights quietly tracing the contours of the trails.
The next morning, it was time to ski. Rather than dealing with the hassle of flying with ski equipment, I opted to rent skis, boots, and a helmet. Thankfully, the Tschuggen Grand hotel has a well-stocked ski shop on site. Although I struggled with converting my weight to kilograms and height to meters, the ski shop personnel were able to quickly match me with a decent pair of performance skis.
Steps away from the Tschuggen Grand hotel is the Tschuggen Express, a private mountain railway that whisks hotel guests up (or back down) the mountain. This is a super convenient way to begin and end your ski day. When your ski day is done, you can step right up to the ski shop on the ground level of the Tschuggen Grand hotel and store your boots in boot warmers overnight, starting the next day with toasty-warm toes.
The Tschuggen Express is summoned with a smart card, and only takes a few minutes to transport you up a steep incline to a mid-mountain spot near the Tschuggenhütte, where many visitors sun and snack. From there, you can branch off in multiple directions to explore all that Arosa has to offer.
So branch off I did, gradually learning my way around the mountain, all the while enjoying the spectacular views. Some resorts, like Colorado’s Vail, are carefully engineered: every trail and lift was planned out for maximum efficiency. This isn’t universally the case at Arosa-Lenzerheide. I frequently found myself confused by the layout or the sudden appearance of a paved road crossing right through a main ski route. As one friend told me, the ski trails at many European ski resorts evolved from old pasture trails, which can provide character at the expense of efficiency. However, I soon learned the optimal paths to get from Point A to Point B, with relatively few mishaps. (One mishap took me from a wonderful blue cruiser at the edge of Arosa with fantastic views, right into woods in lower Arosa, far away from any ski lift. I had missed a turn somewhere and had to hike my way out. Oops.)
The brand new tram connecting Arosa and Lenzerheide began service just a couple months before my visit, and having witnessed its construction during my recent summer visit, I was eager to try it out. The tram departs Arosa at the top of Hörnli mountain, on the far top left side of Arosa. The tram includes two independent cables and two independent trams, unlike Arosa’s older Weisshorn tram, where one tram goes up as the other goes down, passing halfway through.
The quick trip to Lenzerheide is simply awe-inspiring. The trams were tuned into a radio station playing rock songs in English, which was one of the few times I heard English during my trip.
By the way, make sure you know when the last tram departs and give yourself plenty of time to make it back to the tram station. If your hotel is located in the city on the opposite side of that tram and it’s not running, that could be a big problem, as there’s no easy or quick way to get from Lenzerheide to Arosa other than somehow making the journey back to Chur in your ski boots. That would not be fun and I shudder to think how much the taxi ride might cost.
After arriving at Lenzerheide, I took a few minutes to take in the view. Lenzerheide offers two mountains of skiing facing each other, with the town in the center. I quickly realized that between Arosa and Lenzerheide, I could ski for days and still discover new terrain.
This layout did present one challenge, however: getting from one side of Lenzerheide to the other requires a long, flat walk through town or a bus ride. I did the walk several times during my trip and never enjoyed it. However, this problem is in the process of being remedied: Lenzerheide is currently building a lift to connect the two areas.
Speaking of lifts, Arosa-Lenzerheide has an interesting mix of contemporary and old. Newly-installed lifts supporting the new Arosa-Lenzerheide connection are super modern and smooth, but other parts of Lenzerheide can only be reached by a long, steep J-bar ride. It’s been awhile since I’ve been on one of those. However, with few exceptions, it’s possible to explore the entire area with high-speed lifts and trams. And if you’re looking for lift lines, you won’t find many at Arosa-Lenzerheide. (And if you are looking for lift lines, what’s wrong with you?!) Perhaps Arosa-Lenzerheide is busier during the peak of the ski season, but although I frequently shared slopes with other guests, at no point did the area feel crowded.
I experienced a variety of weather conditions to match the variety of mountain views. And some of those weather conditions completely eliminated those mountain views: on one day, it was so foggy I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. The flat light turned the ground into a uniform, murky gray, making it necessary to ski by feel.
A common saying is “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” I’ve heard that phrase muttered at many mountain areas, and it applies to Switzerland, too. Mother Nature was indecisive during my visit: The weather alternated between fog, light snow, fluffy clouds, bright sun, and back again.
If you don’t have ski or snowboard boots attached to your feet, no worries: Arosa has an extensive network of groomed winter trails designed specifically for hiking. During my stay, I saw hundreds of people taking advantage of this. Arosa also has a dedicated sledding trail, which was utilized by lots of kids and kids at heart. Although the ski slopes close at night, it’s possible to make a nighttime sled run.
My trip fell into a consistent tempo: I’d start each day with a hearty breakfast buffet at the Tschuggen Grand hotel, and then hit the trails for a full day of skiing. Lunch consisted of a chocolate bar stashed away in my backpack. After returning to the hotel, I would spend time enjoying the Tschuggen Bergoase, a 5,000-square meter, four-story spa and water environment with stunning architecture consisting of granite stone from the Alps and Canadian maple; it’s attached to the Tschuggen Grand hotel and available to all guests. I sung the praises of the Tschuggen Bergoase after my summer visit there, and discovered the spa was the perfect way to soothe tired muscles after a long day of hiking or skiing. It was truly relaxing to float in the outdoor, heated pool, with light snow falling and the moon rising above the Alps.
