Traveling by rail from Zurich to Zermatt deep in the Swiss Alps was worth every mountainous twist and turn as the tracks traversed up through snow-covered vineyards and forests, delivering me to within eyeshot of the Matterhorn, one of the world's most legendary peaks.
Like the young boy in his ski suit sitting across from me, I was in awe of this mountain that in 1865 put Zermatt on the tourist map following the first and tragic ascent of the 14,692-foot mass.
"Papa," he said, "how much longer?"
That striking scene set the mood for my journey to the German-speaking canton of Valais, where skiers and snowboarders enjoy the white stuff on the glacier 365 days a year and where I embraced the sports, culture and traditions of Alpine life that blend together so naturally.
At the foot of the Matterhorn -- 5,300 feet above sea level -- Zermatt is a classy yet unpretentious compact village of 5,800 people surrounded by the highest peaks in Switzerland - almost 15,000 feet -- a paradise for mountain-climbers.
If the pioneering mountaineers could only know what trails they blazed! All I needed, however, was my Swiss Pass that allowed me unlimited train travel as I moved freely from village to village.
At Zermatt station passengers young and old shuffled off the train with skis and snowboards. Around the car-free village pedestrians strolled through stylish shops and shared the streets with horse-drawn carriages and pint-size electro-mobiles.
With my guide, Fabienne (a Zermatt native), to help me navigate the mountain we boarded the famous Gornergrat Bahn, the electric train that has been transporting Alpinists more than 10,000 feet to the Gornergrat summit since 1898.
At the top, surrounded by a staggering panorama of 29 peaks, we clicked into our skis, pointed downhill and cruised the wide-open pistes of the massive mountain, the Matterhorn a beacon in constant view. In its vastness -- 218 miles of trails, including Europe's longest ski run (16 miles) -- unusual and delectable detours lured us off the beaten track.
The Iglu Village, a sustainable mountain resort, is a cluster of modern-day igloos made from snow and ice each winter that melts away come spring. This cool hotel on the Alpine range has all the creature comforts -- guest rooms, a cinema, a bar, a restaurant and a Jacuzzi.
At the outdoor bar we sipped steaming hot chocolate.
"We drink this a lot," Fabienne said, "because it gives us energy."
I soon learned that a little Swiss chocolate goes a long way.
Appetites build quickly on the slopes, and dozens of restaurants as celebrated as the mountain itself are a ski run away. We zipped up the Sunnegga Express funicular then skied to Adler Hitta, where diners basked on the mountain hut's sunny terrace with a close-up view of the mystical Matterhorn, whose sides face the four cardinal directions - north, south, east and west.
In the Alps lunch is an unrushed event. Ours started with the requisite Valaisan prides -- exquisite Swiss wine (the Valais is the country's largest winemaking region) and the quintessential platter of air-dried beef sliced thin and soft as silk followed with penne pasta and truffles, a sumptuous excuse to load up with carbs.
The ride down the 33-year-old funicular was my last -- in the original cabins, that is. These were replaced in June with new carriages offering a quieter ride and a platform for mountain bikes and luggage.
We skied back to the village to visit the state-of-the-art Matterhorn Museum before closing (admission is free with a Swiss Pass). Built underground, the fantastic re-creation of Zermatt as a 19th-century farming village and a gripping chronicle of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, including the broken rope from the fateful fall, left me mesmerized.
In late afternoon I journeyed north to the magical landscape of the Goms Valley, 4,265 feet above sea level. This little-known part of the Valais is the most forested, so it is a pristine habitat for deer, golden eagles, vultures, black grouse, and the indigenous chamois and ibex. Marked trails beckon toward blissful winter hikes on foot or with snowshoes, Mother Nature's way of renewing the mind, body and soul.
The wide, sunny valley is also a utopia for langlauf, German for cross-country skiing, and I had come to take a lesson in the village of Obergesteln (population 200). The only sign of traffic here was the flow of skiers gliding effortlessly along the 62-mile circuit of groomed trails that connects the valley's 12 ancient villages.
Just minutes apart, each enchanting hamlet has a train stop, a humble white-washed church, cafes and dark sun-baked wooden houses on the mountainside, so characteristic of the Valais.
The valley was also home to Caesar Ritz (think Ritz Hotels), who was born in the village of Niederwald in 1850. An interpretive walking trail dedicated to the "hotelier to the kings" follows his lifelong career that championed elegance in hospitality around the world, a philosophy that remains the cornerstone in the Goms Valley.
Refreshed and inspired, I boarded the rails once more, this time heading west to Portes du Soleil, or Gateway to the Sun, Europe's largest ski resort created during the late 1960s.
Spread over 400 square miles, 283 trails and three nature reserves, Portes du Soleil connects a dozen village resorts between Switzerland and France. Imagine crossing international borders on skis -- and never skiing the same trail twice.
I arrived in Champery, a village of 1,300 people at the foot of the jagged Dents du Midi, which is 10,686 feet above sea level. Champery is among the five Swiss villages and seven French villages that comprise this enormous piste network -- more than 400 miles of trails, 10 terrain parks, and an intricate lift system of cable cars, gondolas, chair and surface lifts.
My guide and I set off on a morning "ski safari" through natural unspoiled terrain, weaving our way along the Swiss side, then schussing over the seamless border to the French village of Chatel for a hearty lunch at a typical mountain cantine.
With elevations ranging from 2,700 to 7,500 feet, Portes du Soleil is a winter playground for all skill levels from gentle beginner slopes to the formidable "Swiss Wall" on the border. And the price tag for all this is a coup -- a six-day adult pass covering 12 resorts costs $286.
At the end of an exhilarating day apres-ski activities such as Val d'Illiez Thermal Baths and spa center, where I soothed weary muscles in the nutrient-rich waters, await. And to be in the Alps is to partake in fabulous fondue, Switzerland's "comfort food," served at virtually all of the 90 mountainside restaurants.
The whole of Portes du Soleil is immense in size, but I hardly noticed because a down-to-earth ambience prevails throughout. Each intimate village has been around for centuries and has passed down from generation to generation Alpine traditions and authentic hospitality that are as natural as the snow that falls around them.
WHEN YOU GO:
My nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Zurich was on Swiss: www.swiss.com.
The Swiss Pass offers unlimited travel on trains, buses, boats and free admission to museums, but it must purchase before departing the United States.
Zermatt Tourism: www.zermatt.ch.
Aristella Boutique Hotel: www.aristella-zermatt.ch
Goms Valley Tourism: www.obergoms.ch/tourismus
Hotel Hubertus: www.hotel-hubertus.ch
Caesar Ritz: www.caesar-ritz.ch/en
Portes du Soleil Tourism: www.portesdusoleil.com
Hotel Suisse: www.hotel-champery.ch
Thermal Baths Val d'Illiez: www.thermes-parc.com
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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