When night comes to the tiny Swiss village of Rougemont, there’s little to hear but the beckoning of bells from a church tower that has sent harmonies echoing through the Vaudois Alps for more than 900 years. Set amid open mountain pastures and framed by dramatic, rocky peaks, Rougemont and neighboring Chateau-d’Oex stand at the heart of Switzerland’s idyllic Pays d’Enhaut (or high country). The region’s timeless tranquility has lured vacationing Brits since the mid-1800s, when the air itself was considered a health cure and the journey through gorges and passes from the shores of Lake Geneva was no inconsequential feat. Today these snowy villages are little changed: The same weathered wooden chalets stand in Rougemont, and the same stone storefronts with colorful shutters flank Chateau-d’Oex’s narrow, sloping main street. But now access is easy, skiing is plentiful and the price for families is just right. The big bonus is that the Heidi-esque hamlets aren’t as remote as they feel. Located an easy two-and-a-half hours by train from Geneva’s international airport, the side-by-side towns also happen to be mere minutes by rail from ritzy, glitzy Gstaad.
Gstaad is a gathering place for international society and high culture. There are famous people (like Roger Moore and Liz Taylor) and ones who are simply beautiful. There are polo matches, classical music festivals and as many jewelry shops as in Beverly Hills. It’s like Aspen¿without Aspen’s great skiing.
The best skiing in the region is in quiet Rougemont. The community of 950¿a quarter of whom are dairy farmers in the classic Swiss tradition¿offers only 220 hotel beds and five restaurants, but its modern gondola rises nearly 4,000 vertical feet from a field behind the old monastery. The ride takes skiers through a gateway of stunning stone monoliths to the world-class slopes of La Videmanette.
La Videmanette delivers everything a trip to the Alps promises without any of the Alps’ famous crowds. The pistes or groomed runs (where Europeans do most of their skiing) are spacious and rolling, proffering stunning vistas and evenly graded, fall-line descents. Locals make lap after lap on the mountain’s signature intermediate run, which winds almost 11 miles from the summit, around a stone pillar called Le Rubli and back to the gondola’s base, but visitors can explore all day without skiing the same run twice. When the snow is stable and avalanche danger is minimal, both intermediates and experts can find abundant fresh tracks off-piste, whether through gently sloping pastures, steeper glades of pine or an extreme, rock-glutted couloir à la Crested Butte’s Banana Chute. Back at the summit, the chic, fur-trimmed international set from Gstaad¿which is linked to La Videmanette via chairlifts and slopes¿mixes with locals wearing decades-old ski gear for lunch on a modern restaurant sundeck, while mountain goats skitter up a sheer rock face a few yards away.
In the roaring Twenties, Chateau-d’Oex, not Gstaad, was the peak of chic. At its height of popularity the town sported international ski jumping contests, several grand hotels and a whopping seven ice rinks. Now the community of 3,000 is geared more to families than the rich and famous, with modestly priced pizzerias outnumbering boutiques and the few pubs and lone disco competing for popularity with the well-outfitted playground in the center of town.
Chateau-d’Oex’s low-key style extends to the slopes: The largely intermediate runs of La Braye, accessed by a tram from the center of town, are gentle and scenic. Laps are easy to spin on a high-speed two-seater that services well-groomed terrain. A T-bar to skier’s left of the summit accesses beginner runs and a great view of Mont Blanc. A small ski club cabin doubles as a restaurant, featuring steaming macaroni doused with Gruyere cheese as the specialty of the house. The town’s second ski area, Les Moulins, located just outside Chateaau-d’Oex and accessible by shuttle bus, offers a greater variety of beginner slopes but is serviced only by T-bars. Tots can try their ski legs at Chateau-d’Oex’s special learning area in a wide, gentle pasture near the center of town (the same pasture from which the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon began its round-the-world flight).
The great convenience of a family ski trip to the Pays d’Enhaut is that a “Top Card” ski pass buys access to everything¿all 66 ski lifts in the region and rides back and forth on the blue train cars of the Bernese Oberland Express. Which means that the diversions of Gstaad¿expensive boutiques, movies in English, fancy day spas and high tea at the Palace Hotel¿are within ready reach, but that the peace of life in the Old-World Alps is never far off.