It's snowing today in southwestern Switzerland. The high mountains that rim the lakeside city of Geneva are cloaked by clouds and falling snow. Lake Geneva is frothy with whitecaps. Black and white ducks bob on the waves near shore.
As I roll into the Swiss Alps on a clean, quiet train for a stress-free ski holiday, life couldn't be more pleasant. I'm already relaxed from easy days enjoying the urbane pleasures of Geneva. My skis and bags will meet me at my hotel. Tomorrow I'll be gliding down the spacious pistes at Villars, gazing at awe-inspiring views of domed Mont Blanc and craggy Dent du Midi, and settling into a pace where an invigorating morning of skiing is followed by a two-hour slopeside gourmet feast.
As long as there have been skiers in the Alps, those skiers have used Geneva as their gateway. Situated along the southwest shoreline of Lake Geneva and bisected by the headwaters of the Rhône River, the city's unique position at the end of a sliver of land that juts into France makes it a natural jumping-off point to a dozen big European ski resorts. Eight of them-Chamonix, Mégève, Les Contamines, St. Gervais, Flaine and La Clusaz (all in France), and Villars and Les Diablerets (in Switzerland)-lie about an hour by car from Geneva and only slightly farther by train. Verbier, Crans-Montana, Les Trois Vallées, Val d'Isère and Portes du Soleil each can be reached from Geneva in less than three hours.
Seventy percent of Geneva's 2 million annual visitors come for business; many are diplomats and global financiers. They are travelers who demand the finest in cuisine, culture and service. And Geneva, steeped in both French and Swiss heritage, delivers. Lush dining, cosmopolitan sophistication and fine living are as central to the Geneva experience as clockwork precision. And what works for the diplomatic elite of the world also makes for a seamless and relaxing European holiday.
In Geneva I sipped Chasselas (a renowned variety of locally produced white wine) over a four-course lunch amid the brocade curtains and luxury of the five-star Hotel Richemond. Succumbing to jet lag, I napped away the afternoon on the smoothest of sheets. I indulged in Swiss chocolates with Italian espresso, French pastries with English tea. I strolled leisurely through the bohemian haunts of Geneva's Old Town, where artists perused each other's big portfolios on tiny tables of tucked-away cafes and languages of the world burbled above a jazz backbeat. I meandered down Rue de Rhône and Rue de la Confederation (Switzerland's version of Rodeo Drive), admiring the latest in Swiss watches, prêt-à-porter and Italian shoes. And now I've left Geneva's bustling streets behind. My day's agenda: Watch the snow fall on the Alps through the train window.
The train is only five cars long, and soon it begins winding up steep switchbacks, squeaking on the rails as it goes. The heating vent hisses quietly. The trees we pass are leafless, their dark bark etched with white. The snowy swirl thickens.
My destination is Villars, a mountain resort popular since the Fifties for its sunny days, spacious skiing, cultured gentility and family services. Villars may not have the high-voltage expert terrain of nearby Verbier, the massive expanses of Portes du Soleil or the hot cha-cha of Chamonix, but it has enough of everything else, including low-key ease, to make it both a delightfully diverting and truly relaxing place to vacation. The mountain-actually three interconnected ski centers in the western Swiss Alps-boasts a contemporary lift system (including high-speed detachables in busy zones), excellent skiing for all levels (with abundant terrain for intermediates), friendly and efficient customer service (a rarity in Euro ski resorts), a renowned children's ski school, majestic scenery-and nearby glacier skiing on the crest of the Alps. The town of Villars, which slopes up a sunny alpine shelf overlooking the Rhône Valley, is both traditionally Swiss (complete with Old World chalets and the de rigueur fondue and raclette) yet cosmopolitan enough (including discos, grand hotels and one of the world's most elite boarding schools) to warrant visits from rock stars, race car drivers and the royal families of most of Western Europe.
From Geneva, travelers change trains in Bex, then debark in Villars' commercial center, where gift shops, boutiques, cafés and a variety of three- and four-star hotels line the town's sloping, curving main streets. A historic cog-wheel train continues from town 1,640 feet up to Bretaye, a sunny cluster of buildings and chairlifts at the heart of the ski slopes. (Non-skiers take the train to Bretaye to meet family and friends for lunch.) Skiers can also access Villars' slopes via a gondola, which rises from the far western edge of town (a shuttle bus runs from most hotels) to Roc d'Orsay, one of the ski area's half-dozen summits. Wide, treeless groomers invite high-speed cruising down to Bretaye, where skiers and boarders can fan out to spacious terrain that ranges from barely pitched beginner zones to exhilaratingly steep off-piste. Intermediates will be delighted by the abundance of wide, rolling, well-groomed boulevards. Teens can hit the terrain park off six-seat Grand Chamossaire. The more gastronomically inclined will want to connect via the two-way Perche-Conches chair, a scenic skyride through woods and massive rock formations, to the sister resort of Les Diablerets. Here, at the sunny deck of Les Mazots, beautiful vistas of jagged massifs and sky-high glaciers are complemented by a great wine list, the finest cheeses and gourmet renditions of traditional Swiss cuisine.
After lunch, those who can still ski head back to Roc d'Orsay to watch parasailers fly from the summit before wooshing down 2,300 vertical feet of rolling cruisers to town. Those with plenty of energy can hit Charlie's for après, the ice rink for skating and the Vieux Villars restaurant for traditional fondue. A day-long excursion to nearby Glacier 3000, a high-altitude glacier punctuated by hulking stone spires and featuring views of more than one-quarter of Switzerland, is a must. Those with less energy shouldn't fret: A trip to Geneva and Villars is all about letting go of stress through the fine art of being civilized.