Let’s take it from the top
High times on the ski slopes of Engelberg, south of Zurich
BY the end of my first morning in Engelberg I feel as though I’ve been put through a tumble dryer. To start with, we have ridden to a peak called Klein Titlis in “the world’s first revolving cable car”. This is a circular contraption that turns 360 degrees while climbing rapidly to 3000m — you squeeze in like sardines and twist and turn upwards, the floor moving eerily beneath your feet.
After this dizzying experience, we are soon descending nippy red runs before taking the aptly named Ice Flyer chairlift back up. Then we are experiencing the Cliff Walk, the “highest suspended bridge in Europe”. Here, we stroll along a swaying structure with a metal walkway that hangs 500m above a plunging slope. It’s a long way down. For a while we marvel at shark-tooth peaks and a mountain shaped like a Buddha (Buddhist skiers come especially to visit). Next up, our guide asks: “Would you like to do Laub?” Laub, it transpires, is a long off-piste run with a 1200m vertical descent.
In powder that’s the best part of a metre deep in places, we slither, slide and tumble towards the valley floor. It’s exhausting, exhilarating . . . and completely brilliant.
Engelberg, just an hour’s drive south of Zurich, must be one of the most overlooked Swiss resorts. There’s plenty of skiing to suit all levels and bundles of character. The village at the centre has a quaint high street with a couple of bars. There’s live music at Hotel Hoheneck, where the band pumps out Rolling Stones and Bob Marley hits, a scattering of laid-back cafes, a small co-op supermarket and a monastery at the far end.
Yes, that’s right, a working monastery. This is a Benedictine abbey, with about 30 monks, which was first built in 1120. Tours are possible at certain times. Unfortunately, they are not available the weekend we visit, so instead we go to the monastery’s Cheese Factory shop connected to the inner courtyard, where vats of curds and whey are churning away. Great chunks of cheese are for sale, as well as slices of cake, bottles of wine and shiny fondue sets. After seeing this monastic version of a posh deli, we catch part of Sunday mass at the neighbouring church. Beneath a high ceiling, with walls flanked with frescoes, we watch the service, listening to the toll of bells while breathing in the incense.
But back to the fresh powder on the slopes. Another day, another great off-piste run: this time it’s named Steinberg. At the top, on a glacier, the skiing does indeed feel like “skiing on pillows”, as one of our group describes it. We’ve been incredibly lucky with overnight snowfall. We tumble and roll to the bottom once more.
To celebrate getting down in one piece, we head to Klein Titlis for a coffee and are in for a surprise. The restaurant and the surrounding peaks here have featured in many Asian films, and there are dozens of Chinese and Indian day-trippers visiting from Zurich. They’re not skiing, just taking snaps and looking around.
Entrepreneurial Engelbergers have opened watch and jewellery shops next to the restaurant to cater for the high-spending visitors.
Engelberg is named after an angel-shaped peak. William Wordsworth, no less, wrote a poem, Engelberg, the Hill of Angels, which waxes lyrical about the mountain. It is pretty.
After a long day’s enjoyable skiing, we go for a meal and a drink at Ski Lodge, a chic little hotel with a restaurant in the centre of the village near the train station. Engelberg, it transpires, even has a boutique hotel and the rooms are smart and comfortable. It’s run by a former banker and an advertising executive who both love skiing. This is high-end stuff: oysters and champagne are followed by a delicious salad with slow-cooked egg on top,
Benedictine Monastery at Engelberg, top; resort at night, right; the Cliff Walk, above