If you're heading to London or Paris this year, consider a stop in Switzerland.
The often-overlooked region boasts pristine lakes and massive mountain ranges while also providing enticing night-life options and gourmet foods.
Roughly one-tenth the size of California, Switzerland captures incredible diversity within its borders. Nestled amid Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Lichtenstein, it is equipped to satiate the vast and varied appetites of its visitors. Switzerland is a convenient destination for Europeans.
However, it is often eclipsed by Rome, Paris, London, and other major European destinations that appeal to Americans whose itineraries tend to favor cities that boast magnificent cathedrals, world-renowned museums, and that particular essence of culture sought when traveling through Europe.
In fact, Switzerland has culture. The real appeal is that Swiss culture is not a singular culture that can be captured and reported on with any precision like the proverbial timeliness of Swiss trains. Rather, it is an assorted blend of different flavors, unique to each of the 23 cantons.
Zurich, Switzerland's largest city with a population of approximately 1 million people, is beautiful and mixes an old-world aesthetic with a young population of primarily banking professionals as well as a big artistic community. Geneva, like Zurich, is also home to private banks and a major forum for diplomatic activity with numerous international and nongovernmental organizations like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Committee for the Red Cross, among others.
While Switzerland's cities may initially appeal to the business or the diplomatic traveler, there is a lush countryside that begs to be discovered. This landlocked pocket of mountains, lakes and picturesque landscapes has been blessed with natural beauty and richness of land that has enabled its people to build industries around its most basic elements.
Think flora and fresh mountain air, massive ranges, peaks both near and far, and tiny medieval villages at the base of the mountains like picture-perfect postcards.
Switzerland is more than just dairy farms, Swiss Army knives and expensive timepieces -- though the buildings boasting names of famous brands like Rolex that line the Rhone River in Geneva cut a very cool image. It's possible to drive from one end of the country to the other end in a single day, but there is so much to explore in between.
Direct flights to Geneva and Zurich depart daily from most major hubs in the United States. If you are based on the East Coast, for example, the Alps aren't really that much farther than the Rockies, and it is well worth the trip. Switzerland offers something for everyone -- regardless of appetite or budget -- die-hard skiers and après-skiers alike, shoppers, eaters, hikers, cyclists, families, and singles.
The food is excellent with every region, or canton as they are known, boasting particular specialties from artisanal cheeses to local wines, fresh dairy products, wild berries, aromatic mountain herbs, and, of course chocolate.
So where in Switzerland should you go this spring?
Crans-Montana It's about 2½ hours by car from Geneva. I spent time here as a child. Although my family went there primarily during the summer, Crans-Montana is a great place year-round.
Crans and Montana are actually two separate towns resting on the same plateau. Because they are surrounded by mountains -- within views of both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn -- and stretched along a plateau, Crans-Montana is known for having excellent and almost invariably sunny weather.
The skiing, though very good, is often eclipsed by the summer activities, which include golf, tennis, badminton, swimming and water-skiing, horseback riding, and endless trails for hiking and mountain biking. Crans-Montana is particularly well-known for its golf courses and is home to the European Masters golf tournament every summer.
Verbier It's perhaps one of the most perfect blends of a top-notch winter-sports resort, gastronomy, and night life -- all while maintaining the unaffected Alpine air of a peaceful village. For the winter-sporting enthusiasts, there is excellent skiing, heli-skiing, snowboarding, telemarking and carving.
Verbier offers a vast array of groomed runs in addition to plenty of fresh-powdered off-piste for the more advanced. If you're up for starting the après-ski ritual while still on the slopes, try out Chez Dany, a small chalet with plenty of outdoor picnic tables that serves up a delightful post-ski respite. Remember, however, that there is still a bit of skiing to do from Chez Dany to the bottom of the mountain.
Gourmands can indulge themselves at the famous Rosalp restaurant on Route de Médran. I highly recommend the Milk-Bar for a post-ski hot tea, hot chocolate, milkshake, and delicious sweet and savory snacks. After dark, the place to be is the famous Farm Club -- a centrally located, well-appointed nightclub with plush banquettes, tables with bottle service, and a dance floor kept packed, thanks to the deejay's nightly mix.
It is the place to wind down or wind up an evening, and the party rages among the 20- and 30-something set -- mostly young professionals living in Geneva, London, Paris, even New York. Though Farm attracts a very stylish crowd, it lacks the bitter taste associated with the impenetrable velvet-rope scene. The vibe is as alive as the rhythmic beat of the bass, and after a full day of skiing, the Farm crowd wants to have fun.
St. Moritz This town is not for the "faint of wallet." Though skiing is excellent, it is an afterthought for some -- namely those who prefer to lunch on steak tartare at the Palace Hotel rather than a quick bite in between runs.
Badrutt's Palace Hotel is definitely among the places to be seen, and more importantly to be seen indulging. You can accomplish almost anything from the hotel lobby. Lunch, cocktails, backgammon, high-powered negotiations and e-mail -- the lobby is equipped with Swisscom's wireless Internet service. Remember: hesitation, excessive politeness and wimpy demands all indicate a lack of intimacy with the place. Behave as though the lobby is your living room, and you will be just fine.
If you decide to hit the slopes rather than loiter outside of Dolce & Gabbana or Chopard, try and have lunch at a hidden gem on the mountain not far from the Suvretta House, just west of town. It is a rustic restaurant with outdoor seating and heavy blankets for those cold, sunny days with stainless blue skies. It is called the Clavadatsch. The service is friendly if perhaps a touch slow, but the view is breathtaking. There is always a crackling fire on the hearth inside, and the cured dried beef plates, fondue and regional wines are delectable. If you happen to be staying at the nearby Suvretta House, you can get to the Clavadatsch by foot, otherwise, it's better to arrive on skies.