After relaxing in the pools, sauna, and meditation room, it was time for dinner. On the first night I splurged and treated myself to room service.
Later in the trip, I dined in the Bündnerstube restaurant, a traditional Swiss restaurant offering classic dishes such as raclette and fondue.
After a week of skiing, it was time to leave Arosa, but I wasn’t done with Switzerland yet. Although Switzerland is a relatively small country, in many ways it’s like three countries in one: different parts of Switzerland are strongly influenced by France, Germany, and Italy. In fact, all three languages are spoken, and the architecture and culture reflects this influence.
For my second week in Switzerland, I decided to descend from the Alpine mountains to the almost-Mediterranean climate of Ascona, where spring was already well underway. Located in the Swiss Canton of Ticino, Ascona is the lowest lying town in Switzerland, at only 643 feet above sea level. Ascona is right by Italy: only Lake Maggiore separates the two countries.
Going from Arosa to Ascona was like traveling to a different world, although thanks to Switzerland’s efficient train network, the trip only takes a few hours. There’s an almost magical transition that occurs as you take the train to Ascona. As you head towards the Gotthard Tunnel, all train stops are announced in German and the architecture passing by is classic Swiss chalets. Upon exiting the Gotthard tunnel, the train announcements switch to Italian, and colorful, Latin-influenced buildings race past. It’s an amazing metamorphosis.
The Locarno region of Switzerland is very temperate; although snow-dusted mountains can be seen in the distance, the climate is mild, and palm trees and lush vegetation line many of the streets. I visited in the off-season, which meant less crowds and lower hotel rates.
While in Ascona, I stayed at Hotel Eden Roc, a sister property to the Tschuggen Grand hotel offering comparable levels of service. My room had a balcony looking out over Lake Maggiore, and the sounds of water lapping against the shore provided a relaxing sonic backdrop.
Ascona is a charming town. Street cafÃ©s provide lakefront views, and I quickly found a shop selling gelato. In the coming days I returned to that shop several times. (It seems my sweet tooth isn’t limited to chocolate.) And although the Italian-speaking waiter knew no English, I was able to successfully order a pizza margherita in a quaint restaurant that was full of locals enjoying the off-season solitude.
One of the great things about Europe is you can easily hike from town to town. On one day, I hiked from Ascona to the more-bustling Locarno. On another day, despite a steady rain, I donned Gore-Tex and hiked up into the hills behind Ascona, becoming thoroughly lost and loving every second of it. After the sun set, I found myself exploring the much-older-than-me cobblestone pathways that twisted and turned their way around Ascona.
Ascona provided a nice endnote to my first Swiss ski trip, showcasing a completely different side of Switzerland. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface; as I walked through Ascona on my last night, I knew I would be back some day.
After all, my supply of chocolate ran out. I have to go back.
If you’re traveling to Switzerland or nearby European countries, make sure your U.S. Passport is valid at least six months past your intended date of departure from the destination country, otherwise your Passport will not be valid upon arrival. Check the expiration date on your Passport. Pretend that expiration date is 6 months sooner than it is. If that presents a problem, the time to renew is now. Additional guidance about visiting Switzerland is provided on the State Department’s web site.
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.
Wow Scott. This may be the most photographically beautiful post you've ever made on DCSki!
Scott, Having just returned from Switzerland I thoroughly enjoyed your article and the wonderful pictures. Mine was not a ski trip but rather a part of a multi country pre Christmas visit with my daughter's family who live in Schleid, GR. My wife and I spent time in Bern and a long weekend in Montreux on Lake Geneva accompanying the grandkids on their annual visiti to visit Santa at his Rocheres De Naye mountaintop wonderland. There were Palm trees in Montreux and light snow on the 7K mountain which has a small ski area.
As you said, Switzerland is very expensive, has incredible chocolates, multi languages ( German speaking in Bern and French in Montreux) and awesomely friendly and beautiful.
JimK: Thanks! Switzerland is an inspiring place to take photos; it's really a photographer's paradise.
Colonel: I'm glad you had a good time visiting Switzerland recently. Although this was my third trip, I still feel like there's a lot to explore. I haven't been to Geneva, Bern, or any of the French-speaking portions of Switzerland yet. The Swiss transportation system really makes it easy to explore the entire country stress-free.
Nice report. I speak French and thus am partial to the Valais region. I have skied at Val d'Anniviers and Zermatt and done some hiking at Les Diablerets and Portes du Soleil. This report makes me wish I were back in Europe.
This is one of the best trip reports I've read. Thanks for sharing.
Really, a great report. The photos are amazing! Great job on those especially.
Scott: Beautiful photographs. thanks for sharing