Whatever happened to Heidi, the little Swiss goat herder who was such a goody-goody? If you haven't heard since third grade, be happy that you can find her legend still very much alive in southeastern Switzerland, where she was "born" and "lived," in the mountains of Graubunden. And if this is all too bucolic for words, you'll be glad to hear you'll be only a few miles from swingingly, filthily, rich St. Moritz, where you can drown that sugary taste in Champagne, or beer, for that matter.
The Graubunden is Switzerland's largest holiday venue, with 150 valleys, 615 lakes and 937 peaks (the Swiss invented accounting, one could imagine from these statistics). In addition to St. Moritz and Davos (hangout for world leader conclaves every winter), you have here two of the planet's best trains, the marvelous Glacier Express and the luxurious Bernina. They speak three of Switzerland's four national languages here (German, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansh--don't ask!), being as far from France as you can get and still be in the country.
As for the myth that the Swiss are staid, consider the Federal Institute of Technology, which has developed computer models of the Alps and queried real tourists about what they liked about walking through the mountains, inputting the data into a program that had robot-like creatures wandering about, providing feedback on what was pleasant and what was not. "Should we put a cable car there, or chop down some trees here?" The already gorgeous scenery is about to be more gorgeous, it seems.
At 6,000 feet above sea level, St. Moritz considers itself to be the birthplace of winter sports, and to be "the leading winter resort in the world." Based on longevity if nothing else (Johannes Badrutt "created" the first winter season in 1864 to fill up his hotel), they may be right. In 1930, St. Moritz chose the sun as its tourism symbol because there were then an average of 322 days of sun per year, a Swiss record. The logo still shines on lapels and souvenirs here, one of the oldest trademarks still in use. The thrifty Swiss even trademarked the towns' name, the first to do so, nearly 20 years ago.
You may wonder how a fictional little girl "lived" in a real house that you can now visit. The story goes that Johanna Spyri, the author, visited this area and met a girl named Mary, and the girl talked of an eccentric grandfather. From that, Spryi spun her tale that has fascinated children worldwide, resulting in over 50 million copies of the book being sold in dozens of languages. The "Heidi House" (www.heidi-swiss.ch) is where Mary is said to have lived. Heidi and Peter stand-ins welcome you, and you can lie on her bed for a moment or two, and touch almost anything you feel like. Heidi's goats and other critters are hanging around, too. You get here by jumping off the Zurich-Chur train at Maienfeld, then taking a 30-minute walk to "Heidi Village."
I like the Glacier Express more than any other train ride in the world. Running between St. Moritz and Zermatt, this has been rolling along since 1930, celebrating its 75th jubilee this year. It's the best way to enjoy the Alps up close, with magnificent scenery and fascinating close-ups of villages as you coast smoothly and often slowly along. Try to count the 91 tunnels and viaducts, or the 291 bridges en route. Taking about 7 hours and 30 minutes to make the trip, the Glacier Express operates two or three times daily in summer, once in winter, with reservations mandatory. Be sure to have a meal in the dining car and enjoy the tipsy wine glasses.
For sentimentalists, there's even a Heidi Express, also operated by the Rhaetian Railway (www.rhb.ch), running in summer from Lanquart through Klosters, Davos, and St. Moritz to Tirano, a small town in Italy near the Swiss border.
Adventures in Skiing or Summer Shorts
Graubunden is a paradise for hikers and bikers, though you definitely will need mountain gears for the latter. (I biked in a different part of the country a while ago, and for difficult uphill parts used the train and its special bike cars). One hiking course of 13.5 km (8.38 miles) called "Mountain & View" offers a five-course meal between start and finish, "Forest & Water" only three. Visit http://hikerworld.alpenarena.ch for more information.
In winter, the Davos-Klosters region is a popular skiing target, with more than 187 miles of slopes, the longest run being 7.5 miles from Weissfluhgipfel to Kublis, with a 6,673-foot altitude differential. If you buy a Klosters guest card, you have free use of the local buses in Kloster and Davos as well as the train between the two towns.
Switzerland's only Winter Olympics were held in St. Moritz in 1928 and 1948, as well as four Alpine World Ski Championships (the next in 2006).
Throughout the winter, you can partake of downhill skiing, snowboarding, the Crest Run, a bobsled run, curling, ski jumping, and tandem hang glider rides, which I prefer to call "chauffeured hang gliding," when I tried it. (You glide from the top of Corviglia down to the frozen lake below.)
