From Vail to St. Moritz: Exploring deep roots of European ski towns
Vail stole my heart as a girl. My young romantic spirit fell hard for the charm and sparkle of the mountain village, and I grew evermore intrigued by the old soul that seemed to resonate through the cobblestone streets of this town.
So it was really no surprise when St. Moritz swept me off my feet. I visited this picturesque place in Switzerland last winter, intrigued by its rich history and relationship to Vail as a sister city.
I had traveled to St. Mortiz from Seefeld, Austria, a Nordic ski hotbed, and just days before that I’d been carving down the slopes of the highest ski area in Germany above the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
The whirlwind tour was across the world from the Rocky Mountains, but spending this time in Europe and experiencing the heritage of alpine culture made me feel closer to Vail than I ever had.
December in the Alps is a magical time. Towering peaks and the towns below them throughout the region are frosted with a layer of snow, and Christmas markets draw crowds from all around to shop, ice skate, sing and sip gluhwein.
The week-long trip began with a flight into Zurich and an overnight at the neo-baroque inspired Kemeha Grand Zurich hotel before heading to the mountains. Jet lag didn’t really detract from a memorable dinner at the hotel’s own Michelin-starred Restaurant YOU.
Our group of five was off to Germany the next day. A full morning of driving took us into the heart of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in all its Bavarian charm. We checked into the family-owned Hotel Obermuhle and settled into a cozy lunch at the property’s freshly renovated restaurant, Oscar’s.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen is one of 12 destinations in Europe that is united by Best of the Alps, an organization that honors and highlights the great traditions and hospitality offered at select resorts in the Alps. To be included, the resorts must be naturally grown villages, not purpose-built ski resorts, where year-round tourism has continued to develop throughout the years to draw international visitors in both winter and summer, for activities like skiing and mountaineering.
The Best of the Alps destinations include Chamonix-Mont-Blanc; Cortina d’Ampezzo; Crans-Montana; Davos Klosters; Garmisch-Partenkirchen; Grindelwald, Kitzbuhel; Lech Zurs am Arlberg; Megeve; Seefeld; St. Anton am Arlberg; and St. Moritz. Much like in the Rocky Mountains, people come to these resorts from all over the world to visit for a holiday escape or a ski trip.
We stopped by the bustling Christkindlmarkt in the center of Garmisch-Partenkirchen before heading to dinner at the Restaurant Fraundorfer, a authentic Bavarian establishment with live music and Schuhplatter, traditional folk dance.
Our first day of skiing was on the glacier ski area of Zugspitze, and what started as a morning of dense cloud cover opened up to a bluebird day. We were surrounded by high peaks for miles all around, and it was easy to see the draw to this ski area that sits above all others in the country.
We headed to Austria the following day, to the Olympiaregion Seefeld that is known for its extensive Nordic ski landscape. This is a former host of the Nordic races during the 1976 Olympic games, and it will be the location of the Nordic Ski World Championships in 2019. You can downhill ski here as well, at the Rosshutte ski area, but Seefeld may be the perfect place to sharpen your skate-ski or classic Nordic ski skills, and even get some biathlon training, with a lesson at the cross-country academy.
The Astoria Relax & Spa Hotel is the space to stay here. The property is impeccably kept in what feels like timeless Austrian tradition, with a large spa area to enjoy when you’re not out playing in the snow.
We enjoyed an incredible spread of regional meats and cheeses for a lunch tasting at Tre Culinaria Seefeld, located in the Seefeld village center. I did some shopping as well, as it was too hard to resist the rows of locally produced honeys and mustards, not to mention intriguing selections of Austrian beer and wine.
St. Mortiz, Switzerland, was our final stop on the swift trip, and it was no doubt worth the wait.
This is the home of winter tourism, where sports have been enjoyed during the colder months for more than 150 years. The combination of activity, leisure and luxury is what makes this such a remarkable destination, from wide open terrain on the local ski mountain, Corviglia, to the famous Hanselmann coffee and pastry house, to the absolutely stunning five-star Carlton Hotel St. Moritz.
Leaving this place was as bittersweet as the best taste of Swiss chocolate, like the wrapped pieces of perfection left on our pillows during turndown service at the Carlton Hotel. It all seems like a dream, and I often find myself wishing I could just close my eyes and return again.
Back in Vail, I can see how at its heart, this place is beyond its years, with generations of wisdom, character and passion imbedded into its creation. I’ll often walk through the village past the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer and look up to see the myriad of international flags waving in the wind from the building’s top porch — a tribute to the deep and varied heritage of this mountain town.
It’s no wonder why the first hotels and restaurants of Vail were built to emulate the alpine ski villages of Europe, and the cultural gems still shine through. It’s not hard to find — stop in for gluhwein at Almresi, or for a strudel and espresso at Alpenrose; experience impeccable hospitality at The Sonnenalp and raise a large stein of weissbier on the patio of Pepi’s to “Prost.”
Soulful and dedicated entrepreneurs started this place. They were the first dreamers, who saw how to bring decades of history, cuisine, style and traditions into an untouched valley, and a lot of those visionaries are still here.
Austrians Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer moved to Vail in 1962 and built the Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer in 1964. Pepi was a ski racer and fell in love with the mountain, while Sheika, who in the initial years here hadn’t yet learned to ski, said what she fell in love with first was the adventure that was happening, and the “warm and wonderful” people who were here.
“When Pepi and I got married, we decided to make this our home,” she said. “At that time, it was like you are dreaming; you’re trying to fulfill a dream. You work very hard because you want to make it successful.”
Many who joined in these founding footsteps were European, or at least had experienced skiing and staying at European resorts. People would bring their family and their friends, and the word has never stopped spreading.
“These people were adventurers, and they wanted to create their own homes. They wanted to live in an area like Vail, surrounded by these mountains. And we started attracting more people like that. People like us who love Vail, who loved the mountains,” Sheika said. “We all just started reaching out to more people, more people. And people who came were hard working. They all had a dream and they worked to achieve that dream, and I think that was the foundation.”