Alpine Excursions: Exploring the Mountain Towns of Europe
There's a Magical Alpine Experience for Every Vacationer
Enjoy activity-filled days—of action or pampering—while steeping in Alpine scenery and mountain culture.
"There's a different Alpine experience for everyone," says Jack Shaw, an American who co-founded Epic Europe, an integrated adventure travel operator. "This is the historic birthplace of adventure travel, and still there's something amazing happening here every day, something that will surprise even a regular visitor."
Shaw's focus is on Switzerland. He arrived in the country in 1999 and now calls Verbier home. He cautions that while venturing from country to country on the slopes is part of the charm of the region, the border is often the highest point in the mountains, making it rather difficult to move from place to place with all of your luggage in tow.
Here are some Alpine destinations and experiences that deserve discovering, or live up to their reputations, some better known than others.
In Switzerland, families will enjoy Crans-Montana, situated on a south-facing plateau that affords it unusually nice weather throughout the season, with its Piste Nationale spanning nine miles. The town has become a popular golf destination in summer, but winter visitors can experience cross-country skiing on the Severiano Ballesteros-designed 18-hole course.
Stay at the Crans Ambassador hotel, which reopened recently after a five-year renovation, and now boasts an indoor heated 16-meter pool. Stop into Bar Amadeus on the mountain for a mid-ski Vin Chaud and be sure to taste the signature pain de seigle at Taillens bakery. One seasoned traveler comes back for "the best rotisserie chicken in the world" at Boucherie du Rawyl, which might be a needed break from the endless raclettes so prominent in the area.
A bit further south is Zermatt, which is home to the great Alps icon and one of the country's highest peaks, the Matterhorn. Defined by its almost complete lack of traffic and strict building codes, Zermatt is the most southwestern of the great Swiss ski resorts and is ripe for world-class skiing at all levels. It has 200 miles of slopes, with terrain prized by climbers and mountaineers.
Hotel Ambassador is centrally located in the heart of town; Hotel Bahnhof is a bit quirkier and more casual. Some say this is the best place to eat with your ski boots on, with close to 100 restaurants on the mountain, including the unparalleled view of the Matterhorn at Findlerhof, where the truffle ravioli has its own following.
An easy ski across Zermatt might bring you to Cervinia, Italy. Plan ahead with a reservation at Chalet Etoile and try the fish soup. Zermatt is one terminus of the legendary Glacier Express train, which crosses hundred of bridges and tunnels on its breathtaking day-long journey through the Alps, some of which is a World Heritage Site, to St. Moritz.
In France, Chamonix captivates mountaineers who consider the home of the summit of Mont Blanc to be the capital of the sport. It was host to the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. Adventurous types can try nearly any kind of outdoor activity from ice climbing to paragliding.
Stay 15 minutes away in the village of Les Houches, at Les Granges d'en Haut, with its 12 luxury chalets and a Caudalie spa experience. Be sure to take a cable car ride up to view the Aiguille du Midi.
Further south is the town of Courchevel, the most recognized in the Trois Vallées ski region, whose 600 kilometers of runs and 170 lifts across 8 resorts make it the largest in the world. The resort town is a foodie Mecca, with seven restaurants just steps from the slopes that boast a combined 12 Michelin stars. It also offers 16 five-star hotels as well as designer shops (Hermès, Loro Piana, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, to name a few).
The decadent fare at La Table du Kilimandjaro is matched by a rare vintage wine list brimming with regional selections. Enjoy skiing at Le Mélézin, now an Aman resort, which dates back to 1956 as The Savoy, when the village was essentially just an alpine pasture.
Further east in the South Tyrol region of Northern Italy, close to the Austrian border, are the Dolomites, classified as the Southern Limestone Alps for their different geological composition. It's a true cultural melting pot—many locals speak a blended language called Ladin—so expect culinary fare that reflects both cultures.
This is where Ötzi "the Iceman" was discovered in 1991, revealing much about life 3,000 years ago. You can see him at the Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. Try the local Bozen beer and daily specials that may include Schweinshaxe, a traditional German pork knuckle, or a hearty pasta, at Hopfen & Co. This is an area known for its wines and for the highest concentration of Michelin stars anywhere in the Alps.
Along the Alpe di Siusi, the largest high-altitude meadow in Europe, in the heart of the UNESCO Heritage Site, stay at the 27-room Tirler Hotel. Notice the impeccable natural surroundings; it maintains the highest ecological and sustainable standards. Alta Badia's ninth Chef's Cup, which is regularly the host of the World Cup's Gran Risa giant slalom course, is considered one of the most challenging on the circuit.
Photo: © GettyImages/Matteo Colombo | Zoe Settle is a freelance writer based in New York. She's the former home editor at Town & Country Magazine and writes about design, home and lifestyle topics.