How to Do Off-Season Switzerland

How to Do Off-Season Switzerland

Sailing in Ascona

The northern part of Lake Maggiore in Italian-speaking
Switzerland is a haven for novice
. The best sailing school, Asconautica, offers a variety
of courses, from children’s boats to regatta coaching and practice
for sailing-licence examinations. After a day on the lake, you can
hang your hat (and various sailing paraphernalia) at Hotel
Eden Roc’
s rather swish Ascona outpost.

Party in Verbier

People-watching is the sport du jour here. With an international
crowd of celebrities and the well-heeled, head here for
sun-drenched terrace drinking at Le
or dinner at Chez Dany. Working off your hangover is
easy: try any of the region’s famed mountain biking trails or head
there in July
for the soothing distraction of the Verbier classical music
festival. After all that keeping up with the A-list, don’t break
the bank but stay in the cosy and delightfully affordable
Hotel Mirabeau

birthday, for as long as I can remember, I have
ritualistically watched The Sound of Music. I’m unapologetic about
this, because nothing raises my spirits more than the image of
Julie Andrews running over a green hill or Christopher Plummer and
his brood of seven walking over the Swiss Alps in lederhosen.

Binging on edelweiss and aspirational nuns had long ago created
a passionate urge in me to see mountains for myself. Last year, I
took myself on my first
trip, to the French Alps, and this year on another – to
– but both left me unsatisfied. The mountains there were colossuses
that triggered fearful ski falls, and both times they were covered
in dust sheets for the winter,
only to emerge in their lush
clothes after I had left.

Which is why I decided to head to Switzerland in September.
Here I would see mountains worthy of singing about, I thought, and
I was right.

We stayed in
; that haven of the rich and private helicoptered that is
also a small, thriving village populated by more cows than Moncler
jackets. For those sans helicopter, Gstaad is a three-hour train
journey from Geneva
airport – and it’s well worth the trip.

The Swiss do train
with aplomb; reclining seats and huge windows allow you
to soak in the enormity of the landscape in comfort. From Geneva to
Montreux, where we changed for a smaller train, the scenery is
almost exclusively made up of the vast Lake Geneva. From Montreux
onwards we boarded a train called The Golden Pass, which first ran
to Gstaad in 1904, putting the hitherto unknown alpine village on
the tourist map.

We were lucky enough to take one of the rare trains still in
service from the early days of the line. Ours dated back to about
the 1920s, and was decked out in green velvet and polished wood
worthy of the Orient Express. Yet the interiors could not compete
with what we saw behind the windows. As we snaked around the Swiss
Alps, Lake Geneva became a puddle in the distance, and the train
was hugged by steep, green-carpeted slopes and grazing cows.

Off-season Gstaad is quieter and smaller than I had imagined.
Both sides of its identity jar for attention. Bentleys and cows
amble past like it ain’t no thing, traditional chocolate shops and
restaurants nestle alongside Ralph Lauren and Prada outposts, with
everything housed in wooden chalet buildings. It’s a fairytale
village of contradictions, where 14-century churches rub shoulders
with public fountains donated by movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor
and Julie Andrews.

We stayed in the first hotel to be built in the village:
Hotel Park Gstaad. Though it
lacks the ostentatious grandeur of its famous neighbour, Palace Gstaad, it makes up for
it with a sleek, understated sense of luxury and an authentic
alpine warmth. It has a sumptuous
, two pools and a restaurant headed up by celebrated chef
chef Axel Rüdlin, who has recently won the Bilanz Chef of the Year.
Notable is the area’s simmental beef, which is fast becoming the
new kobe.

My room was big enough for a family of six; with a living and
dining area, two bathrooms and a bed you could play volleyball in.
But, again, all of it pales in comparison to the view. From every
window, everything you want to do is gaze at the tree-dotted giants
and snow-covered peaks in the background.

On day two we headed up one of these mountains. Well, a glacier
to be exact. We magically found ourselves surrounded by snow in a
barely ten-minute cable-car ride. The Tsanfleuron Glacier (known
colloquially as Glacier 3000) is a shock to the system when last
night you were sipping champagne on a terrace without a jacket. It
was freezing as we walked over the world’s first and only
suspension bridge connecting two mountain peaks – a hairy affair at
3000m above sea level. Its vantage point, though, makes up for it;
while clouds snake around your feet, you can see Mont Blanc and the

We stayed on the glacier for a late lunch at Restaurant Botta,
named after the architect Mario Botta who designed the elegant
white block. I opted for beer and cheese fondue – when in Rome,

On a post-dinner stroll through sleepy Gstaad, we saw a local
bride in a fur-trimmed white dress sitting in a green pick-up truck
covered in flowers. With a smile on her face, she drank champagne
as we headed back to the warmth of the hotel and cocktails created
by bartender Dustin, who made me so many imaginative iterations of
an old fashioned that I floated to bed slightly delirious.

The next day we were out at 9AM for a two-hour hike on the
nearby Wispile, lovingly named the “family-friendly mountain”. This
is where my Sound of Music fantasy took the reins; around every
corner and through every alpine copse there was a fecund hill I
half-expected to see Maria come running over.

We sat on some tree stumps by a mountain
; with seemingly all the Alps at our feet and each green
hill ghosted by a snow-covered peak so faint it looked like icing
sugar. I asked our guide what else there was to discover during
this time of year. She brimmed with ideas; swimming in lakes, horse
riding, paragliding, cycling, hiking, cheese making and even
classic-car journeys through the peaks. Then there are the
classical music concerts and literary
that occur during the summer, the tennis and
volleyball championships and the ubiquitous mountain climbing.

There seems so much to do, I wonder why everyone comes in the
winter. “People love the snow,” our guide mused, “but there’s
nowhere more beautiful in the summer” – I couldn’t agree more.

Beyond Gstaad: other off-season Swiss destinations

Extreme fitness in Saas-Fee

feeds of late is fitness
craze Peak Health.
The brainchild of
entrepreneur Andrea DeBellis, this immersive alpine
experience is half-luxury, half-back-breaking exercise. You’ll stay
at the five-star Capra Hotel in Saas Fee which
boasts 14 of the highest peaks in the Alps, and therefore some of
the purest air. The week-long stay is catered to you – but includes
daily mountain and glacier hikes of varying difficulty,
high-intensity training sessions, yoga
and unlimited spa treatments. It opened this summer and, though it
intends to branch out to winter programmes, it considers summer to
be high season, when the Alps can be best explored on foot.

Camping in Arosa

A well-known ski destination, Arosa also capitalises on its
beautiful location in summer. The
Tschuggen Grand Hotel
offers a relatively inexpensive two-night
camping experience in the Alps, where you can
sleep under the stars
(in a luxury tepee) and wake to a
farmhouse breakfast in Alpenblick, a traditional
Swiss restaurant. The area excels in the off-season months, with an
abundance of lakes, riding trails and Europe’s highest 18-hole golf

Summer ski in Zermatt

The Matterhorn is the most-photographed peak in the world (and
also the inspiration for Toblerone) but ski devotees needn’t
abandon Zermatt in the off-season months. Here you can ski in the
area’s high altitudes year-round thanks to a glacier. For
après-ski, look no further than the cosy boutique hotel
The Omnia

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