Switzerland’s Glacier Express might be both the world’s most scenic ski train and its most rewarding. At one terminus lies sun-kissed St. Moritz, with its immaculate pistes and infusion of ritz. At the other lies iconic Zermatt, a car-free cosmopolitan ski resort with Old Swiss flavor at the foot of the Matterhorn. In between sprawls 180 miles of the Swiss Alps—dreamy villages, spiral train tunnels and precipitous railway viaducts. Not bad, as ski trains go. But for passionate skiers, yet another prize lurks along the route: little-known, snow-rich Andermatt.
Set just 67 miles south of Zurich, Andermatt is a Swiss ski gem that time—and circumstances—overlooked. For more than 100 years, this broad, sunny basin encircled by hulking mountainsides was home to a key Swiss military base, which largely supported the town’s economy. Today, the base is nearly deserted, reduced from 1,000 troops to fewer than 60. What remains is a church-spired village of 1,500 residents set at the foot of nearly 5,000 vertical feet of skiing.
A ski area as brawny as Jackson Hole rises on one side of the light-filled alpine basin. A mountain akin to Colorado’s kid-friendly Keystone rises on the other. Andermatt’s cobbled Swiss village stands in between, offering pleasant hotels and restaurants in historic buildings with a Swiss-baroque style. From price point to pace, it’s a place wholly unlike the mega-resorts that anchor either end of the Glacier Express. While it can get busy on weekends and holidays, Andermatt remains more of a Swiss town with ski lifts than a destination reso
But this sleepy ski village with the deep snows and sunny vistas won’t be little-known for long. A billion-dollar international resort development, led by Egyptian developer Samih Sawiris and his company Orascom, has been moving through the byzantine Swiss approval process for nearly a decade and—with broad regional and governmental support—is finally breaking ground. As the global economy recovers, some 740 luxury residences, a designer golf course and a half-dozen five- and six-star hotels are planned on Andermatt’s former military base and adjacent expanses of pastureland. Instead of being the most unusual place to get off the Glacier Express, Andermatt looks to be the must-visit luxury resort at the train’s apogee.
For residents, the impending changes will take some getting used to. “It’s a laid-back ski area for people who like skiing,” says Dan Loutrel, 29, a Massachusetts native who first came to Andermatt in 2003 and quickly became captivated by the town, its mountain and one of its ski racing daughters. He now lives in Andermatt full-time, where he and his Swiss bride build and sell custom skis under their well-regarded label, Birdos. “People come here to ski and occasionally party, instead of to party and occasionally ski,” he says, contrasting Andermatt with St. Anton, Austria, and an array of more glamorous European ski destinations.
What Andermatt does have is scenic, snowsure skiing—most of it well above treeline—and a relaxing, easygoing pace. Its muscular mountain is called Gems-stock, a true find for strong skiers who love off-piste powder and challenging terrain without hair-raising technical steeps à la Chamonix. Tipping down Gemsstock’s frontside means choosing one of two groomers that form parentheses around a central bowl, or—with proper safety precautions—diving into the bowl itself. Bigger discoveries lie off Gems-stock’s backside, where two wilderness valleys wrap around the mountain’s flanks. “You can reach a half dozen separate peaks just by hiking fifteen minutes or half an hour,” Loutrel explains.
Skiers who prefer sunny, scenic cruising head to Andermatt’s family-friendly mountain, Nätschen/Gütsch. From town, skiers can use the region’s single lift pass (the Gotthard Oberalp Arena Skipässe) to take either a chairlift or the local train to Nätschen’s midpoint, then ride higher on fixed-grip lifts and T-bars to roomy intermediate slopes.
Back in town, après-ski means a beer on a sunny patio by a mountain stream or a stroll along streets where onion-shaped church domes and hand-hewn wooden shutters decorate charming buildings constructed when America was still new. Nighttime means sleeping under a down duvet in a roomy, spotless and modestly priced hotel room. For now. But change is looming, which means that getting here soon may be the richest reward of all.
LODGING The River House Boutique Hotel is the town’s newest (theriverhouse.ch); try Hotel 3 Könige & Post for Swiss hospitality plus a wellness spa (3koenige.ch). Most lodgings include breakfast and dinner; opt out of dinner when booking if you plan to dine out.
DINING Hit Toutone or Di Alt Apothek for contemporary Swiss fare; try Sterne or 3 Könige for traditional Swiss.
Après-Ski The Himalaya Bar is on the sledding run back to town from Nätschen. In town, head to Spycher or Di alt Apothek.
MUST SKI The aforementioned sledding track from Nätschen back to town at sunset. Or ride a toboggan down.
GETTING THERE Book your Glacier Express ticket with a stop in Andermatt. Or drive south from Zurich (two hours) or north from Milan (two-and-a-half hours).
INFO andermatt.ch; glacierexpress.ch