Barely off the train in Villars, I felt instantly at ease as I stood in front of a quiet neighborhood post office wondering if I was at the right bus stop (I was). “Bon jour, Madame,” the locals said to me when they came in to pick up their mail.
Such was the essence of an eye-opening journey through the Swiss Alps that zigzagged from German-speaking Valais in the south to canton Vaud on the southwestern edge of this mystical mountain range where French is the language du jour.
The neighboring resort villages of Villars (population 2,500) and les Diablerets (population 1,459), tucked quietly above the eastern edge of Lake Geneva overlooking the Rhone Valley, didn’t take me to the heights of Zermatt and the Matterhorn, but that was the allure.
Since almost three-quarters of the country is covered by the Alps, just about anywhere in this lofty paradise there’s a view to be had and crisp mountain air to breathe.
Who would have thought that when tectonic plates collided eons ago more than half of the 82 tallest peaks over 4,000 meters - “four thousanders” they’re called - would be home to some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world?
Another natural phenomenon, the foehn, sends warm Mediterranean winds down the mountain slopes of central Europe, blessing the Alps with a temperate climate that attracted its first winter tourists in the mid-19th century.
Villars, with an elevation of 4,300 feet and les Diablerets at 4,000 feet are two of the closest village resorts to the Geneva airport (an hour and a half drive). They’re not as well known as their higher-elevation counterparts, but that’s not for a lack of offerings.
For skiers, boarders and families in search of alpine ambience and culture, slopes that pamper the novice and challenge the expert, divine gastronomy for palates big and small - all within an easy commute - this is your port of call.
And in Switzerland, families matter - officially. Villars and les Diablerets are among 30 Swiss resorts awarded the “Family Destination” label because village services and prices are designed to benefit families. Hotels have babysitters and children stay free with their parents, lift passes are free for children under 9 and beginner slopes with mini chairlifts are free of charge. Then there are mountain nursery schools, swimming pools, ice rinks and groomed paths “for mums and babes on push-chair walks.”
Playrooms are available in restaurants, too, explained Dominique Geissberger, manager at Villars Tourism (a mum herself), “... because parents should be able to enjoy dining out with their children.”
With a low-key “elan vital,” it’s no surprise that celebrities from film and rock stars to Europe’s royal families come here for their holidays.
Indeed, the spice of life is variety, so before diving down the slopes on skies I opted for a leisurely morning of snowshoeing. Or so I thought.
Page 2 of 3 - With our snowshoes stuffed into his backpack, mountain guide Patrice Kohli led the way as we rode the cog railway to Bretaye, the ski area above Villars.
Yielding to skiers and snowboarders, we crossed the trail to the hillside and traversed up the steep slope follow-the-leader style. A rugged soft-spoken outdoorsman to the bone (he also teaches skiing), Kohli cautioned me to save energy:
“Move slowly, one step at a time, plant your poles for support and step into my tracks.”
We entered the quiet of Chavonnes forest, tramping effortlessly over virgin 5-foot drifts. The invigorating hike was a mini course on the region’s flora and fauna. The evergreen forest is abundant with rhododendrons and the medicinal arnica and edelweiss (both of the sunflower family), to name a few. And we knew a deer and hare were somewhere in our midst because our tracks intersected theirs.
Two hours had passed quickly by the time we reached a wide-open clearing. Pointing across snow-covered Lake Chavonnes to a lone mountain lodge in the distance, Kohli shouted, “We’re having lunch - there!”
Inside Lake Chavonnes Restaurant with its fireplace ablaze and filled with diners ambitious enough to make the trek, I relished each morsel of my dish, Vol-au-Vent, the house specialty - a variety of forest mushrooms delicately sauteed, bathed in a savory morel sauce and presented between halves of the flakiest golden pastry.
A winter playground by day, Bretaye transforms into a stage at night. Bundled up for the cold, young and old boarded the train for a night of spectacular entertainment at the Villars Night Show, the season’s main event under the stars. With pulsating music, a brilliant light show and fireworks, 200 actors performed heart-stopping feats on skis, snowboards and snowmobiles with the steep slope as their stage.
And I couldn’t leave the mountain without feasting on fabulous cheese fondue that even the Swiss can’t get enough of.
The greater area of Villars-Gryon-Diablerets-Glacier 3,000 connects 78 miles of pistes, and one lift pass may be used at all of them. There’s also a Snow Park for freestylers as well as year-round skiing and snowboarding on the 3,000-meter glacier, along with a mountaintop restaurant and a stunning panorama of a dozen four thousanders, including Mont Blanc, Jungfrau and the Matterhorn.
A small-town quality pervades throughout the resorts I visited - such as the time one of my guides bumped into an aunt and uncle in a lift line and when another waved to her husband, a ski instructor, who passed us on the chairlift.
Commuting between villages on skis was a very cool way to enjoy the slopes. From Villars to les Diablerets my guide and I cruised along nice and easy trails through forested landscapes dotted with ancient alpine chalets that have weathered the centuries. Many of these sun-burnished wooden structures once used by mountain shepherds have been refurbished as permanent homes or holiday rentals.
Page 3 of 3 - At the bottom of the slope in les Diablerets I made a beeline to Musee des Ormonts in the nearby teeny tiny village of Vers-l’Eglise. There I parked my skis and lost track of time at the museum’s mesmerizing two-year exhibit, “Bitter of les Diablerets,” the alpine aperitif and curative drink concocted by Francois Leyvraz in 1876. (The show will close in April 13, 2014.)
The brainchild of historian, archivist and museum curator Marie-Claude Busset-Henchoz, the legendary story of the beverage made from herbs and roots is told through a fascinating collection of memorabilia, vintage film footage, antique posters by Swiss painter Frederic Rouge - and a complimentary tasting.
Cultural immersion continued when I checked into the cozy ambience of Hotel du Pillon in les Diablerets, the area’s last remaining historic inn and reincarnation of the original hotel that burned down in 1872. Set against the forest with views of the glacier, the 14-room hotel was a Victorian-era venue for plays and literary and musical events.
Artistic tradition still endures. Innkeeper and art collector Francis Barlier returned from Paris to live again in les Diablerets, where he attended boarding school as a child. In a relaxed setting that feels more like a comfy home guests are surrounded with wall-to-wall wonderful works of art.
The next morning Barlier drove me to the train station for the 6 a.m. departure to the Geneva airport. In the dark an empty single carriage sat on the track. I wondered if that was my train. It was.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.myswitzerland.com, www.villars.ch and www.diablerets.ch.
My non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Zurich was on Swiss: www.swiss.com.
Swiss train passes that offer unlimited travel on trains, buses and boats as well as free entry into museums must be purchased before leaving the United States: www.swiss-pass.ch.
Hotel du Golf and Spa: www.hoteldugolf.ch.
Hotel du Pillon, Les Bovets: www.hoteldupillon.ch.
Musee des Ormonts: www.museeormonts.ch.