If your hotel plan does not include lunch or dinner, consider the less-publicized spots off the main streets in town. A good bet is the Cascade, an Italian spot next door to the Steffani Hotel, with homemade pastas and excellent lamb dishes. Main courses around CHF 35 to 50 (US $26 to $38).Via Somplaz.
Also good is the Acla, in the Schweizerhof Hotel, serving Swiss specialties and some German favorites, too. Main courses about CHF 45 (US $34).
The expensive shops that line the streets of every high-end tourist destination (Coach, Bulgari, Vuitton, etc.) can be found here, too. But if you're looking for local handcrafted items, check out Ettlin on Via Rosatsch or Grischuna on Via del Bagn. Best chocolates are in Merkur, Via Serlas.
It's difficult to find an inexpensive place to stay in St. Moritz itself. Outside the youth hostels, prices range from about $175 for a double room and up in winter, though they are cheaper in summer by a little.
The Hotel Languard (www.languard-stmoritz.ch) is a favorite, built more than 100 years ago by the owner of the posh Kulm as his personal residence. Enlarged and renovated not too long ago (2001), each of its 22 rooms has a private bath, and some have balconies. Room rates start in winter from CHF 230 and range up to CH 310 (about US $175 to $235), depending on whether it's "high" season or "main" season or in between.
The Hotel Eden (www.edenstmoritz.ch) is also more than 100 years old, and is near the ultra-expensive Kulm and Badrutt's Palace. Each of its 36 rooms has a private bathroom. Rates from CHF 310 to CH 373, about US $235 to $283.
Prices are higher at the two Best Western (www.bestwestern.ch) properties in St. Moritz, the Albana and the Steffani, both four-star lodgings. The Albana charges CHF 400, about US $303 in high season (early February to early March), the Steffani CHF 440 (about US $334). Both are in the center of town.
Starting the whole idea of winter tourism back in 1864 was the founder of Badrutt's Palace Hotel (www.badruttspalace.com), then working for the predecessor hotel to the Kulm, who bet four wealthy English summer visitors that they would enjoy the winter season or he would pay for their transportation to and from England. He won, as they stayed from Christmas through the following Easter and everyone else picked up the idea. Staying here or at other five-star lodgings in St. Moritz can be very expensive. Rates for a double start in March from CHF 450 to 785 (about US $341 to $595), taxes and service charge included, as is breakfast.
At the venerable Kulm (www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch), celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2006, a double runs from CHF 630 to 855 in winter (about US $478 to $648), but includes breakfast and dinner, as well as tax and service charges.
The Ninth Annual St. Moritz Music Festival takes place in winter (March). The 99th year of horse races on ice (in February, the world's only skijoring event), and polo (January), horse jumping (January) and cricket (January-February) on snow or ice. In January, the worlds' only natural-ice bobsled run (since 1890) is put to good use, and in the same month and February is the annual Gourmet Festival for feinshmeckers.
Getting There & Around
Several airlines offer direct flights to Zurich and Geneva from North America, including Air Canada, American, Continental, Delta, Swiss (formerly Swiss Air), and United.
Among tour operators offering good programs to Switzerland is Picasso Travel (www.picassotours.com), which has a three night special to Zurich for three nights at the Hotel Adler, with airfare from New York City included, beginning at $499. United Vacations (www.unitedvacations.com) has a four-night stay in Zurich from $701, airfare from New York included, as well as a daily buffet breakfast.
Swiss Rail has several passes and other deals that can make your trips by train easier. Among them are the Swiss Pass, Flexi Pass, Youth Pass (these three are for unlimited travel), Transfer Ticket (one round-trip) and Swiss Card (one journey). I like especially the Fly Rail Baggage Coupon ($15 each), allowing you to check your bag at any North American airport with any carrier going to Switzerland, and pick it up at your choice of about 50 different Swiss railway stations, saving you from lugging it out of the Swiss airport to whatever your final destination may be. For any Swiss Travel System offer, contact Rail Europe (tel. 888/382-7245; www.raileurope.com).
In addition to Switzerland's magnificent rail system, consider using the Postbuses (www.postbus.ch/travel), which go where the rails cannot. There are over 1,900 yellow buses whisking around, carrying 97 million passengers and a whole lot of mail per year. There are seven great tourist-oriented Postbus routes in the Alps, connecting places like St. Moritz with Andermatt, Lugano or Grindelwald, for instance. Their "Lakes, Palms & Glaciers" route takes four days to get from Chur to St. Moritz, then on to Lugano in Italy.
Switzerland does not use Euros, but its own Swiss francs, abbreviated as CHF. For winter activities in general, check out www.myswitzerland.com and for more on the world's most famous resort, www.stmoritz.ch.
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