Epic scenery, storybook villages and world-renowned resorts make the Swiss Alps a winter sports haven

In a country where mountains blanket 70 percent of the land and hospitality is a refined art, it’s not surprising to find dozens of top-notch vacation choices for skiers, snowboarders and other winter sports enthusiasts. Indeed, Switzerland claims some of the best high-altitude resorts on the planet.

Enhancing the world-class experience is an efficient network of cog railways, cable cars and gondolas that service the powdery runs. Awaiting skiers at the end of the day are opulent spas, chic boutiques, cozy restaurants and lively bars. Because of all the calories they’re burning on the slopes, they can feel free to fill up on Swiss chocolate and cheese fondue.

Sitting at an elevation of 5,276 feet in southern Switzerland’s canton of Valais, Zermatt is the country’s highest ski resort. A car-free village with smart shops, eateries, bars and hotels flanking a bustling main street, it lies in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn, Switzerland’s most recognizable peak. Home to one of Europe’s largest network of pistes and never short of fresh powder, Zermatt offers three interlinked ski areas with 224 miles of scenic, mostly intermediate runs. Europe’s highest cable car travels to Theodul Glacier, which can be skied 365 days a year. Zermatt Snowpark, a snowboarding center on the glacier, is where Olympic hopefuls train. Zermatt has a curling center with eight rinks and two natural ice-skating rinks.

Verbier, also in Valais, is the principal resort in the 4 Vallées, the largest ski area in Switzerland. Offering access to 255 miles of runs on 400 acres of skiable terrain spread over five resorts, the cosmopolitan Alpine village enjoys a perch at nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. Verbier is noted for its nightlife, and its luxury chalets and hotels have been known to host a royal or celebrity now and then.

In the Crans-Montana resort area, ensconced on a steep, sheltered shelf in the Valais Alps, skiers can savor views across the Rhone Valley as far as the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Slopes stretch to the Plaine Morte Glacier at nearly 10,000 feet. Some of the gentle, sunny slopes make great beginner choices. Circuits across frozen golf courses and along village lakes are perfect for cross-country skiers and snowshoe-ers staying in the twin villages of Crans and Montana.

Located in southeastern Switzerland’s canton of Graubünden, St. Moritz is considered the birthplace of Alpine winter tourism and has been welcoming guests since the 1860s. It hosted the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948. Today known as a glamorous playground for the moneyed set, the resort abounds with fancy hotels and pampering spas. The 217 miles of trails in the Upper Engadine Valley ski region include the steepest slope start in Switzerland. Besides excellent skiing and snowboarding, St. Moritz has a bobsledding run, an outdoor ice arena, skating and curling rinks, and the famous Cresta Run toboggan course.

North of St. Moritz are the linked resorts of Davos and Klosters, whose six separate snow sports areas offer 80 downhill runs on nearly 200 miles of varying terrain that are divided almost equally between easy, moderate and difficult pistes. Jakobshorn (the “fun mountain”) is ideal for snowboarders and free-skiers looking for action, while Schnatzalp-Strela provides a more relaxed on-slope experience. Besides skiing and snowboarding, Davos boasts Europe’s largest natural ice rink and has places to go paragliding and fat biking (hurtling down snow-covered slopes on two giant tires).

Klosters makes a good base for tobogganers, who can choose from eight sledging runs, including the 5.3-mile track from family-friendly Madrisa mountain to the village of Saas. A favorite of British royals, Klosters is distinguished by its wooden chalets and conservative air, while modern architecture, including many fivestar hotels, dominates Davos, which has a party-town reputation.

Grindelwald is the largest ski resort in the Jungfrau Region of the Bernese Oberland and the only one that can be reached by car. Options abound for snowboarders, novice skiers, sledders and winter hikers. Offering plenty of affordable accommodation choices, Grindelwald is a good base camp for the slopes of First, Kleine Scheidegg and Männlichen mountains, which are accessible by cog railway or gondola. The area has numerous trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and the toboggan run from the Faulhorn into the valley is one of the longest (9.3 miles) in the Alps.

Mountain railways link Grindelwald to car-free Mürren and Wengen. Set high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the two fairy-tale resort towns epitomize the Swiss Alps. Ten minutes down the hill from Mürren is a 7½-mile track for cross-country skiers. In Wengen, many people come for winter hikes and snowshoeing, and sledders find plenty of options as well. Mürren provides access to the Schilthorn, the highest-altitude ski area in the Bernese Oberland. The steep, nine-mile Inferno run from the 9,744-foot Schilthorn drops all the way to Lauterbrunnen.

Gstaad, on the southwestern edge of the Bernese Oberland, is the region’s glitziest resort, attracting the rich and famous to its luxury hotels, private chalets, ritzy restaurants and designer boutiques. There also are some unpretentious inns, hotels and vacation apartments, and even farmhouses that rent rooms in this bucolic land sprinkled with working dairy farms.

Come winter, Switzerland doesn’t hibernate.

For more information, visit MySwitzerland.com/Winter.

By Randy Mink