Among the old grand hotels in St. Moritz are Badrutt's Palace, the Kulm Hotel, the Suvretta House, the Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, and the Carlton.
If you are up for trading in a star or two (or more) for a significant reduction in price, try heading down the main road from St. Moritz Dorf to St. Moritz Bad (just past the Coop supermarket) and you will come across a string of smaller, less-pretentious hotels.
The Veltlinerkeller, for example, offers a nicely appointed double room with a kitchenette, heated floors in the bathroom, and breakfast included for 195 Swiss Francs per night during the peak travel season. Personally, I have found the nonstarred accommodations at the Veltlinerkeller to be just as good, if not better than the mid-priced, mid-luxury choices of Best Westerns like the Hotel Steffani, which is in the center of town. The service at Veltlinerkeller was friendly and welcoming, and the accommodations were clean and correct.
St. Moritz is an intensely social town, the night life dominated by private dinners and invitation-only parties. During the day, be sure to sample the pastries and hot chocolate at Hanselmann's. They also make delicious savory tarts, like tuna fish salad or smoked salmon with a sliced hard-boiled egg topped with a thin layer of clear gelatin.
It might sound out of the ordinary, but the taste is out of this world. Chesa Veglia is an old standby and has a few different menus to choose from. There is a pizzeria, a grill room, and the Trattoria, which is the most upscale. You can always find late-night activity at King's Club, the newly renovated disco at Badrutt's Palace. Dracula, another late-night in-spot, is technically a members-only club, so getting in might pose a challenge.
Gstaad This region has all of the ritz associated with St. Moritz, but in a much more Swiss way. This is where the glamorous go to be seen as well as hide. This is not to say that this postage stamp-size Swiss German town is understated.
From the way the Gstaad Palace hotel, with its glowing turrets, sits royally atop a hill and presides over the village of Gstaad and the neighboring town of Saanen -- Gstaad is far from understated. However, the architecture is Swiss, the landscape is dotted with chalets with slanted rooftops, and the village itself really feels like one. The Olden Hotel is a great place in town to go for afternoon tea, or predinner cocktails. What is great on cold winter days is walking down the main street, stopping at the kiosks for a cup of glühwein, hot wine mulled with spice. Different types of sausages (wurst) are grilled out in the open, and are quite tempting to passersby.
I have many favorites in Gstaad. Try the Fromagerie restaurant in the Palace Hotel; both the food and the service are exceptional. The Klösterli is a fun combination of restaurant plus late-night dancing downstairs.
The Green-Go is the ever popular discotheque located on the lower level of the Palace Hotel, serving my favorite late night/early morning snack: a delicious steaming plate of penne arrabiata. During the day, if I'm not on the slopes, I love long, lazy lunches at the Posthotel Rössli. Make sure to go to the casual restaurant (Stübli), not the formal one. They share a kitchen and the fare is just as scrumptious but not nearly as pricey. Order a plate of Bunderfleish (thinly-sliced air-dried beef), which comes with cornichons and cocktail onions, fondue with toasted bread (the crispiness of the toast holds up better than soft bread against the bubbling cheese), and to drink -- a bottle of the Fendant du Valais or Aigle le Murailles, both delicious Swiss white wines.
Note: If your objective is to return home with photos and memorabilia of quintessential Switzerland, there are two must-see places. Zermatt is one. The town is picturesque with a church surrounded by an open square. The feeling is not just foreign but is more the embodiment of the proverbial old world, where modern conveniences such as cell phones and PDAs seem out of context rather than inappropriate.
From Zermatt, you can go by cable car to the highest sightseeing point in Europe -- the Matterhorn glacier paradise. One of the great advantages of visiting Zermatt in more temperate weather is the expanse of hiking paths and flora to be seen along the way -- beautiful flowers that have acclimatized to the altitude and minerals in the earth and water. From the Matterhorn glacier paradise, take the Matterhorn Express to the Schwarzee, a mountain lake with an exceptional view. A reflection of the mountains and scenery can be seen on the mirrorlike lake. There is a small chapel by the lake, serene and perfect for a meditative moment.
Of course, if you do happen to go to Zermatt during ski season, you will find more than 195 marked ski trails. This number also includes ski runs on the other side of the Matterhorn -- Cervinia, which is in the Italian Alps.
Zermatt accommodates many types of travelers ranging from the hardcore athlete to the sporting enthusiast to the sideline photographer. And, there are plenty of places to eat, drink and explore once the daytime activities come to an end. Because Italy is just on the other side of the Matterhorn, many restaurants serve northern Italian specialties. If you still have energy in abundance, definitely hit the downstairs disco at Hotel de la Poste after dinner.
The other great place to visit, particularly if traveling with children, is Grand Saint Bernard. The Saint Bernard Pass is one of the major mountain passes crossing the Swiss-Italian border. On the Swiss side of the border and up a winding road to Grand Saint Bernard is a quaint medieval village with a thousand-year-old monastery, a pristine panorama of distant Alpine ranges with peaks poking up into the clear glass skies, and best of all -- the breeding ground for Saint Bernard rescue dogs. There is a kennel where the pups are weaned and a small museumlike area presenting a history of the Saint Bernard breed and famous dogs acclaimed for impressive rescue missions.
Switzerland has fewer than 25 peaks that rise above the 10,000 foot mark, compared with Colorado, which has more than 1,000. But its richness, beauty and flavors are concentrated. Switzerland is a country for all tastes, all ages, and all seasons. I am already looking forward to my next visit -- an exploration of the cities -- the attractions, the gastronomy, and the culture of Zurich, Geneva, and Lausanne. And maybe a stop in Montreux in July for the jazz festival. Ciao for now!